1451 - 1506
The Italian navigator Christopher Columbus 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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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This web page was last updated on:
09 December, 2008