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Christopher Columbus

Historical Perspective

Columbus was not the first European mariner to sail to the New World—the Vikings set up colonies (c.1000) in Greenland and Newfoundland (see Leif Ericsson and Thorfinn Karlsefni)—but his voyages mark the beginning of continuous European efforts to explore and colonize the Americas. Although historians for centuries disputed his skill as a navigator, it has been proved that with only dead reckoning Columbus was unsurpassed in charting and finding his way about unknown seas.

During the 1980s and 90s the long-standing image of Columbus as a hero was tarnished by criticism from Native Americans and revisionist historians. With the 500th anniversary of his first voyage in 1992, interpretations of his motives and impact varied. Although he was always judged to be vain, ambitious, desirous of wealth, and ruthless, traditional historians viewed his voyages as opening the New World to Western civilization and Christianity. For revisionist historians, however, his voyages symbolize the more brutal aspects of European colonization and represent the beginning of the destruction of Native American peoples and culture. All interpretations, however, agree that his voyages, which permanently linked the Old and New Worlds, were a turning point in history.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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