In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But what if Columbus never came back from his voyage? Columbus's three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, might have run out of water, threatening the lives of all the sailors. They could have been lost at sea, or shipwrecked in a storm because they sailed during hurricane season. Or, most likely, Columbus might have reached the Caribbean and never returned to Europe. In fact, Columbus's largest ship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on a Haitian reef. Columbus barely made it back to Europe after his first voyage.
So what if Columbus sailed off into the Atlantic and never returned? Would Europe have given up on a western route to Asia, or would other countries have eventually sent their own voyages? Without silver and gold from the New World flowing into Europe, would the Habsburgs have maintained power? Would the British Empire exist? With less competition, would the Ottomans have conquered Europe? Without Columbus's voyage, the world's history would look drastically different.
When Columbus set sail to find a western route to Asia, Portuguese explorers had already shown how promising the eastern route might be. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Just a decade later, Vasco da Gama sailed to India. Over the course of the 16th century, Portugal established numerous ports on the coasts of Africa, India, China, and even Japan.
Without competition from Spain's New World, Portugal would have dominated Europe's trade networks. While the Ottomans and Italians might have maintained their power in the Mediterranean, Portugal would have benefited from the wealth of Asian trade. Recently, Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva declared, "The routes that the Portuguese created to connect the continents and oceans are the foundation of the world we inhabit today." In the absense of Spanish competition, Portugal's dominance likely would have been even greater.
In the 100 years before Spanish contact, the Inca more than doubled the size of their empire. By building alliances with neighbors, the Inca created a strong, sophisticated empire on the Pacific coast of South America.
However, Pizarro toppled the empire with the help of superior weapons and ruthless tactics. After capturing the Inca ruler Atahualpa and extracting a ransom worth more than $50 million today, Pizarro executed Atahualpa. Even before the Spaniards reached Inca territory, European diseases had swept through, weakening the empire.
Without Spanish contact, the Inca would have continued their expansion, creating a massive empire that could have even conquered South America.
Over the course of the 15th century, the Aztecs conquered Central Mexico. Their empire successfully subjugated multiple neighboring territories, consolidating their control. However, one territory remained unconquered: Tlaxcala, east of the Aztec capital in Tenochtitlan.
In 1519, Hernan Cortes allied with the Tlaxcalans to defeat the Aztec Empire. Without their vital support, Cortes almost certainly would have failed to conquer the Aztecs. And without Cortes's presence, which came as a direct result of Columbus's discovery, the Aztecs almost certainly would have continued their conquest of Mexico, expanding throughout Central America.
If Columbus hadn't landed in America, would Europeans have completely abandoned the idea of a western route to Asia? Would anyone dare to cross the Atlantic, knowing the route had destroyed Columbus's three ships? It's likely that another explorer would have encountered the Americas at some point. But how soon after 1492 would Europeans have attempted to cross the Atlantic?
In 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in Brazil. Cabral wasn't looking for the New World. His fleet had simply swept wide on their journey down the coast of Africa, en route to India. Strong winds landed Cabral in Brazil, instead.
Cabral easily could have been the first European to reach the Americas. If the Portuguese had claimed the entire New World, it would have poured wealth into the Iberian country, completely changing European history.