The Legacy of Christopher Columbus

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For many years, Christopher Columbus was regarded as one of the great heroes of western history. He was touted as the New World`s pivotal discoverer who subsequently brought civilization to its backward peoples. Whatever hardships and cruelties were inflicted upon the natives was generally thought to be insignificant in comparison with the benefits of European science and religion. Yet even his most ardent admirers acknowledge that Columbus was self-centered, ruthless, avaricious, and a racist.

During the latter part of the 20th century, a Native American awareness movement developed in the United States and elsewhere, which called Columbus`s legacy into question. To those critics, the year 1492 represented not just a major turning point in world history, but the starting gun for the destruction of native cultures. Exploration was quickly superceded by settlement and exploitation. War, slavery, disease, and death followed in their wake.

Both American and European lives were changed in what is sometimes referred to as the “Columbian Exchange.” Europeans became acquainted with corn, chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, and various peppers and spices. These imports vastly changed the diet in the Old World. Tobacco also began to exert its impact.

Life in the Americas was changed by the importation of chickens, goats, horses, oxen, cattle, donkeys, sheep, coffee, rice, bananas, sugarcane, wheat, and barley.

On a more lethal level, diseases also were apparently exchanged. The Europeans brought a host of infectious maladies unknown in the New World, the most damaging of which was smallpox. Some authorities have suggested that syphilis was contracted by Columbus’s crew members and taken back to Europe. (More recent research, however, has indicated that syphilis may long have existed in the Old World, but was simply regarded as a form of leprosy.)

Columbus, of course, was not the European discoverer of the New World. That feat was accomplished 500 years earlier by the Norse. The voyages of Columbus merit a place in history because Europe in A.D. 1500 possessed the wealth and technology to mount a massive colonization effort.

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