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The First Voyage of Christopher Columbus

Updated on December 6, 2016
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Chuck is a former Vietnam Era Air Navigator with degrees in History & Economics. Areas of intrest include aviation & military history.

Columbus and His Three Ships Sail for China

On August 3, 1492 Christopher Columbus along with the 88 members of his crew and their families attended Mass in the Church of St. George the Martyr in the Andalusian town of Palos de la Frontera on the southern coast of Spain.

Here they prayed for a safe voyage and received the sacrament of holy communion. Leaving the church they boarded their three ships the Niña, the Pinta and, Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, to begin their voyage to the East Indies.

Ships Stocked for a Venture into the Unknown

Columbus had previously sailed as far north as the British Isles and there is some scant information that he may even have once sailed to Iceland.

Since there was trade between England and Iceland and had been trade between Britain and Greenland until the late fourteenth century, he probably also heard stories of lands to the west of Greenland which he would have assumed to have been northeastern Asia.

Not knowing how long the voyage would last, the ships left Palos de la Frontera well stocked with food. Due to primitive storage conditions, food for the voyage consisted of dried legume vegetables (probably beans, lentils and/or peas), hardtack (sea biscuits), almonds, rice, salted sardines, raisins, salted dried cod fish (which probably came from the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland), salted beef and pork, garlic, honey, cheese, olive oil and molasses all of which could be expected to keep from spoiling so long as they were kept dry on the long voyage.

To drink, there was water and red wine. The first leg of the trip was across a known route from Spain to the Canary Islands which are located in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of the African nation of Morocco.

Statute of Christopher Columbus Looking Westward

Statute of Christophe Columbus atop theColumbus Monument in Barcelona, Spain
Statute of Christophe Columbus atop theColumbus Monument in Barcelona, Spain | Source

Emergency Stop in the Canary Islands

While the Canary Islands were visited by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in ancient times, their existence had been largely forgotten during the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.

Beginning in 1402 Spain began the conquest of these islands and, while it wasn't until the end of the 15th century that the conquest was completed, they were largely under Spanish control when Columbus began his voyage.

Arriving in the Spanish controlled area of the Canaries on September 6, 1492, Columbus and his crew were able to replenish their stock of fresh water and other supplies.

Leaving the Canary Islands, the three ship convoy of Columbus and his 88 men headed toward the unknown.

Columbus & Other Educated People Knew the Earth was Round

The idea that Columbus theorized that the world was round and was out to prove this theory is false.

This myth was probably started by Washington Irving in his 1828 book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus, like most of his contemporaries knew that the earth was round and this fact had been known since 240 B.C. when Eratosthenes, a Hellenistic Greek scholar living in Alexandria, Egypt not only argued convincingly that the earth was round, but also produced a rather close estimate of its circumference.

Further, there is some evidence that Columbus may have been on some trading voyages to northern Europe and had heard accounts of the Vikings earlier discovery of lands to the west. While Greenland was known by many merchants and sailors and, in the early 1400s, there was still some contact with Greenland the Viking settlements in North America were known only as stories in the Norse sagas. However, archeologists in recent years have discovered Lief Erickson's Vineland settlement in a site known as L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland

Further, recent archaeological evidence found at Port de Grave on the northeast coast of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland, has proved that for many years prior to the voyage of Columbus, fishermen from the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal had been making annual trips to the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland to catch cod, which they preserved with salt and drying before bringing it home to Europe for food.

It was thus generally accepted that the world was round and that one could find what was thought to be Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic.

Pre-Colombian European Settlements in Newfoundland, Canada

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A markerL'Anse aux Meadows. Newfoundland -
L'Anse aux Meadows, NL A0K, Canada
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L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland the location of Lief Erikson's Vineland Colony

B markerPort de Grave, Newfoundland -
Port de Grave, NL, Canada
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Port de Grave, Newfoundland where 14th and 15th Century Western European fishermen used as a base for fishing before Columbus "discovered" America.

Since Sailors Knew The World Was Round Why Were they Afraid?

So what was the great fear of the sailors that made them almost mutiny just prior to sighting land on October 12th?

The sailors' fear arose from the fact that they were sailing blindly into unknown waters with primitive navigation instruments and very little information to guide them.

Columbus was relying on Marco Polo's account of his travels in the Orient which was published almost 200 years earlier, along with some other stories and crude estimates of the distance from the west coast of Europe to the east coast of China.

Columbus didn't have a map to follow or even a good account from a person who had actually made the voyage he was undertaking. Legends and stories helped but this was like setting out on a journey relying on a historical novel as a guide.

Columbus plotted a course straight across the Atlantic from Europe to what he thought would be Asia. He had a compass and the the North Star to help him maintain a straight course as well as a method to calculate his speed and distance.

The sailors did not fear that they would fall off the edge of the earth. But, they did have a legitimate fear of getting lost and not finding land or feared that Columbus' estimate of the distance to China was wrong and that they would die at sea from lack of food and water. The distance calculations Columbus used were wrong as far as distance to China was concerned but fortunately the Americas were within range of his estimates and he and his crew didn't perish from hunger or thirst.

However, his estimates as to the distance between Europe and land to the west were not very accurate which meant that neither was his estimate of the date of his landfall. This added to the sailors' unease as they kept sailing west without sighting land as expected. Land was finally sighted and, on October 12, 1492 Columbus and his men first went ashore on one of the islands in the Bahamas.

Bronze Sculpture of Columbus and His Crew Landing on San Salvador Island in the New World

Bronze sculpture on Columbus Memorial in Barcelona, Spain that depicts Columbus and his crew landing on San Salvador Island in the Caribbean.
Bronze sculpture on Columbus Memorial in Barcelona, Spain that depicts Columbus and his crew landing on San Salvador Island in the Caribbean. | Source

After Their First Landing Columbus and His Ships Began Exploring in Failed Effort to Find the Chinese Mainland

Following their first landing, Columbus and his crew explored the islands of the Caribbean and, believing that they were in the islands of the East Indies, kept looking for the Chinese mainland.

On Christmas Eve 1492 the Santa Maria hit a sandbar near Cap Haïtien on the island of Hispaniola (the island which is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and had to be abandoned. Columbus and his crew were able to salvage parts of the ship and used the wood to build a fort on shore. In honor of Christmas, Columbus named the fort La Navidad.

Unable to fit all of his men on board the much smaller Niña (the captain of the Pinta, Martín Alonso Pinzón, had set off on his own without permission days earlier), Columbus left 40 men at La Navidad to await his return from Spain.

On January 2, 1493, Columbus left La Navidad and continued his exploration along the coast of the island of Hispaniola where, on about January 6th they encountered the Pinta.

On January 16, 1493 the Niña and Pinta set sail from Samana Bay on the northeast end of the island of Hispaniola for Spain. A storm in the Atlantic separated the two ships for a while and they were again separated in the vicinity of the Azores and that is when Pinzón commander of the Pinta tried to outrun the Niña and be the first to return to Spain with the news of their discovery.

Christopher Columbus Atop Columbus Monument in Columbus Circle in New York City

Columbus Monument in Columbus Circle outside of New York City's Central Park
Columbus Monument in Columbus Circle outside of New York City's Central Park | Source

Pinzón Day Rather than Columbus Day?

Columbus and the Niña made it to the island of Santa Maria in the Portuguese controlled Azores on February 15th where they were received with some hostility as Portugal and Spain were not on good terms at that time.

Continuing on, Columbus and the Niña arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on March 4th and from there sailed south to their home port.

At noon on March 15, 1493 the Niña docked in Palos de la Frontera where they were given a hero's welcome. A few hours later, on the same day, the Pinta entered the port and docked.

The Pinta's captain, Martín Alonso Pinzón, had been racing to arrive first with the news and claim the glory of the discovery. Had he arrived a few hours earlier, Pinzón might have been the one honored as the discoverer of the New World in which case we would be celebrating Pinzón Day rather than Columbus Day on October 12th.

Route of Columbus on First Voyage from Spain to the New World

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A markerPalos de la Frontera, Spain -
Palos de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain
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Port of Palos de la Frontera, Spain from which Columbus and his crew sailed for the New Word.

B markerCanary Islands -
Canary Islands, Spain
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Spain's Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean where Columbus and his crew restocked their supplies.

C markerSan Salvador, Bahama Islands -
San Salvador, The Bahamas
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San Salvador Island in the Bahamas - one of the islands that claims to be the spot where Columbus first landed.

© 2016 Chuck Nugent


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    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 3 months ago from Tucson, Arizona - Port de Grave appears to have been a summer fishing base for French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen who fished in the codfish rich Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland for a century or more before the voyages of Columbus and John Cabot in the 1490s. These countries on the west coast of Europe were Catholic and fish was a popular food given that the Catholic Church did not allow the eating of meat on Fridays. Fish was a substitute for meat for these people. These fishermen were probably another source of information that led Columbus be be certain that he would find land by sailing west - he just didn't realize that the land was not Asia.

      As to the Vikings, they had visited Newfoundland in the tenth and eleventh centuries and attempted to establish settlements there. Their focus was the establishment of a more permanent presence whose purpose was to harvest and export timber to their base in Greenland which due to climate cooling and over cutting of timber was leaving Greenland without a local supply of wood. The recently discovered Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is evidence of Viking settlement. However, the climate cooling (which led to a shorter sailing season and an increase in icebergs in the North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Greenland) and attacks by the natives living in Newfoundland at the time eventually caused the Vikings to abandon their efforts for colonize what is now Newfoundland.

      Thanks for you comment.

    • profile image 3 months ago from upstate, NY

      "recent archaeological evidence found at Port de Grave on the northeast coast of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland, has proved that for many years prior to the voyage of Columbus, fishermen from the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal had been making annual trips to the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland to catch cod"

      I thought this was a Viking settlement. but this is fascinating if true.

    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 7 months ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Nell Rose - thanks for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub. I also like the music of Vangelis.

    • profile image

      Nell Rose 8 months ago

      I love history and would have loved to have been back then when the world was being discovered! can you imagine? going out on the old ships and traveling for months at sea, only to discover a beautiful island or new country, fantastic! I have at least three old ships in my house, for some reason I collect them! LOL! have you ever listened to 1492 vangelis music? its awesome!

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