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
Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
News
Tattoo enthusiast Cammy Stewart poses for a portrait during the Great British Tattoo Show
In picturesThe Great British Tattoo Show
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?