Columbus Lands in the Americas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Columbus’s expedition to the Americas brought the Old World to the Western Hemisphere and extended exploration, colonization, migration, and cultural exchange and exploitation to what came to be called the New World. The first recorded transatlantic voyage changed the course of Western history.

Summary of Event

At the end of the fifteenth century, the domination of the eastern Mediterranean by the Turks and the obstruction of land routes by the recently triumphant Ottomans at Constantinople had made the old avenues of East-West trade costly and dangerous. The Venetians clung tenaciously to the old routes, while the Genoese and Florentines explored trade links along the west coast of Africa. Their efforts failed. Exploration and colonization;Spain of the Caribbean Americas;Columbus and Columbus, Christopher Ferdinand II (1452-1516) Isabella I Pinzón, Martín Alonso Pinzón, Vicente Yáñez Guacanagarí Triana, Rodrigo de Columbus, Christopher Henry the Navigator, Prince Columbus, Christopher John II (king of Portugal) Ferdinand II (king of Spain);Christopher Columbus and Isabella I (queen of Spain);Christopher Columbus and Pinzón, Martín Alonso Pinzón, Vicente Yáñez Triana, Rodrigo de Guacanagarí Columbus, Christopher

Woodcut from a sketch attributed to Christopher Columbus, showing his landing in Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Portugal, however, under the leadership of King John II and Prince Henry the Navigator, renewed earlier expeditions and found a passage around Africa using their island bases. With papal bulls confirming the Portuguese venture, nothing was left for Spain except the exploration of a western route.

Spanish voyages west trace their origins to the 1470’, when Christopher Columbus came to reside in Portugal and joined trading expeditions to the northwest. He probably visited England and Ireland and learned about ocean navigation and command. Scandinavian mariners had reached Labrador in 986 and 1000 and had brought back tales of an immense continent. During these trade ventures, Columbus may have heard for himself the proud tradition of Leif Eriksson’s voyage.

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Born in Genoa in 1451 into a Christian weaving and business family, Columbus, following the custom in Genoa, worked at various trades including sailing. When or how he reached Lisbon is unknown, but his sojourn there was critical to his education as a mariner. Columbus married into a sailing family that had served Prince Henry and received from his mother-in-law her late husband’s collection of maps and papers.

While the Portuguese were concerned about discovering a sea route to India around Africa, Columbus began to study the feasibility of a voyage west. From fellow sailors and his own trips, he heard of experiences and physical evidence pulled from the sea that suggested lands in that direction. In the 1480’, he proposed to King John II of Portugal that the Crown should equip three vessels for a year of Atlantic exploration. Yet the Portuguese were absorbed with the African route, so Columbus, after the death of his wife, moved to Spain, where he had family connections.

In 1486, he presented his scheme to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I at Alcalá using his own world map. While Ferdinand was sufficiently impressed to order a personal copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia, a special commission studying the proposal concluded it was impractical. They argued, correctly as it turned out, that Asia must be farther west than Columbus supposed. Despite this negative report, Isabella and Ferdinand hinted that they might support a future venture after they had captured Granada. They rewarded the future admiral with a royal pension.

There ensued six years of frustration for Columbus. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias returned to Lisbon after successfully finding the tip of Africa and a direct sea route to Asia. By 1491, Columbus resolved to leave Spain and submit his project to Charles VIII of France. On January 2, 1492, the seven-century-long Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula was completed with the capture of Granada Granada, fall of (1492) . To Isabella, it seemed that the achievement of this heroic goal called for the undertaking of another difficult venture.

It was Ferdinand’s intervention, however, after a royal council again advised against Columbus’s enterprise, that saved the day. The admiral’s first report to the sovereigns following the discovery, dated March 4, 1493, suggests that the real reason for supporting his expedition may have been the quest for new revenues to sponsor the liberation of Jerusalem from Islam. In it, Columbus promised sufficient wealth within seven years to outfit “five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand foot soldiers.” Called to Granada, Columbus was given the necessary papers and financing. Included was a diplomatic note to the great khan and an interpreter to communicate with the Indian princes and other leaders in East Asia.

Three vessels were made available for the expedition, the Santa Maria and two smaller caravels, the Niña and the Pinta. Though small, the vessels were handy and well found. They were staffed by sailors and officers from the port of Palos. The Niña and the Pinta had reliable crews and experienced officers, though the crew of the Santa Maria was made up from apprenticed sailors and idlers from the docks of Palos, which in part explains the vessel’s subsequent bad sailing. Columbus captained the Santa Maria, while two experienced sailors from Palos, brothers Martín Alonso Pinzón and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, commanded the Pinta and the Niña, respectively.

On August 3, 1492, the ships sailed with eighty-eight men and provisions for one year. They headed south to the Canary Islands, seeking the winds from the east before they faced west. The expedition had a long stay in Las Palmas, where the Niña was altered from a lateen to a square rig similar to the Pinta. On September 6, they ventured forth along the twenty-eighth parallel. This course passed along the northern fringe of the northeast trade belt. The trade winds are not always reliable so far north, and September is the hurricane season, so Columbus was fortunate to have had fair winds the whole way out. The weather, as he described it in his log, was “like April in Andalusia, the only thing wanting was to hear nightingales.”

On October 12 at 2:00 a.m., under a moon almost full, Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Niña, shouted “Land! Land!” He had sighted a small island in the Bahamas, possibly the one known as Watlings Island or Guanahani to its indigenous inhabitants. In 1492, however, Columbus named it San Salvador (Holy Saviour).

On the beach were found Tainos Tainos Indians, who received the Europeans courteously. There was no gold on San Salvador, however, so the fleet sailed on, landing in Cuba on October 28. Here, the indigenous people indicated that gold would be found among a more advanced people in the interior called the Cubanacan, literally “mid-Cuba.” Columbus mistook the name for El grancan, the great khan of China. Two Spaniards were sent off with full diplomatic credentials but returned without locating any Asians. They did, however, bring back a report of tobacco, the first time that Europeans had heard of it.

Columbus sailed on to Española (Hispaniola), where the Santa Maria was grounded on a reef and smashed to pieces on Christmas Eve. Arawak Arawak chief Guacanagarí sent his people to help the Spaniards salvage the crew and most of the cargo. Columbus had little choice but to leave part of his crew at the spot to found the settlement of La Navidad La Navidad . His idea was that the sailor-settlers would be able to explore the island for gold and search out the great khan. Columbus had been eager to return to Spain and report his discoveries. On January 16, 1493, the Niña and the Pinta began the journey home.

The return voyage was long and miserable because the winds were hostile. After the Azores, storms made the homeward passage difficult. On March 3, Columbus sighted Portugal, and though he realized that he was risking diplomatic complications, requested permission to land and obtain provisions at Lisbon. The Pinta had meanwhile sailed on to northwestern Spain, arriving before Columbus finally reached Palos on March 15, 1493.

Columbus was welcomed triumphantly at Barcelona by Ferdinand and Isabella. He received the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and was made “Vice-king and General Governor of the Islands and Terra Firma of Asia and India.” It was his finest moment.

Significance

It has been stated that Columbus would have remained a hero for his generation and for all ages had he retired in 1493. Yet he lived on for thirteen years and made three more voyages to the lands he had discovered, though he would never admit that he had found not Asia but a new continent. In this period, the many flaws of his personality and the limitations of his genius were made obvious through his actions and writings. These imperfections, however, cannot belittle the faith and courage that the “enterprise of the Indies” demanded.

Columbus died in 1506, ignored by his contemporaries and broken in body and heart. Yet his place in history was assured, and his ultimate epitaph could well read, “No man has ever so remade the map of the earth.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Axtell, James. “Columbian Encounters: Beyond 1492.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 49 (April, 1992): 335-360.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Axtell, James. “Columbian Encounters: 1992-1995.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 52 (October, 1995): 649-696. A comprehensive survey by a leading ethnohistorian. These articles examine the most significant work done on Columbus in the first half of the 1990’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Columbus, Christopher. The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493: Abstracted by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas. Translated by Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. A scholarly translation and edition of Columbus’s logbook.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Miles H. Columbus Then and Now: A Life Reexamined. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. A rigorous reconsideration of Columbus’s life that surveys and criticizes decades of Columbus biographers for their unreflective accounts and outright errors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Columbus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A fine biography examining Columbus’s character, experiences at court, and voyages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heat-Moon, William Least. Columbus in the Americas. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley, 2002. A careful reappraisal of Columbus as explorer, colonizer, and individual, by a best-selling Native American author. Heat-Moon uses many quotations from Columbus’s journals to provide insight into the thoughts and motives of the explorer. Includes maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, William D., Jr., and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A biography by two leading historians that frames Columbus in the old worlds he drew together to form the modern.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summerhill, Stephen J., and John Alexander Williams. Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural Politics, and Mythmaking During the Quincentenary. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. A thorough examination of the contemporary legacy of Columbus as seen through the lens of the failure of the planned five hundredth anniversary celebration of his voyage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. A decidedly conservative and Eurocentric history of Spanish colonialism during Ferdinand and Isabella’s rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Samuel M. Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. This archaeological study analyzes Taino life and customs during the first contact with European culture and discusses Guacanagarí.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Samuel M. The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. This text offers broader views than does Wilson’s volume above.

1462: Regiomontanus Completes the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

1495-1510: West Indian Uprisings

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

1565: Spain Seizes the Philippines

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