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Columbus and His Voyages

Columbia or America: 500 Years of Controversy

Engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry. Proof impression of the plate printed on page 3 of Theodor de Bry, ed., Americae pars quinta (German edition: Americae das funffte Buch), Frankfurt, 1595. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Click image to enlarge.

No portrait of Christopher Columbus drawn or painted from life is known to exist. The engraving presented here, is a copy of a highly regarded portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, a student of Michelangelo’s. As a portrait, it is a bit unusual. All other paintings of Columbus show him without a hat. In this one the figure wears a hat with a curled border. A deep-edged and ornate mantle hangs from his shoulders. His fingers are long and delicate. His face is round, his eyes blue, and a dimple is barely visible in his chin.

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that what is today considered one of the most important voyages in history was something of a failure at the time. Columbus had promised to find a new, quicker route to the lucrative Chinese trade markets and he failed miserably. Instead of holds full of Chinese silks and spices he returned with some trinkets and a few bedraggled natives from Hispaniola: some ten more had perished on the voyage. In addition, he had lost the largest of the three ships entrusted to him. Columbus actually considered the natives his greatest find. He thought that a new slave trade could make his discoveries lucrative. Columbus was hugely disappointed a few years later when Queen Isabela, after careful thought, decided not to open the New World to slave trading. Columbus never believed that he had found something new: he maintained, to his dying day, that the lands he discovered were indeed part of the known Far East. During his second journey he explored the south coast of Cuba, which he believed to be a peninsula of China rather than an island. He described the lands discovered during his third journey as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured it hanging from China, bulging out to make the earth pear-shaped. Although Columbus was a gifted sailor, he was a terrible administrator, and the colony he founded on Hispaniola turned against him. After his third trip he was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. Although he was quickly freed by the King and Queen, his reputation was shot. The Fourth Voyage was a failure by almost any standard. Many of Columbus’ men died, the ships were lost and no passage to the west was ever found. Columbus himself would never sail again, and died convinced that he had found Asia, even if most of Europe already accepted the fact that the Americas were an unknown “New World.”

Is it then so surprising that the discoverer has been bypassed when the “New World” was given its new name?


Having convinced the King and Queen of Spain to finance his voyage, Christopher Columbus departed mainland Spain on August 3, 1492 in command of three ships: the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María. After a final restocking in the Canary Islands he left there on September 6 for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean.  On October 12, Rodrigo de Triana, a sailor aboard the Pinta, first sighted land. Columbus himself later claimed that he had seen a sort of light or aura before Triana did, allowing him to keep the reward he had promised to give whomever spotted land first. The land turned out to be a small island in the present-day Bahamas, which Columbus named San Salvador. On October 28 he reached Cuba. Thinking he had found China, he sent two men to investigate. Not surprisingly, they failed in their mission to find the Emperor of China, but did visit a native Taíno village.   Original map of the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Map Collection, Olin & Uris Libraries. The second voyage was to be a large scale colonization and exploration project. Columbus was given 17 ships and over 1,000 men. Included on this voyage, for the first time, were European domesticated animals. The orders were to expand the settlement on Hispaniola, convert the natives to Christianity, establish a trading post and continue his explorations in search of China or Japan. The fleet set sail on October 13th, 1493 and made excellent time, first sighting land on November 3rd. The island first sighted was named Dominica by Columbus, a name it retains to this day. He reached Cuba (which he had discovered on his first voyage) on April 30 and spent the next few weeks searching in vain for the mainland. Columbus had been appointed governor and Viceroy of the new lands by the Spanish crown, but in 1496 supplies began to run out and Columbus was forced to return to Spain.  Original map of the Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Map Collection, Olin & Uris Libraries. According to the abstract of Columbus’ journal made by Bartolomé de Las Casas, the object of the third voyage was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal claimed was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. On May 30, 1498, Columbus led the fleet to the Portuguese Porto Santo Island, his wife's native homeland. He then sailed to the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. Columbus landed on the south coast of the island of Trinidad on July 31, 1498. From August 4 through August 12, 1498, he explored the Gulf of Paria which separates Trinidad from mainland Venezuela. He then explored the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River. He also sailed to the islands of Chacachacare and Margarita Island and sighted and named islands Bella Forma (Tobago) and Concepcion (Grenada).  Original map of the Third Voyage of Christopher Columbus, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Map Collection, Olin & Uris Libraries. On May 11, 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. He had four ships and his mission was to explore uncharted areas to the west of the Caribbean, hopefully finding a passage west to the Orient. Columbus did explore parts of southern Central America, but his ships, damaged by a hurricane and termites, fell apart while he was exploring. Columbus and his men were stranded on Jamaica for about a year before being rescued. They returned to Spain in late 1504 to learn that his beloved Queen Isabel was dying. Without her support, Columbus would never return to the New World. He was getting on in years at any rate, and it is a wonder that he survived the disastrous fourth voyage. He died in 1506.  Original map of the Third Voyage of Christopher Columbus, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Map Collection, Olin & Uris Libraries.

Click image to enlarge.
From left to right, original maps of the four voyages of Christopher Columbus, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Olin Library Map Collection.

Continue on to Amerigo Vespucci