The First Global Man

The Americas Before and After Columbus

The last half century has not been kind to Christopher Columbus. Drawing on a study of exhumed skulls from fifteenth-century Europe, an article in the most recent Yearbook of Physical Anthropology found that syphilis, first diagnosed in Europe in 1495, was carried back to the continent by Columbus' crew. Within a decade, the bacterium had spread to European soldiers in India, who then infected Asians, making syphilis the first global epidemic. Once the great explorer, Columbus was now just an agent of venereal disease.

Columbus has long stood at the center of debates about globalization: when and how it began, and who it has helped and hurt in the five centuries since he made landfall in 1492. His discovery of the Americas was central to the process of integration and growing interdependence of the various parts of the world, one that continues to this day. 

For many years, historians and the public viewed Columbus as a visionary, a heroic discoverer, and a defier of orthodoxy. In the 1960s, however, the prevailing academic view of the Genoese mariner became less flattering. Columbus was slathered with blame for all the destruction that followed in his wake: tens of millions of Native Americans dead and another ten million Africans enslaved. Yes, Columbus connected the hemispheres and ushered in the modern world, but the benefits accrued mainly to Europeans. Revisionist historians, such as Kirkpatrick Sale, captured this mood. Sale's popular 1990 account, The Conquest of Paradise, argued that Columbus spearheaded a campaign to plunder and destroy the Edenic world of the Americas. Instead of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the American landfall, Sale and others lamented it, echoing the growing public discontent with globalization itself. 

Among scholars, the simplistic debate over whether Columbus was good or bad has become considerably more nuanced. The full significance of 1492 for global history -- and the history of globalization -- has come into ever-sharper relief. Historians now focus more on the role that native peoples played in the course of European expansion and conquest, treating them less as passive victims and more as active participants in global integration. 

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis