Introduction to Christopher Columbus

Columbus, Christopher (1451?–1506), an Italian navigator and explorer. (Christopher Columbus is the Latin form of his name. In Italian it is Cristoforo Colombo; in Spanish, Cristóbal Colón.) His grand dream was to reach Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic. Although in this he failed, his four voyages to the Americas, 1492–1504, opened the Western Hemisphere to European exploration and colonization. While the Americas had been inhabited for thousands of years, and other Europeans, including the Vikings, may have reached American shores hundreds of years before Columbus, it was his voyages that revealed the existence of this so-called New World to the great powers of Europe.

Columbus's voyages gave rise to an era of European domination of the world and saw the spread of European religious, political, and economic ideas to all parts of the earth. The epoch-making nature of his achievements, however, was recognized by neither Columbus nor his contemporaries.

Columbus was a navigator of extraordinary skill, a religious zealot, and a visionary. He was often daring, courageous, imaginative, and, above all, tenacious. At times, however, he could be inflexible, greedy, jealous, and brutal. A failure as a colonial administrator, he eventually was stripped of all his authority in the Americas and died in obscurity.

Traditionally, Columbus has been revered as the Admiral of the Ocean Sea who discovered America on October 12, 1492, and spread European civilization to the New World. In the late 20th century, however, revisionist historians called Columbus a symbol of European exploitation and imperialism. The controversy created by these contrasting viewpoints has not obscured the central fact that he made what perhaps was the most significant voyage in recorded history and forever changed the world.

Early Life

Columbus was born in Genoa, the son of a weaver. Little is known of his early life. According to his own account, he became a sailor at 14. After a number of voyages, he settled in Lisbon, Portugal, where his brother Bartholomew had a shop selling charts and nautical instruments. Columbus married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, the daughter of a wealthy Portuguese navigator, whose charts and maps he inherited. His wife died shortly after the birth of their son, Diego, in 1479 or 1480.

Search For A Sponsor

In the late 1400's, Portuguese mariners were anxious to find a direct sea route to the East to compete with the Italian cities of Venice and Genoa, which had a monopoly of the spice trade with the Arabs. Columbus's experience as a sailor and his study of charts and maps convinced him that by sailing west across the Atlantic he could reach the East more easily than by the dangerous route around Africa. He calculated that the Indies (India, China, Japan, and the East Indies) lay only about 3,900 miles (6,300 km) away from Portugal. (That was actually the distance to the Americas, about one-third of the way to Asia.)

Columbus spent many years trying to gain support for his project. He sent Bartholomew to England and France to seek financing for an expedition from the rulers of those countries. Columbus, meanwhile, stayed in Portugal. His petitions to King John II in 1484 were unsuccessful, and in 1485 he went to Spain. At first rejected by a royal commission, he appealed personally to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1486. He was promised that his petition would be considered as soon as Spain's war with the Moors was ended.

For nearly seven years, Columbus waited. After peace arrived in early 1492, the Spanish rulers agreed that he should be granted three ships built and maintained at the crown's expense. After any discoveries and claims were made, he would be given noble rank, the title of admiral, the posts of viceroy and governor-general of all lands he claimed for the crown, and one-tenth of any profits from the exploitation of his discoveries.

First Voyage

Three ships, the Santa Maria (Columbus's flagship), the Niña, and the Pinta —with a crew of 90—set sail from Palos, Spain, on August 3,1492. Columbus's plan was to sail west-south west across the Atlantic. His only navigational instruments were the compass and a crude quadrant, but he was a master of navigation by dead reckoning. The expedition had good trade winds and calm seas most of the way. Early in October, his crew became restive and demanded to return to Spain. Fearing mutiny, Columbus agreed to turn back if land did not soon appear.

On October 12, 1492, an island was sighted and Columbus and his party went ashore. He took possession of the land in the name of the king and queen and christened it San Salvador. Its inhabitants called it Guanahani. (This island has been thought to be the island now known as San Salvador, or Watling Island, in the Bahamas. However, its identity remains a matter of conjecture. Two other suggested locations are Samana Cay, also in the Bahamas, and Grand Turk, in the Turks and Caicos Islands.) Sure that he had reached the Indies, Columbus called the natives his party encountered Indians.

After a few days, Columbus set sail again and explored the northern coasts of what are now Cuba and Hispaniola in the hope of finding Cipango (Japan) or Cathay (China). On Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria was wrecked off the coast of Hispaniola. Columbus salvaged materials from the vessel, using them to build a fort, which he named La Navidad. He left 39 men there to search for gold. The two remaining vessels sailed for Spain, and after a hazardous voyage arrived at Palos on March 15, 1493.

Columbus made a triumphant entry into Barcelona in late April, bringing with him six Indians, gold artifacts, and spices from the islands. The king and queen gave him the titles Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor of the Indies and ordered him to make a second voyage.

Second Voyage

A fleet of 17 ships with some 1,500 crew members, soldiers, and colonists left Cadiz on September 25, 1493. When the expedition reached La Navidad, Columbus discovered that the fort had been destroyed and the men killed by the Indians, whom it is believed the colonists had mistreated. He established another colony, Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola, closer to a rumored source of gold. He left his brother Diego in charge and, in April, 1494, set out to further explore the coast of Cuba.

When he returned, Columbus found the colonists in near rebellion, plagued by hunger and illness, and fighting among themselves and with the Indians. He punished those who would not accept his rule, hanging several. He next appointed his brother Bartholomew, who had arrived from Spain with supplies, governor of the colony, an action many Spaniards considered a usurpation of royal authority. Then Columbus and his brothers began subjugating the Indians—some to help in the search for gold and others to be sold as laborers in Spain.

Meanwhile, investigators sent by the Spanish court had reported unfavorably on the administration of the Columbus brothers. Columbus returned to Spain in June, 1496, to defend himself. Despite having failed to establish a stable colony, he was able to persuade the king and queen to sponsor a new voyage and send more colonists.

Third Voyage

Columbus had many enemies at the Spanish court, and they were able to delay the voyage almost two years. In May, 1498, he set sail with eight ships, and this time took a more southerly route than previously, hoping to reach the mainland of Asia. After landing on the island of Trinidad, he made the first recorded visit to the South American continent, reaching what is now Venezuela in August, 1498.

Upon his return to the colony, which Bartholomew had moved to Santo Domingo, Columbus found general unrest among the settlers. A number returned to Spain. Many complaints about Columbus, including charges of misconduct, were brought before the king. Isabella, although disturbed by the enslavement of the Indians, had long been Columbus's champion and only reluctantly agreed with Ferdinand that Columbus should be removed as governor. In 1499 he was replaced by Francisco de Bobadilla.

The new governor was determined to end the unrest. Finding Columbus and his brothers obstructing his actions, he had them arrested. They were returned to Spain in chains for trial in October, 1500. Ferdinand and Isabella had not wished such treatment and received Columbus sympathetically. They refused, however, to restore his governorship or his share of the profits. For two years, he petitioned them to sponsor another voyage. By this time, Columbus, both infirm and aging, was obsessed with the idea that he was an agent of divine providence. Eventually he persuaded the monarchs to accede to his petition, but they forbade him to return to Hispaniola.

Final Voyage

Columbus set out from Cadiz in May, 1502, in command of four old, worm-eaten ships. He sailed to the region of his discoveries, where he continued to search, in vain, for a direct passage from Cuba to Asia. Two of his ships had to be abandoned, and finally, in June, 1503, the other two ran aground at Santa Gloria (now St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica). Columbus remained there until the spring of 1504, when two relief ships arrived.

Columbus's Last Years

Columbus returned to Spain in November, 1504, ill and discouraged. Queen Isabella died soon after. Until his death two years later, Columbus sought restoration of his grants and titles, but Ferdinand refused. Columbus died in Valladolid, May 20, 1506.

Columbus was buried in Valladolid. Then his body was removed to Seville by his son Diego, who later was buried there. About 1542 both bodies were taken to the cathedral in Santo Domingo. The remains thought to be those of Columbus were taken from there to Havana in 1795, and in 1899, returned to Seville. Some believe these were only part of his remains, the rest being in a box found in Santo Domingo in 1877.

The Columbus Family

Bartholomew Columbus

(1445?–1514?), Christopher's brother, was governor of Haiti (1496–98) and founder of Santo Domingo (1496). He accompanied Christopher on his last voyage and held government offices in Santo Domingo.

Diego Columbus

(1450?–1515?), another brother, was on Christopher's second voyage and governed Isabella and Santo Domingo for a time. He later became a priest.

Diego Columbus

(1480?–1526), Christopher's son, was created Admiral of the Indies and governor of Hispaniola (1509). He was recalled in 1523 to answer charges made by his enemies. Although not convicted, he died without regaining his rights. His son, Luis (1521?–1572), was granted the island of Jamaica and given the titles Duke of Veragua and Marquis of Jamaica.

Ferdinand Columbus

(1488–1539) was the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus and Beatriz Enríquez of Córdoba. He accompanied his father on his last voyage and later wrote his biography.