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Christopher Columbus. A weaver’s son who found America

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Christopher Columbus

A large fleet of sixty boats left Carthage about 525 B. C. to explore the western coast of Africa. It was one of the first maritime expeditions in world history and since that time men never stopped exploring the earth. They charted continents and islands. They made their way into the jungle of Central Africa and the icy fields of the Arctic.

Most of the great geographical discoveries were made during the period which lasted from the end of the 15th cen­tury to the middle of the 17th century. That was the time when the European countries, especially Portugal and Spain, were looking for new routes to the East, as they did not want to trade with India and China through the mediation of Arab merchants.

The land discovered by Columbus did not prove to be the eastern coast of Asia, but it had gold which was the most important thing for the Europeans.

Great quantities of gold and silver were owned by the chiefs of the Indian tribes who lived in Central and South America. The large lands inhabited by the Indians, who did not know fire-arms, were easily conquered by the Spaniards. The conquerors seized great amounts of precious metals, gold and silver.

Cruel colonial slavery was introduced. The Indians were made to till the land for the colonizers. They were merciless­ly exploited on sugar-cane plantations, and their work in the gold fields and silver mines was hard and badly paid. People starved. Scores of dead bodies lay at the entrance of each mine. Whole villages were exterminated at the slightest attempt to resist the Spaniards. Those who did not submit were burned alive. By the middle of the 16th century the native population of the islands of Cuba and Jamaica had disappeared.

The Portuguese who, in their turn, found the way to India and Indonesia were not strong enough to conquer the countries where millions of people lived. So they set up a number of fortresses on land and their ships began to attack Indian and Arab ships on the sea. They seized car­goes and crews and sank ships. Some of the prisoners, with their noses and ears cut off were set free to show people of the East what awaited them if they fought the Portu­guese.

Thus Spain and Portugal became colonial empires, Spain in the west and Portugal in the east. That was the begin­ning of the European colonial seizures.

The geographical discoveries started a flow of gold, sil­ver, spices and other goods to Europe from America, India and the islands of Indonesia. Numerous riches concentrated in the hands of merchants and money-changers. The achieve­ments of many brave explorers were exploited by the bour­geois class which was just beginning to appear.

People all over the world, if they were asked who first      found America could answer, “Christopher Columbus” and give the date of the great event: October 12, 1492. Columbus reached one of the Bahama islands, east of America, with his three small ships on that day, after sailing for two months across seas which were mostly unknown.

Early Life of Columbus

Christopher Columbus was an Italian, the son of a poor weaver. He was born in 1451 in Genoa, an Italian seaport. At that time Genoa was one of the richest cities in the world. Genoese merchants travelled all over Europe to sell silks, coral, fruit and other things and Ge­noese seamen sailed the merchant ships not only in the Mediterranean but on other seas too. In the middle of the 15th century much of the world was still unexplored, and most European countries were eager to find and lay claim to new territory and thus become rich. Consequently there was much fighting on the seas.

The Mediterranean galleys were constantly passing in and out of the port of Genoa to load or unload cargoes. Their hardy crews had often been engaged in dangerous adventures and their fine and graceful ships were in a bat­tered condition, and the seamen had plenty of exciting stories to tell little Christopher Columbus.

The boy helped his father to weave wool, but he was not fond of this work. He was interested in the big ships which came from or left for strange and distant lands, and he liked to sit out-of-doors and watch them for hours.

Although his parents were very poor they managed to send him to the University of Pavia for his nautical train­ing. There Christopher studied geography, geometry, astrono­my, mathematics, navigation and learnt how to make maps used by sailors. He soon became very clever at this work.

He was interested in the accounts written by earlier seamen and explorers, particularly those written by Marco Polo. The more he studied them, the more he longed to go to sea himself.

At last he felt that he could not stay at home any long­er, and when he was fourteen, he went to sea.

After many adventures on the sea he came to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, which was then a great and very important port. His chief occupation, when not at sea, was charting maps.

A Western Route to Asia

In the 15th century Portugal was a growing empire. The greatest desire of her ruling class was to discover a new sea route to India by which it could trade freely with the rich merchants of Bombay and Cal­cutta. As the only known land routes across Asia were bar­red by the Turks, and as the Red Sea was controlled by Italy, Portugal’s rival in trade, it was essential that a new route be found.

Few people in Europe in those days knew much about other parts of the world, but it was known that far away to the east there were other great rich countries. At that time travelling was difficult; gold and other valuable things had to be brought to Europe from the East mainly by land. Sail­ing ships could be used part of the way to Suez; but no route completely by sea from east to west was then known. From Suez to the north of Egypt goods had to be transport­ed by land,

Columbus made a careful study of the reports and geo­graphical theories of many navigators and compared their findings. He became convinced of one very important fact: that the world was not flat but round. “If the world is round,” he thought, “surely India can be approached not only from the west but also from the east. Surely the most direct route must lie across the Eastern Indian Ocean.” He had no doubt, that there was land across the Atlantic (the Eastern Indian Ocean at the time), because pieces of carved wood, very thick canes, trees and the body of a man of an unknown race had been drifted to the Canary Islands by westerly winds. Columbus, less afraid of the stormy Atlantic than other seamen, decided to try to find his way to eastern India by crossing the ocean, and thus to open a new trade route. He began to plan the voyage which was to lead to his great discovery.

For nearly fourteen years Columbus perfected his plans to reach India by sailing westward from Europe and now the time had come to go and find out if his theory was correct.

The Expedition

To make the journey bus needed men, money and ships. He tried to get help from Portugal, from Genoa, and from England, but he failed. For seven years he did his best, but no one wanted to help him. At last the Spanish government gave him what he wanted.

At 8 o’clock in the morning of August 3, 1492, Columbus and a hundred and twenty men left the port of Palos in Spain in three small ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. The Santa Maria was the biggest: ninety feet long. It carried the royal banner of Spain. The other two ships were much smaller. The tiny fleet set sail for the unknown with a promise from the king of Spain of a pen­sion for the man who first sighted land. Few of the men who were with Columbus had been willing to set out across an unknown sea for an unknown number of months in sailing ships of this size. Some of them were men of Palos who had been compelled to go with him by force. Many were criminals who had been allowed to leave prison to go with him. Some were young men who had got into difficulties and wanted to go away to sea until their mis­demeanours were forgotten; others went because they needed money.

Trouble began soon after the ships left Palos. The men feared the journey and wanted to return to their homes. As time passed they grew ever more afraid of the endless sea: they thought that if they went too far they would per­haps never be able to return at all. The men became muti­nous.

But whenever they wanted to turn back, Columbus was able to persuade them go on. Once they plotted to throw Columbus into the sea and turn the ships round so that they could return home. But Columbus found out what his men were planning to do. He was not only a great naviga­tor, but also a clever speaker. He called the crew together and told them not to lose hope. He described the rich lands which lay before them, and told them of the great honour which would come to Spain if they went on and were the first men to find India by sailing to the west. He described the wonderful island of Japan and other golden lands which they would find if they continued. He promised them all great riches. The men listened to him and believed him, the ships continued their way to the west.

Columbus made another very cunning move, he did not tell the men the truth about the distance the ships had covered on their journey westwards; he kept two records: a correct one for himself, and another one for the men. The second always showed a lesser distance than the first. There­fore the men thought that they were nearer home than in fact, they were.

The journey was a difficult and fearful one in every way. The ships were sometimes damaged (and later repair­ed) by men who were weary and frightened and wanted to go home. The travellers saw fearful sights, which they could not explain, one of which was a fountain of fire and smoke far over the sea. (Probably it was a meteor falling into the sea). Clouds on the horizon resembling land deceived them often. The men disagreed and quarrelled with their captains and with each other.

They ran into terrible storms. But once, when for ele­ven days the wind blew behind them so steadily that they did not need to change the sails at all, they were not so pleased. If the wind blew always from the east, they said, how would they ever reach Spain again when the time came to turn back? They were angry and afraid.

But in spite of difficulties and dangers Columbus himself never lost hope. All the sailors watched every day for a sight of land, once or twice they thought that they could see land to the west, but each time they were mistaken. The hope which sometimes came to their hearts was soon lost again. And still land was not in sight.

Thus for two months they struggled through the storms of the unknown sea. The sailors had lost all hopes when early in October, after they had sailed about 2,250 miles, they saw many birds, which they knew could live only on land. They also saw river weeds and a branch with fresh berries floating in the sea. They fished up a cane, a plank of wood that evidently had been wrought with metal.


On the night of October 11, 1492, at ten o’clock, Columbus (who did not sleep and was looking out, as usual, towards the west) saw a small light in the darkness over the sea. He called one of the men, and the two watched together. They saw the light again.

It was not a dream: the light was real. At about two o’clock in the morning on October 12 the moon came up and drove away the darkness. A short time later land was seen by one of the men in the Pinta. When day came and the sun appeared, everyone could see a small island some five miles away. Land!

It was the New World. The men saw the naked figures running along as if trying to hide in terror.

(It is not known exactly which West Indian island Co­lumbus first reached, but it was probably one of the group of islands now known as the Bahamas.)

The anchor was dropped, the boats lowered and the men went ashore. Columbus, dressed in his best red gar­ments, landed with the Spanish flag in his hand and pro­claimed the land a Spanish possession. The natives, who had at first been afraid and run away, soon came back. They touched the Spaniards’ beards and were very surprised at their white faces. Columbus gave gifts to the natives and received gifts in return. He named the island San Salvador, and stayed there for some time.

Columbus’s attention was attracted by the fact that the natives wore small nuggets of gold in their nostrils. He asked them by means of signs, where they obtained their gold, and he understood from their signs that it came from a rich country to the south. So he set sail in search of that golden land, taking with him seven of the natives as guides.

Columbus and his men spent a week sailing round the Bahamas. They set up the Spanish flag on several more islands. On October 28 they reached a far larger island: the island of Cuba. (The group of islands they discovered are called now the West Indies.)

Cuba seemed so large to Columbus that he thought he had reached the mainland of Asia. He went ashore, declared the island a Spanish possession, and spent several days prospecting for gold. When his efforts brought nothing, he sailed to the neighbouring island of Haiti. Near Haiti the Santa Maria was driven aground during the night and was wrecked.

Columbus decided to leave some of his men on the island of Haiti to start a Spanish settlement. Out of the wreckage of the Santa Maria he built a wooden fort, mounted with the ship’s cannon.

The Return to Palos

Columbus finally decided to return to Spain and tell the king about the countries and the peo­ple he had found. Early in the year of 1493, when the fort was completed, Columbus set sail for home, taking with him six of the islanders as evidence of his conquest, and leaving behind thirty-nine settlers.

After passing through a terrible storm near the Azores, he reached Palos safely in March 1493, just seven months and twelve days since the beginning of the expedition.

Accompanied by the six natives of Haiti and the mem­bers of his crew he went to the court to see the king and the queen and to tell them about his adventures. He showed them everything he had brought from the New World: fea­thers of strange birds, nuggets of gold, tropical plants, fruit and balls of cotton. And when he finished his story, the king and the queen fell on their knees before him.

Columbus was highly honoured and was given the name “The King of the Sea”. But his success did not last long as he had not brought back the great treasures he had promised.

More Journeys

Columbus made three more journeys to the New World. Dur­ing the second of these he discovered the island of Trini­dad, the mainland of South America, and the mouth of the Orinoco. On the third journey he reached what is now Pa­nama. But though he made many more important discove­ries, he did not achieve what he was striving for—he did not find a new route to India and did not discover gold and spices. Columbus spared no efforts to find gold.

In the autumn of 1493 he set out with 400 men, armed with swords, lances, and crossbows to search for gold in the interior of the island of Haiti. The natives were attacked by the colonizers and hundreds of them were sent to Spain to be sold in the slave market. It was usual in those days to sell human beings as slaves. Ships full of unfortunate natives arrived in Spain from the New World regularly. Columbus sent both men and women to Spain as slaves, and many of them, unable to stand the hardships of the trip, died.

But the king and the queen of Spain were angry with Columbus because he failed to find the gold and spices he had promised. They were particularly displeased that his voyages had not brought them much gold. Gold for them was mostly important. All they had from his voyages were a few gold trinkets and some pepper.

Finally, a false charge of oppressing the settlers was brought against Columbus and he was sent in fetters to Spain. He kept these fetters ever afterwards in his room, to remind him, as he said, of the ingratitude of kings and queens; and he ordered them to be put in his grave with him when he died.

Columbus returned from his last journey in 1504. He still did not know that he had discovered a new continent, nor was he the first to set foot on the mainland of Ameri­ca. He believed that the lands he had seen were parts of Asia.

Before Columbus’s third visit to America, Amerigo Ves­pucci had already landed in Argentina. He was the man who gave his first name to the New World which has been known as America ever since that time.

Christopher Columbus, one of the greatest navigators in history, died in disgrace and almost forgotten in 1506 be­cause he failed to find the treasures he had promised to the king and the queen of Spain. Now his name is famous.

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