The Beginner's American History/Chapter 1

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Christopher Columbus (1436–1506)1[edit]

Columbus as a Boy

(From the statue in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

1. Birth and boyhood of Columbus.2 Christopher Columbus (Kris′tof-er Ko-lum′bus), the discoverer of America, was born at Genoa (Jen′o-ah), a seaport of Italy, more than four hundred and fifty years ago. His father was a wool-comber.3 Christopher did not care to learn that trade, but wanted to become a sailor. Seeing the boy's strong liking for the sea, his father sent him to a school where he could learn geography, map-drawing, and whatever else might help him to become, some day, commander of a vessel.

2. Columbus becomes a sailor.— When he was fourteen Columbus went to sea. In those days the Mediterranean4 Sea swarmed with war-ships and pirates. Every sailor, no matter if he was but a boy, had to stand ready to fight his way from port to port.

In this exciting life, full of adventure and of danger, Columbus grew to manhood. The rough experiences he then had did much toward making him the brave, determined captain and explorer5 that he afterwards became.

3. Columbus has a sea-fight; he goes to Lisbon.— According to some accounts, Columbus once had a desperate battle with a vessel off the coast of Portugal. The fight lasted, it is said, all day. At length both vessels were found to be on fire. Columbus jumped from his blazing ship into the sea, and catching hold of a floating oar, managed, with its help, to swim to the shore, about six miles away.

He then went to the port of Lisbon. There he married the daughter of a famous sea captain. For a long time after his marriage Columbus earned his living partly by drawing maps, which he sold to commanders of vessels visiting Lisbon, and partly by making voyages to Africa, Iceland, and other countries.

4. What men then knew about the world.— The maps which Columbus made and sold were very different from those we now have. At that time not half of the world had been discovered. Europe, Asia, and a small part of Africa were the chief countries known. The maps of Columbus may have shown the earth shaped like a ball; but he supposed it to be much smaller than it really is. No one then had sailed round the globe. No one then knew what lands lay west of the broad Atlantic; for this reason we should look in vain, on one of the maps drawn by Columbus, for the great continents of North and South America or for Australia or the Pacific Ocean.

5. The plan of Columbus for reaching the Indies by sailing west.— While living in Lisbon, Columbus made up his mind to try to do what no other man at that time dared attempt,—that was to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He thought that, by doing so, he could get directly to Asia and the Indies, which, he believed, were opposite Portugal and Spain. If successful, he could open up a very profitable trade with the rich countries of the East, from which spices, drugs, and silk were brought to Europe. The people of Europe could not reach those countries directly by ships, because they had not then found their way round the southern point of Africa.

6. Columbus tries to get help in carrying out his plans.— Columbus was too poor to fit out even a single ship to undertake such a voyage as he had planned. He asked the king of Portugal to furnish some money or vessels toward it, but he received no encouragement. At length he determined to go to Spain and see if he could get help there.

On the southern coast of Spain there is a small port named Palos (Pä′lōs). Within sight of the village of Palos, and within plain sight of the ocean, there was a convent,6—which is still standing,—called the Convent of Saint Mary.

Columbus begging at the Convent

One morning a tall, fine-looking man, leading a little boy by the hand, knocked at the door of this convent and begged for a piece of bread and a cup of water for the child. The man was Columbus,—whose wife was now dead,—and the boy was his son.

It chanced that the guardian of the convent noticed Columbus standing at the door. He liked his appearance, and coming up, began to talk with him. Columbus frankly told him what he was trying to do. The guardian of the convent listened with great interest; then he gave him a letter to a friend who, he thought, would help him to lay his plans before Ferdinand (Fer′di-nand) and Isabella (Iz-ah-bel′ah), the king and queen of Spain.

7. Columbus gets help for his great voyage.— Columbus left his son at the convent and set forward on his journey, full of bright hopes. But Ferdinand and Isabella could not see him; and after waiting a long time, the traveller was told that he might go before a number of learned men and tell them about his proposed voyage across the Atlantic.

After hearing what Columbus had to say, these men thought that it would be foolish to spend money in trying to reach the other side of the ocean.

People who heard what this captain from Lisbon wanted to do, began to think that he had lost his reason; and the boys in the streets laughed at him and called him crazy. Columbus waited for help seven years; he then made up his mind that he would wait no longer. Just as he was about leaving Spain, Queen Isabella, who had always felt interested in the brave sailor, resolved to aid him. Two rich sea captains who lived in Palos also decided to take part in the voyage. With the assistance which Columbus now got he was able to fit out three vessels—the only one which had an entire deck—as admiral (ad′mi-ral) or commander of the fleet.

8. Columbus sails.— Early on Friday morning, August 3, 1492, Columbus started from Palos to attempt to cross that ocean which men then called the “Sea of Darkness”,—a name which showed how little they knew of it, and how much they dreaded it.

We may be pretty sure that the guardian of the convent was one of those who watched the sailing of the little fleet. From the upper windows of the convent he could plainly see the vessels as they left the harbor of Palos.

9. What happened on the first part of the voyage.— Columbus sailed first for the Canary Islands, because from there it would be a straight line, as he thought, across to Japan and Asia. He was obliged to stop at the Canaries from August 12 to September 6, or more than three weeks, in order to make a new rudder for one of his vessels and to alter the sails of another.

At length all was ready, and he again set out on his voyage toward the west. When the vessels got so far out on the ocean that the sailors could no longer see any of the islands, they were overcome with fear. They made up their minds that they should never be able to get back to Palos again. They were rough men, used to the sea, but now they bowed down their heads and cried like children. Columbus had hard work to quiet their fears and to encourage them to go forward with the voyage which they already wanted to give up.

10. What happened after they had been at sea many days.— For more than thirty days the three ships kept on their way toward the west. To the crew every day seemed a year. From sunrise to sunset nothing was to be seen but water and sky. At last the men began to think that they were sailing on an ocean which had no end. They whispered among themselves that Columbus had gone mad, and that if they on with him in command they should all be lost.

Columbus refuses to turn back

Twice, indeed, there was a joyful cry of Land! land! but when they got nearer they saw that what they had thought was land was nothing but banks of clouds. Then some of the sailors said, Let us go to the admiral and tell him that we must turn back. What if he will not listen to us? asked others. Then we will throw him overboard, and say, when we reach Palos, that he fell into the sea and was drowned.

But when the crew went to Columbus and told him that they would go no further, he sternly ordered them to their work, declaring that, whatever might happen, he would not now give up the voyage.

11. Signs of land.— The very next day such certain signs of land were seen that the most faint-hearted took courage. The men had already noticed great flocks of land-birds flying toward the west, as if to guide them. Now some of the men on one vessel saw a branch of a thorn-bush float by. It was plain that it had not long been broken off from the bush, and it was full of red berries.

But one of the crew on the other vessel found something better even than the thorn-branch; for he drew out of the water a carved walking-stick. Every one saw that such a stick must have been cut and carved by human hands. These two signs could not be doubted. The men now felt sure that they were approaching the shore, and what was more, that there were people living in that strange country.

12. Discovery of land.— That evening Columbus begged his crew to keep a sharp lookout, and he promised a velvet coat to the one who should first see land. All was now excitement, and no man closed his eyes in sleep that night.

Columbus himself stood on a high part of his ship, looking steadily toward the west. About ten o'clock he saw a moving light; it seemed like a torch carried in a man's hand. He called to a companion and asked him if he could see anything of the kind; yes, he, too, plainly saw the moving light; but presently it disappeared.

Two hours after midnight a cannon was fired from the foremost vessel. It was the glad signal that the long-looked-for land was actually in sight. There it lay directly ahead, about six miles away.

Then Columbus gave the order to furl sails, and the three vessels came to a stop and waited for the dawn. When the sun rose on Friday, October 12, 1492, Columbus saw a beautiful island with many trees growing on it. That was his first sight of the New World.

13. Columbus lands on the island and names it; who lived on the island.— Attended by the captains of the other two vessels, and by a part of their crews, Columbus set out in a boat for the island. When they landed, all fell on their knees, kissed the ground for joy, and gave thanks to God. Columbus named the island San Salvador7 and took possession of it, by right of discovery, for the king and queen of Spain.

He found that it was inhabited by a copper-colored people who spoke a language he could not understand. These people had never seen a ship or a white man before. They wore no clothing, but painted their bodies with bright colors. The Spaniards made them presents of strings of glass beads and red caps. In return they gave the Spaniards skeins of cotton yarn, tame parrots, and small ornaments of gold.

After staying here a short time Columbus set sail toward the south, in search of more land and in the hope of finding out where these people got their gold.

Landing of Columbus

14. Columbus names the group of islands and their people.— As Columbus sailed on, he saw many islands in every direction. He thought that they must be a part of the Indies which he was seeking. Since he had reached them by coming west from Spain, he called them the West Indies, and to the red men who lived on them he gave the name of Indians.

15. Columbus discovers two very large islands; his vessel is wrecked, and he returns to Spain in another.— In the course of the next six weeks, Columbus discovered the island of Cuba. At first he thought that it must be Japan, but afterward he came to the conclusion that it was not an island at all, but part of the mainland of Asia.

Next, he came to the island of Hayti (Hā′ti), or San Domingo (San Dō-min′go). Here his ship was wrecked. He took the timber of the wreck and built a fort on the shore. Leaving about forty of his crew in this fort, Columbus set sail for Palos in one of the two remaining vessels.

16. Columbus arrives at Palos; joy of the people; how Ferdinand and Isabella received him.— When the vessel of Columbus was seen entering the harbor of Palos, the whole village was wild with excitement. More than seven months had gone by since he sailed away from that port, and as nothing had been heard from him, many supposed that the vessels and all on board were lost. Now that they saw their friends and neighbors coming back, all was joy. The bells of the churches rang a merry peal of welcome; the people thronged the streets, shouting to each other that Columbus, the great navigator, had crossed the “Sea of Darkness” and had returned in safety.

The king and queen were then in the city of Barcelona (Bar-se-lō′na), a long distance from Palos. To that city Columbus now went. He entered it on horseback, attended by the proudest and richest noblemen of Spain. He brought with him six Indians from the West Indies. They were gaily painted and wore bright feathers in their hair. Then a number of men followed, carrying rare birds, plants, and gold and silver ornaments, all found in the New World. These were presents for the king and queen. Ferdinand and Isabella received Columbus with great honor. When he had told them the story of his wonderful voyage, they sank on their knees and gave praise to God; all who were present followed their example.

17. The last voyages of Columbus.— Columbus made three more voyages across the Atlantic. He discovered more islands near the coast of America, and he touched the coast of Central America and of South America, but that was all. He never set foot on any part of what is now the mainland of the United States; and he always thought that the land he had reached was part of Asia. He had found a new world, but he did not know it; all that he knew was how to get to it and how to show others the way.

18. Columbus in his old age.— The last days of this great man were very sorrowful. The king was disappointed because he brought back no gold to amount to anything. The Spanish governor of San Domingo hated Columbus, and when he landed at that island on one of his voyages, he arrested him and sent him back to Spain in chains. He was at once set at liberty; but he could not forget the insult. He kept the chains hanging on the wall of his room, and asked to have them buried with him.

Columbus was now an old man; his health was broken, he was poor, in debt, and without a home. Once he wrote to the king and queen saying, “I have not a hair upon me that is not gray, my body is weak, and all that was left to me … has been taken away and sold, even to the coat which I wore.”

Not long after he had come back to Spain to stay, the queen died. Then Columbus felt that he had lost his best friend. He gave up hope and said, “I have done all that I could do; I leave the rest to God.”

19. His death and burial.— Columbus died full of disappointment and sorrow,—perhaps it would not be too much to say that he died of a broken heart.

He was at first buried in Spain; then his body was taken up and carried to San Domingo, where he had wished to be buried. Whether it rests there to-day, or whether it was carried to Havana,8 deposited in the cathedral or great church of that city, and was finally carried back to Spain,9 no one can positively say. But wherever the grave of the great sailor may be, his memory will live in every heart capable of respecting a brave man; for he first dared to cross the “Sea of Darkness”, and he discovered America.

20. Summary.— In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to find a direct way across the Atlantic to Asia and the Indies. He did not get to Asia; but he did better: he discovered America. He died thinking that the new lands he had found were part of Asia; but by his daring voyage he first showed the people of Europe how to get to the New World.


When and where was Columbus born? What did he do when he was fourteen? What is said about his sea-fight? What did he do in Lisbon? How much of the world was then known? How did Columbus think he could reach Asia and the Indies? Why did he want to go there? What did he try to do in Portugal? Why did he go to Spain? Where did he first go in Spain? How did Columbus get help at last? When did he sail? What happened on the first part of the voyage? What happened after that? What is said about signs of land? What about the discovery of land? What did Columbus name the island? What did he find on it? What is said of other islands? What is said of the return of Columbus to Spain? What about the last voyages of Columbus? Did he ever land on any part of what is now the United States? What about his old age? What is said of his death and burial?


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Footnotes[edit]

1 These enclosed dates under a name show, except when otherwise stated, the year of birth and death.

2 The paragraph headings, in heavy type, will be found useful for topical reference, and, if desired, as questions; by simply omitting these headings, the book may be used as a reader.

Teachers who wish a regular set of questions on each section will find them at the end of the section. Difficult words are defined or pronounced where they first occur.

3 Wool-comber: before wool can be spun into thread and woven into cloth, the tangled locks must be combed out straight and smooth; once this was all done by hand.

4 Mediterranean (Med′i-ter-rā′ne-an), the sea between Europe and Africa.

5 Explorer: one who explores or discovers new countries.

6 Convent: a house in which a number of people live who devote themselves to a religious life.

7 San Salvador (San Sal-va-dōr′): meaning the Holy Redeemer or Saviour.

8 Havana (Ha-van′ah): the capital of Cuba.

9 At the close of the war of the United States with Spain what was believed to be the body of Columbus was taken from its tomb, in the Cathedral of Havana, and was carried back to Spain.