At about 2am on October 12th, 1492, a 23-year-old sailor cried out "Land ahoy!", probably never realising the full immensity of his first sighting of the New World.
Actually he cried out "Tierra! Tierra!" (Land! Land!) as the sailor in question, one Rodrigo de Triana, was Spanish. He was a crew member aboard the Pinta, one of the three ships which made up Christopher Columbus's expedition to establish lucrative new trade routes for the Catholic Monarchs of Spain.
Columbus was aboard the largest ship, Santa Maria, and probably asleep at the time, but he later claimed he had seen "light" at 10pm the previous evening, not daring to believe it was land. That enabled him to claim the lifetime pension promised by his sponsors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, to the first person to sight land. Poor old Rodrigo got nothing.
Columbus had actually set out to discover a new route to the East Indies (the lands of Southeast Asia), but instead stumbled across an island in the Bahamas archipelago, which he named San Salvador. Over the course of three more voyages he would discover various other Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico and the South and Central American mainland, establishing more colonies and claiming all of them for the Spanish Crown.
His main personal motivation had been to spread the Catholic religion, but his voyages and discoveries were the spark which ignited several centuries of European exploration, conquest and colonisation of the Americas.
Born in the Italian city of Genoa in 1451, Columbus worked as a seaman and maritime engineer, becoming obsessed with the idea of pioneering a western sea route to China, India and the gold and spice islands of Asia. When his attempts to persuade the King of Portugal to finance his expedition fell flat, Columbus turned instead to Spain, eventually winning royal backing.
His three small ships, Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina, set sail from Spain on August 3rd, 1492, negotiating the dangerous waters of the Atlantic. Contrary to popular belief, educated people at that time did believe the world was round, but they also thought it much smaller than it actually is. Columbus therefore believed that if he headed West across the Atlantic it would take him around the globe and his first landfall would be the East Indies.
His first footstep on American soil was probably on what is now called Watling Island, in the Bahamas. Later that month he sighted Cuba, which he believed was mainland China, and in December landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan. He established a colony there with 39 of his men before returning to Spain with gold, spices and captured natives which he called "Indians", because he thought he had been to the Indies.
In fact throughout his life, and despite his three further voyages, Columbus refused to believe that the lands he had visited were anything other than the East Indies. He would die in Spain in 1506 without ever realising the true scope of his discoveries, which would make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth.
In fact Columbus was not the first European to discover the Americas, as Vikings led by Leif Erikson had established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 11th Century. However, it was Columbus's voyages which established a lasting European contact with the Americas and in doing so had an enormous impact on the development of the modern Western world.