Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer Known as ‘the man who discovered America’, Columbus was in fact trying to find a westward sea passage to the Orient when he landed in the New World in 1492. This unintentional discovery was to change the course of world history.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, leaders of several European nations sponsored expeditions abroad in the hope that explorers would find great wealth and vast undiscovered lands. The Portuguese were the earliest participants in this “Age of Discovery.”
Starting in about 1420, small Portuguese ships known as caravels zipped along the African coast, carrying spices, gold, slaves and other goods from Asia and Africa to Europe. Other European nations, particularly Spain, were eager to share in the seemingly limitless riches of the “Far East.” By the end of the 15th century, Spain’s “Reconquista”—the expulsion of Jews and Muslims out of the kingdom after centuries of war—was complete, and the nation turned its attention to exploration and conquest in other areas of the world.
Christopher Columbus Full Biography and Profile
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa between August and October 1451. His father was a weaver and small-time merchant. As a teenager, Christopher went to sea, travelled extensively and eventually made Portugal his base. It was here that he initially attempted to gain royal patronage for a westward voyage to the Orient – his ‘enterprise of the Indies’.
When this failed, and appeals to the French and English courts were also rejected, Columbus found himself in Spain, still struggling to win backing for his project. Finally, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to sponsor the expedition, and on 3 August 1492, Columbus and his fleet of three ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Niña, set sail across the Atlantic.
Ten weeks later, land was sighted. On 12 October, Columbus and a group of his men set foot on an island in what later became known as the Bahamas. Believing that they had reached the Indies, the newcomers dubbed the natives ‘Indians’.
Initial encounters were friendly, but indigenous populations all over the New World were soon to be devastated by their contact with Europeans. Columbus landed on a number of other islands in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola, and returned to Spain in triumph. He was made ‘admiral of the Seven Seas’ and viceroy of the Indies, and within a few months, set off on a second and larger voyage. More territory was covered, but the Asian lands that Columbus was aiming for remained elusive. Indeed, others began to dispute whether this was in fact the Orient or a completely ‘new’ world.
Then he headed west, with his own complement of native slaves, to continue his mostly fruitless search for gold and other goods. In lieu of the material riches he had promised the Spanish monarchs, he sent some 500 slaves to Queen Isabella. The queen was horrified—she believed that any people Columbus “discovered” were Spanish subjects who could not be enslaved—and she promptly and sternly returned the explorer’s gift.
Columbus made two further voyages to the newfound territories, but suffered defeat and humiliation along the way. In 1502, cleared of the most serious charges but stripped of his noble titles, the aging Columbus persuaded the Spanish king to pay for one last trip across the Atlantic. This time, Columbus made it all the way to Panama—just miles from the Pacific Ocean—where he had to abandon two of his four ships in the face of an attack from hostile natives. Empty-handed, the elderly explorer returned to Spain, where he died in 1506.
Christopher Columbus did not “discover” the Americas, nor was he even the first European to visit the “New World.” (Viking explorers had sailed to Greenland and Newfoundland in the 11th century.)
However, his journey kicked off centuries of exploration and exploitation on the American continents. The consequences of his explorations were severe for the native populations of the areas he and the conquistadores conquered. Disease and environmental changes resulted in the destruction of the majority of the native population over time, while Europeans continued to extract natural resources from these territories.
Today, Columbus has a controversial legacy—he is remembered as a daring and path-breaking explorer who transformed the New World, yet his actions also unleashed changes that would eventually devastate the native populations he and his fellow explorers encountered.
Christopher Columbus’ Death
Christopher Columbus died on 20 May 1506.
- Christopher Columbus Biography and Profile