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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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- Gloria
- Bartolomé
de las Casas
- Bernal Díaz
del Castillo
- Samuel
de Champlain
- Christopher
- Adriaen
Van der Donck
- Americo
- John Smith
- Álvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca
- Garcilaso
de la Vega
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Authors: Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

Depart de Christophe Colomb
[7508] Vve. Turgis, Depart de Christophe Colomb (c. 1850-1900), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2029].

Christopher Columbus Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
In his 1828 biography of Christopher Columbus, American author Washington Irving styled Columbus as the archetypal American hero. Walt Whitman similarly lauded Columbus as an early mystic and religious seeker in his poem "Prayer of Columbus." Other authors and thinkers have not always agreed with these nineteenth-century hagiographies. In fact, Columbus has inspired controversy since he developed his bold plan to establish a new trade route to the eastern lands of India and Japan by sailing west from Europe. Although he failed in his attempt to reach Asia, he did land in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, where he laid the foundation for European colonization of that region. Since the fifteenth century, cultural commentators have argued over the nature of Columbus's accomplishment; his management of the Spanish colonies established in the Caribbean, his treatment of the native Indians who lived there, and especially his claim to the status of "discoverer" of America have provoked a variety of reactions ranging from adulation to censure. Columbus's reputation has long been troubled by the fact that his successes in navigation and exploration cannot be separated from the legacy of exploitation and violence that mark European involvement in the New World. Any account of his writings and his deeds must begin with the acknowledgment that Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas led to the destruction of as much as four-fifths of the native population of the region.

Columbus was born in Genoa, but left Italy as a young man to train as a sailor and navigator. Although many of his contemporaries dismissed his plan to sail westward as impracticable and misguided, Columbus eventually convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to finance an exploratory voyage in 1492 (the same year as the publication of the first Spanish Grammar, a text which is often credited as essential to the colonization of the New World). Five months after setting sail from Granada, Columbus and his crew landed in the Bahamas and immediately claimed possession of the land for Spain by reading a proclamation that was certainly incomprehensible to the natives already living there. Columbus recorded his impressions of the voyage, the islands, and the natives in a logbook and in letters that he sent to his backers in Spain. Impressed with Columbus's inflated claims about the rich natural resources and wealth of the islands, Ferdinand and Isabella published his letters in Europe to assert their possession of this territory. Anxious to secure their control before other European powers could move into the region, the Spanish monarchs quickly sent Columbus on a second voyage of exploration and conquest in 1493.

Columbus returned to the island he had named Hispaniola to discover that all of the Spanish settlers he had left behind were dead, presumably because they had antagonized the native Taino Indians. The Tainos, who inhabited present-day Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, are descendants of the Arawaks and the early peoples of Mesoamerica. Although they had no calendar or writing system, the Tainos had a rich oral culture and were known for their ceremonial ball courts and their complex religious cosmology. Columbus attempted to enslave them and establish a new Spanish colony in Hispaniola, but the settlement soon devolved into rancor and violence after Columbus left to explore other islands in the region. He was forced to return to Spain in 1496 to settle the many political disagreements in which he had become embroiled. Upon his return to Europe, Columbus found his reputation tarnished by reports of his poor management of the colony and by his decision to enslave the Tainos. Nevertheless, he convinced the Spanish monarchs to fund a third voyage, begun in 1498. On this journey he reached the South American mainland, which he came to believe was the earthly paradise of Eden described in the Bible. This belief must have been severely tested when he returned to Hispaniola to find relations between the Indians and the Europeans in crisis and the settlers in open revolt against Columbus's inflexible management style. Refusing to recognize him as their leader, the colonists placed him under arrest and sent him back to Spain.

Although the Spanish court stripped him of all political authority, Columbus managed to obtain funding for a fourth and final voyage to the New World (1502-04), during which he explored Central America, was shipwrecked on Jamaica, and came to believe that God had spoken to him directly. Eventually rescued, he returned to Spain with his health ruined and his reputation damaged. He died in 1506, bitter about his colony's failure to provide him with the wealth and recognition he expected.

Unfortunately, the most important record of Columbus's explorations, his journal, has been lost. Contemporary scholars have access to only a transcribed version composed by Bartolomé de las Casas approximately forty years after Columbus's death. Columbus's letters, however, were translated and widely reprinted in his lifetime and thus provide more authoritative accounts of his experiences, as well as evidence of the way written travel accounts came to underwrite imperial pretensions to empire and conquest. Tellingly, many of Columbus's letters borrow from earlier travel narratives that described Asian and East Indian culture, thus interpolating the peoples and places he encountered into preexisting mythic categories. In many ways, Columbus's letters tell us more about the worldview and expectations of Renaissance Spaniards than about Native American peoples as they "actually were" in the fifteenth century.

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