I was taught in grade school "Columbus discovered America", "Captain Cook discovered Hawaii" etc, and I imagine many of us were taught the same.

Obviously the term "discovered" here is problematic: The people living in the Americas and Hawaii knew they were there, and knew their homeland was there, so nothing was "discovered" for them - we might even say that the inhabitants of Hispaniola "discovered Europe" when Columbus arrived. We also know that others before Columbus had been to the Americas and probably returned, the Vikings being the most notable example. So who discovered what, and when?

I suppose the answer to this question is that from a Western/Euro-Centric point of view, those places were indeed "discovered" - i.e. the Western World became aware of those places for the first time - through the voyages of Columbus, Cook, etc., and could then "put them on the map."

My question is this: Obviously the voyages and explorations of Columbus, Cook, et al had huge historical impact - but is "discovery" in the "grade school sense" a valid term for the modern historian - one who is aware of, and examining history, in the modern global sense? Do historians still use this term? How might we otherwise describe Columbus's "discoveries"? What's the best, most accurate term for historians to use when describing "discoveries" like those of Columbus or Cook, in our modern, global context?

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    Columbus wasn't even the first European to visit the Americas, see @T.E.D. answer here
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 7:27
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    @LouisRhys - it is important to read the question before commenting... :-)
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 7:34
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    Sounds like a question tailor-made for Samuel Russell! Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 11:13
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    I think that Cook visiting Tahiti made the same discovery of this island as Tahitians made discovering Cook and his men.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 19:33
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    The traditional definition of "discover" in the western historical sense is: "Bring a flag and a gun". Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 8:20

4 Answers 4


Dictionary.com is good for Discoveries.

to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown):

So, yes people make discoveries every day no matter how large or small they are. To make a discovery the person making the discovery must not know that it already exists. That's why when Cook discovered Hawaii, Europe hadn't known it was there. That is why it is a discovery.

  • In a more pedantic sense, Cook hadn't known it was there, so it was certainly a discovery for him.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 13:08
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    @T.E.D. To carry that even further, "Cook discovered Hawaii" and "Columbus discovered America" really don't tell us much. A more full account would tell us who that discovery impacted and how it impacted them, which then addresses the very problem raised to begin with. Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 13:24
  • @Vector You said:My question is this: Obviously the voyages and explorations of Columbus, Cook, et al had huge historical impact - but is "discovery" in the "grade school sense" a valid term for the modern historian? The answer is yes. Discoveries are happening every day and IS the proper term "in the grade school sense". Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 17:10
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    In this sense, Columbus did not discover America, as he died still not knowing it was there. He thought he reached India. Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 8:21
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    @called2voyage: Yes, "found" is a good word for what he did. Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 17:51

I'm thinking the standard account at the level of economic exchange that was subsumed under "discovery" is of an integration of world systems. "Columbus discovered America" meaning "Europeans started economically exploiting America" is actually discussed as a research problem of the integration of European and pre-Columbian American economies and societies. "Contact" perhaps. But over a long period.

As far as the "science" of the voyages of Cook, the results were important for European science and proto-science, and Cook's social impacts are contextualised through the trade relations that had preceded or rapidly followed Cook. "Discovery" in this sense of "production of new knowledge" is heavily complicated last time I heard a paper on whether individuals could be said to discover anything.

I think "discovery" was always a "lies for children" shorthand to conceal real complexity, and it has been correctly discarded in favour of more complex accounts.


Well, it may sound old fashioned, but, from Columbus' point of view, the "discovery of America", specifically, beginning with his actual "discovery" of the Bahamas and the indigenous Taino Indians, was, for him, an introduction to The "New World". Although the lands and peoples that Columbus "discovered" were, in historical actuality, an Old World-(perhaps even older than Columbus' Italian-Spanish Old World), they were still nevertheless, "discoveries" of "New" peoples, cultures, landscapes, climates and lifestyles.

Simultaneously, for the Bahamian Tainos, the unanticipated arrival of Columbus and his Spanish Explorers were very much an introduction to a "New World" where they were too were introduced to a "New" people, culture, religion, language and lifestyle.

So in a way, when you hear about the old fashioned terms, "Old World" and "New World"-(which are directly related to "The Age of Discovery"), they are, in actuality, describing.......a little of both.

In this hyper-sensitive politically correct age, language and phraseology have been under constant revisionism whereby the very word, "discovery"-(at least when taught in a collegiate or post-secondary setting), is under assault and is in turn, subject to a radical redefinition. Somehow, the (seemingly innocuous) word, "Discovery", is deemed to be so offensive, that it is disappearing from the post-secondary historical narrative. Yet, if one puts aside his or her ideologically righteous agenda and reexamines the nuanced historical connotation of "Discovery", then one will find that the true meaning of "Discovery" can describe both the Explorer and the explored, as well as the newcomer and the indigenous inhabitants.


I think we sometimes forget the importance of context when we think about how we teach. Clearly Columbus discovered a new world and that world simultaneously discovered Columbus and the world he brought with him. But the context of discovery over the ages since that time has neglected to focus on the impacts of discovery equally. Western educators clearly teach that Columbus discovery of the the new world was more important than the indigenous people's discovery of him. In fact we base our whole western curricula around the fact that expansion, conquest and personal and national glory outweigh the traditional cultures and traditions that were "discovered". It's not politically correct to point this out - in fact it's what historians are supposed to do. The western Enlightenment philosophers that would follow this time period up with their "discoveries" of natural rights would agree that to be Enlightened is to escape the trapping of old ways of thinking and embrace more accurate and truthful explanations.

With that being said, wouldn't the term "exchange" be a better term to use when teaching this time period? What is important about Columbus and the time period that followed is that it ushered in an age of unprecedented exchange that would create the world in which we now live, think and grow. But this exchange also caused us to neglect history that is relative to issues and problems we face today. Discovery denotes something positive usually but exchange when studied properly causes us to think about what was gained and what was lost. There are certainly aspects of history that have been lost to us, that if "rediscovered" might help us better frame our world and the problems we face moving forward. The new history being uncovered in South America surrounding the Mayans is just one example. If we could help students understand this, then they might be able to counter traditional narratives that glorify the conquest and manifest destiny mindsets that so many students of history, like our current President, fall victim. Crosby's analysis of this exchange provides a framework for looking anew at the history that occured not too long ago and might help all of us frame new and insightful historical conversations.

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