Christopher Columbus (1451- 1506) was a Genoese navigator and explorer. In the late fifteenth century, Columbus believed that it would be possible to reach the lucrative markets of eastern Asia by heading west, instead of the traditional route which went east around Africa. He convinced Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to support him, and he set off in August of 1492. The rest is history: Columbus discovered the Americas, which had been unknown until then. All in all, Columbus made four different journeys to the New World.
Columbus’ Early Life:
Columbus was born to a middle-class family of weavers in Genoa (now part of Italy) which was a city well-known for explorers. He rarely spoke of his parents: it is believed that he was ashamed to have come from such a mundane background. He left a sister and a brother behind in Italy: his other brothers Bartholomew and Diego would accompany him on most of his travels. As a young man he travelled extensively, visiting Africa and the Mediterranean and learning how to sail and navigate.
Appearance and Personal Habits:
Columbus was tall and lean, and had red hair which turned prematurely white. He had a fair complexion and a somewhat reddish face, with blue eyes and a hawkish nose. He spoke Spanish fluently but with an accent which was difficult for people to place. In his personal habits he was extremely religious and somewhat prudish: he rarely swore, attended mass regularly and often devoted his Sundays entirely to prayer. Later in life, his religiosity would increase: he took to wearing the simple robe of a barefoot friar around court. He was a fervent millenarist: he believed that the end of the world was near.
Columbus married a Portuguese woman, Felipa Moniz Perestrelo, in 1477. She came from a semi-noble family with useful maritime connections. She died giving birth to a son, Diego, in 1479 or 1480. In 1485, while in Córdoba, he met young Beatriz Enríquez de Trasierra, and they lived together for a time. She bore him an illegitimate son, Fernando. Columbus made many friends during his travels and he corresponded with them frequently. His friends included Dukes and other noblemen as well as powerful Italian merchants. These friendships would prove useful during his frequent hardships and bouts of bad luck.
A Journey West:
Columbus may have conceived of the idea of sailing west to reach Asia as early as 1481 due to his correspondence with an Italian scholar, Paolo del Pozzo Toscaneli, who convinced him it was possible. In 1484, Columbus made a pitch to King João of Portugal, who turned him down. Columbus proceeded to Spain, where he first proposed such a trip in January of 1486. Ferdinand and Isabella
were intrigued, but they were occupied with the reconquest of Granada
. They told Columbus to wait. In 1492, Columbus had just about given up (in fact, he was on his way to see the King of France) when they decided to sponsor his trip.
Columbus’ First Voyage:
Columbus’ first voyage
began on August 3, 1492. He had been given three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the flagship Santa Maria. They headed west and on October 12, sailor Rodrigo de Triana spotted land. They first landed on an island Columbus named San Salvador: there is some debate today as to which Caribbean island it was. Columbus and his ships visited several other islands including Cuba and Hispaniola. On December 25, the Santa Maria ran aground and they were forced to abandon her. Thirty-nine men were left behind at the settlement of La Navidad
. Columbus returned to Spain in March of 1493.
Columbus’ Second Voyage:
Although in many ways the first voyage was a failure – Columbus lost his biggest ship and did not find the promised route west – the Spanish monarchs were intrigued with his discoveries. They financed a second voyage
, whose purpose was to establish a permanent colony. 17 ships and over 1,000 men set sail in October, 1493. When they returned to La Navidad, they discovered that everyone had been killed by irate natives. They founded the city of Santo Domingo
with Columbus in charge, but he was forced to return to Spain in March of 1496 to obtain supplies to keep the starving colony alive.
Columbus’ Third Voyage:
Columbus returned to the New World
in May of 1498. He sent half of his fleet to resupply Santo Domingo and set off to explore, eventually reaching the north-eastern part of South America. He returned to Hispaniola and resumed his duties as governor, but the people despised him. He and his brothers were bad administrators and kept much of the little wealth generated by the colony for themselves. When the crisis reached a peak, Columbus sent to Span for help. The crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla as governor: he soon identified Columbus as the problem and sent him and his brothers back to Spain in chains in 1500.
Columbus’ Fourth Voyage:
Already in his fifties, Columbus felt he had one more trip in him. He convinced the Spanish crown to finance one more journey of discovery
. Although Columbus had proven a poor governor, there was no doubting his sailing and discovery skills. He left in May of 1502 and arrived to Hispaniola just ahead of a major hurricane. He sent a warning to the 28-ship fleet about to depart for Spain to delay but they ignored him, and 24 of the ships were lost. Columbus explored more of the Caribbean and part of Central America before his ships rotted: he spent a year on Jamaica before being rescued. He returned to Spain in 1504.
Columbus’ legacy can be difficult to sort out. For many years, he was thought to have been the man who “discovered” America. Modern historians believe that the first Europeans to the New World were Nordic and arrived several hundred years before Columbus to the northern shores of North America. Also, many Native Americans from Alaska to Chile dispute the notion that the Americas needed to be “discovered” in the first place, as the two continents were home to millions of people and countless cultures in 1492.
Columbus’ accomplishments should be considered in conjunction with his failures. The “discovery” of America would certainly have taken place within 50 years of 1492 had Columbus not ventured west when he did: advances in navigation and ship construction made contact between the hemispheres inevitable. Columbus’ motives were mostly monetary, with religion a close second. When he failed to find gold or a lucrative trade route, he began collecting slaves: he believed that a trans-Atlantic slave trade would be quite lucrative. Fortunately, the Spanish monarchs outlawed this, but still, many Native American groups correctly remember Columbus as the New World’s first slaver.
Columbus’ ventures were often failures. He lost the Santa María on his first voyage, his first colony was massacred, he was a terrible governor, he was arrested by his own colonists and on his fourth and last voyage he managed to strand some 200 men on Jamaica for a year. Perhaps his greatest failure was his inability to see what was right before him: the New World. Columbus never accepted that he had not found Asia, even when the rest of Europe was convinced that the Americas were something previously unknown.
Columbus’ legacy was once very bright – he was considered for sainthood at one time – but now he is remembered as much for the bad as the good. Many places still bear his name and Columbus Day is still celebrated, but he is once again a man and not a legend.
Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962
Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.