On May 20, 1506, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain. Columbus was the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century. He explored the West Indies, South America and Central America, but died of a disappointed man, feeling that he had been ill-treated by his boss, King Ferdinand of Spain.
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Columbus was probably born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. Little is known about his youth, but he worked as a sailor and then a sailing entrepreneur. He became obsessed with the possibility of launching a western sea route to Cathay (China), India and the legendary islands of gold and spices from Asia. At the time, Europeans did not know of a direct sea route to South Asia, and the route via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed to Europeans by the Ottoman Empire, as were many land routes. Contrary to popular legend, the day of Columbus’ educated Europeans believed that the world was round, as Saint Isidore argued in the 7th century. However, Columbus and most others have underestimated the size of the world, calculating that East Asia must be roughly where North America is on the globe (they did not yet know that the Pacific Ocean existed).
With only the Atlantic Ocean, he thought, situated between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to support his “Indian enterprise”, as he called his plan. He was rejected and went to Spain, where he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish monarchs, on the verge of victory, agreed to support his trip.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain, with three small ships, the Sainte Marie, the Pinta, and the Nina. On October 12, the expedition sighted land, probably Watling Island in the Bahamas, and landed the same day, claiming it for Spain. Later that month, Columbus sighted Cuba, which it believed to be mainland China, and in December, the expedition landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus believed to be Japan. He established a small colony there with 39 of his men. The explorer returned to Spain with gold, spices and “Indian” captives in March 1493, and was received with the highest honors by the Spanish court. He received the title of “admiral of the oceanic sea” and a second expedition was quickly organized.
Equipped with a large fleet of 17 ships, with 1,500 settlers on board, Columbus left Cadiz in September 1493 for his second trip to the New World. A landing took place in the Lesser Antilles in November. Returning to Hispaniola, he found the men he had left there shot by the natives, and he founded a second colony. While sailing, he explored Puerto Rico, Jamaica and many small Caribbean islands. Columbus returned to Spain in June 1496 and was greeted less warmly, as the return on the second trip was far below its costs.
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Isabella and Ferdinand, still hungry for the riches of the East, agreed on a third, smaller trip and instructed Columbus to find a strait to India. In May 1498 Columbus left Spain with six ships, three full of settlers and three with provisions for the colony of Hispaniola. This time it made landfall in Trinidad. He entered the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela and planted the Spanish flag in South America. By the extent of the Orinoco in Venezuela, he realized that he had fallen on another continent, which Columbus, a deeply religious man, decided after careful consideration was the outer regions of the Garden of Eden.
Returning to Hispaniola, he found that conditions on the island had deteriorated during the reign of his brothers, Diego and Bartholomew. Columbus’s efforts to restore order were marked by brutality, and his reign was deeply thwarted by Taino’s settlers and native leaders. In 1500 Spanish Chief Justice Francisco de Bobadilla arrived in Hispaniola, sent by Isabella and Ferdinand to investigate the complaints, and Columbus and his brother were sent back to Spain in chains.
He was immediately released upon his return, and Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to fund a fourth trip during which he was to seek out earthly paradise and the nearby golden kingdoms. He also had to continue looking for a passage to India. In May 1502 Columbus left Cadiz for his fourth and final trip to the New World. After returning to Hispaniola against the wishes of his boss, he explored the coasts of Central America in search of a strait and gold. Trying to return to Hispaniola, its ships, in poor condition, had to be grounded on Jamaica. Columbus and his men were abandoned, but two of his captains managed to canoe for 450 miles to Hispaniola. Columbus was a castaway on Jamaica for a year before the arrival of a rescue ship.
In November 1504, Columbus returned to Spain. Queen Isabella, his chief patron, died less than three weeks later. Although Columbus made a substantial income from Hispaniola gold in the final years of his life, he made several (unsuccessful) attempts to win an audience with King Ferdinand, who he said owed him more repair. Columbus died on May 20, 1506, without realizing the great scope of his feat: he had discovered for Europe the New World, the riches of which over the next century would contribute to making Spain the most richest and most powerful on earth.
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