Christopher Columbus (born 1451-1506) was a famed Italian explorer, navigator, and colonist who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon. He also discovered the ‘New World’ of the Americas on an expedition sponsored by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492.
Who Was Christopher Columbus?
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator. In 1492, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain in the Santa Maria, with the Pinta and the Niña ships alongside, hoping to find a new route to India.
Between 1492 and 1504, he made a total of four voyages to the Caribbean and South America and has been credited – and blamed – for opening up the Americas to European colonization.
Columbus was born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa, part of what is now Italy. In his 20s he moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and later resettled in Spain, which remained his home base for the duration of his life.
Columbus first went to sea as a teenager, participating in several trading voyages in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. One such voyage, to the island of Khios, in modern-day Greece, brought him the closest he would ever come to Asia.
His first voyage into the Atlantic Ocean in 1476 nearly cost him his life as the commercial fleet he was sailing with was attacked by French privateers off the coast of Portugal. His ship was burned and Columbus had to swim to the Portuguese shore.
He made his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he eventually settled and married Felipa Perestrello. The couple had one son, Diego, around 1480. His wife died soon after, and Columbus moved to Spain. He had a second son, Fernando, who was born out of wedlock in 1488 with Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.
After participating in several other expeditions to Africa, Columbus gained knowledge of the Atlantic currents flowing east and west from the Canary Islands.
The Asian islands near China and India were fabled for their spices and gold, making them an attractive destination for Europeans – but Muslim domination of the trade routes through the Middle East made travel eastward difficult.
Columbus devised a route to sail west across the Atlantic to reach Asia, believing it would be quicker and safer. He estimated the earth to be a sphere and the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan to be about 2,300 miles.
Many of Columbus’ contemporary nautical experts disagreed. They adhered to the (now known to be accurate) second-century B.C. estimate of the Earth’s circumference at 25,000 miles, which made the actual distance between the Canary Islands and Japan about 12,200 statute miles.
Despite their disagreement with Columbus on matters of distance, they concurred that a westward voyage from Europe would be an uninterrupted water route.
Columbus proposed a three-ship voyage of discovery across the Atlantic first to the Portuguese king, then to Genoa and finally to Venice. He was rejected each time.
In 1486, he went to the Spanish monarchy of Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Their focus was on a war with the Muslims, and their nautical experts were skeptical, so they initially rejected Columbus.
The idea, however, must have intrigued the monarchs, for they kept Columbus on a retainer. Columbus continued to lobby the royal court, and soon the Spanish army captured the last Muslim stronghold in Granada in January of 1492. Shortly thereafter, the monarchs agreed to finance his expedition.
In late August of 1492, Columbus left Spain from the port of Palos de la Frontera.
He was sailing with three ships: Columbus in the larger Santa Maria (a type of ship known as a carrack), with the Pinta and the Niña (both Portuguese-style caravels) alongside.
When Did Columbus Discover America?
Columbus discovered America on October 12, 1492, after 36 days of sailing westward across the Atlantic. Columbus and several crewmen set foot on an island in the present-day Bahamas, claiming it for Spain.
There his crew encountered a timid but friendly group of natives who were open to trade with the sailors, exchanging glass beads, cotton balls, parrots and spears. The Europeans also noticed bits of gold the natives wore for adornment.
Columbus and his men continued their journey, visiting the islands of Cuba (which he thought was mainland China) and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which Columbus thought might be Japan) and meeting with the leaders of the native population.
During this time, the Santa Maria was wrecked on a reef off the coast of Hispaniola. With the help of some islanders, Columbus’ men salvaged what they could and built the settlement Villa de la Navidad (“Christmas Town”) with lumber from the ship.
Thirty-nine men stayed behind to occupy the settlement. Convinced his exploration had reached Asia, he set sail for home with the two remaining ships. Returning to Spain in 1493, Columbus gave a glowing, somewhat exaggerated report and was warmly received by the royal court.
In 1493, Columbus took to the seas on his second expedition and explored more islands in the Caribbean Ocean. Upon arrival at Hispaniola, Columbus and his crew discovered the Navidad settlement had been destroyed with all the sailors massacred.
Spurning the wishes of the local queen, who found slavery offensive, Columbus established a forced labor policy over the native population to rebuild the settlement and explore for gold, believing it would prove to be profitable. His efforts produced small amounts of gold and great hatred among the native population.
Before returning to Spain, Columbus left his brothers Bartholomew and Diego to govern the settlement on Hispaniola and sailed briefly around the larger Caribbean islands further convincing himself he had discovered the outer islands of China.
It wasn’t until his third voyage that Columbus actually reached the mainland, exploring the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela. Unfortunately, conditions at the Hispaniola settlement had deteriorated to the point of near-mutiny, with settlers claiming they had been misled by Columbus’ claims of riches and complaining about the poor management of his brothers.
The Spanish Crown sent a royal official who arrested Columbus and stripped him of his authority. He returned to Spain in chains to face the royal court. The charges were later dropped, but Columbus lost his titles as governor of the Indies and, for a time, much of the riches made during his voyages.
After convincing King Ferdinand that one more voyage would bring the abundant riches promised, Columbus went on what would be his last voyage in 1502, traveling along the eastern coast of Central America in an unsuccessful search for a route to the Indian Ocean.
A storm wrecked one of his ships, stranding the captain and his sailors on the island of Cuba. During this time, local islanders, tired of the Spaniards’ poor treatment and obsession with gold, refused to give them food.
In a spark of inspiration, Columbus consulted an almanac and devised a plan to “punish” the islanders by taking away the moon. On February 29, 1504, a lunar eclipse alarmed the natives enough to re-establish trade with the Spaniards. A rescue party finally arrived, sent by the royal governor of Hispaniola in July, and Columbus and his men were taken back to Spain in November of 1504.
In the two remaining years of his life following his last voyage to the Americas, Columbus struggled to recover his lost titles. Although he did regain some of his riches in May of 1505, his titles were never returned.
How did Columbus Die?
Columbus probably died of severe arthritis following an infection on May 20, 1506, still believing he had discovered a shorter route to Asia.
Columbian Exchange: A Complex Legacy
Columbus has been credited for opening up the Americas to European colonization – as well as blamed for the destruction of the native peoples of the islands he explored. Ultimately, he failed to find that what he set out for: a new route to Asia and the riches it promised.
In what is known as the Columbian Exchange, Columbus’ expeditions set in motion the widespread transfer of people, plants, animals, diseases and cultures that greatly affected nearly every society on the planet.
The horse from Europe allowed Native American tribes in the Great Plains of North America to shift from a nomadic to a hunting lifestyle. Wheat from the Old World fast became a main food source for people in the Americas. Coffee from Africa and sugar cane from Asia became major cash crops for Latin American countries. And foods from the Americas, such as potatoes, tomatoes and corn, became staples for Europeans and helped increase their populations.
The Columbian Exchange also brought new diseases to both hemispheres, though the effects were greatest in the Americas. Smallpox from the Old World decimated millions of the Native American population to mere fractions of their original numbers. This more than any other factor allowed for European domination of the Americas.
The overwhelming benefits of the Columbian Exchange went to the Europeans initially and eventually to the rest of the world. The Americas were forever altered and the once vibrant cultures of the Native American civilizations were changed and lost, denying the world any complete understanding of their existence.
Santa Maria Discovery Claim
In May 2014, Columbus made headlines as news broke that a team of archaeologists may have found the Santa Maria off the north coast of Haiti. Barry Clifford, the leader of this expedition, told the Independent newspaper that “all geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests this wreck is Columbus’ famous flagship the Santa Maria.”