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Columbus: Intrepid explorer or accidental navigator?

August 3, 1492: Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria set sail

By Steve Almasy

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Replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria sail hundreds of years after Columbus's first journey.
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(CNN) -- Christopher Columbus never thought -- even to the day he died -- that he helped "discover" the Americas, two continents thousands of miles from his intended destination of Asia.

Imagine his surprise, then, if Columbus knew the United States had a holiday honoring him -- even though he never actually set foot in any of the now superpower's 50 states.

"In a sense, we remember him because he's a guy that made a mistake but had good luck," said Patricia Seed, a history professor at Rice University and author of "Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World."

Seed said Columbus miscalculated the distance between Europe and Asia.

"But he happened to run into Caribbean islands [full of] gold," said Seed, the financial windfall soon overriding concerns that he didn't reach his planned goal. "The gold had actually come to the surface and was in the rivers. It was very easily accessible."

For better or worse, Christopher Columbus has come to symbolize the bridge between the "New World," defined by the Americas, and the "Old World," generally seen as Europe. His accidental "discovery" has reshaped the course of history in the more than five centuries since.

Few deny his courage in setting out on a then unprecedented, dangerous journey and -- while others may have reached America before him -- of charting a bold cross-Atlantic course that helped open up, and therefore transform, modern civilization.

"It is nearly impossible to over-exaggerate the historical significance of Christopher Columbus," former Millersville University professor Thomas Tirado wrote in 2000, crediting the navigator for helping set the stage for an intellectual revolution. "The ultimate expression of the Columbian Legacy has been nothing less than global in its impact."

A bold request

Columbus and his men had high hopes when they departed from Spain on August 3, 1492. What exactly happened after -- in terms of the famed navigator's actions, intentions and importance -- has been subject to intense debate for centuries. In that time, it has become even more difficult to separate the real Columbus from the legend.

Most historians agree Columbus was a risk-taker and a brave man. To sail west, deep into unchartered waters of the Atlantic, in the late 15th century was no small undertaking, given the huge element of the unknown.

Still, contrary to some assertions, Columbus and his crew didn't fear falling off the edge of the Earth.

"It is true that a lot of ordinary people thought the world was flat," Seed said. "But in Portugal [where Columbus trained as a sailor] the first thing that they did was a little demonstration to prove that the Earth was round. All of the scientists and intellectuals believed that the Earth was round."

Now monsters were a different story.

"There were all kinds of things that lived in the ocean," Seed said. "They were also out there for the first time in a area that hadn't been mapped before. They were understandably fearful."

Columbus had ample experience sailing, having taken many trips -- including some tied to the slave trade -- along the Western coast of Africa.

Of course, he had never sailed west across the Atlantic, and could only speculate about how long it would take to reach Asia or exactly what lay in the way.

Using calculations by Paolo Toscanelli, a mathematician and geographer from Florence, Italy, Columbus thought there were about 2,800 nautical miles between the Canary Islands and Japan -- short by about 9,000 miles, according to Seed.

Fateful voyage

Portuguese King Joćo II, thinking that such a westward route was extremely long, rejected Columbus's first request -- made in 1484 -- to fund such a trip.

Columbus moved to Spain in 1485, a nation far behind its neighbor in exploration. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella denied his first appeal for backing, instead focusing their efforts on ending the 700-year rule of the Moors in Spain, and driving them from their last foothold in the country.

But by 1492, major changes gripped Europe, and particularly Spain, according to Seed. The Moors surrendered in January, returning to North Africa.

In his third attempt, Columbus finally received approval to make the voyage west to India. The about 100-man crew of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria set sail that summer.

On October 12, 1492, a crewman spotted land in what is now the Bahamas. Exactly where he set foot remains a subject of much contention, but he named the island San Salvador.

Columbus called the native inhabitants of the islands Indians, under the belief he had reached Asia, or "The Indies" as it was then known. On what is now Hispaniola, he made first contact with the Taino Indians.

He would return to the area on three more voyages.

Intense controversy

Eventually Columbus was named governor of the area, a short-lived and ill-fated venture. In the summer of 1500, Spanish authorities removed him from his post after the queen sent an administrator to check on complaints about his governance.

This history -- as well as the deaths, mainly by disease brought over by European settlers, of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans since 1492 -- has made Columbus a villain to some.

In recent years, many Columbus Day celebrations have been accompanied by protests, many led by American Indians and their supporters who link Columbus with the decimation of their people.

"They want to celebrate Columbus," Lisa Simms, who helped organize an anti-Columbus march in Denver, told The Associated Press in 2002. "We are here to commemorate the lives of our ancestors, the indigenous people who were already here."

Yet not all Native Americans condemn Columbus. Conservative commentator David Yeagley, who traces his lineage to Comanche warrior Bad Eagle, calls him "really just a front man."

"Columbus was simply a courageous man," Yeagley wrote in a 2003 edition of FrontPage, a conservative online magazine. "Columbus was willing to go to a place where, as far as he knew, no man had gone before. This is momentous. This is all I see in Columbus. This is all I need to see."

Mixed legacy

Columbus died in Spain in 1506 and within 50 years of his death, his name vanished into obscurity.

In the United States, American writer Washington Irving brought Columbus into the spotlight with his 1828 biography of the explorer, written while Irving was living in Spain.

It wasn't until 1937 that the United States, under President Franklin Roosevelt, declared October 12 Columbus Day. President Nixon made Columbus Day a national holiday in 1971.

Columbus lives on in America's classrooms, street names and institutions, with both the positive and negative aspects of his voyage and its repercussions spurring the debate.

"It has to be done carefully," said noted historian Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present," of the challenge of properly explaining to students Columbus and the effect European exploration had on the Americas.

"You don't want to crowd into their minds horrible pictures of violence and blood," he said. "And yes at the same time, we must not hide the truth."

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