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All About Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

Learn about the explorer's early life, his fateful trip, and his later voyages.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The voyage of Columbus proved to be an unparalleled historic event. It had far-reaching effects, not only on the American continents, but on Europe as well. In addition, historians have recognized Columbus' navigational skills. He found the best route across the ocean to the Americas. He also found the best eastern route back to Europe. His routes are still used hundreds of years later.

Early Life

Christopher Columbus (in Italian, Cristoforo Colombo) was born in 1451 in Genoa, in present-day Italy. His father was a poor weaver, and Christopher worked for him. The boy had little schooling. Few people of his day did. Genoa, however, was a thriving seaport. Christopher learned much from sailors' tales of their voyages. As soon as he could, he went to sea. He made short fishing trips at first. Then he made longer trips with merchants who traded their goods at various ports along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Between voyages he studied mapmaking and geography. In his early 20's he sailed as a common seaman with a merchant fleet to transport goods to northern Europe. They sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar off the southern coast of Spain and into the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1476, Columbus found himself living in Portugal. Portugal was the greatest European seafaring center of the age. Everything about this center for explorers heated this adventurous young man's desire to find new and unknown lands. During his years in Portugal he mastered the art of navigation. And he absorbed all he could from the writings of such travelers as Marco Polo, who had voyaged to strange lands as far away as Asia. Polo's story of his journey to Cathay (China) in 1275 described a land rich in spices, jewels, and silks.

In Search of a Route to Asia

In Columbus' time there was only one known route to Asia from Europe. Travelers sailed eastward across the Mediterranean Sea. Then they traveled by caravan across ancient routes through deserts and mountains. Europeans were eager to find an easier route for their trading ships. Already Portuguese explorers were sailing south into the Atlantic. They hoped to find a way to Asia by going all the way around Africa. But the seamen were afraid to venture too far out into the unknown waters of the Atlantic. They took care to keep the African coast in their sight.

From his study of geography and from the tales of other sailors, Columbus concluded that India and eastern Asia were on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the route to take.

Columbus was a man of powerful will. He tried for nearly ten years to interest European rulers in his plan. Some agreed that Asia lay to the west. But how far? No one knew. Columbus estimated that Japan must be about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) due west of the Canary Islands. He miscalculated, however, because he estimated that the earth was smaller than it really is. Japan is more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) away from the islands.

Columbus' First Voyage to the New World

Finally, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the rulers of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, agreed to outfit three ships for Columbus. They promised to make him viceroy (governor) of any new lands he might acquire. And they offered him 10 percent of all the wealth that he would bring to Spain.

With his fleet of three ships — the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María — Columbus sailed west on August 3, 1492. The ships were manned by a crew of about ninety men. Most were Spanish, except for Columbus and a few others. Columbus kept a careful log of his voyage. Much of what we know about the voyage comes from this source. The ships stopped at the Canary Islands to make repairs and take aboard fresh food. Then the fleet headed out into the open Atlantic — the Sea of Darkness.

As the days passed, tension mounted in the crew. None had ever been out of sight of land for so long. The wind blew steadily from the northeast. They wondered whether they would be able to sail against it to return home. Columbus saw how nervous the men were. He gave them smaller estimates of the number of miles sailed, so they wouldn't know how far they really were from their home port.

Nevertheless, rumbles of mutiny swept through the crew as Columbus pressed on. On the 70th day (many days after Columbus had already expected to reach Japan), a lookout sighted land. It was early on the morning of October 12, 1492. They landed on one of the islands of the Bahamas, which Columbus named San Salvador. The island natives came down to the shore to see Columbus' strange ships. Thinking he had reached the East Indies, Columbus called these people Indians.

Columbus had discovered what Europeans would soon call the New World of the Americas. Of course, it was not a New World to the millions of Native Americans already living there. They had been there thousands of years before the Europeans would "discover" them.

Columbus sailed on to find the rich cities of Asia. He spent the next ten weeks exploring the islands of the Caribbean. He landed on the island of Hispaniola, shared today by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. He also landed on Cuba, which he thought was the Asian mainland. Both islands were heavily populated.

Near Hispaniola, Columbus' flagship, the Santa María, ran aground. The waves smashed it to pieces. Leaving several men behind to establish a fort, Columbus set sail for Spain in the Niña. On the voyage home, he wrote a report of his discoveries. He believed he had reached Asia. Columbus wrote glowingly of its "gentle and peaceful" people, its fertile soil, its spices, and its superb harbors. He also wrote of its "great mines of gold and other metals." This last, however, was his fantasy. He had not found the quantity of riches he had sought.

Holding out the promise of greater riches, Columbus offered to give Ferdinand and Isabella "as much gold as they need…and as many slaves as they ask" if they would finance another voyage. As proof of what he could do, he brought them back a small amount of gold, parrots, and plants. He also brought some Indians he had kidnapped and enslaved.

Later Voyages

Between 1493 and 1504, Columbus made three more trips to the Americas. He was still searching for the great cities of Asia that Marco Polo had described. On his second voyage he found that the men he had left on Hispaniola had all been killed by the Indians. Apparently, as soon as Columbus left, the Spanish had begun to quarrel and fight among themselves. They had made no common effort to build a lasting community. Bands of Spanish thieves roved the countryside, plundering native villages. They forced the Indians to hunt for gold and took women as their prisoners. The Indians, obliged to defend themselves, had killed the intruders.

Columbus never found the gold and jewels he had expected. Apart from his hunt for wealth, his mission was to convert the natives to Christianity. The idea that the Indians might have a right to determine their own way of life and to govern themselves never occurred to him. He also thought he had a right to claim the lands they inhabited for Spain. He saw himself as a redeemer of souls. In this way, he justified all the harmful consequences of his great enterprise.

Columbus Is Recalled to Spain

Failure to deliver what he had promised to Ferdinand and Isabella and reports of chaotic conditions in the colonies led to the downfall of Columbus. In 1500 he was sent back to Spain in chains and was removed as governor of the Indies. In the end, he retained only empty honors. Sick, disappointed, and ignored, he died in Spain in 1506.

Milton Meltzer
Author, Columbus and the World Around Him

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