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World Explorers: Christopher Columbus

5 minutes

(female narrator) Even after five centuries, many Americans honor the feats of Christopher Columbus, yet his story is filled with controversy. Was he a brilliant explorer who discovered America? Or was he a lost navigator whose arrival spelled doom for the people already living there?

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Christopher Columbus.

(Describer) A map zooms in on Europe, and the pointer on a timeline goes to 1451.

Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in a sea town in Italy. He began sailing as a teenager during the Renaissance, an era of cultural rebirth in Europe. At the time, there was growing interest in exploration, especially in finding an alternative western route to the riches of China and India to the east. The ambitious Columbus had a bold dream, to navigate a westward route to Asia-- something few navigators considered seriously. Although navigators were growing more knowledgeable about the distant world, many people were still fearful about uncharted waters. They had long-held superstitions about sea monsters and unpredictable weather. That didn't stop Columbus. In 1492, he won support for his plan from Isabel and Ferdinand-- monarchs of Spain. However, unknown to Columbus or anyone else, there was a vast continent between Europe and Asia, inhabited by millions of people. Christopher Columbus was on his way to a much more significant discovery than a western route to Asia. He set sail in August of 1492 aboard the Santa María, with the smaller Pinta and Niña alongside. After more than a month of sailing, the men onboard Columbus's ships had serious doubts about Columbus's calculations, to the point of near mutiny. In fact, Columbus had made a huge miscalculation, believing that Japan was only 2500 miles away from Spain-- a journey of about one month, when it was really 10,000 miles. When, on the 36th day, Columbus and his crew spotted land, Columbus was relieved, believing he had reached Asia. They set foot on an island on the present-day Bahamas on October 12th, 1492, naming it San Salvador and claiming it for Spain.

(Describer) In an illustration, men fish from a canoe.

The Arawak people living there were open at first to trade and exchanged food and personal items with the sailors. The Europeans were most interested in the small pieces of gold jewelry the Arawak wore and took several of them prisoner to find more. The ships continued on to Cuba, and then Hispaniola, but there, the Santa María became wrecked on a reef. Now 39 men would have to remain behind. They salvaged wood from the damaged ship and built some shelters.

(Describer) An illustration shows one on a cliff.

Columbus eagerly returned home with news he had reached Asia. His excellent knowledge of the trade winds enabled him to return to Spain. He was warmly received by the royal court. His glowing, somewhat exaggerated claims led to the funding of more trips. But the sailors Columbus left behind on Hispaniola were massacred in his absence. Indian people were beginning to resist the brutal treatment they endured from the Spaniards. Over the course of 10 years and three more voyages, Columbus visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, and Central America, claiming them all for the Spanish empire. While Columbus was wrong about reaching Asia, and seriously miscalculated the distance from Europe to the Far East, his voyage in 1492 became a turning point in history, launching centuries of European expansion and domination of the Americas. Over time, colonization had a devastating effect on indigenous people. Nearly 90% died of European diseases in one generation. Brutal enslavement by colonists killed many more. It's doubtful Columbus himself, who died just 14 years after his first historic voyage, could have predicted the consequences of his journey, how it shaped commerce, politics, culture, and daily life in ways that we still feel today. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Christopher Columbus. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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Brilliant explorer? Or violent conqueror? Almost no other explorer inspires as much controversy as Christopher Columbus. Discover more about this Italian explorer's historic journey to the Caribbean in 1492. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

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Episode 1
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