Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (1446?-1506), Spanish explorer (B&W)
Christopher Columbus. FPG/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Christopher Columbus (1451 - 1506) was an Italian explorer who under the banner of Spain made four voyages to the New World. His legacy is fraught with controversy as his treatment of the native population he met was terrible. However, his trips did increase European interest in colonizing the Americas. 


c. 1451 in Genoa, Italy


May 20, 1506 near Valladolid, Spain

Funded By:

Spanish Government

Background to Christopher Columbus' Expeditions:

After Christopher Columbus read The Travels of Marco Polo, he felt that he could reach the West Indies by traveling west across the ocean instead of heading east over land. He first approached the Portuguese who felt, correctly, that his calculations to reach Asia by traveling west were inaccurate. He also approached other nations but Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain finally agreed to give him three ships along with many rewards if he discovered new islands or mainlands.

First Voyage - Columbus Lands in the Bahamas:

1492 - Columbus left Spain on August 3 with three ships: the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria. He stopped at the Canary Islands and then took five weeks to travel across the Atlantic Ocean before reaching an island in the Bahamas which he called San Salvador. He explored Cuba and Hispaniola. On each of these islands he met peaceful groups of indigenous people, particularly the Taíno, who he called Indians.

He then returned to Spain with not only examples of gold that he had found and descriptions of the lush landscape but also natives that had been forced to make the return voyage.

Second Voyage - Christopher Columbus and Genocide:

On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus arrived in the Lesser Antilles with 17 ships and 1,200 men.

He visited numerous islands before landing at Puerto Rico. He then traveled back to Hispaniola to meet up with the men he had left there. However, he found the fort in ruins. He and his men killed or enslaved many of the Taíno Indians found in Hispaniola causing the deaths of as many as 125,000 of the Taíno. Over time, the Taíno Indians died from harsh treatment and disease to the point where only a few were left a hundred years later.

Third and Fourth Voyages:

In 1498, Columbus made his third voyage to the New World. He continued to explore the region, including parts of South America's mainland. When he returned to Hispaniola he found problems with the settlers. His treatment of the Spaniards and native population was so bad that when he returned to Spain he was arrested. Columbus was later released and sent on one final voyage in 1502. His goal was to find a passage to the Indian Ocean. He spent some time exploring Central America before returning to Hispaniola. He lost his ships in storms and was stranded on Jamaica until ships arrived to take him back to Spain.

Columbus' Death:

Christopher Columbus did not return to the Americas after this date. He died in Spain in 1506. His body was moved numerous times after his death: first to Hispaniola, then to Cuba, then finally back to Spain.

The Significance of Christopher Columbus:

Columbus was not the first to 'discover' or even 'explore' the Americas. However, he was the first to create extended interest in the Americas and make it a centerpiece of colonization efforts by first the Spanish and then the French and the English. His treatment of the Taíno was increasingly horrendous and resulted in the destruction of an entire society and the near devastation of the entire population through either disease or violence.