Christopher Columbus

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Christopher Columbus

Explorer, navigator, Columbus was born in 1451, in the Republic of Genoa (Italy) (but sailed for the Spanish) to the son of a weaver. Columbus first went to sea as a teenager, participating in several trading voyages in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Rejected by the Portuguese king for a three-ship voyage of discovery, Columbus took his plan first to Genoa and then to Venice but was rejected there too. He then went to the Spanish monarchy of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, in 1486, who accepted him. Columbus went on four voyages, hitting the Americas (a place he thought was India) between 1492 and 1504.

Columbus' legacy is a mixed one. He has been credited for opening up the Americas to European colonization as well as blamed for the destruction of the native peoples of the islands he explored. On the one hand, he failed to find that what he set out for - a new route to Asia and the riches it promised. However, in what is known as the Columbian Exchange, his expeditions set in motion the wide-spread transfer of people, plants, animals, diseases, and cultures that greatly affected nearly every society on the planet.

The horse from Europe allowed Native American tribes in the Great Plains of North America to shift from a nomadic to a hunting lifestyle. Foods from the Americas such as potatoes, tomatoes and corn became staples of Europeans and helped increase their populations. The Exchange also brought new diseases to both hemispheres, thought the effects were greatest in the Americas. Small pox from the Old World decimated millions of the Native American population to mere fractions of their original numbers. This, more than any other factor, made for European domination of the Americas. The overwhelming benefits of the Exchange went to the Europeans initially and eventually to the rest of the world. The Americas were forever altered and the once vibrant and rich cultures of the Native American civilizations were not only changed, but lost, denying the world any complete understanding of their existence.


  1. Why did Columbus sail for Spain instead of his native Italian city-state, Genoa?

  2. What was transferred in the Columbian Exchange?

  3. What was the biggest factor as to why Europe came to completely control the Americas?

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan was born in Portugal, circa 1480. As a boy, he studied mapmaking and navigation. By his mid-20s, he was sailing in large fleets and was committed in combat. In 1519, with the support of King Charles V of Spain, Magellan set out to circumnavigate the globe. He assembled a fleet of ships and, despite huge setbacks, his own death included, proved that the world was round.

Ferdinand Magellan was born in Portugal. His parents were members of the Portuguese nobility, so after their deaths, when he was just 10 years old, Magellan became a worker for the queen. Magellan studied at Queen Leonora's School of Pages and spent his days poring over texts on cartography, astronomy, and celestial navigation—subjects that would serve him well in his later pursuits. Magellan wanted to search for an all-water passage to further-flung, spice-rich lands in Asia.

Magellan devised a plan for circumnavigating the globe, and on September 20, 1519, King Charles V of Spain gave Magellan his blessing. He set out with a fleet of five ships, beautifully named but hardly adequate to sail the distances he proposed. By October of 1520, Magellan and his men entered what is now called the Strait of Magellan. It took them over a month to pass through the strait, during which time the master of one of the ships deserted and sailed back home. In March of 1521, the fleet anchored in Guam. It is a lesser known fact that Magellan became involved in a local war in the Philippines and was killed in battle there on April 27, 1521; and that it was the remaining members of his crew, namely Juan Sebastián del Cano, who actually completed the circumnavigation of the globe. The following year, on September 6, 1522, despite having almost lost their lives in their efforts, the remainder of Magellan's fleet returned to Spain, thus proving that the globe was in fact round.


  1. If you know that the circumference of a circle is the distance around the circle, what did Ferdinand Magellan do when he circumnavigated the earth?

  2. Did Magellan himself actually circumnavigate the globe? If not, who did?

  3. What did Magellan and his voyages prove to the rest of the world?

Amerigo Vespucci

The period during which Vespucci made his voyages falls between 1497 and 1504.Under the Portuguese, Vespucci completed a second expedition, which set off from Lisbon on May 13, 1501. After a halt at the Cape Verde Islands, the expedition traveled southwestward and reached the coast of Brazil toward Cape St. Augustine. The remainder of the voyage is disputed, but Vespucci claimed to have continued southward. Many of Vespucci’s voyages are questionable.

The voyage of 1501–02 is of fundamental importance in the history of geographic discovery in that Vespucci himself, and scholars as well, became convinced that the newly discovered lands were not part of Asia but a “New World.” In 1507 a humanist writer printed the “Quattuor Americi navigationes” (“Four Voyages of Amerigo”), and he suggested that the newly discovered world be named “ab Americo Inventore quasi Americi terram sive Americam” (“from Amerigo the discoverer as if it were the land of Americus or America”). From these documents, the name America appears for the first time, although applied only to South America. The suggestion caught on; on the part of the map with the New World hemisphere is the picture of Vespucci.

It is uncertain whether Vespucci took part in yet another expedition (1503–04) for the Portuguese government. In any case, this expedition contributed no fresh knowledge. Although Vespucci subsequently helped to prepare other expeditions, he never again joined one in person.

Some scholars have held Vespucci to be a glory hog, taking the merits of others. Yet, despite the possibly deceptive claims made by him or advanced on his behalf, he was a genuine pioneer of Atlantic exploration and a vivid contributor to the early travel literature of the New World, and the namesake of North and South America.


  1. For which country did Amerigo Vespucci sail?

  2. From paragraph 3, what did Vespucci’s voyages contribute?

  3. In paragraph 2, who suggested that the land known as the Americas today be named as such?

  4. After whom are North and South America named?

Hernán Cortes

Born in 1485, Hernán Cortés, marquis del Valle de Oaxaca, was a Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire (1519-1521) and won Mexico for the crown of Spain. Of honorable lineage, Cortes set sail with at the age of 19 and continued to lead expeditions to Cuba, and later Mexico. He strategically aligned some native peoples against others to overthrow them. He died in Spain in 1547.

Cortes was a soldier, explorer, and a conquistador and born around 1485 in Medellín, Spain. Cortés first served as a soldier in an expedition of Cuba led by Diego Velázquez in 1511. In 1519 Cortés was to command his own expedition to Mexico, but Velázquez cancelled it. Cortés ignored the order and traveled with about 500 men and 11 ships to Mexico.

Cortés became allies with some of the native peoples he encountered, but with others he used deadly force to conquer Mexico. He fought Tlaxacan and Cholula warriors and then set his sights on taking over the Aztec empire. He marched to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital and home to ruler Montezuma II. Cortés took Montezuma hostage and his soldiers raided the city. Cortés left the city after learning that Spanish troops were coming to arrest him for disobeying orders. He returned to Tenochtitlan to find a rebellion in progress. The Aztecs eventually drove the Spanish from the city, but Cortés returned again to defeat them and take the city in 1521. After this victory, Cortés continued to seek opportunities to gain wealth and land. He sent more expeditions out into new areas, including what is present-day Honduras. He spent much of his later years seeking recognition for his achievements and support from the Spanish royal court. He died in Spain in 1547.


  1. Inference Question: Why is Spanish spoken in Mexico today?

  2. What great old Mexican empire did Cortes overthrow?

  3. Tenochtitlan was old Aztec capital, same as the Mexican capital city today. Knowing this, on top of which modern-day city does Tenochtitlan rest?

  4. Was Cortes an honorable person? Justify your answer (i.e.- Provide evidence for your Main Idea statement).

John Cabot

Explorer and navigator John Cabot was born Giovanni Caboto in Italy in 1450. By 1495 he had moved to Bristol, England with his family. He made a voyage in 1497 on the ship Matthew and claimed land in Canada for King Henry VII of England, mistaking it for Asia.

John Cabot was born Giovanni Caboto in Genoa in 1450. Cabot moved to Venice in 1461, or possibly earlier, and became a citizen of that city in 1476. Cabot's whereabouts and activities from the mid-1480s to the mid-1490s are in doubt, but it is believed that he moved with his family to England and had taken up residence in Bristol by the end of 1495. On March 5, 1496, King Henry VII of England issued letters to Cabot and his sons, authorizing them to voyage in search of unknown lands, to return their merchandise by the port of Bristol, and to enjoy a monopoly of any trade they might establish there. The news of Columbus' recent discoveries on behalf of Spain was a spur to English action and secured some support for Cabot from Bristol merchants.

In the mistaken belief that he had reached the northeast coast of Asia, Cabot returned to Bristol on Aug. 6, 1497. He reported that the land was excellent, the climate temperate, and the sea covered with enough fish to end England's dependence on Iceland's fish. In the midst of an enthusiastic welcome, he announced his plans to return to his landing place and from there sail westward until he came to Japan, the reputed source of spices and gems. Cabot's second expedition probably consisted of five ships and about 200 men. Soon after setting out in 1498, one ship was damaged and sought anchorage in Ireland, suggesting that the fleet had been hit by a severe storm. By 1499 Cabot had been given up for dead.

The effect of Cabot's efforts was to demonstrate the viability of a short route across the North Atlantic. This would later prove important in the establishment of British colonies in North America.


  1. John Cabot is an English name. John Cabot sailed for England. Where was he from originally?

  2. How did John Cabot die?

  3. What was the effect of John Cabot’s voyages for England?

Francisco Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro was born circa 1474 in Trujillo, Spain and was an explorer, soldier, and conquistador like Hernan Cortes. In 1526 he traveled to Peru and received permission to claim the land for Spain. Pizarro took the Inca leader Atahualpa hostage, had him killed, and then conquered the Inca city of Cuzco. He founded Lima, now the capital of Peru. Pizarro was assassinated by Spanish political rivals in 1541.

Pizarro was the illegitimate son of Captain Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisca González, a young girl of humble birth. He spent much of his early life in the home of his grandparents. According to legend he was a swineherd (like a shepherd of pigs), a common occupation of boys in that region.

Somewhat scornful of Pizarro's small force, the Inca leader, Atahualpa, accepted a proposal that the two leaders meet in that city. Pizarro immediately set up his artillery (weapons) and sent his brother Hernando and another Spaniard to request an interview. After a day of tense waiting, Atahualpa, entered the great square of Cajamarca with an escort of between 3,000 and 4,000 Incans, who were either unarmed or carrying short clubs and slings beneath their tunics. Pizarro sent out a priest to urge the Inca to accept Christianity and King Charles V as his master. Atahualpa disputed both the religion and the rule of the Spaniards and, after examining a Bible offered by the priest, flung the book to the ground. The priest reported these events to Pizarro, who immediately ordered an attack. The astonished Incas were cut down from all sides, Pizarro himself seizing Atahualpa. The Incans paid a ransom for their leader, but Pizarro killed him anyway.

Francisco Pizarro, meanwhile, was in Lima. Almagro's (a former Spanish friend and now enemy of Pizarro’s) former followers (another band of Spaniards in Peru) had suspected that they were to be eliminated by Pizarro and they decided to act first, attacking Pizarro's palace on June 26, 1541. Pizarro died that day a protracted death, drawing a cross of his own blood on the ground, kissing it, and crying “Jesus” as he fell.


  1. What happened when Pizarro urged the Incans in Peru to accept Christianity?

  2. Who was a more honorable man: Atahualpa, the Incan leader, or Francisco Pizarro? Give one reason to support your answer.

  3. Why was Pizarro murdered?

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