October 12,1492: Columbus reaches the New World

October 12: General Interest
1492: Columbus reaches the New World

After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Italian explorer Christopher
Columbus sights a Bahamian island, believing he has reached East Asia. His
expedition went ashore the same day and claimed the land for Isabella and
Ferdinand of Spain, who sponsored his attempt to find a western ocean route to
China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia.

Columbus
was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. Little is known of his early life, but he
worked as a seaman and then a maritime entrepreneur. He became obsessed with the
possibility of pioneering a western sea route to Cathay (China), India, and the
gold and spice islands of Asia. At the time, Europeans knew no direct sea route
to southern Asia, and the route via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed to
Europeans by the Ottoman Empire, as were many land routes. Contrary to popular
legend, educated Europeans of Columbus’ day did believe that the world was
round, as argued by St. Isidore in the seventh century. However, Columbus, and
most others, underestimated the world’s size, calculating that East Asia must
lie approximately where North America sits on the globe (they did not yet know
that the Pacific Ocean existed).

With only the Atlantic Ocean, he
thought, lying between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met
with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back his “Enterprise
of the Indies,” as he called his plan. He was rebuffed and went to Spain, where
he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January
1492, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory, agreed to support his voyage.

On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain, with three small
ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. On October 12, the expedition
reached land, probably Watling Island in the Bahamas. Later that month, Columbus
sighted Cuba, which he thought was mainland China, and in December the
expedition landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan. He
established a small colony there with 39 of his men. The explorer returned to
Spain with gold, spices, and “Indian” captives in March 1493 and was received
with the highest honors by the Spanish court. He was the first European to
explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and
Newfoundland in the 10th century.

During his lifetime, Columbus led a
total of four expeditions to the New World, discovering various Caribbean
islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainlands, but
he never accomplished his original goal-a western ocean route to the great
cities of Asia. Columbus died in Spain in 1506 without realizing the great scope
of what he did achieve: He had discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches
over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful
nation on earth.

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