Columbus’s First Voyage to the New World



Long ago the world was basically divided into two parts, the people living in the East and the people living in the Americas.  Neither world knew of the other’s existence because of the enormous unknown ocean that separated them.  It was, however, destined that one day someone with imagination, dedication, and perseverance would bring these two worlds together.  This person was called Christopher Columbus, who ventured into the greatest voyage of discovery in history.  Obviously, Columbus’s story has been retold throughout the ages. Yet, this paper will describe why Columbus set sail for the New World, the struggles he had to overcome, the voyage across the uncharted ocean, his reactions to the land he found, and his return back to Spain.

            Columbus’s goal was not to find a New World.   Who knew there even was a New World?  All he wanted to do was find a new trade route to the Indies.  “All monarchs of Europe at the time wished to reach the Indies by sailing along Africa’s west coast.”[1] Columbus had a different solution. 

     He did not want to sail south, then east, as all the other ships.  He wanted to sail west, across the Ocean Sea, today’s Atlantic Ocean.  Columbus got this magnificent and daring    idea from reading a variety of sources.  “As a devoutly religious man, his reading began with the Bible.  His chief source was Imago Mundi (Image of the World), a compendium of geographic thought from the classical age to the present.”[2]   As one can imagine, Columbus read many other sources to support his ideas. 

Columbus knew with his heart and soul that he could achieve his goal.  “The chief objection to his theory was that the world was flat and one would sail right off it.  This theory, however, was not believed by educated people.”[3]   Although today’s misconception is that all people in Columbus’s day thought the world was flat, the reality that educated people believed otherwise did not make Columbus’s convincing them of his ideas any easier.

            To begin this great voyage Columbus had to overcome many obstacles.  One main problem Columbus faced was when and where to replenish the supplies of food and water.  “The Portuguese had been able to sail so far down the coast of Africa because they did so within reach of land, where they could come in for supplies.  But on a voyage such as Columbus proposed, there would be nowhere and no way to restock supplies.”[4] 

Columbus desperately needed the cooperation and the financing of a leader to put his plan into action.  King John II of Portugal was the first person Columbus asked for help.  King John turned Columbus down, and then tried to steal his idea.  He sent out a secret mission of ships, hoping his own men would make the discovery for him. Then he would not have to reward Columbus, but gain glory for himself.  King John’s plan did not work.  After being overwhelmed in a storm, the ships were forced to return.  Of course, Columbus was very upset when he found out. 

Columbus then went to Spain and told his plan to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  The King and Queen had not only money problems, but also a lot of other difficulties on their minds.  “Ferdinand paid little attention to the foreigner.  In contrast, the high-minded and earnest Isabella was the same age as Columbus and seemed to get along with him quite well.”[5]  Queen Isabella had no money to pay for Columbus’s voyage, so all he could do was wait. 

Two long years later, Columbus was allowed a second visit to the court, this time with only Isabella.  He convinced her that he would spread Christianity at all his destinations and let Spain have all the glory.   Queen Isabella advanced him more money, but had a committee study his plan.  They found his plan was vain and impossible.   Meanwhile, six seemingly endless years passed until his plan was reviewed again. This time they did not reject Columbus’s plan, but refused to give him his rewards.   He wanted the titles of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor and Viceroy of all lands he might discover.  Also, he and his heirs would receive ten percent of all trade, including gold and silver.  It took several months, but then Columbus got his final refusal and a farewell message.   As he was sadly leaving the country, a chief tax collector who believed in Columbus finally    convinced Isabella to give Columbus a chance, and Spain agreed.  On April 17, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed a document that came to be known as the Articles of Capitulations.   They were read to the people on May 23, 1492, making his journey official.

            The crew for the voyage was put together with the help of Pinzon, Columbus’s friend.  (Pinzon would later captain the Pinta)    “Pinzon wanted the venture to succeed, and as something of a local hero, he had no problem recruiting the area’s sailors for the journey.”[6]  At first the crew would have been made up of pardoned criminals because it was much cheaper for Spain, but with Pinzon’s help, Columbus received a decent crew of ninety men, mostly from the surrounding towns.  Columbus had a fleet of only three ships.  The flagship was the Santa Maria.  It was “very slow, designed for hauling cargo, not for exploration.”[7]  The two other ships were the Pinta and Nina.   It was very difficult to keep the ships together during the voyage because the Nina and Pinta were much faster then the Santa Maria.  “The two caravels had to restrain their speed”[8] Other problems occurred while Columbus and his men tried to cross the Ocean.  Monsters were alive in the sailors’ minds.  Falling off the edge of the world kept fear on the boats for some of the crewmembers, even though Columbus knew the world wasn’t flat.  Another big problem Columbus noticed was that the compass needle no longer pointed toward the North Star.  Every day it would point a little more to the west of Polaris.  Columbus knew his men would notice the change sooner or later, so he had to make up an explanation.  He told them “the needle pointed to a fixed bearing in space, and the North Star revolved about it just as other stars in the universe did.”[9]   After about a week, the sailors became fearful again.  The sea was covered with a thick, floating weed.  As the ships continued, the weed got thicker and thicker until the entire ocean was covered with weeds.  We now know the reason for this was the ships had entered the Sargasso Sea, and the gulfweed came from algae plants, but the sailors did not know this at the time.  Another problem the sailors had was the trade winds had stopped.  They feared that they wouldn’t be able to return back to Spain because the winds wouldn’t be strong enough.  Columbus managed to calm the sailors and convince them that they wouldn’t get stuck in the weeds and they would be able to return home.

Not all things on the voyage went badly.  Columbus’s first voyage was his best prepared.   They had a year’s worth of food and drink.  There was even a hot meal served every day.

The crew had been sailing for about four weeks without any sight of land and all the sailors’ fears became strong again.  They talked of mutiny.  Columbus was able to reassure them. He reminded them of the rewards waiting for them in the Indies. Another thing that kept the sailors’ spirits up was the promise made by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  The first man who sighted land would receive ten thousand maravedis every year for life.  This was equal to seven hundred dollars in gold.  Each man kept busy on the ships, but also kept an eye out for land.  “The sailors on the Pinta were in the best position for finding land first, since the Pinta led the fleet.” [10]  Then at 2 a.m. on October 12 a great cry went out.  Land was sighted.  “The men wept for joy.  They prayed and sang.”[11]

Columbus named the island they set foot on San Salvador.  They were in the Bahamas.  “This marked the first meeting of the old world and the new, which changed the story of humankind on earth forever.”[12] Columbus thought he reached the East Indies.  He explored the coasts and named a large number of islands, including Cuba.  “When he went ashore he was puzzled because the easterners were not like Marco Polo described them to be on his return to Europe, nor did Columbus see any pagodas with golden roofs.  There was much lush vegetation and many strange plants.”[13]  The people Columbus met were pleasant and friendly.  Since he believed he was near the eastern end of India, the natives were called Indians.  Columbus believed the Indians were very simple, defenseless people without religion. Both the Europeans and the Indians had trouble understanding each other.  They used hand gestures for some communication.  To win their trust, Columbus gave them small trinkets of glass beads, red caps, and glass mirrors.  Although the gifts had little value, the Indians loved them.  In exchange, the Europeans received parrots, woven cloth, and even bits of broken pottery.  Columbus and his men soon found out to their big disappointment that there was no abundance of gold where they landed, so the crew began to explore.  They searched through the sunny islands of the Bahamas, but found little gold.  The beauty of this new land humbled Columbus and his crew.

After Cuba, they searched for gold at Santa Maria de la Concepcion (Rum Cay), Fernandina (Long Island), Isabella (Crooked Island), and Islas de Arena (Ragged Island).  All these journeys produced little gold.  Columbus needed something to prove to Spain he had reached his destination.   He decided to capture some of the natives to show to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

As they were leaving to head back home, Columbus and his men found themselves in the middle of rocks and reefs, and adding to their troubles, they were thrown about by fierce winds.  The sailors used all the strength they had to get back on course.  The flagship Santa Maria grounded on a reef on Christmas Eve and sank the next day. Columbus used the remains of the ship to build a fort on shore, which he named La Navidad.  The Pinta had disappeared and the tiny Nina could not hold all the men from the other ship.  Columbus had to leave about forty men at La Navidad.  Now down to just one ship, Columbus continued eastward along the coast of Hispaniola.  “He was very surprised when he came upon the Pinta.  Columbus's anger at Pinzón was eased by his relief at having another ship for his return to Spain.”[14]  The weather became rough and stormy again.  Just as the Nina neared the shore, a cyclone struck, splitting the sail.  They had hoped to arrive in Spain, but instead found themselves in Portugal.  Columbus was summoned to court.  King John tried to claim the Portuguese had the rights to Columbus’s conquest.  There was talk of murdering Columbus, but luckily, he was freed without harm.  Both the Nina and Pinta arrived home on March 15, 1493.

Columbus received a royal welcome.  To celebrate, a great procession with fanfare and festivities were held in Columbus’s honor.  He was granted the titles and privileges that he had requested. 

            Without knowing it Columbus changed the world forever.   He introduced two entirely different worlds to each other.  “This first voyage Columbus made was the greatest voyage of discovery ever made.”[15]  This paper discussed the following things: why Columbus set sail for the New World, the struggles he had to overcome, the voyage across the uncharted ocean, his reactions to the land he found, and his return back to Spain.

[1] Stephen Dodge, Christopher Columbus and the First Voyages to the New World (New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1991) 47. 

[2] Ibid. 49.

[3] Ibid. 49

[4] Nancy Levinson, Christopher Columbus Voyager of the Unknown (New York: Lodestar Books, 1990) 15.

[5] Ibid. 19.

[6] Dodge, 63.

[7] Keith Pickering, The Columbus Navigation Homepage (1997) <>

[8] Levinson, 28.

[9]Ibid. 44.

[10] Ibid. 37.

[11] Ibid. 37.

[12] Ibid. 41.

[13] Lucio Sorre, Christopher Columbus- a Culinary History (1997) <>


[14]Pickering, <>

[15] Daniel Carrison, Christopher Columbus: Navigator to the New World (New York: Franklin Watts, 1990) 39.