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Posted on Tue, Oct 13, 2009 : 8:45 p.m.

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

By Lisa Bankey

This past Monday was Columbus Day. A day set aside to honor Christopher Columbus who in 1492 sailed the ocean blue. explains the history behind the United States celebrating Columbus Day:

The first recorded celebration honoring the discovery of America by Europeans took place in October 12, 1792 in New York City. The event ... celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World. ... In 1937, President Roosevelt proclaimed October 12 as ‘Columbus Day’ and in 1971 President Nixon declared the second Monday in October a national holiday. “

Many things go in and out of fashion and this past Monday’s holiday may be one of those things. Do we celebrate Columbus Day? Should we celebrate? Do you see Christopher Columbus as a hero? Or do you see Christopher Columbus as a villain?

Again looks at the controversy behind the man:

“As historians have continued to learn and write more about the real life of Christopher Columbus, controversy has arisen over the validity of honoring the explorer as a hero. Like many European explorers, Columbus encountered many indigenous people throughout his voyages. Singularly focused on his mission to find riches and conquer new lands, Columbus and his teams treated the indigenous groups they came across as obstacles to their greater mission.”

In Christine Armario’s article Kids Study the Dark Side of Columbus, she discusses:

“Columbus' stature in U.S. classrooms has declined somewhat through the years, and many districts will not observe his namesake holiday on Monday. Although lessons vary, many teachers are trying to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of indigenous populations.”

Armario also adds that school lessons have a range of focus when talking about Christopher Columbus, from focusing on the exploration aspects to mock trials putting Ol' Christopher Columbus on the stand.

Here are a few books about Christopher Columbus and his voyage to consider before you cast your jury vote.

Columbus Day: Celebrating a Famous Explorer by Elaine Landau, part of the Finding Out About Holiday Series, is an informational text complete with a Contents page, a Glossary, and an Index. This book offers factual information about Christopher Columbus, including when he was born and what it was like for him to grow up in an Italian wool-weavers family. We also learn how Christopher Columbus’s dream to sail west to reach Asia for an easier trade route was thought of as ridiculous and he was laughed at and thought of as a fool. Columbus did not give on his dream and finally convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to fund the voyage. The controversy is briefly discussed in Chapter 5: Remembering Columbus.

Westward with Columbus by John Dyson is a fascinating book that looks at the Columbus voyage from the point of view of twelve-year-old Pedro who joins the voyage as ship’s boy. Interwoven in the story is another story. In 1990 a replica of the Nina was created and retraced the path of Columbus’ famous (or infamous) voyage. This Nina followed a passage from a secret ships log that Christopher Columbus kept during the trip. Dyson shares that Columbus “inserted false distances and directions into his diary to make it look as if he were sailing west” when he really went southwest into Portuguese waters. If he were caught in the Portuguese waters, Columbus could claim that he was blown off course. This book also shares the good and bad of the voyage through Pedro’s experiences. We learn about the mistreatment of the natives, the frustration of the crew, and we share the excitement of finding land.

Encounter by Jane Yolen is a beautifully illustrated picture book about Christopher Columbus finding the new New World from the point of view of a boy from San Salvador (the Taino Island). School Library Journal's review summarized:
the boy was warned in “an ominous dream that the strangers may bring trouble to his people. His concerns are ignored, however, and the Taino greet their guests with customary feasting and gifts, only to be repaid by abduction of several of their young people. Taken among the captives, the boy escapes and slowly makes his way home, trying to convince others along the way that the Spanish pose a threat, but to no avail.”

The narrator of the book notes at the end of the book that since most reports of the voyage came from Christopher Columbus and his crew and not from the native people of the New World, she wanted to create story about what a young boy might have said about the events.

The World in 1492 is a book by Jean Fritz, Katherine Paterson, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, Margaret Mahy, and Jamake Highwater. The authors offer a look at the whole world in the year of 1492. Each chapter looks at a different culture and the accomplishments of that culture. “Renaissance Europe was not the center of the world. There were vast, sophisticated civilizations in India, West Africa, and Mexico.” For example “ (i)n the islands of the South Pacific, sailors were traveling thousands of miles in double-hulled canoes.” This is a great book to understand what the world was like when Columbus set foot in the New World. You will learn the “story of Ferdinand, Isabella, and Columbus was not the only one” happening in the year 1492.

Some of us may agree that his adventurous sail across the Atlantic Ocean did change the world, ushering in an age of exploration. Amario’s article notes this. “’Every hero is somebody else’s villain,’ said Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a scholar and author of several books related to Columbus, including 1492:The Year the World Began. Heroism and villainy are just two sides of the same coin.’”

book photos: Ann Arbor District Library

Lisa Bankey is a parent, an Enrichment Facilitator for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and a librarian-in-training who blogs about Children’s Literature for Lisa can be reached at


Lisa Bankey

Thu, Oct 15, 2009 : 7:14 a.m.

Hello Jake, I agree with you that how we view Christopher Columbus is a reflection of our current views and our current morality. That is why I selected books that started focusing on Columbus and then moved the point of view out from there (a crew member, a native, and the world). You were very lucky to have a teacher present many sides of issue to help create an informed opinion. I am hoping more will look at the many facets of this issue as well. Thank you for reading and sharing your experience with us.


Wed, Oct 14, 2009 : 8:55 a.m.

Christopher Columbus has become a barometer for how we view ourselves and our morality. Many who have never engaged in a serious study of Columbus condemn him. Others, with a similar level of assumption, praise him as inspired by God. My experience studying him in highschool was positive in that it was balanced. I still remember my history teacher acknowledging both sides of the argument. The foolish choice is to relegate Columbus entirely to either "Good" or "Evil." Either caricature smacks of mythmaking.

Lisa Bankey

Tue, Oct 13, 2009 : 9:03 p.m.

Thank you for catching that! It's fixed now. Thanks for reading


Tue, Oct 13, 2009 : 8:53 p.m.

I have to think that the second sentence of this contains probably one of the most common typographical errors in discussions of history. "A day set aside to honor Christopher Columbus who in 1942 sailed the ocean blue!" I make this same mistake all the time, too. Don't mean to be nit picky; I loved the article.