Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) was an Italian explorer, navigator and colonist who played a key role in shaping the history of the world as it was his voyages that initiated widespread contact between the Old World, i.e. Africa, Asia and Europe; and the New World, i.e. the Americas. Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa and lived in Portugal before eventually going on to settle in Spain. Columbus wanted to find a sea route to Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. He was not successful in his endeavor but ended up leading the first European expeditions to the Caribbean, Central America and South America. His voyages were beneficial for Europe and made possible the colonization of the Americas. Columbus was responsible for the Columbian Exchange, an event that changed the history of mankind. There are numerous negative aspects of the effects of his voyages as well as in his personal life; like he regularly used torture and mutilation to govern Hispaniola; he promoted slavery; and his voyages ultimately led to the extinction of the civilizations of the Americas. However, in this article we focus on the 10 major accomplishments of Columbus.

 

#1 He independently discovered the Americas

It was nearly impossible in the 15th century to head into Asia from Europe via land. The route was long and laden with hostile armies. While the Portuguese explorers were solving this quandary by sailing across the West African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope, Columbus put forth the notion of sailing across the Atlantic. The plans of Columbus were however based on faulty European mathematics. He calculated the circumference of the earth as much smaller than it actually was and thought that the proposed journey would be easy to complete. Though his calculations were faulty and he never discovered an alternate route to Asia, Columbus ended up independently discovering the Americas. Though he was not the first to discover the Americas, it was his voyage that redefined history and was instrumental in initiating centuries of conquest and colonization, asserting Europe’s dominance over the world.

Christopher Columbus portrait
Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519

 

#2 He discovered a viable sailing route to the Americas

Columbus started his career by serving as an apprentice to some of the most influential families in Genoa. He eventually went on to be recognized as a seagoing entrepreneur. He sailed to Iceland and Ireland with the merchant marine in 1477 and was trading sugar in Madeira by 1478 as an agent for the Genoese firm of Centurioni. Then, after years of lobbying, Columbus’s plan to discover an alternate route to Asia was sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain. They hoped that he would discover a route to China and India, that were famous for their spices and gold, among other things. Columbus left Spain in August 1492 with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He made landfall in the Americas on October 12, 1492 in the Bahama Islands. Though not known to him then, Columbus had reached the eastern coast of the Americas, a continent which was not then known to the Old World. Though he was not the first man to discover the Americas, Columbus did find a viable sailing route to the Americas, which was no mean achievement.

Christopher Columbus Landing in New World
Christopher Columbus Landing in New World, 1492

 

#3 He led the first European expeditions to the Caribbean, Central America and South America

Christopher Columbus undertook three more expeditionary voyages from Spain to the New World. His second voyage began on 24th September 1493 with a fleet of 17 ships carrying 1,200 men. The expedition contained supplies to establish permanent colonies in the New World. In November, 1493 his crew saw land and discovered the Dominica, Guadeloupe and Jamaica islands. In March, 1496, he set sail back to Spain. On May 30, 1498, Columbus left with six ships for his third trip to the New World. In July, the same year, he landed on the island of Trinidad. He then explored the Gulf of Paria and finally touched South America. Due to bad health, he returned to Hispaniola on August 19, 1498. The fourth voyage of Columbus began in May 1502. During this voyage he reached Central America. He sailed back to Spain in 1504. Columbus thus led the first European expeditions to the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

Columbus voyages map
Map of the voyages of Christopher Columbus

 

#4 His settlement in Hispaniola provided Spain strategic advantage for expansion in the New World

The four voyages of Columbus provided a plethora of information to the Europeans about sailing from Europe to the Americas; as well as about the various kinds of people who resided in the New World. Apart from the information gathered from his voyages, another important repercussion of his expeditions was the island of Hispaniola. Founded by Columbus on his voyages in 1492 and 1493, Hispaniola was the site of the first permanent European settlement in the Americas. This ultimately aided Spain in its conquest of the west as the island’s position in the northern flank of the Caribbean Sea proved to be a strategic standpoint for the expansion of Spain to Cuba, Mexico, Panama and South America.

Spanish conquest routes in the New World
Spanish conquest routes in the New World showing the importance of Hispaniola

 

#5 Columbus made colonization possible for Spain

Columbus’s efforts as an explorer set forth a chain of events that allowed Spain to establish a permanent foothold on the American continents. Spain started this by destroying the Aztecs, the Incas and the Mayan cultures, which paved way for 500 years of Western domination. In essence, Columbus’s voyages resulted in an everlasting contact between the Western and Eastern hemispheres of the world. While this resulted in the destruction of the native people of the Americas, it proved to be the basis on which our modern world is built. Led by Spain, the Europeans gained exceedingly due to the efforts of Columbus helping them prosper at the expense of their colonies and paving the way for their domination of the modern world.

Map of European colonization of the Americas
Map of European colonization of the Americas

 

#6 He had a major impact on the history of mankind

Columbian Exchange is a term coined by Alfred W. Crosby in his revolutionary book The Columbian Exchange which was published in 1972. The term refers to the widespread exchange of animals, plants, human populations, diseases, technology and ideas that occurred between Afro-Eurasia and the Americas after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. For instance, potatoes, corn and tomatoes were introduced to the Old World. Similarly, cattle, hogs and sheep were introduced to the people of America. The Columbian Exchange is one of the most important events in the history of mankind which had a great impact on the world in numerous ways. Thus, in a way, Columbus altered the history of mankind through his voyages.

Alfred W. Crosby
Alfred W. Crosby – Who coined the term Columbian Exchange

 

#7 Through domesticated animals, Columbian Exchange expanded the food supply in the Americas

Prior to the Columbian Exchange, the Old World had never seen a catfish or a tomato while the Native Americans had never seen a cow or an apple. Due to the Columbian Exchange a lot of crops and animals were introduced to both Old and New World. Crops introduced to Old World include potato, tomato, maize, cacao and tobacco. Crops introduced to New World include rice, wheat, apples, bananas and coffee. Turkey and Llama are probably the only prominent New World domesticated animals which were introduced to the Old World. However many animals were imported to the New World including horses, cows, chickens, donkeys and pigs. These animals, especially pigs because they breed very quickly, expanded the food supply in the Americas.

Columbian Exchange Chart
Columbian Exchange Chart

 

#8 Columbian Exchange caused a huge increase in population in the Old World

The plants from the Americas had a huge impact on the Old World. Lives of millions of people in Africa, Europe and Asia were changed radically due to the introduction of New World crops. New World plants like potatoes and maize could grow in soils which were useless for Old World crops. Today China and India are the largest producers and consumers of potatoes in the world. Cassava provides more calories than any plant on earth and is the basic diet of more than half a million people in the developing world. As the crops from the Americas were far more caloric than Old World food it led to probably the greatest population increase the world had ever seen. Between 1650 and 1850 the population of the world doubled.

 

#9 He served as Governor of Hispaniola

Christopher Columbus was widely regarded as an expert navigator and maritime explorer of his time. He held many important titles and positions during his lifetime. In 1492, Columbus received the title of “Almirante mayor del Mar Oceano” which translates to “Admiral of the Ocean”. Columbus had a legal agreement with the Spanish Crown that entitled him to a percentage of their profits from his discoveries. He was also granted the viceroyalty and governorship of any lands that he might discover. Following his first voyage, Columbus was appointed Viceroy and Governor of the Indies. In effect, this meant that he was given power to administer the colonies in the island of Hispaniola. He held this title from 1492 to 1499, after which he was dismissed due to accusations of tyranny and incompetence.

Statue of Columbus in Providence
Iconic statue of Columbus in Providence, Rhode Island, United States

 

#10 Columbus is regarded as a major figure in Spanish history

Christopher Columbus is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in Spanish history. His contribution has been commemorated via a monument that stands as a tall pillar pointing towards the sea in Barcelona. In addition to this, Columbus Day is celebrated in America on the second Monday of October. While he was unable to fulfil his dream of finding a new passage to Asia, Christopher Columbus’ voyages gave headway to events that shaped the world for hundreds of years. In this regard, he is considered one of the most influential explorers in history.

US postage stamp of Columbus fleet
US postage stamp of 1893 depicting the Fleet of Columbus

 

Negative Impact of the Columbian Exchange

Although it can’t be established certainly how many Native Americans died due to the arrival of Europeans but it is estimated that 80-95 percent died in the 150 years following the arrival of Columbus. The most affected regions lost 100 percent of their indigenous population. Though European brutality was a factor, the primary reason behind this were the diseases introduced to the New World through Columbian Exchange like smallpox, measles, malaria, typhus, chicken pox and yellow fever. Also due to the Columbian Exchange, the diversity of life on earth has diminished drastically and planting crops where they don’t belong has hurt the environment. Man and “the plants and animals that he brings with him have caused the extinction of more species of life forms in the last four hundred years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million”.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Christopher Columbus never even step foot in North America. Making such a false statement so early on discredits this entire article.

  2. This blog is really useful for me This is one of the most wonderful blog i love it. We celebrate Christopher Columbus during October and everyone knows he was a Genoa-born Italian Explorer, Navigator, and Colonizer. And the Christopher Columbus Facts is we all know him.

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