11 Christopher Columbus Facts That Most Of Us Learned — But Are Totally Wrong

Published October 9, 2017
Updated October 14, 2019
Published October 9, 2017
Updated October 14, 2019

From the true names of his ships to the actual purpose of his mission, these Christopher Columbus facts prove there are tons of falsehoods floating around.

Facts About Christopher Columbus' Ships
Columbus Declaring His Discovery
Ferdinand And Isabella
Map Of Columbus' Four Voyages
11 Christopher Columbus Facts That Most Of Us Learned — But Are Totally Wrong
View Gallery

Just about everyone knows the basic facts of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World: He sailed from Spain in 1492 with three ships — the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria — in search of a new route to Asia. Landing on an island in what is now the Bahamas, he was greeted by the indigenous inhabitants and was cautiously welcomed.

Then he returned their hospitality by enslaving the villagers, looted their resources, and infecting them with devastating diseases like smallpox.

For the most part, these Christopher Columbus facts are true. Columbus did sail from Europe to the Americas, and once he got there, he was a ruthless leader, driven by greed and a pirate-like mentality. But there is still considerable misinformation about his first and subsequent voyages that keep the myths about his voyage alive.

Whether dealing with the myths or the facts, Christopher Columbus' voyage undoubtedly marks a seminal turning point in world history despite the controversy surrounding his legacy today. Both above and below are the Christopher Columbus facts that truly define his complicated place in world history.

Christopher Columbus' Early Career

Portrait Of A Young Christopher Columbus

Wikimedia CommonsA portrait of Christopher Columbus as a young man.

Historians know relatively few facts about Christopher Columbus' early life beyond his being born in Genoa around 1451 to a wool merchant and his wife, and that he joined the crew of a merchant ship when he was a teenager.

Traveling around the Mediterranean, Columbus led a young life that was probably typical for sailors of the time. One notable voyage to the Greek island of Khios marked the closest Columbus would ever actually get to Asia.

His life as a young sailor came to a violent end in 1476, however, when pirates attacked the fleet of merchant ships he was sailing with, sinking the boat he was on just off the Portuguese coast.

Clinging to a plank of wood, Columbus was able to swim to shore, where he eventually settled in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

Taking a break from the sailor's life, he took up the study of cartography and navigation, mathematics, and astronomy and began developing the idea for the voyage that would make him famous around the world.

The Reconquista And The Rise Of The Kingdom Of Spain

Reconquista Surrender Of Grenada

Wikimedia CommonsThe Catholic Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was complete with the conquest of Grenada in 1492.

While Columbus was studying in Lisbon, the Kingdom of Spain — under King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella — was completing the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula.

Since the late eighth century A.D., the Muslim-majority Moors had ruled much of the Iberian peninsula, establishing a major Islamic foothold in Europe for just over three centuries.

Beginning in the 1000s, the smaller Christian kingdoms in Iberia began pushing to reclaim the region for Christendom after Sancho III Garcés established the Christian kingdom of Aragon in the north of the peninsula.

Over the next four centuries, the Muslim hegemony over the peninsula was slowly rolled back and by the time a young Columbus washed ashore in Portugal in 1476, Ferdinand and Isabella ruled over a nearly unified Iberian peninsula under the Christian Kingdom of Spain.

In 1492, the final expulsion of the Moors from Iberia was complete with the conquest of Grenada, making Spain the predominant standard-bearer for European Christian expansion in the world.

Amid this aura of religious zeal and military victory, Christopher Columbus came to the Spanish court with a plan to cut out the Muslim middlemen that controlled the lucrative trade with Asia.

Having been rejected by several other nations, including England and France, Columbus was initially turned down by the so-called Catholic Monarchs of Spain.

Portugal and others were already launching voyages of exploration around Africa and becoming wealthy in the process and Spain wanted to get in on the exploration effort, but it would take some convincing on Columbus' part before the Spanish court would agree to finance the voyage.

They did eventually agree to Columbus' plan, however, and in 1492, Columbus set sail into world history.

Voyage To The Americas

Christopher Columbus set out in 1492 in a voyage that would transform the world.

Setting out from Spain in three vessels on August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic for more than two months. By the beginning of October, there were signs that the crew had grown mutinous. According to Columbus' journal, on October 10, there appeared to have been some sort of protest onboard the ships:

"Here [the crew] could endure no longer. But [Columbus] cheered them up in the best way he could, giving them good hopes of the advantages they might gain from it. He added that, however much they might complain, he had to go to the Indies, and that he would on until he found them..."

According to later accounts from Columbus and others on board, the situation was far more dire than Columbus' journal lets on and there appears to have been a plot to throw Columbus overboard and sail back to Spain.

The very next day, however, on October 11, signs of land — including a branch covered in berries floating in the water — buoyed the spirits of the crew and just after sunset that evening, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana onboard the Pinta is recorded as being the first to sight land.

The next day, they had indeed reached land. Believing that he had reached Asia, Columbus set foot on an island in what is today the Bahamas.

Columbus spent the next several months sailing from island to island in the Caribbean searching for the precious metals, spices, and other commodities that Europeans knew to be sourced from Asia, but found none of these things.

In fact, Christopher Columbus' first voyage was somewhat of a financial disaster and he had to leave behind a few dozen men in a hastily built settlement to sailed back to Spain in 1493 completely empty-handed.

He would return later that year in the second of his four voyages to the Americas between 1492 and 1502, but Columbus never found the riches he sought. Under contract from the Spanish crown to send back 90 percent of whatever goods he came across during his voyage — he was allowed to keep 10 percent for himself — Columbus' journey turned out to be a commercial failure.

In an attempt to send Spain some "commodity" of value, Columbus tried to send Queen Isabelle 500 enslaved indigenous people from the Americas. Isabelle — who considered any newly "discovered" indigenous people to now be de facto subjects of the Kingdom of Spain — was horrified and rejected Columbus' offer.

In the decades and centuries that followed, of course, European monarchs would be considerably less horrified at the idea and would actively promote a robust slave economy in the Americas.

Separating The Myths From The Facts About Christopher Columbus' First Voyage

Facts About Christopher Columbus' First Voyage

Wikimedia CommonsMuch of Columbus' first voyage has been heavily mthyologized.

By now, it's a well-established fact that Christopher Columbus wasn't the first one to "prove" that the Earth was a sphere. That had been known since the time of the ancient Greeks, and navigators in Europe had a fairly accurate idea of the true circumference of the Earth — Columbus, however, did not.

His plan was to bypass the established trade routes to Asian that were tightly-controlled by the Muslim caliphates of the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean, as well as avoiding the arduous sea route pioneered by the Portuguese traders sailing around the massive continent of Africa.

Believing the nation of Japan to be only 1,200 miles to the West of Europe, Columbus planned a voyage to reach the so-called East Indies by sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Columbus wasn't the first to propose sailing across the Atlantic either, but Europeans at the time generally understood the distance to Asia across the Atlantic to be closer to 12,000 miles, not 1,200. In fact, it was this discrepancy that caused the British and French courts to reject Columbus' plan.

Believing this tract of ocean to be completely devoid of land, they thought it would be a massive waste of time and money, since it made more sense to simply sail around Africa where there were at least ports where they could stop at along the way to conduct trade.

The other major misconception of Columbus' first voyage is that he was the first European to "discover" the Americas — he was not. Icelandic Vikings in the 11th century — led by Lief Erikson — were the first known Europeans to set foot in the Americas around the 1000 A.D.

It's also wrong to claim Columbus "discovered" the Americas; that claim would certainly come as a surprise to the untold millions of indigenous people who had lived in the Americas for thousands of years.

Columbus himself was convinced that he had in fact reached Asia and died in ignorance of the true significance of his voyage. It would be a while before the true significance of his voyages was understood.

Columbus' Complicated Legacy

Columbus In The Court Of The Catholic Monarchs

Wikimedia CommonsUnable to return to Spain with the riches he promised, Columbus tried to offer indigenous peoples as slaves to a horrified Spanish Court.

It would soon become apparent to the European powers that the Americas were an entirely heretofore unknown continent, first popularized by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. It was also immediately apparent to the Europeans that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were at an important technological disadvantage.

Later voyages to the Americas from Portugal, Spain, and others would metastasize into the European colonization of the Americas, the genocides of indigenous peoples, and the devastation of their civilizations. The fact is that Christopher Columbus' voyage can also be seen as the moment that the early-modern European slavery -- of both indigenous peoples in the Americas and those forcibly taken from Africa -- began.

The exchange of diseases, vegetation, and animal life — previously separated by two oceans and many thousands of years — also began with Columbus' voyages and transformed the civilizations of the separate hemispheres irrevocably, a process known to history as the Columbian Exchange.

The introduction of European diseases to the Americas was especially important since they were much more virulent than the diseases transmitted from the Americas to Europe. Diseases like smallpox spread quickly through the Americas, wiping out most of the indigenous population of the hemisphere over the next couple of centuries.

This depopulation of the North and South American continent left the indigenous peoples unable to effectively defend themselves from the ruthless exploitation they would suffer for centuries at the hands of the European colonizers as well as creating a shortage of labor that became a predicate for the establishment of the Atlantic Slave Trade from Africa.

Advocates For Indigenous People's Day

University of the Fraser Valley/FlickrCelebrants at an Indigenous People's Day event.

As a consequence, Columbus' legacy was always destined to be a controversial one, but Columbus himself was not a bystander to his own legacy, but an active participant in this exploitation.

In the journal entry he wrote about his first interactions with the native people of the Bahamas in 1492, he wrote:

"They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ...They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron ...They would make fine servants ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The celebration of Columbus' voyages have been since revisited in recent years as more and more scholarship gives voice to the indigenous peoples of the Americas who would be brutally subjugated soon after Columbus' setting foot in the Americas.

The push to establish an Indigenous People's Day, typically set as the same day as Columbus Day or replacing it entirely, continues to grow. States like Minnesota, Maine, Alaska, and Vermont observe the holiday and many cities around the country are adopting the holiday in response to recent activism.

"Columbus Day is not just a holiday, it represents the violent history of colonization in the Western hemisphere," said Leo Killsback, a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation of southeastern Montana.

"Indigenous People's Day represents a much more honest and fair representation of American values," Killsback said.

Clearly, the true facts about Christopher Columbus' voyages and their aftermath continue to fuel political and academic controversy to this day. For both good and ill, his voyages remain among the most consequential moments in world history and will continue to remain so for years and years to come.

After discovering the Christopher Columbus facts above, check out Edward Curtis' photos of Native American culture in the early 20th century. Then, read about the Native American genocide and its tragic legacy.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.