The 41-year-old explorer obsessed with finding a western route to Asia struck land 518 years ago today, believing that he'd accomplished his goal. He hadn't, but that's OK; he accomplished much more.
Christopher Columbus, the Italian from Genoa, was born to be a seaman. He started at a very young age and eventually became a maritime entrepreneur. It wasn't much longer before he was brimming with how delectable it would be to head west and end up in China, India, and the gold and spice islands of Asia.
Because of the Ottoman Empire's barricades of both land and sea, the route to Asia via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed off to Europeans. That left Columbus with only one direction to his white whale of destinations: west.
Columbus and others of his ilk had no idea that the Pacific Ocean even existed, so when he struck land with his fleet of three ships (Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria) on October 12, 1492---a little over two months after departing from Palos, Spain on August 3---Columbus believed he had indeed reached Asia. Instead, he landed on a Bahamian island. He thought Cuba was mainland China.
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus and other intellects of the day didn't believe the world was flat; however, they grossly underestimated its size.
With only the Atlantic Ocean, he thought, lying between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back his "Enterprise of the Indies," as he called his plan. He was rebuffed and went to Spain, where he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory, agreed to support his voyage.
Artist's depiction of Columbus's Santa Maria vessel
The Columbus Expedition continued on, and in December he hit Hispaniola, which he believed to be Japan. Columbus established a small colony there of 39 men.
Columbus would return to Spain in 1493 a hero---bringing back with him gold, spices, and "Indian" captives. The Spanish court bestowed upon him the highest honors.
Before passing away in 1506, Columbus would lead a total of four expeditions, discovering various Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainlands.
But he'd never realize his original goal of reaching the great cities of Asia via a western ocean route. No matter---what Columbus did do was much greater: he discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions," Columbus once said, "one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”
Or at least come close enough.