Christopher Columbus became famous in the late 15th and early 16th centuries because of his exploration activities in the New World. He would complete four different voyages across the Atlantic Ocean with the support of the monarchs in Spain. His efforts helped to discover more about North, Central, and South American than any other European explorer at the time.
Much about the early life of Christopher Columbus is not fully known. He is believed to have been born in Genoa, spoke Ligurian as a first language, and went exploring on the seas at a very young age. He was also self-educated, used the ocean as an entrepreneurial opportunity, and eventually gave up his plan to find spices by going West for gold, slaves, and additional food products.
We still use many of the names that Columbus gave for the islands and discoveries accredited to him. Columbus Day celebrates when his ships landed in The Bahamas for the first time.
Although his journey, explorations, and activities are regarded in a positive light, there are several negatives to consider with his experiences in the New World too. Here are the biggest pros and cons of Christopher Columbus to review.
List of the Pros of Christopher Columbus
1. Columbus improved food security for the Old World and the New World.
Europe struggled with a food crisis in the 15th century. Croplands were not producing well. Harvests were being tainted by fungal infections. Unless someone was wealthy, they lived in a food-insecure household.
The fields of the New World were not well-suited for farming initially. Tribes scraped by on what they could hunt or gather. Columbus initiated an exchange of livestock for crop growth, allowing both cultures to benefit from the added food supply. It took fewer than 20 years for food security to improve for a majority of households.
2. He introduced new ways of thinking to the New World.
Columbus was a skilled navigator due to his history with the sea. Using the stars, maps, and his compass, he could travel almost anywhere or replicate any journey. This knowledge is something he passed along to the tribes and colonists who would eventually settle in the New World. People spent less time traveling, improving movement efficiencies throughout the world. Fewer uncertainties about map accuracy occurred because of his efforts to spread knowledge too.
3. Livestock introductions occurred in the New World because of Columbus.
Christopher Columbus brought numerous livestock options over from the Old World as a means of trade in the Americas. The tribes immediately recognized the value of having livestock for food instead of trying to hunt for it. They readily accepted his cattle, hogs, and sheep during the three visits made after his fateful journey in 1492.
Horses were introduced because of these journeys as well, which improved the transportation capacity of the tribes in the Americas. People could travel further and faster, creating new avenues for trade. Although livestock created a wealth dynamic which also led to tribal wars at times, the ability to turn empty fields into plentiful pastures was an overall benefit for most native tribes.
4. It gave the Old World an opportunity to colonize and expand.
Although Christopher Columbus is credited with the discovery of the Americas, an old map unveiled in 2006 has led some to argue that a Chinese explorer, named Admiral Zheng He, explored the region 71 years before Columbus did. The map was supposedly drawn in 1763, but has a note on it that says that it is a reproduction of a map from 1418. This map, artifacts discovered along the coasts, and star charts indicating global voyages suggest the Chinese were the first to circle the world.
What Columbus did provide was an opportunity for Europe to expand its footprint. Any scalability effort offers pros and cons to consider. The fact is that the Americas wouldn’t be where they are today without the exploration efforts that were made in the 15th century – good and bad.
5. Columbus introduced concepts of modern spirituality during his voyages.
Christopher Columbus was a devout Catholic. History may judge his actions in a brutal light, but it was also the standard operating procedure to do what he did at the time. His efforts to spread Christianity to the New World created a wave of spirituality through the Americas that influences how religions are taught in the region still today. Columbus was trying to circumvent the influences of the Ottoman Empire, based on Islam, and felt reaching the Americas was a way to do that.
“I believe that they would easily be made Christians,” Columbus wrote in his diary, “for it seemed to me that they had no religion of their own.” Even with his view of Old World superiority and his forced subjugation, he also noted that becoming faith had to happen by love and not force. He offered glass beads, red caps, and other gifts as evidence of his concern.
6. Numerous countries still benefit from the crop exchanges.
Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane and bananas to be grown in the New World because he immediately recognized the opportunity to grow tropical foods in the region. These plantations proliferated, supporting a growing import/export passageway between the old and the new. Potatoes grew better in the New World too, creating cheaper food options for Europe. Although the plantations have changed over the years, many of the cash crops introduced by Columbus are still being grown today because of the positive impacts they create on the food supply.
7. It improved food economies across three continents.
Within 20 years of the final voyage made by Christopher Columbus, maize was grown in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was a useful crop, adaptable to the growing conditions in each region, becoming a primary stable in the Nile Delta. By the beginning of the 19th century, the corn imported by Columbus became a source of food for livestock and families. The spices imported to Europe, Africa, and Asia would become integrated elements of local cuisine, with the techniques developed then still practiced by families today.
List of the Cons of Christopher Columbus
1. His journeys caused numerous diseases to spread throughout the world.
The native populations in the Americas and the Caribbean had no immunities for the various European diseases that Christopher Columbus brought with him on his four journeys across the ocean. There had been zero exposure to the measles, smallpox, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, malaria, whooping cough, chickenpox, influenza, or the bubonic plague to the tribes before Columbus made contact. Up to 90% of local populations were wiped out because of disease exposure.
Columbus also brought home diseases obtained from the New World. One theory suggests that the crews under his command brought back a virulent form of syphilis which spread across Europe like a storm in the 1490s. Polio and tuberculosis were also brought back to the civilization centers of the Old World because of these activities.
2. Columbus used his travels to enter the slave-trading market.
Many children have sung songs in school about how in 1492, Columbus sailed the “ocean blue.” What got missed during this lesson is the fact on the first day he landed, Columbus enslaved six people because he felt that they would be “good servants.” During his trips to the New World, he enacted forced labor policies to profit off of local gold, tobacco, and chocolate. Thousands of people were gathered on his ships to be sold as slaves in Europe too, with hundreds dying before they ever reached dry land again.
3. He was a brutal governor.
Christopher Columbus was appointed as the governor and viceroy over the Indies because of his discoveries. His primary land to rule would become the Dominican Republic. His brutality, slave gathering, and disease spreading reputation proceeded him, so the people there rebelled against him.
The response Columbus had to the revolt involved a brutal crackdown on the local population. Numerous natives were killed. Then he ordered their bodies dismembered before parading the dead through the streets in an effort to quell any further rebellious activities.
4. Columbus still forcibly indoctrinated people into his faith.
Christopher Columbus is sometimes entertained as a possible saint within the Catholic faith. That effort doesn’t get too far because investigations show he forcibly indoctrinated many of the tribes. He thought they’d be easy to convert, but the reality for Columbus was very different. He would eventually create encomienda.
Under this new system, European settlers and explorers were responsible for native groups. They would teach these groups how to speak Spanish and elements of the Catholic faith. Then, in exchange, land grants were offered and maintained. Each group was forced to provide tribute, in labor and gold, to prevent them from being labeled as rebellious.
5. The Columbian Exchange introduced more than just cash crops and livestock.
When Christopher Columbus initiated exchanges, there were harmful elements included with the transaction for both parties. Invasive rats began eating saved food stores on some islands to the point humans could no longer live there safely. Weeds and various grasses took over croplands, making them useless for growing food stores. Gray squirrels stowed away on ships returning to Europe, creating similar problems for the Old World. A nasty potato fungus ripped through food stores there too, making it difficult for some countries to produce crops for more than a generation.
6. Animal diseases expanded because of Columbus’s efforts.
Much has been written about the various diseases which spread to human populations because of Christopher Columbus. What should not be ignored are the animal diseases which spread because of these exchanges too. Larger animals like cattle overwhelmed the smaller domesticated alpacas and llamas, with livestock diseases spreading plentifully across the population centers.
7. Columbus changed the ecosystem of the Americas for the worse.
As explorers made their way through the Americas, millions of people died because of the diseases being spread. With human populations severely decreased, forests began to regrow. Animals that were hunted for food saw their population numbers start rising. Dramatic labor shortages began appearing on all the continents. The loss of population contributed to the vast import of slavery to the region by the 17th century, which was an issue not fully resolved on a national level until the late 19th century – and in some areas, the problem still exists.
The pros and cons of Christopher Columbus are a mixed result. He certainly offered the world several benefits through his explorative actions. There are also lingering consequences which should not be ignored in the lessons taught in today’s classrooms. It may be true that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but many who suggest the world would have been a better place if that hadn’t happened.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.