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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus, a navigator from Genoa, Italy, dreamt of reaching China for its riches and potential Christian converts. Despite common myths, Columbus wasn't the first European to discover America nor the only one who knew the world was round. His unique calculations led him to believe Asia was closer than most thought. After being rejected by Portugal, France, and England, Spain funded his voyage. In 1492, Columbus landed in the Bahamas, thinking he had reached Asia.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] In the last video we discussed how the Portuguese began to really expand their exploration around Africa with the invention of the caravel, a fast new ship that could sail into the wind, and how Spain, newly united with Ferdinand and Isabella, completed its campaign to expel Muslims from Spain, the Reconquista, in 1492 and began to look outward for an opportunity to compete with Portugal. And it was into that moment that they received an interesting proposal from this man here, Christopher Columbus. So who was Christopher Columbus? Well, he was a navigator. He was born around 1451 we think in Genoa, which is today in Italy. And he had sailed quite a bit in his life. He was also a voracious reader thanks to the invention of the printing press back in 1450. And one book that he read with great interest was the account of Marco Polo and his travels in China. And Columbus dreamt of getting to China and there accessing riches, silk and spices, and maybe even converting people living in Asia to Christianity, and teaming up with them in a new crusade to expel Muslims from the Middle East. Now there are two common myths about Columbus that I'd like to dispel. One of these is that Columbus was the first European to discover the Americas. In fact we know that around 1000 CE the vikings of Norway had colonized Greenland and had explored around what is today Canada. So you might be asking, "Okay, well if the vikings "discovered America, why aren't we talking about "the vikings in this video?" And the short answer is the viking settlement in the Americas did not last very long, less than a generation. And it also didn't really get well known outside of Norway, so it didn't have the worldwide impact on colonization that Columbus's voyage would have. The other myth about Columbus is that he was the lone visionary who knew that the world was round. Everybody else thought that the world was flat and Columbus proved them wrong. In fact most learned people had known that the world was round since the time of the ancient Greeks. What they thought instead was that the world was simply too big. They estimated that it was about 25,000 miles in circumference, which is pretty close to the truth, and that even if you could sail out here into the ocean, you would run out of supplies and die long before you ever hit land 'cause they had no idea that the Americas were over here. Columbus however had done some different calculations and he thought that the circumference of the world was only about 16 to 18,000 miles. So that the coast of Japan was about 3,000 miles to the west of Europe. Now he was wrong, but he got very lucky because about 3,000 miles to the west of Europe he encountered landfall. He just didn't know that what he found there wasn't China. So Columbus has this dream and he kind of shops it around the courts of Europe looking for royal patronage. And first he tries the Portuguese because they are the reigning leaders of navigation. And they turn him down saying his idea is too risky. He also tries France and England with similar results. Finally he tries Spain. And Ferdinand and Isabella agree that they will stake him. They give him three ships and a crew of 87 men. And in August of 1492 he takes off, makes a brief stop in the Canary Islands, and then turns west into open waters. And in October of 1492 he made landfall, and this is what he found. So he landed on the small island that he named San Salvador which is today in the Bahamas. And then he continued to explore around the coast of Cuba that he called Juana. And then he ended up in the island that he called Hispianola which is today the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And we'll talk more about who he met in the new world in the next video.