In October 1492, Christopher Columbus spotted land after months at sea. The palpable relief amongst his crew after months at sea with an unknown destination can only be imagined. However, one thing that is certain is that this would change the world forever.
Routes to the east
The 15th century, famous for a resurgence in the arts, sciences and classical learning, was also a time of renewed exploration. This began with the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator, whose vessels explored the Atlantic and opened trade routes in Africa in the 1420s.
It was well known that great wealth lay in the far east through trade, but it was almost impossible to open up regular trade routes overland, with vast distances, poor roads and numerous hostile armies all problems. The Portuguese tried to reach Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, hence their exploration of the African coasts, but the journey was long and a Genoese man named Christopher Columbus approached the Portuguese court with a new idea.
Heading west to reach east
Columbus was born in Genoa Italy, the son of a wool merchant. He went to sea aged 19 in 1470, and washed up on the shores of Portugal clinging onto a piece of wood after his ship was attacked by French Privateers. In Lisbon Columbus studied cartography, navigation and astronomy. These skills would prove useful.
Columbus seized on an ancient idea that as the world was round he might be able to sail west until he emerged in Asia, across an an open sea free from privateers and hostile ships troubling the Portuguese around Africa.
Columbus approached the court of Portuguese King John II twice in 1485 and 1488 with this plan, but the King’s experts warned him that Columbus had underestimated the distances involved. With the eastern African route a safer bet, the Portuguese were uninterested.
Columbus remains undeterred
Columbus’ next move was to try the newly unified Kingdom of Spain, and though he was again unsuccessful initially he kept nagging Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand until he finally received the Royal procurement in January 1492.
That year the Christian reconquest of Spain had been completed with the capture of Granada, and now the Spanish were turning their attention to distant shores, eager to match the exploits of their Portuguese rivals. Columbus was allocated funds and given the title “Admiral of the Seas.” Columbus was told that if he seized any new lands for Spain, he would be richly rewarded.
Columbus’ calculations for the circumference of the earth were badly wrong, as they were based on the writings of the ancient Arabic scholar Alfraganus, who used a longer mile than the one used in 15th century Spain. However, he set off with confidence from Palos de la Frontera with three ships; the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria.
Sailing into the unknown
Initially he headed south to the Canaries, avoiding Portuguese ships intent on capturing him along the way. In September he finally embarked on his fateful westward voyage. His crew were uneasy at the prospect of sailing off into the unknown, and at one point seriously threatened to mutiny and sail back to Spain.
Columbus needed all his charisma, as well as promises that his Lisbon education meant that he knew what he was talking about, to prevent this from happening.
The three ships sailed west for over a month without any sighting of land, which must have been incredibly demoralising for the crew, who had no idea that they were indeed sailing towards a major landmass. As a result, spotting huge crowds of birds on 7 October must have been a moment of intense hope.
Columbus rapidly changed course to follow the birds, and on 12 October land was finally sighted. There was a large cash reward promised for being the first to spot land, and Columbus later claimed that he had won this himself, though in truth it had been spotted by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana.
The land which they saw was an island rather than the American mainland, one of either the Bahamas or the Turks and Caicos islands. However, the symbolism of the moment was what mattered. A new world had been discovered. At this moment, Columbus was unaware of the fact that this land was previously untouched by Europeans, but still keenly observed the natives he saw there, who were described as peaceful and friendly.
An immortal, if not debated, legacy
After exploring more of the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic) Columbus returned home in January 1493, having left a small settlement of 40 named La Navidad. He was enthusiastically received by the Spanish court, and conducted three more exploratory voyages.
The legacy of his voyages have been hotly debated in the last twenty years. Some say that it was the gateway to a glorious new age of exploration, while others argue that Columbus’ sighting ushered in a new era of colonial exploitation and the genocide of the native Americans.
Whatever your opinion on Columbus, it is undeniable that he is one the most important figures in human history, based on this voyage alone. 12 October 1492 is seen by many historians as the start of the modern age.