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How Did Christopher Columbus Discover America?

Updated on December 13, 2019

The discovery of America

At the end of the 15th century, Spain attempted to find a new sea route to India. When the last possession of the Arabs in Spain, Granada, was occupied in 1492, the Spanish majesties, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, accepted a project that had been submitted to them by an Italian seafarer from Genoa. That seafarer’s name was Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506).

Columbus’ idea was to sail across the Atlantic. It was an immensely daring plan because it involved many days of sailing without any land knowledge in completely unknown waters. It was also previously rejected by both the Portuguese, the English, and the French king. Columbus built his conception of the Earth's size on Ptolemy, but he underestimated the Earth's circumference by about a quarter. Also, Columbus assumed that Asia's east-west extent was greater than it is. These two mistakes meant that Columbus was expecting Japan to be 4500 km from the Canary Islands. The return of such a stretch At sea was bold, but not impossible. In fact, the distance is about 20,000 km, and such a stretch could not be covered by the ships of the past.

Columbus's small expedition on three ships reached land after 33 days of sailing – roughly where Japan was supposed to be, according to Columbus's calculations. When he went ashore on a small island in the Bahama group on the 12th of October, 1492, he was convinced that he had reached an archipelago east of the Asian mainland. The population he encountered was therefore called Indians, and the Caribbean area was named the West Indies. Columbus was made governor of the areas he had taken possession of.

It is not known precisely how Columbus looked. The best bet is this painting from the end of the 16th century.
It is not known precisely how Columbus looked. The best bet is this painting from the end of the 16th century.

In the following years, he made three more journeys to the new world. On the fourth, he reached Central America in his quest for the Asian mainland. Until his death, he insisted that it was Asia that he had arrived to, not a new continent.

However, it soon became clear that Columbus was wrong. A Venetian in English service – Giovanni Caboto or John Cabot – reached North America's coast as early as 1497, and in 1500 the Portuguese was discovering the east coast of Brazil. He had been on his way to India but was driven too far to the west in the Atlantic ocean. Where these explorers came forward, they declared the territory found to be subject to the sovereignty of their kings.

It was Amerigo Vespucci (1454 – 1512) an Italian from Florence, who came to name the new continent. On journeys along the coast of South America, he was convinced that one was facing a new world and based on his reports, a book, Novus Mundi (The New World) was published in 1502, which settled this conclusion.

Now the effort was made to find a sea road outside the newly discovered continent to the coveted Spice Islands. The Portuguese Magellan (approx. 1480 – 1521), who had been in service of the Spanish, succeeded. His ships rounded in 1520 as the first the south tip of South America, reaching the Philippines and then the Moluccas, but sailing the same way back was unthinkable. The sea voyage had already lasted four months! Instead, the expedition continued to the West, south of Africa. In 1522, a single ship of 18 men came back to Spain. When the expedition was sent out in 1519, it had consisted of 5 ships with 237 men. Magellan himself had been killed on a Filipino island. The conclusion was obvious. There was no usable sea road to India to the west.

The Spanish-Portuguese rivalry of finding a sea road to India resulted in the two countries, with the pope's intervention, negotiating a dividing line between Portuguese and Spanish influence in the world. This so-called Tordesillas treaty was signed in 1493 and then revised in 1494, and it simply drew a north-southbound line across the Atlantic ocean The area east of the region was the Portuguese’s area of interest. The area west of the region was the Spanish’s area of interest.

© 2019 Jakob Bach Jensen

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