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Conquistadors, Spanish, and Explorers of Mexico

Who Was Christopher Columbus?

To Lecture Notes

"He had his faults and his
defects, but they were
largely the defects of the
qualities that made him
Samuel Morison,
Christopher Columbus, Mariner

"To emphasize the heroism
of Columbus and his successors
as navigators and discoverers,
and to de-emphasize
their genocide, is not
a technical necessity but an
ideological choice. It serves
to justify what was done..."
Howard Zinn,
A People's History of the U.S.

  • 1492: An Ongoing Voyage - An Exhibit of the Library of Congress
  • The Columbus Doors - Mythmaking in the US Capitol
  • Medieval Sourcebook: Christopher Columbus: Extracts from his Journal
  • Columbus' Letter to the King and Queen of Spain, 1494
  • World History Archives: History of the Caribbean
  • Looks are Deceiving: The Portraits of Columbus
  • New York Statue of Columbus
  • First Things: The Crimes of Columbus
  • Columbus Navigation Page
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Internet Guide to Christopher Columbus
  • Columbus Biography
  • Africans in America, Part 1
  • Portuguese in Africa
  • Youtube The Atlantic Slave Trade
  • Youtube Videos about the Atlantic Slave Trade
  • Lecture Notes

    The first European explorer was not Christopher Columbus. The first Renaissance era explorers were under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal. His goal was to get to the riches of Asia by having ships sail around the African continent. You might ask, why not just go overland? That presented a problem because the Muslims controlled the territory east of Europe and they were the enemy. So, it made sense to try a safer (?) route around Africa. In 1441, he began expeditions along the west coast of African establishing trade agreement along the way. Prince Henry never actually sailed but organized and obtained funding for the expeditions. He also received the first African slaves in Portugal which he explained "We took them to save them." What he meant by that is up for interpretation. But, at that time, the demand for slaves just did not make it a profitable business.

    The trade agreements made along the West African coast will prove to be very profitable, though. Many African Chiefs along the coastline collaborated with the Europeans in trade. At first that included alcohol, woolens, utensils, guns, and other goods for the Africans while Europeans got salt, gold, ivory, wooden products, and a few slaves in return. At this point, Europeans did not go into the inland regions of Sub-Sahara Africa. There were many myths so they feared the interior so arranged collaboration with Africans. Some African grew very wealthy i return.

    It will be Vasco da Gama who made it to India first in 1498, five years after Columbus arrived in the New World. So, let's turn our attention to Christopher Columbus keeping in mind the question is or was Columbus a hero in American History? That questions continues to be debated today among leading historians. Read the two quotes at the top of this page from two different historians and think about their different viewpoints. After you study Columbus' life, make up your own mind about his place in history.

    Little is known about Columbus' early years. Probably born in on the coast of Genoa, Italy, around 1451, we do not know what he looked like other than from written descriptions. No known portrait exists so pictures you see like above are the interpretations of artists. He was described as having red hair that turned grey at an early age. He was described as tall with intense eyes. He was apparently attractive to women for many helped him during his life. His economic status as child has been debated, too. Some have said he was of common birth with a father who was a gatekeeper and wool worker for which Columbus kept the accounting books as a child. Other historians have said he was more middle-class. There did appear to be financial problems in his youth and his father may have been sent to debtors' prison. Columbus received little formal education and seemed embarrassed about his background. He did not get along well with his father and was determined to better himself. He will die a wealthy man.

    He began his road to fame and fortune at the age of 13 when he left home and went to sea to learn trading. He would spend most of his life at sea. He visited strange lands from Africa to Iceland, the furthest western land known to Europeans at the time. He experienced shipwrecks and capture. At 25, he and his brother ended up in Lisbon, Portugal, where they established a cartography (map making) business, but he continued his sea travels, too. He also married a woman of noble birth, Felipa, and had a son, Diego. Felipa died in 1485. Also, during this time, Columbus developed the vision that would dominate the rest of his life.

    Fascinated with the Atlantic Ocean, he came up with the theory that to get to the East (India and China) travel to the West. He believed in a few days China and India could be reached. Of course, something was in the way, the Americas, but no one knew that at the time. Most experts thought Columbus was crazy. He had, in fact, severely underestimated the size of the world. Despite the negative reactions to his vision, Columbus was determined He believed God chose him for a special mission and he refused to give up.

    He needed funding to pursue his dream, though. He went to Portugal's King John who did not receive him well. The King called Columbus and "obstinate fool." Then, in 1495, Columbus traveled to Spain to place Diego in a monastery, the day care center of the era. The friars were excited by Columbus's idea. They arranged a meeting with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Spanish monarchs. The Queen was particularly intrigued by his idea, but any action had to be delayed since Spain was at war against the Muslims who had occupied their country. Columbus was told to wait.

    While he waited, he fathered another child, Ferdinand, but he did not marry the mother, a wealthy, educated woman. Little else is known about her including why they did not marry since this was quite the scandal in those days. Not until 1492, did Columbus receive word that the King and Queen were ready to make plans since Spain had defeated the Muslims. Queen Isabella had great faith in him despite the advice of her aides. They thought he was ignorant, mundane, and crazy. But, Isabella was the Queen and usually got her way. Columbus will test her wills.

    Offered the opportunity to pursue his vision, Columbus began making demands. He wanted 10% of everything he found, given the rank of Admiral, and made governor of all new lands he found. The King and Queen refused and Columbus stormed out of the castle. Then the Queen and King began to think about it. If he found nothing, he would get nothing. So they agreed to his demands and began preparations for his voyage in Palos, Spain.

    He obtained three "caravels" or small ships, 50-100 feet long, with no sleeping quarters named the Nina, the Pinta, and Santa Maria. The Nina was Columbus' favorite because it was swift and good for exploring coastlines. What the caravels looked like exactly is unknown at this time although there is hope the Santa Maria has been found. Here are pictures of what the caravels probably resembled.

    Columbus also gathered necessary supplies including food, water, rum, trade goods, weapons, a compass, and the "corredera" (rope with knots to determine the speed of the ship). He also took took logs to record his adventures. One was for the crew. One was the truth as he saw it. He also put together a crew but that proved to be difficult. Experienced sailors never heard of Columbus and were reluctant to head off into the unknown with an unproved leader. This problem was solved when Columbus hired Alonzo Pinzon, a famous navigator. With him, about 100 men volunteered, all but four of them Spanish.

    On August 3, 1492, all was ready and they set said "in the name of Jesus." But, on August 7, the rudder on the Pinta broke and they stopped in the Canary Islands, occupied by Spain, for repairs. Columbus was the guest of the young widow Queen Beatrice de Bodadilla. Finally, on September 6, the journey west into the unknown began. For the sailors it was probably a scary moment since most had never sailed beyond the view of the coastline. They stumbled upon the trade winds which headed them straight for the Bahama Islands.

    After three weeks, however, the crew became restless. They had never been at sea so long. Boredom drove them crazy especially when they came upon the Sargossa Sea. They made to headway, stalled in the water. Columbus managed to convince the men to continue one day at a time. By early October, even Columbus was beginning to give up hope, but on Octber 5, birds were sighted meaning land had to be near. Then, on October 7, a small carved stick and flower were found floating in the water signifying both land and people. The crew was on alert because the first to sight new land received a pension as a reward. During the night of October 11, Columbus thought he saw a light at the horizon. On October 12, 1492, sailor Rodrigo de Triana screamed "tierra, tierra" or "land, land." He became the first European to sight New World land but he never got his pension. Columbus claimed it because of the light he thought he saw during the night.

    Columbus named the island San Salvador. (Today, it is uncertain which island they saw. There is an island renamed San Salvador that claims that honor but it has not been proven.) As the ships approached the island, the natives were amazed. They swam out to greet the "house on the water." These were the Arawak people of the Taino nation. They were the first New World people to meet the Europeans who we believe were related to the peoples of Mesoamerica. Columbus, however, named the Indians because he thought he had found India. The name stuck and ever since American Indians have dealt with this misnaming.

    The Arawak were courteous and brought gifts to the strange bearded beings or gods. Columbus surveyed what he found and wrote in his log.

    (All quotes from Samuel Morison, Columbus's Journals and Other Documents) "Friday, 12 October: They [the Arawak] bear no arms, nor know thereof for I showed them swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron...They ought to make good servants and of good skill for I see that they repeat very quickly whatever we said to them. I believe that they would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they belonged to no religion. I, please Our Lord, will carry off six of them at my departure to you Highnesses that they may learn to speak."

    The relationship between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the New World had been formed. What did Columbus say about them?

    San Salvador proved to be a disappointment. Columbus could see no gold. Again, he wrote in his log.

    "Monday, 15 October: These islands are very green and fertile and the air balmy, and there may be many things that I don't know, for I do not wish to delay but to discover and go to many islands to find gold. And since these people make signs that it is worn on arms and legs, and it is gold all right because they point to some pieces that I have, I cannot fail (with Our Lord's help) to find out where it comes from..."

    Columbus weighed anchor and went searching exploring the Bahamas and Islands of the Caribbean. He named the islands the Indies since he thought he was off the coast of India. (They are still called the West Indies.) They landed on Cuba but Columbus thought it was Japan. Then, they landed on Tortuga Island and Columbus addressed the Queen in his log.

    "14 December: Your highnesses should know that this island, and all the others, belong to you as Castile does. To rule here, one need only get settled and assert authority over the natives, who will carry out whatever they are ordered to do. I, with my crew - barely a handful of men - could conquer all these islands with no resistance whatsoever. The Indians always run away; they have no arms [weapons], nor the warring spirit. They are naked and defenseless hence ready to be put to work."

    Still, though, Columbus could find no gold. Finally, though, they landed on a large island that Columbus named Hispaniola (today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). This became the location of the first permanent European settlement in the New World.

    Again, the natives were hospitable and ran to greet Columbus. These were the Carib people. They helped unload the Santa Maria that had run aground. While doing this, Columbus noticed something they were wearing, gold. So Columbus established a settlement and wrote in his log.

    "17 December: Now I have given orders to erect a tower and fortress...not that I believe it to be necessary for these people, for I take it for granted that with these people that I could conquer all this island, which believe to be bigger than Portugal and double the number of inhabitants, but they are naked and without arms and very cowardly, beyond any hope of cure. But it is right that this tower should be built, and it is as it should be, being so far from Your Highnesses, and that they [the natives] may recognize the skill of Your Highnesses' subjects, and what they can do, so that they [the natives] may serve them [the king and queen] with love and fear...Many of my men are very zealous in the service of Your Highnesses, and to give me pleasure of learning the mine where gold is collected."

    Columbus wanted to continue exploration so he left 39 men behind. Meanwhile, Pinzon had disappeared with the Pinta and was missing two months that he explained by saying he got lost in the fog. Columbus explored and met natives who were not friendly, the resistance began. When they resisted, retaliation was vicious including killing, capturing, and enslavement. Columbus wrote, "God gives us victory."

    In January, 1493, Columbus returned to Hispaniola to begin preparations for the return trip to Spain. Pinzon reappeared but they left the 39 men behind on only the Pinta and Nina. It was a difficult return but they arrived in Spain March 15, 1493. They were welcomed as heroes, but Pinzon died five days later.

    King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were thrilled at the treasures Columbus brought. He had amber, gold, hammocks, tobacco, herbs, and parrots. Isabella was less thrilled about the slaves he brought because she thought slavery was un-Christian. Of course, this came from the woman conducting the Inquisition in Spain at the same time.

    Most history books end the story there with Columbus a hero who discovered America. But, that was not the end of the story. First, he thought he found Asia. And, second, he will make three more voyages to the New World.

    The second voyage was from 1493-6 and a much larger venture. He led 1200 men including two friars from the Church. Seventeen ships will make the voyage along with 8 hogs, livestock, and seeds to establish a permanent colony, but gold was the main objective and what most of the men wanted. By then, Columbus referred to himself as the "King of the Indies."

    This voyage followed the same pattern as the first, exploring and conquering. They landed in the Virgin Islands, Leeward Islands, and back to Hispaniola. Columbus was surprised to find all 39 men he left behind were missing. The fortress had been destroyed and he blamed the Carib. The Carib said his men had fought over women and escaped to live with the natives. It remains a mystery today. Columbus decided to re-establish his colony in another location.

    Then, illness stuck and over 200 men had to be sent back to Spain on 12 ships. Meanwhile, Columbus continued to explore. He landed on Cuba again but believed it to be China and forced his crew to swear on a Bible that it was China. Again, he returned to Hispaniola to discover his brother, Bartholomew had arrived and had begun causing trouble. He had taken charged and the men resented that. The result had been a mutiny during which men stole three of the remaining ships and returned to Spain with horror stories regarding the conditions in Hispaniola. Columbus was also disturbed to learn the Carib people were not cooperating in finding gold for him.

    He and Bartholomew decided on a "get tough policy." This led to a ten-month war known as the Great Slave Raid. 1500 Carib were captured. The experience of one Carib woman is in the following note by one of the men with Columbus. Michele de Decuneo referred to himself as a "gentleman volunteer." See if you think he was a gentleman.

    "While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, who the said Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her fingernails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that(to tell you the end of it), I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such a manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots."

    Five hundred of the Carib were sent to Spain as slaves. The "gentleman volunteer" described what happened.

    "Meanwhile I departed for Spain with those caravels...But when we reached the waters around Spain about 200 of those Indians died, I believe because of the unaccustomed air, colder than theirs. We cast them into the sea...After we reached Cadiz, we disembarked all the slaves, half of whom were sick. For your information, they are not working people and they very much fear cold, not have they long life."

    The hate between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the New World grew. Those Carib still on Hispaniola were forced into the gold mines and required to pay "taxes" with what gold they found. If they did not make their quotas of gold, their hands were cut off. As the violence increased and disease spread, the depopulation of Hispaniola resulted. Historians do not know exactly how many Carib lived there before the Europeans and has been estimated between 250,000 and over a million. Even if we take the lower estimate it is amazing that by 1518 only 11,000 survived. By 1550, Carib population dropped to 500. By 1650, no Carib lived on Hispaniola. The same thing will happen throughout the New World.

    Columbus had other problems, though. A hurricane struck destroying all his ships except the Nina. Another ship was built out of wreckage and named The India since Columbus still believed he had found India. In June of 1496, Columbus limped back to Spain but received no heroes welcome this time. The mutineers had told stories before he returned and Isabella was angry about him sending slaves to Spain. Nonetheless, the King and Queen agreed to a third voyage, 1498-1500.

    By then, there were many other explorers going to the New World including the first European women. Some began to question Columbus's conclusion that he had found Asia. Columbus was still determined to prove he found Asia so his third voyage will be yet another effort to do so. This voyage has been titled the "Southern Voyage." He traveled to the South American coast from Trinidad to the north where natives greeted him with poison arrows. Again, he returned to Hispaniola only to find more problems. Mutiny had erupted again. Many of his men had begun following Francisco Roldan and living among the Carib. They found Carib life superior to the one under Columbus's control.

    To combat the mutiny, Columbus ordered his own men to be executed for their treason. News of this got back to Spain and Ferdinand and Isabella ordered Columbus to be removed from power, arrested, and returned to Spain. This was in 1500. There was no reason for Columbus to return. He was 50 years old and wealthy, but he could not stop. For some reason, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to a fourth voyage (1502-4). They did order him to stay away from Hispaniola and ordered him not to bring back any slaves. He was told to concentrate on finding gold.

    So off he went to explore the Central American coast. The people there told him that there was an ocean across the land in today's Panama but he ignored them. All he saw was a wild country with hostile natives. In addition, Columbus got malaria. This was a miserable period in his career despite the company of his son, Ferdinand. The end of Columbus's career came in the form of shipworms and a hurricane. Shipworms are a mollusk that burrows into the wood of the ship and weakens its structure. Then, a hurricane struck and Columbus ended up shipwrecked on Jamaica, mon. The natives were helpful and fed his men and took care of the ill. But, after awhile the Taino got tired of feeding and taking care of them. But, Columbus had a plan as described in the following writings by Ferdinand Columbus.

    "In a short time the Christians were cured and the Indians continued for some days to provide us plentifully. But, being a poor people who make little effort to cultivate vast lands, and we eating in one day more than they in twenty and their desire for our goods being satisfied, they began to take slight account of us. They cared to longer to provide us with as much food as we required. This brought us to great distress...

    So we did not know which way to turn. But God, who never forsakes those who commend themselves to Him (as did the Admiral), advised him how he could obtain everything he needed....He [Columbus] bethought himself that within three days there would be an eclipse of the moon in the early night. He ordered that an Indian of Hispaniola who was with us, should be sent to summon the principal Indians of that province, saying that he wanted to talk with them at a party he had decided to give them. When they came, the day before the eclipse was due, he asked the interpreter to tell them that we were Christians and believed in God, who lived in Heaven and...protected the good and punished the wicked...

    God seeing how negligent they were in bringing us foodstuffs for our pay and barter, was angry with them and had decreed to punish them with a might famine and pestilence. Perhaps they would not believe this. Thus God wished to give them a manifest token of it in the sky, that they might plainly know the punishment from His own hand. Therefore he bade them that night watch the moon...

    At the rising of the moon the eclipse began, and the higher the moon rose the more the eclipse increased. The Indians observed it, and were so frightened that with cris and lamentations they ran from every side to the ships, God that he might ot make themn feel the effects of his wrath, and promised for the future, diligently to bring all he had need of..."

    Eventually, some of Columbus's men made a raft and sailed to Hispaniola to get help rescuing Columbus and his other men. No one got in a real hurry, but in a year, he and the other survivors were rescued and returned to Spain in 1504. Columbus died in 1506 thinking he found Asia. After his death, his body was somehow misplaced and his exact burial location is unknown today. He may be in Italy, Spain, or Hispaniola. Certainly, he was not considered a hero in Spain or Europe in general. In the U.S. he will become heroic mainly as a result of a campaign to create heroes in our history when there were not many heroes due to the youth of our nation. These famous doors added to the myth. But, what do you think? Was Columbus a hero? A villain? A genocidal maniac? Just a guy doing what guys do? What do you think?

    Columbus, of course, was just one of the Europeans who invaded the New World. In terms of U.S. history, probably the most important was John Cabot, an Italian who worked for England. He landed on Newfoundland in 1497 ad claimed the entire east coast of North America for England. That will be the location of the American colonies that became the United States.

    Another important explorer was Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci announced that Columbus had not found Asia but a New World during his voyage, 1499-1501 and named South America. In the excitement of the moment, the New World became known as America to honor Vespucci. The colonial era had begun. Europeans saw the Americas as paradise where natives did all the work.

    Juan Ponce de Leon also played an important part in today's U.S. when he claimed Florida for Spain in 1513. He became the first European explorer in today's U.S. other than territories in the Caribbean. He was killed by American Indians in 1521 while searching for the "Fountain of Youth."

    Hernan (Hernando, Fernando) Cortes was another important explorer. He led the conquering of the Aztecs and claimed the territory of New Spain for Spain in 1519. This included today's Mexico and Texas.

    My favorite of the explorers was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. He and three other survivors of a shipwreck ended up in today's Texas. One of his companions was Estevanico, an African slave believed to be the first black person in Texas who later became an explorer in his own right. Cabeza de Vaca was different than other explorers. After eight years living with American Indians as he and his companions made their way to Mexico City (1520s and 30s) gave him a personal understanding of their cultures. His writing give us some of the most objective descriptions of the diverse lifestyles of American Indians in the Southwest. He was sympathetic to their plight and appalled by the Spanish effort to force Christianity upon them. He became something of a troublemaker writing letters to the Spanish king complaining about treatment. He eventually was reassigned to South America but angered his men and was sent back to Spain to stand trial for not finding gold and being to generous to the natives. He spent some time in jail but his wife managed to gain his release.

    Another explorer was Francisco Vazquez de Coronado of Spain who explored the Southwest in the 1530s and 40s including the Panhandle region of Texas. He searched for the "Seven Cities of Gold" (Cibola) unsuccessfully.

    For Texas, Rene'-Robert Cavelier Sieur La Salle was significant. Searching for the Mississippi River, his expedition was stranded in 1686 off the coast of Texas on Matagorda Island. He continue to try to locate the Mississippi on foot after claiming Texas for France. His own men killed him in 1687. Here's a photo I took of his statue on the Texas coast.

    While the European invasion of the Americas grew, the Atlantic Slave Trade developed. The main purpose of it was to bring Africans to replace dying natives for laborers. This process began early in the colonization era. By 1503, the Governor of Hispaniola complained that Africans were escaping and "teaching disobedience to the Indians." By 1505, document indicated shiploads arriving. Then, in 1517, Priest Bartolome' de Las Casas wrote to Spain's King Charles IV. The Priest felt sorry for American Indians so suggested Africans would be better laborers. He recommended twelve Africans be send for each European colonist. The demand for slaves grew especially after the Europeans discovered sugar and rice grew well in the Caribbean and other regions.

    The slave trade also became more and more profitable. At first, Portugal dominated the trade, but that attracted others who made arrangements with African chiefs who were willing to collaborate to bring them people. This, of course, increased warfare within Africa and between different African groups.

    By the 1600s, Africans arrived in the Americas at the rate of 27,000 per year. 1/2 ended up in the Caribbean such as Jamaica. by 1690, Jamaican Africans outnumbered the English in Jamaica four to one. Another 1/3 of the slaves went to Brazil. Approximate 400,000 or 1/20 of the Africans ended up in the American colonies (future U.S.).

    The most shocking aspect of the slave trade was the number of Africans who died during the dreaded "Middle Passage" or the trip to the Americas by ship. Slavers did studies to determine how to make the most money. They compared treating the slaves well on the ships and giving them space, food, and water versus cramming them into the ships and limiting necessities as much as possible. They discovered abuse was more profitable so as many as 10 million Africans died on their way to the Americas. There are several films available on Youtube if you are interested in this topic listed at the top of this page. In the evolution of racial attitudes in the Americas, nothing was of greater importance than the enslavement of Africans. It all began in the Colonial era and that takes us to our next topic, "Life in the Colonies."

    To Life in the Colonies

    Wanda Downing Jones