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Christopher Columbus Discovers America

A History of the New World

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, a countless number of European explorers navigated the globe in search of new lands and new treasures. The era, known as The Age of Discovery, gave fame to some of history’s greatest seafarers—Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and John Cabot to name but a few. Of all the great explorers, though, none are as celebrated as Christopher Columbus—the man who “discovered” America.

The Making of an Explorer, 1451-92—Beginnings

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. His origins were very humble—his father was a tavern-keeper and a weaver—and so it was due to hard work and endeavour alone that he would achieve the riches and distinctions of later life. Genoa was a great Italian port, and Columbus grew up surrounded by the sea, ships, and sailors.

Columbus likely sailed from a very early age, possibly as young as 10, but he made his first official serving voyage in 1474-75, at about age 24. Around two years later, in 1476, he was part of a small Genoese convoy that was intercepted and sunk by the French off the coast of Portugal. Columbus survived by swimming to shore aided, it is said, by an oar which he used to propel himself to safety (Thomas).

Columbus settled in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1477 and married Felipa Moniz Perestrello in 1479. By now he considered himself to be a veteran of the seas and had formulated his great plan to sail to the Indies by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He initially met with frustration and his plans were rejected several times by the Portuguese, but he finally received royal approval for the voyages from Spain in 1492—not before the death of his wife.

The First Voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-93—Discovery

columbus first voyage Columbus set sail in search of the Indies Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain on Friday, August 3, 1492, with his fleet of three ships—the Santa Maria, Niña, and PintaThe choice of departure day was curious, given the widely held superstition at the time that Friday, the day of the Lord’s crucifixion, was an unlucky day (Thomas). Nevertheless, Columbus seemed unperturbed by popular myths and ordered the anchor be raised that Friday morning before dawn. On October 12, ironically also a Friday, the Pintafired a cannon indicating that land had been sighted and in the early hours of the morning Columbus and his crew made landfall on what he quickly named San Salvador. The explorers immediately encountered bands of primitive native inhabitants that Columbus called “Indians,” firmly believing that he had reached the Indies as planned (Henige). Columbus’ journal describes the natives as peaceful and simple people who were in awe of their sophisticated and advanced visitors (Thomas).

Believing that he had reached a small, peripheral Asian island, Columbus proceeded onward and landed in Cuba on Sunday, October 28, believing it to be Japan. Upon arrival, he dispatched emissaries north to seek out Genghis Khan or the Emperor of China (Ibid). Columbus remained utterly deluded about his actual destination until the day he died, persistently maintaining that he had reached the Indies.

Frustrated and perplexed by the primitive nature of the lands he was discovering, Columbus continued onward, arriving at the island of Hispaniola (modern- day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), but was dealt a severe blow when the Santa Mariabecame shipwrecked and was destroyed. Without enough space aboard the remaining ships, Columbus endeavoured to create a colony on Hispaniola, leaving behind around 40 men. Following further troubles, including skirmishes with the natives and signs of mutiny within the crew, Columbus resolved to return home to Spain by the middle of January 1493. He had already made a major impact on both European and American history, however, by establishing the first European colony in the New World.

Columbus’ Second Voyage, 1493-96—The Slave Trade

Columbus had always intended to return to the New World and he was home for only a matter of months before he again set sail for what he believed to be Asia. His second voyage would be the longest trip of all, spanning almost three years. The voyage included the discovery of countless more islands,—including modern -day Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands,—but most significant of all was the decision to send back five shiploads of natives to Europe in what is generally regarded as the instigation of the slave trade (Thomas).

enslave indians First encounter with the Native Americans It was probably always the intention of the Spanish explorers to transport at least some of the natives back to Europe, either in the hope of civilizing them, turning them into Christian missionaries, studying them, or, more likely, a combination of all three. The scale of the plan, however, and the barbarity involved in it was made necessary in Columbus’ eyes by the need to exert control over an increasingly anarchic native population. While the natives had initially seemed friendly, prolonged European settlement and the seemingly tyrannical imposition of European laws and values had not gone down well. In a desperate attempt to reassert control and punish the perpetrators, Columbus had 1,500 natives rounded up and enslaved. Five Hundred of these were crammed onto four ships and sent back to Spain, with almost half dying on the voyage. Those who survived the voyage were sold as slaves in Spain, while the prisoners who remained on Hispaniola were given away as slaves to the colonists.

Columbus had become nothing less than a despot, and he increasingly ordered force to be used to subdue the rest of the disturbances. A cruel system of taxation was devised which lined Columbus’ pockets with gold and impoverished the natives (Ibid). When Columbus finally made the decision to return home to Spain in 1496, he had set the scene for centuries of racial conflict and imperial conquest.

Columbus’ Third Voyage, 1498-1500—Arrest and Retribution

By the time Columbus embarked on his third voyage, he had become increasingly eccentric and unstable. Nevertheless, he gained support for a third voyage despite growing suspicions and accusations about maladministration in Hispaniola, and concerns about his mental health. The fleet sailed in late May, 1498.

Among the discoveries made in the third voyage were the island of Trinidad and, significantly, the vast continent of North America. Yet Columbus remained blinded by his conviction that he was in Asia, and never once set foot on, or realized the importance of, the land mass that he had stumbled upon.

All the while, Columbus was struggling to maintain control in Hispaniola. Crucially, it was no longer the locals who were causing him the most bother, but his own mutinous men. The Spanish sovereigns dispatched a judge to the island to help Columbus keep the peace, but the official was shocked to discover seven Spanish men hanging in execution. Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain in shame.

Columbus was lucky in that he retained the favour of the Spanish sovereigns, however, and despite his ignominious arrest, he was in chains for only six weeks following his return before he was released.

The Fourth Voyage, 1500-02—Columbus’ Last Voyage

Despite discovering, among other places, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras in his final voyage, it would be remembered most for quite another reason. Columbus and his crew became marooned in Jamaica after the ships were damaged by a combination of enemy attack and tropical shipworms. They remained stranded there for more than a year before help finally arrived. After an illustrious and epoch-making career as an explorer, Columbus ended his seafaring days with a whimper, as his ship touched back in Spain for the final time in November 1504.

Columbus’ Role in American History

XXXXXXXXXX Columbus is commemorated around the world Christopher Columbus is famous the world over as the man who “discovered” America. In America, he is widely revered as the man responsible for founding the country that exists today. This assessment of Columbus does not sit well with many historians, however. Modern scholarship questions how it is possible to “discover” a place that is already inhabited, and instead speaks of Columbus’ “encounter,” for example. This is a far more apt term, since it emphasizes how the “discovery” was mutual. The American natives were meeting the Europeans for the first time too, and the term “encounter” better recognizes this (Axtell).

Secondly, it seems odd to give Columbus such prominence in American history when he never set as much as one foot on North American soil. Further, his role in the exploitation and enslavement of the native population causes many modern commentators to squirm uneasily. So, does the place of Christopher Columbus in American history need to be re-evaluated?

In order to answer this question it is necessary to look at how Columbus has been perceived by Americans since he first sailed to the New World in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Even at the time, there was no consensus on who had been responsible for “discovering” America. Columbus himself stubbornly refused to accept that he had landed anywhere other than Asia, and contemporary map- makers gave pre-eminence to Italian explorer Amerigos Vespucci. In Britain, they tended to emphasize the role of the Venetian explorer John Cabot (born Giovanni Caboto) who sailed to America in 1497 and who, unlike Columbus, actually disembarked and set foot on the continent.

It wasn’t until the American Revolution that Columbus began to assume the role of a hero. Since the onset of British colonization, the North American settlers had generally considered Britain to be their home, and Britannia to be their “mother” (Bushman). War with the British, however, strained this relationship, and the colonists began to search for heroes that downplayed the role of the British and unified them as Americans. Columbus, a brave and progressive colonizer, appeared to fit the bill, especially since his story downplayed the achievements of Cabot and thus contradicted the traditional British view.

Columbus in American Place-Name History

Columbus’ rebirth in North America stimulated unsuccessful calls from several historical societies to incorporate his name into the name of the country. The name “America” actually derives from the aforementioned Italian explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci. Although Vespucci is not regarded by historians as an explorer of huge significance, his colorful accounts of his voyage to the New World impressed map- maker Martin Waldseemüller so much that he named the new continent “America” on his 1507 world map. In 1538, the great map- maker Gerardus Mercator, who knew the New World to consist of two continents, introduced the terms “North America” and “South America” to his world map. The name “America” stuck, and Amerigo Vespucci claimed his place in history, at the expense of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus is far from being forgotten as far as American place names are concerned, however. In the late eighteenth century, the name “Columbia” was bestowed upon a number of towns, cities, and geographical landmarks, including the new capital city of South Carolina and the Columbia River, amongst other places. In 1812, the state legislature of Ohio named their new capital city Columbus after the explorer. Since then, the name “Columbus” has been used for villages, towns, and cities all across the United States. Columbia also became the name of NASA’s first space shuttle, achieving infamy in 2003 when it was destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

Outside of the United States, references to Columbus can also be found in Canada, most notably the province of British Columbia, and the northernmost Canadian land point, Cape Columbia.

In South America, the Republic of Colombia is named after the explorer, having originally been named “Gran Colombia” in 1819, before being given its present moniker in 1886.

Modern Perceptions of Columbus

christopher columbus Christopher Columbus - hero or villain? Historians now know that Columbus was not the first person to set foot on American soil. He was not even the first European—the Vikings had voyaged to America about 500 years previously. What’s more, he is now considered to be an explorer who got lucky. It appears to be the case that Columbus had totally miscalculated the actual distance to the Indies and, had America not “got in the way,” he would have run out of food and supplies long before he reached his destination. Either that or he would have been tossed overboard by a mutinous crew (Bushman). He has been charged with instituting racial discrimination and abusing, or ignoring completely, the rights of the indigenous people. His stubbornness and uncompromising nature alienated many of those close to him, and his voyages were rife with mutiny and conflict. Those who challenged his authority often met a fateful end. He was, according to Claudia Bushman, a “frightening man.”

But after all of that, we still seem unable to write- off Christopher Columbus. There is something about the man that continues to inspire awe and admiration. For all his faults, his achievements as a seafarer and explorer were immense. He opened up whole new continents to the Europeans, and instigated European colonization of the New World, the legacy of which is still clear to see today. He was brave, forward- thinking, and determined, and he refused to let anyone get in the way of what he deemed to be progress. He stuck to his convictions and was rewarded with the discovery of countless islands and land- masses, and his voyages encouraged the fearless exploration of the world for centuries to come.

It is also unfair to expect Columbus to live up to twenty-first-century values. He lived at a time when things like human rights and equality, taken for granted in modern society, did not exist as moral concepts and when his prime motivating factor would be acquiring land and achieving wealth for his sovereigns and for himself. To judge him by today’s standards is harsh—if we start doing that, there are very few historical figures who will stand up to scrutiny.

Columbus was a fearless and dedicated explorer whose voyages changed the world for better and for worse. Some academics have allowed his personal faults as a man to overshadow his phenomenal achievements as an explorer, but he remains a hero in the eyes of the majority of the public.  Whether by luck or by design, Christopher Columbus is directly responsible for the existence of modern- day America—and for this he has earned his place in history.

-- Posted December 31, 2010


Axtell, James. 1992. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bushman, Claudia L. 1992. America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Henige, David. 1991. In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage.Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Thomas, David A. 1991. Christopher Columbus: Master of the Atlantic.London, UK: Andre Deutsch.