Critics argue that Christopher Columbus was an imperialistic. Supporters of Columbus argue that he was only a discoverer. This research essay takes into the various views of learned authors and comes to a conclusion that whether Columbus is an imperialistic or a discoverer.
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According to Lenin, Imperialism can be defined as the policy of extending economic and political control over other provinces, particularly by acquiring colonies or controlling a weak nation by a mighty one. Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Imperialism is a system which controls an empire, under which one nation will become subordinate to another. The great discovery voyages undertaken by Da Gama, Columbus, Diaz de Novaes and Magellan also can be described paved the way to colonization, a European based governmental structure in a foreign country and imperialism. Does imperialism necessarily imply exploitation and subjugation? In this essay, I am going to analyze that whether Columbus expedition or voyages can be explained as imperialistic approach or to discover new nations and places. (Lello 66).
Imperialist tales promote and celebrate the idea of an empire and are especially evident in European travel literatures and writings during the period of European mercantile colonization and expansion from about 1500 to 1940. In this epoch of discovery and exploration, voyage descriptions expose imperialistic ambition and tone. Portugal and Spain led the way in the Far East and in the Americas.
The travel narratives of Christopher Columbus were given in the Letter and Journal of Columbus. The Letter by Columbus was addressed to his mentors namely Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, is not just a narrative but a blending of propaganda and official record. It is to be recalled that Columbus’s communications cannot be regarded as private communications but mainly meant to disseminate the European public who was eager to know about the news of discoveries by Columbus. If one read the journals of Columbus, one can understand the imperialist tone is quite obvious and is widely prevalent in it.
No sooner, immediately landing in America on 12 November, it is obvious that Columbus’s voyage was more concerned with the exploitation and subjugation for the glory of Spain and Christian church.
Columbus’s journal was published only in the year 1825, hence the imperialistic impact of his voyage was not known to the world until then. The writings of Amerigo Vespucci were probably more influential in their time as it disseminated the initiative of finding a new world and advancing a scurry for colonization of America. According to narratives by Bartoleme de Las Casas, Spanish (Columbus) voyage was meant for conquest of Latin America and the annihilation of Indian people, (Speake 571).
Ponce De Leon, Juan (1474-1521) was a Spanish explorer, conquistador and governor. He was born in Spanish royal family and fought on behalf of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Ponce de Leon’s first major expedition was his voyage in 1493 with Columbus to the West Indies as he was one among the 200 volunteers in seventeen ships. Douglas T.Peck notes that Columbus ranged over the length and breadth of the Islands of the Antilles in this journey and at one point, grounded in Afiasco Bay on the Western sea shores of Puerto Rico. Peck was of the opinion that Ponce de Leon’s captured the beautifulness of Afiasco Bay during his journey with Columbus might have instigated him to select the place as his capital later when he captured Puerto Rico and became its governor. (Speake 973).
Columbus personal aims for carrying out his voyages in 1493, 1498 and 1502 were confused and complex in nature. He continued to insist until his expiry in 1506 that new lands had meant a lot of financial and economic benefits, which accrued from their discovery. In a long letter which was written on 3 July 1503 to Spanish sovereigns, he recaptured about the riches available in Indies. Thus Spanish imperialist expansion in the New World –can be explained mainly for the craving to spread Christianity and search for material wealth. (Fisher 15).
However, some commentaries argue that Columbus did not have an imperialist intention and his sole aim to find out a trade route to India for carrying out trade and to amaze wealth.
However, according to Sale Kirkpatrick, Columbus discovered six islands during his first expedition and when he landed over it, he progressed to take ownership of the same in the name of Spain. During his expedition, he christened new names to about sixty two islands, and he also enslaved the native Indians. As per Sale, though Columbus already knew the original names of these islands, he still continued to rename these islands according to his fashion.
On 15 October, Columbus went to the extent of saying that “it was my intention to bypass no island without taking ownership of the same and after 30 days, he pronounced that “in all the islands, I put forever a cross standing”
According to Sale, since Native Americans were illiterate, no knowledge about dressing or use of arms, these factors facilitated Columbus to enslave them easily. Thus, Columbus could conquer the Caribbean Islands single handedly in the name of his country namely Spain. (Sale 325).
Columbus can be recognized as the one who initiated the concept of imperialism for the first time, and he has come to symbolize a huge legacy of destruction and suffering. Columbus “names “that legacy than anybody else. The concept of imperialism and colonialism can be explained as decisive ones, which are employed across an array of disciplines often with meanings, which are taken for granted. We can say that European imperialism was initiated in the fifteenth century which has the following ingredients.1. Imperialism as subjugating others 2) Imperialism as economic expansion 3) Imperialism as a notion or spirit with many kinds of realization and 4) Imperialism as an excursive field of knowledge. It is to be noted that economic expansion might account for why individual like Columbus were aided, funded to discover and explore new sources of wealth, and they do not account for devastating effect on the indigenous people whose lands and rights were invaded. Imperialism can be described in another style in which Natives have resisted to restore their lands, histories, languages, customs and fundamental dignity.
According to Robert Royal, Columbus was not influenced with the imperialistic idea as he liked the innocence of Native Americans. Mackenzie explains imperialism as being of more than a set of political, economic and military concept. It includes also a complex ideology which had widespread intellectual, cultural and technical expressions. This concept of imperialism places it within the Enlightenment spirit which indicated the transformation of political, economic and cultural life of Native Americans. Thus, Columbus can be said to be the first person who had paved the way for destruction of Native Americans or indigenous people’s political, economic and cultural activities, and hence we can very well define him as an imperialist. (Smith 22).
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As we have seen above, there are contradicting views that Columbus is being characterized as an imperialist and also as a non-imperialist and only a discoverer. According to me, Columbus is an imperialist due to the following reasons.
If one read the journals of Columbus, one can understand the imperialist tone is quite obvious. According to narratives by Bartoleme de Las Casas, Spanish (Columbus) voyage was meant for conquest of Latin America and the annihilation of Indian people. Further, Peck was of the opinion that Ponce de Leon’s captured the beautifulness of Afiasco Bay during his journey with Columbus might have instigated him to select the place as his capital later when he captured Puerto Rico and became its governor. According to Sale, Columbus could conquer the Caribbean Islands single handedly in the name of his country namely Spain. Columbus’s imperialism can be described in another style in which Natives have resisted to restore their lands, histories, languages, customs and fundamental dignity. Thus, Columbus can be said to be first ever person in the history who have paved the way for destruction of Native Americans or indigenous people’s political, economic and cultural activities, and hence we can very well define him as an imperialist.
Lello, John. The Resourceful History Teacher. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001.
Fisher, John Robert. The Economic Aspects of Spanish Imperialism in America. 1492-1810. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.
Foner, Eric. ” Give Me Liberty!” An American History. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2008.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise. New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books, 1999.
Speake, Jennifer. Literature of Travel and Exploration: G TO P. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003.