Mankind: The Story of All of Us



















































































Uncharted Waters (Part 2: Christopher Columbus)

1492 — Columbus discovers the New World.


October 12, 1492 is a date seared onto the hard drive of Mankind. Spanish sailors sailing west discover land. Leading them is an Italian, Christopher Columbus, a visionary with a dream to find a shortcut to China.

Columbus had traveled all over Europe, begging for support for his journey. Finally, Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella throw a little money his way. Barely enough for the expedition, it affords three small ships with 88 men.

They never imagine the expedition will change the face of the globe.

Columbus calculates the journey from Spain to China will take just five days. He underestimates the distance by 9,000 miles. What is striking about this is that any educated person of that day would know that Columbus was wrong.

Map showing Columbus's view of distance between the Azores and Japan.

A mnemonic (pronounced "nemonic") device is a memory trick. For example, to remember the year that Columbus discovered the New World, learn the following rhyme:

In fourteen hundred ninety two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.


After ten weeks at sea, close to starvation, thousands of miles off course, he reaches land. Like the Vikings 500 years earlier, he has no idea he’s discovered two vast continents: the Americas.

Discovering the Americas, mankind starts to connect the dots on planet earth. Not only a huge event in history, this is a huge event in the history of life.

Columbus thinks he’s off the coast of Japan. He’s actually in the Bahamas. The islands are inhabited by the Taino people.

He sees these people for the most part by European standards as very tall, very healthy, very good looking, living in a state of abundance. Columbus records this first encounter: “The people kept calling to us and giving thanks to God . . . as if we had come from Heaven. . . . I presented them with some red caps and beads, with which they were much delighted—and became wonderfully attached to us.”

Columbus is greeted by the Taino people.


For Europeans—and native people—a rare friendly encounter. Columbus has no idea he’s launching a deadly attack of a lethal weapon: disease.

Europe is swarming with infection. Over centuries, people develop resistance.

But in the New World, the natives are defenseless. The Taino are doomed. Diseases like smallpox decimate over 90 percent of them, as well as other native peoples Europeans encounter.

Columbus searches for treasure in the New World. “I kept my eyes open and tried to find if there was any gold, then I saw some of them had a little piece hanging from a hole in their nose. I gathered that by going further I’d find a king who possessed in great quantities of gold.”

Diseases like smallpox devastated the Native Americans of the New World.

Christopher Columbus is received by the king and queen of Spain.


Columbus returns to Spain a hero, believing to his dying day he’s found a new sea route to the East and an infinite source of gold.

The New World’s wealth will tip the scales of Mankind’s fortunes. Columbus’ discovery will pave the way for thousands of Spanish desperados to go in search of gold in the Americas. The first will be the most audacious attempt to hijack the greatest empire in the Americas.

Check your understanding:

  1. What was Columbus trying to find?
  2. How did the voyage of Columbus affect the Native Americans of the New World?
  3. In what year did Christopher Columbs discover the New World?