Christopher Columbus (between August 25 and October 31, 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 Ericsson, 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”.
Handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus on the Latin edition of Marco Polo’s Le livre des merveilles.
The true circumference of the Earth is about 40,000 km (25,000 sm), a figure established by Eratosthenes in the second century BC, and the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan 19,600 km (12,200 sm). No ship that was readily available in the 15th century could carry enough food and fresh water for such a journey. Most European sailors and navigators concluded, probably correctly, that sailors undertaking a westward voyage from Europe to Asia non-stop would die of thirst or starvation long before reaching their destination. Spain, however, having completed an expensive war, was desperate for a competitive edge over other European countries in trade with the East Indies.