Did Columbus Really Discover the New World?

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Columbus was definitely a man of vision and courage. He sought to prove Galileo’s theory of a round earth by sailing west to get to the Far East. This venture led to his most memorable life achievement. Today I ask the question “did Columbus really discover the New World?” This is a question that has become relevant today as many raise questions around the legacy of Christopher Columbus.

Very little is known about Columbus’ background, he is believed to have been born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. His father was a wool weaver named Domenico Colombo. For a man from humble beginnings, his ability to secure the funding for his voyages suggests he was an astute negotiator. Some have even surmised that Queen Isabella of Spain was secretly in love with the young sea captain. Columbus’ contract with her required him to cover 12.5% of the cost of his voyage in return for 12.5% of the proceeds. In addition she offered him the title of Viceroy General of any new territories he acquired for Spain.

The Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria. Docked in the “Muelle de Carabelas” in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva – Source: Wiki-Commons

Columbus set out from the Port of Palos in Spain on August 3, 1492 with three ships; the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. On October 12, the ships made landfall. Exhausted and sea weary, Columbus and his ship mates believed they were in the East Indies. We now know they landed on one of the Bahamian islands, which he named San Salvador.

The question we need to ask ourselves today is; “how could Columbus have discovered the New World when the land was already settled by Native Americans when he landed?” It is estimated that native Americans crossed the Bering Straits into the Americas more than 10,000 years before him?”. Furthermore; Leif Erikson a Norseman from Iceland also explored the coasts of North America and the St. Lawrence River in the 11th Century. The easy answer to the question “Did Columbus really discover the New World?” is thus a big NO.

For centuries we ascribed the the discovery of this continent to Columbus. That is not deserved; Columbus can however take credit for the mass exploration and subsequent exploitation of the people of the continent.

Studies using mitochondrial DNA which is only passed down the maternal line suggests that the indigenous populations of the Americas reached an all time high about 5,000 years ago. This increase was subsequently followed by a dramatic decline of more than 50% 500 years ago. Notwithstanding the wide margin of error this timeline corresponds to the period of massive European contact from Columbus’ discovery. The population decline is mostly attributable to diseases like plague and smallpox. Not to mention the impact of wars, enslavement and declines in food supplies; specifically the near extinction of the American buffalo herds.

Photo Showing Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Ponca. Standing Bear argued for rights for US citizenship for Native Americans during one of the many resettlement efforts by the US Federal Authorities- Source: AmericanTribes.com

On the island of Hispaniola present day Haiti and Dominican Republic the Native Taino Indians are now almost unknown. Some locals believe Native Taino Indians and African slaves formed enclaves that survived the Europeans exploitation. As a matter of fact, exploitation depleted the indigenous populations almost completely.

DNA evidence however suggests that Indigenous American genes still persists in the Caribbean Islands. Comparatively, though there are more indigenous Americans in South America than in the US or any Caribbean Islands.

In the US and Canada we still have some of our Native American cousins among us. We should however never forget what Columbus’ discovery did to their people.

This year during nationwide anti-police protests on racism following the murder of George Floyd, Columbus did not fair too well. Protesters in Baltimore City tore down a statue of Columbus in the Little Italy neighborhood and tossed it into the harbor.

The second Monday in October is a federal holiday however several states have renamed this holiday indigenous people’s day. States like Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Michigan, North Carolina, Vermont, Wisconsin, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia and the District of Columbia no longer celebrate Columbus’ day. Several cities also recognize the sacrifices that Native Americans made to the development of this country by changing the name of this holiday.

On this Indigenous People’s Day in 2020, I hope all Americans would respectfully remember our indigenous peoples. Native Americans graciously received us into the land that they discovered and made their own.

Faces of the Lumbee Tribe who once lived in the neighborhoods of Upper Fells Point and Washington Hill, MD – Courtesy: Tony Alter Flickr

This year the city of Baltimore spoke by the drowning the severed head of the Columbus statue in Baltimore Harbor. Today, let us all show respect to the culture of Native Americans. Their respect for the land and nature allows us the opportunity to still enjoy unspoiled nature in this beautiful land that we all now share.

Have a happy Indigenous Peoples Day today and enjoy the day with the peace and love of our Native American cousins. Always remember this; Columbus did not discover the new World, the Native Americans did !


By Dr. Leonard Sowah a physician in Baltimore, Maryland 

Feature photo: First Landing of Christopher Columbus by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (c. 1755 – c. 1821) 


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan