Christopher Columbus: The life and legacy of the famous explorer

He might have believed it was Asia but his voyages to America changed the world

Christopher Columbus has long been hailed as the “discoverer” of the New World.

Although Vikings got to North America first, five centuries before, his explorations opened the way for the European exploration and colonisation of the continent.

Born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, Columbus first went to sea as a teenager and went on to become a master navigator and admiral.

In his 30s, he started trying to get support for a transatlantic voyage but he was not successful getting royal backing until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain granted their patronage in 1492.

The voyage was intended to forge a westward sea passage to the Orient, where the settlers aimed to start a colony where they could convert people to Christianity and exploit the production of spices and other natural resources.

In August 1492, Columbus departed from Spain with three ships, including the recently discovered Santa Maria.

The wreck of the ‘Santa Maria’, as envisaged in 1492 The wreck of the ‘Santa Maria’, as envisaged in 1492 Land was not spotted until 12 October. Columbus was adamant that he was in Asia but he had in fact landed in what is now The Bahamas.

He named the first island they found San Salvador before going on to Cuba and Hispaniola, where a settlement, La Navidad, was founded with permission from the indigenous people.

On their return to Spain, the crew were received as heroes and Columbus paraded indigenous people he had captured at court along with gold, the previously unknown tobacco plant, pineapples and turkeys.

The explorer set sail again in September 1493 with a much larger fleet of 17 ships.

They explored the Caribbean and revisited La Navidad, where a new settlement was founded because the men left behind had been killed.

Hundreds of indigenous people were enslaved and many died on the journey back to Spain.

The third voyage did not start until 1498, when Columbus took six ships to Trinidad, Venezuela and started the exploration of mainland South America.

Still convinced that the lands he visited were parts of Asia, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he returned to dry land and was made the "Viceroy and Governor of the Indies".

But accusations of tyranny and incompetence had reached the Spanish court and in 1500, he and his brothers were arrested and jailed for alleged atrocities.

Eventually released, Columbus made his fourth and last exploration, looking for a westward passage to the Indian Ocean, from Spain in 1502.

They sailed to Central America, landing in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama before being beached in Jamaica, where the crew were stranded for a year.

An engraving by F Bartolozzi after a drawing by B West depicting Columbus landing in Cuba. An engraving by F Bartolozzi after a drawing by B West depicting Columbus landing in Cuba.

Columbus returned to Spain for the last time in 1504 and died two years later at the age of about 54 in Valladolid.

Removed from his standing as a governor and denied profits made in the new lands, he was a disappointed man.

After his death, his sons Diego and Fernando continued lengthy legal disputes with the Castilian crown trying to get the profits they believed they were owed.

Columbus is still revered by many people and places, buildings, rivers and monuments have been named in his honour but the enslavement of native people, atrocities, exploitation of natural resources and spread of new diseases his explorations brought will always make his legacy a troubled one.

The anniversary of Columbus' 1492 landing in the Americas is still celebrated annually in Spain and throughout the Americas, except Canada.

The US marks Columbus Day in October, while in Spain it is called the Fiesta Nacional de España y Día de la Hispanidad and a number of countries in Latin America celebrate it as Día de la Raza.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Management Support Assistant

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Railway Museum, the largest of its ...

Sauce Recruitment: FP&A Analyst -Home Entertainment

£250 - £300 per day: Sauce Recruitment: (Rolling) 3 month contractA global en...

Recruitment Genius: Sales and Account Manager - OTE £80,000+

£40000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer - Kent - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer - ne...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project