Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) explorer
Sailing for Spain during four voyages between 1492 and 1504, Christopher Columbus laid the foundation for an extensive Spanish empire in North, Central, and South America and eventually the Europeanization of the Western Hemisphere. As the first Europeans to reach the Americas since the 11th century, Columbus and his men unwittingly carried diseases that eventually killed perhaps half of the native populations of the Americas, leading to widespread destruction of native cultures.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Columbus became a mariner at an early age. After moving to Lisbon, Portugal, he sailed widely in the Mediterranean, the eastern Atlantic, and along the West African coast. During the 1480s, he determined that it was possible to reach China and the Indies by sailing westward, a novel idea that was rejected by Portuguese king John II. After several entreaties to the Spanish court, Columbus gained the support of Queen Isabella in 1492. On the first voyage (1492–93), he established Spanish claims to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and made the first European settlement in the New World on the northern shore of Hispaniola. On the second voyage, he made landfall on the island of Dominica and sailed up the Leeward Islands to Hispaniola, only to discover that the settlement had been destroyed. Before returning to Spain, he mapped the southern coast of Cuba, discovering Jamaica in the process, and left his brother Diego in charge of Isabella, a new settlement farther east along the northern coast of Hispaniola. On the third voyage (1496–1500), Columbus made landfall on Trinidad before finally setting foot on mainland South America (in Venezuela) for the first time in 1496. Based on the huge volume of water emanating from the Orinoco River, he rightly inferred that it represented the drainage of “a new world, hitherto unknown.” Returning to Hispaniola, he found the fledgling colony in disarray. Mismanagement and quarrels with local officials led to Columbus’s being returned to Spain in chains. Despite the lack of promised wealth, he nevertheless persuaded the Crown to sponsor a fourth voyage (1502–04). After landfall on Martinique and still convinced that the area he had discovered was only a short distance from China, he explored the Central American coastline in search of a strait that would led him there. Eventually abandoning the quest for a strait, Columbus also failed to discover gold, returning to Spain in disgrace.
Although unsuccessful in locating vast riches, Columbus’s geographic achievement was momentous. He deciphered the North Atlantic wind system, enabling future mariners to travel to and from the New World with reasonable hope of safe passage. He also explored much of the coastal Caribbean basin and established the Greater Antilles as a base for further Spanish imperial expansion throughout the 16th century.