Discovery of the New World
four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's "discovery"
of the New World was commemorated with a massive "Columbian
Exhibition" in Chicago in 1893. The exhibition celebrated
Columbus as a man of mythic stature, an explorer and discoverer
who carried Christian civilization across the Atlantic Ocean and
initiated the modern age.
five hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first voyage of discovery
was treated quite differently. Many peoples of indigenous and
African descent identified Columbus with imperialism, colonialism,
and conquest. The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution
calling October 12th a day of mourning for millions of indigenous
people who died as a result of European colonization.
than five hundred years after the first Spaniards arrived in the
Caribbean, historians and the general public still debate Columbus's
legacy. Should he be remembered as a great discoverer who brought
European culture to a previously unknown world? Or should he be
condemned as a man responsible for an "American Holocaust,"
a man who brought devastating European and Asian diseases to unprotected
native peoples, who disrupted the American ecosystem, and who
initiated the Atlantic slave trade? What is Columbus's legacy--discovery
and progress, or slavery, disease, and racial antagonism?
confront such questions, one must first recognize that the encounter
that began in 1492 among the peoples of the Eastern and Western
Hemispheres was one of the truly epochal events in world history.
This cultural collision not only produced an extraordinary transformation
of the natural environment and human cultures in the New World,
it also initiated far-reaching changes in the Old World as well.
foods reshaped the diets of people in both hemispheres. Tomatoes,
chocolate, potatoes, corn, green beans, peanuts, vanilla, pineapple,
and turkey transformed the European diet, while Europeans introduced
sugar, cattle, pigs, cloves, ginger, cardamon, and almonds to
the Americas. Global patterns of trade were overturned, as crops
grown in the New World---including tobacco, rice, and vastly expanded
production of sugar--fed growing consumer markets in Europe.
the natural environment was transformed. Europeans cleared vast
tracks of forested land and inadvertently introduced Old World
weeds. The introduction of cattle, goats, horses, sheep, and swine
also transformed the ecology as grazing animals ate up many native
plants and disrupted indigenous systems of agriculture. The horse,
extinct in the New World for 10,000 years, transformed the daily
existence of many indigenous peoples. The introduction of the
horse encouraged many farming peoples to become hunters and herders.
Hunters mounted on horses were also much more adept at killing
and disease--these too were consequences of contact. Diseases
against which Indian peoples had no natural immunities caused
the greatest mass deaths in human history. Within a century of
contact, smallpox, measles, mumps, and whooping cough had reduced
indigenous populations by 50 to 90 percent. From Peru to Canada,
disease reduced the resistance that Native Americans were able
to offer to European intruders.
the Indian population decimated by disease, Europeans gradually
introduces a new labor force into the New World: enslaved Africans.
Between 1502 and 1870, when the Atlantic slave trade was finally
suppressed, from ten to fifteen million Africans were shipped
to the Americas.
voyage of discovery also had another important result: it contributed
to the development of the modern concept of progress. To many
Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom,
and eternal youth. Columbus himself believed that he had landed
near the Biblical Garden of Eden. The perception of the New World
as an environment free from the corruptions and injustices of
European life would provide a vantage point for criticizing all
social evils. So while the collision of three worlds resulted
in death and enslavement in unprecedented numbers, it also encouraged
visions of a more perfect future.