Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 to a middle-class family. Columbus’ father was a weaver in the busy city of Genoa, Italy. Columbus would help his hardworking father weave cloths to be delivered to people in northern Italy. Since the roads in northern Italy were bad, Columbus and his father would usually go by boat. Columbus really loved this. By the time he was in his twenties, he had already made voyages by sea to North Africa, Greece and Portugal. He could sail by himself by then, but he could not become the master mariner he wanted to be. This was because he could not read or write, and therefore, he could not read a map and navigate a ship. Not being able to read or write was common in Columbus’ day.
Columbus lived in a period known as the Renaissance. This was a period that followed the Dark Ages, and was marked by renewed interest in art, culture and exploration. Countries such as Spain and Portugal wanted to expand their empires and spread Christianity to new lands. This was the perfect period for Columbus to explore new lands.
In 1476, Columbus was sailing to northern Europe to trade. While on his way, he met up with an enemy warship along the coast of Portugal. A battle ensued, and Columbus’ ship was destroyed. Although he was slightly wounded, Columbus drifted on a piece of floating timber to get to Portugal, which was six miles away. The kind people of Portugal led Columbus to Lisbon, where his brother, Bartholomew, worked as a chart maker.
This changed Columbus’ life, because this gave him the chance to complete his education in Portugal. At this time, Portugal was a great seafaring country. Columbus learned Latin, Spanish, mathematics and navigation. Columbus was especially fascinated by Marco Polo’s journeys, and dreamed of someday becoming a great captain and leading voyages of discovery.
In the 1400’s, most people knew that the earth was round, but they thought only Europe, Asia and Africa existed. Asia was called the “Indies”. The idea of being able to reach Asia by boat got many people very excited. Nobody knew where Africa ended, but they thought that if they could sail around Africa and then head east, they could reach Asia. They were sure that amazing treasures could be found in Asia.
By 1478, Columbus was the "master mariner" he set out to be. He could now steer and navigate a ship. He was married by then, and had a young son named Diego. He and his family lived in the Madeira Islands. As time passed, Columbus became increasingly sure that the quickest way to Asia was east, not west, across the "Sea of Darkness" as it was called back then. Columbus thought that from the Canary Islands in Africa, Japan was only 2400 nautical miles. This was in fact a big error, for Japan was actually 10 000 nautical miles away from the Canary Islands, but Columbus was convinced that he was correct. He was not the only one who thought this, an Italian astronomer, Toscanelli agreed with him. Toscanelli helped Columbus calculate his course. This plan was called "Empresa de las Indias", which means Enterprise of the Indies. In 1484, Columbus asked King John of Portugal if he would supply ships, money and men for the voyage. King John refused to help Columbus.
Now, there was no reason for Columbus to stay in Portugal. His wife had died, and his brother had gone to seek help in England and France to get the supplies & crew they needed for the voyage. So, Columbus went to Spain with his son Diego, and put him in the La Rábida monastery, where the monks ran a boarding school. Columbus met with one of the important monks who had an influence in the Spanish court. The monk arranged for Columbus to meet with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The Queen was impressed with Columbus' plans, but the king did not want to act quickly, as they were involved in an expensive war with the Moors. The king decided to leave the matter up to his advisors. The king's advisors, after many years, decided not to invest in the expedition.
Columbus had no choice but to join his brother in France. Just before he left, the Queen thought of the glory and wealth that would be brought to Spain if the voyage succeeded. She allowed him to get money for the voyage, but Columbus wanted more. He demanded that he get the title of admiral, that he got ships and men, and that he got to be the governor or ruler of any lands he discovered. He also wanted profit from any trades made with the new lands he discovered. The Queen called him a disgraceful fool and dismissed him from the court. Columbus then prepared to leave again. At the last minute, the Queen called him back and agreed to all of his demands. Columbus prepared for his voyage from Palos. He made friends with a boat making family named Pinzón. Two Pinzóns commanded two of the three ships in the fleet. The third ship (the flagship) was commanded by Columbus himself and was called the Santa Maria. The other two ships were provided by the Pinzóns and were called Pinta and Nina. There were ninety men in the crew, and they were all good sailors and all were from Palos or nearby. On August 3, 1492, Columbus boarded the Santa Maria and the fleet proceeded to the Canary Islands in Africa. From there, they would proceed to the Indies.
After a short stay in the Canary Islands, the fleet headed west. After 8 weeks, most of the sailors knew they had gone more than the 2400 miles that Columbus had predicted. The sailors started to grumble and fight amongst themselves.
One day, they saw birds and clouds on the horizon, and branches floating beside the ships. These were signs that finally, land was near. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew saw cliffs on a small island. They did not know if this was the Indies or just a small island in the middle of the Sea of Darkness. As soon as they got onto the island, Columbus named it San Salvador, and placed Spain's royal banner into the ground. Columbus thought he was on some island off the coast of China. He was actually in the Bahamas, southeast of Florida. Columbus and his crew stayed on San Salvador for a few days.
The people of the island soon appeared. They brought gifts for Columbus and his crew. Columbus noticed that some of the ornaments that these people wore were made of gold. Using sign language, these people told Columbus that there were many more islands to the north and south where they found gold.
Since Columbus thought he was in the Indies, he named the people Indians. He took a few Indian guides with him to find the islands they described, because he wanted to find gold for the King and Queen. The Indians directed Columbus south through a chain of islands - Cuba. Columbus found the Dominican Republic. He named it "Hispaniola", which means "Spanish island". He found gold on Hispaniola, and he traded for it and he was given it by the Indians.
Almost immediately after his return, Spain sent Columbus on a second voyage. After Columbus returned, Europe's attention was now on the west. Spanish people sailed to the Caribbean to get gold and silver. The Indians, who were kind and friendly to Columbus before, were nasty to the new conquistadors. This was because the Spanish only wanted to make slaves out of them, and were greedy and unkind to the Indians. The Indians then began to fight back.
Columbus' second voyage commenced in 1493. It consisted of over 1000 men and 17 ships. He brought sugarcane with him to the Indies for enslaved Indians to cultivate. He also brought livestock to America for the first time, such as horses, sheep and cattle. The second voyage was mainly a colonization effort.
Columbus and his crew left the Canary Islands on October 15, 1493. On the first voyage, Columbus left 40 men in a fort built from the Santa Maria's remains. Columbus named this place Navidad. Columbus and his crew returned to Navidad on November 28, only to find the fort burned and the men dead.
Guganagari, a local chief that Columbus befriended on his first voyage, told him that the men argued among themselves over gold. Some of them abandoned the fort, but some of the rest raided an inland tribe and kidnapped people. The Indians retaliated by burning the fort and killing the men that remained.
Columbus sailed eastward to the coast of Hispaniola to look for a place to build a new colony. He found a spot that he called "La Isabella" after the Queen of Spain. The next several months were spent establishing the colony and exploring La Isabella.
On April 24, 1494, Columbus and his crew sailed from La Isabella with three of the 17 ships to find the mainland of China. They reached Cuba on April 30, and left May 3. They anchored in Jamaica two days later. Because Columbus still could not find the mainland, and the Indians were mostly hostile to them, Columbus left for Cuba on May 13. Columbus quickly found that there were shoals and small islands dotting the coast of Cuba. This made exploration treacherous.
Columbus and his crew headed west for several weeks in search of the mainland. He finally gave up the quest on June 13, 1494. Columbus did not want to admit failure, so he ordered all of his crewmen to sign a document swearing that Cuba was the mainland, since it was so large. Columbus returned to Hispaniola on August 20, 1494. By the end of September, Columbus was ill. His crew had abandoned further explorations and settled down in La Isabella. Columbus left La Isabella on March 10, 1496, bound home for Spain. He sighted Portugal on June 8.
The third voyage lasted from 1498-1500 and had six ships in the fleet. Columbus and his crew arrived at the Canary Islands on June 19. The fleet split into two groups. The first three took supplies to the colonists on La Isabella, and Columbus commanded the remaining three ships. Columbus' ships were on a mission to find new lands south of the known islands in the "Indies". They sailed first to the Cape Verde Islands, and then sailed southwest on July 4. On the morning of July 31, Columbus realized that the fleet's water was running short. He decided to stop off at Dominica for some. (Dominica was discovered on the Second Voyage) On the way, Columbus discovered a new island - Trinidad. He named it Trinidad after the Holy Trinity. The fleet found water on the southern coast of Trinidad.
Columbus also sighted the coast of South America when he was sailing to Trinidad. He and his crew were the first Europeans to see South America. Columbus explored the Gulf of Paria (which is between Trinidad and South America) between August 4 and 12. On the morning of August 13, Columbus sailed out of the Gulf of Paria to the Island of Margarita. Columbus' health was poor, so he sailed to Hispaniola. He arrived on August 19, 1498.
On May 11, 1502, four old ships and 140 men under Columbus' command began the voyage. Columbus' brother Bartholomew was in the crew. By this time, Columbus was 51 years old, and sick. He was no longer welcomed in Hispaniola. The purpose of this voyage was to find a strait linking the Indies with the Indian Ocean. Marco Polo was known to have travelled on it on his way back from China. Columbus arrived in Santo Domingo on June 29, 1502. He requested to enter the harbor to get shelter from an upcoming storm. He also advised another fleet (which was already in the harbour) not to leave the port. The local governor advised against this and the fleet left the harbour. Ten of the twenty ships sank when the hurricane hit. Nine ships made it back to Santo Domingo, and only one made it to Spain. Columbus' ships only suffered moderate damage and they reached the Honduras at the end of July.
Columbus and his crew spent the next 2 months working along the coast and were beset by more winds and storms. When they arrived at what we know today as Panama they learned of another ocean a few days south from the Indies. Columbus thought that he was close enough to the strait and that this proved his point. The natives traded much gold with Columbus. Columbus named this land Veragua. Veragua was very valuable because it had a lot of gold. Columbus then sailed along the coast of Panama until the area that was rich in gold dwindled. When he tried to return to Veragua, a storm stopped him and Columbus returned to the West (to Panama) on January 9, 1503. He made Panama the headquarters of exploration and built a fort there.
When Columbus was preparing to return to Spain, he took three ships out of the river and left one by the fort. The next day (April 6, 1503) the river lowered so much that the remaining ships were trapped in the river by a sand bar at the river mouth. A large force of Indians then attached the fort. The Spanish managed to hold off the attack but lost many men. Columbus abandoned the ship that was left in the river, and rescued the remaining people who had stayed in the fort.
Columbus started for Spain on April 16. The remaining three ships were leaky and old. One of these ships was abandoned because it was no longer seaworthy. The remaining two ships never made it to Hispaniola, because they were hit by a storm off the coast of Cuba. Both ships were leaking badly now, and the water continued to rise. Columbus beached the ships in St. Anne's Bay, Jamaica on June 25, 1503. Since there was no Spanish colony on Jamaica, Columbus was stuck there until help was found.
Back at Jamaica, half of those who were stuck there staged a mutiny against Columbus, but he eventually put it down. The small boat arrived in Jamaica on June 19, 1504. Columbus had been marooned for more than one year. Columbus returned to Spain on November 7, 1504; his last voyage complete.
Although Columbus' discoveries were beneficial to Europe, it changed the lives of natives and some Africans forever. By 1515, Hispaniola had 17 Spanish towns. As the Spainsh prospered, the Indians died from disease, massacre and overwork. A Dominican friar named Bartholomé de las Casas found that the Spanish treatment of the Indians was shockingly brutal. In 1515, he petitioned King Ferdinand to offer them protection. This gave some relief to the Indians, but almost all of the Carribean Indians (almost 6 million) were dead in just a few years. The sugar and mining industry grew, but the supply of Indian labour shrank. The Spanish then began to import Africans to the Americas. Africans died as quickly as the Indians, but the Spanish just kept importing more African slaves.
Columbus not only brought Europeans to the West, he opened the way for a new religion (Christianity), new languages (Spanish and Portuguese), and new animals and plants.
Columbus was a brave and venturesome man. His ideas and plans were inspirational. He was the kind of person who never gave up or grew tired of his work. He did not succeed in doing what he set out to do (to reach the Indies by boat), but he did something even better. He was the first recorded European to see North and South America. He persevered, despite harsh conditions. Columbus was a hard worker and was intelligent. His discoveries started a wave of change that was good for some and bad for others. All four of his voyages were truly expeditions of discovery.