On this day in 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World when he sighted land, probably the island of San Salvador, from his ship the Pinta. This discovery marked the beginning of the colonization of the American continent and is considered by many Historians as the beginning of the Modern Era.
Until the mid-15th century, Europeans enjoyed a safe land passage to China and India, which allowed them to trade goods such as silk and spices. However, when Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottomans in 1453, Christian traders were prohibited and the route to Asia became difficult and dangerous. As a result, it became a matter of urgency for European powers to find an alternative one.
In the 1480s, Cristopher Columbus and his brother Bartholomew developed a new route to Asia, which consisted in sailing west across what they thought to be the singular Ocean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean. In 1484, King John II of Portugal had his experts examine their proposal, but it was rejected because Columbus’ estimations were considered to be wrong. Two years later, he presented his plans to the Catholic Monarchs, whose committee also determined the route to be impractical. Still, in order to prevent him from taking his proposal elsewhere, they gave him an allowance. In 1488, Columbus appealed again to the court of John II. However, Portugal was no longer interested in finding a western route to Asia, as explorer Bartolomeu Dias had recently succeeded in finding an eastern one by rounding the southern tip of Africa.
In 1492, as Queen Isabella’s army was about to defeat the Moorish Emirate of Granada, Columbus was again summoned to the Spanish court. After unsuccessful discussions, Columbus left for France. Nevertheless, Ferdinand intervened, fearing that Columbus would take his proposal elsewhere, and the Queen was finally convinced to fund the voyage. In April the Capitulations of Santa Fe were signed, which stated that Columbus would receive the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and be appointed viceroy and governor of the newly colonized lands for the Crown.
For his voyage, Columbus took three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María. The Santa María, which was a carrack, was the largest one and was under his direct command. The other two were smaller caravels.
On 3 August 1492, Columbus and his crew set sail from Palos de la Frontera, going down the Rio Tinto and into the Atlantic. On August 6, the rudder of the Pinta broke but, luckily, they were able to secure it until they reached the Canary Islands. There, they had it replaced and obtained the final provisions. A month later, they departed San Sebastián de La Gomera for a five-week voyage.
On the evening of 11 October, Columbus thought he saw a light and, four hours later, land was sighted by a sailor aboard the Pinta. However, Columbus would later claim that he had been the first one to see land. This land turned out to be an island, which was named San Salvador by Columbus.
Columbus called the indigenous Americans who lived on the island Indios, thinking that he had reached the East Indies. The explorer observed the people, their culture and their lifestyle and noted that they were “relatively easy to conquer” due to their primitive weapons.
Aiming to conquer more territories, Columbus set sail once again and reached Cuba on 28 October, where he explored the northeast coast. On December 5 he landed in Hispaniola (present-day Haiti) and was allowed to leave some men behind in a settlement which he named La Navidad. His last stop was on 13 January 1493 in the Bay of Rincón, in northeast Hispaniola. Three days later, on January 16, he began his return journey.
After his return
When Columbus returned to Europe, it was generally believed that he had reached the East Indies and both Spain and Portugal set out to negotiate how they would colonize and divide the newly discovered territories. In 1494, they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world into two parts and established the line of demarcation between the Cape Verde islands and the islands explored by Columbus.
In the meanwhile, Columbus made three more voyages to the Americas, in which he explored the Lesser Antilles (1493), Trinidad and the northern coast of South America (1498), and the eastern coast of Central America (1502). These expeditions marked the beginning of a period of exploration and colonization as well as the transfer of commodities, ideas and people between the Old World and the New World.
Throughout the centuries Columbus has been a historical figure widely celebrated. However, nowadays public opinion regarding him is divided due to the fact that scholars have drawn attention to the harms committed under his governance, such as the depopulation of the indigenous people caused by mistreatment and diseases brought from Europe as well as their enslavement.
- new world
- catholic kings
- john ii
- east indies