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The Explorer Christopher Columbus and the Discovery of the Americas

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.

Painting “The Inspiration of Christopher Columbus” by Jose Obregon, 1856.

Painting “The Inspiration of Christopher Columbus” by Jose Obregon, 1856.

Who Discovered America?

The name Christopher Columbus has been associated with the discovery of America for the last five centuries. However, recent evidence has come to light that reveals he was not the first European to set foot in North America; rather, Viking explorers appeared during the tenth century. About A.D. 985 an Icelander named Erik the Red colonized the west coast of a cold and forbidding island he deceptively called Greenland. About a year later, a trader missed Greenland and sighted land further west, prompting Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, to sail west out from Greenland in about A.D. 1001. He landed in a place he called “Vinland,” which is now the Canadian providence of Newfoundland. Erikson and his fellow explorers attempted to settle in this new country, but their settlement only lasted a few years. According to legend, the natives were hostile and greatly outnumbered the Norsemen.

Up until the 1960s, the story of the Vikings’ first landing in North America was the stuff of legends. This all changed in 1960 when the Norwegian husband and wife team of Helge and Anne Ingstad discovered the remains of a Norse village. Over the next several years, the Ingstads and a team of international archeologists uncovered the foundations of eight separated buildings belonging to these early settlers, thus firmly establishing the presence of Vikings in North America over one thousand years ago. Additional evidence of Nordic relics and monuments have been discovered as far west as Oklahoma.

Full scale replica of a Viking longship that is similar to what Leif Erikson used to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Full scale replica of a Viking longship that is similar to what Leif Erikson used to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The Age of Discovery

It would be nearly four hundred years after the settlement of Vinland was abandoned before Europeans would once again visit this new world. The refinement of maritime navigation technology and the improvement of ships in the fifteenth century allowed adventurous sailors to travel great distances for trade and plunder. The rise of the age of discovery coincided with the growth of trade, towns, and modern corporations. Exploration was also spurred by the rise of nation states, ruled by kings and queens who had the authority and money to sponsor explorers in search of foreign riches. Along with the growth of centralized power came the development of a merchant class who needed uniform currencies, trade laws, and the elimination of trade barriers to facilitate trade with other nation states.

The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance of scientific inquiry were forces that were shaping the world. Learned men and women were beginning to throw off the old dogma of the church and ancient philosophers. They were starting to question the world through the eyes of rational inquiry. The printing press with movable type, invented by the German Johannes Guttenberg around 1440, further hastened the speed of change. This marvelous invention allowed books full of knowledge to be printed and distributed throughout much of the civilized world.

The age of discovery was especially influenced by the ancient knowledge of geography. The Pythagoreans, Greek philosophers from the sixth century B.C., had taught that the earth was round and had even calculated the diameter of the earth approximately correctly. An educated European from the fifteenth century was taught that the earth was spherical, though some still believed it was flat. Into this world where ideas and knowledge were changing rapidly was born a man who changed the face of the earth, Christopher Columbus. Though the memory of Columbus has been tarnished by his harsh treatment of native peoples, his story of discovery will be told for generations to come.

The world map, ca. 1489, by Heinrich Hammer. Note the large size of Asia and the lack of North and South America.

The world map, ca. 1489, by Heinrich Hammer. Note the large size of Asia and the lack of North and South America.

The Early Life of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus was born sometime between August 25 and the end of October 1451 in the coastal city of Genoa, Italy. He was born into a working-class family, his father, Domenico Colombo, was a wool weaver who also owned a cheese stand where his young sons sometimes worked as helpers. Christopher was the eldest of five children. Two of his brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, would later be involved in his voyages of discovery. As a young man, Christopher worked with his father and learned the trade of wool weaving. Like most commoners of the day, he received little if any formal education. On his own he learned Latin, which allowed him to pursue his thirst for knowledge about the ocean and distant lands. He later learned to speak Spanish and Portuguese through living and traveling in Spain and Portugal.

Columbus felt the call of the sea at an early age. Genoa was a leading port city for trading and a center for sailors and map makers for all of Europe. Living near the ocean, he would take short trips along the coast during time off from his father’s shop. In May 1476, Columbus sailed--probably as a deck hand--in a Genoese armed convoy bound for the coast of England. Off the coast of Portugal near Cape St. Vincent, the fleet was attacked by French privateers. During the intense battle, Columbus’s ship sank, and he was wounded. He was forced to swim six miles to the Portuguese shore. Washing up on shore, penniless, he made his way to Lisbon where he found some of his fellow Genoese countrymen and recovered from his wounds.

He went back to sea again in the winter of 1476 to 1477, sailing to Galway in Ireland and then to Iceland. Before returning to Lisbon, he sailed north toward Jan Mayen Island. In the summer of 1478, he sailed to Madeira as a purchasing agent for the Genoese firm of Negro and Centurione. During these years, Columbus became an excellent seaman, learning much about the patterns of the wind, sea, and navigation. By the 1480s, Columbus was a tall, white haired, pious man who had become an experienced mariner, mastering the art and science of navigation at sea. Years later, his son Ferdinand wrote a description of his father: “The Admiral was a well-built man of more than average stature, the face long, the cheeks somewhat high, his body neither fat nor lean. He had an aquiline nose and light-colored eyes; his complexion too was light and tending to bright red. In youth his hair was blond, but when he reached the age of thirty, it all turned white.”

Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1519. No known authentic portrait of Columbus exists.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1519. No known authentic portrait of Columbus exists.

Enterprise of the Indies

During a trip to the Portuguese trading post of São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast of Africa, Columbus began to speculate on the possibility of sailing westward to reach Asia. His son Ferdinand later wrote of his father’s dream, “that if the Portuguese could sail so far south, it should be possible to sail as far westward, and that it was logical to expect to find land in that direction.” As he read more of the ancient texts, Columbus became more convinced that his idea of reaching the Orient by sailing west was possible.

His idea of sailing west to reach China and Japan had real commercial value as European demand was strong for Eastern teas and spices, and the only available route for obtaining these goods was a lengthy and dangerous land journey by caravan. The idea was not novel to Columbus, but he worked diligently to realize his dream. His “Enterprise of the Indies,” as it came to be known, made financial sense if only a sea path could be found to the riches of Asia. To the very religious Columbus, who planned on converting many to Christianity, it was a plan truly ordained by God.

To pursue his dream he needed ships, a crew, and the money. Since he was living in Portugal at the time it made sense to approach King John II of Portugal, which he did in 1484. The king submitted his plan to a maritime committee, and it was rejected on technical grounds. The committee asserted Columbus had underestimated by a large degree the ocean distance to Asia. Columbus based much of his view of world geography on a book called Imago Mundi, or Image of the World, by a Frenchman named Pierre d’Ailly. According to d’Ailly, the Atlantic Ocean, or the Ocean Sea as it was called then, could be crossed in a matter of a few days with the aid of favorable winds. The Portuguese authorities thought his estimate of the distance to Asia was much too small and that the voyage would not be possible.

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King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain Sponsor the Voyage to the New World

Columbus would not take no for an answer and traveled to Spain with his young son Diego, where he wanted to present his plan to Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella. Through a well-connected friend, Columbus was able to secure an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. After listening to Columbus’s plan for exploration, the sovereigns submitted his project to a commission headed by the Queen’s confessor, Hernando de Talavera, for further investigation.

While waiting for the decision of the committee, Columbus and Diego lived in Córdoba, Spain. After the death of his first wife, he became involved with a young woman, Betriz Enŕiquez de Harana, who bore a son they named Ferdinand. Ferdinand would turn out to be a scholarly young man and go on to write a biography of his father that has become an invaluable source of information on the life of Columbus.

The main concern of the Talarera commission was how far Asia was from Europe if one sailed west. The commission came back with an unfavorable ruling against Columbus for the same reason he had been rejected before--the distance to Asia was just too far for the small ships. To keep their options open, the king and queen kept him on the royal payroll while waiting for a more opportune time for his voyage. Columbus’s window of opportunity came in January 1492 when, after nearly eight centuries, religious warfare between Spanish Christians and Moorish Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula came to an end. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella won a decisive victory in a battle at the southern Spanish city of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold. Muslims were given a grave ultimatum: either be baptized into the Christian faith or be exiled.

Once again Columbus was granted an audience with the queen, who turned him down on the advice of her advisors. The discouraged explorer left for France to seek sponsorship. The royal advisors to Ferdinand and Isabella convinced them that if by some remote chance Columbus did succeed, then Spain would miss out on the discovery of the new lands and their potential riches. The advisor’s recommendation was to let the explorer risk his own life in quest of “the grandeurs and secrets of the Universe” for the glory of Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella decided to take a chance on Columbus and dispatched a messenger, who found him on the road and brought him back to the royal court. The king and queen agreed to his terms, giving him the hereditary title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy, and Governor” and the rights to a tenth of the riches that came about from his voyage.

Painting “Columbus Before the Queen” by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze 1843.

Painting “Columbus Before the Queen” by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze 1843.

Preparations for the Voyage of Discovery

The Spanish court provided two ships for the expedition while Columbus raised the funds for a third. The small caravel, the Niña, was commanded by Vicente Pinzón, and a similar ship, the Pinta, was commanded by Vicente’s brother, Martín Pinzón. The third and larger ship was the Santa María, which was captained by Columbus. The two smaller ships or caravels, the Niña and Pinta, were the type used by Portuguese traders that worked along the coast of Europe and Africa. The exact specifications of the ships are not known, but they were believed to be about 60 tons in weight. The small ships had three sails, could sail in shallow water, and had a crew of about twenty. The flagship of the fleet was the larger Santa Maria. It was a merchant class ship of between 400 and 600 tons and about 75 feet long. This larger ship could carry more men and cargo than the smaller caravels.

The crews for the three ships totaled ninety able seamen recruited from the seafaring community in local towns and villages. They stocked the ships with salted cod, bacon, biscuits, wine, olive oil, and enough water for a year. To navigate his ships, Columbus and the two Pinzón brothers employed the technology of the day: hourglasses to measure time, a compass for direction, and an astrolabe used to calculate latitude. To determine the distance traveled each day, they estimated their velocity through the water and multiplied by the time under sail, a technique known as dead reckoning.

The fleet of Columbus’s three ships.

The fleet of Columbus’s three ships.

Setting Sail for the New World

The three ships bound for points unknown set sail on the morning of August 3, 1492, from the small Spanish port city Palos. The ships sailed first to the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, to take advantage of their southerly latitude, which Columbus believed was the same as Japan. Also, the easterly trade winds prevailed in the latitude, which would carry them to the west. On September 6, after taking on fresh supplies and making a few repairs in the Canaries, the fleet weighed anchor. The Tradewinds pushed them steadily westward through calm seas. By the end of September, the crews began to grow restless, “scaring themselves with…the idea that since the wind was always at their backs, they would never have a wind in those waters for returning to Spain.” Columbus calmed his crew, and the fleet of three ships continued to sail westerly with no land in sight.

Sailors of that period normally sailed not far from a known coastline and were unaccustomed to sailing for weeks in the open ocean with no reliable maps to guide them. The Ocean Sea was a forbidding place, believed to be full of monsters lurking beneath the waves. At any moment, a giant sea serpent could rise from the deep and crush a small ship with a single blow. Those who still believed the earth was flat feared they might fall off the edge of the world and plunge into the fiery abyss of the setting sun. This world of wind, wave, and unknown perils was no place for the timid; rather, it was a realm that only the very brave or foolhardy dared to venture. To add an element of apprehension for the crew, Columbus was an Italian--a foreigner--not to be trusted by the hardened Spanish sailors under his command.

As the days passed, signs of land started to appear–birds and pieces of wood in the sea–and became more frequent, which did much to calm the fears of the crew and prevent a mutiny. Columbus feared that if land were not found soon, his crew would simply throw him overboard and return to Spain. To encourage the men, on October 10, Columbus promised a fine silk coat to the first sailor who spotted land; however, this did little to calm the anxious sailors. The next day a flock of birds was spotted flying southwest–a sign that land was near. Columbus ordered the ships to follow the birds. The next night, the moon rose in the east around midnight, lighting the night sky. Two hours later one of the sailors on watch spotted a strip of beach in the distance. Excitedly he shouted, “land, land,” and fired a cannon to mark the momentous event.

Replica of Columbus’s ship the Niña built in 1991.

Replica of Columbus’s ship the Niña built in 1991.

Stepping Onto a New World

As the light of day filled the morning sky of October 12, the fleet of three ships dropped anchor in the calm emerald blue water and went ashore to be greeted by a party of partially naked natives. The island was called Guanahani by the natives, which is believed to be Watling Island in the Bahamas today. Columbus assumed he had landed on one of the islands discovered by Marco Polo on his exploration of Asia, which he named San Salvador or “Holy Savior.” Since Columbus believed he had landed in Asia, he called the local inhabitants “Indians.” The Indians were of the Tainos tribe and generally friendly to Columbus and his men. “They love their neighbors as themselves,” wrote Columbus, “and their speech is the sweetest and gentlest in the world, and they always speak with a smile.” To guide the fleet to Japan and China, Columbus had six of the natives kidnapped.

Figure 8 – Painting “Landing of Columbus” by John Vanderlyn, 1847. Columbus raises the royal banner, claiming the land for his Spanish patrons, standing with his hat at his feet, in honor of the sacredness of the event. The crew displays various emotions with some searching for gold on the beach. The natives of the island watch from behind a tree.

Cuba and the Discovery of Tobacco

Columbus believed they were near Japan and China and continued his search of the nearby islands looking for gold and the riches of the Orient. The fleet sailed the southern coast of what is today Cuba. Thinking it was the coast of China he sent emissaries to visit the Great Khan or emperor of China. The shore party failed to find the Great Khan but they did discover “many people who carried a firebrand to light certain herbs the smoke of which they inhale.” The Europeans had just had their first encounter with tobacco.

From Cuba the fleet crossed the Windward Passage and sailed along the north coast of the island of Hispaniola, which is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There, in the middle of the night of Christmas Day, the Santa Maria ran aground. The ship was torn apart by the constant crashing of the waves against the hull driving it into the rocky shore. Columbus was forced to abandon the ship and with the help of the local natives was able to build a camp. Since the fleet was now short their largest ship, Columbus was forced to leave 39 of the men behind to live off the land until a return voyage could be arranged. With the warm climate, friendly native women, and their thirst for gold, he had no trouble finding men willing to stay behind.

Map of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1493.

Map of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1493.

A Triumphant Return to Spain

During their journey back to Spain, the sailors encountered a fierce storm that nearly sunk their small ships. At the Azores they narrowly escaped the Portuguese governor, who believed Columbus had been sailing in water forbidden to Spanish ships. As they were approaching the coast of Spain, they were blown off course by a terrible storm and drove the Niña into port at Lisbon. The Portuguese King John II greeted Columbus and was upset that he had not funded the successful expedition. The king thought about arresting Columbus and claiming his prizes but instead released him to return to Palos. On March 14, 1493, the Niña arrived in the port of Palos, with the Pinta arriving later that same day. Columbus, his men, and several captive Indians were received with much fanfare by the Spanish Court. In Barcelona Columbus met with the Spanish king and queen to receive the well-deserved praise and their highest honors. This was truly the hour of Columbus’s crowning glory. Soon plans were made for a second trip to the New World to retrieve his men and seek further conquest.

The first journey to the New World was a voyage of discovery; the next two were voyages of conquest and colonization. This is where the image of Columbus takes a dark turn. Christopher Columbus would turn out to be a much better explorer than governor of a new continent.

The Second Voyage

The excitement brought about by the success of the first voyage allowed Columbus to assemble a large fleet of seventeen ships. On board were 1,500 men destined to colonize the new and abundant land to the west. The ships were laden with seeds, plants, tools, livestock, and many other items needed for colonization. The fleet left Spain in early September and reached the island of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles on November 3, 1493. The ships meandered through the island chain, reaching Hispaniola in the middle of November. Columbus was saddened to learn that the men he had left behind had been killed and their fort destroyed. Taking his fleet westward he founded the town of Isabella. Columbus left his brother Diego in charge of the island then sailed with three ships “to explore the mainland of the Indies.”

Still believing Cuba was a part of Asia, he sailed down the southern coast hoping to reach Japan. During this voyage he did discover the island of Jamaica but found no sign of the Great Khan. In June 1494 he sailed back to Hispaniola to find the island in revolt. His brother Diego had proven to be a incompotent governor and was unable to control the Spanish settlers, who fought amongst themselves and abused the natives. Rather than punish the misbehavior of the colonists, Columbus had many of the Indians gathered up and sent them back to Spain to be sold as slaves. He sailed for Spain in March 1496 to defend himself in court against charges form the colonists of his mis-governance and the cruelty of his brothers. He was received by the sovereigns pleasantly but with none of the fanfare of the first voyage. It was becoming clear to all but Columbus that the Indies were not a land of great wealth there for the taking.

Map of the third voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1498-1500.

Map of the third voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1498-1500.

The Third Voyage

Word had spread among the Spaniards about the harsh living conditions in the new land, making it hard for Columbus to recruit colonists for the third voyage. To provide colonists, the sovereigns pardoned certain criminals who agreed to stay in the Indies for one to two years. With six ships, Columbus left Spain late May 1498. The fleet took a southerly route in the belief that gold and precious stones could be found in the “hot” zone. The fleet reached the island of Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela, on July 31. He sailed through the channel he named the Serpent’s Mouth and crossed the Gulf of Paria to the coast of Venezuela. On August 5, 1498, Columbus and his men went ashore, which was the first recorded landing by Europeans on the American continent. In the bay of Paria, Columbus and his men observed large quantiles of fresh water pouring from the delta of the Orinoco River. This large a volume of fresh water could not be produced by a mere island; rather, it indicated a large land mass. On August 5, Columbus recorded in his journal: “I believe that this is a very great continent, until today unknown.” In his mind this was no ordinary place but rather the Biblical Garden of Eden.

Once again Columbus sailed for Hispaniola and found the island in disarray. The man Columbus had left in charge was not able to quiet the discontented elements. The sovereigns were not happy with the governance of the island under Columbus’s authority, so they sent a new governor, Francisco de Bobadilla, to take charge. The new governor and Columbus clashed, and Bobadilla put Columbus and his brothers in chains and sent them back to Spain. Once in Spain, Columbus and his brothers were graciously received by the king and queen, freeing the men. A new governor, Nicholás de Orando, was sent to Hispaniola to replace Bobadilla.

The Final Voyage

The king and queen allowed Columbus another voyage to the Indies with the object of finding an ocean passage to the Indian Ocean, which he believed lay between Cuba and the new continent he had discovered in 1498. The fleet of four caravels set sail in early April 1502, reaching Martinique twenty-one days later. Columbus had been prohibited to land at Hispaniola by the sovereigns; however, he had to defy their orders so he could replace a leaking ship. His ships were infested with seaworms that bored into the wooden hull and over time caused leaks that would ultimately sink a ship. After surviving a terrible hurricane, his fleet sailed west along the shore of Jamaica, next crossing the Caribbean to the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. Not able to find the strait to the Indian Ocean, he traveled down the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

Giving up hope on finding a water passage to the Indian Ocean, he now focused his attention on the search for gold. They did find gold in what is modern day Panama, prompting him to build a settlement there where Columbus left his brother Bartolomeu in charge. At first the native Indians were friendly but once they realized the Spaniards were building a permanent colony, they became hostile. After attacks by the Indians, Columbus was forced to abandon the settlement, taking the survivors to Hispaniola.

The problem of the seaworms destroying his ships was becoming acute and Columbus was forced to abandon one of his ships. Before they could return to Hispaniola, another ship had to be abandoned. With two ships remaining, both of which had water almost up to their decks, the rotten ships were run aground on the north coast of Jamaica. Being marooned on the island of Jamaica, Columbus sent two men in a dug-out canoe with natives as the rowing crew to bring help from the colony at Hispaniola. The men reached Hispaniola safely, but the governor, Ovando, was hostile toward Columbus and was reluctant to send help. A year later, in 1504, a rescue ship was sent to Jamaica to retrieve Columbus and his men.

Columbus returned to Spain in November 1504 as a man broken in body, mind, and spirit. When he reached the royal court, he learned that Queen Isabella was dying. Though the king received him, the shrewd monarch had no intention of granting the explorer the enormous political and economic rights he claimed were due him. Columbus passed the last year of his life in relative obscurity seeking from the royal court the privileges and wealth he had been promised.

The hard life at sea started to take its toll on his body by the winter of 1504-1505. By 1505 he spent many days in bed suffering from a debilitating and painful arthritis. On May 20, 1506, his condition worsened, and a priest was called to his bed to administer last rites. At his death bed were his two sons, Don Diego and Ferdinand; some of the loyal men who had been with him at sea; and a few faithful domestics. After the priest’s final prayer, the dying admiral was heard to say in a faint voice the final words of his Lord and Savior as he was dying on the cross, in manus tuas, Domine, commendo, spiritum meum, or “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And with this, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, discoverer of worlds, passed into immortality.

His hereditary titles of admiral and viceroy were given to his son Diego, who was in favor at the royal court. Three years later, Diego succeeded Ovando as governor of Hispaniola. The younger son, Fernando, inherited his father’s library and wrote an important biography of his father.

Map of the fourth and final voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1502-1504.

Map of the fourth and final voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1502-1504.

Legacy of Columbus and Spanish Colonization

The discovery of the Americas by Columbus opened the way for exploration and colonization by Europeans of two continents. To accomplish his voyages of exploration he discovered the best way to make use of the North Atlantic wind system for transatlantic sailing. The admiral’s characteristically obstinate nature and his feeling of divine guidance led him to achieve much in the face of much adversity.

The Spanish rapidly began to colonize the New World, establishing colonies in Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the other smaller islands. To work the gold mines and ranches, the natives were put to work. Those who resisted were either killed, sometimes very brutally, or shipped back to Spain as slaves. A Catholic missionary denounced the treatment of the natives, writing, “I have seen the greatest cruelty and inhumanity practiced on these gentle and peace-loving [native peoples]…without any reason except for insatiable greed, thirst, and hunger for gold.”

With the European colonization of the New World came diseases such as smallpox, measles, and other deadly diseases to which the natives had no natural immunity. As a result, the native population began a dramatic decline. The once plentiful Tainos Indians who had greeted Columbus as he set foot in the New World ceased to exist as a distinct race of people within fifty years. With the native population in decline, black slaves from Africa were imported to work the ranches and sugar cane fields. A year after the death of Columbus, the first map showing these newly discovered lands across the Ocean Sea appeared. The New World was named “America” after the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who had mapped the coastline of South America and realized that the New World was a distinct continent and not Asia. Though Christopher Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the New World, his voyages were significant in that they opened the door for further exploration and colonization – for good or ill.

The Cantino World Map of 1502, the earliest surviving map of Portuguese and Columbus’s discoveries. The West Indies and the coast of Brazil on the left of the map.

The Cantino World Map of 1502, the earliest surviving map of Portuguese and Columbus’s discoveries. The West Indies and the coast of Brazil on the left of the map.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West

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