It goes without any doubt that Christopher Columbus remains and will remain one of the most central and controversial figures of all Western history. Quite ironically, his name survives with more fame than the man who gave his own name to the new continent, another Italian sailor, Amerigo Vespucci. This is certainly due to the fact that Columbus with the first to have sailed to this new land.
The date traditionally assigned to the end of the Middle Ages in Europe is precisely 1492, the year Columbus set foot on the Western hemisphere, which shows how important the American continent ranks in Europeans’ consciousness. It may not be an overstatement to say that modern Europe has developed the way it has partly thanks to the discovery of the Americas. The “trade triangle” which linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas may come to mind. Yet, this close interrelationship between Europe and the Western Hemisphere has not always been idyllic, far from it. The “trade triangle,” once again, also conveys the shadows of slavery; European traders, first coming to Africa, would there obtain slaves which they would take to plantations in the new world, from where they would return to Europe loaded with products such as cotton, furs, metals, etc. Without the American continent, Western European history might have taken a somewhat different course: an Industrial Revolution slower to develop, a different development of religious history, since the Pilgrims and others would have had nowhere to flee to, and of course, there would be no United States–the course of WWII might have been very different. It would be an exaggeration to state that the Americas solely made modern Europe, or that nothing would have been possible without it, yet the Europe in which we live in today is partly the result of the discovery and exploitation of the American continent.
All these, in a way, are the ultimate developments of Columbus’ first westward trip. Yet, the man is also discredited by others as initiating the exploitation and ultimate demise of the native peoples who inhabited the new world. In a sense, Columbus symbolizes all the paradox of modern European and Western history. If Columbus’ travels ultimately helped shape the world we live in, are we justified in blaming him altogether? In other words, can we reject Columbus’ memory without also rejecting his legacy, the modern West? The portrait traditionally painted of Columbus in movies and in history books is that of a great discoverer, a man who had a scientific mind and applied it for the benefit of mankind in brief, a man of the Renaissance that was then blooming. This is how, for example, the movie celebrating the quincentenial anniversary of the discovery of the Americas, 1492: Conquest of Paradise presents Columbus. Not possibly responsible for the evils that befell the indigenous peoples, a new character had to be introduced in the movie, under the name of Adrian de Moxica, who by himself represents the darkest side of the nascent European colonialism. In doing so, the director preserves the legend while acknowledging the faults. We sense here an inner struggle, a struggle not to blame the man overtly and thus risk shattering Western history, while acknowledging its historical faults.