Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Voyages of Christopher Columbus: In Pursuit of Gold and Global Supremacy

Picture taken from Google
Colonizing foreign lands under grand pretexts, like democracy and civilization, but actually to exploit them economically was always in practice and will never go out of it. In fact, powerful countries colonizing lands in pursuit of wealth is so recent that the biggest story of this month – Osama’s killing – can be traced back to it: Osama’s main battle cry against the US has always been essentially one, “Free the Muslim lands you occupy.”

And it’s so old that every invasion in history, no matter how long back in time, can be traced back to this motive upon careful examination. This week I finished a book on Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the Indies, in the 14th century, in pursuit of gold, to take Christianity to new shores and civilize native ‘savages’.

At the age of 20, Columbus planned to sail to the Indies. Columbus went to many royal courts to find funding for his voyages and finally the king of Spain, a country keen on establishing its global supremacy in Europe, accepted his plan and funded his voyages.

The book details the voyages through daily notes taken by people who were part of Columbus’s entourage and also uses biographical accounts written by Columbus’s son on his father. Columbus comes across as a good leader concerned as much about the goal of the voyages as about the wellbeing of its crew.

The voyages were tough affairs. They could put patience, endurance and courage to severe tests - as you could look for a land for days and not sight any, run out of food and add to that the vagaries of the seas. Despite these challenges, Columbus kept the morale of his team up. His good leadership notwithstanding, however, there were many who defected, took up independent voyages and turned against Columbus.

The flora and fauna and the strange practices and customs of the natives of the lands Columbus visited (some of whom were cannibals) are interesting to read. The lands had an untouched beauty and innocence about them and the details bring them out vividly.

Columbus’s voyages met with moderate success. He failed to find gold in most places and people he left behind in the places he discovered either started feuding among themselves or were attacked by natives, bringing very less value to the royal coffers of Spain.

Towards the end of his life, Columbus fell prey to conspiracies, betrayals and broken promises. He also lost his official authority in Spain and died a heart-broken man.

It is perhaps wrong to call Columbus a colonialist because although the basic purpose of his voyages was same as later-day colonialists – discovery of wealth in foreign land and bringing it home – he was mainly a seaman.  However, his voyages are historically important because they took place not long before the big colonialists of later day - France, Portugal and England - would set out towards the East and take the concept of colonies nearer to how it’s today.

By the way, read my blog on Mind Blog


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