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This Week In History

A New World – August 3, 1492 AD

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue….” The poem is correct in that the first voyage of Christopher Columbus began on the evening of August 3, 1492. However, it was a bit of work for Columbus to get that expedition underway. The goal was to find a quicker way to the Orient via the Atlantic Ocean, instead of using the land trade routes that were becoming increasingly treacherous because of the Ottoman Turks and the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Colombus Map

In 1470, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, an astronomer from Florence, proposed to King Alfonso of Portugal that sailing west to the Spice Islands would be faster than around Africa. The king rejected the idea and his successor, John II, tasked Bartolomeu Dias to explore the Africa route, going around the Cape of Good Hope. While Dias was working on Africa, Columbus and his brothers took up Toscanelli’s suggestion and started plotting out going west, over the Atlantic. In 1485, Columbus approached John II with his plans, asking for three ships and one year to cross the ocean sea. He also wanted to be named Great Admiral of the Ocean, appointed governor of all lands he discovered and given ten percent of all revenue generated by the new lands. The king considered the request and submitted it to a committee. They rejected it on the basis that Columbus vastly underestimated the distance needed for travel.

In 1488, Columbus resubmitted his proposal to John II, who again granted him audience. Unfortunately for Columbus, Bartolomeu Dias successfully completed his journey around Africa during the same time, so the court was not interested in taking risks when a viable sea route now available. Determined to find a backer, Columbus approached the courts in Genoa and Venice, while his brother, Bartholomew, sought the court of Henry VII of England. None of these meetings produced any sponsors.

Undaunted, Columbus presented his case to Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, whose marriage united areas of the Iberian Peninsula. Again, his proposal was sent to a committee, who again rejected it on the basis that the distance was being underestimated. Still, the court didn’t want Columbus to take his idea elsewhere, and they wanted to expand their influence, so the Catholic Monarchs gave him an annual salary of 12,000 maravedis. In 1489, he was also given a letter granting him food and lodging at no cost while visiting any towns or cities within their domain.

Columbus continued to press his ideas with the court and after Ferdinand and Isabella captured Grenada in January 1492, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, they met once again about the voyage. Isabella turned him down again. While Columbus was leaving town, a guard fetched him to return, since Ferdinand intervened. They decided to give his idea a try and promised that if he was successful, he would be named Admiral of the Ocean Sea, made viceroy and governor of all lands he captured for Spain and he and his heirs in perpetuity would be given ten percent of all revenues from the new lands. He could also invest in 1/8 of any commercial ventures and receive 1/8 of the profits.

Columbus headed out on his first voyage and landed on Guanahani, which he named San Salvador (modern day Bahamas). The people on the island were peaceful and friendly and he took some of them prisoner to take back to Spain. He noted their lack of modern weaponry and realized he could easily take over the new lands. He desired to spread Christianity throughout the new lands as well and continued to explore. On this first voyage, he also explored Cuba, Hispaniola (modern day Santo Domingo), Haiti and Dominican Republic. He picked up prisoners all along the way.

During his next three voyages, Columbus discovered more new areas, establishing territories and towns and a vibrant slave trade. Between the third and fourth voyages, accusations of mismanagement and tyranny were reported and Columbus and his two brothers were jailed in 1500. They remained incarcerated for six weeks until King Ferdinand released them. The royal court listened to their pleas, restored their names and wealth, but stripped the title of governor of the new lands. The complaints against Columbus and his brothers detailed the atrocities and genocide against the inhabitants of the new lands and since the Spanish court relieved Columbus of his duties as governor, they felt that dissolved their responsibility to him for the ten percent of the revenues. He and his heirs sued and the battles went through the court systems for the most part from 1508 to 1536, but continued all the way into the end of the 18th century.

Although Leif Erikson landed in North America c.1000 AD, Columbus is credited with having discovered America because it was his series of expeditions which led to the colonization of the area over the next several centuries.

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