1519 portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo of a man said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1446, died 1506).
Who was Christopher Columbus? Variously regarded as:
one of the greatest mariners in history, a visionary genius, a mystic, a national hero, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist.
—The Library of Congress's 1492: An Ongoing Voyage exhibition
Columbus remains one of the most studied yet least known of major historical figures.
In 1492, Columbus sailed...
Most students recognize the name Christopher Columbus. They may be aware that his voyages ushered in the first period of sustained contact between Europeans and the Americas and its people. They may not know, however, why Columbus traveled to the New World or what happened to the native people he encountered.
In this lesson, students read excerpts from Columbus's letters and journals, as well as recent considerations of his achievements. Students reflect on the motivations behind Columbus's explorations, his reactions to what he found and the consequences, intended and unintended, of his endeavor.
What were the intentions behind Columbus's voyages of exploration? What were the consequences in the lives of Native Americans and Europeans?
Notes to the Teacher
Students will read from Columbus's journal of his voyage of 1492, available through EDSITEment from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Of special interest are the following:
What seemed of particular interest to Columbus on his voyage? What were his impressions of the places he visited? What ideas did he have about what might happen next?
Students will read a letter written by Columbus in May 1493, available from the Osher Map Library of the University of Southern Maine. Columbus used this letter to publicize his successful voyage; it became a sort of best-seller throughout Europe. It contains descriptions of the peoples he encountered. Of special interest are the five paragraphs beginning with, "There are besides in the said island Juana ..." as well as the last two paragraphs. What did Columbus emphasize in publicizing his journey?
In this Letter to the King and Queen of Spain, circa 1494, Columbus lists his recommendations about how Spain should proceed, including his suggestion that the area he encountered be systematically colonized. The letter is fairly brief; especially pertinent are points 1, 4, 5 and 9. What does Columbus emphasize about what he saw and what should happen next?
After students have read each document, discuss the following:
Working in small groups or individually, students should write their answers to these questions for use in comparing the documents with each other.
Now, in a group or as a class, have students compare the three documents. Ask students to compare their analyses of the individual documents. How do they differ? Are there any similarities? Ask students to reconsider the following:
Students should make and post statements summarizing what Columbus found (for example, natives with a simple technology) and a list of outcomes Columbus believed would come as a result of his journey (for example, he stated that the natives he met would make good servants).
Now the students will find out the effects of Columbus's voyages according to scholars by reading brief excerpts from specially chosen articles. Divide the class into groups to be assigned any or all of the following areas of research (topics can be duplicated among groups if desired). Each group should have at least one strong reader. Students can use information from the following sources, as well as texts and online sources of their own choosing.
In reviewing an article, students need only read those sections containing the specific information they are researching. A brief guide has been provided for each article.
Additional information on a number of these topics can be found at 1492: An Ongoing Voyage. Europe Claims America: The Atlantic Joined provides a brief summary of the effects of the arrival of the Europeans.
After completing their research, each group should prepare items for posting on a large graphic organizer designed to display the facts students learned. The class could decide, on the basis of the information at hand, exactly how to design the organizer. For example, the migration of food and plants or of diseases could be represented through text and/or pictures organized in the form of a chart with four columns: Before Columbus (In Europe), Before Columbus (In America), After Columbus (In Europe), After Columbus (In America). When this project is completed, each group can present its findings to the rest of the class, using the graphic organizer to illustrate what they learned.
Events don't always turn out the way one expects. As a culminating activity, have the class brainstorm and list many appropriate statements about expectations and outcomes in the following form:
Columbus (or "Europeans" or "Native Americans") __________
For example, students might say:
"Columbus thought he had discovered a new route to the Indies, but he had really traveled to what we now call the Americas."
"Columbus thought the natives 'would be good servants,' but trying to make slaves out of them was so unsuccessful that eventually Spain imported slaves from Africa."
"Columbus encountered natives living with a simple technology, but civilizations with advanced technologies also lived in the Americas."
Post the statements. As the students continue to study other events in history, especially meetings of disparate cultures, such as the colonial settlers and the Native Americans, they should note the effects of these encounters, both intended and unintended.
At the beginning of this lesson, students listed some of the ways the world changed after Columbus's voyage to the New World. Review this list with students. How would their list be different now if asked the same question? What should be added? Removed?
Students had learned some things about Columbus before this lesson. Based on what they have learned during this lesson, do students recommend any changes in the information young people are taught about Columbus? Changes in our celebration of Columbus Day?
If students found their list of changes significantly different at the end of the lesson, some might be interested in writing a set of guidelines for teaching about Columbus and/or for observing Columbus Day. Share the guidelines with the appropriate teachers.
2 class periods