"A 21st Century Perspective on the Age of Discovery"

Andrew Shaw

Lightning Talk Presented: March 20, 2014
Published: March 23, 2014

It is said that history is written by the victors. Whether or not this is true in all cases, it is evident that history is written by someone. Accounts of important events are put to paper by people who are experiencing the event or have heard about it from others. Either way, people are not bias-free. Historians of the past have written with their personal viewpoint or the viewpoint of their people, with influences from religion, prejudices, the economy, etc. And when these writings last a long time and are studied over and over by the historians that come after them, they become accepted as fact. So what happens when biased and one-sided versions of history prevail? We get a skewed understanding of past events, and that can only have negative effects on us.

For example, I can distinctly remember celebrating Columbus Day in elementary school. We had an assembly in the gym, where a speaker told us about a brave explorer who discovered America and collaborated with the friendly Indians there. I left that assembly thinking: Wow! Columbus was a cool dude! This, however, is a hugely skewed version of Columbus's actual doings in the New World, a story that is rarely heard of inside the classroom. The truth is that when Christopher Columbus arrived in what he thought were the Indies, he found three tribes of Native Americans, the Lucayans, Tainos, and Arawaks, and subjected them to extreme violence and brutality.

On his first day, he seized six of them, thinking that they would make good servants. He wrote in a letter to the monarchs of Spain: "They should be good servants .... I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses". The natives in question were brought to Spain and displayed in parades. He described the ease in which fifty men could control the population and make them do what he pleased. In later letters home, he conceded that they had done nothing to deserve ill treatment, describing them as extremely generous and friendly. He also noted the Arawaks as being particularly hospitable and gentle. Yet he continued his ill treatment of them.

During the years Columbus spent in the New World, he forced the natives to work searching for gold in mines. He also sent thousands back to Spain to be sold into slavery. Most did not survive the trek across the Atlantic. Soon, over half of the island's original population was dead. The peaceful natives left were worked to death in mines. Those who did not fulfill Columbus's gold dust quota had their hands chopped off and hung around their neck as a message. When the slavery became so intolerable, the natives were stirred into revolt. It was put down brutally, and dismembered bodies were paraded as further warning to the others. Additionally, it has been argued that the introduction of new diseases can be considered biological warfare. What was taught in school was something more like this:

This picture by an unknown artist is called "Columbus Taking Possession of the New Country." In it, Columbus kneels heroically, having just disembarked from his ship. The flag he holds and those around him flap majestically in the wind, symbolically proclaiming the land under ownership of Spain. It was produced in Boston in 1893 for use in schools. This picture conveys none of Columbus's cruel actions in the New World. Instead, it promotes the Western idea that Columbus was a bold and intrepid explorer, discoverer of America, future home to the great nation of the United States. The historical misnomer that it creates has lingered to this day; indeed, we still celebrate Columbus Day every October.

The phenomenon of altering history is greatly facilitated by imagination. Especially when foreign peoples come into contact for the first time — such as Columbus in the New World — recorders tend to exaggerate what they see as exotic and exciting. Columbus did this immensely in his journals. But this was particularly common for explorers of the Age of Discovery. Adventuring out from Europe with little knowledge about the rest of the world, these men's minds were brimming with imagination and wild expectations. This attitude can be seen in their maps.

This is 1565 map would have been common during the Age of Discovery in that it contains many geographical errors. The continents are understandably misshaped. South America connects to an Antarctica the size of Asia and North America is merged with Russia. Cartographers of the time were very limited with the equipment they had; in fact, the true shape of the world was relatively unknown until aerial photography captured it in World War I. Maps such as these were the only inkling people had as to what the New World was like. Therefore, people had an altered understanding of it. Additionally, the maps were embellished with drawings and symbols, the results of wandering imaginations.

In this enlargement, fantastic sea creatures can be seen, predators rival to the roving caravels and galleons of the time. Monsters of the ocean such as these were believed to have existed since sea travel was invented. For explorers of the time, each new land discovered was home to a host of new beasts and savages just out of sight beyond the horizon. Their imaginations and superstitions gave rise to those beliefs. These ideas, of course, were shot down as falsehoods much faster than others. Animals of the rain forest in Brazil, for example, were a much more real and captivating rumor.

This is a 1626 illustration of a three-toed sloth. It appeared in the collection of an Italian scholar and patron of the arts, Cassiano dal Pozzo. Cassiano collected scientific illustrations of the day. Anyone today can describe sloths with ease: slow, relaxed animals that spend all day hanging from trees. They barely move at all, and when they do, it is amusingly slow. Sloths can scarcely hold themselves up. Yet here is an image depicting a sloth on all fours. Why is that? Did sloths actually do this back in the day? Of course not. It's because the artist was drawing from a dead specimen. He made assumptions about the animal's posture. If it had been seen alive in the wild, the artist would surely have drawn it hanging down from a tree, as it would have done. But since this was not the case, Cassiano and anyone else who saw it might logically conclude that this animal was a rambling creature of the forest floor, moving perhaps like a dog would. They may even assume that it was a predator, with long claws for catching prey rather than holding onto tree limbs. From this one drawing, one of the finest scientific minds of the time would have a skewed understanding of wildlife in the New World. Today, it is extremely important that we understand the world around us and what happened in the past to make it so.

Works Consulted

    Aber, James S. "Brief History of Maps and Cartography." Academic Emporia. N.p., 2008. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

    This source discussed the history of maps and cartography, and also provided some details about map accuracy during the Age of Exploration.

    Attenborough, David, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton, and Rea Alexandtratos. Amazing Rare Things. N.p.: Kales Press, 2009. Google Books. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source gave detailed information on the development of art during the Age of Discovery, particularly concerning animals of the New World.

    Baynton-Williams, Miles. New Worlds: Maps From the Age of Discovery. N.p.: Quercus Publishing, 2006. Google Books. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    This source explained the significance of maps created during the Age of Discovery. It also discussed how maps were affected by superstition and myth.

    "Biography: Marco Polo." Biography.com. A+E Networks, 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

    This provided a detailed biography on Marco Polo and his journeys through Asia.

    Carter, Tim, and John Butt, eds. The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Google Books. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source provided information about the history of music and the role of music during the Age of Discovery.

    "Columbus Controversy." History.com. The History Channel, 2009. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    This source reviewed common misconceptions about Christopher Columbus.

    "Columbus Taking Possession of the New Country: 1893." IEG-EGO: European History Online. Ed. Irine Dingel and Johannes Paulmann. IEG-EGO, n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    This document provided a detailed image of the painting, "Columbus Taking Possession of the New Country" and provided some background information.

    "Development of Sailing Ships." N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source had information about the boats of this period aplenty, including illustrations, diagrams, and backgrounds.

    Goodall, Howard, narr. Howard Goodall's Story of Music. BBC. YouTube. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This series of videos describes the history and purpose of music in detail and simple explanations, from early mankind to modern day.

    Houston, R. A. "Literacy." Global Issues in Context. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source discussed literacy in Europe starting in the Age of Discovery and tracking its development through time, and discerns reasons for the way it has spread.

    "Images of Christopher Columbus and His Voyages." Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division. The Library of Congress, Aug. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    This source provided a collection of artworks about Columbus and his voyages, and also some information about them.

    Kasum, Eric. "Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery." Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

    This article discussed Christopher Columbus's legacy and why it contradicts his actual actions.

    Kreis, Steven. "Lecture 2: The Age of Discovery." The History Guide. N.p., 2 May 2011. aWeb. 26 Jan. 2014.

    This source provides an excellent broad overview of the time period. It includes accounts of major explorers of the time as well. I found this source a good starting place for research.

    Levenson, Jay A., ed. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. N.p.: The National Gallery of Art, 1991. Google Books. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source offered information about the result the Age of Exploration had on art and how different nation's artistic interests differed and changed together.

    Menzies, Gavin, and Ian Hudson. Who Discovered America? The Untold History of the Peopling of the Americas. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013. Print.

    This source detailed the discovery of the Americas within and beyond the Age of Discovery. A very useful and informative source.

    Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

    This source contained a detailed account of the time period as well as applied first-hand knowledge of seafaring and the types of ships used, as well as an analysis of their seaworthiness. The book also contained information about the average living conditions of sailors.

    "Old Map of the World." Son of the South. N.p., 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

    This source provided an image of a world map from the 1500s and gave a brief explanation of it.

    Plous, S. "Christopher Columbus: The Untold Story." Understanding Prejudice. N.p., 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

    This source discussed the side of Columbus's story that evades school lectures. It also provided valuable quotes from his journals written during his voyages.

    "Septentrionalis Map Exhibit." Maine State Archives. Department of the Secretary of State, 2005. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    This source provided additional information on Age of Discovery maps and cartography.

    Teles, Ana. "Portugal and Cultural Diplomacy." Cultural Diplomacy. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source discussed the diplomacy of Portugal from the Age of Discovery to the present day.

    Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. N. pag. Print.

    This book discussed in great detail the exploits of many Age of Discovery explorers. It also went over the attitude of the Europeans towards exploration, and discussed their imaginations and the role it played in shaping history.

    "The Hispanic and Portuguese World." Library of Congress: An Illustrated Guide. N.p., 15 July 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

    This source analyzed the relationship of Spain and Portugal during the Age of Discovery.

    Widmer, Ted. "Navigating the Age of Exploration." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. N.p., 2007. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    This source offered a description of the beginnings of colonization as a result of the Age of Exploration. It also mentioned how the imagination of European cartographers showed up in their maps, even their "scientific" ones.

    Voorhies, James. "Europe and the Age of Exploration." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. N.p., Oct. 2002. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

    This source gave a general background about the Age of Exploration and the works completed in this time. It also game several examples of individual pieces/articles of clothing from the time period.

Jose Maria Obregon's "Inspiration of Christopher Columbus." 1856.