Columbus’ First Voyage 1492-93

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The map of the world in 1474 that Columbus used


Columbus used this map while trying to reach the Indies. His perception was that if he sailed west, he could reach China (CATHAY) very quickly because that is the land mass he would face first.

Note that the perception of Columbus was that the China was right next to the New World. They had no idea of the Pacific Ocean, or, just how wide it is.

That is why during his first voyage he thought that either he reached the Indies or, Indies was very close. That is why he kept coming back to the same place thinking Indies — a region including India and China and the surrounding spice Islands — was close. He just kept travelling further west.

Since he had no idea about the Pacific Ocean, he never reached the Indies.

Columbus’ First Voyage

August 3, 1492 Columbus starts from Spain
October 11, 1492 See Columbus diary below, a day before seeing land
October 28 He reached Cuba, making landfall at Bariay, a harbor near the eastern tip of the island. Thinking he had found China, he sent two men to investigate. There they were the first to observe the smoking of tobacco, a habit which they promptly picked up.
December 5 Reaches Hispaniola – modern day Haití and Dominican Republic. Columbus arranged to leave 39 of his men behind in a small settlement, named La Navidad (See above) in Haiti. (Ref 1) (Note: On his second voyage he would find that all 39 of his men were killed by the natives).
January 16, 1493 They set out for Spain on January 16
March 4 Arrived Lisbon, Portugal.


Thursday, 11th of October (From Culumbus’s Diary)
The course was W.S.W., and there was more sea than there had been durmg 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 Nina also saw signs of land, and a small branch covered with berries. Every one breathed afresh and rejoiced at these signs.
Up to two hours after midnight they had gone 90 miles, equal to 22§ 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 o’clock, 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 King’s bed-chamber, and said that there seemed to be a hght, 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 hke 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. 

Friday, 12th of October
The vessels were hove to, waiting for dayhght; and onFriday they arrived at a small island of the Lucayos, called, in the language of the Indians, Guanahani. Presently they saw naked people. The Admiral went on shore m the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzon, and Vicente Yanez, his brother, who was captain of the Nina. 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 now largely set forth in the testimonies which were then made m 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.

Further, he wrote about the people

It seemed to me that they were a people who were very poor in everything. They go as naked as their mothers bore them, even the women, though I only saw one girl, and she was very young. All those I did see were young men, none of them more than thirty years old.… They do not carry arms and do not know of them, because I showed them some swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves out of ignorance.…

They ought to make good slaves for they are of quick intelligence, since I notice that they are quick to repeat what is said to them, and I believe that they could very easily become Chirstians, for it seemed to me that they had no religion of their own. God willing, when I come to leave I will bring six of them to Your Highnesses so that they may learn to speak…

Columbus, believing he was off the coast of India, called them “Indians” and hoped they would be faithful subjects of Ferdinand and Isabella.  To a European, a “civilized” person was someone who lived in a house, ate his meals at a table — and, certainly, wore full clothes! These nearly naked people with no understanding of metal weapons must have seemed incredibly primitive to Columbus and his men — like something, perhaps, out of the Garden of Eden. If the people of the “Indies” were so poor and uncivilized, Columbus believed he had every right to take their land and make them into “servants.”


This painting by John Vanderlyn depicts Christopher Columbus and members of his crew on a beach in the West Indies, newly landed from his flagship Santa Maria on October 12, 1492. Vanderlyn (1775-1852) was commissioned by Congress in June 1836 to paint the Landing of Columbus for the Capitol Rotunda. It was installed in the Rotunda by early January 1847.
In this painting, Christopher Columbus and members of his crew are shown on a beach in the West Indies, the first landfall of their expedition to find a westward route from Europe to China, Japan and India. On October 12, 1492, they reached this island, which the natives called Guanahani and Columbus named San Salvador.
The setting of the painting is a narrow beach at the edge of a wooded bay or inlet. Columbus, newly landed from his flagship Santa Maria, looks upward as if in reverent gratitude for the safe conclusion of his long voyage. With his left hand he raises the royal banner of Aragon and Castile, claiming the land for his Spanish patrons, and with his right he points his sword at the earth. He stands bareheaded, with his feathered hat at his feet, in an expression of humility.

The Santa Maria Columbus's flagship

The Santa Maria, Columbus’s flagship

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that what is today considered one of the most important voyages in history was something of a failure at the time. Columbus had promised to find a new, quicker route to the lucrative Chinese trade markets and he failed miserably. Instead of holds full of Chinese silks and spices, he returned with some trinkets and a few bedraggled natives from Hispaniola. Christopher Colobus tries to find a different route to China, but instead found the Carribean Islands. He tried to find many spices and gold, but there weren’t many.

Some 10 more had perished on the voyage. Also, he had lost the largest of the three ships — the Santa María  — entrusted to him.

Columbus actually considered the natives his greatest find. He thought that a new slave trade could make his discoveries lucrative. Columbus was hugely disappointed a few years later when Queen Isabela, after careful thought, decided not to open the New World to slave trading.

Columbus never believed that he had found something new. He maintained, to his dying day, that the lands he discovered were indeed part of the known Far East. In spite of the failure of the first expedition to find spices or gold, a much larger second expedition was approved, perhaps in part due to Columbus’ skills as a salesman.



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