Did Columbus Really Discover America?


The first attempt by Europeans to colonize the New World was by the Vikings who sailed from the British Isles to Greenland in 1000 A.D; they established a colony in Newfoundland. From that base the Vikings sailed along the coast of North America. Europeans were intrigued by the stories of the Vikings’ discovery of a “new world,” but they lacked the resources to explore.

Between 1000 and 1650 developments occurred in Europe that led to exploration and subsequent colonization of America. These developments included the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the unification of small states into larger ones with centralized political power, the emergence of new technology in navigation and shipbuilding, and the establishment of overland trade with the East and the transformation of the medieval economy.

The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic church’s response in the Counter-Reformation marked the end of several centuries of gradual erosion of the power of the Catholic church. In the Renaissance, artists and writers such as Galileo, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo adopted a view of life that stressed humans’ ability to change and control the world.

Political centralization ended fighting among rival noble families and regions that characterized the Middle Ages. Portugal, Spain, France, and England were transformed from small territories into nation-states with centralized authority of monarchs who were able to direct and finance overseas exploration.

Bigger, faster ships and the invention of navigational devices such as the astrolabe and sextant made extended voyages possible.

The most powerful motive for exploration was trade. The Orient became a magnet to traders, and exotic products flowed into Europe. The newly unified states of the Atlantic–France, Spain, England, and Portugal–and their monarchs were envious of the merchants and princes who dominated the land routes to the East. The desire to displace the trade moguls, forced the Atlantic nations to search for a new route to the East.


Portugal led the others into exploration. Portuguese seamen sailed southward along the African coast, seeking a water route to the East. These water routes to the East undercut the power of the Italian city-states, and Lisbon became Europe’s new trade capital.


Spain’s imperial ambitions were launched by Christopher Columbus. Born in Genoa, Italy. Columbus was hoping to make a voyage, and spent years seeking a sponsor and finally found one in Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

In August 1492, Columbus sailed west with his now famous ships, Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. After ten weeks, he sighted an island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador. Columbus returned to Spain with many products unknown to Europe–coconuts, tobacco, sweet corn, potatoes–and with tales of dark-skinned native peoples whom he called “Indians” because he assumed he had been sailing in the Indian Ocean.

Columbus made three more voyages to America between 1494 and 1502.

By 1650 Spain’s empire was complete and fleets of ships were carrying riches back to Spain.


The impulse for exploration was further fueled by the European imagination. The idea of “America” pre-dated America’s discovery and even Viking exploration. Ancient tales described distant civilizations, where European-like peoples lived simple, virtuous lives. Such utopian visions were reinforced by religious notions. Many Europeans (including Columbus) believed it was God’s plan for Christians to convert pagans wherever they were found.


While Spain was building its New World empire, France was also exploring the Americas. The French empire failed to match the wealth of New Spain or the growth of neighboring British colonies.


The Dutch were also engaged in the exploration of America. Formerly a Protestant province of Spain, the Netherlands was determined to become a commercial power and saw exploration as a means to that end. In 1609, Henry Hudson led an expedition to America for the Dutch East India Company and laid claim to the area along the Hudson River as far as present-day Albany.


In 1497, John Cabot explored a part of Newfoundland, but until Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the English showed little interest in exploration, being preoccupied with their European trade and establishing control over the British Isles. Queen Elizabeth granted charters to Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize America. Gilbert headed two trips to the New World. He landed on Newfoundland but was unable to carry out his intention of establishing military posts. By the seventeenth century, the English had taken the lead in colonizing North America, establishing settlements all along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies.


Sweden and Denmark also succumbed to the attractions of America, although to a lesser extent.

Source: Did Columbus Really Discover America?
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