Christopher Columbus was an Italian mariner who sailed in the service of the king and queen of Spain; he made four voyages to the Caribbean and South America between 1492 and 1504.
The life of Christopher Columbus is one of contrasts—great triumphs marked by even greater defeats. Despite Columbus's downfall in his own time and the divided reaction to the five hundredth anniversary of his voyage in the United States, Columbus was an accomplished seaman who crossed the Atlantic Ocean using his own genius in a daring feat.
Columbus was born Cristoforo Colombo, the son of Domencio Colombo and Suzanna Fontanarossa in Genoa, Italy, some time in the fall of 1451. For at least three generations his family had lived in Genoa, where they manufactured and traded woolen fabrics. Little is known about Columbus's early life. He, his three brothers, and their sister possibly received some education through their father's guild. More than likely, Columbus was ashamed of his humble origins. In 1479, to improve his social status, he married Felipa Perestrello de Moniz, a Portuguese noblewoman with modest wealth. She died soon after giving birth to a son, Diego. Years later Columbus and Beatriz Enriquez de Harana, a much younger woman, were parents of Ferdinand, Columbus's biographer, though the couple never married.
Goes to sea as a teenager
By his own account, Columbus became a seaman at a young age, probably in his early teens. By his twenties, he was a skilled sailor with enough knowledge to pilot his own boat. In May 1476 Columbus was a crew member in a convoy attacked by French pirates near the southern Portuguese port of Lagos. Columbus's ship was wrecked and many of the crew killed; fortunately Columbus was able to swim six miles to shore. After recuperating, Columbus traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, where his younger brother Bartholomew operated a book and map store. Columbus educated himself in the store, studying navigation and the art of cartography, or mapmaking.
A devout Catholic, Columbus also studied religion, absorbing ideas that would determine his later view of himself as an explorer. He saw God's hand at work on Earth, and when he made his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean he felt God's hand guiding him; in fact he saw himself as God's messenger in the New World. Columbus interpreted events in his life—being saved from shipwreck and landing near the Rock of Sagres, the home of the academy for sailors founded by Prince Henry the Navigator—as signs of God's plan.
Formulates "great idea"
Columbus participated in a voyage to Iceland and beyond in February of 1477. In 1478 he served as captain of a merchant ship that sailed to the island of Madeira on an unsuccessful trading mission. Sometime in the early 1480s he made a voyage to the Portuguese trading fortress of Sâo Jorge da Mina in what is now Benin on the west coast of Africa. On his return Columbus began to formulate his "great idea": that it would be faster and easier to travel to Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic than by sailing around Africa and across the Indian Ocean, as the Portuguese were then trying to do.
Contrary to legend, all educated fifteenth-century Europeans knew that the earth was a sphere, but no one had any idea about the size of the earth, and most theories underestimated the earth by one-third its actual size. In making his arguments, Columbus guessed at the distances between landmasses, making them much closer than they actually are. Columbus also assumed the Asian continent was much wider than it is, but this was an understandable error. In the fifteenth century geographers believed the earth was one huge landmass, consisting of Europe, Africa, and Asia, surrounded by water. For example, he claimed that the distance from Lisbon to Japan would be about 2,400 nautical miles. It is actually more than 10,000.
Columbus named his plan "The Enterprise of the Indies," because sailing west would lead to the eastern shore of Asia. This idea did not originate with Columbus, and the thought of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, known as the "green sea of gloom," was full of danger and risk, although success would guarantee fame and glory. Besides the obvious physical risk of such a voyage, the mental and emotional strain was apparent too. Yet the belief in a distant land full of unlimited supplies of gold outweighed the dangers.
Starting in 1484, Columbus tried to persuade the Portuguese king, João II, of the workability of his idea; the king consulted his court advisers, who concluded Columbus's estimates of distance were far too inaccurate. By this time, Columbus's wife had died, and he left Portugal with his son Diego. They traveled by ship to the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera near the Portuguese border. Columbus placed Diego in a boarding school run by Franciscan monks at the monastery of La Rábida while he traveled around Spain trying to arrange an audience with the Spanish court. The Franciscans, who were interested in establishing foreign missions, gave Columbus a letter of introduction to an influential Spanish nobleman, the count of Medina Celi.
Columbus traveled to the city of Córdoba in January 1486 but missed the Spanish king and queen. He found support among the Genoese colony in the city. He also met a young peasant woman named Beatriz Enriquez de Harana, who became his mistress; two years later they had a son named Ferdinand. When the Spanish monarchs returned to Córdoba in May 1486, Queen Isabella agreed to receive Columbus. Known as the "Catholic Sovereigns," Isabella I and Ferdinand II through marriage brought together Castile and Aragon as they worked to make Spain a Catholic nation. In 1492 they would conquer the Moors in Granada and by royal decree would expel all Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism. They would also support the Spanish Inquisition, aimed at converting, punishing, or even killing all those who disagreed with the Roman Catholic church, including nonbelievers and Jews. Columbus's plans fit into their scheme to make Spain an imperial power, and Isabella shared Columbus's enthusiasm for spreading Christianity.
Plan reviewed by royal commission
Queen Isabella appointed the Talavera Commission to study the practicality of Columbus's idea. Although the commission could not come to any decision, it thought enough of Columbus's idea to give him a modest annual salary while it deliberated. Columbus continued to seek support from other monarchs. Early in 1488 he wrote to the Portuguese king, who invited him back to Lisbon.
Columbus traveled to Portugal, only to be present in December 1488 for the return of Bartolomeu Dias, who had rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern end of Africa. The Portuguese had finally found the passageway to India and no longer had any interest in Columbus's plan. Columbus's brother Bartholomew sold his business and traveled to England and France to try to get support there, without success.
In late 1490 the Talavera Commission issued a report calling Columbus's idea unsound and judging his understanding of the earth's size and the practicality of a ship sailing such a vast distance unlikely. Columbus returned to the monastery of La Rábida, where the monks urged him to approach Queen Isabella once more. After she consented to see him, in December 1491 Columbus traveled to the royal court outside the city of Granada, where the Spanish were engaged in the last battle to defeat the Muslim Moors, who then ruled southern Spain.
The Royal Council that reviewed Columbus's proposal finally recommended refusal because Columbus had increased his demands: he now wanted to be admiral and viceroy of any lands he discovered. Queen Isabella reluctantly agreed with the recommendation; in January 1492 Columbus made plans to leave Spain and try his luck in France. When Columbus was four miles outside the Spanish camp a messenger caught up with him and told him that through the intervention of Luis de Santangel, a court official, Queen Isabella had changed her mind: she would sponsor the voyage. Six years of persistence had paid off.
Prepares for voyage
In April 1492 Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand signed an agreement with Columbus, called the Capitulations, to sponsor him on a voyage of exploration. Columbus would be named admiral, would become the governor of any lands he discovered, and would have the right to 10 percent of any merchandise obtained in the new lands, free of taxes; these rights would be hereditary in his family.
Columbus returned to the port of Palos and secured three ships—the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—with a crew of about 90 men and boys. The Santa Maria, at 100 feet in length, was the largest of the three ships; the Niña and the Pinta were 70-foot caravels. The fleet sailed on Friday morning, August 3, 1492, passing the entrance to the Tinto River at 8:00 A.M.
Embarks on voyage—conditions not good
By undertaking a voyage into unknown waters, Columbus had to overcome profound obstacles and disadvantages. Although the ships carried an ample supply of food, there was no way to keep it safe from contamination because of unsanitary conditions and rodents and cockroaches. Food was rationed and limited to one hot meal a day; crew members slept in whatever available dry spot could be found. Boredom and fear of the unknown were obvious psychological problems. For this reason Columbus kept two sets of logs—an actual record of distance traveled and a false log that reduced the distance.
The voyage was off to a good start, though, because Columbus had discovered the best possible Atlantic route on his first try. Ideal weather, with clear skies and steady winds, combined with Columbus's genius for traveling in unchartered waters with little more than a compass, had made this turn of events possible. Also, Columbus had a knowledge of dead reckoning, a method of plotting a course and measuring distance traveled, which contributed to his success.
Visits Canary Islands
Columbus took his fleet first to the Canary Islands off the African coast. He knew from previous sailing experience that the winds blew from the east at that latitude, where he expected Japan to be. The Pinta had to undergo some repairs at Las Palmas, the main port of the Canaries, delaying departure until September 6; still winds kept the Canaries in sight until September 9.
From that point onward the ships had remarkably good winds, traveling as much as 150 miles a day and advancing 182 miles on one day. On September 16 the fleet came to the edge of the giant seaweed fields later named the Sargasso Sea. On September 17 the crew noticed that for the first time the North Star was east of where their compasses said that north should be. Columbus explained this, correctly, saying, "it appears that the Star moves like other stars, and the compasses always point true." Starting on September 19, light winds restricted travel to 234 miles over the next five days.
Land finally sighted
By now, if Columbus's original theories had been correct, land should have been in sight; in fact, at one point the crew members thought they spotted land, but it turned out to be a low-lying cloud bank. The wind picked up on September 26 and the ships traveled 382 more miles by October 1. The wind increased again, and the ships traveled 710 miles between October 2 and October 6. On October 10 the crew became mutinous and wanted to turn back. The following day, however, signs of land became apparent—branches with green leaves and flowers floating in the water—and the crewmen calmed down.
At about 10 P.M. on the night of October 11 Columbus thought he saw firelight on the horizon. At about 2 A.M. on the morning of October 12, the lookout on the Pinta, Rodrigo de Triana, saw white cliffs in the moonlight and called out "Tierra! tierra!" Later Columbus awarded himself the honor of first sighting land because he had seen the firelight in the distance.
Reaches islands near North America
The fleet had landed on a small island in the Bahamas. The natives called it Guanahani, but Columbus renamed it San Salvador (Holy Savior); the consensus has been that it was the island later known as Watling. However, recent evidence has shown that a small island farther south, Samana Cay, may be a likelier location. Columbus stayed on the island for two days, meeting with members of the Taino tribe, who were the inhabitants. Not knowing where he was, and always assuming that he had reached Asia, or the "Indies," he called them Indians.
From San Salvador Columbus spent several days exploring the Bahamas, visiting Rum Cay, Long Island, Crooked Island, Hog Cay, and other islands. None fulfilled the visions of wealth and material civilization Columbus had imagined. When the Native Americans told him about another much larger island named Colba (Cuba), he decided it must be part of China or Japan. He left his anchorage at Ragged Island on October 17 and on the morning of October 28 he sighted Bahía Bariay on the north coast of Cuba.
Explores Cuba and Haiti
For the next month, Columbus sailed along the north coast of Cuba. Always looking for gold, he sent two of his men into the interior to visit the reputed capital of the land, which he thought would be the city of the Great Khan (Beijing). They actually found a small village and brought back the first specimens of the tobacco plant Europeans had ever seen. While Columbus's ships were sailing along the northern coast of Cuba, Martín Alonso Pinzón suddenly departed in the Pinta, without telling Columbus, sailing eastward to Great Inagua Island to follow up a rumor of gold.
Columbus, with the Santa Maria and the Niña, left the coast of Cuba on December 5, 1492, and sailed across the Windward Passage to another large island, which he named Hispaniola because it reminded him of Spain. The first landfall was at the Haitian town now called Môle St. Nicolas, named by Columbus because he landed there on December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas.
Meets Native Americans
Sailing eastward along the north coast of Hispaniola on December 17, Columbus was rewarded for all his troubles. He was met by a young chief, or kaseke, who was wearing gold ornaments, which he was willing to trade for European goods. Farther east Columbus met a more important chief who had even larger pieces of gold. Columbus entertained him and his people on board the Santa Maria on Christmas eve not far from the modern Haitian city of Cap Haitien. After the festivities, everyone went to sleep—then the Santa Maria hit a coral reef.
In spite of efforts to save her, the ship began to founder. Helped by the chief and his followers, the Spanish were able to unload most of the Spanish goods and carry them to shore. Making the best of a bad situation, Columbus founded the first European settlement in the Americas. He named it La Navidad after the birthday of Christ; it was on a small bay where the Haitian village of Limonade-Bord-de-Mer now stands.
Turns back toward Spain
Columbus sailed from La Navidad on January 4, 1493, on the Niña, leaving 21 men behind under the command of Diego de Harana, the cousin of his mistress. Two days later he found the Pinta, and the two ships sailed along the north coast of the Dominican Republic until they reached Samaná Bay on the eastern end of the island. They left from there for Spain on January 18.
Columbus sailed north and then east, a direction that, unknown to him, took the ships into the best prevailing winds. Good weather aided their progress until they reached the Azores, where the two ships ran into a bad storm, separating them. Columbus anchored off the Portuguese island of Santa Maria; unfortunately, most of his crew were temporarily put in jail by the local governor, who thought they were returning from an illicit voyage to West Africa.
Honored for achievement
Once Columbus left the Azores on February 24, he again encountered storms, which drove the ships northward toward the mainland at Cabo da Roca at the mouth of the Tagus River in Portugal. He was summoned by King João II, who received the first report of the discovery of America. After repairing the Niña, Columbus reached Palos on March 15. He had already sent a report of his voyage to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand while he was in Portugal and sent another copy from Palos. On April 7 he received a letter from the king and queen, who expressed their pleasure at his accomplishments. They invited him to meet them in Barcelona to start immediate preparations for a new voyage.
Columbus reached the court at Barcelona on April 20, and stayed there for three months as news of his discoveries began to travel through Europe. He was given various titles and honors by the king and queen. Detailed plans were made for a second voyage, and negotiations were begun to divide the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres. A less positive event, however, was that the Native Americans who came back with Columbus began to spread syphilis in Europe, much as the Europeans spread smallpox and measles to the Americas.
Makes second voyage to America
Columbus's second voyage to America was on a much larger scale than the first. There were 17 ships, the flagship was once again named the Santa Maria—but it was considerably larger than its namesake—and there were about 1,200 to 1,500 men aboard. They left the Spanish port of Cadiz on September 25, 1493, stopped for ten days in the Canary Islands during the first part of October, and then sighted land on the morning of November 3. Because the day was Sunday, Columbus named the island Dominica.
Columbus did not land on Dominica but headed north to the small flat island of Marie Galante. He anchored the next day off the large island of Guadeloupe, where he encountered the first Caribs, a Native American people who were different from the Arawaks he had met in the Bahamas and Hispaniola and who were warriors. On the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Spaniards in a boat were attacked by Caribs in a canoe. One of the Spaniards and one of the Caribs were killed; the other Caribs were captured and taken to Spain as slaves. Columbus's fleet reached Puerto Rico on November 19 and anchored off the west coast at Añasco Bay for three days.
Builds fort at present-day Dominican Republic
Sailing from Puerto Rico the Spanish reached the settlement at La Navidad on the night of November 27. When they went ashore the next morning, they found it in ruins and the unburied bodies of Spaniards everywhere. No one knows what had happened, although it was supposed either the demands the Spanish had made on the Arawaks had turned them against the Europeans or the Spanish had fought among themselves, or it had been a combination of the two. Abandoning the site, Columbus took his new colonists 75 miles to the east to a small, shallow bay where he built a trading fort called Isabela, in what is now the Dominican Republic. It turned out not to be a good location, but Columbus laid out a main square with a church and "royal palace" and constructed 200 huts for the settlers.
Makes false claim of discovering Asia
Four days after landing at Isabela, Columbus sent Alonso de Ojeda into the interior mountains, where he found gold. Columbus then sent a load of gold and what he thought were spices with 12 ships back to Spain. Columbus took three ships and sailed to the south coast of Cuba, then south to the island of Jamaica, and finally back north to Cuba, where he coasted along the entire south shore to the western end of the island. On June 12 a curious incident occurred. Columbus gathered all his men together and made them swear to an oath that the land they had been traveling along was not an island but part of the mainland of Asia. He was still convinced, or was trying to convince himself, he had found the "Indies."
Fights with Native Americans
On his way back, Columbus revisited Jamaica and sailed along the south coast of Hispaniola. He intended to visit Puerto Rico, but illness forced him to return to Isabela on September 29, 1494, where he found that his brother Bartholomew had arrived from Spain. The Arawak natives of Hispaniola had realized that the arrival of the Spanish meant their destruction, and they had collected a large force to try to drive the intruders off the island. At the end of March 1495 Columbus, Bartholomew, and Ojeda led a force into the interior that defeated the Native Americans. They enslaved the surviving tribesmen, who fell to European diseases and quickly died out.
In the meantime, news had reached Spain that the colonists at Isabela were not doing well; Columbus returned to Spain on March 10, 1496, to explain developments in the New World to Ferdinand and Isabella. He left his brother in charge of the colony, but Bartholomew quickly abandoned Isabela and moved the Spanish headquarters to the south side of the island at Santo Domingo.
Lives as monk
Columbus traveled to Spain on the Niña once again, accompanied by one other small ship. When he landed in Cadiz, he did something puzzling: he adopted the coarse dress of a Franciscan friar and stayed at stark and strictly ordered monasteries. Columbus lived a monk's existence for two years while in Spain, trying to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to send him out on a third voyage of discovery. He finally got an audience during the summer or early fall of 1496, and the royals agreed to put him in charge of a small provisioning fleet to Hispaniola in mid-1497. The fleet did not actually leave until May 30, 1498, because Columbus had trouble finding ships and supplies.
Makes important discoveries on third expedition
Deciding to take a more southerly course, Columbus landed on the island of Trinidad on August 1. The next day he sailed into the Gulf of Paria, which separates Trinidad from Venezuela. He passed the mouth of the great Orinoco River, realizing almost at once he had reached a continental landmass—this was his first view of the mainland of the Americas. On August 4, after the Spanish ships were almost sunk by a tidal wave or tidal bore, Columbus decided to leave the entrance to the Gulf of Paria as quickly as possible. He named the spot the Boca del Sierpe, the Serpent's Mouth.
From there Columbus sailed north to a little bay on the mainland called the Ensenada Yacua. When he and his officers went ashore they became the first Europeans since Leif Eriksson to set foot on the mainland of America. Columbus then sailed along the coast of Venezuela, which he declared to be the Terrestrial Paradise. He also concluded from his observations of the North Star that the world was not a perfect hemisphere; he was the first to reach this realization. The Spanish also discovered the pearl fisheries off Margarita Island. Columbus then turned north and reached the south coast of Hispaniola near Santo Domingo on August 21, where he was met by Bartholomew. He stayed on the island and administered the gold mines found in the interior.
Arrested and sent back to Spain
Ferdinand and Isabella had been hearing unfavorable reports about the administration of Hispaniola by the Columbus brothers. In July 1500 they sent Francisco de Bobadilla to replace Columbus as the new governor. When Bobadilla arrived in Santo Domingo, he found the Spanish inhabitants in a state of rebellion; he immediately arrested Christopher, Diego, and Bartholomew Columbus. He put them in chains and sent them back to Spain, where they arrived at the end of October 1500. Columbus stayed in chains for five weeks after his return until he was released by Ferdinand and Isabella on December 12. He was ordered to report to the court at Granada, where he was received on December 17.
Makes his "high voyage"
Columbus explained his side of the story and requested restoration of all his titles, including that of governor. The king and queen said they would make a judgment, which was not announced until September 1501. Columbus was allowed to keep his title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, but a new governor, Nicolás de Ovando, was appointed and sent out to Santo Domingo with a great fleet.
Columbus asked to be allowed to lead another voyage of exploration; his request was granted on February 26, 1502. Columbus sailed from Cadiz on May 9, 1502, with four small ships and a crew of 143 men and boys, including his younger son Fernando and his brother Bartholomew. Columbus called this his "high voyage" because he traveled so far and encountered so many places unknown to the Europeans. He arrived in Santo Domingo on June 29 in the middle of a hurricane, but Governor Ovando would not let him enter the harbor.
Realizes continent is not Asia
Columbus sailed across the Caribbean to the coast of Honduras, running into another storm. He then journeyed southward along the coast of Central America looking for a passageway west. When he reached Panama, he was close to the Pacific, but it would be a few years until Vasco Núñez de Balboa would actually cross the isthmus. Columbus now realized he had found a continent different from Asia, and that the as-yet-unnamed Americas stood between Europe and the "Indies."
Columbus tried to found a new colony at a place called Veragua in western Panama. As one of the rainiest places in the world and inhabited by Native Americans hostile to the Europeans, it proved unsuitable for settlement. Columbus left on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1503, and sailed eastward to what he thought was the longitude of Santo Domingo. He then turned north but ended up first in the Cayman Islands and next on the western end of Cuba on May 12.
Forced to run leaky ships aground
By now Columbus's two remaining ships were in bad condition, with leaks and missing sails. It took them until June 10, 1503, to fight their way eastward across the south coast of Cuba. Then Columbus decided that if he was to make any progress before his ships sank, he would have to risk sailing into the open sea. When the ships started leaking heavily Columbus was forced to turn to Jamaica and run both ships aground on June 23, 1503.
Columbus and crew were forced to spend a year at St. Ann's Bay in Jamaica. They were rescued by sending Diego Mendez by canoe across the Jamaica Channel to Hispaniola. He reached Santo Domingo in August 1503, but Governor Ovando would not let him charter a rescue ship. Columbus was faced with a mutiny on New Year's Day 1504, when a group of men tried to leave on their own but were forced to return. On February 28, 1504, Columbus tricked the Native Americans by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse, thereby getting food from them.
Makes difficult voyage back to Spain
At the end of March 1504 Columbus learned from a passing Spanish ship that Governor Ovando knew of Columbus's predicament but refused to let him be rescued. This led to a pitched battle between Columbus's followers and the mutineers on May 29. Luckily, Diego Mendez was finally able to charter a vessel and reached Jamaica at the end of June 1504. The boat, a small caravel, leaked so badly that it took six and a half weeks to get back to Santo Domingo, where Columbus chartered another boat and left for Spain on September 12, 1504. He did not arrive until November 7.
Keeps ties with court until his death
Columbus, now ill, retired to a house in Seville. He received word of Queen Isabella's death on November 26. He was financially secure, since he had received a share of Spain's newfound gold in Hispaniola. He stayed in Seville until he recovered, then was received by King Ferdinand at Segovia in May 1505. Columbus failed to convince the king to sponsor another voyage. Following the court as it traveled around Spain, he moved into a house in the city of Valladolid in April 1506. There he wrote his last will on May 19, making his son Diego his principal heir. He died the following day.
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