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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus's 1492 expedition changed the course of history, but controversy surrounds his life.

The History of Columbus Day What is Columbus Day? Why do we celebrate it? Find out the history of the holiday, the 1492 voyage it commemorates, and the controversy it has ignited.

Christopher Columbus was a 15th and 16th century explorer credited for connecting the Old World (Europe, Africa, and Asia) and the New World (North America and South America).

Born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451, Columbus made his way to Spain, where he gained support from the Spanish monarchy. He persuaded King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I to sponsor his quest to find a westward route to China, India, and Japan—lands then known as the Indies.

The monarchy considered Columbus’s expedition as an opportunity to expand Spain’s trading network into the Indies’ lucrative economy. Being proponents of the Catholic Church, they also hoped the voyage would help spread Christianity into the East.

In August 1492, Columbus’s expedition set sail with three ships: the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. After over two months of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the fleet spotted what would eventually be known as the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. The fleet also came across other Caribbean islands on this expedition, including modern-day Cuba and Haiti, which Columbus believed were the Indies.

Columbus took three additional voyages to this “new” world over the next twelve years. In doing so, he helped shepherd in an era of exploration and colonization of North and South America.

While this opened up economic and political opportunities for European powers, the colonization of the New World led to the exploitation of its indigenous peoples, often violently and eventually with disastrous results for many cultures. Columbus’s participation in such brutality eventually led to his arrest and caused him to lose favor with the Spanish monarchy.

Columbus also continued to believe that he had found a route to Asia, despite the increasing amount of evidence that proved otherwise -- a denial that would severely tarnish his reputation. While Columbus obtained great wealth from his expeditions, he became an outcast and died of age-related causes on May 20, 1506 in Valladolid, Spain.