Back To CourseMiddle School US History: Help and Review
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Although Columbus was not even the first European to 'discover' or even explore the Americas, having been preceded by the Norse expedition led by Leif Ericson, he was the first to create extended interest in the New World and make it a centerpiece of colonization efforts by the Spanish, French, English, and others.
If there actually had been other Europeans who traveled to the Americas earlier, why, then, do we say Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America? Well, Benjamin Franklin didn't really 'discover' electricity, nor did Henry Ford 'discover' the internal combustion engine or the automobile. But these men's names are associated with each of these achievements. So, perhaps a better way to phrase it would be 'encounter'; this emphasizes how the 'discovery' was mutual.
Columbus not only encountered America, but he did so in an 'official' capacity, on behalf of Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus was not sailing just for adventure or to prove the world was round, as many of us learned in 4th grade, but to get a share of the tremendous profits that were to be made by reaching the Indies.
As most of us can remember from the childhood ditty, Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492, with his fleet of three ships - the Niña, the Pinta, and the flagship, the Santa Maria. About five weeks later, Columbus and his crew arrived at an island in the Bahamas that he named San Salvador, believing he had reached the Indies, as the lands of China, Japan and India were then known in Europe.
They proceeded onward and landed in Cuba. When Columbus heard the native word Cubanocan, which means 'middle of Cuba,' he mistook it for El Gran Can, which was Marco Polo's title for the Mongol Ghengis Khan. Finally, they continued onward, arriving at the island of Hispaniola, which is modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Columbus was dealt a blow when the Santa Maria was shipwrecked, forcing him into establishing a colony on Hispaniola, where he left men behind while he returned to Spain. This alone meant that Columbus already had made a major impact on global history because he created the first European outpost in the New World since the Viking explorers.
Columbus' second voyage was the longest of his four, and the most ambitious. It included 17 ships, 1,500 potential colonists and even a huge array of livestock. Columbus returned to Hispaniola, where he found the fort he left behind in ruins and with no survivors. A new community was established at a nearby location, and Columbus went on to explore many more islands, such as modern-day Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. During his voyages he captured as many as 1,500 indigenous people and sent them back to Europe, though half of them died along the way, and those who survived were sold as slaves in Spain.
Although Columbus built more forts and even brought women from Spain to ensure the permanence of the settlements, he realized that these lands lacked the spices and precious metals of the East that he sought, so he needed to find an alternate form of riches to bring home.
As noted earlier, on his second voyage, Columbus had enslaved natives, but this was not particularly lucrative, and Queen Isabella rejected the idea because she considered the native peoples her subjects.
However, while the natives had initially seemed friendly, sustained European settlement, and the imposition of European laws led to an increasingly resistant indigenous population. As a result, Columbus declared that every native person over 14 years of age had to supply an ounce of gold dust every three months, and the local leaders were responsible for seeing that the tribute was paid.
Eventually, the Spanish settlers wanted a share of the land and its people, so in 1499, Columbus was forced to turn over both land and native people to individual Spanish colonists. This was the beginning of the encomienda, a grant by the Spanish crown to a settler of a specified number of natives living in a particular area for forced labor, and repartimiento systems which provided the colonists with forced labor. For the Spanish, this arrangement yielded untold wealth. For the indigenous people, it meant almost total annihilation.
The conquest, the forced labor of the economy of exploitation, and the introduction of European diseases had devastating demographic consequences. Although historians have disagreed about the exact number of lives lost in the Spanish conquest of Central and South America, by all accounts, it was shocking. For example, on the island of Hispaniola, historians estimate that an original population of about 100,000 native people, in 1492, was to reduced to one of about only 32,000 in 1514. In 1542, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who spent many years among the indigenous people of the Caribbean, said there were only 200 indigenous people left on Hispaniola by this time.
As Jared Diamond argues in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, even if Christopher Columbus had never lived, the Old and New Worlds were still destined to collide, at some point, and the collision was going to be cataclysmic for the native peoples of the Americas.
Columbus never realized that he had discovered a world unknown by virtually all Europeans. In fact, it was left to another intrepid Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, to give his name to America, and to popularize the phrase 'the New World.'
Nonetheless, we remember Columbus as the man who first established a permanent link between the two worlds, and, for that reason alone, he is a figure of immense historical importance.
As Charles Mann writes in his bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, before Columbus, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were almost impassable barriers. America might as well have been on another planet, from Europe and Asia. Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean the following year changed everything. Plants, animals, microbes and cultures began washing around the world, taking tomatoes to Massachusetts, corn to the Philippines and slaves, markets and malaria, almost everywhere. It was one world, ready or not.
Although Christopher Columbus was not the first European to 'discover' or even explore the Americas, he was the first to create extended interest in the New World and make it a centerpiece of colonization efforts by the European powers of his day. Columbus' 'discovery' and subsequent voyages to the Americas was done in an official capacity on behalf of Queen Isabella of Spain. As such, he set sail on his first voyage from Spain in 1492 with a fleet of three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. His second voyage was the longest and the most ambitious and included 17 ships, 1,500 potential colonists, and a large assortment of livestock. In addition to Hispaniola, Columbus explored many islands including modern-day Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Although Columbus eventually built forts and even brought women from Spain to ensure the permanence of his new settlements, he realized that these lands lacked the spices and precious metals of the East that he sought. So he needed to find an alternate form of riches to bring home. As a result, Columbus declared that every native person over 14 years of age had to supply an ounce of gold dust every three months. Eventually, the Spanish settlers wanted a share of the land and its people, and in 1499, Columbus turned over the newly discovered land and peoples to individual Spanish colonists.
Which is how the encomienda, a grant by the Spanish crown to a settler of a specified number of natives living in a particular area for forced labor, and repartimiento systems got started, and how native peoples found themselves giving gold to the Spanish and working as forced laborers. For the Spanish, this arrangement yielded untold wealth. For the indigenous people, it meant almost total annihilation. The island conquests, the forced labor for economic exploitation, and the introduction of European diseases ultimately had devastating consequences for the native peoples of the Americas.
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Back To CourseMiddle School US History: Help and Review
22 chapters | 257 lessons
Next LessonChristopher Columbus's Voyages: Route & Legacy