Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for the widespread European exploration and colonization of the Americas.
The European discovery of America opened possibilities for those with eyes to see. But Columbus was not one of them.
In 1492 Columbus set sail from Palos in Spain with three ships. Two, the Nina and the Pinta were caravels – small ships with triangular sails. The third, the Santa Maria, was a nao – a larger square-rigged ship. The ships were small, between 15 and 36 metres long. Between them they carried about 90 men.
After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for 10 weeks, land was sighted by a sailor called Rodrigo Bernajo (although Columbus himself took the credit for this). He landed on a small island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador. He claimed the island for the King and Queen of Spain, although it was already populated.
Columbus called all the people he met in the islands ‘Indians’, because he was sure that he had reached the Indies. This initial encounter opened up the ‘New World’ to European colonisation, which would come to have a devastating impact on indigenous populations.
Columbus died in 1506, still believing that he had found a new route to the East Indies. Today his historic legacy as a daring explorer who ‘discovered’ the New World has been challenged. His voyages launched centuries of European exploration and colonisation of the American continents. His encounters also triggered centuries of exploitation of native American populations.