Of all the myths surrounding the foundations of America, those regarding Columbus are the most inaccurate as well as the most enduring. Perhaps, none more so than the idea that Columbus’s fateful journey was driven largely by his ardent belief that the world was round as opposed to flat which was purported to be the general theory at the time.
This mistaken assumption was the brain-child of one of America’s most prominent writers, Washington Irving, who introduced us to an American hero that he fabricated for his best-selling book called “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.”
Erin Blakemore in her article for History.com directly quoted Jeffrey Burton Russell who said, “no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat.” In reality, it was Columbus who had the incorrect view of the Earth. His argument for proceeding west was based on the mistaken assumption that the earth was far smaller than was actually the case and therefore he could reach the spice rich orient faster by traveling west.
However, as Blakemore noted, “Though Columbus never proved Earth was round, he did manage to upset long-held dogma in another way when he ran across a continent nobody in Europe even knew was there.” This led to the second great myth concerning Columbus; his “discovery” of what would become the United States.
First, the myth is inaccurate because logically someone cannot “discover” land that`s already been inhabited by others for several generations. Even Irving noted that the “New World” was already occupied: “It was on Friday morning, the 12th of October, that Columbus first beheld the new world…Though apparently uncultivated, it was populous, for the inhabitants were seen issuing from all parts of the woods and running to the shore.” Some might then argue that in saying that Columbus was the first to discover America that he was in fact the first European to discover the New World but even this is incorrect. Columbus never actually set foot on what would become the United States of America but landed on a few Caribbean Islands. Instead, the North American land was discovered during the 10th century by Leif Erikson, an explorer from Iceland.
According to History.com, “Eriksson sailed off course on his way back to Greenland and landed on the North American continent, where he explored a region he called Vinland. He may also have sought out Vinland based on stories of an earlier voyage by an Icelandic trader.” As a result, “He is generally believed to be the first European to reach the North American continent, nearly four centuries years before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492.”
We may never understand why Irving chose to embellish his depiction of Columbus with such blatant lies and inaccuracies. In his article “Literary Nationalism and Ambivalence in Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” author John Hazlett argues that Irving`s intention was not to change the course of American history, but to contribute to the creation of a national and independent American literature. Regardless of his motivation, Irving’s myths have seeped into the American consciousness and become immortal.
Christopher Columbus is a controversial character in history. Do you consider him a hero or a villain? Why?
I believe that it`s difficult to put people into a box that makes them either entirely heroic or entirely evil, especially when it comes to a historic figure, because we can’t sympathize with the certain era and its cultural customs.
For example, George Washington is considered a hero by most Americans, because of his activities during the American Revolutionary War. Yet, he was a slave owner. Was he a hero because of what he did during the war, or was he evil because he owned slaves? This is where it is difficult to judge historical figures by our standards today.
To me, during his time Columbus was not a hero, but he proved to possess some heroic qualities. Having said that, Columbus was heroic because he had the courage to follow his beliefs (no matter how inaccurate they were), he was persistent despite opposition, and while the standards of his day would’ve condoned his behavior and treatment of native populations, we would find those behaviors today repugnant. If Columbus were to live in today`s society; then, he would be a villain and a mass murderer.
Columbus did not discover what would become the United States of America, but he survived sailing all the way to the Caribbean Islands and managed to bring the Spanish influence to the West.
In conclusion, even if his motives were of a villain, the results to his evil actions created a connection between an old world and a new one. According to Myint`s article in Biography.com, Columbus created a stronger “bridge between the Western and the Eastern Hemispheres.”
Christopher Columbus does not deserve the title of a hero, but the one thing that “Columbus Day” certainly merits is reflection.
Blakemore, Erin. “Christopher Columbus Never Set Out to Prove the Earth Was Round.” History.com. October 06, 2017. Accessed May 08, 2018.
Hazlett, John D. “Literary Nationalism and Ambivalence in Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.”
American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 55 (“A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”).4 (1983): 560-575. Accessed May 08, 2018. https://scholarworks.uno.edu/engl_facpubs/3/
“The Myth of the Flat Earth.” Myth of the Flat Earth. Accessed May 08, 2018.
“A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.” Internet Archive. Accessed May 08, 2018.
History.com Staff. “Leif Eriksson.” History.com. 2010. Accessed May 08, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/leif-eriksson.
Myint, B. (2017, October 06). Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain? Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/news/christopher-columbus-day-facts