An engraving of Christopher Columbus by Johann Theodor de Bry.
An engraving of Christopher Columbus by Johann Theodor de Bry.
Credit: Library of Congress

A man of convictions, Christopher Columbus used his strong personality to persuade rulers and scholars to overlook the accepted theories about the size of the Earth to search out a new route to Asia. Although he wasn't the first European to find the American continent (that distinction goes to Viking Leif Ericson), his journeys opened up the trade of goods and ideas between the two lands.

Born by the sea

Born in 1451 to Domenico and Susanna (Fontanarossa), young Christopher grew up in Genoa, Italy. While living in Spain in later years, he went by Cristóbal Colón rather than his given name of Cristoforo Colombo. He was the oldest of five, and worked closely with his brothers in adulthood.

Located on the northwest coast of Italy, Genoa was a seaport city. Columbus completed his formal education at an early age and began sailing on trading trips. In 1476, he traveled to Portugal, where he set up a mapmaking business with his brother, Bartholomew. In 1479, he married Felipa Perestrello Moniz, the daughter of the governor of a Portguese island. Their only child, Diego, was born in 1480. Felipa died a few years later. His second son, Fernando, was born in 1488 to Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.

Round Earth and a route to Asia

In the 1450s, the Turkish Empire controlled northern Africa, blocking Europe's easiest access to the valuable goods of the Orient, such as spices. In a search for an alternative to the dangerous and time-consuming land route, many countries turned their eyes to the sea. Portugal in particular made great strides in finding a route around the southern tip of Africa, eventually rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Rather than circling the southern-stretching continent, Columbus began a campaign to reach Asia by traveling west. Educated people knew that the world was round; the looming question was, just how large was the planet?

The Greek mathematician and astronomer Eratosthenes first calculated its size around 240 BCE, and subsequent scholars had refined the number, but it had never been proven. Columbus argued that the numbers most scholars agreed on were too large, and that the vast land mass of Asia would further shrink the amount of sea travel necessary. His calculations set the world at 66 percent smaller than previous estimates—estimates that were actually impressively close to the Earth's true size.

Columbus first presented his plan to Portugal in 1483, where it was rejected. He went on to Spain, ruled jointly by the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The royal pair were engaged in driving the Muslims from Granada but granted him a salary and a position in the Spanish court. Spain gained control of the southern province in January 1492; in April of the same year, Columbus' plan received approval. He began to plan for his voyage.

Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria

Columbus set sail from the Canary Islands in September 1492. He captained the caravel (a type of Portuguese ship) known as the Santa Maria. Two other ships, the Niña and the Pinta, traveled with him, carrying 90 crew members. On Oct. 12, 1492, they landed on a small island in the Caribbean Sea that Columbus called San Salvador. (This day of his discovery is celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States on the second Monday of October; other countries in the Americas also celebrate it under various names.)

Certain that he had arrived in the East Indies, Columbus dubbed the natives he met Indians. Described by the Italian captain as gentle and primitive, the people were quickly mistreated by the Europeans.

Leaving San Salvador, the crew traveled along the coast of Cuba and Hispaniola (where the present-day countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) are located. On Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria crashed into a reef off of Haiti. Forty men remained at a hastily built fort to hunt for gold when Columbus took the Niña and Pinta back to Spain to announce his success. Several captive natives were taken to prove he had achieved his goal, though a number of them did not survive the rough sea voyage.

Columbus wasn't the first European to land in the New World. Vikings had reached the land several hundred years previously. But their journeys were scattered, and word of them never spread enough for most of Europe to learn about it.

After Columbus' voyage, goods, people, and ideas were traded between the two continents.

Three more trips

Columbus made three more journeys to the New World over the remainder of his life, searching for the mainland of Asia. On his return, he led 17 ships with about 1,500 men back to the islands where he had been appointed governor. They found no sign of the men they had left behind only a few short months before. Columbus settled his company along several smaller forts along the coast of Hispaniola.

Problems quickly erupted as the colonists and investors realized that the easy gold Columbus had promised did not exist. Within a short span of time, a dozen of the ships, filled with discontent voyagers, returned to Spain. Relationships with the native Taino people became more challenging, as they resisted efforts by the Spanish to force them into searching for gold. With criticism of his management of the colony reaching the ears of the monarchs, Columbus returned to Spain and managed to successfully defend himself from the complaints.

In 1498, Columbus took six ships to search for the Asian mainland south of the area he had already explored. Instead, he found the coast of Venezuela. When he returned to Hispaniola, he gave land to the settlers and permitted the enslavement of the Taino people to work it. Complaints still trickled back to Spain, and eventually the monarchs sent a commissioner to investigate. Shocked by conditions at the colony, the commissioner arrested Columbus and his brothers and sent them back to Spain for trial. The brothers were released by the king and queen, but Columbus was removed from his position as governor of Hispaniola.

In 1502, Columbus made a last-ditch effort to find the bulk of Asia. He set sail with his son Ferdinand. The company traveled along the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Two ships were beached on the northern coast of Jamaica due to leaks, and the crew was stranded for nearly a year before being rescued and returning home.

Columbus returned to Spain in 1504. He died two years later, on May 20, 1506, still believing he had found a water route to Asia.

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