The first European nation to begin actively seeking a sea route to Asia was Portugal.
The Portuguese had already begun exploring Africa in the early 1400s, and by 1415, they invaded northern Africa and conquered the Muslim commercial center of Ceuta on the Strait of Gibraltar, which is twelve miles from Hispanola (Spain).
This allowed the Portuguese access to the lucrative African trade market, which, had been dominated by the Muslims. Under the tutelage of Prince Henry the Navigator, who established a school for navigators in southern Portugal and shortly after the Ceuta invasion, the Portuguese began exploring the western coast of Africa, hoping to find a route to the riches of Asia by going around the southern tip of the continent.
Other nations, not wanting to be left behind, began sponsoring voyages of exploration as well. Christopher Columbus was born into the world of excitement of exploration and discovery. The Italian navigator who sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a route to Asia never landed on American soil. And, Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas—Vikings from Scandinavia had briefly settled on the North American coast, in what is now Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, in the late 10th or early 11th century. However, Columbus’s explorations had a profound impact on the New World.
This led directly to the opening of the western hemisphere to the European colonization, and capitalism; to large-scale exchanges of plants, animals, cultures, slaves, and ideas between the two worlds. On a darker note, to the deaths of millions of indigenous American peoples from war, forced labor, and disease by Europeans, and therefore demolishing a nation of Native American tribes, languages, customs, and kindship.
Columbus himself was an immigrant—an individual who benefited from a variety of many ethnic influences throughout his life! Scholarly today still debate whether he was Italian, Portuguese, Catalonian, a Greek from Chios or was he of a Spanish- background?
Nevertheless, the 15th century was a century of change, and many events that occurred during that time profoundly affected European society. Many of these events were driven by the centuries-long conflict between Christians and Muslims, followers of the religion known as Islam. Nevertheless, the event that had the most far-reaching effects on Europe in the 15th century was the fall of the city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) to the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Constantinople had been the capital of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire for centuries, and it was an important center for trade between Europe and Asia. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire, which had already conquered much of southeastern Europe, captured the city, closing an important trade route from Europe to the east (see Ottoman Empire). European merchants could still buy Asian goods from Muslims in places such as Alexandria, Egypt.
While the Portuguesse were the first to set sail, Europeans longed for a sea route to Asia that would allow them to bypass the Muslims and purchase Asian products directly. In addition, European princes and kings quickly realized that the first nation to find such a route could become very wealthy by monopolizing the highly profitable Asian trade. At the time Portugal was the greatest seafaring nation in the world during the latter part of the 15th century. Therefore, only natural that Portugal would be the first place chosen by Columbus to propose his idea of sailing west to reach the Orient.
On August 13, 1476, a Genoese commercial expedition of five ships bound for England gave Columbus his first opportunity to leave the Mediterranean Sea and sail into the Atlantic Ocean. But it was an inauspicious beginning for Columbus: According to tradition, the entire fleet was attacked by French privateers off Cape Saint Vincent on the southwestern tip of Portugal. Both sides lost ships; Columbus, one of the unfortunate ones whose ship was burned, had no escape other than to swim for the Portuguese coast. He made it the 10 km (6 mi) to shore by clinging to wreckage. After regaining his strength in the port of Lagos, Columbus made his way to Lisbon and its large community of Genoese merchants and shipbuilders at that time he was 25 years old.
By 1477, Columbus was settled in Lisbon. Since the beginning of Portuguese voyages of exploration in the middle of the 14th century, Lisbon had become a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants, and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents. Columbus’s brother Bartholomew worked in Lisbon as a mapmaker, and for a time the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors. Later that year, Columbus set sail on a convoy loaded with goods to be sold in northern Atlantic ports.
When the King of Portugal turned Columbus down, he looked to Spain for the approval of his enterprise. In the Spanish period of his life, Columbus entered into a relationship with a Spanish woman by the name of Beatriz Enriquez de Harana, by whom he had a second son. And so, his second son was half Italian and half Spanish. It is interesting to note that one of the arguments for Columbus’ Spanish origin is that he spoke and wrote in Spanish. Despite his reputed Italian origin, he never really used Italian–or Portuguese–in his writings.
He had a commanding facility with Spanish and was also familiar with Latin, and Columbus benefited greatly from Spain–not only for the funding of his enterprise, but for the recruiting of that all-important first crew of sailors.
The ethnic influences on Columbus do not end with his Spanish connections–but when he arrives in the New World he encounters an already developed Native American population.
We are forced to acknowledge that the transformation of the Americas after 1492 involved real human costs as well as gains, and it is affirmed that the Native Americans contributed much
to our national heritage.
With the arrival of Columbus in the new world in 1492 the American Melting Pot became a reality–the cultural pluralism that has become synonymous with America. After Columbus came the Africans, the English, the Dutch, the French, the Germans, the Irish, the Jews, the Scots, the Swedes and the Welsh–and still later the Asians. The melting pot is unique in the world, giving our nation a rich and complex heritage similar to how St. Augustine had it’s founding.
Photo provided by the Library of Congress
Derek Boyd Hankerson
St. Augustine, FL
Derek Boyd Hankerson is the Managing Partner of Freedom Road, LLC. Derek is former vice president of the St. Johns County Republican Executive Committee and was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. Derek has been a leader in numerous community projects in support of Fort Mose, multicultural education and heritage tourism. Historic City News is pleased to be able to publish Derek’s periodic guest columns which are both informative and entertaining. Derek and his wife live in St. Augustine.