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Subject Areas
History and Social Studies
   U.S. History - Native American
   World History - Latin America
Time Required
 historical comprehension
historical analysis and interpretation
historical research
Internet research skills
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Other Worlds: The Voyage of Columbus


Debate over the legacy of Christopher Columbus has opened new perspectives on the Renaissance world that gave impetus to his first voyage, and has raised awareness of the cultures he and those who followed him encountered in the world across the sea. Through the Internet, students can observe the events of 1492 from this dual vantage-point, exploring the two worlds that made contact when Columbus stepped ashore.

Learning Objectives

To gain an understanding of the forces within European society that found expression in the voyage of Christopher Columbus; to examine the cultures of those whom Columbus and his successors encountered in the New World; to analyze the degree to which cultural expectations shaped the encounter experience for Columbus; to reconstruct the encounter experience for those who saw Columbus sail into their world.

1   Begin by asking students what happened in Spain in 1492. Most will probably reply that Christopher Columbus set off in that year to reach the East by sailing west; but his voyage was only one of three momentous events that made 1492 a pivotal year in Spanish history.

2   Use the resources of the Columbus and the Age of Discovery website to introduce students to late 15th-century European culture. On the site's homepage you will find links to "1492: An Ongoing Voyage." Follow the link to "The Mediterranean World" for an online exhibit that summarizes the chief features of Renaissance Europe. Then have students investigate different perspectives by summarizing selected articles in the Columbus and the Age of Discovery database. (To access the database, follow the "Hypertext INDEX of articles" link on the website's homepage, click on "INDEX-pg. For public use." and then click on "Full index of 'permission granted' files." for a hyperlinked list of articles organized alphabetically by author.) Some suggested articles include:

  • Rebecca Catz, "Christopher Columbus and Portugal," which highlights the combination of economic, political, and technological forces that made this an age of exploration;
  • Timothy Foote, "Where Columbus Was Coming From," which describes the contradictory social forces that made this both a golden age of humanistic achievement and a time of often shocking inhumanity;
  • Frank Graziano, "Columbus and the Invention of Discovery," which examines the era's paradoxical tendency to test ideas against experience yet still trust in visionary truth;
  • Kevin A. Miller, "Why Did Columbus Sail," which charts the powerful currents of religious belief that steered men like Columbus toward worldly goals; and
  • Charlotte Porter, "The Scientific Cosmos of Columbus," which surveys the equally powerful influence of science and the dawning of empirical inquiry.

3   As students present their summaries, compare the different perspectives that these authors present. What kinds of evidence does each emphasize? What kinds of evidence does each leave out? What aspects of Columbus and his age does each bring into view? How can these perspectives be combined to provide a multi-dimensional view of the Great Navigator's motives and assumptions as he sailed toward the setting sun?

4   Shift attention next to the world Columbus encountered when he crossed the Atlantic. Again, the website "1492: An Ongoing Voyage" provides a useful overview, accessible from the Columbus and the Age of Discovery homepage by clicking on the "What Came To Be Called America" link. Have students review this for an online exhibit covering Caribbean, Middle American, and other branches of late 15th-century Native American society, then have student research teams use Internet and library resources to explore two of these societies in greater depth.

  • Have one group investigate the Caribbean culture that Columbus encountered directly. In the database of the Columbus and the Age of Discovery website they will find useful articles on the Taino by George A. Aarons, William F. Keegan, Irving Rouse, and Samuel M. Wilson. The Taino inhabited the island where Columbus first landed. For further study, students can also visit the ArchNet website for access to the "Caribbean Archeology" site of the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Click on "Regional View" at the ArchNet homepage, then follow the "Central America" link to "Caribbean Archeology.") Here students can view archeological excavations and artifacts and can read specialized reports on the picture of pre-Columbian Caribbean society that emerges from this evidence.
  • Have another group explore the Aztec culture of Middle America, which Cortés and his troops conquered in 1519. The Columbus and the Age of Discovery website provides access to two accounts of this "encounter" through its homepage link to the "European Database on the Age of Discovery." At the "European Database" homepage, click the entry "A list of primary and secondary sources," then scroll down to the section headed "Secondary Sources" for a link to "Bernardino de Sahagun, The war of conquest: how it was waged here in Mexico," a 16th-century history from a Native American point of view. Also on the "European Database" homepage, in the section headed "North America," students can click on "Hernán Cortés" for an online edition of William Prescott's classic The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). For archeological information about Aztec culture, have students click the "Regional View" link on the ArchNet homepage, and then click on "North America" for a link to "Feathered Serpent Pyramid," an online excavation of the ancient Aztec city, Teotihuacan. ArchNet's "North America" page also includes a link to the "Mesoamerican WWW Page," which feature a "Precolumbian Link Page" that will lead students to a valuable site on the "History of Mexico."

5   Turn finally to Columbus' description of first contact between these two worlds in the journal of his 1492 voyage. Widely available in libraries, this text can also be accessed from the Columbus and the Age of Discovery homepage by clicking the "European Database on the Age of Discovery" link. At the "European Database," scroll down and click the entry for "Christopher Columbus," then scroll down again to the heading "His own writings" and click on "Extracts from the 1492 journal." Have students prepare notes for a class discussion of this journal entry, focusing on the interplay between experience and expectations that it records. What did Columbus see and fail to see? What preconceptions and beliefs influenced his observations? Have students propose questions they would like to have been able to ask Columbus about his experiences on that day in 1492. Then conclude by having students write a journal entry on the encounter with Columbus from a Native American point of view.

Extending the Lesson

For added perspective on the culture of Renaissance Europe, introduce students to the art and architecture of that period using the resources (and "Links" section) of Detroit Institute of Art website. Have students investigate how the era's preoccupation with science and religion combine in the work of Italian masters like Bellini, Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci. Students can also extend their study of indigenous peoples of the Americas through the resources of the NativeWeb website. At many NativeWeb sites, descendants of those whom Europeans encountered in their colonization of the Americas offer an alternative vantage-point on those events, one that often reveals how the impact of that intercultural contact is still felt today.

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