The Explorers: Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus is the second figure in our exploration of North America by non-indigenous people. This was a continuing effort to map and explore the continent and advance the economic interests of said non-indigenous peoples of North America. It spanned centuries, and consisted of efforts by numerous people and expeditions from various foreign countries to map the continent.
The European colonization of the Americas describes the history of the settlement and establishment of control of the continents of the Americas by most of the naval powers of Western Europe. This began with the Norse colonization of North America in the late 10th century CE when Norsemen explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the northeastern fringes of North America. The Norse settlements in the North American island of Greenland lasted for almost 500 years though there is no evidence of any lasting Norse settlements on mainland North America.
Systematic European colonization began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East but inadvertently landed in what came to be known to Europeans as the “New World”. He ran aground on December 5, 1492 on Cat Island (then called Guanahani) in The Bahamas, which the Lucayan people had inhabited since the 9th century. Western European conquest, large-scale exploration and colonization soon followed.
Columbus’s first two voyages (1492–93) reached Hispaniola and various other Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot, on behalf of the Kingdom of England, landed on the North American coast, and a year later, Columbus’s third voyage reached the South American coast. As the sponsor of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, Spain was the first European power to settle and colonize the largest areas, from North America and the Caribbean to the southern tip of South America.
The Spaniards began building their empire of the Americas in the Caribbean, using islands such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola as bases. The North and South American mainland fell to the conquistadors, precipitating an estimated 8,000,000 deaths of indigenous people, primarily through the spread of Afro-Eurasian diseases. Some authors have argued this demographic collapse to be the first large-scale act of genocide in the modern era. Florida fell to Juan Ponce de León after 1513. From 1519 to 1521, Hernán Cortés waged a campaign against the Aztec Empire, ruled by Moctezuma II. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, became Mexico City, the chief city of what the Spanish were now calling “New Spain”. More than 240,000 Aztecs died during the siege of Tenochtitlan, 100,000 in combat, while 500–1,000 of the Spaniards engaged in the conquest died. Other conquistadors, such as Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, pushed farther north. To the south, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire during the 1530s. The centuries of continuous conflicts between the North American Indians and the Anglo-Americans were less severe than the devastation wrought on the densely populated Meso-American, Andean, and Caribbean heartlands.
The British colonization of the Americas started with the unsuccessful settlement attempts in Roanoke and Newfoundland. The English eventually went on to control much of Eastern North America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. The British also gained Florida and Quebec in the French and Indian War.
Other powers such as France also founded colonies in the Americas: in eastern North America, a number of Caribbean islands and small coastal parts of South America. Portugal colonized Brazil, tried colonizing the eastern coasts of present-day Canada and settled for extended periods northwest (on the east bank) of the River Plate. The Age of Exploration was the beginning of territorial expansion for several European countries. Europe had been preoccupied with internal wars and was slowly recovering from the loss of population caused by the Black Death; thus the rapid rate at which it grew in wealth and power was unforeseeable in the early 15th century.
Eventually, most of the Western Hemisphere came under the control of Western European governments, leading to changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the 19th century over 50 million people left Western Europe for the Americas. The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange, a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), ideas, and communicable disease between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.
Henry F. Dobyns estimates that immediately before European colonization of the Americas there were between 90 and 112 million people in the Americas; a larger population than Europe at the same time. Others estimate that there were about 60.5 million people living in the Americas immediately before depopulation, of which 90 per cent, mostly in Central and South America, perished from wave after wave of disease, along with war and slavery playing their part.
Christopher Columbus (October 1451 – 20 May 1506) was an Italian explorer and navigator who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for European exploration and colonization of the Americas. His expeditions, sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, were the first European contact with the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
Columbus’s early life is somewhat obscure, but scholars generally agree that he was born in the Republic of Genoa and spoke a dialect of Ligurian as his first language. He went to sea at a young age and travelled widely, as far north as the British Isles (and possibly Iceland) and as far south as what is now Ghana. He married Portuguese noblewoman Filipa Moniz Perestrelo and was based in Lisbon for several years, but later took a Castilian mistress; he had one son with each woman.
Though largely self-educated, Columbus was widely read in geography, astronomy, and history. He formulated a plan to seek a western sea passage to the East Indies, hoping to profit from the lucrative spice trade. Following persistent lobbying, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II agreed to sponsor a journey west, in the name of the Crown of Castile.
Columbus left Castile in August 1492 with three ships, and after a stopover in the Canary Islands made landfall in the Americas on October 12 (later celebrated as Columbus Day). His landing place was an island in the Bahamas, known by its native inhabitants as Guanahani; its exact location is uncertain. Columbus subsequently visited the islands now known as Cuba and Hispaniola, establishing a colony in what is now Haiti: the first European settlement in the Americas since the Norse colonies nearly 500 years earlier. He arrived back in Castile in early 1493, bringing a number of captive natives with him. Word of his voyages soon spread throughout Europe.
Columbus made three further voyages to the New World, exploring the Lesser Antilles in 1493, Trinidad and the northern coast of South America in 1498, and the eastern coast of Central America in 1502. Many of the names he gave to geographical features—particularly islands—are still in use. He continued to seek a passage to the East Indies, and the extent to which he was aware that the Americas were a wholly separate landmass is uncertain. He never clearly renounced his belief that he had reached the Far East and gave the name indios (“Indians”) to the indigenous peoples he encountered.
Columbus’ strained relationship with the Spanish crown and its appointed colonial administrators in America led to his arrest and removal from Hispaniola in 1500, and later to protracted litigation over the benefits that he and his heirs claimed were owed to them by the crown. Columbus’s expeditions inaugurated a period of exploration, conquest, and colonization that lasted for centuries, helping create the modern Western world. The transfers between the Old World and New World that followed his first voyage are known as the Columbian exchange, and the period of human habitation in the Americas prior to his arrival is referred to as the Pre-Columbian era.
The debate over Columbus’s legacy continues. He was widely venerated in the centuries after his death, but public perception has fractured in recent decades as scholars give greater attention to the harm committed under his governance, particularly the near extermination of Hispañola’s indigenous Taino population from mistreatment and European diseases. According to Columbus’s journals, in 1492 he took some natives prisoner in an attempt to find gold, and by 1498 had determined there was great potential for selling the indigenous into slavery. There is good evidence that his men subjugated and enslaved well over a thousand natives.
Some other allegations, such as tyrannical rule over the Spanish colonists, are murkier: a contemporaneous, persistent smear campaign called the “black legend” makes the extent of Columbus’s blame uncertain. Still, many landmarks and institutions in the Western Hemisphere bear his name, including the country of Colombia and the name Columbia, which is used as a personification for the United States, and appears in many place names there.
Next Explorer: John Cabot
Previous Explorer: Leif Ericson
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