Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A More Perfect Union

The Ships That Changed the Map

Objective: Students research information on the caravels of the fifteenth century to learn about the structure of these ships and how it affected life aboard them.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2-3 class periods

Building Background:
On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew set sail in three ships, the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Pinta, hoping to arrive in Asia. Instead they arrived at an island in the Bahamas. Columbus called the island San Salvador. The Santa Maria was Columbus's flagship because it was the largest ship of the three and could carry more men and supplies than the others could. When the Santa Maria was shipwrecked near the island of Hispaniola, Columbus refitted the Nina and made it the flagship.

The Nina was a caravel, a three-masted, usually square-rigged sailing ship of the fifteenth century. Caravels were light ships, no more than 100 feet long. Their small displacements gave them an advantage over bulkier ships for exploring the coastlines of the world. Caravels helped change the map of the known world. However, they were not suited for very long voyages because they could not carry enough men and supplies. By the end of the fifteenth century, caravels were no longer in common use.

What To Do:

1. Pass out copies of the Caravel worksheet. Ask students to recall what they know about the conditions under which Columbus and his men sailed on their voyages of exploration. Share with them the information about caravels provided under Building Background.

2. Have students use reference sources to learn more about caravels. They should then use that information to draw a caravel and label its major parts on the worksheet. Explain that knowing the structure and dimensions of a caravel will help them understand conditions aboard the Nina. If you have Internet access, students can explore these sites for information:

Portuguese Ships

The Maritime Museum of Newport News, Virginia, offers access to a glossary of ship parts. It also offers access to information about the Age of Exploration.

Columbus Santa Maria

Check out the reproduction of the Santa Maria, built by the city of Columbus, Ohio to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's first voyage. Photos at this site show many different parts of the ship.

The Columbus Navigation Home Page

Learn about Columbus's history, navigation skills, and arrival in the Americas.

3. Ask students to imagine themselves sailing on the Nina. Have them keep a daily journal for one week. Entries should incorporate what students have learned about the structure of the ship and living conditions on it. Suggest that students learn, and use in their entries, some of the terminology of ships, such as starboard and port. Knowledge of the types of stores and the names and uses of any nautical instruments kept on the Nina would also be useful.

Have students meet in small groups to share what they learned about caravels. Encourage them to discuss what life on such a ship must have been like and whether they would have been willing to put up with the discomforts in order to be a part Columbus's journeys.


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