“In the name of God and Profit” was the motto of Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus.
International trade has been playing a major role in cultural, religious and artistic exchanges throughout human history. By the end of the First Century BC, international trade and travel involved five contiguous powers: Roman Empire, Parthian Empire, Kushan Empire, Nomadic Confederation of the Xiongnu, and the Han Empire. Although travel was arduous and knowledge of geography imperfect, numerous contacts were forged as the empires expanded.
By the beginning of the First Century AD, merchants, diplomats, and travelers could, in theory, cross the Ancient World, from Britain and Spain in the west to China and Japan in the east. Trade routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs and luxury goods from areas with surpluses to others where they were in short supply. Some areas had a monopoly on certain routes of goods. China, for example, supplied West Asia and the Mediterranean World with silk, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia.
Goods were transported over vast distances—either by pack animals and river craft overland, or by seagoing ships along the Silk and Spice Routes. Travel by sea depended on the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean from the southwest during summer months and from the northeast in the fall. Another important trade route, the Incense Route, was controlled by the Arabs who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel from South Arabia.
Cities along these trade routes grew rich providing services to merchants and acting as international marketplaces and centers of trade, supplying merchant caravans and policing trade routes. As a result, they became cultural and artistic centers where people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and intermingle. New inventions, religious beliefs, languages, styles and social customs, along with goods and raw materials were exchanged.
The vast network of strategically located trading and distribution posts enabled the exchange, distribution and storage of goods. But distances throughout the network were long and dangerous.
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa Italy in 1451. He went to sea when he was fourteen, apparently visiting, during the 1470s, Northern Europe, the Aegean Sea, and Iceland. In every port he heard stories about other voyages. In 1479, he joined his mapmaker brother in Lisbon. There he married and had a son. After his wife died in 1485, he moved to Spain.
Explorers like Christopher Columbus sought to shorten the trade route for better access to goods from the Orient. Columbus studied many maps and travel journals, including Marco Polo’s. Since the world was a sphere, he concluded that a ship should be able to reach East Asia by sailing west.
For six years he sought permission and finances for exploration from Portugal, Spain, France and England. He was turned down several times. In 1492, after the expulsion of Moors from Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reconsidered. Queen Isabella overrode her husband to enable the voyage. In addition to money from the monarchs, funding included grants from prominent and converted Jews. Columbus’s voyages to the Americas also were also supported by Italian investors. From its very outset, Western exploration was a public-private venture.
Columbus was directed to bring back gold, spices, and silk from Asia, to spread Christianity, and to explore China. He was also to be named Admiral of Seas and Governor of Discovered Lands. On August 3, Columbus set sail on a journey that would help change the global balance of trade power.
With three ships, the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, and about 100 men and teenagers, Columbus began the first of four voyages across the vast uncharted Atlantic Ocean.
The first voyage of Columbus took five weeks, which was much longer than expected. He thought the world was smaller than it is. During this time, many of the crew members contracted diseases and died, or died from hunger and thirst. Finally, on October 12, 1492, land was sighted land in the area of present day Bahamas.
When Columbus reached land, he believed it was an Asian island and named it San Salvador. Because he did not find any riches, Columbus decided to continue sailing. He ended up visiting Cuba and Hispaniola. On November 21, 1492, the Pinta and its crew left to explore. On Christmas Day, the Santa Maria wrecked off the coast of Hispaniola. Because space was limited on the Nina, Columbus had to leave about 40 men behind at a fort they named Navidad. On March 15, 1493, Columbus set sail for Spain, completing his first voyage west.
Feeling successful after finding this new land, Columbus set sail west for the second time on September 23, 1493, with 17 ships and 1,200 men. The purpose of this journey was to establish colonies in the name of Spain, check on crew at Navidad, and continue his search for riches in what he thought was the Far East.
On November 3, 1493, the crew members sighted land and found three more islands, Domingo, Guadaloupe, and Jamaica. Columbus thought they were islands off Japan. Because they still found no riches, they went to Hispaniola. They discovered that Fort Navidad had been destroyed and his crew killed after they had apparently mistreated the indigenous population.
At the site of the fort, Columbus established the colony of Santo Domingo. After a battle in 1495, he conquered the entire island and then set sail for Spain in March 1496, arriving in Cadiz on July 31.
Columbus’s third voyage, begun on May 30, 1498, took a more southerly route. Still looking for China, he discovered Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and Margarita on July 31. He also reached the mainland of South America.
On August 31, 1498, Columbus returned to Hispaniola and found the colony of Santo Domingo in shambles. After a government representative examined the problems in 1500, Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain. He arrived in October and was able to successfully defend himself against the charges of mistreating both the local residents and Spaniards poorly.
His final voyage began May 9, 1502. He arrived in Hispaniola in June. Once there, he was forbidden from entering the colony so he continued to explore further. He set sail again on July 4, discovering Central America. Columbus reached Panama in January 1503. He found a small amount of gold, but was forced out of the area by current residents.
A variety of problems, including a year of waiting in Jamaica for his ship to be repaired, Columbus returned to Spain on November 7, 1504. He settled with his son in Seville where tried to regain his governorship of Hispaniola. In 1505, the king allowed him to petition for this but did nothing for his case. One year later, Columbus became ill and died on May 1506.
Because of his discoveries, Christopher Columbus is often venerated in areas around the world. The second Monday in October has been set aside to honor Columbus in the United States.
The exploits of Christopher Columbus helped stimulate other explorations from Spain as well as from England, France, Holland, and Portugal. For example, in 1497, commissioned by the Portugese king, Vasco da Gama became the first person to sail directly from Europe to India—an instrumental moment.
Columbus made news when he discovered land in the Americas, but another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who also sailed for Spain, gave his name to the lands. His early voyages between 1497-1504 put him into contact with Columbus. Unlike Columbus, Vespucci was convinced that the newly discovered lands were not part of Asia, but a New World.
Amerigo Vespucci’s 1501-1502 voyage was fundamental in importance in history of geographic discovery. Some scholars have seen Vespucci as a usurper of the merits of others. Despite what some saw as deceptive claims made by him or advanced on his behalf, he was a genuine pioneer of Atlantic exploration and contributor to the early travel literature of the New World.
Colonial explorers arrived in the New World, conquering and settling discovered lands. European colonization of the Americas led to the rise of new cultures and civilizations and eventually states, which resulted from the fusion of early American and European traditions.
Columbus was not the first European to reach the New World. According to the Sagas of Iceland, Vikings first settled Greenland in the 980s. While other Vikings may have seen the place, Erik the Red is credited with exploring and settling in southwest Greenland. He called the place Greenland in order to entice potential Icelandic settlers, eventually establishing East and West Settlements. Some Vikings were blown off their course west traveling to Greenland in about 985. They saw land along the Atlantic coastline of eastern Canada and talked about on their return to Greenland. Erik’s son Leif Ericsson decided to explore the area.
L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeology site on northernmost tip of Newfoundland, is the only current known site of Norse village in North America outside of Greenland. The site is notable for its connections with the colony of Vinland established by Erik’s son Leif. After discovering area that were not hospitable, around 1000, Leif Ericsson created Vinland, a land of grapes and lumber in Newfoundland.
These Viking voyages were not common knowledge in the Old World, but information about Viking voyages was known among seamen in many ports. One of the places is obviously Iceland, where Columbus was said to have visited in 1477. However, most Europeans remained relatively ignorant of the existence of the Americas for many years.
Before the Vikings
The peopling of the Americas has received great anthropological and archaeological attention. There is evidence of unique culture on the continent over 10,000 years ago; the exact method of population arrival has been debated for many years.
Not the only belief, but the most supported goes back to about 14-20,000 years prior to the Vikings. This was the time when a land mass existed where the Bering Strait is today. Hunters from Siberia were believed to have traveled into this area, called Beringia, while tracking large game animals.
Studies conducted to clarify the controversy examined genomic varieties among ancient and modern individuals from Asia and the Americas. Studies show earliest migrations occurred no earlier than 23,000 years ago by Siberian ancestors. Amerindians and Athabascans originated from a single population group, splitting approx. 13,000 years ago, according to research.
Initial empirical confirmation for this migration came from discoveries between 1929 and 1937 of spear points near Clovis, New Mexico, that matched the kinds of artifacts found in Beringia. Carbon dating has placed these special populations at more than 13,500 years old. Other evidence of artifacts found in other areas of the Southwest United States seemed to offer further confirmation for the theory and its timeline.
The East Discovers the West
Columbus had been looking for a route to the East, but earlier explorers from the East appeared to have visited the Americas. In 1973, a book by Dr. Hendon M. Harris Jr. documented proof that the Chinese discovered and colonized America thousands of years before Columbus. His initial proof centered on a world map found in an old map book in a shop in Korea. The ancient Chinese map not only showed the known land masses such as Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe, but located the fabled Fu Sang—literally “Land to the East” in the region now known as North America and South America.
Dr. Harris, a third generation missionary born to American parents in Kaifeng China, was aware of Fu Sang from Chinese classics, notably “Sha Hai Jing”, believed to have been written over 2,000 years ago. It documents ancient Chinese travels and described geography and legends of China and its neighboring regions.
Based on the map and about 30 similar maps, Harris theorized in his book “Asiatic Fathers of America” that sea faring Chinese reached the Americas in approximately 2,200 BC and were ancestors of the American Indians. The oldest of Harris maps are from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but the world maps are believed to have descended from a much earlier Chinese map.
According to his daughter Charlotte Harris Rees, the material her father gathered is almost like the Da Vinci Code—secrets that have been hidden in plain sight. This thought process is shared by Gavin Menzies in his book, “1421: The Year China Discovered America”, which proclaimed that Chinese discovered America in 1421, 71 years before Columbus, and circumnavigated the globe a century before Ferdinand Magellan.
Dr. Hwa-Wei Lee, retired Chief of the Asia Division of the Library of Congress has called the Harris family research “major contributions in the discovery of the Americas and relations to China and other parts of Asia.” Evidence is being found to support these theories including DNA findings, ancient Chinese writing in the Americas, comparisons of the Mayan Calendar to the Chinese Ancient Calendar, and other evidence contained in material in over 200 works from various disciplines. “Such findings garner new respect for, and appreciation of, the heritage of Indians in North, Central and South America,” he said.
Often overlooked are the many explorers over the centuries who came to the New World. Christopher Columbus was not the first European to contact the Americas nor, as research has shown, were Europeans the first. But his voyages led to the first lasting European contact with this new area of the world. This put the New World into the forefront of geographic thought and inaugurated a period of exploration, conquest and colonization that lasted for centuries.