Having discovered what he thought were the outskirts of Asia, Columbus looked around for the real thing, finding the islands we now call Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), but not Japan or China. Columbus returned to Spain in 1493, and brought back some interesting items as proof of his success, but no gold. Columbus also brought back a group of island natives as slaves to present to the king and queen.
Columbus led three more much larger voyages to look for Asia, but to his chagrin he never found it. He did explore the coasts of eastern Central America and northern South America, and while he recognized that they were much larger land masses than he expected to find, he felt they were previously unknown lands not too far off Asia. Columbus also began the process of Spanish colonization, and from the very beginning the racial complexities of the Americas were on full display.
The Spanish destroyed native populations by the spread of disease (which they did not understand), warfare (usually as a result of native rejections of Christianity), slavery, rape and conquest. Columbus was eventually returned to Spain for the atrocities committed under his watch. After his fourth trip and more than a decade of looking, Columbus retired, not sure of what he had done. Historians still debate if Columbus was a success or failure.
Columbus had changed the world, but in a cruel twist of history and map makers, it was another Italian who was the namesake for the lands Columbus found. Amerigo Vespucci, also took part in early explorations, and wrote a rather fantastic tale of his adventures. Vespucci was the first to use the term Mundos Novus, “the New World,” to describe what he rightly recognized as continents that we call the Americas, the feminine Latin form of his first name.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.