Columbus and the Clash of Cultures

In small groups and class discussion, students share knowledge about Christopher Columbus and his voyages, learn about the impact of Columbus, and consider some ecological and political results of the encounter 


Students will 

  • Share knowledge about Christopher Columbus and his voyages
  • Learn about competing opinions of the impact of Columbus
  • Learn about ecological and political results of the encounter 


  • Research
  • Critical thinking 

Materials needed: 

  • Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Chart paper (or space on the board) for writing
  • Map of the world showing longitude and latitude (if possible, maps from the 1400s)
  • Individual chart paper for small groups, plus markers


  • Gathering (10 min.)
  • Agenda Review (1 min.)
  • Small groups on facts, myth, and various interpretations (15 min.)
  • Poster reports (15 min.)
  • Evaluation and Closing: Something that surprised me (4 min.)



Gathering: What do we know about Columbus? 

(10 minutes)
Ask students to go around the room and say one thing they know about Christopher Columbus (also known as Cristofer Colombo or Christopher Dove).
Students may have very different kinds of responses: Lessons on this subject for the lower grades tend not to dwell on the cruelty and genocide of the European invaders, while lessons for the upper grades usually do include it. Students from other countries will probably have a different view than those who went to school in the United States. In Latin America, "Columbus Day" is celebrated as La Dia de la Raza and highlights the multicultural composition of Latin America. In Italy, Columbus is celebrated as a great explorer. In Spain, the day has been folded in to other holidays to celebrate Hispanic culture. In the United States, four states do not mark it, and some localities have changed the name to "Indigenous Peoples' Day."
Accept all responses and chart them succinctly on chart paper.  Once key words such as "national holiday," "explorer," "discoverer," "slave trader," "navigator" and so on are on the chart, ask the remaining students for more information (Italian, sailing under Spanish flag, Catholic, single-minded, Fernando and Isabel).
Check agenda and objectives
Review the agenda and check off the first item



Activity: Small-group discussion and Report-back

(30 minutes)
Explain to the class that there are many myths about Columbus. None of the portraits of him were painted while he was alive, so we do not even know what he looked like.
History books used to say that Columbus "discovered" America. But, of course, there were people living there who had already discovered it. Now, we speak of the Columbian Exchange, for Columbus brought Europeans to this "new" world as well as livestock, grain, and diseases previously unknown, and he took people, food, and diseases back to Europe. Other Europeans had landed on the land mass, but Columbus arrived at a time when Europe was in a position to seize resources from the Americas - and had the guns it needed to do it.
Almost everyone agrees that Columbus had unbounded determination and single-mindedness in achieving his goals. It is also well known, and was even at the time, that he was a terrible administrator who could not establish well-run colonies, and that he was cruel toward the indigenous people he encountered. After one voyage, he was brought back to Spain as a prisoner because of his incompetence. A contemporary, Father Bartolome de las Casas, wrote about Columbus's inhumane treatment of the indigenous population.
Divide the class into groups and give each group one of the attached 1-page pdf background sheets on one aspect of the exchange. Ask the students to read the papers together, talk about what questions they have, and then make a poster describing the most important points they want their classmates to know. They should list their questions on a separate piece of paper.
Give students 10 or 15 minutes to read their sheets and make posters.
Then allow about 15 minutes for students to report back to the class. As students are making their presentations, they should evoke questions from the group.  You might answer any questions that are simple and direct. If there are questions on the group's list, or raised in discussion, that require further study, ask for volunteers to look into them and give poster reports back.


 Ask for several students to say something surprising that they learned today



Reading 1: Columbus in Context. Synopsis: Time of ferment, upheaval, leading to the Renaissance. Italy is on the verge of becoming a major financial power. Portugal is a great sea power, with Spain hoping to catch up. All educated people knew the world was round but didn't know there was a land mass between Europe and Asia to the west. Columbus miscalculated the distance and got lucky. Globalization was already underway, but the new area opened up a fertile and deadly exchange.

Reading 2: Spain in 1492. Synopsis: Defeat of the Moors; unification of Spain: expulsion of all Jews from Spain at a great cost of life and fortune. The expulsion of Jews also deprived many Christian Spaniards of sources of money to borrow, since usury was forbidden to Christians.
Reading 3: Changing Political, Economic, and Biological Ecology. Synopsis: Impact of disease on the indigenous population, possible introduction of syphilis to the Old World (wiping out five million people in Europe in the next four centuries). Introduction of horses, new grains, carrying of fruits and grain to Europe and Africa.
Reading 4: Exchange of Populations: the Slave Trade. Synopsis: Introduction of the African slave trade in a major way. Columbus had not found gold, so he wanted to bring back slaves, at least. Disease quickly wiped out huge portions of the indigenous population, and when gold was discovered later, the Spaniards needed slaves to work the mines and plantations (Columbus brought sugar cane, which adapted well to the climate).



Books by Charles C. Mann put much in perspective:
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2005)
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011)

By Felipe Fernando-Armesto: 1492: The Year the World Began
Dia de la Raza :