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Christopher Columbus

"discoverer of America"

Christopher Columbus

Early Life

Christopher Colombo was born in Genoa, Italy, sometime between August 25 and October 31, 1451; the common spelling Columbus is a Latin variation of his family name. The eldest of five children, two of Christopher's brothers, Batholomew and Diego, participated in his later voyages. As a youth, Christopher helped his father in the wool weaving business, but he always longed for a life at sea. Since Genoa was at the time the most important seaport in Italy, he likely had many opportunities as a youngster to sail aboard ships within the Mediterranean Sea.

Sometime between the ages of 19 and 21, Columbus shipped aboard a Genoese galley chartered by King René of Provence to punish Barbary pirates. He was subsequently part of two voyages to the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea. He was in a convoy from Genoa to England when, on August 13, 1476, his ship was attacked off Lagos, Portugal. Although he was wounded during the battle, Columbus was able to jump overboard and make it to shore before the ship sank. By 1477 he was living in Lisbon, where his brother Batholomew had a shop that sold maps and nautical instruments. He married Felipa de Perestrello about 1479 and moved to the Madeira Islands; she died soon after their only son, Diego, was born. Columbus later had a second son, Ferdinand, with Beatriz Enríquez de Harana, but whether the two were married at the time is not known.

His Plan

Columbus wanted to prove that the shortest sea route to the Indies was to sail due west from Europe rather than around Africa. He had great difficulty selling his plan, however, because he believed Japan was only about 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic, but most geographers of the day believed it be a significantly greater distance (it is actually about 11,000 nautical miles from Spain to Japan, if one could indeed sail the entire distance from east to west).

Columbus also asked for a great deal more than any other explorer before him had. He wanted three ships equipped and maintained at the king's expense, a large share in the resultant trade, governorship of any lands he discovered, the title of Admiral, and noble rank. And, he wanted all of these privileges to be passed on to his sons. King John II of Portugal turned him down in 1482.

In 1485, Columbus went to Spain to offer his services to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The queen believed in Columbus and put him on the royal payroll, but her experts strongly advised against financing his plan due to what they believed was his erroneous estimate of the distance. In addition, Ferdinand and Isabella were busy fighting the Moors at the time, which meant there was little money available to finance any voyages of discovery. By 1492, however, the monarchs were ready to help Columbus, and the Royal Treasury put up the equivalent of about $14,000 to finance his voyage. Contrary to some popular stories, Queen Isabella did not have to pawn her jewelry for the scheme, although she did initially offer to do so; she did, however, pledge to repay the Treasury if Columbus' expedition failed.

Columbus before Isabella
Columbus before Isabella

First Voyage

Columbus was provided with three ships for his first voyage -- the Santa Maria (with a crew of 40), the Pinta (crew of 26), and the Niña (crew of 24). The little convoy set out from Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492; called at San Sebastian in the Canary Islands on September 6; and sighted its last land, Hierro in the Canary Islands, on September 9. After three weeks of sailing west, the longest anyone had ever sailed in one direction out of sight of land, Columbus' men began to get anxious. Columbus was able to calm them, however, and he and his crew agreed to sail three more days and then turn back if no land was sighted.

Columbus and his men reached their agreement on October 10th. At 2 a.m. on the 12th, land was sighted. Sometime before noon of that day, Christopher Columbus set foot on an island he called San Salvador, in what is now the Bahamas. Believing that he had reached the Indies, he called the local Arawak peoples Indians.

depiction of Columbus' landing at San Salvador, by John Vanderlyn
depiction of Columbus' landing at San Salvador, by John Vanderlyn

The fleet only spent three days at San Salvador before sailing on. On October 28th, it entered the Bay of Baricay, off the island of Cuba, which Columbus believed was part of China. The fleet visited several ports along the coast, and a small party was sent overland to the village of Holgúin in the hopes that the village was Peking. The men did not find Peking, but they did become the first Europeans to see tobacco. From Cuba, the fleet sailed across the Windward Passage to the north coast of Hispaniola, which Columbus called La Isla Española, "the Spanish Island."

On Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria was wrecked off Haiti, near present-day Cap-Haïtien. The local chief helped save the ship's cargo and seemed friendly enough that Columbus left forty men to build a fort and hunt for gold. He set sail for home aboard the Niña on January 16, 1493, with several captured Indians. He reached Palos on March 15, 1493; the Pinta, which had become separated from the Niña in a storm off the Azores, arrived later the same day.

From Palos, Columbus rode horseback across Spain to present his report and captives to Ferdinand and Isabella at Barcelona. The monarchs gave him a grand reception, and confirmed his title Admiral of the Ocean Sea, giving him the right to judge admiralty cases (piracy, shipwrecks, crew pay disputes, etc.) anywhere in the Atlantic. They also made him Viceroy of the Indies, and ordered him to organize a second voyage, to colonize Hispaniola and to explore further.

Second Voyage

On his second voyage, Columbus commanded a fleet of 17 ships, carrying about 1,000 colonists (all men). The fleet sailed from Cadiz on September 25, 1493, and reached the West Indies on November 3rd. After naming the first island encountered Mariagalante after his flagship, Columbus and his fleet sailed passed Dominica, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Nevis, St. Christopher, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, and other islands. Upon reaching Cap-Haïtien, Columbus found that all the men he had left the previous year had been killed by natives, whom they had mistreated. Rather than take revenge on the natives, he chose to sail eastward and found Isabela, the first permanent European colony in the Americas, on the north coast of Hispaniola instead. He left his brother Diego in charge of the colony, and spent the summer of 1494 exploring the southern coast of Cuba, during which time he also discovered the island of Jamaica. Upon his return to Isabela he found the colonists fighting among themselves and with the natives. After restoring order and defeating the natives, he left for Spain, in June of 1496.

Back in Spain, Columbus learned that many Spaniards who had returned from earlier voyages were accusing him of being a cruel taskmaster and complaining about the lack of riches in Hispaniola. Ferdinand and Isabella still believed in Columbus, however, and gave him three ships for a third voyage.

Third Voyage

Columbus left Sanlúcar, Spain, on May 30, 1498. He chose a more southerly route for this voyage, believing it would lead to lands with more gold. The three ships reached Trinidad on July 31st, then sailed across the Gulf of Paria to the coast of what is now Venezuela. On August 5th, Columbus went ashore, likely becoming the first European since the 1000's to set foot on mainland America (it is believed that an expedition from Iceland led by Leif Ericson was the first to do so), probably near present-day Yacua. He subsequently recorded in his journal that he believed he had found an entirely new continent, which he called "Other World."

When he returned to Isabela, Columbus found the colony seething with discontent because there was not enough gold (or anything else for that matter) to make everyone rich. He tried to quell the discontent by giving the colonists land and letting them enslave the natives, but that failed to satisfy many and large numbers went back to Spain. In 1500, Ferdinand and Isabella sent Francisco de Bobadilla to calm things at Santo Domingo, the new capital of Hispaniola. He had Columbus and his two brothers arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains for trial. The king and queen ultimately released the brothers, but they sent a new governor to Hispaniola.

Fourth Voyage

Despite his troubles, Columbus asked for ships to make yet another voyage to the New World. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella granted his request, primarily as a way to get rid of him, and he set sail once again on May 9, 1502. Columbus's goal for this voyage was to find a passage between Cuba and the "Other World" that would take him into the Indian Ocean. He reached the coast of present-day Honduras on July 30, 1502, and spent the rest of the year sailing along the Central American coast in search of that passage. He tried to establish a colony on the Belén River in what is now Panama, but was driven off by natives.

Columbus left the Central American coast and started for Hispaniola on April 16, 1503. On June 25th, two of his three ships were forced to beach due to leaks caused by shipworms, and Columbus was ultimately marooned on Jamaica for a year before the Governor of Hispaniola agreed to send help. He was finally able to leave Jamaica on June 29, 1504, and reached Sanlúcar, Spain, on November 7th.

Final Years

By the time Columbus returned from his fourth voyage, Queen Isabella had died and King Ferdinand was no longer willing to receive him. He spent the last months of his life suffering from painful arthritis and trying to regain his good name. He died at Valladolid on May 30, 1506.

map of Columbus' voyages
map of Columbus' voyages

Link of Interest

10 Thing You May Not Know About Christopher Columbus

See Also

King Ferdinand
Queen Isabella
San Salvador
Puerto Rico
Leif Ericson

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The Robinson Library >> Discovery of America and Early Explorations

This page was last updated on 09/17/2018.