Social Education 58(3), 1994, pp. 149-151
National Council for the Social Studies
Teachers have used many topics as bridges among disciplines. The variety of disciplines that can be taught through a study of Columbus provides an excellent opportunity to illustrate how this can be done.
Interrelating the Disciplines
In retrospect, scholars can now appreciate why it was necessary for Columbus to have a strong background in a variety of disciplines to reach the Americas. We have selected several of these disciplines to illustrate their interrelationships with Columbus's voyages.
Science and Mathematics
Scientific advances often have interdisciplinary application. Astronomy, for instance, was an essential navigational tool in the voyages of explorers from Spain, Portugal, and other nations since, when crossing oceans, navigators could not rely on landmarks for guidance. Astronomy also played a part in determining distances. For instance, the committee appointed by the Spanish sovereign to determine the advisability of Columbus's venture disputed the distance to India as calculated by Columbus. The development of the compass and the astrolabe also provided Columbus with technology that was extremely helpful in his voyages.
The monarchy of Spain is of special interest to a study of Columbus because it was a joint leadership of the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon. The separate interests of Isabella and Ferdinand are apparent in Gianni Granzotto's biography of Columbus (1984, 67). Isabella tended to look to the Atlantic, while Ferdinand's attention was directed mostly to the Mediterranean.
Of importance in both economics and law is the system of land-holding-the feudal system under which the crown holds lands and grants the use of the lands to major lords of the realm and then to lesser lords in ever-smaller parcels. At the lower end of the scale are non-land-owning individuals who were closer to being chattels than free. Students today may contrast this feudal legal system with socialist and capitalist arrangements of ownership.
International issues of war and peace coincided with the precise time of the venture of Columbus. In 1492 and earlier, Spain was expelling the final remnants of the Moors from its territory. This preoccupation caused the monarchy to postpone its sponsorship of Columbus's voyage (Granzotto 1984, 82), since the war had drained its national treasury.
Many different international relationships existed between Spain and other nations during the Age of Columbus. Spain competed for the acquisition of trade routes and the extension of its influence over other nations such as Portugal. The Turks' conquest of the area to the east shut off trade routes to India, the source of spices. Spain's special relationship with Genoa led to Genoese settlement in Spain. Genoa found it advantageous to establish a presence on the Isle of Chios near Constantinople and paid for that privilege. The era thus may be used to illustrate a variety of international relationships in war as well as peacetime.
A variety of economic issues are relevant to a study of Columbus. The search for valuable raw materials such as spices and precious metals impelled the voyages, while the development of new technologies and trades coincided with the dwindling of older occupations. The accumulation of capital in the hands of certain nobles and businessmen caused the crowned heads to rely upon these wealthy persons for both war and peacetime ventures.
Finding gold and spices was the primary dream of Columbus and the men who sailed with him. They encountered Indians wearing gold jewelry but were unable to learn where the native people had obtained the gold. While the Indians described a place where gold abounded, the Europeans were unable to find it. Although gold was eventually found in small amounts, spices were never found. Convinced that he had found China, Columbus continued to look for spices, unaware that he had not, in fact, reached the spice-producing areas he had read about in the writings of Marco Polo.
The plants Columbus saw in the Americas were of great interest to him. As he related in his log, he continually compared them to plants he imagined would be in China or those he knew in Europe. He realized that plant life could offer a valuable resource to Europe. As it turned out, the most pro&Mac222;table resource he discovered was not the gold he expected to find but the tobacco the Indians were smoking. At &Mac222;rst, this practice looked strange to the Europeans; however, it was not long before the sailors were smoking as well. Of course, they quickly succumbed to the habit-forming nature of the plant. When they returned to Europe, they took their tobacco with them and introduced it to their friends and into the culture of Europe. Thus began the tobacco industry (Fuson 1992, 104).
An interesting phenomenon known as "The Columbus Exchange" occurred with the coming of Columbus to America. Among the many things exchanged were ideas, customs, food products, animals, and diseases (Viola and Margolis 1991). From the New World came potatoes, corn, navy beans, string beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, peanuts, cassava, and tobacco. The Old World brought horses, wheat, onions, melons, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, rice, yams, and bananas. Unfortunately, each of the worlds, old and new, introduced new diseases to each other for which their populations had no natural resistance.
From the perspective of historiography, the picture of the penniless Columbus in search of support from the crown, particularly Isabella, may be contrasted with the opposing view of the self-sufficient person (Granzotto 1984, 64). Students may research and evaluate data to determine the more accurate view; they should also be led to speculate on the reasons for different interpretations over time. In another attempt to separate fact and myth, teachers should help students see that the myth that Columbus sought to prove the world was round has been exposed; most voyagers in his day knew of the roundness of the earth.
As to content, various opportunities arise for teaching about cause and effect. The causes that have been suggested for Columbus's venturing in uncharted waters are multidimensional. They include the need for a safe route to India to obtain spices, the desire for gold and other precious objects that the exploration might yield, the desire to see "what's out there," a wish to convert the new world to Christianity, and an aim of securing wealth to reconquer Jerusalem.
The Roman Catholic Pope and the various brotherhoods of priests played an important role in this era in Europe. The Franciscans were influential in the life of Columbus and in support of his voyages. Columbus was knowledgeable about the Bible, cited Scripture in his arguments for royal support, and intended to spread Christianity to any lands he discovered.
Columbus believed that a Christian state had an absolute right to proclaim sovereignty over what he viewed as heathen and infidel domains. Therefore, as his voyagers settled the New World, they built churches and tried to persuade the Indians to convert to their religion.
The Age of Discovery that exploded to encompass the globe was preceded by a phase of contracting boundaries. The known world of Columbus and his contemporaries in the mid-1400s was much narrower than that of their predecessors (Crone 1969, 1). In addition to the Moslem lands in the eastern Mediterranean and across North Africa to the Atlantic, there was the cold land to the north populated by a seafaring race that raided coastal villages as far away as the eastern Mediterranean. On the west, the Atlantic presented a barrier of which Europeans knew even less than the Asian lands beyond the Moslem area. The personal geography of Columbus, however, was even narrower than that of his contemporaries because of his lifelong interest in the sea and particularly a sea route to China. However, Columbus and others searching for a way to reach Asia via a water route were influenced by their own seafaring experiences, popular lore, and the writings of others.
Columbus's persuasiveness with the King and Queen paled in comparison to his understanding of ocean systems and seamanship. In the 27 years between first going to sea and his voyage in 1492 at the age of 41, Columbus lived on or close to the sea. Knowledge gathered during those formative years served him well in planning and executing his first voyage. He had probably sailed from the Mediterranean into the North Atlantic to England, Ireland, and Iceland, where he became aware of the extreme headwinds (i.e., Westerlies) at those latitudes (Phillips and Phillips 1992, 105). Although Nordic fishermen had made likely crossings to the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks, the good fishing was kept secret.
Added to these experiences were Columbus's observations from the Azore Islands off the coast of Spain. Las Casas (1951, 32) and son Ferdinand Columbus (1959, 513) devote considerable space to cataloging evidence Columbus had of land to the west. According to both writers, Columbus knew that people of the Azores and neighboring islands reported that, when strong winds blew from the west for many days, those winds would deposit exotic material on their shores. Pine trees that did not grow on the islands, corpses of two men with flat faces, covered boats called almadias (Crone 1969, 38), pieces of curiously carved wood, reeds of such size that each joint held up to four quarts of liquid, and strange beans later named Columbus beans washed ashore on Azores beaches. From these facts, one can reasonably infer that Columbus had been aware of the existence of both the prevailing west winds and eastward drift of oceanic currents in the latitudes west of Iberia (see map). Added to navigational experiences in the North Atlantic, these observations provided the yet-to-be transatlantic seaman some knowledge of the ocean system directly west of Portugal.
Columbus also had first-hand experience with the eastern Atlantic that lay west and south of Portugal. Early voyages to the Canary Islands, Madeira, and Porto Santo exposed him to the sea calms characteristic of the area between 25 and 35 degrees north latitude. Similarly, voyages to Portugal's African Gold Coast outpost at Elima (now Ghana) required passage in favorable currents associated with the northeast trades (see map). Prince Henry the Navigator died fifteen years prior to Columbus's first arrival in Portugal, but had documented the trade winds and speculated on the possible clockwise circulation of winds and currents in the Northern hemisphere's Atlantic basin (Wilford 1991, 68). The westerlies of the north, the eastern Atlantic's southward flowing current, and the associated northeast winds provided three pieces of the speculation about a clockwise wind and water circulation.
Reconstruction of the western leg of Columbus's first voyage and the knowledge we have of his world view suggest that he had a sophisticated understanding of ocean currents and winds. Ptolemy's Geographia (Phillips and Phillips 1992, 109) and his famous map placed Asia in the same latitude as Portugal. Sailing directly west from Portugal would be the shortest route to this land mass, but even in the face of early doubts from his crew, Columbus went south to the Canary Islands for final preparations. With the help of the trade winds, the voyage due west from the Canary Islands took only 36 days (see map). However, Columbus showed some doubt in his original estimates of distance across the narrow ocean when he resorted to underestimating daily distances traveled in order to deceive the crew about how far they were from Portugal and the distance yet to be covered. Landfall came on October 12 on what all originally thought was Asia. While Columbus had placed heavy reliance on his former experience sailing along the African coast, he probably gained as much confidence on the route chosen from an understanding of the impassable calms to the north of the trades and the dreaded torrid ( i.e., heat) unknown to the south.
Returning to Europe from the Caribbean into the headwinds of the trades or the calms that lay just to the north convinced Columbus to choose another route eastward. Columbus's experience in the North Atlantic, stories of strange objects washing ashore in the Azores after strong winds from the west, and the findings of Prince Henry the Navigator about the clockwise circulation of winds and currents in the Atlantic were enough to direct him to the northeast through the calms rather than into the teeth of the trades and the wrath of a skeptical crew. The twenty days of sailing through the calms from January 16 to February 4 covered only one-third of the distance of the return trip. After getting into the westerlies, however, covering the remaining distance required only twelve days. The combination of Columbus's knowledge, the educated speculation of Prince Henry the Navigator, and a certain amount of risk-taking helped explain the voyage's navigational success in this ocean frontier.
Classroom Activity Ideas
This article has illustrated how the social studies teacher can integrate various disciplines of a school curriculum in teaching about Columbus. Following are some specific activity ideas and recommended strategies.
Some students might be interested in creating crafts such as a compass, an astrolabe, maps, globes, and ships. Students could make a compass and learn to use it. Making an astrolabe would be relatively simple, and students could demonstrate its use to the class. Maps and globes of Columbus's time looked very different from those we are accustomed to today. A major reason for this was that the world known to European cartographers at the time was small and most people had no idea other continents might yet be visited and explored. Little by little, the maps of the period grew to identify all the additional places the explorers visited. To demonstrate this process, students could develop a timeline with maps and globes to show how the change took place.
Certainly one of the most interesting objects associated with sailing is the ships themselves. Columbus was quite aware of the technology involved in shipbuilding. He knew that certain types of ships were faster and adapted to the wind patterns easier than others. Because the most adaptable ship of the period was a Caravelle, Columbus used as many of this type of ship as possible. Students could investigate the different types of ships and build them according to the specifications of that day. After students built a scale model of the ships, they could demonstrate their models to the rest of the class.
In mathematics, students could do research to determine the type of data Columbus used to determine the distance from Spain to China by sailing west. They can do their own calculation of the data and then compare it to that of Columbus. They could also determine the true distances between continents and compare that to what Columbus thought the distances were.
Many more activities may be developed using this interdisciplinary approach to Columbus. In addition, while the focus of this article has been on Columbus and the European world in which he lived, broadening the focus of interdisciplinary activities to include comparable aspects of American Indian life and practices at the time (e.g., science, religion, government, geography) would provide a fuller and more balanced understanding of the Columbian era.
Although interest in Columbus peaked with the Quincentenary in 1992, teaching the explorer and his times remains an essential aspect of world and U.S. history, and thus offers a continuing opportunity for interdisciplinary instruction.
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Joseph D. Enedy is associate professor of geography, P. Tony Graham is professor of education, and Paul C. Cline is professor of political science, all at James Madison University.