Columbus, Christopher (c. 1451–1506)

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Columbus, Christopher (c. 1451–1506)

Christopher Columbus (b. ca. 1451; d. 1506), Genoese explorer.


Christopher Columbus was born in the republic of Genoa. His father, Domenico Colombo, was a wool weaver, wool merchant, tavern keeper, and political appointee. Columbus's early education was limited, although he read widely after reaching adulthood. He went to sea at an early age and sailed the Mediterranean on merchant vessels, traveling as far east as the island of Chios. In the mid-1470s, he settled in Portugal, joining other Italian merchants in Lisbon. Columbus sailed north to England and Ireland, and possibly as far as Iceland. He also visited the Madeira and Canary Islands and the African coast as far south as the Portuguese trading post at São Jorge da Mina (in modern Ghana).

In 1478 or 1479, Columbus married Felipa Moniz, member of a prominent Italian-Portuguese family. Her father and brother were hereditary captains of the island of Porto Santo, and her mother came from a noble family. In 1480 Felipa bore Columbus a son named Diogo (Diego in Spanish), who would later have a bureaucratic career in the lands his father claimed for Spain. Columbus's marriage provided connections to the Portuguese court, important ties to Madeira and Porto Santo, and at least some wealth.


Columbus based his ideas about the size of the world and the possibility of a westward voyage to the fabled riches of Asia on rumors of unknown Atlantic islands, unusual objects drifting ashore from the west, and wide reading of academic geography in printed books. He was also influenced by the Italian humanist-geographer Paulo del Pozzo Toscanelli, who described the feasibility of a westward route to Asia. Although Columbus knew that the world was spherical, he underestimated its circumference and believed that Asia stretched some 30 degrees farther east than it really does, and that Japan lay 1,500 miles east of the Asian mainland. Columbus estimated that the Canary Islands lay only 2,400 nautical miles from Japan, instead of the actual distance of 10,600 nautical miles. Neither Columbus nor anyone else in Europe suspected that two vast continents lay in the way of a westward passage to Asia.

Probably in 1485, on the basis of his miscalculations, Columbus tried to interest Dom João II of Portugal in his scheme for a westward passage to Asia, his "enterprise of the Indies." After assembling a learned committee to examine Columbus's ideas, the king turned him down, for unrecorded reasons, although he licensed other westward probes.


Columbus left Portugal for Spain in 1485. After meeting Columbus early in 1486 at Alcalá de Henares, Isabella I of Castile and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, appointed a commission to investigate the details of Columbus's plan. The spherical shape of the world was never in question. Although the commission disputed Columbus's flawed geography, the monarchs suggested that they might support him once they conquered Muslim Granada, and they even provided him with periodic subsidies.

During his years of waiting, Columbus established a liaison with a young woman in Córdoba, Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. In 1488, they had a son named Hernando, whom Columbus later legitimized. Hernando accompanied Columbus on his fourth transatlantic voyage and ultimately wrote a biography of his father.

In January 1492, during the final siege of Granada, Queen Isabella summoned Columbus to court. In the Capitulations of Santa Fe, signed in April, the monarchs contracted to sponsor a voyage and to grant Columbus noble status and the titles of admiral, viceroy, and governor-general for any islands or mainlands he might discover.


Columbus secured the use of two caravels, the Pinta and the Niña, and a larger nao, the Santa María. With the help of Martín Alonso Pinzón, a prominent local mariner and captain of the Pinta, Columbus gathered a crew of around ninety men, including three from the local jail. The three ships sailed from Palos on 3 August 1492. After repairs and reprovisioning in the Canaries on 6 September 1492, the fleet headed west into the open ocean, propelled by the northeast trade winds. The voyage went smoothly, with fair winds and remarkably little grumbling among the crew. On 12 October, at 2 A.M., the lookout on the Pinta saw a light; shortly after dawn the fleet dropped anchor at an island in what are now the Bahamas that local people called Guanahaní and that Columbus renamed San Salvador. Believing they were in Asia, the Europeans called the islanders "Indians."

The fleet sailed through the Bahamas and visited Cuba, seeking the vast commerce and rich ports of Asia. From Cuba, Martín Alonso Pinzón, without permission, sailed off in the Pinta to explore on his own. The two ships remaining with Columbus sailed to the island they named Hispaniola and explored its northern coast. On Christmas Eve 1492, the Santa María ran aground and broke up. Columbus founded a settlement, Villa de la Navidad, for the thirty-nine men he had to leave behind. Afterward Pinzón rejoined Columbus, and on 16 January the Niña and Pinta set sail for home with six captured Indians.

Columbus first tried a course directly east, but contrary winds forced him northward until he found winds blowing from the west. After a stormy passage, during which the caravels were separated, and a stopover in the Azores, the Niña reached Lisbon on 4 March. Columbus paid a courtesy call to Dom João II and departed for Spain on 13 March 1493, arriving in Palos two days later. Pinzón brought the Pinta into port later that same day, having first landed at Bayona, on the northwest coast of Spain.

Isabella and Ferdinand received Columbus warmly in Barcelona in mid-April. They confirmed all his privileges and gave him permission for a second voyage. Columbus asserted that the Asian mainland lay close to the islands he had found.


The Spanish monarchs facilitated Columbus's colonizing effort, and the queen ordered that the native islanders be treated well and converted to Christianity. Columbus found 1,200 men to accompany him as settlers. On 3 November 1493, the fleet of seventeen vessels reached an island in the Caribbean that Columbus named Dominica, then sailed through the Lesser Antilles and the Virgin Islands, past Puerto Rico, to Hispaniola.

They found that the men left in La Navidad the previous January were all dead, most of them killed by the islanders. Columbus founded a new settlement, named Isabella for the queen, on a poor site without fresh water. He then began to enslave some of the islanders. According to Spanish law, if the local people peacefully accepted takeover by the Europeans, they were protected against enslavement as subjects of the Castilian crown, but if they made war, they could be seized as slaves. Some islanders were certainly at war against the Europeans, and Columbus used their resistance as a justification for outright conquest. He and his men marched through the island with horses, war dogs, and harquebuses, seeking gold through barter but conquering and taking captives when they met opposition.

In April 1494, leaving Hispaniola under the control of his brother Diego, Columbus took an expedition to explore the southern shore of Cuba, which he believed was part of the Asian mainland. He even made his crewmembers sign a document to that effect. Columbus's brother Bartholomew had arrived on Hispaniola during Columbus's absence and found the colony in chaos. Disappointed colonists returned to Spain on a fleet dispatched by Columbus in 1494 and spread stories about the Columbus brothers' misdeeds and ineptitude as administrators. The Spanish rulers sent out an investigator named Juan Aguado, who observed many deaths among the Amerindians, and disease and desertions among the Europeans. To defend his administration in person, Columbus departed for Spain on 10 March 1496, leaving Bartholomew in charge on Hispaniola. He reached Cádiz on 11 June.


Despite reports about Columbus's failings as an administrator, the monarchs confirmed his previous grants and gave him permission for a third voyage, with a nao and two caravels for exploration and three more caravels to carry provisions to Hispaniola, plus 300 men and 30 women as additional colonists, including 10 pardoned criminals.

Departing from Spain on 30 May 1498, Columbus took his three ships south to the Cape Verde Islands before heading west, reaching the island of Trinidad on 31 July. He then sailed to the mainland of South America, realizing from the vast flow of water from the Orinoco River that he had encountered an enormous landmass, which he believed to be in Asia and near the Garden of Eden described in the Bible. After briefly exploring the coast of Venezuela, Columbus sailed on to Hispaniola.

Although Bartholomew had moved the main settlement from Isabella to Santo Domingo, the situation was in crisis. Some of the colonists had mutinied, the Indians were increasingly hostile, and neither Bartholomew nor Diego Columbus had been able to maintain order. Columbus himself had little better luck. Ferdinand and Isabella sent out Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate and restore authority. He arrested the three Columbus brothers, seized their money, and sent them home in chains in December 1500. Columbus was summoned to court in Granada, but the monarchs delayed granting his request for reinstatement to his official posts.

Eventually Ferdinand and Isabella allowed Columbus to keep some of his titles and all of his property, but the titles were thereafter empty of authority. They also delayed granting him permission for another voyage. Instead, they began to establish a bureaucratic structure outside Columbus's control, appointing Nicolás de Ovando governor of Hispaniola and dispatching a large colonization fleet. In March 1502 Ferdinand and Isabella finally granted Columbus permission for a fourth voyage.


With Columbus and his son Hernando sailing on the flagship, a fleet of four rickety caravels with second-rate crews left Spain on 11 May 1502. Departing the Canaries on 25 May, they arrived at Hispaniola on 29 June, even though Columbus was specifically forbidden to land there. Columbus knew that Governor Ovando was about to send a fleet home and saw that a hurricane was brewing. He warned Ovando of the approaching storm and asked to anchor in the harbor. Ovando refused and ordered the fleet to depart, just before the hurricane struck. Twenty-five of the fleet's ships were sunk.

Thereafter, Columbus and his men spent much of the voyage sailing along the coast of Central America. Bad weather and adverse currents and winds kept the crews from learning much about the lands and peoples, and the hostility of local Indians forced them to abandon plans for a settlement in Panama. Unable to reach Hispaniola, Columbus landed in northern Jamaica and awaited rescue for a year. He sailed back to Spain, broken in health, and reached Seville on 7 November 1504, never again to return to the Indies.


Columbus struggled to have all his grants and titles restored. He remained a wealthy man, but he felt betrayed and slighted by his royal patrons. For their part, the Spanish sovereigns justified their withdrawal of support on the basis of Columbus's mismanagement. Colonial settlement had grown too complex for any one person to manage.

Surrounded by family and friends, Columbus died in Valladolid in 1506, rich but dissatisfied. With the perspective of five centuries, we can recognize the extraordinary changes that resulted from his voyages. Instead of finding a new route to Asia, Columbus made the lands and peoples of the Western Hemisphere known to Europeans and set in motion a chain of events that altered human history on a global scale. The origin of many characteristics of the modern world, including the interdependent system of world trade, can be traced directly to his voyages.


The myths surrounding Columbus make it difficult to put his accomplishments into their proper context. Often he is depicted as a perfect hero in advance of his time who conceived the idea of a spherical earth and had to fight traditional religious beliefs and prejudice before succeeding, and who died poor and alone. None of this is true. A product of his times, Columbus was strongly influenced by the powerful religious and economic currents of his day. In pursuit of profits, he established a slave trade in Caribbean natives, arguing that such slavery would allow them to be converted and reformed. Far from being oppressed by Christian beliefs, he hoped that some of the profits from his ventures would be used to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, in fulfillment of Christian prophecy. Neither the simple hero portrayed by generations of textbook writers nor the unredeemable villain depicted by some recent writers, Columbus was a complex human being who exemplified the virtues and the flaws of his time and place in history.

See alsoColumbus, Diego (d. 1515); Explorers and Exploration: Spanish America; Ferdinand II of Aragon; Isabella I of Castile; Hispaniola; Pinzón, Martín Alonso.


The most important primary sources dealing with Columbus are Bartolomé De Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, edited by Agustín Millares Carlo, 3 vols. (1951); Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand, translated by Benjamin Keen (1959); Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, edited by Consuelo Varela, 2d ed. (1984); and Oliver C. Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr., eds. and trans., The Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America, 1492–1493, Abstracted by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1989). For a half century, the standard English-language biography, stressing the maritime facets of Columbus's career, was Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, 2 vols. (1942). A Spanish-language biography of the same period deserves to be better known: Antonio Ballesteros Beretta, Cristóbal Colón y el descubrimiento de América, 2 vols. (1945). Since the 1940s, numerous scholars have added important new interpretations. A detailed biography on Columbus's life up to 1492 is provided by the Genoese historian and Italian senator Paolo Emilio Taviani, Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design, translated by William Weaver (1985).

Antonio Rumeu De Armas has written many studies clarifying particular aspects of the Columbus story, including Nueva luz sobre las Capitulaciones de Santa Fe de 1492 (1985). Juan Manzano Manzano provides a detailed but not totally convincing study of Columbus in Spain before the first voyage, Cristóbal Colón: Siete años decisivos de su vida, 1485–1492, 2d ed. (1989); and, with Ana María Manzano Fernández-Heredia, a lengthy study of Columbus's Spanish collaborators: Los Pinzones y el descubrimiento de América, 3 vols. (1988). Marvin Lunenfeld, ed., 1492: Discovery, Invasion, Encounter: Sources and Interpretations (1991), serves as an excellent introduction to the heated controversies surrounding the quincentenary. Based on the documents and recent scholarship, William D. Phillips, Jr., and Carla Rahn Phillips place the actions of Columbus and the consequences of his voyages in the broad context of world history in The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1992). The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia, edited by Silvio A. Bedini, 2 vols. (1992), offers an array of articles on Columbus and his times.

Additional Bibliography

Alponte, Juan María. Colón: El hombre, el navegante, la leyenda. México, D.F.: Aguilar, 1992.

Davidson, Miles H. Columbus Then and Now: A Life Reexamined. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Heers, Jacques. Cristóbal Colón. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992.

Yewell, John, Chris Dodge and Jan DeSirey. Confronting Columbus: An Anthology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1992.

                            William D. Phillips Jr.

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Columbus, Christopher (c. 1451–1506)

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Columbus, Christopher (c. 1451–1506)