The voyages in this series of three articles all possess an epic quality. All were great undertakings of their age, all involved considerable time and distance and each is still remembered, talked about and taught today. Moreover, each has left a legacy without which the world we know would be fundamentally altered. These are voyages that made a difference.
“Your Highnesses (his patrons, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile) thought of sending me to the regions of India and ordered that I should not travel overland to the east, as is customary, but rather by way of the west, whither to this day, as far as we can know for certain, no man has ever gone before.” – Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus’s great motivation as an explorer lay in his fervent belief that the fabled wealth of Asia could be reached more easily by sailing west from the Iberian Peninsula, rather than the traditional easterly direction.
Columbus made his own map of the world, as he viewed it, which was around twenty per cent smaller than was generally believed at the time. This was fundamental to his belief that sailing west was the right approach to reach Asia.
Columbus also believed that a circular wind system blew in the Atlantic Ocean that would blow his ships westwards from the latitude of the Canary Islands. He trusted that the westerly winds, believed to exist in the north Atlantic would provide the wind to return his ships from the lands he was hoping to reach.
Columbus discovers the Americas
On 3rd August 1492, Columbus set sail with a crew of 190 sailors aboard three caravels, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. After weeks of uncertain and imprecise navigation across the uncharted waters of the Atlantic, the expedition sighted land. This was an unidentified island in the archipelago known today as the Bahamas. Here took place the historic first meeting between a European and an indigenous American. Columbus named the island San Salvador, claiming it for the Spanish Crown as a tribute to his patrons.
Columbus referred to the inhabitants of San Salvador as “Indians” in the mistaken belief that he had arrived at “the Indies,” the name commonly used to describe the fabled isles of the east.
For three months, Columbus explored in vain the entire archipelago hoping to discover evidence of the land that forms today’s Japan, China and India. According to his (erroneously twenty per cent smaller than reality) map, they should be nearby! Only the discovery of gold on the island he named La Espanola, the modern Haiti and Dominican Republic, saved the expedition from total failure.
Columbus proved to be correct about the homeward bound westerlies, picking them up in his sails in January 1493. On his return to Spain, people initially welcomed him as a hero for his discovery of a viable western sea route to the Indies ahead of Spain’s great Portuguese rivals. But doubt soon set in; people began to question what Columbus had actually achieved. Before the year was out, Columbus’s land discoveries were generally being referred to as the “new world” or the modern Americas.
Origins of the Spanish Empire
While not the anticipated world of the east, Columbus’s discovery had unintended but enduring effect on the new world – effects felt today in North, South and Central America. The Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal, signed on 7th June 1494, recognised Spain’s claims to Columbus’s discoveries and to any newly discovered land west of an imaginary line “370 leagues west of Cape Verde”. More then any other event or action, the Treaty of Tordesillas paved the way by laying the foundation stone for the Spanish Empire in America.
But Columbus died a disappointed and desperate man at the age of 55 in 1506. The new world held little interest for him and he never abandoned his claim to have discovered a new sea route to Asia, despite a further three unsuccessful voyages to the Americas.
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