Christopher Columbus was born between 25 August and 31 October 1451 in

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Christopher Columbus was born between 25 August and 31 October 1451 in Genoa, part of modern Italy.[12] His father was Domenico Colombo, a middle-class wool weaver, who later also had a cheese stand where Christopher was a helper, working both in Genoa and Savona. His mother was Susanna Fontanarossa. Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino and Giacomo were his brothers. Bartolomeo worked in a cartography workshop in Lisbon for at least part of his adulthood.[13]

Others have argued that Columbus was not from Genoa, but instead, from Catalonia,[14] Portugal,[15] or Spain.[16] These competing hypothesis have generally been disputed by historians.

Columbus never wrote in his native language, but it has been argued that it was a Genoese variety of Ligurian. In one of his writings, Columbus claims to have gone to the sea at the age of 10. In 1470 the Columbus family moved to Savona, where Domenico took over a tavern. In the same year, Columbus was on a Genoese ship hired in the service of René I of Anjou to support his attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples.

Columbus's notes in Latin, on the margins of his copy of The Travels of Marco Polo

In 1473 Columbus began his apprenticeship as business agent for the important Centurione, Di Negro and Spinola families of Genoa. Later he allegedly made a trip to Chios, a Genoese colony in the Aegean Sea.[17] In May 1476, he took part in an armed convoy sent by Genoa to carry a valuable cargo to northern Europe. He docked in Bristol, England;[18] Galway, Ireland and was possibly in Iceland in 1477. In 1479 Columbus reached his brother Bartolomeo in Lisbon, while continuing trading for the Centurione family. He married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, daughter of the Porto Santo governor and Portuguese nobleman of Genoese origin Bartolomeu Perestrello. In 1479 or 1480, his son Diego Columbus was born. Between 1482 and 1485 Columbus traded along the coasts of West Africa, reaching the Portuguese trading post of Elmina at the Guinea coast.[19] Some records report that Filipa died in 1485. It is also speculated that Columbus may have simply left his first wife. In either case Columbus found a mistress in Spain in 1487, a 20-year-old orphan named Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.[20]

Intelligent and ambitious, Columbus eventually learned Latin, as well as Portuguese and Castilian, and read widely about astronomy, geography, and history, including the works of Ptolemy, Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly's Imago Mundi, the travels of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, Pliny's Natural History, and Pope Pius II's Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum. According to historian Edmund Morgan,

Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading and clings to in defiance of what anyone else tries to tell him.[21]

Throughout his life, Columbus also showed a keen interest in the Bible and in biblical prophecies, and would often quote biblical texts in his letters and logs. For example, part of the argument that he submitted to the Spanish Catholic Monarchs when he sought their support for his proposed expedition to reach the Indies by sailing west was based on his reading of the Second Book of Esdras (see 2 Esdras 6:42, which Columbus took to mean that the Earth is made of six parts of land to one of water). Towards the end of life, Columbus produced a Book of Prophecies in which his career as an explorer is interpreted in the light of Christian eschatology and of apocalypticism.[13]

Quest for Asia

"Columbus map", drawn ca. 1490 in the Lisbon workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus[22]


Under the hegemony over Asia of the Mongol Empire (the so-called Pax Mongolica, or Mongol peace) Europeans had long enjoyed a safe land passage, the so-called "Silk Road", to China and India, which were sources of valuable goods such as silk, spices, and opiates. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the land route to Asia became much more difficult and dangerous. Portuguese navigators, under the leadership of King John II, sought to reach Asia by sailing around Africa. Major progress in this quest was achieved in 1488, when Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope, in what is now South Africa. Meanwhile, in the 1480s the Columbus brothers had developed a different plan to reach the Indies (then construed roughly as all of south and east Asia) by sailing west across the "Ocean Sea", i.e., the Atlantic.

Geographical considerations

Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus popularized the idea that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because Christian theologians insisted that the Earth was flat.[23] In fact, most educated Westerners had understood that the Earth was spherical at least since the time of Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BC and whose works were widely studied and revered in Medieval Europe.[24] The sphericity of the Earth is also accounted for in the work of Ptolemy, on which ancient astronomy was largely based. Christian writers whose works clearly reflect the conviction that the Earth is spherical include Saint Bede the Venerable in his Reckoning of Time, written around AD 723. In Columbus's time, the techniques of celestial navigation, which use the position of the Sun and the Stars in the sky, together with the understanding that the Earth is a sphere, were beginning to be widely used by mariners.

Where Columbus did differ from the view accepted by scholars in his day was in his estimate of the westward distance from Europe to Asia. Columbus's ideas in this regard were based on three factors: his low estimate of the size of the Earth, his high estimate of the size of the Eurasian landmass, and his belief that Japan and other inhabited islands lay far to the east of the coast of China. In all three of these issues Columbus was both wrong and at odds with the scholarly consensus of his day.

As far back as the 3rd century BC, Eratosthenes had correctly computed the circumference of the Earth by using simple geometry and studying the shadows cast by objects at two different locations: Alexandria and Syene (modern-day Aswan).[25] Eratosthenes's results were confirmed by a comparison of stellar observations at Alexandria and Rhodes, carried out by Posidonius in the 1st century BC. These measurements were widely known among scholars, but confusion about the old-fashioned units of distance in which they were expressed had led, in Columbus's day, to some debate about the exact size of the Earth.

Toscanelli's notions of the geography of the Atlantic Ocean, which directly influenced Columbus plans

Columbus accepted Alfraganus's estimate that the degree of latitude (or a degree of longitude along the Equator) was equivalent to 56 ⅔ miles, but did not realize that this was expressed in Arabic miles (about 1,830 m) rather than the shorter Italian miles with which he was familiar (1,238 meters). He therefore estimated the circumference of the Earth to be 25,255 kilometers at most, whereas the correct value is 40,000 km (25,000 mi).

Furthermore, most scholars accepted Ptolemy's exaggerated estimate that Eurasia spanned 180° longitude, rather than the actual 130° (to the Chinese mainland) or 150° (to Japan at the latitude of Spain). Columbus, for his part, believed the even worse estimates of Marinus of Tyre, which put the longitudinal span of the landmass at 225°, leaving only 135° of water. He also believed that Japan (which he called "Cipangu", following Marco Polo) was much larger, further to the east from China ("Cathay"), and closer to the Equator than it is, and that there were inhabited islands even further to the east than Japan, including the mythical Antillia, which he thought might lie not much further to the west than the Azores. In this he was influenced by the ideas of Florentine physician Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, who corresponded with Columbus before his death in 1482 and who also defended the feasibility of a westward route to Asia.[26]

Columbus therefore estimated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 3,000 Italian miles (3,700 km, or 2,300 statute miles), while the correct figure is 19,600 km (12,200 mi). No ship in the 15th century could carry enough food and fresh water for such a long voyage and the dangers involved in navigating through the uncharted ocean would have been formidable. Most European navigators reasonably concluded that a westward voyage from Europe to Asia was unfeasible. The Catholic Monarchs, however, having completed an expensive war in the Iberian Peninsula, were desperate for a competitive edge over other European countries in the quest for trade with the Indies. Columbus promised such an advantage.

Nautical considerations

Though Columbus was wrong about the number of degrees of longitude that separated Europe from the Far East and about the distance that each degree represented, he did possess valuable knowledge about the trade winds, which would prove to be the key to his successful navigation of the Atlantic Ocean. During his first voyage in 1492, the brisk trade winds from the east, commonly called "easterlies", propelled Columbus's fleet for five weeks, from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas. To return to Spain against this prevailing wind would have required several months of an arduous sailing technique, called beating, during which food and drinkable water would probably have been exhausted.

Instead, Columbus returned home by following the curving trade winds northeastward to the middle latitudes of the North Atlantic, where he was able to catch the "westerlies" that blow eastward to the coast of Western Europe. There, in turn, the winds curve southward towards the Iberian Peninsula.[27][28][29]

It is unclear whether Columbus learned about the winds from his own sailing experience or if he had heard about it from others. The corresponding technique for efficient travel in the Atlantic appears to have been discovered first by the Portuguese, who referred to it as the Volta do Mar ("turn of the sea"). Columbus's knowledge of the Atlantic wind patterns was, however, imperfect at the time of his first voyage. By sailing directly due west from the Canary Islands during hurricane season, skirting the so-called horse latitudes of the mid-Atlantic, Columbus risked either being becalmed or running into a tropical cyclone, both of which he luckily avoided.[26]

Funding campaign

In 1485, Columbus presented his plans to John II, King of Portugal. He proposed the king equip three sturdy ships and grant Columbus one year's time to sail out into the Atlantic, search for a western route to the Orient, and return.

Columbus and Queen Isabella. Detail of the Columbus monument in Madrid (1885).[30]

Columbus also requested he be made "Great Admiral of the Ocean", appointed governor of any and all lands he discovered, and given one-tenth of all revenue from those lands. The king submitted the proposal to his experts, who rejected it. It was their considered opinion that Columbus's estimation of a travel distance of 2,400 miles (3,860 km) was, in fact, far too short.[26]

In 1488 Columbus appealed to the court of Portugal once again, and once again John invited him to an audience. It also proved unsuccessful, in part because not long afterwards Bartholomeu Dias returned to Portugal following a successful rounding of the southern tip of Africa. Now that it looked like Portugal could soon have the eastern sea route to Asia under its control, King John was no longer interested in Columbus's project.

Columbus traveled from Portugal to both Genoa and Venice, but he received encouragement from neither. Previously he had his brother sound out Henry VII of England, to see if the English monarch might not be more amenable to Columbus's proposal. After much carefully considered hesitation, Henry's invitation came too late. Columbus had already committed himself to Spain.[citation needed]

He had sought an audience from the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who had united many kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula by marrying, and were ruling together. On 1 May 1486, permission having been granted, Columbus presented his plans to Queen Isabella, who, in turn, referred it to a committee. After the passing of much time, the savants of Spain, like their counterparts in Portugal, reported back that Columbus had judged the distance to Asia much too short. They pronounced the idea impractical, and advised their Royal Highnesses to pass on the proposed venture.

However, to keep Columbus from taking his ideas elsewhere, and perhaps to keep their options open, the Catholic Monarchs gave him an annual allowance of 12,000 maravedis and in 1489 furnished him with a letter ordering all cities and towns under their domain to provide him food and lodging at no cost.[31]

~ Flagship of Columbus ~ Fleet of Columbus ~

~ 400th Anniversary Issues of 1893 ~
These US stamps issues reflect the most commonly held views of historians as to what Columbus's first fleet might have looked like, judging by our knowledge of ship-making in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Santa Maria was a carrack, the flagship of the Columbus fleet. It was a merchant ship, between 400 and 600 tons. The boat's length was 75 feet (23 m) with a wide beam, 25 feet (7.6 m). This allowed it to carry more people and cargo. She had a deep draft, 6 feet (1.8 m). The vessel had three masts: a mainmast, a foremast, and a mizzenmast. Five sails altogether were attached to these masts. Each mast carried one large sail. The foresail and mainsail were square; the sail on the mizzen was a triangular sail known as a lateen mizzen. The ship had a smaller topsail on the mainmast above the mainsail and on the foremast above the foresail. In addition, the ship carried a small square sail, a spritsail, on the bowsprit.[32][33]

After continually lobbying at the Spanish court and two years of negotiations, he finally had success in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they received Columbus in Córdoba, in the Alcázar castle. Isabella turned Columbus down on the advice of her confessor, and he was leaving town by mule in despair, when Ferdinand intervened. Isabella then sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were discovered".[cite this quote]

About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, whom Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke after the Granada campaign, the monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to shift funds among various royal accounts on behalf of the enterprise. Columbus was to be made "Admiral of the Seas" and would receive a portion of all profits. The terms were unusually generous, but as his son later wrote,[citation needed] the monarchs did not really expect him to return.

Columbus's coat of arms, as depicted in his Book of Privileges (1502)

According to the contract that Columbus made with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, if Columbus discovered any new islands or mainland, he would receive many high rewards. In terms of power, he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands. He had the right to nominate three persons, from whom the sovereigns would choose one, for any office in the new lands. He would be entitled to 10% of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity; this part was denied to him in the contract, although it was one of his demands. Additionally, he would also have the option of buying one-eighth interest in any commercial venture with the new lands and receive one-eighth of the profits.[26]

Columbus was later arrested in 1500 and supplanted from these posts. After his death, Columbus's sons, Diego and Fernando, took legal action to enforce their father's contract. Many of the smears against Columbus were initiated by the Castilian crown during these lengthy court cases, known as the pleitos colombinos. The family had some success in their first litigation, as a judgment of 1511 confirmed Diego's position as Viceroy, but reduced his powers. Diego resumed litigation in 1512, which lasted until 1536, and further disputes continued until 1790.[34]


Main article: Voyages of Christopher Columbus

Voyages of Christopher Columbus

Between 1492 and 1503, Columbus completed four round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas, all of them under the sponsorship of the Crown of Castile. These voyages marked the beginning of the European exploration and colonization of the American continents, and are thus of enormous significance in Western history. Columbus himself always insisted, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that the lands that he visited during those voyages were part of the Asian continent, as previously described by Marco Polo and other European travelers.[13] Columbus's refusal to accept that the lands he had visited and claimed for Spain were not part of Asia might explain, in part, why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci and not after Columbus.[35]

First voyage

First voyage

Departure from Palos (Evaristo Dominguez, municipality of Palos de la Frontera)

Replica of the Santa Maria

Columbus claims the New World (chromolithograph by the Prang Education Company, 1893)

Captain's Ensign for Columbus's fleet

On the evening of 3 August 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera with three ships; one larger carrack, Santa María, nicknamed Gallega (the Galician), and two smaller caravels, Pinta (the Painted) and Santa Clara, nicknamed Niña after her owner Juan Niño of Moguer.[36] They were property of Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers (Martín Alonso and Vicente Yáñez), but the monarchs forced the Palos inhabitants to contribute to the expedition. Columbus first sailed to the Canary Islands, which were owned by Castile, where he restocked the provisions and made repairs. On 6 September he departed San Sebastián de la Gomera for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean.

Land was sighted at 2 a.m. on 12 October 1492, by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodríguez Bermejo) aboard Pinta.[37] Columbus called the island (in what is now The Bahamas) San Salvador; the natives called it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas this corresponds to is an unresolved topic; prime candidates are Samana Cay, Plana Cays, or San Salvador Island (so named in 1925 in the belief that it was Columbus's San Salvador). The indigenous people he encountered, the Lucayan, Taíno or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. From the 12 October 1492 entry in his journal he wrote of them, "Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language."[38] He remarked that their lack of modern weaponry and even metal-forged swords or pikes was a tactical vulnerability, writing, "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased."[39]

Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba (landed on 28 October) and the northern coast of Hispaniola, by 5 December. Here, the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas morning 1492 and had to be abandoned. He was received by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his men behind. Columbus left 39 men and founded the settlement of La Navidad at the site of present-day Môle Saint-Nicolas, Haiti.[40] On 13 January 1493 Columbus made his last stop in the New World. He landed on the Samaná Peninsula where he met the hostile Ciguayos who presented him with his only violent resistance during his first voyage to the Americas. Because of this, and the Ciguayos' use of arrows, he called the inlet where he met them the Bay of Arrows (or Gulf of Arrows).[41] Today the place is called the Bay of Rincon, in Samaná, the Dominican Republic.[42] Columbus kidnapped about ten to twenty-five natives and took them back with him. Only seven or eight of the native Indians arrived in Spain alive, but they made quite an impression on Seville.[37]

First voyage

Columbus headed for Spain, but another storm forced him into Lisbon. He anchored next to the King's harbor patrol ship on 4 March 1493 in Portugal. After spending more than one week in Portugal, he set sail for Spain. He crossed the bar of Saltes and entered the harbour of Palos on 15 March 1493. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe.

There is increasing modern scientific evidence that this voyage also brought syphilis back from the New World. Many of the crew members who served on this voyage later joined the army of King Charles VIII in his invasion of Italy in 1495 resulting in the spreading of the disease across Europe and as many as 5 million deaths.[43][44]

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