Christopher Columbus

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1 Christopher Columbus Few historical figures have the legendary status, and the controversy associated with the famous explorer, Christopher Columbus. As with many famous people in history, the story of the flesh and bones Columbus is much more interesting than the two-dimensional legend. Cristoforo Colombo was born in 1451 in the Italian city-state of Genoa at a time of change. Genoa s prosperity depended on the trade made possible by its location on the Mediterranean Sea. Merchants from western Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Orient easily could come together there. It was the wealthiest city in the western Mediterranean. Colombo s father, Domenico, was a prosperous weaver and wool merchant. He also invested in land and property. The family enjoyed moderate wealth. Though we do not know exactly where or how he was educated, we do know Colombo knew five languages and studied literature, geography and philosophy. He was also a member of the weaver s guild. Had conditions remained the same, he might have spent his life in Genoa as a wool merchant, unknown to history. In 1453, however, the Turks captured Constantinople, the gateway to the trade routes of the Middle East and the Orient. Now, Muslim traders could dominate that market. The price of Asiatic trade goods increased, and the profits no longer went to the Genoese merchants. Many young Genoese men, such as Colombo and his brother, Bartolomeo, became interested in a life at sea in the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coastal trade. Colombo went to sea in his early teens, was shipwrecked, and washed up on the Portuguese coast when he was 25. He made his way to Lisbon, where his brother joined him. They worked as mapmakers and book collectors there and sailed on merchant voyages as far as Iceland and Ghana. Eventually Colombo either owned or was master of a ship, and he married the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman. During this time, Colombo thought about reaching the coast of Asia and its valuable products by sailing west across the Atlantic. He had sailed to Africa and probably learned of the Canary Current, a strong east-west current that could carry ships from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas. He also sailed to England, Iceland, Ireland, and northwestern Europe where he may have heard about the Viking Cicero

2 voyages. Vikings had sailed island to island in the western North Atlantic for more than five hundred years and had reached North America. He had read about sailing west to Asia. Colombo brought his idea to the Portuguese government, but the Portuguese already were working to find a route by sailing around Africa. They were not interested. After his wife died in 1485, Colombo wanted to sell his plan in Spain. When he got to Spain, the conflict between Muslims and Christians that had resulted in the fall of Constantinople was causing problems there, too. Muslims had invaded Spain and had been living there since the early eighth century. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were now trying to drive out the Muslims. They had no time for Colombo s plan, since they were involved in a war, but Colombo established a network of contacts in the court and advocated his idea to anyone who would listen. Colombo began using the name, Cristobol Colon, a Spanish version of his name. In 1492, the Spanish defeated the Moors, as the Muslims were called. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella based their authority on the claim that God gave the king and queen the right to rule Spain. They had the support of the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated western Europe. Ferdinand and Isabella felt if there were people in Spain who were not Catholics, they might not recognize the authority of the king and queen. They also firmly believed the Catholic Church was the only true religion. The Muslims were not Catholic and showed little interest in becoming Catholic. This was also true of the people in Spain who were Jewish. Ferdinand and Isabella required them all to either become Catholics or leave Spain. Most left, but became Catholics. The Spanish Inquisition, which Queen Isabella started in 1492 to root out those who claimed to be Catholic but secretly practiced other religions, were tortured or killed. Now Colon was able to get a hearing for his plan from the royal couple. They passed it on to a study commission that correctly calculated that the distance to Asia by sailing west was too great for any ship to survive. Others heard of Colon s plan and convinced Queen Isabella to fund the trip. Colon left Spain with three ships and a combined crew of eighty-nine men on August 3, His crew was all seamen; there were no soldiers, priests, or colonists aboard. This was only to be a voyage of discovery. On October 12, the small fleet came ashore on an island in the Bahamas Colon named San Salvador. Historians still dispute the exact identity of the island. Friendly Taino Indians met the explorers. The Indians were curious about the new arrivals and very willing to trade for the worthless trinkets the sailors offered. The Indians told the sailors Cicero

3 about gold on other islands. The fleet reached present-day Cuba on October 28. The captain of the Pinta took his ship in search of gold on another island, without Colon s permission. The Santa Maria and the Nina went on and landed at presentday Hispaniola on December 5. Exploring the coastline, the Santa Maria ran aground on a reef on Christmas Eve and broke up. Unable to take the crew of both ships on the smaller Nina, Colon had the crew of the Santa Maria build a fort and left forty men on the island until he could return to Spain and come back for them. (When he returned in November the next year, the fort and the nearby Indian village were burned. Some sources say the Indians killed the men because of the Spaniards greed or because they kidnapped some of the Indian women. No one knows for sure.) On January 6, Colon once again joined the Pinta, and the two ships returned to Spain on March 15, Claiming he had reached the East Indies, Colon proved his story with displays of gold ornaments and nuggets, several exotic-looking Indians, tropical birds, and graphic descriptions of all he had seen. He easily received financing for a second voyage with seventeen ships and over a thousand men as well as horses, sheep, and cattle. The new group included soldiers, priests and colonists. They made the crossing quickly in twenty-one days and explored present-day Puerto Rico, Martinique, Jamaica, and Cuba, which Colon assumed to be China. Difficult sailing conditions prevented a thorough exploration of the supposedly Chinese coast, but Colon ordered his men to sign a statement claiming Cuba was so large it must be China. When Colon fell ill, they quit the search and returned to the town Colon had established on Hispaniola, a short distance from the burned fort. Colon named the new town Isabella. They remained in Isabella for a year and a half, but Colon s skills as a navigator and captain were much better than his abilities as the administrator of a colony. He was arrogant and angered his crew and other colonists. They also may have resented him as an outsider, a non-spaniard. He tended to keep a large share of the little gold that was found. This also made him unpopular. Colon spent much time away from Isabella, looking inland for gold and forcing Indians to find it. Meanwhile, he left his son, Diego, in charge of the town; and Diego was an even worse administrator than his father. Additionally, the town was in a poor location with swampy land and limited resources, and relations with the Indians worsened. Colon forced Indians to search for gold for him, although Queen Isabella was more interested in converting the Indians to Catholicism and disapproved of enslaving them. Colon justified it because he thought it would be profitable. Soon fighting broke out. The Spanish had the better weapons, killed many Indians and enslaved others, but conditions in Isabella deteriorated. Colon decided to return to Spain for more men and resources. Cicero

4 Colon s third voyage included six ships and left Spain on May 30, Three ships sailed directly to Hispaniola and Colon took the rest of the ships to explore farther south. The trip was beset by problems with poor winds and water shortages, but they did find the island of Trinidad, named for three large hills that reminded Colon of the Holy Trinity. They also came in sight of the coast of South America for the first time. Feeling ill, Colon ordered the ships back to Hispaniola. When he arrived, he discovered the colonists were in open revolt against his rule because of the inequitable shares of the gold that had been found. By agreeing to what he regarded as humiliating terms, Colon ended the revolt. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were also disappointed with Colon s rule (and meager gold shipments) and appointed a royal commissioner who outranked Colon. When the royal governor arrived, he arrested Colon and the governor sent him back to Spain as a prisoner. When Colon returned to Spain, the king and queen quickly freed him, paid him his share of the voyage s profits, and replaced the commissioner they had sent. However, they did not restore Colon s title, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. It was May 1502 before Colon had sorted out his problems in Spain and organized a fourth voyage. He was 51years old and in poor health. This would be a smaller voyage of four ships and one hundred forty men, including his brother, Bartolomeo, and his 13-year-old son Fernando. This expedition s mission was to find a strait connecting the East Indies with the Indian Ocean. This been mentioned in the journals of Marco Polo. Of course, Colon would not find this strait in Central America. By this time, evidence suggested Colon s discoveries might not be in Asia but were lands unknown to Europeans. Vasco Da Gama had successfully reached India from Portugal, around Africa. John Cabot (an Italian named Giovanni Caboto) had explored the northeast coast of North America and claimed it for Britain. Even Colon had started referring to the lands he explored as another world and a very large continent which until now has remained unknown. When Colon arrived in Santo Domingo, there was a big storm building behind him. As an indication of Colon s damaged reputation, the royal governor in Santo Domingo scoffed at Colon s storm warning, refused permission for Colon s fleet to take shelter in his harbor, and sent a treasure fleet on its way to Spain. Colon warned him the fleet would be sailing into the face of a hurricane, but the governor would not listen. When the storm hit the treasure fleet, most of the ships sank, a few barely made it back to Santo Domingo, and only one of the twentyeight that had sailed, reached Spain. Ironically, this ship was carrying Colon s share of the gold he had collected. About five hundred people were killed, including the former royal commissioner who had sent Colon home in chains from Cicero

5 his last voyage. Colon found a safe spot for his ships in a river near Santo Domingo. His ships weathered the storm. Colon sailed to Honduras and fought stormy seas along the coast. When they reached Panama, they found a strait that looked like the one they were seeking. Colon was confident they had accomplished their mission. Colon and his men also met Indians who traded with them for gold objects. As they moved on, they found less gold; so they tried to go back, but there were storms. Colon and his party reached the mouth of Rio Belen in Panama and tried to build a fort but the Indians were too hostile. Colon gathered his three remaining ships and sailed for Spain. Soon, a ship with its hull infested with woodworms had to be abandoned. The expedition was hit by another storm off Cuba, and the remaining ships were so battered Colon was forced to run them aground on Jamaica. They paid some local Indians to take Captain Diego Mendez and another sailor in two canoes to Hispaniola, paddling a hundred miles; but Mendez was unable to get the Spanish governor s help. He could not return to Jamaica with another ship for a year! Colon finally returned to Spain on November 7, Cristobol Colon became ill not long after his return to Spain and died on May 20, Many sources list his death because of gout, but recent research shows he probably was a victim of Reiter s syndrome, a rare tropical disease. Cristobol Colon, Cristoforo Colombo, or Christopher Columbus died discredited and still convinced he had reached the Asian coast. His share of his voyages profits, however, kept his family wealthy. In spite of what the Spanish thought about Columbus, they still kept coming to the colonies he had founded, built more of them, and stayed. Eventually the Spanish government realized the colonies were not in Asia but in a new, unknown region. American Indians also learned of another world beyond the sea and of the people who lived there. In many cases, this new knowledge came with devastating new problems for the natives. Even today, most Indians do not consider Columbus Day a cause for celebration. For both peoples, Columbus voyages profoundly changed their understanding of the world and their position in it in ways Columbus never anticipated. Cicero

6 Christopher Columbus Activities: Guided Reading/Secondary Name: Discussion Questions: 1. Why did the conflict between Christians and Muslims help to bring about the European discovery of North and South America? 2. Columbus was well-educated about his1492 journey. What had he learned to make the trip easier to accomplish? 3. If, as Columbus assumed, there were only open sea between the west coast of Spain and the east coast of Asia, would he have been able to reach Asia by sailing west from Spain? Why or why not? 4. Columbus had greater skill as a captain, explorer, and navigator than he seemed to have as an administrator of the colonies he founded. Why was he an effective explorer? What mistakes did he make as an administrator? Cicero

7 5. Were the Indians friendly or hostile when Columbus first arrived in the New World? 6. Why did relations between the Indians and the Spanish deteriorate? 7. What incidents demonstrate Columbus skill and knowledge as a ship s captain? 8. Were Columbus actions toward the Indians consistent with the Spanish monarchy s policy, especially Queen Isabella s? Why or why not? Cicero

8 Christopher Columbus Activities: Guided Reading/Secondary Answer Key Discussion Questions: 1. Why did the conflict between Christians and Muslims help to bring about the European discovery of North and South America? It forced them to look for new routes to the Orient that Muslim traders did not control. 2. Columbus was well-educated about his 1492 journey. What had he learned to make the trip easier to accomplish? He learned of the Canary Current. 3. If, as Columbus assumed, there were only open sea between the west coast of Spain and the east coast of Asia, would he have been able to reach Asia by sailing west from Spain? Why or why not? The distance across open ocean would have been too great for them to have survived with the technology they had at that time. 4. Columbus had greater skill as a captain, explorer and navigator than he seemed to have as an administrator of the colonies he founded. Why was he an effective explorer? What mistakes did he make as an administrator? His ships arrived safely at his destination, but he misjudged the location of his destination. He displayed arrogance and appropriated too much of the profits of the colony for himself. 5. Were the Indians friendly or hostile when Columbus first arrived in the New World? The Indians were friendly. 6. Why did relations between the Indians and the Spanish deteriorate? The Spanish soon enslaved the Indians to find gold for them. In addition, many Indians became ill shortly after the Spanish arrived, due to a lack of immunity to European diseases. Indians believed the Spanish may have done this purposely. 7. What incidents demonstrate Columbus skill and knowledge as a ship s captain? Cicero

9 They made the voyage successfully. Columbus warning about the hurricane to the governor of Santo Domingo proved to be right. 8. Were Columbus actions toward the Indians consistent with the Spanish monarchy s policy, especially Queen Isabella s? Why or why not? On one hand, the Spanish were certainly out to profit financially from the voyages; and the Spanish government was pleased to see the gold that was found. On the other hand, Queen Isabella was interested in converting the Indians to Christianity rather than enslaving them. Cicero

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