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Columbus and the "Discovery" of the "New World"

The depiction of Christopher Columbus in popular history magazines


Author: Miriam Hannig, University of Augsburg


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Basic Information

The learning object presented here deals with the image of Columbus that is portrayed in German and English popular history magazines, which were selected as examples. The main focus is on how illustrations are used in the magazine articles and whether the way of presenting them meets the standards of using historical sources. The tasks presented in this learning object can be seen as suggestions for dealing with this topic and can also be used for analysing the presentation of illustrations in history magazines from other countries (additional material). Furthermore you can find overviews, which summarise the depiction of Columbus and the “discovery” in national history textbooks (additional material) to give you an understanding of the national tendencies in presenting the topic.

Reference to the curricula

In Bavarian schools the subjects “Columbus“ and his "discoveries“ are part of the curriculum of grade 7 (13-14 year old pupils). There is no explicit reference to the handling of popular history magazines, but all curricula require considering the “historical culture” as a part of the pupils’ everyday life.

The topic lends itself to interdisciplinary teaching, by for example combining history with social studies, arts and German.

Learning objectives

On the one hand the students extend their media critical competences and on the other hand they analyse comparative international perspectives on the topic.

They become more sensitive to the use of pictorial sources both in magazines and history textbooks and develop criteria for the evaluation of the use of those pictorial sources in general and particularly in commercial media.

By comparing popular history magazines and history textbooks the students learn to deal with the different ways of presenting a historical topic and notice differences in the more or less scholarly style in popular history magazines and textbooks.

By comparing textbooks and magazines from different countries they learn to analyse and to compare the different national tendencies in presenting the topic (in this learning object English and German magazines are used as examples). Magazines from other countries can be found in the "additional material"; they can be used for broadening the comparison of different national points of views in Europe.

The perspective of German textbooks on the topic “Columbus and the 'Discovery' of the 'New World'"

In order to analyse the way in which Columbus and the "great discovery" is portrayed in national magazines we will briefly explain the German perspective on this topic as presented in the German curriculum as well as in textbooks.

Columbus and the discovery of the sea route to America is conceived here, above all, as an integral component of the "transition" from the Middle Ages to modern times and is not, for instance, interpreted as the beginning of the European colonialism, which may be due to Germany's short tradition as a colonial power (1884-1918) and the corresponding lack of the history of colonialism in the German narrative.

Along with the invention of the printing press and the concomitant media revolution as well as humanism, renaissance and reformation, Columbus' "discovery of America" passes for a significant stepping stone on the way to modern times since it revolutionised the knowledge about the shape of the earth. The year 1492 is usually interpreted as a landmark and thereby as a "turning point" of world history. Columbus and his "discoveries" are marked as Europe's great historic achievements and as the beginning of the "rise of the west" without national appropriation.

The problems of Columbus' "discovery" are more often than not omitted: his achievements are mostly presented as a heroic act for which the time had come – even though the randomness of the "discovery" is not kept a secret it is also not presented in detail.

Furthermore, the "discovery of America" is not sufficiently historicised in the curriculum and in textbooks. The event appears to be the natural beginning of European dominance in the world (until 1918). Consequently, the wrong impression could easily be conveyed to students that Europe has always been the most important continent in world history. This Eurocentric perspective obscures the peripheral position of Europe within the transnational Eurasian network during the Middle Ages and does not consider it worthwhile to explain why it was Europe or European seafarers and not the inhabitants of other continents who discovered the sea route to America at the end of the middle ages.

In general, the indigenous perspective and the consequences for the indigenous population are taken into account in the curriculum and textbooks even though they are often illustrated merely in few sentences in the presentational part.

By the EHISTO-team, Augsburg

The perspective of English textbooks on the topic “Columbus and the 'Discovery' of the 'New World'"

Until the introduction of the first National Curriculum for history in 1991, Columbus was a common topic in UK text books. It was commonly treated under the title of ‘The voyages of discovery’, with the three main explorers who were covered in text books being Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake. The voyages were treated mainly as voyages of discovery or scientific curiosity rather than ‘voyages of exploitation’.

However, after the introduction of the compulsory National Curriculum for history in 1991, there was much more emphasis on national history; one Secretary of State argued that at least 80% of the curriculum should be about British history, and textbooks tended to reflect this. So attention focused much more on the development of the British Empire, and very few textbooks mentioned the voyages of Columbus and Magellan; the emphasis in text books was on British explorers (Drake, Cook) and Britain’s relations with Canada, America, India, Australia and Britain’s African colonies. Columbus became something of a ‘black hole’ in terms of British History textbooks, and that remains the case until the present day. Columbus is not mentioned in the new National Curriculum to be introduced in schools in September 2014, and so he is unlikely to feature in British text books in the future.

By the EHISTO-team of University of East Anglia

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