Christopher Columbus was an explorer and trader who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Americas on October 12, 1492 under the flag of Castile. History places a great significance on his landing in America in 1492, with the entire period of the history of the Americas before this date usually known as Pre-Columbian, and the anniversary of this event, Columbus Day, celebrated in many countries in the Americas.
Columbus was born between August 26 and October 31 in the year 1451, in the Italian port city of Genoa. His father was Domenico Colombo, a woollens merchant, and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a woollens merchant. Christopher had three younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta.
In 1470, the family moved to Savona, where Christopher worked for his father in wool processing. During this period he studied cartography with his brother Bartolomeo. Christopher received almost no formal education; a voracious reader, he was largely self-taught.
In 1474, Columbus joined a ship of the Spinola Financiers, who were Genoese patrons of his father. He spent a year on a ship bound towards Khios and, after a brief visit home, spent a year in Khios. It is believed that this is where he recruited some of his sailors.
A 1476, commercial expedition gave Columbus his first opportunity to sail into the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet came under attack by French privateers off the Cape of St. Vincent, Portugal. Columbus’s ship was burned and he swam six miles to shore.
By 1477, Columbus was living in Lisbon. Portugal had become a center for maritime activity with ships sailing for England, Ireland, Iceland, Madeira, the Azores, and Africa. Columbus’s brother Bartolomeo worked as a mapmaker in Lisbon. At times, the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors.
He became a merchant sailor with the Portuguese fleet, and sailed to
Iceland via Ireland in 1477. He sailed to Madeira in 1478 to purchase sugar, and along the coasts of West Africa between 1482 and 1485, reaching the Portuguese trade post of Elmina Castle in the Gulf of Guinea coast.
Columbus married Felipa Perestrello Moniz, a daughter from a noble Portuguese family with some Italian ancestry, in 1479. Felipa’s father, Bartolomeu Perestrelo, had partaken in finding the Madeira Islands and owned one of them, but died when Felipa was a baby, leaving his second wife a wealthy widow. As part of his dowry, the mariner received all of Perestello’s charts of the winds and currents of the Portuguese possessions of the Atlantic. Columbus and Felipa had a son, Diego Colón in 1480. Felipa died in January of 1485. Columbus later found a lifelong partner in Spain, an orphan named Beatriz Enriquez. She was living with a cousin in the weaving industry of Córdoba. They never married, but Columbus left Beatriz a rich woman and directed Diego to treat her as his own mother. The two had a son, Ferdinand in 1488. Both boys served as pages to Prince Juan, son of Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, and each later contributed, with fabulous success, to the rehabilitation of their father’s reputation.
Christian Europe, long allowed safe passage to India and China under the hegemony of the Mongol Empire, was now, after the fragmentation of that empire, under a complete economic blockade by Muslim states. In response to Muslim hegemony on land, Portugal sought an eastward sea route to the Indies, and promoted the establishment of trading posts and later colonies along the coast of Africa. Columbus had another idea. By the 1480s, he had developed a plan to travel to the Indies by sailing west across the Ocean Sea instead.
It is sometimes claimed that the reason Columbus had a hard time receiving support for this plan was that Europeans believed that the Earth was flat. This myth can be traced to Washington Irving’s novel The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.
The fact that the Earth is round was evident to most people of Columbus’s time, especially other sailors, explorers and navigators had in fact accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth). The problem was that the experts did not agree with his estimates of the distance to the Indies. Most scholars accepted Ptolemy’s claim that the terrestrial landmass occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water.
Columbus accepted the calculations of Pierre d’Ailly, that the land-mass occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that one degree actually covered less space on the earth’s surface than commonly believed. Finally, Columbus read maps as if the distances were calculated in Roman miles rather than nautical miles. The true circumference of the earth is about 40,000 km, whereas the circumference of Columbus’s earth was the equivalent of at most 30,600 km. Columbus calculated that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was 2,400 nautical miles.
In fact, the distance is about 10,600 nautical miles, and most European sailors and navigators concluded that the Indies were too far away to make his plan worth considering. They were right and Columbus was wrong; had he not unexpectedly encountered a previously uncharted continent in mid-travel, he and his crew would have perished from lack of food and water.
Columbus lobbies for funding.
Columbus first presented his plan to the court of Portugal in 1485. The king’s experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus thought, and denied Columbus’s request. It is probable that he made the same outrageous demands for himself in Portugal that he later made in Spain, where he went next. He tried to get backing from the monarchs of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who, by marrying, had united the largest kingdoms of Spain and were ruling them together.
After seven years of lobbying at the Spanish court, where he was kept on a salary to prevent him from taking his ideas elsewhere, he was finally successful in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they received Columbus in Córdoba. Isabella finally turned Columbus down on the advice of her «think tank» and he was leaving town in despair when Ferdinand lost his patience. Isabella sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later rightfully claimed credit for being «the principal cause why those islands were discovered».
About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, which Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke from 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 Ocean Sea and granted an inheritable governorship to the new territories he would reach, as well as a portion of all profits. The terms were absurd, but his own son later wrote that the monarchs really didn’t expect him to return.
The First Voyage.
The year 1492, on the evening of August 3, Columbus left from Palos with three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta. The ships were property of Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers, but the monarchs forced the Palos inhabitants to contribute to the expedition. He first sailed to the Canary Islands, fortunately owned by Castile, where he reprovisioned and made repairs, and on September 6 started the five week voyage across the ocean.
A legend is that the crew grew so homesick and fearful that they threatened to hurl Columbus overboard and sail back to Spain. Although the actual situation is unclear, most likely the sailors’ resentments merely amounted to complaints or suggestions.
After 29 days out of sight of land, on 7 October 1492 as recorded in the ship’s log, the crew spotted shore birds flying west and changed direction to make their landfall. A comparison of dates and migratory patterns leads to the conclusion that the birds were Eskimo curlews and American golden plover.
Land was sighted at 2 AM on October 12 by a sailor aboard Pinta named Rodrigo de Triana. Columbus called the island he reached San Salvador, although the natives called it Guanahani. The Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. He wrote with such awe of the friendly innocence and beauty of these Indians that he inadvertently created the enduring myth of the Noble Savage».These people have no religious beliefs, nor are they idolaters. They are very gentle and do not know what evil is; nor do they kill others, nor steal; and they are without weapons». No blood was shed on this first voyage; he believed conversion to Christianity would be achieved through love, not force.
On this first voyage, Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola, by December 5. He believed the peaks of Cuba were the Himalayas of India, which gives one a sense of just how lost he was and how long it took the peoples of the world to map the Earth. Here the Santa Maria ran aground 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 founded the settlement La Navidad and left 39 men.
On January 4, 1493 he set sail for home, not yet understanding the elliptical nature of the trade winds that had brought him west. He wrestled his ship against the wind and ran into one of the worst storms of the century. He had no choice but to land his ship in Portugal, where he was told a fleet of 100 caravels had been lost. Some have speculated that landing in Portugal was intentional.
The relations between Portugal and Castile were poor at the time, and he was held up, but finally released. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe. He didn’t reach Spain until March 15, when the story of his journey was in its third printing. He was received as a hero in Spain, and this was his moment in the sun. He displayed several kidnapped natives and what gold he’d found to the court, as well as the previously unknown tobacco plant, the pineapple fruit, the turkey and the sailor’s first love, the hammock. Naturally, he did not bring any of the coveted Indian spices, such as the exceedingly expensive black pepper, ginger or cloves. In his log he wrote «there is also plenty of ají, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than [black] pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome» . The word ají is still used in South American Spanish for chili peppers.
Columbus left from Cádiz, Spain for his second voyage on September 24, 1493, with 17 ships carrying supplies and about 1200 men to assist in the subjugation of the Taíno and the colonization of the region. On October 13 the ships left the Canary Islands, following a more southerly course than on the first voyage.
On November 3, 1493, Columbus sighted a rugged island which he named Dominica. On the same day he landed at Marie-Galante. After sailing past Les Saintes, Columbus arrived at Guadaloupe, which he explored from November 4 through November 10. The exact course of his voyage through the Lesser Antilles is debated, but it seems likely that Columbus turned north, sighting and naming several islands including Montserrat, Antigua, Redonda, Nevis, Saint Kitts, Sint Eustatius, Saba, and Saint Martin or Saint Croix. Columbus also sighted the island chain of the Virgin Islands, , and named the islands of Virgin Gorda, Tortola, and Peter Island.
Columbus continued to the Greater Antilles and landed at Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493. On November 22, he returned to Hispaniola, where he found his colonists had fallen into dispute with Indians in the interior and had been killed. He established a new settlement at Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola where gold had first been found but it was a poor location and the settlement was short-lived. He spent some time exploring the interior of the island for gold and did find some, establishing a small fort in the interior. He left Hispaniola on April 24, 1494 and arrived at Cuba on April 30 and Jamaica on May 5. He explored the south coast of Cuba, which he believed to be a peninsula rather than an island, and several nearby islands including the Isle of Youth before returning to Hispaniola on August 20.
Before he left on his second voyage he had been directed by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain friendly, even loving relations with the natives. However, during his second voyage he sent a letter to the monarchs proposing to enslave some of the native peoples, specifically the Caribs, on the grounds of their aggressiveness. Although his petition was refused by the Crown, in February, 1495 Columbus took 1600 Arawak as slaves. 550 slaves were shipped back to Spain; two hundred died en route, probably of disease, and of the remainder half were ill when they arrived. After legal proceedings, the survivors were released and ordered to be shipped back home. Some of the 1600 were kept as slaves for Columbus’s men, and Columbus recorded using slaves for sex in his journal. The remaining 400, who Columbus had no use for, were let go and fled into the hills, making, according to Columbus, prospects for their future capture dim. Rounding up the slaves resulted in the first major battle between the Spanish and the Indians in the new world.
The main objective of Columbus’s journey had been gold. To further this goal, he imposed a system on the natives in Cicao on Haiti, whereby all those above fourteen years of age had to find a certain quota of gold, which would be signified by a token placed around their necks. Those who failed to reach their quota would have their hands chopped off. Despite such extreme measures, Columbus did not manage to obtain much gold. One of the primary reasons for this was the fact that natives became infected with various diseases carried by the Europeans.
In his letters to the Spanish king and queen, Columbus would repeatedly suggest slavery as a way to profit from the new colonies, but these suggestions were all rejected: the monarchs preferred to view the natives as future members of Christendom.
Third voyage and arrest.
On May 30, 1498, Columbus left with six ships from Sanlúcar, Spain for his third trip to the New World. He was accompanied by the young Bartolome de Las Casas, who would later provide partial transcripts of Columbus’s logs.
After stopping in the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, Columbus landed on the south coast of the island of Trinidad on July 31. From August 4 through August 12, he explored the Gulf of Paria which separates Trinidad from Venezuela. He explored the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River. He also sailed to the islands of Chacachcare and Margarita Island and sighted and named Tobago and Grenada. Initially, he described the new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but later he retreated to his position that they belonged to Asia.
Columbus returned to Hispaniola on August 19 to find that many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony were discontent, having been misled by Columbus about the supposedly bountiful riches of the new world. Columbus repeatedly had to deal with rebellious settlers and Indians. He had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. A number of returned settlers and friars lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him of mismanagement. The king and queen sent the royal administrator Francisco de Bobadilla in 1500, who upon arrival detained Columbus and his brothers and had them shipped home. Columbus refused to have his shackles removed on the trip to Spain, during which he wrote a long and pleading letter to the Spanish monarchs.
Although he regained his freedom, he did not regain his prestige and lost his governorship. As an added insult, the Portuguese had won the race to the Indies: Vasco da Gama returned in September 1499 from a trip to India, having sailed east around Africa.
Nevertheless, Columbus made a fourth voyage, nominally in search of the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. Accompanied by his brother Bartolomeo and his thirteen-year old son Fernando, Columbus left Cádiz, Spain on May 11, 1502. On June 15, they landed at Carbet on the island of Martinique. A hurricane was brewing, so Columbus continued on, hoping to find shelter on Hispaniola. Columbus arrived at Santo Domingo on June 29, but was denied port. Instead, the ships anchored at the mouth of the Jaina River.
After a brief stop at Jamaica, Columbus sailed to Central America, arriving at Guanaja in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras on July 30. Here Bartholomew found native merchants and a large canoe, which was described as «long as a galley» and was filled with cargo. On August 14, Columbus landed on the American mainland at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo, Honduras. Columbus spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before arriving in Almirante Bay, Panama on October 16.
In Panama, Columbus learned from the natives of gold and a strait to another ocean. After much exploration, he established a garrison at the mouth of Rio Belen in January 1503. On April 6, one of the ships became stranded in the river. At the same time, the garrison was attacked, and the other ships were damaged. Columbus left for Hispaniola on April 16, but sustained more damage in a storm off the coast of Cuba. Unable to travel any farther, the ships were beached in St. Anne’s Bay, Jamaica, on June 25, 1503.
Columbus and his men were stranded on Jamaica for a year. Two Spaniards, with native paddlers, were sent by canoe to get help from Hispaniola. In the meantime Columbus, in a desperate effort to induce the natives to continue provisioning him and his hungry men, successfully intimidated the natives by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse, using the Ephemeris of the German astronomer Regiomontanus. Grudging help finally arrived on June 29, 1504, and Columbus and his men arrived in Sanlúcar, Spain, on November 7.