Some five hundred and sixty years ago today, or thereabouts, was born Christopher Columbus, probably the most famous explorer of all time. His voyages across the Atlantic brought much knowledge to Europe of the American continents, and also set in motion Spanish colonisation - a process which would have the most profound impact on the future of the world. Fortunately, Columbus kept detailed logs or diaries, and these are among the earliest of any surviving European diaries.
The eldest of five children, Columbus was born on (or around) 31 October 1451 in Genoa (there is some dispute about the place as well as the date) into a wool weaving family, possibly of Spanish Jewish descent. How he became a sailor is unclear, although it seems he may have worked first as a commercial agent in his home city, a busy port. He may also have been in the service of a pirate for a while. He made his first trading voyage to Khios in the Aegean Sea. On one early voyage, his vessel sank during a battle off the Portuguese coast, and it is thought he swam ashore. He then settled in Portugal, and married, in 1479, the daughter of the governor of the island of Porto Santo, who bore him one son.
In the belief that the world was smaller than thought, and round, and that Asia could be reached quickly by sailing west, Columbus petitioned the Portuguese court for funds, only to be rejected. He moved to Spain where his plans were more favourably received. Here, Beatriz Enriquez became his mistress and bore him a second son, Ferdinand Columbus. In 1492, Columbus set off on the first of four famous voyages. On the first one, he explored the Caribbean islands. On the second, he founded the first European town in the New World - on Hispaniola (the island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti).
During his third voyage, Columbus discovered the mainland of South America before returning to Hispaniola, where considerable discontent had arisen among the settlers; lobbying against him then led to his arrest. On returning to Spain, he regained his freedom, but at the cost of much prestige and the governorship of the Indies, a title and role he’d acquired after his first voyage. On his fourth and somewhat ill-fated journey, Columbus explored the coast of Central America, but was later stranded on Jamaica for a year. He returned to Spain in 1504, and, in 1506, died a wealthy man, though still in dispute with the Spanish crown over his share of the income from the new lands.
There is much information about Columbus available online, at Wikipedia, the National Maritime Museum, the Famous People website, and indeed in his famous journals which are all freely available at Internet Archive. Here is an extract describing the first sighting of land in the West Indies. It is taken from The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during his First Voyage, 1492-93), and Documents relating to the voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Real, published by The Hakluyt Society in 1892 (on the 400th anniversary of the voyage).
11 October 1492
‘The course was WSW, and there was more sea than there had been during the whole of the voyage. They saw sandpipers, and a green reed near the ship. Those of the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a pole, and they took up another small pole which appeared to have been worked with iron; also another bit of cane, a land-plant, and a small board. The crew of the caravel Niña also saw signs of land, and a small branch covered with berries. Everyone breathed afresh and rejoiced at these signs. The run until sunset was 26 leagues.
After sunset the Admiral returned to his original west course, and they went along at the rate of 12 miles an hour. Up to two hours after midnight they had gone 90 miles, equal to 22 1/2 leagues. As the caravel Pinta was a better sailer, and went ahead of the Admiral, she found the land, and made the signals ordered by the Admiral. The land was first seen by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana. But the Admiral, at ten in the previous night, being on the castle of the poop, saw a light, though it was so uncertain that he could not affirm it was land. He called Pero Gutierrez, a gentleman of the Kings bed-chamber, and said that there seemed to be a light, and that he should look at it. He did so, and saw it. The Admiral said the same to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, whom the King and Queen had sent with the fleet as inspector, but he could see nothing, because he was not in a place whence anything could be seen. After the Admiral had spoken he saw the light once or twice, and it was like a wax candle rising and falling. It seemed to few to be an indication of land; but the Admiral made certain that land was close.
When they said the Salve, which all the sailors were accustomed to sing in their way, the Admiral asked and admonished the men to keep a good look-out on the forecastle, and to watch well for land; and to him who should first cry out that he saw land, he would give a silk doublet, besides the other rewards promised by the Sovereigns, which were 10,000 maravedis to him who should first see it.
At two hours after midnight the land was sighted at a distance of two leagues. They shortened sail, and lay by under the mainsail without the bonnets. The vessels were hove to, waiting for daylight; and on Friday they arrived at a small island of the Lucayos, called, in the language of the Indians, Guanahani [Watling Island, named San Salvador by Columbus]. Presently they saw naked people. The Admiral went on shore in the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzon, and Vicente Yañez, his brother, who was captain of the Niña. The Admiral took the royal standard, and the captains went with two banners of the green cross, which the Admiral took in all the ships as a sign, with an F and a Y and a crown over each letter, one on one side of the cross and the other on the other.
Having landed, they saw trees very green, and much water, and fruits of diverse kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains, and to the others who leaped on shore, and to Rodrigo Escovedo, secretary of the whole fleet, and to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, and said that they should bear faithful testimony that he, in presence of all, had taken, as he now took, possession of the said island for the King and for the Queen, his Lords making the declarations that are required, as is more largely set forth in the testimonies which were then made in writing.
Presently many inhabitants of the island assembled. What follows is in the actual words of the Admiral in his book of the first navigation and discovery of the Indies. “I,” he says, “that we might form great friendship, for I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see. They afterwards came to the ship’s boats where we were, swimming and bringing us parrots, cotton threads in skeins, darts, and many other things; and we exchanged them for other things that we gave them, such as glass beads and small bells. In fine, they took all, and gave what they had with good will. It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows, except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the colour of the Canarians, neither black nor white. Some paint themselves white, others red, and others of what colour they find. Some paint their faces, others the whole body, some only round the eyes, others only on the nose. They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their darts being wands without iron, some of them having a fish’s tooth at the end, and others being pointed in various ways. They are all of fair stature and size, with good faces, and well made. I saw some with marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to ask what it was, and they gave me to understand that people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and that they defended themselves. I believed, and still believe, that they come here from the mainland to take them prisoners. They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak. I saw no beast of any kind except parrots, on this island.” The above is in the words of the Admiral.’