The Age of Discovery
During the 15th and 16th centuries, leaders of many European nations funded expeditions abroad in the belief that explorers would find vast undiscovered lands and great wealth. The earliest participants in this Age of Discovery were the Portuguese. Beginning in about 1420, small Portuguese ships (caravels) went along the African coast, carrying slaves, gold, spices and other goods from Africa and Asia to Europe.
Other European nations, especially Spain, were keen to share in the apparently endless riches of the “Far East.” Spain’s “Reconquista” (expulsion of Muslims and Jews from their kingdom after centuries of war) was complete by the end of the 15th century. Spain then focused on exploration and conquest in other areas of the globe.
Christopher Columbus: Early Life
The son of a wool merchant, Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa around 1451. He got a job on a merchant ship when he was still a teenager and stayed at sea until 1470, when French privateers ambushed his ship as it sailed north along the coast of Portugal. Although the boat sunk, young Christopher Columbus floated to shore on a piece of wood and found his way to Lisbon where he studied navigation, cartography, astronomy and mathematics. He also started to devise the plan that would change the world forever.
The First Voyage
It was almost impossible to reach Asia from Europe by land at the end of the 15th century. The route was long and laborious, and encounters with hostile armies were hard to avoid. Portuguese explorers solved this issue by going to the sea: They sailed south along the coast of West Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope.
However, Christopher Columbus had a different thought: instead of sailing around the enormous African continent, why not sail across the Atlantic instead? His logic was sound, but Columbus’ math was faulty. He insisted (incorrectly) that the circumference of the world was a lot smaller than his counterparts believed it was; he maintained that the journey from Europe to Asia by boat was not only possible, but comparatively easy. Although he presented his plans to officials in England and Portugal, it was not until 1491 that he had a sympathetic audience: Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile – the Spanish monarchs.
Ferdinand, Isabella and Christopher Columbus wanted fame and fortune. His plan came with the opportunity to spread Catholicism across the globe. His contract with the Spanish monarchy stated that he could keep 10% of any riches he found, as well as a noble title and governorship of any lands he should come across.
Christopher Columbus and his crew set sail from Spain on August 3, 1492 in three ships. On October 12, the ships landed – not in Asia as Christopher Columbus had thought, but on one of the Bahamian islands. Christopher Columbus sailed from island to island for months searching for precious stones, pearls, gold, spices and any other merchandise that he had promised to the Spanish monarchy, but did not find much. He returned to Spain in March 1493, leaving behind 40 men in a settlement on Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti).
Christopher Columbus: Later Voyages
Approximately 6 months later, Christopher Columbus returned to the Americas in September 1493. The Hispaniola settlement was destroyed and so he left his brothers Diego and Bartolomeo, along with some of the ships’ crew and enslaved natives to rebuild. Christopher Columbus then headed west.
Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic for the third time in May 1498. He visited the South American mainland and Trinidad before going back to Hispaniola, where the colonists made a bloody revolt against the Columbus brothers’ brutality and mismanagement. Christopher Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains, and a new governor was sent to take over Hispaniola.
Stripped of his noble titles and cleared of most of the charges, in 1502, Columbus convinced the Spanish king to fund one last trip across the Atlantic. Columbus made it all the way to Panama this time but faced an attack from hostile natives. The elderly explorer returned empty-handed to Spain where he died in 1506.
Although Christopher Columbus did not “discover” the Americas, his journey sparked centuries of exploitation and exploration on the American continents. The results of his explorations were tragic for native populations of the areas he conquered.