Christopher Columbus

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1 Christopher Columbus To many people, Christopher Columbus is a larger-than-life hero, a legend in American history. There are also people who believe Columbus was not wonderful and say he had many flaws. As many famous people in history, the true story of Columbus is more interesting than the legend. Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in the Italian city-state of Genoa. At that time, Genoa depended on trade with other ports on the Mediterranean Sea. Merchants from Western Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Orient could easily come together there. It was the richest city in the western Mediterranean. Columbus father, Domenico, was a prosperous weaver and wool merchant. He also invested in land and buildings. The family enjoyed some wealth. Though we do not know exactly how he was educated, we know Christopher knew five languages and studied literature, geography and philosophy. He was also a member of the weaver s guild. Columbus might have spent his life in Genoa as a wool merchant like his father. In 1453, however, the Turks, who were followers of the Muslim religion, captured Constantinople, the gateway to the trade routes of the Middle East and Asia. Now, Muslim traders could control that trade for their own profits. The price of Asiatic goods increased for European countries, and the profits no longer went to the Genoese merchants. For hundreds of years, there had been competition and sometimes war between countries where most people were Christians and other countries where most people were Muslims. Many young Genoese men, such as Christopher and his brother, Bartolomeo, reacted to the conquest of Constantinople by choosing a life at sea in the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coastal trade, instead of trading with the Muslims. Columbus went to sea in his early teens. He 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 and sailed on merchant voyages as far as Iceland and Ghana. Eventually, Columbus became master of a ship and married a Portuguese nobleman s daughter. During this time, Christopher thought about reaching the coast of Asia and its valuable products by sailing west across the Atlantic. He had sailed to Africa CICERO

2 and probably learned of the Canary Current, a strong east-to-west ocean current that can carry ships from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas. He also sailed to England, Iceland, and Ireland where he may have heard about the Viking voyages. They had sailed from island to island in the Western North Atlantic for more than five hundred years and had reached North America. He read about sailing to Asia by sailing west. He brought his idea to the Portuguese government, but they were already working on finding a route to Asia by sailing around Africa. They were not interested. After Christopher s wife died in 1485, he tried to sell his plan in Spain. When he got to Spain, the tension between Muslims and Christians also was causing problems. Muslims had invaded Spain in the early eighth century. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were now trying to drive the Muslims out. They had no time for Columbus plan. They were at war with the Muslims. Meanwhile, Columbus made friends among members of the royal court and mentioned his idea with anyone who would listen. In 1492, the Spanish defeated the Moors, as the Muslims were called. The king and queen claimed God gave them the right to rule Spain. The Roman Catholic Church supported that claim and told its followers it was true. Ferdinand and Isabella felt if there were people in Spain who were not Catholics, they might not obey the laws of the king and queen because their religion might not teach them to do so. They also firmly believed the Catholic Church was the only true church. The Muslims also firmly believed their religion was the true religion and showed little interest in becoming Catholic. This was true of Spaniards who were Jewish. Ferdinand and Isabella required them become Catholics or to leave Spain. Most left, but some became Catholics. The Spanish Inquisition, which Queen Isabella started in 1492 to root out people who claimed to be Catholic but secretly practiced other religions, tortured or killed many of the dissenters. It was now illegal in Spain to participate in any religion other than Catholicism. Now King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had time to listen to Columbus plan. They passed it to a study commission. The study commission estimated the distance to Asia by sailing west and said it was too far for any ship to survive. However, Columbus network of friends paid off. Some of them spoke with Queen Isabella, and she decided to fund the trip. CICERO

3 Columbus left Spain with three ships and a crew of eighty-nine men on August 3, On October 12, the small fleet came ashore on an island in the Bahamas Columbus named San Salvador. The exact island where they landed is still disputed. Friendly Taino Indians met the explorers. The Indians were curious about the visitors and willing to trade for the sailors worthless goods. They told the sailors about gold on other islands. The fleet reached Cuba by October 28. The captain of the Pinta took his ship in search of gold on another island, without Columbus permission. The Santa Maria and the Nina continued and landed at an island they named Hispaniola on December 5. As it explored the coastline, the Santa Maria ran aground on a reef on Christmas Eve and broke up. The crews of both ships would not fit on the smaller Nina, so Columbus had the Santa Maria s crew build a fort and left forty men there until he could go back to Spain and come back for them. (When he did return in November of the next year, the fort was burned as well as the Indian village nearby.) Everyone was either dead or gone. No one knows exactly what happened.) On January 6, the Pinta rejoined Columbus, and the ships returned to Spain on March 15, Claiming he had reached the East Indies, Columbus backed his story with gold, several exotic-looking Indians, tropical birds and exciting stories of what they had seen. He easily received backing 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 in a quick twentyone days. Columbus and his crew explored more islands, including Puerto Rico, Martinique, Jamaica, and Cuba. Columbus assumed Cuba was China. Difficult sailing conditions prevented a thorough exploration of Cuba, but Columbus ordered all his men to sign a statement claiming Cuba was so large that it must be China. When Columbus fell ill, they returned to the town Columbus had established in Hispaniola a short distance from the burned fort. He named the new town Isabella. They remained in Isabella for a year and a half, but Columbus skills as a sea captain were much better than his abilities as colony administrator. He now seemed arrogant to his crew and the colonists. They also may have resented him as an outsider, a non-spaniard. He kept a large share of the gold for himself. This caused his popularity to decline. Columbus also spent time away from Isabella, looking for gold; and forcing Indians to find it. Sometimes he would punish them if they did not find any. Meanwhile, he left his son, Diego, in charge of the town; and Diego was an even worse administrator. In addition, the town was in a poor location with swamp land and limited resources. On top of everything else, relations with the Indians deteriorated. Columbus had decided to force Indians to search for gold, although Queen Isabella was more interested in converting the CICERO

4 Indians to Catholicism. She certainly disapproved of enslaving them. Columbus said slavery was good if it brought in money to the colony (and to him). Soon fighting broke out between the Indians and the Spanish. The Spanish had better weapons; they killed many Indians and enslaved others, but the fighting made everyone uneasy and tense. Columbus decided to return to Spain for more men and supplies. He arrived in Portugal on June 8, Columbus third voyage included six ships and left Spain on May 30, They split up with three ships going directly to Hispaniola; Columbus took the rest of the ships and explored farther south. Columbus group had many problems with poor winds and water shortages, but they did find the island of Trinidad, named for three large hills that reminded Columbus of the Holy Trinity. They also saw the coast of South America for the first time. Feeling ill, Columbus ordered the ships back to Hispaniola. When he arrived, he found the colonists in open revolt, mostly due to complaints about the way the small amounts of gold were divided among the colonists. Columbus unhappily agreed to the rebels complaints and ended the revolt. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were disappointed with Columbus rule (and meager gold shipments) and appointed a royal commissioner with a higher rank to replace Columbus. When the new commissioner arrived, he arrested Columbus and sent him back to Spain as a prisoner. This was more punishment than the king and queen intended. In Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella quickly freed Columbus, paid him his share of the voyage s profits, and replaced the royal commissioner they had sent. However, they did not restore Columbus title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Columbus organized a fourth voyage. It was May He was 51 years 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 son, Fernando, who was13. He sought a waterway Marco Polo, an Italian merchant who had traveled through Asia many years before, had mentioned. Of course, it was not likely they would find this waterway in Central America. By this time, some people were beginning to think Columbus discoveries might not be in Asia, but might be unknown lands. Da Gama had successfully reached India from Portugal by traveling around Africa. John Cabot (an Italian named Giovanni Caboto) had explored the east coast of North America and claimed it for Britain. Even Columbus started talking about the lands he explored as another world and a very large continent which until now has remained unknown. CICERO

5 When Columbus arrived in the new colony of Santo Domingo, there was a big storm building behind him. Columbus reputation had slipped since his first voyage, and the royal governor in Santo Domingo laughed at Columbus storm warning. He refused Columbus permission to take shelter in his harbor. He also sent out a treasure fleet on its way back to Spain, even though Columbus warned him the fleet would be sailing right into a hurricane. The governor refused to listen to Columbus warnings. When the storm hit the treasure fleet, most of the ships sank. A few barely made it back to Santo Domingo. Only one of the twenty-eight that set out made it to Spain. About five hundred people died in the shipwrecks. The governor should have listened to Columbus. He had his weaknesses, but he knew the sea and ships. Columbus found a safe spot for his ships in a river near Santo Domingo where they weathered the storm. Columbus went on to Honduras and fought stormy seas. When he reached Panama, he found a strait that looked like the one he was seeking. Columbus was sure they had accomplished their mission. They also met Indians who traded with them for many gold objects. As they moved on, they found less gold; so they tried to go back, but there were storms. Near a river in Panama, they attempted to build a fort; but the Indians were too hostile. Columbus gathered his three remaining ships and sailed for Spain. Soon, one ship, its hull infested with woodworms, had to be abandoned. Another storm struck them off the coast of Cuba, and Columbus had the two remaining battered ships run aground on Jamaica. They paid some local Indians to take Captain Diego Mendez and another sailor in two canoes to Hispaniola for help. They had to paddle a hundred miles, but Mendez could not get the Spanish governor there to send a ship for Columbus and his crew. He could not return to Jamaica with another ship for a year! Columbus arrived in Spain on November 7, Christopher Columbus became ill not long after his return to Spain and died on May 20, He may have died from gout or a rare tropical disease. Columbus died disgraced but still thought he had reached Asia. The money he made from his voyages, however, kept his family wealthy. No matter what people thought about Columbus, they still kept coming to the colonies he had founded. New settlers built more of them and stayed. Eventually, they realized this was not Asia, but a new land. American Indians also learned of unknown lands and peoples beyond the sea. This new knowledge often came with devastating new problems. Even today, most Indians do not think of Columbus Day as a happy holiday. For both peoples, the voyages of Columbus made big changes in their idea of the world in ways Columbus never expected. CICERO

6 Name: Date: Discussion Questions: Christopher Columbus Why did Columbus decide to become an explorer rather than to continue in his father s business as a wool merchant? 2. What did Columbus learn before he left Europe to make his journey easier? 3. If North and South America were not between Spain and the east coast of Asia, would Columbus have reached Asia by sailing west from Spain? Why or why not? 4. Columbus had greater skill as a captain, explorer, and navigator than as the leader of the Hispaniola colony. What were his mistakes? 5. Were the Indians friendly or hostile when Columbus first arrived in the Western Hemisphere? CICERO

7 6. Why did the relationship between the Indians and the Spanish disintegrate? 7. What parts of Columbus story indicate he was a very skillful mariner and ship s captain? 8. Would Queen Isabella have approved of enslaving the Indians? Why or why not? 9. Columbus did not reach Asia, although he thought he did. Was he a success or a failure? Why or why not? 10. Did the Spanish government treat Columbus fairly or unfairly? Explain. CICERO

8 Christopher Columbus Guided Reading: Elementary Answer Key Discussion Questions: Why did Columbus decide to become an explorer rather than to continue in his father s business as a wool merchant? Commercial trade declined in Genoa after the fall of Constantinople, and Columbus decided to use his seafaring skills to make his fortune. 2. What did Columbus learn before he left Europe to make his journey easier? He knew about the Canary Current. 3. If North and South America were not between Spain and the east coast of Asia, would Columbus have reached Asia by sailing west from Spain? They would not have survived because the distance to Asia across open ocean would have been too great for ships of that time. 4. Columbus had greater skill as a captain, explorer, and navigator than as the leader of the Hispaniola colony. What were his mistakes? He acted arrogantly and forced members of the expedition and Indian slaves to gather gold Columbus kept for himself. 5. Were the Indians friendly or hostile when Columbus first arrived in the Western Hemisphere? The Indians were friendly. 6. Why did the relationship between the Indians and the Spanish disintegrate? Columbus and his crew tried to take advantage of them in trade, enslaved Indians, and forced them to search for gold or to face punishment. CICERO

9 7. What parts of Columbus story indicate he was a very skillful mariner and ship s captain? He correctly predicted the hurricane off Hispaniola. He got his ships to America successfully. 8. Would Queen Isabella have approved of enslaving the Indians? Why or why not? No, she was more interested in converting the Indians to Christianity. 9. Columbus did not reach Asia, even though he thought he did. Was he a success or a failure? Why or why not? Answers will vary. 10. Did the Spanish government treat Columbus fairly or unfairly? Explain. Answers will vary. CICERO

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