Christopher Columbus discovered America on October 12, 1492, but it was all by chance – a mistake. The explorer who found America had been looking for an easier route from Europe to Asia when he came across the vast land that no one, besides the Native Americans living there, knew about. But who was Columbus and what led him to his life of sailing and exploration?
The son of a wool merchant, Columbus was believed to have been born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. He started working on a merchant ship as a young teenager and continued working on the sea until pirates attacked his ship in 1476. Although his boat sank, he was able to reach shore safely by floating on a scrap of wood.
Young Christopher didn’t go back to work on ships for a while, instead he turned his efforts to studying mathematics, cartography (drawing maps), astronomy, and navigation. During this time, it was extremely difficult to get to Asia by land from Europe. Not only was it a long journey, it was often overrun with hostile enemies, making it a very dangerous trip. Portuguese explorers took to the sea, sailing along the West African coast and then around the Cape of Good Hope. This was still a lengthy voyage, so Columbus came up with another idea.
He wondered about sailing west across the Atlantic instead. Although his idea was good, unfortunately his math was not. He believed the circumference of the Earth was much smaller than it is and that an as yet undiscovered Northwest Passage would be a much easier route. He pitched the idea to leaders in Portugal and England, trying to find sponsorship for an expedition voyage, but no one would help. But in 1492, Spain’s Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile decided to take the risk.
A deal was struck and Columbus looked forward to receiving 10% of whatever he found along with a noble title, and he would be named governor of any lands he discovered. With that promise in mind, the explorer set sail on August 3, 1492 with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
On October 12, the ships reached land – but it wasn’t the East Indies, as Columbus had planned. Instead they landed on one of the Bahamian Islands. He and his crew spent months sailing from island to island trying to find riches. Disappointed by not getting as much treasures as he’d hoped, Columbus set sail for Spain in January 1493, but he left several dozen of his men in a temporary settlement on what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Columbus kept a journal, which he presented to Isabella. It described the animal and sea life he found, but also the Native Americans, whom he unfortunately belittled:
“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells,” he wrote. “They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron …They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Columbus made several more trips across the Atlantic, enslaving the natives and forcing them to work on plantations and help in the search for gold. He gifted Queen Isabella with slaves, but she was horrified and rejected the “gift.” The settlement he had first established had been destroyed once already and he continued to try and make it work, but in May 1498, Hispaniola (the name of the settlement) was suffering from a revolt by the colonists against Columbus’ brothers whom he had left in charge. A new governor had to be sent to set things right. He was arrested and taken back to Spain in chains for his mismanagement.
In 1502, most of the charges against Columbus were dropped, but he was not allowed to keep his noble titles. He died in 1506.