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Columbus's Voyage to the New World and His Legacy

In 1492, a navigator crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the New World. He was Italian, but he was sailing for Spain. The navigator was Christopher Columbus. Columbus is credited with the discovery of America. Of course, he was not the first to reach the New World. Native Americans had lived there for thousands of years. The Europeans of Columbus's time, however, knew nothing about America.

At the time of Columbus's voyage, Spain and other nations were building empires around the world. Thus Columbus's discovery led to the founding of European colonies in the New World. Eventually, they led to the America we know today.

Columbus Goes to Sea

Columbus was born in 1451 in the Italian port of Genoa. He went to sea while still a boy, at first on short coastal voyages. By the time he was in his twenties, he was making longer trips. In 1476, Columbus sailed on a ship bound for England. A French privateer (a private ship licensed to attack an enemy) sank the ship; Columbus was stranded. He made his way to Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon was then a center of trade and exploration.

In Portugal, Columbus made voyages for several traders. He also married, and he studied the latest theories of navigation. By this time, educated people knew that the Earth was round, not flat as had been thought for centuries. But they thought the world was very small. Columbus believed he could find a short route to the East Indies, as Asia was then called. He would do this by sailing west around the globe. This was a revolutionary idea.

In Columbus's day, demand for silk and spices had led traders to explore routes to the East Indies. Thus Europeans were familiar with parts of Africa and Asia. In the 1400s, longer voyages were made possible by improvements in ships and navigation techniques.

In 1484, Columbus asked the ruler of Portugal to fund a voyage to find a western route to the East Indies. The ruler said no, so in 1485 Columbus left for Spain. Finally, in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain backed Columbus's voyage. They gave him ships and crews. And they promised him rich rewards if the trip was successful.

Columbus's Voyage to the New World

Two of Columbus's three ships, the Niña and the Pinta, were caravels. These were small ships used for coastal trading. The flagship, the Santa María, was only slightly larger. Columbus was brave to set out in these small ships. But in fact, he thought the trip would be short. He had underestimated the distance to Asia. And he had no idea that America lay in between.

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The expedition sailed west from Spain on August 3, 1492. The crew sighted land on October 12, on one of the Bahama Islands. Columbus claimed the land for Spain, naming the island San Salvador. He believed he had reached the East Indies, and so he called the island people Indians. In fact, he was in the Americas, not far from the coast of North America.

After further exploration, Columbus returned to Spain. With him, he brought gold bracelets, strange plants, and even several Native Americans. He was greeted as a hero. Ferdinand and Isabella may have doubted that he had reached Asia. But they were encouraged by the gold. They sent Columbus back the next year to found a settlement.

The Shaky Beginnings of an Empire

Columbus founded the settlement on the island of Hispaniola, in the Caribbean Sea. But he was a poor governor. He dealt harshly with the Indians. And the settlers only wanted to hunt for gold. They began to complain about Columbus. In 1500, he was replaced as governor and sent back to Spain.

Columbus hoped his last trip to the New World, in 1502, would restore his fame and fortune. He explored the coast of Central America. But he never found a passage to the East Indies. He returned to Spain in 1504. There, in his last years, he was not at all well known. He was bitter and unhappy. He died on May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, Spain.

Columbus's Legacy

Many historians believe that other Europeans reached the Western Hemisphere before Columbus. There are theories that Phoenician, Roman, and Irish sailors made the trip. And there is evidence that Vikings reached America in about the year 1000.

Columbus, however, seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Europeans were ready to explore and colonize distant lands. And new technology made it possible for them to do so.

Columbus also discovered routes that took advantage of the trade winds (winds that blow almost always from the east). This made the Atlantic crossing fairly simple. Other explorers followed his lead. Within a few years, Europeans began to realize how vast the two American continents were.

Europeans also realized the potential of the New World. Spain and Portugal began to conquer and colonize the Americas. They were followed by the Netherlands, France, and England. There were dark chapters in this story. Indian civilizations were destroyed. And slavery was established in the colonies. Still, the outcome was the growth of the societies that exist today in the Western Hemisphere.

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