You Won't Find Any of These Facts About Christopher Columbus in Textbooks

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:56:18 PM ET
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Christopher Columbus is viewed by some as a brilliant man and brave explorer. The accomplishments credited to him even ranked him highly enough in public opinion — for a time — to get his own holiday. The trouble is that many people don’t know what Columbus was really like or what he really did.

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There's no doubt that it took courage to cross the ocean into uncharted territory, but perhaps that courage is not enough to erase other things Columbus did. Learn more about the man behind the holiday.

The Story of Christopher Columbus

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail on a voyage that would put his name in history books. He and his crew traveled this journey in the famously named Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria backed by the Spanish monarch. His voyage ended in the Caribbean islands.

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Photo Courtesy: Brian Crawford/Flickr

In history books, it’s said that Columbus set sail in order to prove that the earth was not flat. He is also said to have discovered America. Neither of these is actually true, though, and the history books left some pretty dark things out.

He Did Not Discover America

First of all, Columbus didn't discover America. Native Americans were living here long before Christopher Columbus thought about his journey. They didn’t just live here, either, but also lived in distinct tribes that had their own governing systems — they were established in the land.

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In addition to the fact that Columbus didn't discover America, he potentially never even set foot in what’s now the United States. There’s no documentation of such an event happening. Instead, he stayed around The Bahamas until he returned home.

He Was Not Trying to Prove the Earth Was Round

It was already proven by the Greeks that the world was not flat, so there was no reason for Columbus to do it again. His objective was actually to find a more direct trade route to China and India that did not involve sailing around Africa to get to Europe.

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He was also looking forward to spreading Christianity into new parts of the world, as were the king and queen who backed him. They believed there were "heathens" in the world who needed to convert to their religion. Columbus was also looking for some fame and fortune.

Columbus Did Not Discover Any “New” Land at All

In truth, Columbus did not discover any land. Everywhere he went, the lands were already inhabited. Not only were the islands full of people, but these people had their own groups, tribes and governments formed, and they had systems set up to support their ways of life.

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There was nothing "new" for Columbus to discover. It was more like he stumbled across uncharted lands. He was able to report things about these places and their people that others did not know. Due to this, he became known as the man who discovered America.

He Made Four Separate Voyages

Christopher Columbus' voyage in 1492 is widely talked about, but it is not the only voyage to the Americas that he made. In fact, he made three more, each time landing on a different island. He spread his ways and beliefs for his first three voyages.

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By his fourth voyage, he had lost any power he previously had, so he was more of a spectator. He landed on Panama with only half of his battered ships after dealing with storms. After a few years, he went back to Spain and died in 1506.

Columbus and His Crew Brought Disease to the New World

Unfortunately, when Columbus and his men landed ashore, they brought more than they even knew about. They, at the very least, brought along influenza, smallpox and measles. Much later, syphilis was found in Columbus' and some of his crew members' skeletal remains.

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The indigenous people of Hispaniola were not immune to outside diseases. Neither were the other native peoples of North America. These diseases made the rounds through many tribes, killing hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, this disease outbreak is thought to have killed about 90% of the native populations.

He Viewed Natives as Heathens Yet Refused to Let Many Convert to Christianity

One goal of his voyage was supposed to be converting others to Christianity. Somewhere along the way, his goal changed. Instead, Columbus chose to enslave many islanders and convert the rest. He even refused to let some islanders convert by making it a rule that only those he gave permission to were allowed to be baptized.

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His purpose for this was to make sure there were enough slaves. It may have taken some time, but eventually, reports of this got back to the king and queen, leading to Columbus' downfall.

He Enslaved Over 1,500 People on One Island

Almost immediately upon his arrival at Hispaniola, Columbus had about 1,500 natives, both men and women, captured. Some of these slaves were sent to Spain, while others were enslaved for the Spanish men under his rule. Unfortunately, many of those sent to Spain died on the way.

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Some of the slaves were chained by their necks when working. When they became too exhausted to carry on, the Spaniards beheaded them instead of taking the time to unchain them.

He Viewed the Natives as Nothing More Than Tools to Use

When first landing on the island, the Taino people were friendly and welcoming to Columbus and his men, but instead of making peace, Columbus was sizing them up to determine how he could benefit from them. The following is an excerpt from his own journal, where he recorded his first impressions of meeting the Tainos.

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"They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

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He May Have Been Responsible for the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Some historians believe that Christopher Columbus actually started the slave trade that became so widespread during and after his time. His blatant disregard for humanity and human life made it easy for him to view the populations he encountered as nothing more than commodities.

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Photo Courtesy: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons

Columbus realized that, though the islands didn’t have the riches he was searching for, they did have people. He began selling slaves and shipping them to Spain. Whether or not he started the slave trade is debatable, but it’s certain that he was heavily involved in and profited greatly from it.

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That Slave Trade Seems to Have Included Very Young Sex Slaves

It would seem that Columbus didn’t just sell slaves to do harsh, physically demanding jobs. Many men were looking to purchase women for sex — 9- and 10-year-old girls were the most popular — and he was more than happy to oblige.

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In a letter he wrote, he stated, "...there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls: those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid." He seemed to have no regard for the people themselves, willingly selling them for terrible purposes.

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His Punishments Were Barbaric

By many accounts, Columbus was not a merciful person. If someone went against him, they were punished — and his punishments were cruel, to say the very least. Two of his common punishments were whippings and ordering body parts to be cut off.

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Columbus set a quota of gold that all island natives over the age of 14 were to collect and hand over. When someone didn’t meet that quota, Columbus is said to have cut off their hands. Those who did meet the quota received tokens to wear around their necks.

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Those Punishments Often Took Place in Public

To prevent any further issues, Christopher Columbus killed many natives, dismembered them and then had their dismembered parts paraded down the streets. Whippings were carried out for everyone to see. This punishment happened often and in response to actions that seem quite harmless.

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For instance, one man got 100 lashes for not gathering enough food to fill Columbus' pantry. A lady was stripped, put on a donkey's back and whipped. Her crime? Being pregnant in public. It would seem that anything at all deemed an infraction was punishable by extreme violence.

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He Was Even Monstrous to His Own People

It was not just the natives he treated this way, though. He was an equal opportunity punisher and seemed perfectly happy being cruel to his own people. Age and sex were no deterrent; he punished men, women and children.

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When one Spanish woman spoke out against Columbus, he had her tongue cut out. No fewer than a dozen men were whipped in public and tied around their necks for trading gold for food while they were starving. Whippings were normal, hands were nailed and noses and ears were cut off.

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He Had No Trouble Lying to Get What He Wanted...

Only a couple of years before his death, Columbus found himself in Jamaica abandoned by his crew. The Jamaican islanders would not feed him — perhaps because of his cruel habits. A determined Columbus decided that he would save himself with knowledge and a lie.

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He was aware of the fact that a lunar eclipse was soon taking place, thanks to his almanac. He told the islanders that the moon would darken to show his god's displeasure in denying him food. When the eclipse occurred, Jamaican natives were terrified and gave Columbus what he wanted.

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...Or to Prevent Any Trouble From Coming His Way

Christopher Columbus kept two separate logbooks of his first voyage. In one, he recorded the actual distance they’d traveled, but he kept this one to himself. In the other book, he recorded much shorter distances, this being the book that was shared with others.

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There seem to be a few reasons for this. First, he was trying to prevent mutiny aboard the ship. Second, many people stated that he was miscalculating the distance between lands. Lying in his logbook may have been a way to save his reputation.

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He Used Violence to Keep People Acting the Way He Wanted

Violence was not saved for acts of crime. Columbus decided that it was the best way to control the islanders, and it often worked. His brutal acts were so monstrous that most native peoples were scared to defy him.

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Once, about 2,000 Hispaniola natives attacked Columbus' men. As punishment, Columbus had three leaders beheaded in front of everyone. Then, as a way to scare the public into submission, he had another native brought to him. He had that man’s ears cut off as a punishment for the natives’ refusal to help.

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He Gave a Captive Woman to a Crew Member for His Pleasure

After capturing a Carib woman, Columbus handed her over to Michele de Cuneo, a crew member, to do with whatever he wanted. When he tried to sleep with her, she refused, tearing her nails into his flesh. Her actions led to a painful punishment.

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According to Laurence Bergreen's book, Columbus: The Four Voyages, Cuneo wrote: "I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears." He then raped her anyway.

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Families Were Ripped Apart

A young priest named Bartolome de las Casas began to record the cruelty of the Spaniards toward the native groups. He wrote that the men were sent to work the mines for six to eight months to dig up their quotas of gold. Meanwhile, the women were kept at home to work the soil and farm.

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Young babies who still nursed starved as their exhausted and malnourished mothers could no longer produce milk. Due to being apart, couples stopped procreating. And the Spaniards unleashed attack dogs on anyone who tried to escape.

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His People Treated the Native Populations Like Animals

When they weren’t punishing the native Amerindian groups, the Spaniards used them for everything else. Las Casas recorded that the Spaniards got lazy and decided to stop walking to their destinations. Instead, they rode on the Amerindians’ backs, as if the people were horses.

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Some Spaniards made some of the native groups carry them on hammocks, while others carried large leaves to shade the Spaniards and goose feathers to fan them. Las Casas had slaves of his own until he saw the cruelty the Spanish were inflicting. He then gave up his slaves.

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Columbus Is the Cause of Almost an Entire People Disappearing...

Before Columbus' arrival, there were approximately 300,000 people in Hispaniola, but the population decreased tremendously. Within two years, about 100,000 had died. By the mid-1500s, there were around 500 left. In the 1600s, there were barely any Tainos to be found.

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Photo Courtesy: Johannes Vingboons- Library of Congress/Wikimedia

How did Columbus kill such a large population? Though he did have many people killed outright, some died from other causes. For instance, about 50,000 are said to have committed mass suicide to escape him. Many slaves were worked to exhaustion and became malnourished to the point of dying. Others died from the diseases Columbus brought with him.

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...Along With an Entire Island of Plants

As if killing off almost an entire population wasn’t enough, Columbus also killed off an entire island's native plants. Instead of living from the land's lush offerings, Columbus and his men opted to plant their own food, most of which spread very easily.

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They planted things like sugarcane, melons, grapes, lettuce, olives, oranges and cucumbers. As these plants grew, they spread across the island, choking out the native vegetation. Eventually, plants that had grown in the area for years and years were just gone, like the people who inhabited the land.

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He Believed He Was on a Mission From God

Throughout his life, Columbus claimed to be a Christian. Even as a young boy, he wanted to minister to others in foreign places. Though his actions may not have shown it, he supposedly held onto his desire of converting "heathens" to Christianity.

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Though his methods were very cruel, Columbus stated that he thought the "work" that he was doing was God's will. He seemed to have believed that he was being directed by God to go on these voyages and carry out the atrocities that he and his men committed.

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He Even Wrote a Book About It

In his later years, Columbus wrote a book in which he stated that all of his voyages and actions were missions from God, that the world was about to end and that he was supposed to bring this end about. He named this work Book of Prophecies.

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These claims may have been his way of justifying his actions. As he was also getting sick, it could have been that his mind was going and he was writing down his delusions. Either way, the world may have changed, but it’s still here.

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He Was Finally Arrested and Sent Home

Many people noted and reported Columbus' horrifying acts, especially those he committed against his own people over such small issues. Over time, many of these reports got back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Columbus had directly defied their order to treat the natives well, and he was also preventing people from converting.

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The king and queen were not pleased. Columbus was arrested and taken back to Spain, where he admitted to many of the acts. They dropped most of the charges and set him free, but he lost all the power he once had.

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Columbus Claimed the Crown Did Not Keep Their Promises

Columbus spent much of the end of his life arguing with the crown that he did not receive what Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand promised to him. He wrote another title, Book of Privileges, in which he kept a log of all that he was supposedly promised.

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The promises in this book would become the subject of a lengthy lawsuit against the Spanish monarchy in 1536. Columbus' descendants demanded that they get what was due to their ancestor. The crown settled, but this lawsuit carried on for more than 150 years, ending in 1790.

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Columbus Died a Miserable Death

In 1504, Columbus returned from his final voyage. For two years, he suffered from a number of painful conditions and illnesses. He dealt with influenza for a good stretch, along with many fevers. He also suffered from joint problems due to what was likely arthritis.

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Photo Courtesy: L. Prang & Co.- Library of Congress/Wikimedia

Additionally, the influenza caused his eyes to bleed, which made Columbus temporarily blind and bedridden at times. Some believe he suffered from this for over a decade. In 1506, he died in Spain. Though this painting shows him surrounded by people, there are accounts of him dying alone.

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Even Death Didn’t Stop Him From Wreaking Havoc

Death, violence and destruction seemed to be regular parts of Columbus' life. His actions went on to affect multiple generations. In fact, hundreds of years after his death, the world still deals with the consequences of his actions. And many people have differing opinions about whether Columbus should be celebrated or not.

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Some people believe America should honor the explorer, while others feel the day named in his honor should be dedicated to those who suffered at his hands. Even in death, Columbus is a source of contention and discord.

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Did Christopher Columbus Accomplish Anything Worth Celebrating?

Many people feel that Columbus’ accomplishments are far outweighed by the negative impact his actions had both then and now. Considering all of his horrible actions, many people question why the man is memorialized as a hero.

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Columbus did accomplish a few things of note. Whether they’re worth celebrating is for you to decide. He introduced horses to the New World, which became an important commodity for many native groups. He also enabled the trade of plants, animals and other goods between the Old World and the New World.

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The Joining of Two Worlds

Laurence Bergreen states in his book that, before Columbus' journeys, "the Old World and the New remained separate and distinct continents, ecosystems, and societies; ever since, their fates have been bound together, for better or worse." Columbus’ voyages opened a door for international trade.

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Whether right or wrong, he’s still recognized for bridging a gap between two worlds. Had he not made his journey to the Americas, how different would the world be today? Would it be better or worse? We may never know the answers.

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