Christopher Columbus is believed to have been born in Genoa, Italy in 1451, although some have claimed him to have been born in Spain. He was not from a wealthy family, although they were by no means impoverished.
He is of course, famous for his four transatlantic voyages from Europe and subsequent discovery of the America. Little is known of his early life, but by the time he was 16, he was already embarking on a naval career, and following a shipwreck incident off of Portugal, he and his brother were employed as cartographers in Lisbon, Portugal.
However, it was the sea which was to captivate him and through his marriage to a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, it seems he was to acquire charts of the winds and currents of the Atlantic Ocean. During the years 1482 – 1485, he made several voyages whereby he gained further knowledge of these ocean properties. This coupled with a need to find a new trade route to the Indies after Islamic countries to the east had effectively blocked that route; Columbus eventually secured the patronage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in order to fund a voyage across the Atlantic in 1492.
Encyclopedia Britannica states further reasoning for the voyage, “Christian missionary and anti-Islamic fervour, the power of Castile and Aragon, the fear of Portugal, the lust for gold, the desire for adventure, the hope of conquests, and Europe’s genuine need for a reliable supply of herbs and spices for cooking, preserving, and medicine all combined to produce an explosion of energy that launched the first voyage.”
And so, on 3rd September 1492 as Admiral, the seagoing entrepreneur Christopher Columbus and his ship the Santa Maria left the Spanish port of Palos and set sail to the west in search of an alternative route to the Indies.
The Santa Maria was accompanied by two other ships which were used for supplies and so on. The fleet contained in all, some 120 men forming the party.
After being at sea for a little over a month, the crew became disheartened. On October 11th, a near mutiny was narrowly avoided due to the fact land had not been seen for weeks and the crew did not yet know the true nature of the voyage. Fortunately for Columbus a day after, a crewman from one of the three ships, the Pinta had finally spotted landfall.
On October 12th 1492, Christopher Columbus lands somewhere in the Bahamas and believes he has found the fabled western passage to India and China. What he didn’t know (and never would know in his lifetime) was a big land mass and an even larger ocean stood between him and the Indies.
Nonetheless, over the next few months, he set sail and discovered other islands within the Caribbean including Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba also, and he narrowly missed out on setting foot on North American soil in Florida. For some reason, he had changed his mind and set sail southwards in search of China.
Columbus discovered Haiti and acquired gold from there, which would of course bode well for him on his return to Spain in January 1493. He had left a small garrison to set up the first Spanish settlement there, with further materials being supplied by the Santa Maria that had previously run aground and sunk.
The return trip to Europe was horrendous. Caught in strong storms, his remaining two ships limped into port in the Azores. Here, they were captured by the Portuguese and Columbus spent time trying to secure their freedom. Eventually they were freed and departed and arrived at the port of Lisbon where Columbus was obliged to speak to the Portuguese King. When eventually he arrived back in Spain, his arrival was marred significantly because of this meeting, the Spanish being suspicious of collaboration. Columbus was not of Spanish blood, and so his true loyalty could be questioned.
However, Columbus brought back his news of this new world, along with the gold and various objects he had collected and another voyage was commissioned for later on in autumn that same year (1493).
The near munity of his first voyage and various other tensions under his leadership, perhaps by the way he handled his men, had led to many difficulties for Columbus. He was very autocratic in his leadership and had very high religious standards which many would find very difficult to work under. This was to be a common factor throughout all of his voyages and led to him making many enemies.
However, due to his desire to bring home both material and human cargo, he had to give his crew certain leeway and allowed them to loot and to perform other violent acts, else he would lose their support. And so, because his high moral grounds had been compromised he could no longer maintain a consistent level of leadership.
This second voyage contained some 16 ships with over 1500 men, including a group of friars in order to preach the Christian message to the natives and it also contained a group of military personnel.
Columbus expertly made the crossing again with apparent ease which further enhanced his reputation as an expert navigator. On this visit, he further established settlements on the islands and discovered even more, but his methods remained harsh and he left a great deal of devastation in his wake, most particularly to the natives he was to encounter.
He left the islands to return to Spain in the autumn of 1496, leaving his brothers in charge of the settlements and immediately pressed for plans for a further expedition. Although the spoils from this second voyage were significantly less than anticipated, he was granted permission to return with a smaller fleet of six ships. By this time, Spain and France were at war, and Portugal was still a threat, so it was with reluctance that a third voyage was granted.
His third voyage set sail from Sanlucar in Spain in May 1498, with a modest 6 ships in his fleet. Still believing he had found the Far East, he decided to split this fleet, three ships to voyage to Hispaniola, while his three would sail further south from his previous discoveries in search for a strait to India. He did not find this path to India, but Encyclopedia Britannica tells us “by August 15 he knew by the great torrents of fresh water flowing into the Gulf of Paria that he had discovered another continent—“another world.” But he did not find the strait to India, nor did he find King Solomon’s gold mines, which his reading had led him and his sovereigns to expect in these latitudes; and he made only disastrous discoveries when he returned to Hispaniola.”
His brothers whom he had left in charge before setting back for Spain in 1496 had suffered rebellion by some of their men along with the inhabitants. Columbus managed to regain some sort of control and order through use of hanging the ringleaders of the rebellion. Word had already reached Spain though, and the Spanish Chief Justice had been sent over to investigate. Essentially what had happened was Columbus’s brothers had exploited the inhabitants with the help of favored Spanish personnel. Those who were not in favor, had rebelled against them along with the inhabitants.
Nonetheless, Columbus and his brothers were held responsible by the Chief Justice and were imprisoned and sent back to Spain to answer for their actions. During the voyage home, Columbus penned an intricate letter to his sovereigns detailing his navigational abilities, the fact he believed he was so close to finding gold and “asserted that he had reached the outer region of the Earthly Paradise”. They arrived back in Spain in late October, 1500.
This desperate letter gained Columbus his freedom and an audience in Granada in late 1500 whereby he convinced them to grant him one final expedition to the New World to search for the treasures. His sovereigns were convinced of his navigational abilities, but not of his leadership abilities and so control of the settlement was passed to another.
And so, in May 1502, Columbus embarks on what would prove to be his fourth and final voyage to the New World, this time with just four ships.
By now, his health was failing him, and he also was forbidden to return to Hispaniola due to the previous events there. He was ordered instead to continue his search to the south of the existing colonies to seek gold and locate the passage to India. The expedition was not a happy one despite exploring the likes of Honduras, and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. His fleet by now was in very poor condition and only two of the four ships remained. In his search, he narrowly missed the passage to the Pacific due to extreme weather conditions and attacks from various Indian tribes and in the summer of 1503 he and his fleet had run aground and were castaways.
His navigational skills were put to the test again and he accurately predicted an eclipse which frightened the natives there into providing them with food and shelter until rescue arrived around a year later in 1504.
Towards the end of that same year, Columbus made his final voyage back to Spain and two years later in 1506, he passed away.
Despite leading a troubled and brilliant life, Columbus’s legacy paved the way for new exploration, new understanding of navigation and of how the world was made up. And of course he unknowingly had laid the foundations for a “New World” to be opened up and discovered. This “New World” would bring new riches, new ideas, new hope, new freedoms and new life to many. At the same time it would also bring poverty, hardship, no hope, slavery and bondage to many others.
His discoveries also changed the way western civilizations perceived themselves and led to many other European countries like Portugal, England, France and the Netherlands to also create strong navies and head westwards across the Atlantic Ocean to claim these new lands for themselves. He also influenced other great navigators over the following centuries to explore and chart the remainder of the world; explorers such as Sir Francis Drake who became the first to circumnavigate the earth and James Cook to establish colonies in Australia and New Zealand.
So, Columbus’s discovery of the Americas truly marked a major turning point in the history of Western Civilization.