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What is the legacy of 1492?

Digital History TOPIC ID 102

In 1992 the peoples of the Americas marked the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. To Americans of Italian and Spanish descent, the anniversary was an occasion for celebrations. From this perspective, Columbus's voyage was a vehicle of discovery and progress, which forged a lasting link between the civilizations of the Old World and the native peoples of the New World.

Many Americans of Indian and African descent will likely regard the anniversary in less positive terms. To many of these people, the legacy of Columbus's voyages is perceived as slavery and colonialism. Rather than regarding Columbus as a discoverer, many Latin Americans regard Columbus as an invader who set in motion a train of events that devastated New World peoples and cultures. Some will note that it was Columbus who inaugurated the Atlantic slave trade. Others will maintain, not entirely without basis, that Europe's prosperity was rooted, at least in part, on the exploitation of the New World.

Assessing the impact of Columbus's voyages is not an easy task.

Disease and death was one consequence of Columbus's voyages. Pre-Columbian America had been isolated from many infections that had swept through Asia, Europe, and much of Africa. American Indians had been spared most of the diseases common to societies that raise livestock. The New World thus provided a fertile environment for epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and measles, which were most lethal to adults in their most productive years. The eight million Arawak Indians, who lived on Hispaniola, site of the first Spanish New World colony, were reduced to ten thousand by 1520. Twenty-five million Indians in Central Mexico were reduced to 1.9 million by 1585. Indian populations in the Andes and in North America were also decimated.

The development of the African slave trade was another important consequence of Columbus's voyage. Within decades, Spain introduced black slaves and sugar plants into the New World. With the Indians seemingly on the path to extinction, the Spanish and Portuguese turned to African labor, who were used to mine gold and silver and to raise crops and livestock.

The "discovery" of the New World carried epochal implications for European thought. America offered a screen on which Old World fears and aspirations could be projected. The Indians, for example, seemed to embody innocence and freedom, lacking sexual restraints, law, or private property, yet possessing health and enjoying eternal youth. Columbus's voyage also helped invigorate the utopian impulse in European thought. To take just one example, it was in 1516, just twenty-four years after Columbus's first voyage, that Sir Thomas More published his book Utopia, in which he described an ideal country where poverty crime, injustice, and other ills did not exist.

Columbus's voyages represent one of the major discontinuities in human history. His voyages truly represented a historical watershed, with vast repercussions for all aspects of life in both the Old World and the New. The year 1492 - perhaps more than any other year in modern history - was a truly landmark moment, carrying enormous implications for the natural environment, for intellectual thought, and for the international economy.

Questions to think about:

1. How would you assess the significance of Columbus's voyages?

2. Were his voyages a vehicle of progress, in your view, or more negative in their impact?

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