Christopher Columbus Sets Out To Find The New World

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus set out on his first voyage to what came to be known as the New World.

With three ships and a crew of ninety, Columbus hoped to find a western route to the Far East. Instead, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria landed in the Bahama Islands.

Christopher Columbus set sail in an era of maritime advances, charting his route with the aid of a mariner's compass, an astrolabe, a cross-staff, and a quadrant. The most popular map for mariners at the time was Ptolemy's Geography or Cosmography, printed in 1482 but originally compiled by the Alexandrian geographer, astronomer, and mathematician Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A.D.

Christopher Columbus (c. 1451 – May 20, 1506) was a Genoese navigator, colonizer and explorer whose voyages across the Atlantic Ocean—funded by Queen Isabella of Spain—led to general European awareness of the American continents in the Western Hemisphere. Although not the first to reach the Americas from Europe—he was preceded by the Norse, led by Leif Ericson, who built a temporary settlement 500 years earlier at L'Anse aux Meadows— Columbus initiated widespread contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans. With his several attempts at establishing a settlement on the island of Hispaniola, he personally initiated the process of Spanish colonization which foreshadowed general European colonization of the "New World." (The term "pre-Columbian" is usually used to refer to the peoples and cultures of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and his European successors.)

His initial 1492 voyage came at a critical time of growing national imperialism and economic competition between developing nation states seeking wealth from the establishment of trade routes and colonies. In this sociopolitical climate, Columbus's far-fetched scheme won the attention of Queen Isabella of Spain. Severely underestimating the circumference of the Earth, he estimated that a westward route from Iberia to the Indies would be shorter and more direct than the overland trade route through Arabia. If true, this would allow Spain entry into the lucrative spice trade — heretofore commanded by the Arabs and Italians. Following his plotted course, he instead landed within the Bahamas Archipelago at a locale he named San Salvador. Mistaking the North-American island for the East-Asian mainland, he referred to its inhabitants as "Indios".

If the winds are favorable the distance is traveled quickly; but no one must start without being sure of the weather, and this assurance can be obtained by observing the sky, and finding out that this is very clear and that the wind comes from the side of the northern star, and blows for some days always in the same direction.”

— William Eleroy Curtis [introduction], The Authentic Letters of Columbus (Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, May 1895), I, no. 2:125