Primary History - Famous People

Christopher Columbus  

  • Why is Columbus Famous?

    Who was Columbus?
    Columbus was an explorer. In 1492, he sailed from Europe to America. He and his sailors crossed the Atlantic Ocean, not knowing where they would land. It was a voyage into the unknown. After Columbus, other Europeans began to explore and settle in America.

    When did he live?
    Christopher Columbus was born in 1451. It was a time of new ideas and discoveries in Europe. We call this time the Renaissance - a word that means 'rebirth'. People were making maps of new lands. They were building ships to explore places they had never visited before.

    What did Columbus do?
    Columbus did not 'discover' America. There were many people already living there. Vikings from Europe had landed in America 500 years before. But Columbus did not know that. His voyage started regular contact between America and Europe.

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  • Early days

    Cristoforo Colombo, or Christopher Columbus as we call him, was born in Genoa in Italy. Genoa was a busy port.

    His father was a wool merchant and weaver. We don't know if Columbus went to school much. He may have had lessons from monks.

    Going to sea
    The Columbus family hoped to get rich by trade. Columbus went to sea at the age of 13. Life at sea was exciting, but dangerous. He hoped to come home a rich man!

    Columbus learned how to sail a wooden ship with sails. He learned about the winds and tides. He learned to navigate (find the way), by looking at the Sun and stars.

    In Portugal
    Columbus went to live in Portugal. One story says he swam ashore after his ship was attacked by pirates! He and his brother Bartholomew made and sold maps.

    Columbus's dream
    People in Europe wanted to find a new sea route east, to trade with Asia. They wanted to send ships to India, China and the East Indies.

    The Portuguese tried sailing South, around Africa. It was a long way.

    Columbus wanted to sail west. Because maps of the time made the oceans look smaller than they are, Columbus hoped to reach China in a few days. He needed money to make his dream come true.

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  • Columbus sets sail

    Help from a Queen
    Columbus tried to persuade rich people to help him. Most laughed at him.

    At last, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain gave him money for ships. In return he promised them new lands, spices, gold and new people to rule.

    Columbus sails
    Columbus set sail on 3 August 1492. He had three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. They were wooden ships with sails. There were about 90 men in the ships.

    Food for the voyage was kept in the ship's hold. The men took salted fish in barrels, cheese, wine, water, live pigs and chickens.

    Life on the ships
    The sailors worked shifts. The time for each shift was measured using a half-hour glass. The men had no cabins, but slept on deck. Every morning, they said prayers.

    The ships let in water all the time. The men had to work pumps, to keep the ships afloat.

    Finding the way
    Columbus used a compass to help him navigate. He used a traverse board to plot (mark) the direction they wanted to sail in.

    The voyage took longer than Columbus expected. There was no land, just ocean. The men got scared. They were running out of food and water. After 36 days, a sailor on the Pinta spotted an island. On 12 October 1492 the explorers went ashore. Columbus called the island San Salvador. It was in the Bahamas.

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  • What Columbus discovered

    A New World
    Columbus sailed on to Cuba and Hispaniola. He explored a world new to Europeans. People later called it the New World.

    Native Americans
    Native American people lived on the islands. Columbus called them 'Indians', because he thought he'd landed in 'the Indies' (Asia).

    At first the Native Americans were pleased to see the visitors. Columbus gave them cheap presents and bells. But he also claimed their islands for Spain!

    On Christmas night 1492 the Santa Maria was wrecked. It hit a reef.

    The other two ships sailed home. Columbus left 40 men behind. He took some captive Native Americans with him. He landed in Spain in March 1493.

    Second voyage
    Columbus soon went back to rescue his men. This time, he took 17 ships. But all the men left behind were dead.

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  • What happened to Columbus?

    Columbus in disgrace
    Spain ruled the lands Columbus had found. On his third voyage, Columbus saw South America for the first time. But he came home in disgrace. His enemies said he had ruled Hispaniola to make himself rich. He was sent back to Spain in chains. But the king and queen set him free.

    Native Americans made slaves
    People from Europe sailed to America to start colonies. Some wanted to make the Native Americans become Christians.

    The Europeans began treating the Native Americans badly. They made many of them work as slaves.

    Columbus dies
    Columbus sailed to America for a fourth time in 1502. He was still hoping to land in China. This time he explored Central America. His ships were too leaky to sail home, so he had to wait a year before being rescued.

    When Columbus got back to Spain, he was a sick man. He died in 1506.

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  • How Columbus changed history

    Other explorers
    Other explorers followed Columbus. In 1497-98, John Cabot sailed from England to North America. In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci from Italy sailed to South America. 'America' was named after him. People knew that the New World was not Asia, but a new continent.

    How Columbus changed history
    Columbus and his sailors sailed bravely into the unknown. Columbus did not give up, even when people laughed at his ideas.

    Explorers brought home gold, new foods and new knowledge. However, they brought misery to many Native Americans. The Europeans took their land. Many Native Americans were killed in wars with the Europeans, or died from European diseases.

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Christopher Columbus Game

Christopher Columbus

Board the Santa María and sail across the Atlantic.

Fun Facts
  • Niña (Spanish for 'girl') was the nickname of the smallest ship. Its real name was Santa Clara.

  • The little Niña made three voyages to America.

  • Columbus's biggest ship, the Santa Maria, was less than 23m long.

  • Before explorers brought these plants from America, no-one in Europe had eaten a tomato or a potato.

  • The crow's nest was at the top of the ship's mast. A sailor climbed up to look out for land and other ships.

  • The sailors ate stews made from salt meat and bones.

  • In the Sargasso Sea, which has a lot of seaweed, Columbus' sailors were terrified sea monsters would rise up out of the weeds and eat them!

More famous explorers

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

A group of islands not far from North America.
A person who believes and follows the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In a compass, a metal pointer turns to magnetic North, to show the way.
Settlements by people from one country who move to another country.
A large land-mass, such as Europe, Asia and North America.

E to G

Someone who travels to new lands.

H to L

half-hour glass
A simple clock, a glass container half-filled with sand. It takes half an hour for sand to run from the top of the glass to the bottom.
An island today shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
A space for food, water and stores in a ship, below the deck.

M to O

Someone who buys and sells things.
Religious men living and working in a monastery.
A place where ships start and end voyages.

P to S

Rocks and coral sticking up out of the sea, or just beneath the water.
A period of work, lasting a few hours each day.
Pepper, ginger and other plants used to flavour and preserve food.

T to Z

Movements of the sea, made by the 'pull' of the Moon.
Buying and selling things.
traverse board
An old way of recording a ships path.
People of Scandinavia; Vikings sailed to America about AD 1000.
A long journey by sea.