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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus, Spanish: Cristóbal Colón, Italian: Cristoforo Colombo, (1451 - May 20, 1506) was a Genoese explorer and trader who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Americas in 1492 under the flag of Spain. He had been searching for a new route to the Asian Indies and was convinced he had found it. Columbus was made governor of the new territories and made several more journeys across the Atlantic. He profitted from the labor of native slaves, whom he forced to mine gold; he also attempted to sell some slaves to Spain. While generally regarded as an excellent navigator, he was a poor administrator and was stripped of the governorship in 1500.

Columbus is often credited as the discoverer of the Americas, because 15th century Europe was unaware of their existence, and it is his discovery that created the still-existing bonds between the continents. However, Columbus was not the first person to reach the Americas, which were, as he reported, already populated by Native Americans. He was also not the first European to reach the continent, as Vikings from Northern Europe had visited North America in the 11th century. It was, however, Columbus's voyage that marked the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas, and that linked Eurasia and Africa to the Americas, thus providing the foundation for globalization.

Table of contents

Early Life

Note: There are various versions of Columbus's origins and life before 1476. (see 'Columbus's National Origin' further down). What is shown here is the account supported by most historians.

Columbus was born around September in the year 1451, in the Italian port city of Genoa. His father was Domenico Colombo, a woolens merchant, and his mother was Suzanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a woolens merchant. Christopher had 3 younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta.

In 1470, the family moved to Savano[?], where Christopher worked for his father in wool processing. During this period he studied cartography with his brother Bartolomeo. Christopher received almost no formal education; a verocious reader, he was largely self-taught.

In 1474, Columbus joined a ship of the Spenola Financiers, who were Genoese patrons of his father. He spent a year on a ship bound towards Khios (an island in the Aegean Sea) and, after a brief visit home, spent a year in Khios. During this period the islands of the Aegean were under the control of the Turks, who had conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453.

A 1476 commercial expedition gave Columbus his first opportunity to sail into the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet came under attack by French privateers[?] off the Cape of St. Vincent[?]. Colombus's ship was burned and he swam six miles to shore.

By 1477, Colombus was living in Lisbon. Portugal had become a center for maritime activity with ships sailing for England, Ireland, Iceland, Madeira, the Azores, and Africa. Columbus' brother Bartolomeo worked as a mapmaker in Lisbon. At times, the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors.

He became a merchant sailor with the Portuguese fleet, and sailed to Iceland via Ireland in 1477, to Madeira in 1478 to purchase sugar, and along the coasts of West Africa between 1482 and 1485, reaching the Portuguese trade post São Jorge da Mina[?] at the Guinea coast.

Columbus married Felipa Perestello e Moniz, a daughter from a noble but impoverished Portuguese family, in 1479. Their son Diego was born in 1480, and Felipa died in 1485. Columbus then met Beatriz Enriquez and the two had a son, Ferdinand, in 1488, but they were never married.

The idea

By the 1480s, Columbus had developed a plan to travel to the Indies (then roughly meaning all of south and east Asia) by sailing west across the Atlantic, rather than by going south and east around Africa. It is sometimes claimed that the reason Columbus had a hard time receiving support for this plan was that Europeans believed in a flat earth. In fact, that the Earth is spherical was evident to most people of his time, especially other sailors and navigators. The problem was that the experts did not agree with Columbus's estimates of the distance to the Indies. Most Europeans accepted Ptolemy's claim that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water (in fact, it occupies about 120 degrees, leaving 240 degrees unaccounted for at that time). Columbus accepted the calculations of d'Ailly, that the land-mass occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that one degree actually covered less space on the earth's surface than commonly believed. Finally, Columbus read maps as if the distances were calculated in Roman miles (5,000 feet) rather than nautical miles (6,082.66 feet at the equator). Columbus concluded that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was 2,700 miles. In fact, the distance is about 13,000 miles, and most European sailors and navigators concluded that the Indies were too far away to make his plan worth considering. They were right and Columbus was wrong -- but, ultimately, extraordinarily fortunate.

First voyage

Columbus first presented his plan to the court of Portugal in 1485. The king's experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus thought (the actual distance is even longer than the Portuguese believed), and denied Columbus's request. Columbus then tried to get backing from Spain. After several years of lobbying at the Spanish court he was finally successful in 1492. The Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they agreed to have an expedition sent out to the West. About half of the financing was to come from private investors, which Columbus had already lined up. Columbus was made Admiral of the High Seas and granted an inheritable governorship to the new territories he would discover, as well as a portion of all profits.

That year, Columbus left from Palos[?] with three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta. He first sailed to the Canary Islands, where he stayed for a month, and then he started the five week voyage across the ocean. He faked the logbook to make his crew believe they had covered a smaller distance than they actually had. There is still much discussion about which island he reached, but at least it is quite certain that it was one of the Bahamas.

The Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. In his log for October 14, 1492, Columbus drafted a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella concerning the Taíno:

When your highnesses should so command, all of them can be brought to Castile, or be kept captive on their own island, for with fifty men you will keep them all in subjugation and make them do anything you wish.

On this first voyage, Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola. Here the Santa Maria ran aground and had to be abandoned. Columbus founded the settlement La Navidad and left 39 men.

On January 4, 1493 he set sail for home and after a stormy voyage he had no choice but to land in Portugal. The relations between Portugal and Castille were poor at the time, and he was held up, but finally released. He reached Spain on March 15 and displayed the gold he had found as well as several kidnapped natives to the court. He also described the previously unknown tobacco, pineapple and hammock[?].

He was received as a hero. Word of his discovery of new lands rapidly spread.

Later voyages

He left for his second voyage (1493-1496), with 17 ships carrying supplies and about 1200 men to assist in the subjugation of the Taíno and the colonization of the region.

He laid his course more southerly than on his first voyage, first sighting Dominica, which is quite rugged, so he turned north, discovering and naming Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Antigua, and Nevis in the Lesser Antilles, landing on them and claiming them for Spain as he did the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He then went to Hispaniola, where he found his colonists had fallen into dispute with Indians in the interior and had been killed. He established a new settlement at Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola where gold had first been discovered; it was a poor location and the settlement was short-lived. He spent some time exploring the interior of the island for gold and did find some, establishing a small fort in the interior. He explored the south coast of Cuba but did not round the western end, thus convincing himself that it was a peninsula rather than an island, and discovered Jamaica.

Before he left on his second voyage he had been directed by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain friendly, even loving relations with the natives. However, during his second voyage he sent a letter to the monarchs proposing to enslave some of the native peoples, specifically the Caribs, on the grounds of their aggressiveness. Although his petition was refused by the Crown, in February, 1495 Columbus took 1600 Arawak as slaves. 550 slaves were shipped back to Spain; two hundred died en route, probably of disease, and of the remainder half were ill when they arrived. After legal proceedings, the survivors were released and ordered to be shipped back home. Some of the 1600 were kept as slaves for Columbus's men. The remaining 400, who Columbus had no use for, were let go and fled into the hills, making, according to Columbus, prospects for their future capture dim. Rounding up the slaves resulted in the first major battle between the Spanish and the Indians in the new world.

The main objective of Columbus' journey had been gold. To further this goal, he imposed a system on the natives in Cicao[?] on Haiti, whereby all those above fourteen years of age had to find a certain quota of gold, which would be signified by a token placed around their necks. Those who failed to reach their quota would have their hands chopped off. Despite such extreme measures, Columbus did not manage to obtain much gold. One of the primary reasons for this was the native susceptibility to European diseases which they had no immunity towards.

In his letters to the Spanish king and queen, Columbus would repeatedly suggest slavery as a way to profit from the new discoveries, but these suggestions were all rejected: the monarchs preferred to view the natives as future members of christendom.

More importantly, Columbus oversaw the establishment of the encomienda (trusteeship) system, by which Spaniards were granted exclusive use of Indian labor in return for converting them to Christianity; this policy amounted to enslavement of the local population. In some cases, Indians were worked to death; in other cases they died due to newly introduced diseases and malnutrition. Cook and Borah in [4] estimated the native population (Taíno) of Hispanola at the time of Columbus's conquest in 1493 at 8,000,000. In 1496 Bartolome de las Casas conducted a census and estimated that only 3,000,000 Taíno had surveved the conquest and initial impostion of the encomienda system. A Spanish census in 1514 records only 22,000 Taíno, and a census in 1542 recorded only 200. Columbus established his brothers as commanders of the settlements and left Hispaniola for Europe on March 10, 1496; they and other Spanish conquerors employed the encomienda system developed by Columbus with similar results elsewhere in the Americas.

In 1498, Columbus left for the New World a third time, accompanied by the young Bartolome de Las Casas, who would later provide partial transcripts of Columbus's logs. This time he discovered the island of Trinidad and the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River, before returning to Hispaniola. Initially, he described the new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but later he retreated to his position that they belonged to Asia.

Many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony were discontent, having been mislead by Columbus about the supposedly bountyful riches of the new world. Columbus repeatedly had to deal with rebellious settlers and Indians. He had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. A number of returned settlers and friars lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him of mismanagement. The king and queen sent the royal administrator Francisco de Bobadilla[?] in 1500, who upon arrival detained Columbus and his brothers and had them shipped home. Columbus refused to have his shackles removed on the trip to Spain, during which he wrote a long and pleading letter to the Spanish monarchs.

Although he regained his freedom, he did not regain his prestige and lost his governorship. As an added insult, the Portuguese had won the race to the Indies: Vasco da Gama returned in September 1499 from a trip to India, having sailed east around Africa.

Nevertheless he made a fourth voyage, in 1502-1504 (he left Spain on May 9, 1502). On this voyage, accompanied by his younger son Ferdinand, he explored the coast of Central America from Belize to Panama. In 1502, off the coast of what is now Honduras, a trading ship as "long as a galley" was encountered, filled with cargo. This was the first recorded encounter by the Spanish with the Native American civilization of Mesoamerica. Later Columbus was was stranded on Jamaica for a year; he sent two men by canoe to get help from Hispaniola; in the meantime, he impressed the local population by correctly predicting an eclipse of the moon. Help finally arrived, and he returned to Spain in 1504.

While Columbus had always given the conversion of non-believers as one reason for his explorations, he grew increasingly religious in his later years. He claimed to hear divine voices, lobbied for a new crusade to capture Jerusalem, often wore Franciscan habit, and described his discoveries of the "paradise" as part of God's plan which would soon result in the Last Judgment and the end of the world.

In his later years Columbus demanded that the Spanish Crown give him 10% of all profits made in the new lands, pursuant to earlier agreements. Because he had been relieved of his duties as governor, the crown felt not bound by these contracts and his demands were rejected. His family later sued for part of the profits from trade with America, but ultimately lost some fifty years later.

On May 20, 1506, Columbus died in Spain, still convinced that his discoveries were along the East Coast of Asia. Even after his death, his travels continued: first interred in Valladolid and then in Seville, the will of his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola, had the corpse transferred to Santo Domingo in 1542. In 1795 the French took over, and the corpse was moved to Havana. After the war of 1898, Cuba became independent and Columbus' remains were moved back to Spain, to the cathedral of Seville. However, some claim that he is still buried in the cathedral of Santo Domingo.

Columbus's National Origin: Subject of Debate

There has been doubt about Columbus's true origin. Although he is generally assumed to be Genoese, his actual background is clouded in mystery. Very little is really known about Columbus before the mid-1470s. It has been suggested that this might have been because he was hiding something - an event in his origin or history that he kept a secret deliberately. It has also been noted that he not only wrote flawless Castilian, but that he used the language even when writing with Italians.

Some historians have claimed that he was a Basque. Others have said that he was a converso (Spanish Jew converted to Christianity). Because many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secrecy, they were much mistrusted. Another theory is that he was from the island of Corsica, which at the time was part of the Genoan empire. Because the often subversive elements of the island gave its inhabitants a bad reputation, he would have masked his exact heritage. Others proclaim that Columbus was actually Catalan, or Greek, or Portuguese.

Nobody has proven any of these claims, and most historians keep to the theory that Columbus actually came from Genoa. There is no indication of anyone doubting this claim in Columbus's own times.

The issue of Columbus's origins is important because during the 19th century, Columbus became a hero to some Italian-Americans, and his being Italian allowed them to negate the claim by some Americans of English descent to superiority on the grounds of having arrived in the New World earlier.

Perceptions of Columbus

Christopher Columbus has had a cultural significance beyond his actual achievements and actions as an individual; he also became a symbol, a figure of legend. The mythology of Columbus has cast him as an archetype for both good and for evil.

The casting of Columbus as a figure of "good" or of "evil" often depends on people's perspectives as to whether the arrival of Europeans to the New World and the introduction of Christianity or the Roman Catholic faith is seen as positive or negative.

Columbus as The Great Hero

Hero worship of Columbus perhaps reached its zenith around 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus were erected throughout the United States and Latin America, extolling him as a hero.

The myth that Columbus thought the world round while his contemporaries believed in a flat earth was often repeated. This tale was used to show that Columbus was enlightened and forward looking. Columbus's defiance of convention in sailing west to get to the far east was hailed as a model of "American"-style can-do inventiveness.

In the United States, the glorification of Columbus was particularly embraced by some members of the Italian-American, Hispanic, and Catholic communities. These groups had been marginalized by the USA's dominant culture, so they proudly pointed to Columbus as one of their own to prove that Mediterranean Catholics could and did make great contributions to the USA.

Columbus as The Great Villain

Although Friar Bartolome de Las Casas wrote of Columbus's cruelties contemporaneously with Columbus, it was not until the 1960s that Columbus increasingly became used as a symbol of all that was and is wrong with European imperialism--slavery, genocide, and the wholesale destruction of indigenous cultures. While Columbus cannot be blamed for all of European imperialism, some argue that the misdeeds Columbus committed as viceroy and governor of Spanish-occupied territories in the Americas between 1493 and 1500 are enough for him to be considered guilty of genocide.

Much criticism focuses on the continuing positive Columbus myths and celebrations (such as Columbus Day) and their effects on American thought towards present-day Native Americans. Official celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage in 1992 were muted, and demonstrators protested marking the anniversary at all. It was in this spirit that Venzuelan President Hugo Chavez signed, in October, 2002, a decree changing the name of Venezuela's "Columbus Day" to "The Day of Indigenous Resistance" in honor of the nation's indigenous groups. (For more, see Columbus Day)

External links


  1. Samuel Eliot Morison: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, A Life of Christopher Columbus, Little, Brown and Company, 1991, trade paperback, 680 pages, ISBN 0316584789 (9 other editions available both in hardback and paperback). A biography favorable to Columbus.
  2. Brian Fagan: Clash of the Cultures, AltaMira Press 1997. Presents a less-favorable view.
  3. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Columbus, Oxford University Press 1991. Scholarly work, careful to support all statements with sources.
  4. Sherburn Cook and Woodrow Borah: Essays in Population History Volume I, University of California Press, 1971
  5. John Noble Wilford and Ashbel Green, The mysterious history of Columbus :an exploration of the man, the myth, the legacy, Knopf, 1991, hardcover: ISBN 0679404767, trade paperback: ISBN 0679738320. John Noble Green is a science editor at the New York Times,

See also: Knights of Columbus, exploration, explorers, 15th century, Spanish colonization of the Americas, Indian slavery

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