Christopher Columbus

The Italian navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was the discoverer of America. Though he had set out to find a westward route to Asia, his explorations proved to be as important as any alternate way to the riches of Cathay and India.

The archives of Genoa show that the famous discoverer was born Cristoforo Colombo (Spanish, Cristóbal Colón) there between August and October 1451. His father, Domenico Colombo, followed the weaver's craft, and his mother, Suzanna Fontanarossa, came of equally humble stock. Christopher was the eldest child, and two brothers make some appearance in history under their Hispanicized names, Bartolomé and Diego.

Columbus had a meager education and only later learned to read Latin and write Castilian. He evidently helped his father at work when he was a boy and went to sea early in a humble capacity. Since he aged early in appearance and contemporaries commonly took him for older than he really was, he was able to claim to have taken part in events before his time.

In 1475 Columbus made his first considerable voyage to the Aegean island of Chios, and in 1476 he sailed on a Genoese ship through the Strait of Gibraltar. Off Cape St. Vincent they were attacked by a French fleet, and the vessel in which Columbus sailed sank. He swam ashore and went to Lisbon, where his brother Bartolomé already lived. Columbus also visited Galway, in Ireland, and an English port, probably Bristol. If he ever sailed to Iceland, as he afterward claimed to have done, it must have been as a part of this voyage. He made his presumably last visit to Genoa in 1479 and there gave testimony in a lawsuit. Court procedure required him to tell his age, which he gave as "past 27," furnishing reasonable evidence of 1451 as his birth year.

Columbus returned to Portugal, where he married Felipa Perestrelo e Monis, daughter of Bartolomeu Perestrelo, deceased proprietor of the island of Porto Santo. The couple lived first in Lisbon, where Perestrelo's widow showed documents her husband had written or collected regarding possible western lands in the Atlantic, and these probably started Columbus thinking of a voyage of investigation. Later they moved to Porto Santo, where his wife died soon after the birth of Diego, the discoverer's only legitimate child.

Formation of an Idea

After his wife's death, Columbus turned wholly to discovery plans and theories, among them the hope to discover a westward route to Asia. He learned of the legendary Irish St. Brandan and his marvelous adventures in the Atlantic and of the equally legendary island of Antilia. Seamen venturing west of Madeira and the Azores reported signs of land, and ancient authors, notably Seneca and Pliny, had theorized about the nearness of eastern Asia to western Europe, though it is not known just when Columbus read them. He acquired incunabular editions of Ptolemy, Marco Polo, and Pierre d'Ailly, but again it is uncertain how early he read them. He possibly first depended on what others said of their contents.

From Marco Polo, Columbus learned the names of Cathay (north China) and Cipango (Japan). The Venetian traveler had never visited Japan and erroneously placed it 1,500 miles east of China, thus bringing it closer to Europe. Furthermore, Columbus accepted two bad guesses by Ptolemy: his underestimate of the earth's circumference and his overestimate of Asia's eastward extension. With the earth's sphericity taken for granted, all Columbus's mistaken beliefs combined to make his idea seem feasible.

In 1474 the Florentine scientist Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli sent a letter and map to Fernao Martins of Lisbon, telling Martins that a western voyage in the Atlantic would be a shorter way of reaching the Orient than circumnavigation of Africa. Columbus obtained a copy of the letter and used it to clarify his own ideas.

In 1484 Columbus asked John II of Portugal for backing in the proposed voyage. Rejected, Columbus went to Spain with young Diego in 1485, and for nearly 7 years he sought the aid of Isabella of Castile and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. The sovereigns took no action but gave Columbus a small annuity that enabled him to live modestly. He found influential friends, including the powerful Duke of Medinaceli and Juan Pérez, prior of La Rábida monastery.

While waiting, the widowed Columbus had an affair with young Beatriz Enriquez de Harana of Cordova, who in 1488 bore his other son, Ferdinand, out of wedlock. He never married her, though he provided for her in his will and legitimatized the boy, as Castilian law permitted.

Preparations for the First Voyage

In 1492 Columbus resumed negotiations with the rulers. The discussions soon broke down, apparently because of the heavy demands by Columbus, who now prepared to abandon Spain and try Charles VIII of France. Father Pérez saved Columbus from this probably fruitless endeavor by an eloquent appeal to the Queen. Columbus was called back, and in April he and the rulers agreed to the Capitulations of Santa Fe, by which they guaranteed him more than half the future profits and promised his family the hereditary governorship of all lands annexed to Castile.

Financing proved difficult, but three ships were prepared in the harbor of Palos. The largest, the 100-ton Santa Maria, was a round-bottomed nao with both square and lateen sails; the caravel Pinta was square-rigged; and the small Niña, also a caravel, had lateen sails. Recruitment proved hard, and sailing might have been delayed had not the Pinzón brothers, mariners and leading citizens of Palos, come to Columbus's aid and persuaded seamen to enlist. The eldest brother, Martin Alonso, took command of the Pinta, and a younger brother, Vicente Yañez, commanded the Niña.

The Departure

The fleet left Palos on Aug. 3, 1492, and, visiting the Canaries, followed the parallel of Gomera westward. Weather remained good during the entire crossing, "like April in Andalusia," as Columbus wrote in his diary, and contrary to popular tales, there was no serious threat of mutiny.

By mid-Atlantic, Columbus evidently concluded he had missed Antilia, so Cipango became his next goal. Landfall came at dawn of October 12, at the Bahama island of Guanahani, straightway renamed San Salvador by Columbus (probably modern San Salvador, or Watlings Island). Arawak natives flocked to the shore and made friends with the Spaniards as they landed. Believing himself in the East Indies, Columbus called them "Indians," a name ultimately applied to all New World aborigines.

The ships next passed among other Bahamas to Colba (Cuba), where the gold available proved disappointing. Turning eastward, Columbus crossed to Quisqueya, renamed Española (Hispaniola), where on Christmas Eve the Santa Maria ran aground near Cap-Haitien. No lives were lost and most of the equipment was salvaged. As relations with the local Taino Arawaks seemed good and Columbus wished to return to Spain immediately, he built a settlement named Navidad for the Santa Maria's crew and left, promising to return in a few months.

The Return

Columbus recrossed the Atlantic by a more northerly route than on his outward passage and reached Europe safely. He had an interview with John II of Portugal, who, by a farfetched interpretation of an old treaty with Castile, claimed the new western islands for himself. Columbus then sailed to Palos and crossed Spain to the court at Barcelona, bearing the artifacts he had brought from Hispaniola and conducting several natives he had induced or forced to accompany him. Strong evidence also suggests that his crew brought syphilis, apparently never reported in Europe before and known to have been endemic in mild form among the Arawaks.

Regarding John II's territorial claims, Isabella and Ferdinand appealed to Pope Alexander VI, an Aragonese Spaniard, for confirmation of their rights, and in 1493 the Pope obliged, granting Castile complete rights west of a line from pole to pole in the Atlantic. But the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) established a new line, from pole to pole, 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Spain was entitled to claim and occupy all non-Christian lands west of the line, and Portugal all those to the east.

Second Voyage

Following an enthusiastic reception by Ferdinand and Isabella, "Admiral" Columbus prepared for a second voyage. He sailed from Cadiz with 17 ships and about 1,200 men in September 1493. Columbus entered the West Indies near Dominica, which he discovered and named. Passing westward and touching Marie Galante, Guadeloupe, and other Lesser Antilles, the fleet came to large Borinquén (modern Puerto Rico).

On reaching the Navidad settlement on Hispaniola, Columbus found the place destroyed. The Spaniards had made themselves so hated in their quest of gold and women that Chief Caonabo, more warlike than the others, had exterminated them. Another settlement, Isabela, proved an equally unfortunate location, and in 1495 or 1496 Bartolomé Columbus founded Santo Domingo on the south side of Hispaniola.

From Isabela the Admiral sent home most of the ships, though retaining the bulk of the men. He dispatched expeditions into the center of the island in search of gold and accompanied one in person. Meanwhile, he installed himself as governor of Hispaniola, intending it to be a trading post for commerce with the rich Oriental empires he expected soon to discover.

Exploration in the Caribbean

Columbus now decided to explore Cuba further by tracing the island's southern coast. With three ships, including his favorite Niña, he left Isabela in the spring of 1494 and followed the Cuban coast nearly to its western end. Indians told him of Jamaica not far to the south, and the Admiral turned that way, discovered the island, and had several fights with hostile natives. Returning to the Cuban shore, Columbus sailed to Bahía Cortés, where leaky ships and sailors' complaints forced him to put back.

Back in Hispaniola, Columbus found the Spanish settlers unruly and nearly impossible to govern. Complaints against Columbus reached the Castilian court in such numbers that he at last decided to go to Spain to clear his name. He left in the Niña in March 1496 and reached Cadiz in June. Bartolomé, with the rank of adelantado, remained to govern the colony in his absence.

Third Voyage

The Admiral's reception at court was visibly cooler, but Vasco da Gama's departure from Portugal for India in 1497 caused the Spanish rulers to dispatch Columbus again the following year. There were reports of a great continent south of the Admiral's previous discoveries, and Columbus left Sanlúcar de Barrameda with six ships late in May 1498.

The first land sighted had three hills in view, which suggested the Holy Trinity, and Columbus promptly named the island Trinidad. Since it lies by the Gulf of Paria and the Venezuelan mainland, the Admiral became the discoverer of South America on Aug. 1, 1498. The welcome discovery of pearls from oysters in the shallow waters of offshore islands caused the name "Pearl Coast" to be applied for a time to Venezuela, which Columbus even then recognized as a land of continental proportions because of the volume of water flowing from one of its rivers.

Rebellion and Arrest

The Admiral had left Hispaniolan affairs in bad condition 2 years earlier and now hastened to return there and relieve his hard-pressed brother. On arrival he succeeded in partially quieting by compromise a revolt headed by Francisco Roldán, an officeholder, and resumed his governor-ship. But so many letters of complaint had gone back to Castile regarding the Columbus brothers that the rulers sent out a royal commissioner, Francisco de Bobadilla, with full powers to act as he saw best.

Bobadilla was honest and meant well, but he had already formed a bad opinion of the Columbus family. He put the Admiral and the adelantado in chains and sent them to Spain. Andrés Martin, commanding the ship in which they sailed, offered to remove the shackles, but the Admiral refused permission, as he meant to appear fettered before the sovereigns. On arrival in Cadiz in late November 1500, Columbus went to court to receive a kind welcome and assurance by the monarchs that the chains and imprisonment had not been by their orders.

In 1501 the Admiral began preparing for a fourth voyage. The fleet, consisting of four ships, left Cadiz on May 9, 1502, arriving in Santo Domingo on June 29. The Admiral next sailed to Guanaja Island off Honduras, then down the coast of Central America. When Columbus learned from the natives about another saltwater body, the Pacific, not far away, he felt certain that he was coasting the Malay Peninsula, of which he had learned through the writings of Ptolemy. A strait or open water should permit entry to the Indian Ocean. Although Columbus followed the coast nearly to the Gulf of Darien, he found no strait.

In April 1503 the ships left the mainland, but the hulls were thoroughly bored by teredos and had to be abandoned as unseaworthy in Jamaica. The Admiral and his crews were marooned in Jamaica for a year, during which time Diego Mendez and Bartolomeo Fieschi fetched a small caravel from Hispaniola. Columbus finally reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, on Nov. 7, 1504.

Columbus had 18 months of life remaining, and they were unhappy. Though only 53 he was physically an aged man, a sufferer from arthritis and the effects of a bout of malaria. But financially his position was good, as he had brought considerable gold from America and had a claim to much more in Hispaniola. He died in Valladolid on May 20, 1506.

Further Reading on Christopher Columbus

The best works on Columbus are Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (2 vols. and 1 vol. condensation, 1942), which concentrates on the nautical aspects, and, in Spanish, Antonio Ballesteros y Beretta, Cristóbal Colón y el descubrimiento de América (2 vols., 1945), which discusses all phases of Columbus's career. Invaluable as a source is the 1959 translation by Benjamin Keen of Fernando Colón, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand (1571). Marianne Mahn-Lot, Columbus (1960; trans. 1961), gives a brief and accurate account of the discoverer's life.

More specialized works are Samuel Eliot Morison, The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1939), which traces this voyage until the arrival at Hispaniola, and George E. Nunn, The Geographical Conceptions of Columbus: A Critical Consideration of Four Problems (1924), which has not found general acceptance. A more convincing work by Nunn is The Columbus and Magellan Concepts of South American Geography (1932). Columbus's voyages are discussed in Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971). Older works that still have considerable value are Washington Irving, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (3-and 4-vol. eds., 1828), and John Boyd Thacher, Christopher Columbus: His Life, His Work, His Remains (3 vols., 1903-1904).

Writings devoted to unusual theses are Henry Vignaud, Toscanelli and Columbus: The Letter and Chart of Toscanelli (1901; trans. 1902), which maintains that the Toscanelli letters were forgeries; Salvador de Madariaga, Christopher Columbus (1939; 2d ed. 1949), which proves to the author's satisfaction that Columbus was a Jew; and Edmundo O'Gorman, The Invention of America (1958; trans. 1961), which asserts that Columbus was not a discoverer because he had no intention of making a discovery and never thought he had made one.