The 1400's were a century of discovery, a century in which diverse societies had taken root in the Americas, West Africa, and in Asia. Curiosity, desire for the expansion of trade, and the desire for riches led kings, queens, princes and merchants to fund expeditions that would not only expand the known world, but also set their place in history, as we know it.
Henry the Navigator was one such figure, and his three ultimate goals were simple; to find African gold, to learn more about the African country's geography, and to spread Christianity.
Henry the Navigator organized and paid for expeditions that were meant to explore the west coast of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. He also extended invitations to navigators, astronomers, mapmakers, and mathematicians to join him near his home in Sarges, Portugal. Many of these talented men stayed on, leading to the creation of one of the world's first navigational schools.
Prince Henry's contributions also helped the Portuguese to develop a new and improved sailing craft called the caravel. Unlike other sailing vessels, its sails were both triangular and square. Triangular sails enabled the caravel to sail into the wind; square sails carried the vessel forward while the wind was at its back.
The Portuguese reached the southern tip of Africa in 1488. Bartolomeu Diaz, the leader of that voyage, sailed in search of an all water route to Asia, but he never dropped anchor in the area he'd discovered. His crew's insistence that they knew nothing of the strange coastline, combined with their desire to stay out of harms way, led Diaz to turn his sails back toward Portugal, but not before they had sailed around the entire tip. Upon his return, Prince Henry named the area the Cape of Good Hope. He hoped that they'd found a route to Asia.
Ten years later, Vasca de Gama followed that same route, but unlike Diaz, he continued along the eastern coast of Africa and then east across the Indian Ocean to the country of India. After years of exploration, the water route to Asia was discovered. It was possible, and the man we now call Henry the Navigator, a man who'd never sailed on the ships he'd funded found his country taking control of the spice trade and all of the riches that came with it.
Columbus- The Early Years
Little is known about Christopher Columbus' childhood. Columbus was born in Genoa, in 1451. His father, Domenico, was a wool weaver; his mother was Sussanna Fontanarossa.
His education as a child was minimal; Columbus chose the sea as his first school. Leaving home at the age of fourteen, he traveled the world in a ship, schooling himself in the lessons of geography by joining his fellow seamen on journeys to the Aegean Sea, Europe and possibly Iceland. He learned business through experience with trade, and he learned survival skills after being shipwrecked at the age of twenty-five when pirates sank the ship he sailed on. Grabbing hold of an oar he was able to safely swim to shore. Tenacity, intelligence, and strength brought him to Portugal, where he would meet and marry his wife Filipa Moniz Perestrello.
The two would spend five years in Lisbon where Columbus would have the opportunity to reunite with his brother Bartolomeo, a mapmaker, and during which time the two celebrated the birth of their son Diego. In 1485, Columbus found himself mourning the death of his wife and contemplating a decision to relocate. His decision doesn't prove to have been a difficult one, as shortly thereafter Columbus packed up his young son and moved to Spain.
Columbus believed that in Spain he'd be able to obtain a financial grant for the exploration of western trade routes. He believed that because the Earth's shape was a sphere, there were quicker routes than those that had already been discovered, and he believed that those routes could be discovered by sailing west.
Christopher Columbus had never had an extensive education during his childhood, but that did nothing to deter his natural brilliance or eagerness to learn. He spoke several languages, had considerable knowledge of classical literature, and had studied the written works of both Ptolemy and Marinus.
Europeans had been aware of the Earth's circular shape for centuries, and Columbus believed that because of its shape he could reach Asia by sailing west faster than anyone had ever been able to get there by sailing around Africa and heading east. He was confident that this route would be nothing more than a short journey, but he was mistaken.
The mistakes were simple ones, but they were also mountainous. His calculations were based upon the writings of Marco Polo and geographer Paolo Toscallei. Columbus didn't even consider the possibility that their calculations of Asia's size were wrong; he never realized that because of their errors, his own estimate of the world's size would make the Earth only two-thirds the size it really is. Columbus believed the Atlantic Ocean to be a small body of water, but no matter, the King of Portugal's advisors counceled against funding the expedition. The Portuguese were content with the strides they'd made; they owned the spice trade. Why take a chance that was arguable? Columbus was turned down. Undaunted, he turned his sights towards one of Portugal's greatest rivals......... Spain.
Ferdinand and Isabella
Although the Spanish monarchs initially embraced Columbus' plan, their advisors, like those in Portugal found many reasons not to fund the expedition. Ferdinand and Isabella welcomed the opportunity to share in the rich trade of Asia, but the royal council advised against it, citing their doubts about his calculations (sound familiar?), the fact they were currently financially incapacitated by their ongoing war to drive the Muslims out of Spain, and the salary that Columbus was demanding to be paid for his own services.
After years of waiting for funding, Columbus was determined to realize a profit. A large portion of his young adult life had been spent dreaming of exploration and greatness, and he now saw that he also needed to take care of his son, that he needed to leave a legacy, and that there was longer a need for them to live like paupers.
His demand for an exorbitant salary was accompanied by an equally high demand to be titled "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," to be guaranteed profits of any wealth garnered from Asia, and to be named the ruler of any lands he founded. Was he out of line? Maybe, but sailors are dreamers. What do any of us really have if not our dreams? Dreams do come true.
January of 1492, found the Spanish war against the Muslims at an end. The Spanish military's conquering of Spain's last Muslim stronghold gave the monarchs a financial stability that allowed them to set their sights on expansion, but they still had doubts about bowing to all of Columbus' demands. It was then that Columbus turned heel and left the Spanish court, but not for long. Soon, one of the kingdom's most trusted advisors came forward to plead his case.
Queen Isabella supported the riches that the expedition would bring to her country, but even more than that supported the chance this would give her to see that Christianity was spread outside of her homeland. As a ruling Catholic queen, she saw the opportunity to share her religious beliefs with the outside world, and she wanted to take that chance. The advice of a trusted friend was the icing on the cake, a horseman was sent to bring Columbus back, terms were reached and preparations begun.
The Nina, The Pinta, The Santa Maria
Columbus had no problem assembling the ships he'd use for his journey; his troubles came in the form of finding a crew. The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were quickly docked at the port of Palos de Frontera in southern Spain, but they were empty. Who would sail with Columbus into uncharted territory? Who would brave the as yet unknown waters of the Atlantic?
The tide turned when a local ship-owner agreed to sign on as Captain of the Pinta. His contract became something of an advertisement, and shortly after he and Columbus shook hands and put their signatures on paper, ninety other men followed suit. Ships were quickly stocked with enough food, water, firewood, medical and personal necessities to last a year, and on August 3, 1492, they left harbor. The journey had begun!
Columbus was meticulous in his written account of their journey. His daily records have been a wealth of knowledge, but what many people don't know is that he kept not one, but two logs. Columbus' secret log recorded the truth, detailed accounts of each and every day, the things that happened, his own doubts and his own beliefs. His public record contained the things he wanted the crew to hear as he shared his thoughts with them by reading aloud; it was not the truth, but it was meant to keep their spirits up. The crew was frightened, and he would not add to their fears by publicly acknowledging his own.
October 10th found the crews of the ships at wits end. Their confidence in Columbus had diminished, and their bravery had disappeared. No land had been sighted for a month, and the men were afraid of starvation. What if they never reached land and ran out of supplies before they were able to reach home again? They were mutinous, and Columbus was forced to bargain with them. His bargain insured him three more days; three days to reach land or turn around. It was a promise, and a promise that he'd meant to keep, but he didn't have to. Two days later a sailor on board the Pinta shouted, "Tierra, tierra!" Land was sighted, and the expedition was saved.
By noon, on October 12, 1492, the three ships had landed on an island in the Caribbean Sea. Believing that he had reached the Indies, a group of islands in southwest Asia that were home to a multitude of valuable spices, Columbus mistakenly named the natives he met there Indians. Those "Indians" were in fact Taino.
While ordering his crew to bear witness, Columbus unbound the Spanish flags and placed them in the soil. Officially, he believed himself to be taking possession of the island for the Spanish monarchs. He called the island San Salvador, and he then chose six or seven of the "Indians" as guides to help them during the remainder of their journey. Japan was his next stop, or so he thought, and he eagerly set sail once again.
Traveling throughout the Caribbean for next three months, Columbus and his men discovered a multitude of riches. The last leg of their journey found them on the island Columbus went on to name Espanola. Precious objects like gold and pearls were found in abundance, and Columbus now believed without doubt that he had reached his destination, Asia. It was time to return home, to report the glorious things he'd seen and discovered. Further exploration would require additional funds. It was important he return to Spain, and even more important that he share his discoveries with the King and Queen.
In January 1493, Columbus set sail for Spain, leaving 39 members of his crew behind. Anxious, he was certain that his expedition had been a success. He was firm in his belief that he had found the elusive water route to Asia. Nothing he'd seen or heard had led him to believe otherwise, and when he made his report to his sovereigns, neither he nor they suspected that in reality where he'd landed was an area completely unknown to European peoples.
Columbus returned to the islands ten months later only to find that the Taino had killed all of his men. Even before he'd returned to Spain some of Columbus' crew had angered the natives with unnecessary violence, cruelty, and thievery. Their behavior was met with like behavior; their arrogance caused their deaths.
Columbus' final two voyages were also a success. He gained knowledge, but he angered his supporters, and in the end the King and Queen withdrew their support of his endeavors. The monarchy expected three things when they provided the funds for Columbus' expeditions; they expected the treasures they'd been promised and the opportunity to expand their trade amongst other nations, but the bitterest disappointment was felt by the Queen. Columbus did not achieve what was Queen Isabella's ultimate goal of spreading the Christian faith to those who'd never heard the word of God. Instead, she was deluged with reports that the people of Espanola (Hispaniola) had been mistreated and enslaved by the men she'd sent there.
Columbus' fourth voyage to the Americas was his last. Funding was refused; Spain's rulers would give him no more help. At the time of his death, Columbus passed from this world never having garnered the fame and fortune he'd sought for so long. He died an angry man, embittered by what he considered the desertion of those who had once believed in him. He died believing that he'd reached Asia. If only he'd known what he had truly discovered.
The above is a summary of Columbus easily found in today's American textbooks, but who was Columbus? We celebrate Columbus Day and for years credited this great man with the discovery of America. Have you noticed that in recent compilations his feats are treated differently, that there is a lack of respect for what were his very real accomplishments, or that in some circles he is credited with the first mass genocide in history?
The geographical knowledge that Columbus brought back with him to Spain changed the European's view of the world. No, he hadn't found what he was looking for, but if you think about it carefully, what he was looking for had already been found. A shorter water route would have been quite a discovery, but a new discovery? It seems to have taken awhile for that fact to settle in and find a home.
Eventually, Europe came to realize the enormity of what Columbus really had discovered; a new land, a new continent, an ocean that was no longer a mystery. The Atlantic could be crossed, it wasn't the barrier that people had believed it to be, and there was a world of riches at the journey's end. Columbus changed what had been, and he opened a whole new world for exploration; he just didn't know it.
His first voyage proved that the Atlantic could be crossed, that the barrier was more like a bridge connecting Europe and Africa to the Americas than a barrier. The King and Queen of Spain may never have held the riches and treasures they expected from Columbus, but it was indeed Columbus' explorations that began a period of both great wealth and great power for the country of Spain. Along with Portugal, Spain would lead the race to colonize Columbus' Asia, our America.
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI made an important decision in regards to the colonization of the Americas. At the behest of the rulers from both countries, he was to decide who would control the lands that each country was at that time exploring. Spain expected him to decide in their favor, to be given the rights over the majority of newly discovered lands, but Portugal too had made claim. What would his decision be? Who would have his favor?
The Europeans had three main goals for what they hoped would occur in conjunction with colonization. First and foremost was the spread of Christianity; expeditions now included missionaries. Their second goal was to expand their empires, expand their boundaries, and conquer an uncivilized world. The third was simply to become rich.
The Americas as we know them experienced the same transformation during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Natives of the Americas would see the masts of the ships in the distance, uncertain exactly what it was they were seeing. Their communities would gather along the shoreline to watch the giant boats as they neared the shore. Many of those natives would climb into their own much smaller boats to get a closer look. Presents were exchanged, flags were flown, discoveries were made, and people, like it or not were destined to become friends or foes.
The day Columbus set the Spanish flag into the soil of San Salvador he claimed conquest of the island. The Taino would not be so easily vanquished, and truly, who would expect them to be? Those who study history easily see that the old "conquer or be conquered" finds its roots in the beginning of time. It doesn't make it right or wrong; it just makes it the truth.
© 2014 Awdur
Awdur (author) from Chicago on April 09, 2019:
JJRBJ~ Thank you for reading.... I am glad you enjoyed. The journey, my pleasure....
James A Watkins from Chicago on April 06, 2019:
I love your fantastic article. I have no idea why this is not widely read. Thank you for quite a journey.