Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day

Columbus Portrait
Columbus Day is a holiday honoring Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. It has been traditionally celebrated on October 12 throughout most of the United States. However, the Uniform Holiday Act tells Americans to celebrate this holiday on the Monday nearest to October 12.

Visit our school calendar page to find out the date of Columbus Day this year.   

Columbus, Christopher,
   14511506, European explorer, b. Genoa, Italy.  
Between 1492 and 1504, Christopher Columbus made four voyages from Spain to lands he later called the "New World." On his first voyage, he explored parts of Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492 and 1493. From 1493 to 1496, he continued to explore those regions and also Puerto Rico and Jamaica. On his third voyage, from 1498 to 1500, he sailed along the northern coast of South America. On his final journey in 1502, Columbus explored the coast of Central America.

Four Voyages of Columbus

Early Years

As a boy, Columbus spent much time working with his father, a weaver. Later he became a sailor on the Mediterranean. Shipwrecked near the coast of Portugal in 1476, he made his way to where his brother, Bartholomew, lived. Columbus became a chart maker like his brother.  He also worked as a sugar buyer on the islands off Africa   He met pilots and navigators who believed in the existence of islands farther west.

By the time he was 31 or 32, Columbus had become a master sailor in Portugal. He was greatly influenced by his brother, Bartholomew.  Columbus was not the only person who believed you could reach land by sailing west. He was unusual, however, because he persisted in his dream. But he needed financial support for his explorations.  Finally, after eight years of begging, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain decided to give Columbus what he needed.

Voyages to the New World

[Image of Pinta and Santa Maria]

First Voyage

On Aug. 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from Spain, with three small ships: the Santa Mara, commanded by Columbus himself, the Pinta, and the Nia.  After first stopping at the Canary Islands, he sailed west from Sept. 6 until Oct. 7, when he changed his course to the southwest. On Oct. 10 there was an uprising on board ship.  The sailors wanted to take over the ship.  The small mutiny was quieted, and on Oct. 12 he landed on a small island in the Bahamas, named San Salvador.  He claimed it for Spain.  On Oct. 27 he sighted Cuba and on Dec. 5 he reached Hispaniola.

On Christmas Eve the Santa Mara was wrecked on the north coast of Hispaniola, and Columbus, leaving men there to start a colony, hurried back to Spain on the Nia. He was received very well when he returned. The Spanish rulers made him "admiral of the ocean sea and governor-general of all new lands he should discover.

Second Voyage

With a large fleet of 17 ships and with 1,500 colonists aboard, Columbus sailed again in October of 1493. His new discovery was Puerto Rico. However, when he arrived at Hispaniola, he found the first colony destroyed by Native Americans. He started a new colony nearby and then sailed off to explore Cuba. Next he discovered Jamaica and then returned to Hispaniola. The colonists he returned to were only interested in finding gold.  They were completely disorderly so he tried to force strict discipline  on them. Some of the men took control of some ships and returned to Spain to complain about the way Columbus was running things. Columbus left his brother Bartholomew in charge at Hispaniola and returned to Spain himself in 1496.

Columbus and Indigenous Peoples

Third Voyage

On his third expedition Columbus was forced to carry convicts along as future colonists because of the bad reports on conditions in Hispaniola. Also, the exciting "newness" of the "new world" was wearing off. Columbus explored around South America for a while but he hurried back to Hispaniola to take care of his colony. But again there were reports of horrible conditions in the colony and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sent a new governor there. The new governor sent Columbus back to Spain in chains. Although he was freed right away, his popularity was definitely fading.

Fourth Voyage

It was 1502 before Columbus finally gathered together four ships for a fourth trip.  He hoped to get his good reputation back. If he could sail past the islands and far enough west, he hoped he might still find Asia or Japan. He struck the coast of Honduras in Central America and traveled southward. After suffering terrible hardships, he attempted to return to Hispaniola.  He was finally rescued and returned to Spain.


How History Sees Columbus
(Now that over 500 years have passed since Columbus first came to the New World.)

Columbus was not the first European sailor to come to the New World, but his voyages were very important. He opened the New World to Western civilization and Christianity. Even though he never  knew that he had landed on a new continent, his trips started to get Europeans interested in exploring and settling on this new land. 

One thing everyone agrees on is that Columbus'  voyage 
was a major turning point in history.

But...all  people do not agree about Columbus.  


     Many people say he was vain, ambitious, greedy, and ruthless. And records of his voyages show how brutal the European colonists were as they began to destroy the Native Americans and their culture.  

Read this opinion:
"How can you call a takeover a discovery?"

     To make a better myth, American culture has kept the idea that Columbus was boldly forging ahead while everyone else, even his own crew, imagined the world was flat. "The superstitious sailors ... grew increasingly mutinous," according to The American Pageant, because they were "fearful of sailing over the edge of the world." In truth, few people on both sides of the Atlantic believed in 1492 that the world was flat. Most Europeans and Native Americans knew the world to be round. It looks round. It casts a circular shadow on the moon. Sailors see its roundness when ships disappear over the horizon, hull first, then sails.

And here is another account...  
On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew arrived at an an island in the Bahamas inhabited by the Arawak Indians. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, the Arawaks ran to greet them bringing food and gifts. Columbus wrote the following in his log...
They...brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned...They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance...They would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."

This excerpt is from:
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

In return for bringing Spain gold and spices, Columbus was promised 10% of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

 Columbus reported to the Court in Madrid that he had reached Asia and an island off the coast of China. He asked for ships and men for a second expedition and promised to bring "as much gold as they need... and as many slaves as they ask."

But they found no gold fields, so they went on a great slave raid. They rounded up 1500 Arawak men, women, and children and kept them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs. When the Spaniards were ready, they picked the 500 best specimens to load onto the ships. Of those 500, only 300 survived the trip. When they arrived in Spain they were put up for sale.

But too many of the slaves were dying. So Columbus became more desperate to fill his ships with gold. In Haiti, Columbus and his men ordered all Indians to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they turned over the gold, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Any Indian found without a token had their hands cut off and bled to death. The Indians' task was impossible. The only gold around was bits of dust in the streams. So they fled, and many were hunted down and killed.

The Arawaks attempted to put together a resistance army, but they faced Spaniards with armor, muskets, swords, and horses. Mass suicides among the Arawaks began.

When it became obvious to the Spaniards that there was no gold left, they worked the Indians fiercely as slaves on estates called encomiendas.

Now answer the following questions.

Click here to see a map of the West Indies region. Copy it into Paint.

Label: Florida, Cuba, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Haiti,
the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean Sea, and South America.

Use the colored map below to guide you.

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