Why did Columbus “discover” America?
In honor of this week’s rather controversial holiday, Columbus Day, I thought I would examine the reasons why Columbus made his historic voyage to the New World. Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the lands that are now called the Americas forever altered the course of history. The interactions that occurred between early explorers like Columbus and the New World’s indigenous peoples irrevocably transformed global demographics and ecology. In the decades following Columbus’s arrival the population of indigenous people dropped by over fifty percent. Currently the indigenous population of the Americas is less than ten percent of what it was before Columbus arrived. Additionally the essential ingredients of some of Europe’s most classic products were introduced by Columbus. Cocoa for Swiss chocolates and tomatoes for Italian tomato sauce were unknown to Europeans until explorers brought them back from the Americas. These world changing events would not have happened without Columbus, who would never have “discovered” America had it not been for the collapse of the Mongol Empire half a world away.
The Mongol Empire was the largest nation state in human history. At its height the Mongol Empire controlled a vast expanse of territories that stretched from the Korean Peninsula in the east to Central Europe in the west and from Siberia in the north to India in the south. The Empire’s strong territorial control and stable government created the ideal conditions for trans-Asia trade routes, most notably the Silk Road. Under Mongol control the Silk Road became Europe’s most important source of resources particularly luxury good like Chinese silks and Indian spices. These goods crossed central Asia via caravan, were transferred to ships in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and were sent to various European ports like Venice or Columbus’s birth place, Genoa. This system fueled the European renaissance but abruptly collapsed in the fourteenth century following the breakup of the Mongol Empire. The outbreak of the bubonic plague, religious differences, and weak leadership led to the once great Empire’s disintegration. To further complicate matters in 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks, who placed severe restrictions on trade. In response to these disabling events European traders began looking for maritime routes. The fledgling kingdom of Portugal took a leading role in this new age of exploration. Perfectly situated on the Iberian Peninsula’s Atlantic coast Portugal began charting new routes to Asia. The Portuguese focused their efforts on finding routes around the southern tip of Africa. However, these routes were long and treacherous. In an effort to significantly reduce travel time a young Italian under the employment of a Portuguese trader named Christopher Columbus proposed an alternative route.
Columbus proposed the idea of sending an expedition west instead of south in an effort to reach Asia by circumnavigating the earth. Contrary to popular belief most European’s knew the world wasn’t flat. So Columbus’ round world theory was not at all revolutionary. Nonetheless the Portuguese rejected Columbus’ proposal because their experts found Columbus’s navigational calculations to be deeply flawed. Dejected by the Portuguese, Columbus traveled to the newly unified kingdom of Spain, where the ambitious King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel used their newly acquired wealth from the Reconquista of the Moorish Emirate of Granada to finance Columbus’ voyage. In 1492 Christopher Columbus, set out on a quest to find a new western trade route to India and in October made landfall in the New World. Columbus subsequently made three more voyages to the Americas, which he did not recognize as a new continent system until his third voyage when he finally realized the calculation errors the Portuguese had noted. Columbus’ voyages brought numerous new resources to Europe but also introduced many new diseases to the Americas that the indigenous populations were not immune to contracting. Consequently millions of indigenous peoples died and the few survivors were enslaved by Spanish colonists.
Columbus “discovered” America because European traders wanted new Asian trade routes following the demise of the Silk Road. Christopher Columbus irrevocably altered the course of human history and left a legacy that will forever be clouded in controversy.