Christopher Columbus tried to take a shortcut, and ended up somewhere he never intended to go. He discovered two continents that people in Europe didn’t even know existed. By crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Columbus opened contacts between lands and peoples that were unknown to each other.
Columbus’s voyage to the Americas opened an exciting period in history. Animals, plants, and new ideas were exchanged between continents. But it also caused terrible tragedy. Millions of Native Americans died as Europeans rushed to take land and riches for themselves.
Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. He became a sailor at the age of 14. In 1476, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal. Portugal was Europe’s top seafaring nation at that time. Columbus settled there.
Columbus studied geography and navigation, the science of figuring out where things are on Earth’s surface. He became a master sailor. He met explorers who had sailed along the coast of Africa seeking an eastward sea route to the rich lands of Asia. Europeans called these lands “the Indies.” Europeans wanted to bring gold and other treasures from the Indies back to Europe.
Columbus began to think about a wonderful adventure, which he called the “Enterprise of the Indies.” He dreamed of reaching the Indies by sailing west! This was not a new idea, but no one had ever managed to make the voyage. Columbus thought the trip to the Indies west across the ocean would be much shorter than sailing around Africa.
Columbus had high hopes, but no money. Who would pay for his expedition? He asked the king of Portugal, but the king refused. Columbus didn’t give up. He went to the rulers of Portugal’s neighbor, Spain. At first they also refused. Eventually, however, the Spanish king and queen agreed to provide three small ships—the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María. They also paid for crews and supplies for the voyage.
Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492. He stopped at the Canary Islands southwest of Spain, then headed west into unknown seas. He had no idea what lay ahead, but he had faith in his sailing skills and his bold idea. A swift current carried his ships along, and on October 12, the crew sighted the islands of the Bahamas. Columbus thought he had reached Asia. He called the islands the Indies.
Columbus was greeted by the Arawak people who lived on the islands. They offered food, but had only a little gold. Columbus was disappointed not to find Asian treasures, but still felt sure he had reached Japan in Asia. He spent two months exploring, then headed home. One of his ships sank in a storm, but back in Spain he was hailed as a hero. The king and queen offered rich rewards and made him “Admiral of the Ocean Seas.”
Columbus made three more voyages to America. None went well. He was a skillful sailor, but his greed and stubbornness made him a bad leader and created enemies.
During his second voyage (1493-1496), Columbus claimed land for Spanish settlements. He fought against Caribbean peoples who lived on the land he claimed and forced them to work as slaves.
On the third voyage (1498-1500), Columbus quarreled with Spanish settlers so violently that he was sent back to Europe as a prisoner in chains.
On his fourth and final voyage (1502-1504), Columbus was marooned on an island for more than a year. He had to be rescued. He was very ill by the time he returned home to Spain.
AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPLORER
Columbus died in 1506. He quarreled with the king and queen right up until his death. He wanted authority over Spanish colonies and a larger share of the riches that were brought back from America. It was a sad end to an extraordinary career that still shapes our lives today. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic, he changed the world forever