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Ten Facts About Christopher Columbus


When it comes to Christopher Columbus, most famous of the explorers of the Age of Discovery, it's hard to separate truth from myth, and fact from legend. Here are ten things that maybe you didn't already know about Christopher Columbus and his four legendary voyages. 

1. Christopher Columbus wasn't his real name

Columbus Ashore
MPI - Stringer/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Christopher Columbus is an Anglicization of his real name, given to him in Genoa where he was born: Cristoforo Colombo. Other languages have changed his name, too: he is Cristóbal Colón in Spanish and Kristoffer Kolumbus in Swedish, for example. Even his Genoese name is not certain, as historical documents about his origin are scarce.

2. He almost never got to make his historic journey

Library of Congress

Columbus became convinced of the possibility of reaching Asia by traveling west, but getting the funding to go was hard sell in Europe. He tried to get support from many sources, including the King of Portugal, but most European rulers thought he was a crackpot and didn’t pay much attention to him. He hung around the Spanish court for years, hoping to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to finance his journey. In fact, he had just given up and was headed to France in 1492 when he got the news that his voyage had finally been approved.

3. He was a cheapskate

Andries van Eertvelt , painter (1628)

On his famous 1492 voyage, Columbus had promised a reward of gold to whoever saw land first. A sailor named Rodrigo de Triana was the first to see land on October 12, 1492: a small island in the present-day Bahamas Columbus named San Salvador. Poor Rodrigo never got the reward however: Columbus kept it for himself, telling everyone he had seen a hazy sort of light the night before. He had not spoken up because the light was indistinct. Rodrigo may have gotten hosed, but there is a nice statue of him sighting land in a park in Seville.

4. Half of his voyages ended in disaster

Artist Unknown

On Columbus’ famed 1492 voyage, his flagship the Santa Maria ran aground and sank, causing him to leave 39 men behind at a settlement named La Navidad. He was supposed to return to Spain loaded with spices and other valuable goods and knowledge of an important new trade route. Instead, he returned empty-handed and without the best of the three ships entrusted to him. On his fourth voyage, his ship rotted out from under him and he spent a year with his men marooned on Jamaica.

5. He was a great captain, but a terrible governor

Library of Congress

Grateful for the new lands he had found for them, the King and Queen of Spain made Columbus governor in the newly-established settlement of Santo Domingo. Columbus, who was a fine explorer, turned out to be a lousy governor. He and his brothers ruled the settlement like kings, taking most of the profits for themselves and antagonizing the other settlers. It got so bad that the Spanish crown sent a new governor and Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains.

6. He was a very religious man

Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, 1520

Columbus was a very religious man who believed that God had singled him out for his voyages of discovery. Many of the names he gave to islands and lands he discovered were religious ones. Later in life, he took to wearing a plain Franciscan habit everywhere he went, looking much more like a monk than a wealthy admiral (which he was). At one time during his third voyage, when he saw the Orinoco River empty out into the Atlantic Ocean off of northern South America, he became convinced he had found the Garden of Eden.

7. He was a dedicated slave trader

United States Capitol

Since his voyages were primarily economic in nature, Columbus was expected to find something valuable on his travels. Columbus was disappointed to find that the lands he discovered were not full of gold, silver, pearls and other treasures, but he soon decided that the natives themselves could be a valuable resource. He brought several of them back after his first voyage, and even more after his second voyage. He was devastated when Queen Isabela decided that the New World natives were her subjects, and therefore could not be enslaved. Of course, during the colonial era, the natives would be enslaved by the Spanish in all but name.

8. He never believed he had found a new world

Library of Congress
Columbus was looking for a new passage to Asia... and that’s just what he found, or so he said until his dying day. In spite of mounting facts that seemed to indicate that he had discovered lands previously unknown, he continued to believe that Japan, China and the court of the Great Khan were very close to the lands he had discovered. He even proposed a ridiculous theory: that the Earth was shaped like a pear, and that he had not found Asia because of the part of the pear that bulges out towards the stem. By the end of his life, he was a laughingstock in Europe because of his stubborn refusal to accept the obvious.

9. Columbus made first contact with one of the major New World civilizations

Gergio Deluci, 1893

While exploring the coast of Central America, Columbus came upon a long dugout trading vessel whose occupants had weapons and tools made of copper and flint, textiles and a beer-like fermented beverage. It is believed that the traders were from one of the Mayan cultures of northern Central America. Interestingly, Columbus decided not to investigate further and turned south instead of north along Central America.

10. No one knows for sure where his remains are

Photo by Christopher Minster

Columbus died in Spain in 1506, and his remains were kept there for a while before being sent to Santo Domingo in 1537. There they remained until 1795, when they were sent to Havana and in 1898 they supposedly went back to Spain. In 1877, however, a box full of bones bearing his name was found in Santo Domingo. Since then, two cities – Seville, Spain and Santo Domingo – claim to have his remains. In each city, the bones in question are housed in elaborate mausoleums.

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