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On This Day: Columbus Lands in Caribbean

October 12, 2011 06:00 AM
by Jennifer Ferris
On Oct. 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus made landfall on a small island in the Caribbean. His historic voyage ignited the age of exploration and cross-Atlantic expansion by European settlers.

Land, Ho!

Shortly after 2 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 12, 1492, a crewmember aboard the Spanish ship Pinta spotted land. The Pinta and the two ships she traveled with, the Nina and the Santa Maria, all drew in their sails and waited for sunrise. They had achieved their goal: to find the continent west of the Atlantic Ocean.

Several hours later, Christopher Columbus and several members of his crew sailed to shore to meet the native people. “As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force,” Columbus wrote in his journal, “I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us.”

Columbus named the new land San Salvador and claimed it for Spain. He continued sailing among what are now considered to be the Bahamas, and visited Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Cuba, the latter of which he took to be the mainland of Asia.

Background: Sailing to Asia

Contrary to popular legend, Columbus did not believe the Earth was flat. He did severely underestimate the size of the Earth, believing the distance from Europe to Asia to measure about 4,450 kilometers, about a fifth of the actual distance. Critics contended that Columbus would never be able to reach Asia sailing through the Atlantic Ocean.

After repeatedly pitching his idea to various European governments, he was finally given approval and funding by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain. Although they didn’t actually believe Columbus could make it, after recent political victories the Spanish throne was willing to take a risk to gain a leg up in the European trade markets.

Columbus was promised glorious titles, such as admiral of the islands and continent, if he discovered new trade routes.

Biography: Christopher Columbus

Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, sometime between August and October 1451 to weaver Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa. Reports of his early life are conflicting and not much is known about the exact circumstances of his upbringing. It is believed that he first went to sea as a teenager, and also reportedly spent time working in the family business.

At the start of his naval career, he was often engaged in trading voyages throughout the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Beginning in 1476, he often sailed into the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes down the coast of Africa. It was during this time that he began to formulate his plans to establish a new shipping route to Asia.

After three voyages to the Caribbean, Columbus was jailed by the Spanish Crown for abuses to the natives while abroad. He was stripped of his titles and much of his fortune.

Columbus died in May 1506, though he traveled nearly as much after his death as he did while alive. He was buried in Seville, Spain, where he lay until 1542, when his body was exhumed and transported to Hispaniola. In 1795 or 1796, he was moved again, to Havana, Cuba. In 1898, he was returned to Seville.

Columbus’ legacy is now a fiercely debated subject, with some crediting him for opening the door to westward exploration and others calling him a purveyor of genocide.

Nonetheless, he is honored today with hundreds of monuments, geographic landmarks and Columbus Day in the United States, which is observed on the second Monday in October.

The Post-Columbian Age

No sooner had Columbus returned from the new world than Amerigo Vespucci was off to explore its shores. Unlike Columbus, Vespucci realized that the lands he visited were not Asia, but were a new continent.

Soon expeditions from Europe left on a regular basis to plumb the treasures to be found in these distant lands. For the most part, the Europeans flourished as a result of these new trade routes, but the native people did not.

Older Voyages to the “New” World

Columbus was not the first outside visitor to the Americas. Scientists differ on exactly who and when, but they know that Vikings led by Leif Eriksson crossed the Atlantic nearly 500 years before Columbus. There are theories that some Native American tribes crossed the Bering Strait from Asia. Others believe explorers from India were among the first to make contact with American natives.

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