An explorer at heart and politician by mind – Christopher Columbus had set an eye to bag the title “Admiral of the Ocean”, well before he set out to explore new lands.

Back then, little did he know that he would tumble upon America in his quest to reach Asia. That discovery led to his popularity which has now lasted for over 500 years. He left a mark on the time, so solid, that even today he is celebrated in America. But lately his legend is under scrutiny. Across the globe, his statues are being toppled and people are fighting to rename streets and cities which were named after him. Why such animosity for someone we always thought was the most popular explorer?

There is much to be said about Columbus, both good and unsavory. We thought to pen down a few shocking facts about the mystery that revolves around Columbus’s life and let you decide, whether he was a explorer or plunderer.

Bridging East with the West  

The Columbian Exchange

Columbus discovery of new lands opened the floodgates between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Crossing of plants, animals, cultures, ideas over the Atlantic was coined as Columbian Exchange. He set the stepping stone on which began a new modern world of the European’s colonization. 

Some say this was also the time when novel diseases and flu reached the European nations. 

Columbus stormed through the mountains of rejection 

Columbus in the Barcelona court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, circa 1943

Despite the uniqueness of his vision, to set out on an exploration to Asia through the western sea route, Columbus faced backlash for over a decade. Being on a ship with the crew and discovering new lands, required huge investment and to get there Columbus strategized and lobbied European monarchies for years to bankroll his quest. 

The kings of Portugal, England and France did not reciprocate, much to his dismay. But there was nothing that could stop Columbus from making history. He kept trying.

At last, after an initial dismissal, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain gave a green signal to subsidize the expedition.

Columbus was allured by the power to exploit, over his passion to explore 

Columbus ‘discovering’ a new land

Evidence suggests, Columbus intentions were less noble and far more selfish than realized earlier. An arrangement was made, through which Columbus would be declared as the admiral, viceroy, and governor of any land he discovered. Not just that, he would have a wealthy share in any merchandise, be it gold, silver, diamond, other precious stones, spices and any other objects that he acquired from the natives of the new territory.

Thereby, Columbus not only acquired power but also stood to gain significant wealth from his voyage.

Saved by an Eclipse

Drawing from 1879 depicting Columbus with the Jamaican natives during a lunar eclipse

Columbus often used deceit to influence natives. A popular example is when he tormented the natives of Jamaica to give him provisions by using an almanac. The story goes that on March 1, 1504 a total lunar eclipse was scheduled to occur over the Jamaica.

On being refused food and other provisions by the natives, Columbus extolled a story that his God has cursed the islanders and that the moon would turn red as an expression of divine displeasure. On the appointed night, the eclipse darkened the moon and turned it red, giving Columbus an impeccable opportunity to rob the islanders who surrendered to him for mercy.

Did Columbus conceptualize Human Trafficking? 

Columbus with natives from the Indies

Columbus did not stop at robbing natives of their wealth, produce, silk and animals. He and his men enslaved the natives and treated them with barbarity.  The naive natives were pictured as perfect slaves and were taken to Europe thereby marking the start of industrial slavery. Perhaps unknowingly, Columbus was also responsible for bringing ‘Old World’ diseases to the New World which decimated native populations.

History is grappling with figures such as Columbus, whose past brings into question how we interpret their actions and intentions. While USA is one of the many countries which celebrates Columbus Day, his statues are being brought down across the country as we speak. People are reinterpreting the erstwhile heroes under a new societal lens.

Only time will tell, which side of history will Columbus land on in the future.