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Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids: With 21 Activities

Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids: With 21 Activities

by Ronald A. Reis


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An NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People

Christopher Columbus is one of the most famous people in world history, yet few know the full story of the amazing, resourceful, and tragic Italian explorer. Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids portrays the “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” neither as hero nor heel but as a flawed and complex man whose significance is undeniably monumental. Kids will gain a fuller picture of the seafarer’s life, his impact, and the dangers and thrills of exploration as they learn about all four of Columbus’s voyages to the New World, not just his first, as well as the year that Columbus spent stranded on the island of Jamaica without hope of rescue. Students, parents, and teachers will appreciate the in-depth discussions of the indigenous peoples of the New World and of the consequences of Columbus’s voyages—the exchange of diseases, ideas, crops, and populations between the New World and the Old. Fun hands-on activities illuminate both the nautical concepts introduced and the times in which Columbus lived. Kids can:

  • Tie nautical knots
  • Conduct a blanket (silent) trade
  • Make a compass
  • Simulate a hurricane
  • Take nautical measurements
  • And much more

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613746745
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series , #52
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 10.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)
Lexile: 1040L (what's this?)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Ronald A. Reis is the author of numerous biographies for young adults, including the Spur Award–winning Buffalo Bill Cody.

Read an Excerpt

Christopher Columbus

And the Age of Exploration for Kids with 21 Activities

By Ronald A. Reis

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2013 Ronald A. Reis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-677-6


Green Sea of Darkness

For Christopher Columbus there was no doubt. When he set out on August 3, 1492, sailing west into the unknown Atlantic, he had every reason to believe that the ocean he now navigated was the only one on the planet. Furthermore, firm in his belief in a narrow Atlantic, Columbus was convinced he could sail its waters directly from Europe to Asia and do so in just a few weeks.

Yet 30 days outbound from the Canary Islands (where he had stopped to resupply), the crews of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria (Columbus's squadron of three ships) were becoming restless and quarrelsome. As experienced and competent seamen, many felt their captain had gone far enough without sighting land. It was, they cried, "time to turn back."

But Columbus was determined to stay the course. According to the captain's calculations, the wealth of the Orient lay just a few more days ahead. The Enterprise of the Indies, as his endeavor was named, had to keep going.

The journey so far had not been particularly harrowing. Yet the uncharted Atlantic was a threatening place, especially this far out from known land. The ocean all around the sailors could often seem "a Green Sea of Darkness," the term used by medieval Arabs to describe its terrors.

And dread there certainly was.

Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Age of Exploration that Columbus embraced, tales abound of an Atlantic filled with imaginary beasts and fabulous monsters. "There were men without heads, with their faces on their chests," one text assured. "There were men with the heads of dogs, one-legged men with one gigantic foot apiece; there were giants and dwarfs, harpies [mythological creatures, half women, and half bird] and dragons." These monsters were described in wildly imaginative travelers' tales and shown on maps as living on islands outside the known world.

To calm his crews' nerves and to stave off a possible mutiny, Columbus made a deal with them on October 10. If land was not sighted within three more days, he would end the mission and turn around for Spain. To keep the crews vigilant and ever on the lookout, Columbus offered the first man to sight land a silk doublet (jacket), to be given later. This would be in addition to what the queen and king of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand, had already promised the first seaman to spot terra firma (solid earth).

It was at this time, with everyone eager to locate land, that a false alarm was heard — from the captain, no less. An hour before moonrise, at 10:00 PM on the evening of October 11, Columbus, standing at the stern (rear) of his flagship, the Santa Maria, thought he saw a light. "So uncertain a thing that he did not wish to declare that it was land, but called a seaman to have a look, and he thought he saw it, too." The light, Columbus later insisted, "was like a little wax candle rising and falling."

Whatever Columbus spied, it was not land. His ship was, at the time, 35 miles from any coast. Still, exhausted but exuberant, the captain laid a course straight for what he thought he had seen.

At about 2:00 AM on October 12, Rodrigo de Triana, a seaman on the Pinta, saw something resembling a white sand cliff under the light of the nearly full moon. Then there was another. A dark line connected the two. Triana cried out, "Terra! Terra!" (Land! Land!). Columbus and his ships were six miles from the New World.

The sovereigns of Spain had promised a life pension of 10,000 maravedis, a generous sum, to the first one to glimpse land. But Triana was denied the reward. Columbus, insisting that he had seen land four hours earlier, received the money. Triana received nothing.

In an undertaking to find a fast, direct water route to Asia from Europe, the three "Gs" (God, gold, and glory) were what propelled Christopher Columbus forward. In claiming the 10,000 maravedis, cheating Triana out of his just due, Columbus momentarily set aside God and even gold (the money), and thought only of glory. He could not bear to think that anyone but him would be credited with identifying land first.

Born to the Sea

For the past 100-plus years, much questioning regarding Christopher Columbus has taken place. At times it can seem everything the admiral ever did, along with why he did it, is being looked at in a new way. Such suspicion even extends to Columbus's place and date of birth.

Some historians stretch the possible dates of Columbus's birth from as early as 1436 to as late as 1455. Most scholars, however, insist he was born between August 25 and October 31, 1451.

Where Christopher Columbus was born is of greater certainty. It was almost assuredly in the bustling maritime city of Genoa, one of many Italian coastal city-states. Genoa, situated as it is on the western side of the Italian peninsula, was an ideal place for a young lad with seafaring desires to grow up. This was especially true for one who would look west, not east, for exploration and adventure.

Christopher was born the first of five children. Of his three brothers, two remained close to him throughout his life and contributed significantly to his success as an explorer. Bartolomeo, born in 1453, shared in almost all of Christopher's sea adventures. Giacomo (Diego), was born 17 years after Christopher, but he also took to the seas with his much older brother. Later, he sought to protect Columbus's interests in the Spanish court.

Columbus's father, Domenico Colombo, was a wool weaver and tavern keeper. Columbus's mother, Susanna Fontanarossa, was the daughter of a weaver. Christopher, who was actually born Cristoforo Colombo (his Italian name), grew up working in the wool trade. Except, that is, when he was out seafaring, which was often. As early as the age of 10, Christopher plowed the Genoese harbor, solo, with small borrowed sailboats.

Though Domenico never achieved any degree of wealth, he was an optimistic and kind fellow who provided a modest living for his family. It was said of him that, "He was the type of father who would shut up shop when trade was poor and take the boys fishing; and the sort of wine seller who was his own best customer."

A physical description of Christopher as a boy and descriptions of his personality while growing up are hard to come by. As a youth, given his physical energy, he must have been attractive and energetic. As a man, he was considered of medium height, neither fat nor thin.

A trace of young Christopher's personality can be gleaned from the fact that as a man, he failed to do what almost every seaman of his time, and since, has done — curse and swear. His son Fernando later said that he never heard his father utter any other oath than, "By San Fernando!" When angry, Columbus would simply cry out, "May God take you!"

Little is known about Columbus's schooling. He may never have gone to school at all. When Columbus left home (sometime around his 20th birthday) he might have been illiterate — unable to read or write. While it was said of Columbus that "growing up he was of great intellect but little education," the young Genoese man educated himself. He gained knowledge of math and mapmaking, to say nothing of the Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, and Genoese languages. And Columbus eventually learned to read and write.

Fourteen is the age usually given for Columbus having first gone to sea. If that is true, then 1465 was the year of his plunge into seafaring. For a half-dozen years after that, Columbus served on various ships in various roles, working as a messenger and a common sailor. At the age of 21 he may even have become, if only briefly, a pirate of sorts.

According to legend, in 1472, Columbus was in the service of Duke René of Anjou. The duke had appointed Columbus to lead a crew as their captain to capture a galleass (warship) in the harbor of Tunis, across the Mediterranean in North Africa. Columbus's crew, however, lost their nerve. They wanted to return to Marseille, France, to gather reinforcements.

It was at this moment that Columbus hit upon a trick to deceive his men. Columbus is said to have tampered with the ship's compass so that in the dark the ship sailed south instead of north. "I made sail at night and the following day at daybreak we were already within Cape Carthage," he later wrote. "The crew had all taken for granted that we were heading for Marseilles."

Most scholars are of the opinion that Christopher Columbus, as good a seaman as he had become, would never have been given command at the age of 21 of such an expedition.

More credence can be given to a voyage Columbus took two years later, in 1474. Here he was hired as a sailor on a ship bound for the Greek island of Khíos, in the Aegean Sea. Columbus, after this first long voyage, spent a year on Khíos. Christopher Columbus's trip to this island brought him the closest he ever got to Asia.


Christopher Columbus, a man of the last half of the 15th century, had one foot in medieval Europe (the Middle or Dark Ages) and one foot in a new age dawning — the Renaissance. With the fall of ancient Roman civilization in the fifth century, a dark age befell Europe. The glories of Greece and Rome remained buried for centuries. The arts, science, study of nature, and freedom to investigate were all suppressed. With the coming of the Renaissance (French word for rebirth), the beginnings of modern art and science took hold. Men like Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Johannes Gutenberg were leaders in the rebirth and discovery of ancient ways. They were also part of creating new ways of doing things. So, too, was Christopher Columbus.

Renaissance or not, however, the vast majority of European citizens continued to live a brutal, unstable, and short existence. Outbreaks of plague, torture of citizens, and religious inquisitions against the Jews and Muslims kept everyone on edge. Pits of sewage and mass graves provided a breeding ground for disease. Most of the population rarely took baths. Wars, crime, and riots added to the general misery. Life could be short and brutish. A person in his or her 40s was considered old and lucky to still be alive.

Fortunately, though, Genoa, where Columbus was born, was teeming with all that the Renaissance represented. For years it had been carrying on victorious wars with other Italian seaports, all the better to expand its commerce. The city had grown so rich, with so many marble churches and palaces, its people referred to it as "Genova la Superba" (Superb Genoa).

Trade, the exchange of goods and services, was, at the time of Columbus's birth, taking place all across the Mediterranean Sea. Much of that trade made its way east to Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey). European goods then went by land as far as Asia. Goods of Asia made it back to Europe in the same way. This splendid exchange had been going on for centuries.

In 1453, two years after Columbus was born, the European/Asian trade, via Constantinople, suddenly ceased. The Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople, smothering the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire headquartered there. European merchants could still buy Asian goods. But to do so, they had to deal with Muslims in places such as Alexandria, Egypt. Christian Europe did not like to do this. It longed to go it alone, to find a way to bypass the Muslims and trade directly with Asia. The only way that could happen was to find an all-sea route to the Orient. The first European country to do that would gain a monopoly on such trade. It would become rich — very rich.

Breaking the Barrier of Fear

Portugal was the European country in the best position to begin the search for a water route to Asia — via India, China, or Japan. The country had at least two advantages. Unlike its rival Spain, Portugal was a united kingdom for the whole of the 15th century. It was hardly touched by civil disturbances. In addition, its geography was ideal. Portugal's entire coastline was on the Atlantic Ocean. All its harbors, deep and wide, opened oceanward. The Portuguese people faced outward, away from classical Europe and toward an unfathomed ocean, not to the Mediterranean — the "Sea-in-the-Midst-of-the-Land."

To find a waterway to Asia, the Portuguese were determined to head south, down the west coast of Africa. No one knew how many miles the journey would take them. No one knew the shape of the African continent. And no one knew where it could be rounded.

What the Portuguese did know is that finding that route to Asia would take time, money, and tremendous effort. It would require a national commitment. For that to happen, the Portuguese needed a leader with vision and uncompromising dedication. In the early decades of the 15th century, Portugal found such a visionary in Prince Henry the Navigator.

Born in 1394, Prince Henry was not a very engaging person. He lived like a monk. He never married. And he never displayed any dynastic ambitions. Furthermore, though key to the Portuguese years of discovery and adventuring, Prince Henry never took to long sea voyaging himself. He forever remained the behind-the-scenes guy, a person who provided money and support for the enterprise but did not directly participate himself.

In 1416, Prince Henry set up shop, so to speak, at Cape St. Vincent, on the southwestern tip of Portugal. In a sense, what the prince created there was a primitive research and development laboratory.

During the next decade, Prince Henry gathered around him experts in many fields. New instruments for navigation were invented. The caravel ship was created. Using a new design, such a ship could sail into the wind. The caravel could not only go out exploring, it could also come back. The vessel was designed specifically for discovery.

In wave after wave, Portuguese caravels plowed south, hugging the African coast. They did so, that is, until they came upon Cape Bojador, a tiny bulge less than a thousand miles from the home country. Call it superstition. Call it precaution. Call it just plain fear. No one wanted to go beyond the cape. Between 1424 and 1434, Prince Henry sent out no fewer than 15 expeditions, all with instructions to break through the imaginary barrier and continue on. Each returned with an excuse as to why they could not, would not, go further.

Finally, at the end of 1434, a sea captain named Gil Eannes took a chance. He passed beyond Cape Bojador, thus breaking the barrier of fear. Eannes and his crew were no worse for the effort.

The Portuguese continued on their way, proceeding year by year ever farther south, then east for awhile, then south again, eventually crossing the equator.

With the death of Prince Henry in 1460, there was a momentary pause in Portugal's push southward. When exploration resumed, the goal was immediate and urgent — round the African continent and head for Asia.

In August 1487, Bartholomeu Dias, with two caravels and a supply ship, sailed out from Lisbon Harbor. He was determined to find a way around Africa.

Dias crossed the equator and proceeded down the west coast of Africa. As he did, a storm came up that battered his squadron for 13 days. The ships were driven far from shore, into the open ocean.

After the storm, Dias sailed east, still out of sight of land. Then, on February 3, 1488, the explorer anchored in Mossel Bay. He was about 230 miles east of what is now Cape Town, South Africa. Dias had rounded the Horn of Africa.

The captain wanted to keep going and work his way across the Indian Ocean to India. His crew, however, would have none of it. Weary and terrified, they insisted that Dias turn around. They desperately wanted to go home. Hadn't they done enough already? they reasoned.

Bartholomeu Dias did not make it to India; that would have to wait for Vasco da Gama, 10 years later. Nonetheless, Dias made it back to Portugal, where he was summoned by King Joào II to report his findings. There to witness the event was Christopher Columbus. He is said to have sat glum faced. That Portugal now had a clear sailing route to Asia had a great effect on Columbus's plans.

The Atlantic Beckons

Having been born in Genoa, Columbus was bound to look west, not east, for his seafaring exploits. Though located on the Mediterranean shoreline, Genoa faces to the west, toward the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) and the cold, gray Atlantic beyond. In 1476, Columbus had his first opportunity to leave the relatively calm Mediterranean Sea and enter a true ocean.

In May of that year, a commercial expedition consisting of five ships left the port at Genoa. They were bound for Lisbon, England, and Flanders. Columbus was on one of the five ships, probably the Bechalla. He traveled as a common seaman.


Excerpted from Christopher Columbus by Ronald A. Reis. Copyright © 2013 Ronald A. Reis. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents


1. Green Sea of Darkness,
2. The Enterprise of the Indies,
3. A Voyage of Discovery,
4. Indigenous Peoples,
5. The Grand Fleet,
6. Earthly Paradise,
7. The High Voyage,
8. The Columbian Exchange,

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