At the end of the 15th century, it was nearly impossible to reach Asia from Europe by land. The route was long and arduous, and encounters with hostile armies were difficult to avoid. Portuguese explorers solved this problem by taking to the sea: They sailed south along the West African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope.
But Columbus had a different idea: Why not sail west across the Atlantic instead of around the massive African continent? The young navigator’s logic was sound, but his math was faulty. He argued (incorrectly) that the circumference of the Earth was much smaller than his contemporaries believed it was; accordingly, he believed that the journey by boat from Europe to Asia should be not only possible but comparatively easy. He presented his plan to officials in Portugal and England, but it was not until 1491 that he found a sympathetic audience: the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.
Columbus wanted fame and fortune. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted the same, along with the opportunity to export Catholicism to lands across the globe. (Columbus, a devout Catholic, was equally enthusiastic about this possibility.) Columbus’ contract with the Spanish rulers promised that he could keep 10 percent of whatever riches he found, along with a noble title and the governorship of any lands he should encounter.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus and his crew set sail from Spain in three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. On October 12, the ships made landfall–not in Asia, as Columbus assumed, but on one of the Bahamian islands. For months, Columbus sailed from island to island in what we now know as the Caribbean, looking for the “pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever” that he had promised to his Spanish patrons, but he did not find much. In March 1493, leaving 40 men behind in a makeshift settlement on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he returned to Spain.