Exploration and Settlement

Christopher Columbus

Why does controversy surround Christopher Columbus?

It is due in part to the fact that history wrongly billed Columbus (1451–1506) as “the discoverer” of the New World. The native peoples living in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus were the true discoverers of these lands. These peoples had migrated thousands of years before: It is believed that as early as 50,000 B.C. they came across the Bering Strait from Asia, and migrated southward, throughout North and South America, reaching Tierra del Fuego by 8000 B.C. Therefore, it is correct to say that Columbus was the first European to discover the New World, and there he encountered its native peoples.

But it was for his treatment of these native peoples that Columbus is a controversial figure. Columbus was called back from the New World twice (on his second and third voyages) to be investigated for his dealings with the native Americans, including charges of cruelty. The first inquiry (1496–97) turned out favorably for the explorer: His case was heard before the Spanish king, and charges were dismissed. However, troublesome rumors continued to follow Columbus, and in 1500 he and two of his brothers (Bartholomeo and Diego) were arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. Though later released and allowed to continue his explorations (he would make one final trip to the New World), Christopher Columbus never regained his former stature, lost all honor, and died in poverty in the Spanish city of Valladolid in 1506.


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