Columbus’ First Voyage

Here is a printable map of Columbus’ First Voyage for kids to color.

While they kids color tell them the story of Columbus.  The short version is this:

The Story of Columbus


Columbus grew up in Italy, probably Genoa, where his father was a merchant and weaver.  But Columbus hung out at the docks.  He was fascinated with the ships and at a young age, perhaps around 10, he signed on as a hand on a ship that traded across the Mediterranean.  Then he kept sailing, learning all he could about navigation.  Columbus learned to read in four languages so he could study the journals and logs of other captains and explorers.  He sailed all over Europe and Africa, going as far as Iceland and clear down the west coast of Africa.

This was painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in about 1520, after Columbus had died. No one actually knows what he looked like for sure because no portraits were done during his life or by anyone who actually saw him. Public domain, Wikimedia.

The Shipwreck

In his early twenties, Columbus’ ship wrecked near Lisbon.  He was the only survivor.  He made his way to his brothers map shop in Portugal and Bartholomew helped him out.  Columbus became enamored with the maps and poured over them.  But he wasn’t satisfied.  There were too many blank spots.  He was absolutely positive that there was a sea route from Portugal to the Orient and that one could sail west to arrive in the east.  No one else thought it could be done.  The distance was too great.  Prevailing winds would prevent you from returning.  And of course, there were uncharted coasts and uncharted reefs to wreck a ship.  Not to mention, you would get lost.

This is a drawing done in 1900 for an encyclopedia. It shows the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Columbus’ three ships. Public domain.

Planning to Find Japan

Undaunted Columbus began to draw charts of his own.  First, he placed land masses and Cipangu (Japan) where he thought it must be.  Then, he began to beg monarchs for funding to outfit an expedition.  He talked to the king of Portugal, the king of France, and the King and Queen of Spain.  Columbus even sent his brother, Bartholomew, to the backward nation of the English on their far northern island.  Bartholomew’s ship wrecked and never made it and the others all said no. No one was willing to risk the money when all their advisers said Columbus was way off on the size of the world.  The ocean sea was at least twice as large as Columbus thought and no one ever sailed that far out of sight of land.

Columbus got his ideas of the placement of Cipangu from the maps of Toscanelli. This chart (imposed over the actual continents of the Americas) was created in 1474.

Spain Sponsors a Harebrained Scheme

For a decade Columbus tried to get funding.  Finally Queen Isabella of Spain agreed.  She had just finished her reconquest of Spain, pushing the Moors back to Africa, and she was ready to challenge Portugal’s claim to the riches of the east.  Columbus was a gamble, but he was the only one proposing a way to go around the Portuguese.

This is a monument to Christopher Columbus in Madrid Spain. You can find similar monuments in cities all over the old world and the new. Photo by Luis García, CC license.

The Ships

Queen Isabella gave Columbus three old, run down ships, money for supplies (much of it coerced out of the inhabitants of Palos), and two Spanish captains who had volunteered to go with him, the Pinzon brothers.  The Pinzon brothers convinced the best sailors of their town to sign on and they rounded out the crew by offering pardon to any convicts who would sign on as well.

This painting is by Jose Maria Obregon and was completed in 1856. It shows Columbus looking out to sea, map in hand, and dreaming of what lay over the horizon. By Columbus’ own accounts he was practically driven to seek out what lay on the other side of that vast ocean. Public domain.

The Expedition Begins

They left on the 3rd of August 1492 from Palos, Spain.  Columbus sailed to the Canary Islands, restocked and repaired his ships, and then set out again on September 6.  In five weeks the crew would sight land at an island in the Bahamas named San Salvador.  They landed in the New World on October 12, 1492.

This is Columbus upon first reaching land in the Americas. It is a painting by John Vanderlyn, an American artist. He spent ten years working on this canvas, finishing it in 1847. Columbus bares his head and looks to heaven in reverence, but few of his sailors feel the same emotion. Many of them are already digging in the sand looking for gold.  Natives cautiously peer from behind trees in the background.

Columbus in the New World

Columbus made contact with the natives, taking some of them prisoner so they could guide him to the gold the monarchs of Spain were expecting, explored the coasts of several islands including Cuba, and lost his flag ship, the Santa Maria on a reef.  Finally, he left some of his men in the islands and sailed for home, arriving back in Spain in March of 1493.  Word of his discoveries spread rapidly through Europe and the race for the New World was on.

 Additional Layers

  • Columbus sailed to the New World four times.  Read about his other voyages too.
  • Columbus was wildly successful. He discovered a whole new world, made Spain fabulously rich, and profoundly changed the course of history.  Usually when we see someone who is successful we say they’re “so lucky” or words to that effect.  But what Columbus did had nothing to do with luck.  As you learn more about his life leading up to that first voyage make a list of everything he did to make his dream come true.  Then think about how you can apply that to your own life.

More From Layers of Learning

Printable Christopher Columbus hat and spyglass. The spyglass is a map of Columbus' voyage.
Printable Christopher Columbus hat and spyglass. The spyglass is a map of Columbus’ voyage.

All about Columbus and the other early explorers.
All about Columbus and the other early explorers.

A coloring sheet of the Santa Maria, Columbus' flag ship.
A coloring sheet of the Santa Maria, Columbus’ flag ship.

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