Christopher Columbus (14511 – 20 May 1506)(Cristoforo Colombo in Italian, Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, Cristóvão Colombo in Portuguese) was probably Genoese, although many facts of his life suggest he could have been born in other places, from the Crown of Aragó to the Kingdoms of Galicia or Portugal among others. He was an explorer and trader who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Americas on October 12th 1492 under the flag of Castilian Spain. He believed that the earth was a relatively small sphere, and argued that a ship could reach the Far East via a westward course. Contrary to the somewhat widespread notion that Columbus fought with opposition based on the idea that the earth was flat, it was fairly well accepted at that time that the earth was a spherical body. What the main debate was over was whether or not it would be possible to get around it without running out of food or getting stuck in windless regions. Although his explorations were not the first to reach the Americas, they inaugurated permanent contact between the New and Old Worlds.
Columbus was not the first European to reach the continent. It is widely acknowledged today that Scandinavians had travelled to North America from Greenland in the 11th century and set up a short-lived colony at L'Anse aux Meadows. There is speculation that an obscure mariner travelled to the Americas before Columbus and provided him with sources for his claims. There are also many theories of expeditions to the Americas by a variety of peoples throughout time; one of the most consistent is the first exploration (before 1472) of two, led by João Vaz Corte-Real to Terra Verde (today's Newfoundland). Giovanni Caboto (better known as John Cabot) was first to reach the American mainland (which Columbus did not reach until his third voyage). However, there is one thing that sets off Columbus' first voyage from all of these: less than two decades later, the existence of America was known to the general public throughout Europe.
Christophorus Columbus/Cristobal Colon, pictue by Sebastiano del Piombo from the XVI century
Columbus landed in the Bahamas and later explored much of the Caribbean, including the isles of Juana (Cuba) and Espanola (Hispaniola), as well as the coasts of Central and South America. He never reached the present-day U.S.A., although he is generally regarded as the first European to reach "America", and "Columbus Day" (12 October, the anniversary of Columbus' landing in the Bahamas) is celebrated as a holiday.
Unlike the voyage of the Scandinavians, Columbus's voyages led to a relatively quick, general and lasting recognition of the existence of the New World by the Old World, the Columbian Exchange of species (both those harmful to humans, such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and beneficial to humans, such as tomatoes, potatoes, maize, and horses), and the first large-scale colonization of the Americas by Europeans. The voyages also inaugurated ongoing commerce between the Old and New Worlds, thus providing the basis for globalization.
Columbus remains a controversial figure. Some – including many Native Americans – view him as responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of indigenous peoples, exploitation of the Americas by Europe, and slavery in the West Indies. Others honour him for the massive boost his discoveries gave to Western expansion and culture. Italian Americans hail Columbus as an icon of their heritage.
It has generally been accepted that he was Genovese, although doubts have persistently been voiced regarding this. His name in Spanish is Cristóbal Colón, in Catalan it is Cristòfor Colom, in Portuguese Cristóvão Colombo and in Italian Cristoforo Colombo. Columbus is a Latinized form of his surname. The Latin roots of his name can be translated "Christ-bearer, Dove". Columbus' signature reads Xpo ferens ("Bearing Christ").
Columbus claimed governorship of the new territories (by prior agreement with the Spanish monarchs) and made several more journeys across the Atlantic. While regarded by some as an excellent navigator, he was seen by many contemporaries as a poor administrator and was stripped of his governorship in 1500.
Christopher Columbus has had a cultural significance beyond his actual achievements and actions as an individual; he also became a symbol, a figure of legend. The mythology of Columbus has cast him as an archetype for both good and for evil.
The casting of Columbus as a figure of "good" or of "evil" often depends on people's perspectives as to whether the arrival of Europeans to the New World and the introduction of Christianity or the Roman Catholic faith is seen as positive or negative.
Traditionally, Columbus is viewed as a man of heroic stature by the European-descended population of the New World. He has often been hailed as a man of heroism and bravery, and also of faith: he sailed westward into mostly unknown waters, and his unique scheme is often viewed as ingenious. He "set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith" (George H. W. Bush, June 8, 1989).
Hero worship of Columbus perhaps reached its zenith around 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus were erected throughout the United States and Latin America, extolling him as a hero. The myth that Columbus thought the world round while his contemporaries believed in a flat earth was often repeated. This tale was used to show that Columbus was enlightened and forward looking. Columbus's defiance of convention in sailing west to get to the far east was hailed as a model of "American"-style can-do inventiveness.
In the United States, the admiration of Columbus was particularly embraced by some members of the Italian American, Hispanic, and Catholic communities. These groups point to Columbus as one of their own to show that Mediterranean Catholics could and did make great contributions to the USA. The modern vilification of Columbus is seen by his supporters and by many scholars as being politically motivated and non-historical.
Much criticism focuses on the continuing positive Columbus myths and celebrations (such as Columbus Day) and their effects on American thought towards present-day Native Americans. Official celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage in 1992 were muted, and demonstrators protested marking the anniversary at all. It was in this spirit that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed, in October, 2002, a decree changing the name of Venezuela's "Columbus Day" to "The Day of Indigenous Resistance" in honor of the nation's indigenous groups. On October 12, 2004, supporters of Chávez destroyed a 100-year old statue of Columbus in Caracas. They did this because they found Columbus guilty of 'imperialist genocide'. They blotted the statue with slogans like 'Columbus=Bush'. The genocide and atrocious acts committed by the Spanish against the natives (the Tainos in particular) are well documented in terrifying detail in the letters of Bartelome de Las Casas. Columbus' cruel acts against indigenous peoples of the Caribbean have been well documented and are accepted as truth.
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