Christopher Columbus’s Voyages: Route & Legacy

Christopher Columbus’ voyages are known for their historical achievements. Discover the routes of his voyages, the geographical calculations he made, his pursuit of government support, and the role of Bartolome de Las Casas in disproving his supposed legacy. Updated: 09/13/2021

Motivations for European Exploration

It’s been about five hundred years since Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas. While many myths and legends have distorted actual events and have disguised the historical Columbus, few stories in history are more familiar than the one of Columbus sailing west for the Indies and finding instead the New World. Indelibly imprinted in our memory is the verse from childhood: ‘In fourteen hundred ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’

But when Columbus set sail, he was also in search of wealth. In addition to the Bible and The Travels of Marco Polo, he carried with him the words of his patron, King Ferdinand of Spain: ‘Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all hazards – get gold.’

After 1453, warfare in eastern Europe and Asia, as well as the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, made overland trade difficult. Europeans began looking for an all-water sea route to India and East Asia. By this time, there were technological innovations, such as improved navigational instruments and sails, which contributed to the creation of ships that enabled Europeans to undertake global exploration. One result of this was that Portuguese sailors ventured further and further southward along the Atlantic coast of Africa, searching for a new route to Asia. The Portuguese did ultimately reach India in 1498, thereby dramatically expanding Europe’s vision of the world.

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  • 0:04 Motivations for…
  • 1:30 Geographical Considerations
  • 2:18 Columbus’ Quest for Support
  • 2:57 Columbus’ Voyages
  • 5:05 Columbus’ Legacy
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary

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Geographical Considerations

Italy, with centuries of seafaring experience to draw on, also produced navigators and cartographers. One of these men was Columbus, a Genoese sailor and map maker. He emigrated to Portugal in 1476, where he married the daughter of a ship’s captain who had sailed with the Portuguese exploratory expeditions. Columbus examined the geographical information available in his day; he studied the works of Marco Polo and of Muslim and ancient Greek geographers, and he came to the conclusion that the shortest sea trip to the East would be not southward around Africa, but westward across the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus calculated the distance from Europe to Japan at fewer than 5,000 miles – about a quarter of what it actually is – near enough for a ship to arrive without resupplying with food and water.

Columbus’ Quest for Support

Columbus tried to persuade the Portuguese government to fund his expedition; however, Portugal decided that its African explorations were a better investment. Not being a man to give up, Columbus approached Spain, a new nation formed in 1469 by the marriage of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand V of Aragon. Finally, in 1492, Isabella agreed to finance his voyage; she hoped that, by risking the equivalent of $7,200 and the use of two of their ships, this new route to the Indies would not only make the recently unified Spain rich, but also make it possible to convert hundreds of millions of Asians to the Catholic faith.

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Columbus’ Voyages

Columbus set sail with his three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria; five weeks later, they made landfall on an island at precisely the point where he expected to find land, after what was, in fact, a voyage of fewer than 4,000 miles. Most likely, this was one of the islands in the Bahamas called Guanahaní by the native Taíno, which Columbus renamed San Salvador.

Columbus was certain that he had reached islands off the eastern coast of Japan; he refused to accept the plain evidence that this was an entirely new world. Although the copper-colored people on the island could not understand the Arabic widely understood throughout Africa and Asia, Columbus convinced himself that he had reached the ‘Indies’. That is why he called the natives ‘Indians’, and the area the ‘West Indies’.

Landing in what he thought was the West Indies, Columbus paid little attention to the natural environment of the islands; instead, on each island he visited, he made finding gold a priority. According to the journal he wrote of his voyage, he sought out the gems and metals that the king and queen expected him to bring back to Spain; what he found – not in large quantities – were small pieces of gold jewelry that the native peoples wore.

In order to have his voyage considered a success, Columbus returned to Europe with stories of unimagined riches and newfound lands, of rivers that contained gold, and of mines for gold and other metals. Thus, the search for gold became a fundamental part of the European exploratory expeditions in the Americas from Columbus’ first voyage onward.

Columbus led three more voyages across the Atlantic, in 1493-1496, 1498-1500, and 1502-1504, during which he explored the Caribbean, the coast of Central America, and the northern coast of South America, each time becoming more greedy for gold and treating the natives more savagely. Along the way, he alternately befriended and did battle with the native peoples he called ‘Indians,’ was twice shipwrecked and contended with a rogue’s gallery of Spanish rebels and mutineers. To the end, he never found the passage to Japan or the Indies.

Columbus’ Legacy

So, how are we to judge the historical Columbus – the man and not the legend? Was he a great man? No, if we are to accept the condemnation by his own contemporaries, most damningly by Bartolomé de Las Casas, a priest who arrived in the Antilles in 1502. He later wrote a hard-hitting document entitled ‘A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.’ Las Casas denounced the false promises and unbridled greed of Columbus and his colonialist followers, and he recounted the near-annihilation of the native population of Hispaniola within 50 years of the Europeans’ arrival. We will never know if the course of history might have been any different if Columbus had been a kinder, more generous man. Whatever his original objective, his lust for gold drove him from island to island, and the only future he seemed to anticipate was wealth for himself and his heirs.

Knowing this, we can still consider the audacity of his undertaking and the magnitude of its impact on subsequent history. Columbus did cross the uncharted Atlantic, which was no small feat. He did find new lands and people, and he did return to tell of it so that others could follow, opening the way to intercontinental travel and expansion.

Lesson Summary

In the late 1400s, Europeans began looking for an all-water sea route to India and East Asia. Christopher Columbus calculated the distance from Europe to Japan at fewer than 5,000 miles – about a quarter of what it actually is and set sail with the funds from the Spanish kingdom.

The three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, arrived five weeks later on one of the islands in the Bahamas called Guanahaní. Columbus convinced himself that he had reached the ‘Indies’. That is why he called the natives ‘Indians’, and the area the ‘West Indies’.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, a priest who arrived in 1502, denounced the false promises, greed, and annihilation that Columbus spread. We now know Columbus not as a great man, but still a notable figure in history.

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The First New World Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1492)

Christopher Columbus on a ship with crew

Christopher Minster, Ph.D., is a professor at the ​Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. He is a former head writer at VIVA Travel Guides.

How was the first voyage of Columbus to the New World undertaken, and what was its legacy? Having convinced the King and Queen of Spain to finance his voyage, Christopher Columbus departed mainland Spain on August 3, 1492. He quickly made port in the Canary Islands for a final restocking and left there on September 6. He was in command of three ships: the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María. Although Columbus was in overall command, the Pinta was captained by Martín Alonso Pinzón and the Niña by Vicente Yañez Pinzón.

First Landfall: San Salvador

On October 12, Rodrigo de Triana, a sailor aboard the Pinta, first sighted land. Columbus himself later claimed that he had seen a sort of light or aura before Triana did, allowing him to keep the reward he had promised to give to whoever spotted land first. The land turned out to be a small island in the present-day Bahamas. Columbus named the island San Salvador, although he remarked in his journal that the natives referred to it as Guanahani. There is some debate over which island was Columbus’ first stop; most experts believe it to be San Salvador, Samana Cay, Plana Cays or Grand Turk Island.

Second Landfall: Cuba

Columbus explored five islands in the modern-day Bahamas before he made it to Cuba. He reached Cuba on October 28, making landfall at Bariay, a harbor near the eastern tip of the island. Thinking he had found China, he sent two men to investigate. They were Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic in addition to Spanish. Columbus had brought him as an interpreter. The two men failed in their mission to find the Emperor of China but did visit a native Taíno village. There they were the first to observe the smoking of tobacco, a habit which they promptly picked up.

Third Landfall: Hispaniola

Leaving Cuba, Columbus made landfall on the Island of Hispaniola on December 5. Indigenous people called it Haití but Columbus referred to it as La Española, a name which was later changed to Hispaniola when Latin texts were written about the discovery. On December 25, the Santa María ran aground and had to be abandoned. Columbus himself took over as captain of the Niña, as the Pinta had become separated from the other two ships. Negotiating with the local chieftain Guacanagari, Columbus arranged to leave 39 of his men behind in a small settlement, named La Navidad.

Return to Spain

On January 6, the Pinta arrived, and the ships were reunited: they set out for Spain on January 16. The ships arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, on March 4, returning to Spain shortly after that.

Historical Importance of Columbus’ First Voyage

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that what is today considered one of the most important voyages in history was something of a failure at the time. Columbus had promised to find a new, quicker route to the lucrative Chinese trade markets and he failed miserably. Instead of holds full of Chinese silks and spices, he returned with some trinkets and a few bedraggled Indigenous people from Hispaniola. Some 10 more had perished on the voyage. Also, he had lost the largest of the three ships entrusted to him.

Columbus actually considered the Indigenous people his greatest find. He thought that a new trade of enslaved people could make his discoveries lucrative. Columbus was hugely disappointed a few years later when Queen Isabela, after careful thought, decided not to open the New World to the trading of enslaved people.

Columbus never believed that he had found something new. He maintained, to his dying day, that the lands he discovered were indeed part of the known Far East. In spite of the failure of the first expedition to find spices or gold, a much larger second expedition was approved, perhaps in part due to Columbus’ skills as a salesman.

Sources

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Thomas, Hugh. “Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan.” 1st edition, Random House, June 1, 2004.

The First New World Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1492)

Christopher Columbus on a ship with crew

Christopher Minster, Ph.D., is a professor at the ​Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. He is a former head writer at VIVA Travel Guides.

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How was the first voyage of Columbus to the New World undertaken, and what was its legacy? Having convinced the King and Queen of Spain to finance his voyage, Christopher Columbus departed mainland Spain on August 3, 1492. He quickly made port in the Canary Islands for a final restocking and left there on September 6. He was in command of three ships: the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María. Although Columbus was in overall command, the Pinta was captained by Martín Alonso Pinzón and the Niña by Vicente Yañez Pinzón.

First Landfall: San Salvador

On October 12, Rodrigo de Triana, a sailor aboard the Pinta, first sighted land. Columbus himself later claimed that he had seen a sort of light or aura before Triana did, allowing him to keep the reward he had promised to give to whoever spotted land first. The land turned out to be a small island in the present-day Bahamas. Columbus named the island San Salvador, although he remarked in his journal that the natives referred to it as Guanahani. There is some debate over which island was Columbus’ first stop; most experts believe it to be San Salvador, Samana Cay, Plana Cays or Grand Turk Island.

Second Landfall: Cuba

Columbus explored five islands in the modern-day Bahamas before he made it to Cuba. He reached Cuba on October 28, making landfall at Bariay, a harbor near the eastern tip of the island. Thinking he had found China, he sent two men to investigate. They were Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic in addition to Spanish. Columbus had brought him as an interpreter. The two men failed in their mission to find the Emperor of China but did visit a native Taíno village. There they were the first to observe the smoking of tobacco, a habit which they promptly picked up.

Third Landfall: Hispaniola

Leaving Cuba, Columbus made landfall on the Island of Hispaniola on December 5. Indigenous people called it Haití but Columbus referred to it as La Española, a name which was later changed to Hispaniola when Latin texts were written about the discovery. On December 25, the Santa María ran aground and had to be abandoned. Columbus himself took over as captain of the Niña, as the Pinta had become separated from the other two ships. Negotiating with the local chieftain Guacanagari, Columbus arranged to leave 39 of his men behind in a small settlement, named La Navidad.

Return to Spain

On January 6, the Pinta arrived, and the ships were reunited: they set out for Spain on January 16. The ships arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, on March 4, returning to Spain shortly after that.

Historical Importance of Columbus’ First Voyage

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that what is today considered one of the most important voyages in history was something of a failure at the time. Columbus had promised to find a new, quicker route to the lucrative Chinese trade markets and he failed miserably. Instead of holds full of Chinese silks and spices, he returned with some trinkets and a few bedraggled Indigenous people from Hispaniola. Some 10 more had perished on the voyage. Also, he had lost the largest of the three ships entrusted to him.

Columbus actually considered the Indigenous people his greatest find. He thought that a new trade of enslaved people could make his discoveries lucrative. Columbus was hugely disappointed a few years later when Queen Isabela, after careful thought, decided not to open the New World to the trading of enslaved people.

Columbus never believed that he had found something new. He maintained, to his dying day, that the lands he discovered were indeed part of the known Far East. In spite of the failure of the first expedition to find spices or gold, a much larger second expedition was approved, perhaps in part due to Columbus’ skills as a salesman.

Sources

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Thomas, Hugh. “Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan.” 1st edition, Random House, June 1, 2004.

Source https://study.com/academy/lesson/christopher-columbuss-voyages-route-timeline-quiz.html

Source https://www.thoughtco.com/first-new-world-voyage-christopher-columbus-2136437

Source https://www.thoughtco.com/first-new-world-voyage-christopher-columbus-2136437

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