(1451—1506) Italian-born Spanish explorer
Genoese navigator and explorer, celebrated as the first European to discover America. His great interest was in what he called his “Enterprise to the Indies”, the search for a westward route to the Orient for trade in spices. For over a decade he tried to get financial support for his “Enterprise”, and at last in 1492 persuaded Ferdinand V and Isabella of Spain to sponsor an expedition. He set out in the Santa Maria, with two other small ships, expecting to reach Japan, and when he came upon the islands of the Caribbean he named them the West Indies, and the native Arawak people Indians. On Cuba (which he thought was China) tobacco was discovered. His published record was the first documentary evidence in Europe of the existence of the New World. For his second voyage a year later he was provided with 17 ships and expected to trade for gold and establish colonies. He surveyed much of the Caribbean archipelago during the next three years, but then, with no gold forthcoming, he was recalled to Spain in disgrace. After months of lobbying, however, he was allowed again to search for Asia; this time he took a more southerly route, discovering Trinidad and the mouth of the Orinoco River, but the colony he had left on Hispaniola was seething with rebellion. Ferdinand and Isabella sent a new governor to control it and paid off Columbus by allowing him to fit out a fourth voyage (1502–04) at their expense. He explored much of the coast of Central America vainly seeking at Panama a strait that would lead him to Japan, until his poorly equipped ships became worm-eaten and unfit for the voyage home. He chartered another vessel and reached Spain ill and discredited, and died in obscurity.