On the morning of Oct. 12, 1492, Christopher
Columbus stepped ashore on an island in the Americas. It was one of the
most important landings in history. At that time, Europeans knew nothing
of the vast Western Hemisphere. Columbus opened up a new world for
exploration and settlement.
Columbus' history-making voyage from Spain to America was unusual in two
ways. For one, Columbus was not the first white man to see America.
About 500 years earlier, small groups of Norsemen made brief visits to
the American coast. But their settlements were not permanent, and later
Europeans were unaware of their explorations. For centuries it was
believed that Columbus "discovered" America.
Furthermore, Columbus landed in America by accident. He was seeking a
western sea route from Europe to Asia. When he sighted America, he
believed that he had reached his goal. And to the day he died he still
believed that he had reached Asia. Although Columbus was mistaken, he
still ranks as a great discoverer. Only his magnificent seamanship and
powerful leadership could have made possible the long voyage over the
unknown ocean that medieval people called the "Sea of Darkness."
Life of Columbus
The father of Columbus was Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver. He had his
own business in the port city of Genoa, Italy. There Cristoforo was born
in the late summer or early autumn of 1451. (English-speaking peoples
have since changed the Italian form of his name to Christopher
Columbus.) The boy had little or no schooling. He and his younger
brother Bartholomew helped their father by carding raw wool.
Christopher grew up to be a tall, strongly built young man with red hair
and a ruddy complexion. He was quiet and deeply religious; and he was
quick to learn from experience. He worked for his father until he was
22. As other Genoese boys did, he doubtless went out with the sardine
fishing fleets, and he may have sailed along the coast or over to
Corsica on business for his father. Genoese traders often owned their
own coastal schooners, and Columbus' father may have had one of these.
He made at least one trip to the North African coast. On these longer
voyages he learned the elements of seamanship.
Portugal and a New Life
In 1476 Columbus sailed as a common seaman aboard a Genoese merchantman
bound for Lisbon, Portugal; England; and Flanders. Since many
Mediterranean nations were at war, the ship traveled in convoy. Off the
south coast of Portugal the convoy was attacked, and the ship went down.
He swam to shore and made his way to Lisbon. Genoese friends took him in
and later found him a berth on an Iceland-bound ship. On his return he
settled in Lisbon.
At this time Portugal was the world's greatest seafaring nation. A half
century before, Portugese mariners began making important voyages of
discovery under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator. Many
Genoese had prospered in Lisbon, and Columbus saw his chance to become a
sea captain under the Portuguese flag.
First, however, he had to educate himself. He learned to speak and read
Portuguese and Castilian (the official language of Spain) and mastered
Latin so he could read scholarly books on geography.
To earn his living he became a chart maker. He also made at least one
voyage as agent for a Genoese merchant in Lisbon. In 1479 he married
Dona Felipa Perestrello, whose father had been one of Prince Henry's
captains. They had one son, Diego. Felipa's high social rank enabled
Columbus to meet important officials. She gave him her father's
collection of charts and documents. From these Columbus gained more
knowledge of Portuguese discoveries and plans. In 1481 he entered the
service of King John II of Portugal and voyaged to the Gold Coast of
Lands to the West
The wealth of Asia had been trickling into Europe for more than 200
years, and Europeans were eager for more of it. Asian goods had to come
by a perilous overland route, which made them scarce and expensive.
Ships could carry them more cheaply and in greater quantity. To reach
India, China, Japan, and the East Indies, the Portuguese were already
probing for an eastern sea route around Africa. Another possibility was
a western sea route across the Atlantic and beyond. All educated men
knew that the world was spherical and that Asia lay west of Europe. The
question was, how far?
Columbus thought he knew the answer. However, his studies led him to
believe that the earth's circumference was much smaller than it is and
that the landmass of Asia extended much farther than it does. He drew
his calculations from scraps of evidence in such sources as the Bible,
the writings of Marco Polo, and Pierre d'Ailly's 'Imago Mundi' (Picture
of the World). He accepted the information that supported his belief and
rejected everything else.
Other men had made similar calculations, but none had figured so
optimistically. Supporting Columbus' views were a number of sailors'
"yarns" about lands sighted in the Atlantic Ocean. Floating debris from
beyond the Azores seemed to confirm their accounts. Columbus was
determined to prove that by sailing 3,000 miles west he would reach
Columbus Seeks a Backer
In 1484 Columbus applied for ships and men from King John II of
Portugal. The king's committee decided that his plan was unsound, and
the application was refused. Meanwhile, Columbus' wife had died. Taking
his son, Diego, he journeyed to Spain to seek backers. He left Diego in
the care of the Franciscan friars at the monastery of La Rabida.
In Spain Columbus made a number of influential friends who helped him
present his plan to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Although they
were then busy conducting a war against the Moors in Granada, they
appointed a commission to examine Columbus' proposal. The commission
postponed making a decision, and Columbus was left waiting. In Cordoba
Columbus took Beatriz Enriquez de Harana as his common-law wife. They
later had one son, Ferdinand (Fernando).
King John invited Columbus to return to Portugal. During the second
review of Columbus' expedition plan, Bartholomew Diaz returned from
discovering the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. This
meant that an eastern sea route to India was open; the Portuguese were
no longer interested in an unproved western route. Columbus returned to
Finally, after the fall of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish
sovereigns agreed to finance the expedition. They promised to make
Columbus admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy of all islands and
continents if he should succeed.
The harbor town of Palos had offended the Spanish rulers, and as a
penalty they ordered the town to furnish two ships for the expedition.
These were the Nina and the Pinta. A third ship, the Santa Maria, was
chartered. Columbus commanded this vessel himself and selected two Palos
captains to lead the other ships. The crews were recruited in Palos. The
Momentous First Voyage
At dawn on Aug. 3, 1492, the three ships hoisted anchor in the Palos
harbor and got under way. Only three days out of Palos, the Pinta lost
its rudder and the Nina's lateen rig proved unsuitable. Columbus had
planned to stop at the Canary Islands only long enough to load fresh
provisions and water, but he extended his stay to install a new rudder
on the Pinta and square rigging on the Nina. On September 9 the three
ships left the Canaries and spread their sails. Steady trade winds from
the northeast drove them on their course. With proper setting of sail
and rudder they were carried due west.
As they sailed westward, Columbus kept two records of progress. One was
the distance he thought they had actually traveled. The other was a much
shorter estimate that he showed the crew to quiet their fears at being
so far from home. The false record was nearer to the actual mileage than
the secret one. Columbus' mistakes were common to the times. His
navigation instruments were crude, and, like most captains, he had
little practice in their use.
For the most part the passage was smooth and the winds were steady. As
the days passed, however, the men could not see how they could sail home
against winds that had blown them steadily west. About midway in the
voyage the seamen noted that the compass varied to the west of true
north. They were familiar with the easterly variation in the
Mediterranean, but this change was new and fearful. A falling meteor and
the thick-growing plants of the Sargasso Sea increased their fears.
On October 8 and 9 the men were ready to rebel. Columbus had to agree to
turn back if land was not sighted within three days.
On October 11 the Pinta fished up a piece of bamboo, a pole, a board,
and a stick that seemed to have been shaped by tools. At 10 o'clock that
night Columbus himself thought he saw lights. At 2:00 A.M. on October
12, Rodrigo de Triana, a seaman aboard the Pinta, cried loudly the first
sight of the New World. The voyage from the Canaries had taken 33 days.
Landfall in the New World
The little Spanish fleet had sailed among the Bahaman Islands. Columbus
named the first land sighted San Salvador (probably now Watling Island).
Its Indian name was Guanahani. The ships' boats were put over the side
and Columbus, accompanied by officers and crewmen, landed. With them
they carried the royal banners of Ferdinand and Isabella. They were met
by a band of curious but peaceful natives. The Spaniards knelt on the
sand and gave thanks to God for the safe and successful voyage. Then,
while the natives watched, Columbus took possession of the island in the
name of the rulers of Spain. The crewmen, delighted with the discovery,
begged Columbus' forgiveness for their disobedience.
The natives were friendly and helpful. Columbus, believing San Salvador
to be an island of the Indies, called them Indians. At once the men
began trading with the Indians, offering hawks' bells and glass beads
for the Indians' ornaments.
Sailing on, Columbus stopped at islands he named Santa Maria de la
Concepcion (now Rum Cay), Fernandina (Long Island), and Isabela (Crooked
Island). He then sailed south to the north coast of Cuba. He named this
Everywhere he asked the Indians where gold could be found. On Dec. 6,
1492, he reached the north coast of Hispaniola. Previously he had found
small trinkets of gold, but here the natives told of a gold mine in the
interior of the island. Early Christmas morning the Santa Maria went
aground off Cap Haitien. Before it could be worked off, its bottom was
so badly torn that the ship had to be abandoned. From its timber
Columbus built a small fort, La Navidad. The sailors, excited by stories
of gold, begged to be left as colonists. Columbus selected 39 to stay.
Triumphant Return to Spain
On Jan. 16, 1493, the Nina and the Pinta began the return voyage. They
carried gold, bright-feathered, colored parrots, other strange animals
and plants, some Indian cloth and ornaments, and several Indians. A
stormy eastward passage separated the two ships and did much damage.
Columbus, on the Nina, put in at Lisbon for refitting. The Pinta made
port at the Spanish town of Bayona, to the north of Portugal. In Lisbon,
Columbus was welcomed by King John. With repairs completed, Columbus
sailed. At midday of March 15, 1493, the Nina dropped anchor in Palos
harbor. The Pinta made port later the same day.
The court was at Barcelona, and the Spanish king and queen welcomed
Columbus there. To the court Columbus took six of the Indians, the gold,
and some of the plants and animals. The sovereigns rose to greet
Columbus and seated him at their right. All honors and titles promised
him were confirmed. This was the height of Columbus' glory. The admiral
made three more trips to the New World: 1493 to 1496, 1498 to 1500, and
1502 to 1504. On the first return voyage he had 17 ships and about 1,200
men. At Hispaniola Columbus found La Navidad had been burned and the 39
seamen slain. A new colony was started. Columbus explored the coasts of
Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola. On the next voyage he first sighted
Trinidad. He also explored some of the northeastern shore of South
America and the Leeward Islands. Meanwhile, dissatisfied colonists had
returned to Spain and complained at court. A new governor was sent to
replace Columbus. He arrested Columbus and shipped him back in chains.
The monarchs released him and restored his titles.
On the final voyage Columbus tried vainly to find a passage to Asia. He
explored the east coast of Central America but lost two ships. The two
remaining ships, in poor condition, ran aground on Jamaica in June 1503.
Messengers sent by canoe to Hispaniola finally brought rescue ships in
The admiral returned to Spain broken in health and spirit. He was not
received at court. The king refused to restore his privileges and
honors. He was, however, far from poor. He had brought back gold, and he
shared in the gold mined in Hispaniola. He died in Valladolid, Spain, on
May 20, 1506.
In 1513 Columbus' remains were transferred to a monastery in Seville,
where his son Diego had been buried. Their bodies were taken to the
Cathedral of Santo Domingo at Hispaniola in 1542. In 1795 a box believed
to contain the bones of the father was taken to Havana, then removed to
Seville in 1899. In 1877, however, another casket bearing the admiral's
name had been found entombed in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo.