Aug. 3, 2022

The First Voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World

The First Voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World

August 3, 1492. Christopher Columbus sets out on his first voyage to what will come to be known as the New World.


Cold Open

It’s early morning on August 3rd, 1492.

Off the southern coast of Spain, a convoy of three ships carves through the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Cadiz, heading south. Aboard the biggest ship, the stout, triple-masted Santa Maria… 41-year-old Christopher Columbus crosses the deck. He stops at the edge of his ship and stares out across the waves. He’s the admiral of this small, but important fleet.

Darting out ahead is the Pinta, while off to port, keeping pace with the Santa Maria, is the smallest of the three ships, the Niña.

In the distance beyond, Columbus can still make out the Spanish coast, a brown smudge of earth low on the horizon. But soon, Columbus knows the last trace of Europe will disappear in his wake. But if all goes well, Columbus and his crew will return here in a few months’ time laden with treasures. If fortune is less kind, this may be the last time any of them see dry land. Nobody has attempted a journey like this before. Columbus and his crew know full well the dangers that lie ahead.

For now, though, Columbus feels certain that God is with him and his crew.

Columbus beams as a strong gust of wind fills the sails of his ship and sprays his hair and red beard with browny. Confident, he barks out an order.

And without hesitation, his crew gets to work. They run a flag up the mast, a signal to the rest of the fleet. And then, in tandem, all three ships turn southwest, away from the Spanish mainland, and head out toward the open sea. 

On his long voyage across the ocean, Columbus will happen upon lands unknown to the powers that be in Europe; and he will behold wonders beyond his wildest imagination. In the end, his so-called “discovery” of what will come to be called ‘The New World’ will alter the course of world history, but it will also have tragic consequences for the indigenous people who already inhabit these lands; a devastating outcome of a journey that began on August 3rd, 1492.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 3rd, 1492: The First Voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

Act One: The New World

It’s August 13th, 1476, sixteen years before Christopher Columbus sets off on his journey to the New World.

Six miles off the coast of Portugal, a sea battle is underway. Cannon fire echoes across the water as a fleet of French warships clashes with a convoy of lightly armed merchant ships.

There’s a creaking groan as one of the merchant ships suddenly lurches over and capsizes sinking beneath the waves. Sailors leap from the deck into the water. It’s every man for himself.

Among the sailors fleeing for their lives is Christopher Columbus. The 25-year-old grabs a floating piece of wreckage. And gasping for breath, he kicks wildly away from the sinking ship as the battle rages on all around him.

Hours later, he drags himself ashore on a Portuguese beach, exhausted and injured; but alive.

After his accident, Columbus becomes convinced that God has spared him for a reason. He doesn’t feel it was coincidence that he washed up on the shores of Portugal, a country at the far west of the European continent; and one that represents the edge of the known world.

Columbus came of age, and learned his trade, in an age of exploration. The Portuguese had reached the Canary Islands in the mid-14th Century. From there, they began to map the western coast of Africa and voyaged out some nine hundred miles into the Atlantic Ocean to the Azores Islands. But nobody’s gone further than that.

In Columbus’ day, some commoners believe there’s nothing else out there. Only the edge of the world. But most educated people in Europe know the world is round. Still, not everyone is certain what lies beyond the west coast of Africa. There is a theory that if a ship sails even further west, it will eventually reach China and India in the East.

For a long time, Europe traded with those rich nations through a network known as the Silk Road. But the Muslim Ottoman Empire conquered Turkey and the Middle East and closed the Silk Road to Christians. So, if Europe wants to renew its lucrative trade with China and India, another route has to be found.

And after washing up on the shores of Portugal, Columbus becomes obsessed with the idea of finding it. Soon, he settles in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. There, he marries into a local family of nobles. In the late 1480s, he uses their connections to secure an audience with the King of Portugal.

Columbus hopes the king will fund an expedition across the ocean to reopen the trade route to China. But the king’s advisers feel a journey into the unknown like this is too risky. Additionally, they find Columbus’ personal demands a bit extraordinary. He wants the title of  ‘Admiral of the Ocean Sea’, as well as governorship of any new lands found on his journey, plus 10% of the profits. To many in Lisbon, Columbus’ proposal smacks of arrogance. And the King of Portugal agrees. He turns Columbus down.

Undeterred, Columbus takes his idea to the great rivals of the Portuguese – the King and Queen of neighboring Spain. Eventually, after years of negotiation, delays, and disappointment, they agree to Columbus’ demands. And on August 3rd, 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain with a small fleet of ships, heading into the unknown on a quest to find a new route to the riches of the Far East.


Two months later, in the early hours of October 12th, 1492, Columbus sits in his cabin, on board his flagship, enjoying a moment’s rest. But the peace is soon shattered by the blast of a cannon.

Immediately, Columbus pulls on his boots and hat and hurries out onto deck. He peers out over the bows of the Santa Maria. He can just see the lights of the other ships in the darkness ahead.

The shot came from the Pinta, the fastest ship in their little fleet. But Columbus is not afraid. He knows they’re not under attack. The cannon fire was a signal, a message for the rest of the fleet: after many long weeks at sea, the Pinta has spotted land. Columbus is jubilant. This is the moment he’s been working for his entire life.

Through the night, they sail closer and closer. And as the sun rises behind the fleet, Columbus and his men see that they’ve arrived at a low, tree-covered island, ringed by white-sand beaches.

Columbus thinks they must be somewhere off the mainland of China. He climbs down into a boat and goes ashore.

His crew row him across a churning reef toward a beach. As the little boat plows into the white sand, Columbus leaps out, boots splashing in ankle-deep waters. After wading ashore, he sinks to his knees and gives thanks to God. At last, he’s here. And he takes in the glorious sight.

Slender palm trees arc overhead. Brightly colored birds swoop and sing among their rustling branches. The air smells smoky and sweet.

Behind Columbus, his men come ashore carrying the royal standard, the flag of the King and Queen of Spain. They unfurl it and, with practiced solemnity, Columbus claims the land on behalf of Spain. But Columbus and his men are not alone.

They are watched from the forest by a growing crowd of curious locals. And soon, they emerge from the trees.

Seeing them, Columbus is surprised. They’re not what he was expecting. The Chinese are famed for their handsome and expensive clothes. But the people emerging from the forest are almost naked.

Columbus has not discovered a route to the Far East, he’s reached an island in what is now called the Bahamas. Though the Europeans of Columbus’ time will soon call it ‘The New World’.

The historical impact of Columbus’ arrival there will be immense. But the consequence to those already living on these islands will be catastrophic.

Act Two: The Old World

It’s the morning of October 12th, 1492. Two months since Columbus set sail from Europe, his fleet has just dropped anchor off an island in the Bahamas.

Deep in its rainforest, a young man creeps through the dense foliage. He’s a hunter, armed with a bow and arrow. His body is painted black. And he moves as silently as a panther.

He’s closing in on his prey, a stout rodent. The animal clings to the branch of a tree, gnawing on its bark.

The hunter’s eyes flick up to a red feather pinned to the tip of his bow. It’s there to tell him how strong the wind is and which direction it’s blowing. But the feather is still; there’s not a hint of a breeze.

So the young hunter raises his bow. He’s just about to lose his arrow when there’s a noise behind him. And the rodent bolts away. With a scowl, the hunter turns. Standing on the path behind him is his 10-year-old brother. The young man is about to chastise him, but the strange look on the boy’s face stops him.

The older brother asks: “What’s happened?”

And the young boy replies: “Men from the sky have come.”

The two brothers are Taino. Which in their language means ‘good men’. Their people have lived on the many islands of the Caribbean Sea for more than fifteen hundred years.

And on these lush islands, where food is plentiful and the climate is warm, the Taino live in small villages by the coast or inland rivers. The men fish and hunt. The women harvest corn, nuts, and root vegetables. Everyone in the community works, even the leaders, and all share in the fruits of their labor.

They need no clothes to keep them warm and have no shame in their bodies. So, they remain naked most of the time.

It’s a peaceful life, broken only by occasional raids by the native people who live further south, who the Taino call cannibals. They’ve had no contact with white Europeans; until now.

The young hunter and his brother run down the forest path, branches whipping at their legs.

Their village is just ahead. Large round huts made of wooden poles and roofed with palm leaves surrounding a central plaza, where a gaggle of tamed ducks waddle about.

It’s one of the first days of the harvest and the full baskets of precious roots are lined up, ready to be pressed, grated, and ground into flour to make bread.

But today, all work is forgotten. The villagers, talking excitedly have hurried away toward the sea. The two brothers race to catch up, joining the throng already heading to the beach to see a strange sight that’s been reported.

Offshore, squatting beyond the island’s reef, are what look to the hunter like three enormous and ugly canoes that have sprouted tree trunks. They’re nothing like the villagers’ own sleek vessels, which slip through the water as quick as fish. In fact, they’re nothing like anything the young man has seen before in his life; the people who arrived in these strange ships are even stranger.

There’s a small group of them on the beach already. The men from the sky cover their pale skin in cloth or shining metal. Their hair sticks with sweat to their foreheads and comes in many shades - some as black as night, others almost white like the beach at their feet.

One of the skymen clings, with great importance, to a large colorful piece of cloth on a stick.

Their leader, though, if he is in charge is the strangest of them all. His skin is pink and peeling, his hair and beard almost red. Loudly, in an unfamiliar language, this red-haired man makes a declaration and gestures to the island around him.

Most of the Taino villagers hang back, staring at these odd creatures and whispering to one another – wondering whether they are men, gods, or spirits. But the young hunter’s determined not to show any fear. He steps forward to meet the red-haired man.

Seeing him, the red-haired man pulls out a long silver stick with a pointed end. It looks to be a weapon but he offers it to the hunter. When the young man goes to take it, the sharp edge slices into his finger. The hunter gasps and pulls his hand away, blood dripping onto the white sand.

The red-haired man barks some sort of joke, and see other strangers all laugh. The hunter sucks on his bleeding finger as other Taino tribesmen pluck up the courage to also come closer. The men from the sky offer them gifts, odd treasures from little pouches - beads that sparkle in the sun and bits of metal that ring when shaken.

Soon, the men from the sky will climb back into their strange canoes and disappear up the coast. But Christopher Columbus and his men won’t be the last white Europeans the Taino will meet. Indeed, the lives of these indigenous people, and those of millions more on both sides of the Atlantic will never be the same.

Act Three: One World

It’s February 15th, 1493, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

In a cabin on the Spanish ship Niña, Christopher Columbus sits at a desk, writing a letter.

Since leaving Europe six months ago, Columbus has kept a diary of scribbled notes. He consults it now as he writes a summary of events for the King and Queen of Spain describing the achievements of his expedition.

Fighting to keep his handwriting neat amid the roll of the ship, he writes: “I know you will be pleased at the great success with which the Lord has crowned my voyage…” Columbus continues, writing “I found many islands filled with countless people, and I have taken possession of them all by proclamation and with the royal standard flying. Nobody objected.”

But Columbus is already rewriting history. The admiral is returning to Spain disappointed.

He found places of paradise on his voyage west. And he and his men were the first Europeans to taste papayas, mango, and passionfruit. They were the first to puzzle over the thick bark of the pineapple and enjoy the sharply sweet flesh within. But a tropical paradise was not what Columbus was looking for.

After making first contact with the Taino, Columbus and his fleet skimmed island coasts around the Caribbean. They occasionally went ashore, at places like Cuba and Hispaniola, where his flagship - the Santa Maria - ran aground and had to be abandoned.

Everywhere Columbus went, he searched for two things: gold and information about the Chinese mainland, which Columbus was still sure lay just a little further to the west.

But after three months of searching, he found neither gold nor China. In January 1493, he set off back home with the two surviving ships of his fleet.

In Columbus’ mind, his voyage ends in a failure; but it is the most momentous failure in history.

Because until this point, the cultures and people of Europe and the Americas have remained separate. From now on, the fates of the two continents are bound together.

Columbus will return to the New World three more times over the next decade. Though he’ll never find a route to China, he will unlock the lands he discovered to all the powers of Europe. Columbus was born into an age of exploration. But his voyage will lead to an age of colonialism, empire; an era that will have a devastating impact on the indigenous people of this so-called New World. Within three decades of first contact with Columbus, as many as 90% of the Taino will be dead. They will be ravaged by European diseases like smallpox to which they have no immunity. Or they will die working in the thousands of mines and farms established by their new foreign rulers.

Despite the friendliness of that first meeting on the island shores, from the very beginning, Columbus’ thoughts turned to exploitation. In his diary entry of that day, he wrote that the Taino would make excellent slaves. Still, Columbus’ voyage across the sea remains arguably the most consequential journey ever made in history. And it began on this day, August 3rd, in 1492.


Next on History Daily: August 4th, 1944. After two years of hiding in a secret annex, Jewish teen Anne Frank and her family are discovered by the Gestapo.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.