Debate over the legacy of Christopher Columbus has opened new perspectives on the Renaissance world that gave impetus to his first voyage, and has raised awareness of the cultures he and those who followed him encountered in the world across the sea. Through the Internet, students can observe the events of 1492 from this dual vantage-point, exploring the two worlds that made contact when Columbus stepped ashore.
To gain an understanding of the forces within European society that found expression in the voyage of Christopher Columbus; to examine the cultures of those whom Columbus and his successors encountered in the New World; to analyze the degree to which cultural expectations shaped the encounter experience for Columbus; to reconstruct the encounter experience for those who saw Columbus sail into their world.
Begin by asking students what happened in Spain in 1492. Most will probably reply that Christopher Columbus set off in that year to reach the East by sailing west; but his voyage was only one of three momentous events that made 1492 a pivotal year in Spanish history.
Use the resources of the 1492: An Ongoing voyage website to introduce students to late 15th-century European culture. Follow the link to "The Mediterranean World" for an online exhibit that summarizes the chief features of Renaissance Europe.
As students present their summaries, compare the different perspectives that these authors present. What kinds of evidence does each emphasize? What kinds of evidence does each leave out? What aspects of Columbus and his age does each bring into view? How can these perspectives be combined to provide a multi-dimensional view of the Great Navigator's motives and assumptions as he sailed toward the setting sun?
Shift attention next to the world Columbus encountered when he crossed the Atlantic. Again, the website "1492: An Ongoing Voyage" provides a useful overview, accessible from the Columbus and the Age of Discovery homepage by clicking on the "What Came To Be Called America" link. Have students review this for an online exhibit covering Caribbean, Middle American, and other branches of late 15th-century Native American society, then have student research teams use Internet and library resources to explore two of these societies in greater depth.
Turn finally to Columbus' description of first contact between these two worlds in the journal of his 1492 voyage. Widely available in libraries, this text can also be accessed from the Columbus and the Age of Discovery homepage by clicking the "European Database on the Age of Discovery" link. At the "European Database," scroll down and click the entry for "Christopher Columbus," then scroll down again to the heading "His own writings" and click on "Extracts from the 1492 journal." Have students prepare notes for a class discussion of this journal entry, focusing on the interplay between experience and expectations that it records. What did Columbus see and fail to see? What preconceptions and beliefs influenced his observations? Have students propose questions they would like to have been able to ask Columbus about his experiences on that day in 1492. Then conclude by having students write a journal entry on the encounter with Columbus from a Native American point of view.
For added perspective on the culture of Renaissance Europe, introduce students to the art and architecture of that period using the resources (and "Links" section) of Detroit Institute of Art website. Have students investigate how the era's preoccupation with science and religion combine in the work of Italian masters like Bellini, Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci. Students can also extend their study of indigenous peoples of the Americas through the resources of the NativeWeb website. At many NativeWeb sites, descendants of those whom Europeans encountered in their colonization of the Americas offer an alternative vantage-point on those events, one that often reveals how the impact of that intercultural contact is still felt today.
2 class periods