Throughout most of the United States, Columbus Day
is celebrated on the second Monday in October. The holiday honors Christopher
Columbus, who is commonly called the discoverer of America. All of North and
South America and some cities in Spain and Italy honor this brave explorer,
although we know now that he was not the first European to land in the New World.
Historians are convinced that Lief Ericson, a viking seaman, touched the coast
of North America in 1000 A.D. -almost 500 years before Columbus's first voyage.
But Lief Ericson's expedition did not affect world history since it did
not lead to mass migrations and the development of the Americas. On the other
hand, Columbus's voyages opened the Western Hemisphere to millions of European
Christopher Columbus Columbus was born in Italy in 1451. He grew up in Genoa, an important Italian seaport. As a boy, he helped his father, a wool-weaver. While he wove, he dreamed of a life at sea. When he was about 19, Columbus began making sea voyages. In 1477, his travels brought him into Lisbon, Portugal, where his brother owned a map-making shop. Columbus stayed in Lisbon, joined his brother's business, and married a Portugese girl. To please his wife, Columbus his career a sailor and became a map-maker. But when his wife died shortly after their son was born, Columbus began to think of the sea again.
During the 15th century, the Portuguese were looking for
a sea route to the Indies. At that time, the name Indies referred to India,
China, the East Indies, and Japan. They wanted to bring gold, jewels, spices,
perfumes, and silks from the Orient back to Europe. When brought by land, these
riches had to be loaded on camels and carried across deserts. Travelers were
often attacked, and valuable goods were stolen. It would be easier, faster
and safer to import these luxuries by sea.
The Portuguese had tried to reach the Orient by sailing around Africa. Columbus thought he had a better route. He believed that a ship could reach the East by sailing west. Columbus made only one important mistake: he underestimated the size of the earth. He never guessed that the huge continents of North and South were between Europe and Asia.
Columbus was not trying to prove that the world was round. The educated people of his time already knew that. Columbus was simply looking for a short sea route to the East. He promised wealth and new territory to the king who would provide funds for his expedition. He also wanted fame and wealth for himself if his expedition succeeded.
The king of Portugal refused to pay for Columbus's explorations because the court's experts advised against it. As a result, in 1485 Columbus and his young son Diego went to Spain to ask king Ferdinand and queen Isabella for ships and sailors. The queen was sympathetic. She put Columbus on the royal payroll but could not equip him for the voyage while the Spanish were fighting the Moors. Columbus waited. His red hair turned gray. He developed arthritis. He used up his savings, and his coat and shoes became so full of holes that he had to stay indoors when it rained.
Finally, in 1492, the Spanish conquered Granada. Isabella was able to give more thought to Columbus's idea. King Ferdinand did not want to spend the money because the recent wars had been very expensive, so Isabella offered to pawn her jewels to finance the trip. But this sacrifice was not necessary. The treasurer of Spain supplied most of the funds from the national treasury and from his own savings. The total investment, for which Columbus had waited seven years, was the equivalent of just $14,000!
For his first voyage, Columbus had three ships: the Pinta,
the Nina, and the Santa Maria. The entire crew of all three ships numbered about
87. The ships had good compasses but in instruments to measure distance. Fortunately,
Columbus was able to navigate by looking at the stars.
The ships sailed from the Canary Islands on September 6, 1492. The crew lost sight of land on September on September 9. Then the ships sailed straight west for three weeks, the longest anyone had ever sailed in one direction without seeing land. The sailors were frightened. They knew that the world was round, and they were not afraid of falling off the edge. But they were afraid that the winds from the east would keep them from reaching their destination and that they would die at sea. The crew begged Columbus to turn back; there were even whispers of mutiny.
On October 10, everyone agreed to sail on for three more days and then turn around if no land was seen. Columbus was optimistic. He had noticed some birds flying overhead and some seaweed on the water's surface. He felt certain that land must be nearby.
Before dawn on October 12, just 36 days after leaving the Canary islands, the sailors were overjoyed to see white sand shining in the moonlight. Columbus's ships were approaching an island in the Bahamas, an island which Columbus named San Salvador.
When the ships landed, the sailors were greeted by strange-looking people who wore no clothes. Because Columbus thought he had landed on an island in the Indies near Japan or China, he called these natives Indians. To this day, we refer to the islands which Columbus discovered and explored as the West Indies, and we call the descendants of the people he found there American Indians(or Native Americans).
The three ships spent only a few days at San Salvador. Then they sailed on to Cuba and Haiti, where the Santa Maria was wrecked. On January 16, 1493, the Pinta and Nina set sail for Spain. The voyage home was extremely rough, but Columbus was a brilliant navigator. On March 15, his ships arrived safely in Palos, Spain.
Columbus was a great national hero when he returned from this first expedition, but his popularity did not last. He made three more trips to explore the West Indies and South America. Some Spanish settlers remained in the new land to form a colony called Hispaniola(where Haiti and the Domnican Republic are now located.) These settlers had expected to find huge supplies of gold and other riches. Instead, they found primitive living conditions, strange foods, hard work, and constant danger. They blamed Columbus for their disappointment. Many went back to Spain and complained about him. Others stayed and rebelled against his leadership. The king and queen sent a representative to settle the trouble in Hispaniola. The representative put Columbus
and his brother in chains and sent them back to trial. When they arrived in Spain, the King and the Queen freed them, but Columbus was replace as a governor of Hispaniola.
In a final attempt to regain his good name and wealth, Columbus began his fourth and last voyage. He left Spain in the spring of 1502 and returned in the winter of 1504. Before Columbus could appear in court, Queen Isabella died. In great pain from arthritis, Columbus went to King Ferdinand to request the money and titles which he had been promised. The King turned down his request.
During his last years, Columbus was a forgotten man with few friends and very little money. He was in much pain and scarcely able to move because of his arthritis. He dies in 1506 at the age of 54.
Although he was unappreciated during his lifetime, Columbus today is an international hero. Columbus is admired for his courage, self-confidence, and persistence. In school, many children memorize famous poem by Joaquin Miller about Columbus. The closing lines explain what Columbus symbolizes to the hemisphere he discovered.
He gained a world: he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: "On! Sail on!"