Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

Christopher ColumbusChristopher Columbus  Christopher Columbus was born in the Italian seaport of Genoa in 1451, to a family of wool weavers. As a child he helped his father at the loom and then as a young lad went to sea. He became an experienced sailor and moved to Lisbon in Portugal to try and gain support for a new journey he was planning. He visited the courts of the kings and queens of Europe asking for help and money. Finally Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain, agreed to support him.

What did Columbus want to do?

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Europeans wanted to find sea routes to the East. Columbus wanted to find a new route to the Far East, to India, China, Japan and the Spice Islands. If he could reach these lands, he would be able to bring back rich cargoes of silks and spices. Columbus knew that the world was round and realised that by sailing west, instead of east around the coast of Africa, as other explorers at the time were doing, he would still reach the East and the rich Spice Islands.

Why did he want to sail west?

Columbus thought that by sailing west he would find a quicker and easier route to the East. He thought that the earth was smaller than it is, and like all other Europeans at that time, he did not know about the existence of America.

What ships did he use?

Model of a mid-15th century Portuguese caravelModel of a mid-15th century Portuguese caravel In 1492 Columbus set sail from Palos in Spain with three ships. Two, the Nina and the Pinta were caravels, small ships with triangular sails. The third, the Santa Maria, was a nao, a larger square-rigged ship. The ships were small, between 15 and 36 metres long. Between them they carried about 90 men.

What did he find?

After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for 10 weeks, land was sighted by a sailor called Rodrigo Bernajo. Columbus himself took the credit for this sighting. He landed on a small island in the Bahamas which Columbus named San Salvador. He claimed the island for the king and queen of Spain. The people living on the islands that Columbus went to were called the Arawaks and the Caribs. Although the Arawaks were peaceful people, the Caribs were more war-like. Columbus called all the people he met in the islands Indians because he was sure that he had reached the Indies. When Columbus reached Cuba, he thought it was the mainland of Japan.

What was the return journey like?

Portuguese carracks off a rocky coastPortuguese carracks off a rocky coast by the circle of Joachim Patinir, circa 1540. Repro ID: BHC0705 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird CollectionOn Christmas Day 1492, the Santa Maria hit a rock and was wrecked. Columbus transferred to the Nina and left behind the 39 crew members of the Santa Maria on the island of Hispaniola. He wanted them to start a new settlement. Columbus reached Spain in March 1493, and claimed his reward in riches. He was also given new titles. He was made Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor of the Indies.

What other journeys did Columbus make?

Columbus made three more journeys across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean. He was sure that he had found Cipangu (Japan) but he was still looking for India and the wealthy cities that he believed were nearby. The king and queen of Spain were anxious to spread Christianity to the lands that Columbus had visited.

Did Columbus end his life as a rich man?

Columbus died in 1506, a lonely and disappointed man. He died still believing that he had found a new route to the East Indies. Although on his fourth voyage he landed on the South American mainland, he never did set foot on the mainland of North America.