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This Day in Georgia History

October 12, 1492

Columbus Sighted Land

After more than ten weeks at sea, the small fleet of three ships led by Christopher Columbus finally sighted land. On August 3, Columbus and approximately 80 sailors sailed from Spain aboard the Santa Maria and two smaller ships, the Pinta and Nina. In the late 15th century, cartographers had little knowledge of the world other than Europe and and the coast of Africa. No one knew for sure, but some European cartographers mistakenly believed that to the west only a narrow ocean separated Europe from China and the area to the south known as the Indies. They also believed that west of the Asian mainland were countless islands, including a large island named Cipango (which probably was Japan). Thus, when one of his sailors sighted land on October 12, Columbus believed it to be one of the westernmost islands of the Indies. According to his maps, there were not supposed to be any continents separating Europe from the Far East, so he called the island region he discovered the “West Indies.” As Columbus went ashore, he claimed the island on behalf of Spain. He did so by authority of a royal commission that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had issued before he sailed directing him “to discover and subdue some Islands and Continent in the ocean.” Ferdinand and Isabella based their authorization on the ancient principle of “first discovery.” This concept held that the first European nation to discover a new land not previously discovered by a Christian nation had first rights to claim that land. Though Columbus never set foot on the North American continent and died believing he had discovered the “West Indies,” his 1492 voyage gave Spain a “first discovery” claim to all lands in the New World - including Georgia. Actually, Catholic nations such as Spain and Portugal felt that they not only had a right to claim any newly discovered lands but a duty to convert non-Christian inhabitants to the Catholic faith. Any natives refusing to convert were considered infidels and were subject to enslavement. Also, regardless of the inhabitants’ willingness to convert, any gold, silver, or other riches found by Spanish explorers could be claimed on behalf of Spain. Spain’s initial basis for claiming what would later become Georgia - the right of first discovery - would be supplemented the following year by a papal proclamation dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal (see May 4, 1493 entry) and subsequently by a treaty between Spain and Portugal redefining their respective rights to the New World (see June 7, 1494 entry). However, the rest of Europe was not willing to give the New World to Spain and Portugal based on Columbus’s 1492 and subsequent voyages of discovery, papal decrees, or a treaty between Spain and Portugal. European nations accepted the principle of first discovery in theory but could not agree on how it worked. For example, how much land could be claimed based on a single exploration, and for how long was the claim valid? England would soon propose a new standard: first discovery claims had to be backed by actual occupation. Thus, within four years of Columbus’s discovery of land, England prepared to explore and colonize the New World. France followed with its own plans. This forced Spain to quickly prepare for an additional defense of its New World claims - actual occupation through settlements, forts, and missions.