The year 1492, in which Columbus discovered America, is adopted by some writers as separating the modern from the mediaeval period in history. It marks the culmination of the wonderful achievements in discovery for which the fifteenth century is so memorable. By 1492 the world had advanced far beyond the ignorance of the period when Marco Polo made and described his famous travels from Europe to the East, 1324, and when Sir John Mandeville’s extravagant account of Eastern journeys, 1357-1371, was published. European knowledge of the Orient had been greatly increased by the crusades, and this, together with the spread of commerce, had quickened the desire of Western peoples for still further explorations of the world.
During the first half of the fifteenth century the Portuguese were most enterprising in the work of discovery, and before 1500 they had searched the western coast of Africa, passed the equator, and seen the Cape of Good Hope, which Vasco da Gama doubled in 1497, on his way to India.
Meanwhile Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, a famous maritime city, was planning a route of his own for a voyage to the East Indies—the great object, at that period, of all ambitious navigators. As the Portuguese sought, and at last found, an ocean route by the east around Africa, so Columbus meditated a westward voyage, and was the first to seek India in that direction. After vainly submitting his plan to John II of Portugal, to the Genoese Government, and to Henry VII of England, he appealed—at first without success—to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. But at the end of their war with Granada, 1492, he obtained a better hearing, and gained the favor of Isabella, who joined the Pinzons, merchants of Palos, in fitting out for him three small vessels, the Nina, the Santa Maria, and the Pinta. With the concurrence of Ferdinand, she made Columbus, for himself and his heirs, admiral in all the regions that he should discover, and viceroy in any lands acquired by him for Spain.
When the bold mariner sailed from Saltes, an island near Palos, a small town in the province of Huelva, Spain, he had complete confidence in his theory of finding new lands to the west. And his unshakable faith in his idea and in his purpose constitutes the most heroic aspect of his first voyage.
Of recent years great interest and much historical discussion have been aroused in connection with real or imagined pre-Columbian discoveries of America, especially with the discovery by the Northmen. But all attempts to diminish the glory of Columbus’ achievement, by proving that the results of previous discoveries were known to him, have, as Hubert Howe Bancroft declares, signally failed. Columbus was not the first to conceive the possibility of reaching the East by sailing west. Toscanelli, the Italian astronomer, who made the map which Columbus used, and others among his contemporaries entertained the theory; but the Genoese sailor was the first to act upon this belief.