Christopher Columbus changed the world when his ships made landfall on October 12th, 1492. It is hard to appreciate how dangerous his voyage was, sailing in small, flimsy ships out into the great ocean we call the Atlantic. He had no idea of how long it would take or what he would find. He had to endure the storms and hardships of the journey, without knowing if he would find land at all.
He’d set sail from Spain on August 3rd at 8.0 am, with the patronage of the King and Queen, but within 3 days the rudder of the Pinta broke. Securing it with ropes, they all limped into the Canaries for repairs. After 29 days out in a landless sea, they saw “immense flocks of birds” which they followed, identifying them as land birds. At 2.0 am on October 12th they sighted land, and put into a place the natives called Guanahani, which Columbus renamed San Salvador, in the Bahamas.
They thought they had reached Asia on the other wide of the world. Indeed, the purpose of the trip was to open up a new route to the spices and silks of the Far East, since the overland route had become more difficult since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. They had in fact discovered the New World, and thought they were the first Europeans to do so. It was not widely known until later that Leif Erikson had led Vikings there in the 11th Century, and had established temporary settlements.
Columbus didn’t even know if he’d found an island, an archipelago, or part of a continent. He described the place as “very flat, with very green trees,” and with “a very large lake” in the middle. That description fits hundreds of islands in the area, and there is still uncertainty as to which one he made landfall upon. He went on to explore the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola, where the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day, 1492, and had to be abandoned.
His voyage home was more perilous than the outward trip, but at least he had a destination in mind. He reached the Azores, and then was forced into Lisbon by a storm that destroyed a fleet of 100 caravels, but miraculously spared the Pinta and the Niña. A hero’s welcome awaited him in Spain, where he gave the monarchs gold, jewelry, flowers, the as yet unknown tobacco plant, pineapples and the turkey, plus a few natives he’d kidnapped.
Thus began the extended contact between the Old World and the New, a contact marked by conquest, war and the spread of disease, as well as the introduction of European weapons and the horse. The psychological effect on Europe was electrifying as the news of his voyage spread. Their world was suddenly expanded into vast unknown reaches. The Old Worlders plundered the new to enrich themselves with its fabulous wealth of precious metals and resources, and they brought with them their learning and their technology.
It was an heroic age, as intrepid sailors such as Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Amerigo Vespucci braved uncharted waters and extended Europe’s reach around the globe. It began an age of discovery, not just of physical lands, but of intellectual and scientific frontiers. It expanded the minds of men and women as well as their physical reach.
It is an age that is with us still. This week a Nobel Prize was awarded to the first discoverers of a planet orbiting another star; now we know there are thousands. Each year we make new discoveries, we invent new materials and new technologies, and we create new organisms. It’s a helter-skelter world which leaves some gasping for breath and calling for a halt, wanting us to content ourselves with life’s richness instead of breaking beyond its current boundaries. It is unlikely that we will. There will always be intrepid souls like Columbus, and if some countries put a brake on their progress, they will do it in others. Columbus released a genie from its bottle, and it isn’t going back in.