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Sailed the ocean blue

Published: Monday, October 8, 2012

Updated: Monday, October 8, 2012 01:10

Christopher Columbus: hero or villain? Many people praise him as the European who discovered the Western Hemisphere, even if that half of the globe had already been inhabited for thousands of years. More people have a negative view of the man because of the disastrous consequences that followed Columbus' 1492 expedition. But I think the blame for those consequences should not fall on the shoulders of Columbus.

One fact that is misinterpreted by many is that Columbus was not actually looking for America. In fact, he had no intention of making any discoveries. The truth is that Christopher Columbus was actually looking for a new route to Asia after partial closure of the Silk Road during the fall of Byzantine Empire.

"His task was to find the shortest trade route to what we now know as Japan," said history professor Rebecca Schloss. “He had absolutely no intention of finding a 'new world.'"

Another reason that the blame for the disastrous consequences of Columbus' expeditions should not fall on his shoulders — or those of any particular group — is that the Europe of 1492 was a very different place than the Europe of 2012. Back then, Europe was mostly a group of individual states that had no allegiance to one another, and Spain was one of the first to unite through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. In order to challenge their primary rival, Portugal, the Spanish Crown was forced to project power overseas. The original purpose of Columbus' voyages was not to conquer or enslave any group of people.

"The voyage was to consolidate political strength on the European continent," Schloss said. "Spain and Portugal are fighting for trade routes."

A big positive that came from Columbus’s exploration was intellectual stimulation. Europe in 1492 was still mostly dominated by the Catholic Church, known back then for its very closed-minded thinking. The discovery of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans led to more expeditions, including the 1519 Spanish expedition to Mexico. Before the discovery of America, it was previously unfathomable to Europeans that a civilization without the influence of the Church could grow so large.

"It certainly stimulated an intellectual curiosity," said Phillip Smith, a professor and undergraduate advisor in the history department.

As far as death and disease goes, we can’t just blame Christopher Columbus for that either. Many people died from disease, including Europeans. However, if any other group ventured to the Western Hemisphere, the outcome probably would have been similar. People on both ends would have died from diseases that both sides would not be immune to.

Columbus was just a man doing his job, and the United States of America as we know it practically owes its existence to him.


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