“Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.”
Was Christopher Columbus a hero? That depends on who you ask. He was a brave and skilled sailor and leader. Although he wasn’t the first to discover the Americas, his explorations opened the way for future European visits.
On the other hand, his trips were financed by the King and Queen of Spain, who were motivated by the promise of wealth, power, and land. Columbus and his men took gold, spices, and other riches. Later visitors were brutally unkind to the native people, eventually causing their destruction.
Like many events and people in history, Columbus and his expeditions were neither all good nor all bad.
Christopher Columbus was Italian but he lived in Portugal for many years. He was a book publisher, a map maker and a sailor.
Columbus tried to convince King John of Portugal to finance his trip. The King’s experts believed the trip was impossibly long. The King said no to Columbus’s request.
Columbus then traveled to Spain and approached King Ferninand and Queen Isabella. At the time, Portugal had the most powerful fleet in the ocean. The Spanish King wanted to change that. However, his experts also believed the trip Columbus proposed was a bad idea. Columbus spent six years in Spain trying to win support.
Finally, he decided to speak with the King of France. He was traveling on a donkey out of Spain when the Spanish king’s men found him. King Ferninand had changed his mind and had decided to finance the trip.
Columbus was given an honorary title and promised that he could keep 10 percent of any riches he found in his travels.
Columbus set out on August 3, 1492 with three lightweight boats called caravels. He had a crew of about 90 men. The boats were loaded with enough water and food – nonperishable items like flour, olive oil, salted cod, bacon, and biscuits – for a year.
The boats, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Maria, had white sails painted with large red crosses.
Columbus’s crew felt very afraid as they went out into the vast, unexplored ocean. Although Columbus knew the world was round, many of the crew still believed the earth was flat. They worried that their ship might fall off the edge. They also worried about giant sea monsters rising from the deep.
After three weeks at sea, the crew demanded that Columbus turn around. Columbus tried to rally them. He promised a silk coat to the first man to sight land.
Finally, on October 12, 1492, Columbus’s crew saw land. Columbus believed they were near India, instead of their real destination, the Caribbean Islands. The native people, the Tainos, stood on the shore to meet them.
Columbus said the native people were beautiful, kind, and generous. They gave Columbus’s crew food and whatever else they wanted. They showed Columbus where to find gold. Columbus said, “They love their neighbors as themselves and have the softest, gentlest voices in the world.”
Columbus returned to Spain a hero. The King and Queen quickly sent him on another expedition with more men and even some women. He was to establish a colony and convert the natives to Christianity.
Things did not go well. The crops the settlers planted didn’t grow in the tropical climate. Some of the settlers were greedy. They stole from the Tainos and even kidnapped or killed them. Columbus was eventually stripped of his title as governor and asked to leave.
More settlers and conquistadors followed Columbus. They found gold and took the Tainos as slaves. Many of the native Indians became ill with European diseases like smallpox. Within 50 years, the gentle Tainos people were extinct.
Columbus died in Spain in 1506. He still believed that the land he had found was part of Asia.
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