American Portraits

Admiral of the Ocean Sea: Christopher Columbus and Diligence

In this lesson, students will review Christopher Columbus’ diligent actions as an adventurer and in completing the voyage across the Atlantic. They will achieve the following objectives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


Captain and courageous visionary Christopher Columbus had a grand and daring plan to sail to the west to trade for spices and gold in Asia. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain granted him majestic titles such as “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and “Viceroy and Governor” of all the islands and lands he discovered as well as a claim to one-tenth of any treasure he found. The king and queen also paid for two of his three ships and funded most of the voyage. However, he had many obstacles to overcome—one of most significant of which was that he was a distrusted foreigner from Italy who had to persuade local Spanish sailors to brave the dangers for the glory that Columbus promised….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is diligence essential in achieving worthy goals?

Virtue Defined

Diligence is intrinsic energy for completing good work.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review Christopher Columbus’ diligent actions as an adventurer and in completing the voyage across the Atlantic. They will achieve the following objectives.


  • Students will analyze Christopher Columbus’ character as a leader and his diligent actions in leading his sailors against overwhelming obstacles to arrive at San Salvador.
  • Students will examine Columbus’ demonstration of diligence.
  • Students will understand why diligence is an essential virtue in their own lives.
  • Students will act diligently in their own lives to protect freedom.


The Italian city-states had kept up a vigorous trade in the Mediterranean during the late Middle Ages in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the fifteenth century, new shipbuilding techniques allowed them to build ships that would travel farther, and the emerging Renaissance encouraged many different nations to explore for discovery and knowledge as well as for trade and empire. Portuguese sailors successfully explored around Africa with Prince Henry the Navigator sailing to West Africa and his captains discovering the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. In 1488, Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa to find a water route to the valuable spice trade in the East Indies.

In 1451, Christopher Columbus, the son of a respectable wool weaver, was born in Genoa, Italy. He was a brave man of action with a great deal of physical courage who took to the sea as did many in the Genoese port city. He was a devout Christian who steadfastly practiced his faith and drew strength from it. Columbus sailed around the Mediterranean, voyaged to West Africa, and took more distant trips to lands as far away as Iceland. In 1477, the twenty-six year old moved to Portugal, where he joined the Genoese community there and married. He studied maps and read about Marco Polo’s overland voyages to Asia and hit upon the idea for a voyage westward to Asia.  The upstart boldly proposed the plan to Portugal’s King João, who turned him down.

Undaunted, Columbus traveled to Spain in 1485 and won an audience with Queen Isabella the following year. She was interested and referred the proposal to a navigation committee. However, the committee questioned his plan and turned down his request for funding. After a frustrating attempt to renew negotiations with Portugal, Columbus diligently refused to give up and had the courage to pitch the idea to Queen Isabella again in 1489.  After being turned down a second and third time, the indefatigable Columbus finally won approval for his idea in 1492, the same year that the Spanish Crown defeated Muslim armies who held the Island of Grenada and expelled the Jews from the country. Flush with nationalism, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand led the recently-unified Spanish nation-state to compete with Portugal for empire by funding most of Columbus’s voyage.  If this daring enterprise succeeded, Spain would build a trading empire in Asia and assert its power as a leading European nation.


  • New World
  • Genoa
  • Renaissance
  • Cape of Good Hope
  • East Indies
  • Upstart
  • Indefatigable
  • Visionary
  • Shipworm
  • Hardtack
  • Canary Islands
  • Quadrant
  • Dead reckoning
  • Abate
  • Mutiny
  • Flotsam
  • San Salvador
  • Hispaniola

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did Christopher Columbus exercise diligence to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others?
  • What did Christopher Columbus understand his identity to be, and how did that affect his efforts to sail for Asia?
  • What did Christopher Columbus understand his purpose to be in the events of the late 1400s?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Bergreen, Laurence. Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504. New York: Viking, 2011.
  • Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters, and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives. Edited by J.M. Cohen. New York: Penguin, 1992.
  • Dugard, Martin. The Fourth Voyage: Being the Epic Tale of the Great Captain’s Fourth Expedition, Including Accounts of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Discovery. New York: Back Bay, 2006.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. Boston: Little, Brown, 1942.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, A.D. 1492-1616. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

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