Columbus, Christopher 1451–1506 Italian Explorer
Explorer Christopher Columbus set world history on a new course with a series of voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. Pioneering what he hoped would be a new sea route to Asia, Columbus instead reached some islands in the Caribbean Sea. His discovery led in due course to the European exploration, exploitation*, and settlement of the Americas.
Westward to the East. Born in the Italian republic of Genoa, Columbus had little schooling and went to sea at an early age. He did, however, read widely as an adult. In the mid-1470s Columbus joined a colony of Italian merchants living in Lisbon, then the center of Portuguese seafaring in the Atlantic. Sailing on Portuguese vessels, he traveled north to England and Ireland, south along the African coast, and west to the Canary Islands. These voyages taught him much about Atlantic winds and currents.
Columbus married a Portuguese noblewoman, with whom he had a son named Diego. The marriage improved Columbus's connections to the Portuguese court, where he hoped to find backing for an ambitious project—a voyage to Asia.
For centuries the spices, silks, and other goods from Asia had been prized in Europe. In the 1400s, however, European merchants found it almost impossible to travel overland to Asia. They could buy Asian goods from Muslim dealers in Mediterranean ports, but they sought a sea route that would allow them to buy these products directly at their source. In the 1480s the Portuguese were trying to find a passage to Asia around the southern tip of Africa. Columbus had a different idea. He became convinced that he could reach Asia, the easternmost part of the known world, by sailing west from Europe.
Columbus probably based his idea on several sources—rumors of islands in the distant Atlantic and his reading of works on geography, such as those by the ancient scholar Ptolemy. In addition, he knew that objects often drifted in from the western ocean, suggesting lands beyond the horizon. Like other well-read Europeans of his time, Columbus understood that the world was round. He reasoned that by sailing westward he would reach the other side of the world. But he underestimated the size of the earth. He believed that Japan lay only 2,400 sailing miles from the Canary Islands, when in fact it was 10,600 miles away. Neither Columbus nor anyone else in Europe suspected that two large continents stood in the way of a westward passage to Asia.
Unable to interest the Portuguese court in financing his voyage, Columbus went to Spain around 1485. The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile eventually agreed to sponsor him, in the hopes that a sea route would lead to trade with Asia and great riches. They promised Columbus titles, nobility, and the right to govern any lands he might discover.
The Voyages. In September of 1492 Columbus left the Canary Islands with three ships, sailing west into unknown waters. About five weeks later they reached an island that Columbus called San Salvador. This was probably the island in the Bahamas once known as Watlings and now called San Salvador. Here the explorer made an error with lasting consequences. Convinced that he had arrived in the Indies, as Europeans referred to southeastern Asia, he called the local people "Indians." After visiting several other islands, Columbus took seven Indians back to Spain with him as proof that he had reached a distant land.
Upon reaching Spain in March of 1493, Columbus assured Ferdinand and Isabella that the rich Asian mainland lay close to the islands he had discovered. Soon he left on a second, larger voyage, this time planting a colony on the island of Hispaniola. If the native people yielded peacefully to Spanish authority, they would be protected. However, those who resisted could be enslaved according to European law. Because many Indians fought with the Spanish, Columbus felt justified in conquering and enslaving them. He then set sail for Cuba, leaving Hispaniola under the control of his brother Diego. During his absence, the colony fell into chaos. An investigator sent by the Spanish crown found that Indians and settlers alike had died in great numbers.
Meanwhile, Columbus explored the coast of Cuba, thinking it was part of the Asian mainland. To avoid disappointing his royal backers, he made his crew sign a document saying that they had reached Asia. However, they had failed to locate any known Asian cities. By the time Columbus returned to Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had given up hope of any short-term profits from his ventures. Nonetheless, they let him make a third voyage.
In 1498 Columbus explored the coast of Venezuela, which he thought might be near the Garden of Eden described in the Bible. Further problems with the administration of Hispaniola, however, caused a royal investigator to send Columbus back to Spain in chains. Ferdinand and Isabella freed the explorer but stripped him of his right to govern the colony. In 1501 the Spanish crown began organizing a new system to govern its American colonies.
The following year Columbus set out on his fourth and final voyage, which he spent mostly exploring the coast of Central America. He returned to Spain in 1504, never again to visit the lands that other Europeans would call the New World. Unable to regain his titles and land grants, Columbus died wealthy but disappointed in Valladolid, Spain.
Myths and Realities. Although one of history's most famous figures, Columbus is the subject of many myths and misunderstandings. Some have portrayed Columbus as a hero who fought to convince others that the world was round, struggled against traditional religious views, and in the end died poor and alone. None of this is true. More recently, some historians have painted Columbus as a villain who set in motion the European destruction of the nature and cultures of the Americas.
In reality, Columbus was neither a hero nor a monster. He was, above all, a man of his time, shaped by the religious beliefs, customs, and laws of his age. He sought to enslave the native people of the Caribbean, especially those who practiced cannibalism, partly because slavery would allow them to be converted to Christianity. Far from being an example of the new scientific thinking of the Renaissance, Columbus followed well-established patterns of the time in his obsession with Asia and his devotion to Christianity.
Christopher Columbus was a complex person who embodied both the virtues and the vices of his age. Although he failed to find a sea route to Asia, his voyages profoundly shaped the modern world, with its global networks of trade and its many connections between different societies.
- * exploitation
relationship in which one side benefits at the other's expense
Shipwrecked in the New World
Sea exploration was a perilous venture. Mariners risked drowning or being cast away on a distant shore. The largest ship on Christopher Columbus's first voyage, the Santa Maria, ran aground and wrecked, forcing Columbus to leave 39 men on Hispaniola. Returning a year later, he found that most had died fighting with the Indians. Columbus himself was shipwrecked on his fourth and final voyage when his last two ships became unseaworthy. He beached them on Jamaica, turned them into strongholds for himself and his crew, and spent a miserable year before he was rescued.