Columbus Days (1451-1507). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Columbus Days (1451-1507). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.


(50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

The round earth hypothesis.

Columbus’s early life and struggle for a sponsor.

The voyages of Columbus.

Contact—and clash—with Nature Americans.

The voyages of Amerigo Vespucci and the naming of America.

 Wow. Columbus. This is an old story. You’ve heard it more often than the story of Adam and Eve, more often than the tale of how your Aunt Agnes once met Spiro T. Agnew, and more often than you’ve watched Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden try to teach each other how to play golf on the umpteenth Honeymooners festival of reruns.

It’s so old, so tightly tied up with all the other half-learned rote lessons of childhood, that we forget to imagine the combination of creativity, the capacity for wonder, the courage, and the sheer madness that sent a Genoese seafarer and crew in three small ships across an unknown expanse of ocean to (it turns out) they knew not where.

It’s a Round World After All. But first there’s that business about the roundness of the world. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that, when Columbus sailed, he was about the only person in the world advanced enough to believe that the earth is round. His task (we were told) was to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to finance an expedition to sail west in order to reach the East. And that, of course, was predicated on the assumption that the world is a globe.

In fact, the idea of a round earth was hardly new by the end of the 15th century. Ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras and Aristotle said the earth was a sphere, and, in the 3rd century B.C.., Eratosthenes of Cyrene (ca. 276-195 B.C.) performed a remarkable measurement that determined the earth’s circumference with great accuracy.

Son of a Weaver. But Columbus was hardly alone in differing from the conservative view, which, by the late 1400s, was downright unfashionable among the enlightened and educated. Not that Cristoforo Colombo—to use the native Italian form of his name—was well educated. He had been born in Genoa in 1451 to a weaver and would not learn to read and write until he reached adulthood. As a youth, he took to the sea. In 1476, shipwrecked off Portugal, he went to Lisbon, then sailed as far as Ireland and England and even claimed to have sailed from England to Iceland (where, perhaps, he heard stories of an ancient place called Vinland, across the “Ocean Sea”). Columbus returned to Genoa in 1479, then went back to Portugal, where he married. His wife died while giving birth to their child Diego the following year. But, by this time, the seafarer’s thoughts were far from his family.

Having learned to read, he devoured shadowy accounts of westward voyages. He decided that the world was indeed round. And he was right about that. What he was wrong about was believing Marco Polo’s calculations concerning the location of Japan—1,500 miles east of China—and the work of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy (A.D. ca. 100-70), who grossly underestimated the circumference of the earth and overestimated the size of the Eurasian land mass. Further encouraged by the miscalculations of the Florentine cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, Columbus concluded that Japan (which Columbus called Cipangu) was a 3,000-mile voyage west of Portugal, over an ocean covering a round earth. Now, that was a long trip, but it was one that (Columbus believed) could be made by the vessels of the day.

In 1484, Columbus secured an audience with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back a voyage to Japan. Now, there were excellent reasons for going to the East—all of which involved lucrative trading opportunities, chief among which was the commerce in spices. In the time of Columbus, aromatic spices were not just pleasant condiments. They were rare and precious substances essential to the preservation of food in an age long before refrigeration was invented. Spice was as highly valued as gold. But King John 11 turned Columbus down just the same, believing that even a trip of three thousand miles was beyond the capabilities of existing ships.

Undaunted, the seafarer approached Don Enrique de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia, only to be rebuffed. He next asked Don Luis de la Cerda, Count of Medina Celi, who was sufficiently intrigued to arrange an audience, on or about May 1, 1486, with Queen Isabella I of Castile. For the next half-dozen years, Columbus, his son Diego in tow, cooled his heels in the Spanish court of Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon. During this time, he made many influential friends and enemies. Among the most powerful of the former was a courtier named Luis de Santangel, who, after the monarchs apparently turned down Columbus once and for all early in 1492, actually persuaded the pair to sponsor the voyage, which was financed by a combination of royal money and private funds. Commissioned “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as viceroy and governor of whatever lands he might discover, Columbus set sail from Palos on August 3, 1492. He was in command of three small ships, the Nina (skippered by Vincente Yanez Pinzon), the Pinta (under Vincente’s brother, Martin Alonso Pinzon), and his own flagship, the Santa Maria.

Trouble on the Horizon. During its first month and a half, the voyage went well, as the three vessels were propealed by highly favorable winds. Then, between the 20th and 30th of September, the winds turned bad and trailed off into doldrums. The fearful crews of all three ships began to grumble their doubts concerning their commanders. Columbus himself must have started to consider how it was one thing to believe in such enlightened ideas as a round earth, yet quite another to stake one’s life on the notion. Certainly, he came to realize that he had seriously miscalculated transoceanic distances. He began to keep two log-books—one, for the benefit of the crew, containing fictitious computations of distances, and another, for his own records, consisting of accurate figures. Despite this deception, the crews of all three ships verged on mutiny by the second week in October.

10/12/92—That’s Fourteen 92. Then it happened. On October 12, 1492, the Santa Maria’s lookout sighted land. It was a place the natives called Guanahani and Columbus named San Salvador. Most modern historians believe this first landfall was present-day Watling Island, although, in 1986, a group of scholars suggested that the true landfall was another Bahamian island, Samana Cay, 65 miles south of Watling.

The seafarers were greeted by friendly Arawak tribes people. Believing that he had reached Asia—the “Indies”—Columbus logically enough called these people Indians. He then sailed on to Cuba in search of the court of the Mongol emperor of China, with whom he hoped to negotiate a trade in spices and gold. Disappointed in this, Columbus pushed on to Hispaniola (modern Santo Domingo), where, in a Christmas Day storm, the Santa Maria was wrecked near Cap-Haitien. Columbus ushered his crew safely onto the shore. Seeing that the Indians were friendly, he left a garrison of 39 at the place he christened La Navidad and, on January 16, 1493, returned to Spain on the Nina. Pausing at the Canary Islands on February 15 to replenish supplies, he dispatched a letter to his patron Luis de Santangel, who immediately had it printed and, in effect, published worldwide.

First Blood. In addition to the observations Columbus made in his letter regarding the Indians’ timidity, he recorded in an October 14, 1492, journal entry his opinion that no fortress was required at La Navidad, “for these people are very simple as regards the use of arms.” The garrison Columbus left behind at unfortified La Navidad when he went back to Spain set about pillaging goods and raping women as soon as he departed. The “timid” Indians retaliated. When Columbus returned in November 1493, on his second voyage, no Spaniards were left alive.

Carving Up a New World. Columbus made four voyages to America. His first triggered a dispute between Spain and Portugal, whose king had rebuffed the Great Navigator back in 1484. The failure to back him notwithstanding, the Portuguese crown pressed claims to Columbus’s discoveries, which soon led Pope Alexander VI to issue a pair of papal bulls (Inter Caetera and Inter Caetera II) in 1493 that divided the newly discovered and yet-to-be-discovered world between Spain and Portugal. The two nations formalized this decree with the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), which established a line of demarcation at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

Three More Voyages. In the meantime, Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus on his second voyage (from Cadiz, on September 25, 1493), this time grandly outfitted with a fleet of 17 ships and nearly 1,500 men. After discovering the grim fate of La Navidad, Columbus set up a new colony, named Isabella, about 70 miles east of that bloody site. Columbus explored the Caribbean for some five months, then tried to govern the fledgling colony he had planted, but instantly proved to be a disastrously inept administrator. He returned to Spain in 1496, leaving his brother Bartolome in charge with instructions to move the settlement to the south coast of Hispaniola. Renamed Santo Domingo, this became the first permanent European settlement in the New World.

In June 1496, when Columbus landed at Cadiz, it was not to a hero’s welcome. Although he continued to protest that he had found a shortcut to gold-and spice-rich Asia, he had clearly failed to find the mainland (where, presumably, the treasure was stashed), and discouraged colonists trickled back to Spain with complaints about the Great Navigator’s abusiveness and ineptitude. Nevertheless, growing competition from Portugal, which sent Vasco da Gama to India in 1497, prompted Isabella and Ferdinand to fund a third voyage. With difficulty—on account of his tarnished reputation—Columbus gathered a crew to man six ships, which departed Spain in May 1498, reaching Trinidad on July 31, 1498. On August 1, they landed on the mainland, and Columbus thereby became the discoverer of South America.

He also discovered pearls at islands near the coast. This must have been a great relief, for his royal sponsors were continually fuming about Columbus’s failure to harvest the treasure trove they had anticipated. But then came the bad news. Sailing across the Caribbean to Santo Domingo, Columbus found the colonists in revolt. In the meantime, the disgruntled Spanish sovereigns had dispatched a royal commissioner, Francisco de Bobadilla, who arrived from Spain in 1500 to straighten matters out. He summarily stripped the Columbus brothers of governing authority and sent them back to Spain in chains.

The captain of the returning vessel thought Columbus had gotten a raw deal and removed the shackles, but Columbus dramatically insisted that he appear before Isabella and Ferdinand in chains. The conscience-stricken pair immediately ordered him freed. In May 1502, they even sent him on a fourth and final voyage. Landing briefly at Martinique, Columbus sailed on to Santo Domingo, only to be refused permission to land. He explored the Central American coast and was marooned for a year in Jamaica because his wooden vessels had been thoroughly rotted by shipworm. Subsequently rescued, he reached Spain in November 1504 and died two years later (on May 20, 1506) at Valladolid, still claiming that he had reached Asia and arguing fruitlessly for his family’s right to a share of whatever wealth and power his discoveries might yet yield.

Why We’re Not Called Columbia. In the end, Columbus was cheated even of the honor of having his major discovery named for him. The Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) claimed to have made four Atlantic voyages between 1497 and 1504, although only two have been absolutely confirmed: one in 1499, commissioned by Spain and resulting in the discovery, of Brazil and Venezuela, and another in 1501, to Brazil on behalf of Portugal. Following the 1501 voyage, Vespucci coined the phrase Mundus Novus—New World-to describe the region. The name stuck. Then, in 1507, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller published an account of Vespucci’s voyages, along with a map and Cosmographiae introductio (Introduction to Cosmography), a treatise on mapmaking. It was Waldseemuller who used a Latinized form of Vespucci’s first name to label the region Amerigo Vespucci had explored.

The Least You Need to Know

Columbus was hardly unique in believing the earth to be round. However, he did set sail and persuade a crew that they would not fall off the edge of a flat world.

 Despite the Native Americans’ friendly overtures, the Spanish attacked and suffered retaliation. This inaugurated four hundred years of white-Indian warfare in the Americas.

 Columbus derived little benefit from his four voyages; even the land mass he discovered, America, was named for a later explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.

Stats. For your information, the actual circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,902 miles. The distance from the Spanish coast to the Bahamas, via the route Columbus took, is about 3,900 miles.

Voice from the Past. The letter of Christopher Columbus to Luis de Santangel, February 15, 1493:


As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition.

The land there is elevated, with many mountains and peaks. They are most beautiful, of a thousand varied forms, accessible, and full of trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to touch the sky, and I have been told that they never lose their foliage. I saw them as green and lovely as trees are in Spain in the month of May. Some of them were covered with blossoms, some with fruit, and some in other conditions, according to their kind. The nightingale and other small birds of a thousand kinds were singing in the month of November when I was there. There were palm trees of six or eight varieties, the graceful peculiarities of each one of them being worthy of admiration as are the other trees, fruits and grasses. There are wonderful pine woods, and very extensive ranges of meadow land. There is honey, and there are many kinds of birds, and a great variety of fruits. Inland there are numerous mines of metals and innumerable people.


Hispaniola is a marvel. Its hills and mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages. There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island. They have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because although they are well-made men of commanding stature, they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.


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