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Journal of the First Voyage
by Christopher Columbus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was born in the Italian port city of Genoa. The son of a textile weaver, Columbus first became a sailor in the Mediterranean in his twenties, and then settled in Portugal after he was shipwrecked off that coast in 1476. He rose from an ordinary deckhand to become a ship's navigator and a mapmaker, and married a Portuguese noble woman named Dona Filipa Perestrello in 1479. While living in Portugal, he worked for a trading firm from Genoa, buying Portuguese sugar and traveling by ship to the Guinea Coast of Africa (between Senegal and Nigeria) in the 1480s. That made him aware of Portuguese efforts to reach Asia by sailing south along the African coast in search of a route to the east, and during that period, he began to develop a plan to reach Asia by sailing around the world to the west. After failing to convince the Portguese king to finance his plan, he went to Spain in 1486 and tried to interest Queen Isabella in his plan. After stalling for years, she changed her mind in 1492 and gave him enough money to outfit three ships, plus the promise of a share in whatever wealth he discovered.

Columbus' fleet reached land near Cuba on October 12, and returned with claims that they had reached the islands at the eastern end of Asia. Later, he led three more voyages to the Caribbean, but by the time that he died in 1506, Columbus still believed that he had reached India instead of a completely new part of the world. Although his original journals have disappeared, both his son and a Spanish monk, Bartolomé de las Casas, published summaries of their contents. This reading is from de las Casas' version.



Although Europeans had sailed to the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks (7th century BCE), they rarely sailed into the Atlantic. Ocean storms were larger, so ships had to be stronger, but that meant they couldn't carry as much cargo. In addition, it was impossible to use oars in the heavy Atlantic seas, so ships had to rely on sails and that made them slow and hard to maneuver. Navigation was also in its infancy, so ocean-going ships had to stay near the coast in order to find their way. All of this meant that the Atlantic trade was never as large or as valuable as the Mediterranean trade.


Route of Columbus' first voyage
Route of Columbus' first voyage in 1492-1493
nodern reconstruction of a caravel
Modern reconstruction of a caravel

In the 1300s, the Portuguese developed several innovations that made Atlantic sailing practical. They combined elements of different types of ships (including lateen-rigged sails) to construct caravels which were strong enough to sail in the Atlantic, but highly maneuverable and large enough to carry supplies for long voyages. In addition, shipboard compasses became reliable enough to use for navigation. Finally, the Portuguese prince Henry, nicknamed "the Navigator" (1394-1460), took a personal interest in promoting voyages of discovery, and founded a school for navigation at Sagres, the southernmost point on the Portuguese coast, in 1419. By 1500, Portuguese ships had traveled around the bottom end of Africa, reached the Arab/Swahili cities of the East African coast, and traded as far as the west coast of India. One Portuguese ship also landed on the coast of Brazil, giving Portugal a claim in the Americas.

Many European sailors in the 15th century believed in the search for a sea passage to India (known as "the Enterprise of the Indies"), but Christopher Columbus was more persistent than most. Although he became a prominent citizen in Portugal in the 1480s, King John II of Portugal refused his request for a fleet to explore the western route to India because he thought that the route to the east was more practical. So Columbus went to see Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of the relatively new Kingdom of Aragon and Castile, and asked them for assistance. Columbus was received assistance from Luis de Santangel, a Spanish noble and the "Keeper of the Privy Seal to the King of Aragon." Santangel introduced Columbus to the monarchs, and even invested in Columbus' expedition, but it took Columbus three years before Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to support him in 1491. In return for his work in organizing and leading the expedition, the monarchs made Columbus a Spanish noble and an "admiral of the navy" to insure discipline among the crew and make all of his claims automatically Spanish. Columbus also received one tenth of all profits, and was appointed the governor of all new discoveries.

His fleet of three small ships left Spain in the fall of 1492 and returned the following year with some gold, captives, and information about larger lands to the west. Despite the meager value of his loot, his stories excited enormous interest and the next Spanish fleet left in less than a year with ten ships and more than a thousand men. As soon as the Portuguese heard about Columbus' discoveries in the west, they claimed everything that Columbus had discovered by invoking the terms of the 1479 Treaty of Alcacovas, which had given the Azores (Altantic Islands) to the Portuguese. The Spanish king appealed to Pope Alexander VI (a Spaniard) to grant the lands discovered by Columbus to Spain, and Alexander issued a series of four rulings which culminated in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. It set the boundary in such a way that Portugal retained the rights to Brazil, as well as Africa and India, while Spain received everything further to the west. Nearly two generations later, Ferdinand Magellan's fleet (or rather the single surviving ship, minus Magellan, who died in the Philippines) returned to Spain after sailing around the world. As a result, the boundary between the Spanish and Portuguese empires was extended into the Pacific Ocean by the Treaty of Zaragosa in 1529, dividing the wrld into two parts bwetween the Spanish and the Portuguese.


  1. What reason did Columbus give to Queen Isabella for his voyage to India?
  2. Why did Columbus keep a log book? How is a logbook different from a diary?
  3. How did the members of Columbus' expedition treat native Americans after they met? How did the native Americans treat the Spaniards?
  4. Was Columbus' voyage successful? How do you measure "success?" How did he measure success?
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