After his wife's death, Columbus turned wholly to discovery plans and theories, among them the hope to discover a westward route to Asia. He learned of the legendary Irish St. Brandan and his marvelous adventures in the Atlantic and of the equally legendary island of Antilia. Seamen venturing west of Madeira and the Azores reported signs of land, and ancient authors, notably Seneca and Pliny, had theorized about the nearness of eastern Asia to western Europe, though it is not known just when Columbus read them. He acquired incunabular editions of Ptolemy, Marco Polo, and Pierre d'Ailly, but again it is uncertain how early he read them. He possibly first depended on what others said of their contents. From Marco Polo, Columbus learned the names of Cathay (north China) and Cipango (Japan). The Venetian traveler had never visited Japan and erroneously placed it 1,500 miles east of China, thus bringing it closer to Europe. Furthermore, Columbus accepted two bad guesses by Ptolemy: his underestimate of the earth's circumference and his overestimate of Asia's eastward extension. With the earth's sphericity taken for granted, all Columbus's mistaken beliefs combined to make his idea seem feasible.
Financing proved difficult, but three ships were prepared in the harbor of Palos. The largest, the 100- ton Santa Maria, was a round-bottomed nao with both square and lateen sails; the caravel Pinta was square-rigged; and the small Niña, also a caravel, had lateen sails. Recruitment proved hard, and sailing might have been delayed had not the Pinzón brothers, mariners and leading citizens of Palos, come to Columbus's aid and persuaded seamen to enlist. The eldest brother, Martin Alonso, took command of the Pinta, and a younger brother, Vicente Yañez, commanded the Niña.
The fleet left Palos on Aug. 3, 1492, and, visiting the Canaries, followed the parallel of Gomera westward. Weather remained good during the entire crossing, "like April in Andalusia," as Columbus wrote in his diary, and contrary to popular tales, there was no serious threat of mutiny. By mid-Atlantic, Columbus evidently concluded he had missed Antilia, so Cipango became his next goal. Landfall came at dawn of October 12, at the Bahama island of Guanahani, straightway renamed San Salvador by Columbus (probably modern San Salvador, or Watlings Island). Arawak natives flocked to the shore and made friends with the Spaniards as they landed. Believing himself in the East Indies, Columbus called them "Indians," a name ultimately applied to all New World aborigines.
The fleet left Palos on Aug. 3, 1492, and, visiting the Canaries, followed the parallel of Gomera westward. Weather remained good during the entire crossing, "like April in Andalusia," as Columbus wrote in his diary, and contrary to popular tales, there was no serious threat of mutiny. A painting of what is said to be the Santa Maria
Columbus recrossed the Atlantic by a more northerly route than on his outward passage and reached Europe safely. He had an interview with John II of Portugal, who, by a farfetched interpretation of an old treaty with Castile, claimed the new western islands for himself. Columbus then sailed to Palos and crossed Spain to the court at Barcelona, bearing the artifacts he had brought from Hispaniola and conducting several natives he had induced or forced to accompany him. Strong evidence also suggests that his crew brought syphilis, apparently never reported in Europe before and known to have been endemic in mild form among the Arawaks.
Following an enthusiastic reception by Ferdinand and Isabella, "Admiral" Columbus prepared for a second voyage. He sailed from Cadiz with 17 ships and about 1,200 men in September 1493. Columbus entered the West Indies near Dominica, which he discovered and named. Passing westward and touching Marie Galante, Guadeloupe, and other Lesser Antilles, the fleet came to large Borinquén (modern Puerto Rico). On reaching the Navidad settlement on Hispaniola, Columbus found the place destroyed. The Spaniards had made themselves so hated in their quest of gold and women that Chief Caonabo, more warlike than the others, had exterminated them. Another settlement, Isabela, proved an equally unfortunate location, and in 1495 or 1496 Bartolomé Columbus founded Santo Domingo on the south side of Hispaniola. From Isabela the Admiral sent home most of the ships, though retaining the bulk of the men. He dispatched expeditions into the center of the island in search of gold and accompanied one in person. Meanwhile, he installed himself as governor of Hispaniola, intending it to be a trading post for commerce with the rich Oriental empires he expected soon to discover.
Columbus now decided to explore Cuba further by tracing the island's southern coast. With three ships, including his favorite Niña, he left Isabela in the spring of 1494 and followed the Cuban coast nearly to its western end. Indians told him of Jamaica not far to the south, and the Admiral turned that way, discovered the island, and had several fights with hostile natives. Returning to the Cuban shore, Columbus sailed to Bahía Cortés, where leaky ships and sailors' complaints forced him to put back. Back in Hispaniola, Columbus found the Spanish settlers unruly and nearly impossible to govern. Complaints against Columbus reached the Castilian court in such numbers that he at last decided to go to Spain to clear his name. He left in the Niña in March 1496 and reached Cadiz in June. Bartolomé, with the rank of adelantado, remained to govern the colony in his absence.
The Admiral's reception at court was visibly cooler, but Vasco da Gama's departure from Portugal for India in 1497 caused the Spanish rulers to dispatch Columbus again the following year. There were reports of a great continent south of the Admiral's previous discoveries, and Columbus left Sanlúcar de Barrameda with six ships late in May 1498. The first land sighted had three hills in view, which suggested the Holy Trinity, and Columbus promptly named the island Trinidad. Since it lies by the Gulf of Paria and the Venezuelan mainland, the Admiral became the discoverer of South America on Aug. 1, 1498. The welcome discovery of pearls from oysters in the shallow waters of offshore islands caused the name "Pearl Coast" to be applied for a time to Venezuela, which Columbus even then recognized as a land of continental proportions because of the volume of water flowing from one of its rivers.
A painting of the reception of Columbus by the Natives of the Caribbean
In 1501 the Admiral began preparing for a fourth voyage. The fleet, consisting of four ships, left Cadiz on May 9, 1502, arriving in Santo Domingo on June 29. The Admiral next sailed to Guanaja Island off Honduras, then down the coast of Central America. When Columbus learned from the natives about another saltwater body, the Pacific, not far away, he felt certain that he was coasting the Malay Peninsula, of which he had learned through the writings of Ptolemy. A strait or open water should permit entry to the Indian Ocean. Although Columbus followed the coast nearly to the Gulf of Darien, he found no strait. In April 1503 the ships left the mainland, but the hulls were thoroughly bored by teredos and had to be abandoned as unseaworthy in Jamaica. The Admiral and his crews were marooned in Jamaica for a year, during which time Diego Mendez and Bartolomeo Fieschi fetched a small caravel from Hispaniola. Columbus finally reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, on Nov. 7, 1504.