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They stood alone!
25 men and women who made a difference
By Sandra McLeod Humphrey
Copyright © 2011 Sandra McLeod Humphrey
All right reserved.
Chapter One A New Way of Thinking
Imagine this: You have a theory that boldly contradicts something that everyone else believes to be true. You believe that you can reach the East by sailing west. You believe that your theory is correct, but if it proves to be wrong, it will bring you humiliation, financial ruin, and possibly death.
Your name is Christopher Columbus, and when most explorers are sailing parallel to the coastline on their expeditions, hugging the shore as closely as possible, you set out at a direct right angle to the shore, straight out into the unknown.
Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451, the oldest of five children. He had little schooling, so he did not learn to read or write as a young boy.
But he did love to study maps and he did love the sea. He vowed that as soon as he was old enough, he would go to sea.
In his early teens he became a sailor and traveled to Greece and Portugal. While in Portugal, he studied the works and maps of ancient and modern geographers until he had taught himself all he could learn about navigation and mapmaking. The more he learned, the more convinced he became that the Atlantic Ocean was not populated by sea monsters and could be mastered.
He also became fascinated by Marco Polo's accounts of his journey to Asia and all the riches he had found there, but Columbus believed that the quickest and most direct route to the East was by sailing westward across the unknown waters that were called the Sea of Darkness.
His objective was not to prove the earth was round, for by the end of the fifteenth century, most educated people knew the earth was a sphere. His primary objective was to find a more direct route to the riches and rare spices of the East.
He asked King John II of Portugal to finance his expedition, but after consulting with his advisers, the king denied his request.
After King John II refused to finance his expedition, Columbus asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. After several requests, they finally agreed to finance his voyage.
The Spanish rulers gave him three ships and paid for ninety crewmen and supplies. The ships were quite small by modern standards—no longer than a tennis court and less than thirty feet wide.
In 1492 Columbus and his crew set out, but once they were out of sight of land, his men grew fearful, so Columbus devised a false set of charts to show the crew so they wouldn't know how far they were actually going.
In spite of the false set of charts, after thirty-four days at sea, his men became increasingly restless and began to threaten mutiny. Columbus convinced his crew to wait three more days, and the very next day they saw tree branches floating in the water and realized that land was close.
When they went ashore on October 12, 1492, Columbus proclaimed the land part of Spain and declared its inhabitants to be Spanish subjects.
Columbus was puzzled by the "easterners" who were dark-skinned and wore little clothing. He called them "Indians" because he thought he was in India, but they were not as Marco Polo had described them. Nor did he find any "cities of gold" or any "pagodas with golden roofs."
He named the island San Salvador and then explored the islands farther south still in search of gold (what is now Cuba and the surrounding islands).
In 1493 he left some of his crew in the New World to build a small colony while he and the rest of his crew returned to Spain. Unlike the trip over, the return trip was very rough with turbulent weather, but Columbus did manage to make it back to Spain.
The natives and parrots he brought back with him were living proof of his accomplishment. The widely published report of his voyage made him famous throughout Europe, secured for him the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and led to three subsequent expeditions to the Caribbean.
Horses were introduced to the New World by Columbus on his second voyage.
Women were not on either the first or second voyage, but he was allowed to recruit one woman for every ten emigrants on the third voyage.
Even though Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand made him Viceroy of any new lands he discovered and awarded him ten percent of any new wealth, his own administrative failings trying to govern the new territories led to disappointment and political obscurity in his final years.
Columbus was fifty-one years old and fairly sickly when he set out on his fourth and final voyage on May 11, 1502, with four aging ships and 150 men. Anxious to restore his good name, he was still determined to find the link between the Indies and the Indian Ocean. He arrived at Santo Domingo on June 29, 1502, but was refused entry into the harbor.
Besieged by storms and headwinds, the ships managed to work their way down the coast to what is now Panama. Some gold was found in this area, so the explorers set up a trading post. This venture was short-lived, however, as the native Indians grew unfriendly and forced the Spaniards to flee.
Exploration of these new regions was fraught with problems. Columbus was sick, the food was rotten, and the ships were worm-infested and leaking. And conditions only got worse. While anchored off Jamaica in 1504, supplies were running low, and the Jamaican Indians refused to sell him any more food. Consulting his almanac, Columbus noticed that a lunar eclipse was due a few days later. On the appointed day, he summoned the Jamaican leaders and warned them that he would blot out the moon that very evening if his demands for food were not promptly met. The Jamaicans only laughed at him until later that night when the eclipse began. As the moon disappeared before their eyes, they returned to Columbus in a state of terror, whereupon he agreed to stop his magic in exchange for food. The offer was accepted and the moon was "restored."
After being stranded in Jamaica for more than a year, Columbus finally managed to make it home to Spain on November 7, 1504, officially ending Columbus's last and most memorable voyage.
In spite of the fact that the Spanish crown retracted some of his privileges, Columbus was still a relatively rich man at the time of his death on May 20, 1506, and did not die a pauper as some people believe.
His discoveries changed the course of history. While he did not find the extraordinary cities of gold he had been seeking, his monumental exploits helped Spain enjoy a Golden Age until the end of the seventeenth century when England, France, and the Netherlands successfully challenged her power.
Columbus was the first European to navigate an Atlantic crossing from the Old World to the New World by setting course directly out into the ocean's vast, uncharted waters rather than hugging the shoreline.
During his voyages he traveled to the islands of the Caribbean Sea and explored the northeastern tip of South America and the eastern coast of Central America. He never did set foot on North American soil, but he did make it as far north as Cuba, only ninety miles from Florida.
He never abandoned the belief that he had reached Asia, and he went to his grave without ever realizing that he had explored and colonized two vast new continents.
Although the Vikings had set up temporary colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland around 1000 CE, the voyages of Columbus marked the beginning of the permanent European colonization of the Americas.
After five centuries, Columbus still remains one of the most famous, but also one of the most controversial, figures in history. He has been criticized for his exploitation of the native inhabitants and the destruction of their cultures, but he has also been praised as an explorer who played a key role in helping to spread European civilization across a significant portion of the earth. He has been described as one of the greatest mariners of all time, a visionary genius, a national hero, an unsuccessful entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist obsessed with his quest for gold and power.
But, regardless of how you feel about him, I think we can all agree that few events have altered the course of history as dramatically as his colonization of the Americas. He was a man of vision and courage in the face of uncertainty.
Excerpted from They stood alone! by Sandra McLeod Humphrey Copyright © 2011 by Sandra McLeod Humphrey. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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