There is no doubt that Columbus’ voyage was one of the most important expeditions that took place at that time, but it is ironic that this great discovery was actually the result of one of the momentous miscalculations in history. On August 2, 1492, three ships departed the Spanish port of Palos (1, p67) and as they disappeared over the horizon, the majority of onlookers must have thought that it would be the last sight of the ships and their crew of ninety, of which one man was the stubborn captain and general of this tiny fleet of ships - Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus (who is also known as Cristoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) was born in 1451 in Genoa, an Italian port city. His father was Domenico Colombo, a weaver, and most historians say that Christopher entered this trade as a young man. However, information about his childhood is sparse and uncertain, and some say he went to sea at fourteen, sailing as a commercial agent in his youth. In the mid-1470s he made his first trading voyage to the island of Khios, in the Aegean Sea. During that time he also sailed with a convoy heading for England, and legend has it that the fleet was attacked by pirates of the coast of Portugal. Whether that is true or not, Columbus’ ship did sink near the Portuguese coast and he had to swim to the Portuguese shore with an oar as a float. After taking refuge in Lisbon he settled there, where his brother Bartholomew Columbus was working as a cartographer. In 1479 he was married to the daughter of the governor of the island of Porto Santo. One year later, Columbus’ only child of this marriage, named Diego Columbus, was born. Portugal was known to be the west-most country on the Earth and it was therefore the natural gathering point for sailors seeking adventure. (3)

Columbus’ now extensive knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean (then called the Ocean Sea) and theories by other traveller’s that the Earth was round, was what sparked off his interest in reaching Asia by sailing west and he began to read and closely study charts and maps. One book in particular made Columbus make a big miscalculation as to the distance to Asia by going west, a mistake that actually made him more confident that the ‘sailing west to get to the east’ theory was possible. That book was the biblical Second Book of Esdras. In it were four main ideas: (1) the Earth is round; (2) the distance by land between the edge of the West (Spain) and the edge of the East (then known as “India,” now more generally known as Asia) is very long; (3) the distance by sea between Spain and “India” is therefore very short; (4) the length of a degree is 562/3 miles. (2, p605)

The mile measurement in this book were what caught Columbus out. They were not the standard Arabic miles - 1,975.5 metres - which would have made the distance around the equator remarkably accurate at that time, but instead Italian - 1,477.5 metres. Therefore, Columbus concluded that the Earth was 25 percent smaller than what was previously thought, and following on from that he calculated that it composed mostly of land. On the basis of these faulty beliefs, he decided that Asia could be reached very quickly by sailing west. (2, p605)

In 1484 he submitted his theories to John II, king of Portugal, petitioning him to finance a westward crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. His proposal was rejected by a royal maritime commission because of his miscalculations and because Portuguese ships were already rounding Africa. (3)

Soon after, Columbus moved to Spain, where his plans won the support of several influential persons, and he secured an introduction, in 1486, to Isabella I, Queen of Castile. About this time, Columbus, then a widower, met Beatriz Enriquez, who became his mistress and the mother of his second son, Ferdinand Columbus. In Spain, as in Portugal, a royal commission rejected his plan. Columbus continued to seek support, and in April 1492 his persistence was rewarded: Ferdinand V, King of Castile, and Queen Isabella agreed to sponsor the expedition. The signed contract stated that Columbus was to become viceroy of all territories he located; other rewards included a hereditary peerage and one-tenth of all precious metals found within his jurisdiction.

Columbus asks Ferdinand and Isabella to fund his voyage

It is clear today that Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t finance the expedition because they thought it would succeed, but because the advantage Spain would have if it did succeed and the money and treasures that would come back as a result outweighed the very low investiture needed to finance it. In May 23, 1492, a local official of Palos read an official document from the King and Queen that stated that two caravels, equipped for a year long journey were to be prepared and that they should be ready to leave within ten days. This impounding of two of the three vessels that were needed would make the cost of the project even less. The city provided the Pinta and the Niña, two small caravels, each about fifteen metres (about fifty feet) long, which were commanded by Martín Alonzo Pinzón and his brother Vicente Yáñez Pinzón. The third boat, La Gallega, that was to be the flagship was funded for by the royalty. It belonged to Juan de la Cosa and was effectively rented for the expedition, and was renamed Santa María by Columbus. The Santa María was a decked ship about thirty metres (about one hundred feet) long and was navigated under Columbus’ command, with the Juan de la Cosa acting as owner and master. (1, p63-p65)

With three ships being prepared, one thing remained that was necessary - the crew - and Columbus, Ferdinand, Isabella and all of Spain knew that it would be hard to find enough people willing to sail on a voyage that few people really thought would succeed. Much of the general public still believed that the world was flat and that Columbus would simply sail too close to the edge, get caught in a flow of water and fall off, plunging to his death. Another big worry was that sea monsters, many times the size of the ships would be waiting for them. The King and Queen’s initial policy for recruitment was to select eighty-seven convicts and send them on the voyage as an alternative to the death penalty. It would no doubt of successfully garnered the crew, but Columbus did not want to be in charge of almost ninety convicts, untrained, superstitious, frightened, and ready to revolt. He went to the Queen and asked if he could have a more manageable crew, but she said she could not oblige. (2, p606) Fortunately, Columbus had made some friends in Palos and one of these was Martín Alonso Pinzón, the head of a seafaring family and generally regarded as the best sailor in the area. Pinzón supported Columbus because he saw that the Enterprise of the Indies offered a great deal of money. Anticipating that Columbus would succeed, he knew that if he supported it he might receive a considerable sum of money and so decided to give Columbus some assistance.

His recruitment policy was very relaxed, and very cunning. He would simply walk into inns and taverns that he knew to be the favourite places for sailors, and enticed them with tales of the fabulous adventures and the beautiful paradise that awaited them, of the gold-roofed palaces, of the beautiful jewel-bedecked women of the Orient and the fame that they would receive. With his support, Columbus quickly gathered up a well-trained crew, totalling ninety including himself and the other two captains, and only four of these were convicts. (1, p64,65)

The preparation of the ships took far longer than ten days, but by August 2, everything was in order and ready to leave. (1, p67)

Ferdinand and Isabella bid Columbus farewell as he is rowed to the three ships

First Voyage
The fleet of three sailed from Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492, carrying 90 men. The immediate destination was to be the Canary Islands, to take on extra supplies for the long voyage and six days out the ships docked at Grand Canary Island. The planned stop should have taken only a couple of days, but they were delayed when it was learned that the Pinta’s rudder had broken off it’s hinges. While repairs took place, the no doubt anxious crew enjoyed their last few weeks on dry land and on September 6, the day after the rudder had been repaired, the three vessels again weighed anchor and sailed due west. Columbus had noticed that east winds prevailed at the latitude they were at and so he stayed at that latitude, travelling due west with the wind at full speed. (1, p67) The fleet maintained this course until October 7 when, at the suggestion of Martín Pinzón, it was altered to south-west. (3) Meanwhile, the experienced crews grumbled about their foreign commander's failure to find his way, to the point that Columbus promised to turn back if land wasn’t sighted before sunset on October 13. As the night of October 11 fell, a disappointed Columbus put himself to bed. (1, p81)

Before dawn on October 12 land was sighted, and early in the morning the expedition landed on Guanahaní, an island in the Bahamas. Before an audience of uncomprehending natives, Columbus claimed that, by right of conquest, their island now belonged to Spain and renamed it San Salvador (“Holy Saviour”) as he planted the Spanish flag in the sand. Additional landings made during the next few weeks included the islands of Cuba, which Columbus named Juana, in honour of a Spanish princess, and Española, later corrupted to Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), all incorrectly believed by Columbus to be in Asian waters. (3) The natives were named by Columbus and the crew the “Indios” or Indians (1, p81)

Columbus was very disappointed when he failed to find a gold mine or the Palace of the Grand Kahn, but remained convinced that such things lay nearby and so the fleet set sail again in towards the end of that month, landing in Cuba, thought by Columbus to be Cipango, on October 28. (1, p82-83) Meanwhile, the Pinta and it’s crew had gone off to perform continued exploration to try and find the riches they the sought. (1, p83)

The natives, who were naked, friendly and primitive, did not speak any recognisable language, but continually referred to the name “Cubanacan,” meaning a city on Cuba. To Columbus, this sounded like Great Kahn and that could only mean his palace was near. (1. p83) The natives were being very helpful to Columbus and his crew, and on December 16 as a mark of respect to the misnamed Indians, Columbus invited the local chieftain to dine with him aboard the Santa Maria. (1, p85) Columbus realised that Cuba was not mainland India and so on Christmas Eve of 1492, the two ships set off again. They had only been sailing for an hour but just off the coast, the two ships became becalmed for forty-eight hours, and somehow, a ship’s boy was left with the rudder “just for a moment” while the helmsman took a nap. Gently, the Santa María drifted towards the coast, and ran aground on a coral reef. She was wrecked but most of the crew made it to the nearby Nina. (1, p86-87). For Columbus, that was the end of his voyage. There was still no sight of the Pinta, and Columbus could not risk anything happening to his one remaining ship. (1, p87) La Navidad, a makeshift fort, was built of materials salvaged from the vessel, and garrisoned with fewer than 40 men - not everyone could be carried home. (3) The Niña, with Columbus in command began the homeward voyage in January 1493 and about fifteen days later was reunited with the Pinta. After storms drove the ships first to the Azores and then to Lisbon, Columbus arrived at Palos, Spain, in March. He was enthusiastically received by the Spanish monarchs, who confirmed the honours guaranteed by his contract. Additional honours followed, including a noble title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and a royal coat of arms. (3)

Second Voyage
Columbus planned immediately for a second, less modest expedition, with 17 vessels and about 1500 men, which left Spain in September 1493. Landings were made on the islands of Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Antigua. His stop at Puerto Rico is the closest he came to setting foot on land that would later form part of the United States, the main foundation for the claim that Columbus “discovered America.” (3)

On November 27 at night the vessels anchored off La Navidad and flares and torches were lit and guns fired, but without response from the shore. Only as day broke was the truth of the situation revealed to the fleet - the fort had been destroyed and its men killed. (1, p93/96) Columbus abandoned the ruins, and near what is now Cape Isabella, Dominican Republic, he established the colony of Isabella, which became the first settlement of Europeans in the New World. Leaving the colony on an exploratory voyage in the spring of 1494, he surveyed the coast of Cuba, which he insisted was not an island but part of the Asian mainland, and looked over the island of Jamaica. (2, p607)

When Columbus returned to Isabella on September 29, he found that serious dissension had developed among the colonists, a number of whom were already en route to Spain to press their grievances - the promises of women and gold had not happened and as a result, they had set up riotous groups who attacked one another and the Indians and raped the Indian women. Another major problem confronting Columbus was a by-product of this and it was the hostility of the natives, whose initial friendliness had been alienated by the brutality of the Europeans. (1, p97) Columbus defeated the natives in battle in March 1495 and shipped a large number of them to Spain to sell as slaves. Queen Isabella objected, however, and the survivors were returned. A royal investigating commission arrived at Isabella in October 1495. Because this group was consistently critical of his policies, Columbus established a new capital named Santo Domingo, and sailed for Spain leaving his brother Bartholomew in command. He reported directly to Ferdinand and Isabella, who dismissed the critical charges. The sovereigns promised to subsidise a new fleet, but since enthusiasm for the unproductive enterprise had waned, nearly two years elapsed before eight vessels were sent out. (3)

Routes of all four of Columbus' voyages

Third and Fourth Voyages
Columbus set sail on his third voyage on May 30, 1498. His first landing, made on July 31, was the three-peaked island of Trinidad, named in honour of the Holy Trinity. He then sighted what is now Venezuela. After cruising along the coast he sailed into the Gulf of Paria. At the mouth of the Orinoco River he led a party ashore. In his logbook he wrote that he had found a “New World,” unknown as yet to Europeans. Columbus set sail again, encountering several additional islands, including Margarita, and then laid a course for Española. (2, p609)

Arriving at Santo Domingo on August 31, Columbus found part of the colony in revolt against his brother. (2, p609) He placated the rebels and intensified efforts—fruitless, as it turned out—to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. He also expanded the colony's gold-panning operations. Meanwhile, his enemies in Spain had convinced the monarchs that Española should have a new governor. In May 1499, the crown removed Columbus and appointed Francisco de Bobadilla, who arrived on August 23, 1500, and promptly had Columbus and Bartholomew arrested, shackled in irons, and returned to Spain. Columbus insisted on wearing his chains until the Queen removed them. The monarchs pardoned the brothers and rewarded them, but refused to restore Columbus to his post. Bobadilla, however, was replaced as governor by Nicolás de Ovando. (3)

Although Columbus obtained royal support for a fourth voyage to continue his search for a westward passage to Asia, only four worm-eaten caravels were put at his disposal and he was forbidden to stop at Española. The expedition sailed from Cádiz in May 1502. The ships were in desperate need of repair by the end of the speedy 21-day crossing. Columbus anchored off Santo Domingo, but he was denied permission to enter the harbour despite an approaching hurricane. The storm annihilated a homeward-bound fleet carrying his enemies, including Bobadilla. Only the ship with Columbus's gold on board arrived safely. (2, p610)

After completing makeshift repairs on his vessels, Columbus sailed the waters off Honduras, and then cruised south along the coast of Central America for nearly six months in search of the elusive westward passage. In January 1503 he landed in Panama and established a settlement there, but mutiny in the crew and trouble with the natives led to its abandonment. The expedition, reduced to two caravels, sailed for Española, but the rotten ships foundered near Jamaica on June 23, 1503. Columbus sent a ship to Española to get help, meanwhile forcing the natives to provide food for his men. Relief arrived after a lapse of nearly a year—a deliberate delay by Ovando. The stranded party embarked on June 28, 1504, for Santo Domingo, and then sailed for Spain, reaching Sanlúcar de Barrameda on November 7. Columbus would never sail again. (2, p610)

The final months of his life were marked by illness and vain attempts to secure restitution from King Ferdinand of all his privileges, even though by then Columbus was quite wealthy. When he died on May 20, 1506, at Valladolid, he had been neglected and ignored by the Spanish royal family, despite the fact that his discovery of the Americas would contribute to Spain’s wealth considerably over the next century and on. His remains were later interred in Seville, then transferred to Santo Domingo, moved to Havana, Cuba, and finally returned to Seville in 1899. (Some historians think the bones removed from Santo Domingo were not his, so his remains may still be there.) Wherever Columbus rests, modern research has considerably diminished the heroic reputation he had gained by the 19th century, although his maritime skills continue to be celebrated and probably will be for years to come. (3)

1) Christopher Columbus and the First Voyages to the New World
Stephen C. Dodge
ISBN 0-7910-1299-9
Copyright 1991 by Chelsea House Publishers

2) Encyclopaedia Britannica
15th Edition
Volume 16 Macropaedia
Copyright 1994 by Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.

3) Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia