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Christopher Columbus - Explorer - Part One

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They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round...

- From George and Ira Gershwin's song 'They All Laughed'

Christopher Columbus was the first European to see the Americas since the Viking Voyages in the 11th Century. He did not, as many people think, discover America, though.

Early Life

It is not historically certain where Christopher Columbus was born, or even if he was of Italian descent, but most historians agree that he was born in Genoa, a northern Italian republic, around 1436. His father was Domenico Colombo and his mother was Suzanna Fontanarossa. The family surname changes through languages, in Spanish it is Colon, Colomb in French, Columbus in English and Colombo in Italian. Some people say that he preferred the English version, as it is close to the Latin 'Columba', meaning dove, which he fancied himself as, thinking of himself as a messenger of Christianity. Similarly, some think that he took the name Christopher over the Italian Cristóbal because it was similar to Christ. As a devout Christian, he was baptized as Christopher Colombo in Italy, in any case.

They were a respectable family, but by no means a rich one. His family did not give him much formal education, but Christopher read and taught himself about the European world. He studied cartography and learned about the seas from his brother Bartholomew. Coming from Genoa, which had a reputation for producing great sailors, it is not surprising he was interested in the seas. His father was able to send him to the University of Pavia around the age of 14, and he learned Latin, navigation, geography and astronomy. At some point, he read about the philosophies of Ptolemy and read the famous book The Travels of Marco Polo, which expanded his imagination about the world.

I went to sea from the most tender age and have continued in a sea life to this day. Whoever gives himself up to this art wants to know the secrets of Nature here below. It is more than forty years that I have been thus engaged. Wherever any one has sailed, there I have sailed.
Translated from a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

History is similarly sketchy about his early years at sea and much of his early life. He apparently made several voyages around the known world with a member of his family, an experienced sailor named Colon el Mozo. At one time, he seems to have been a pirate, but this is not known for sure. He did various sailing jobs, gaining experience and knowledge about navigation and sailing. In one voyage, he sailed to Guinea and noticed that the winter winds off of Africa's Gold Coast blew from the east. This would later be important to him. Sometime in the early 1470s, he is supposed to have fought in a bloody battle in which the ship he was in charge of set fire to a Venetian vessel, risking the ship exploding. Columbus jumped overboard and came ashore near Lisbon, Portugal.

Though the above story is contested, Columbus did arrive in Lisbon, Portugal around 1471. There, in 1475, he married Doña Felipa Moniz, also known as Philippa or Doña Felipa Perestrella, the daughter of a Portuguese sea captain. Marrying a Portuguese sea captain's daughter gave him access to the secret information of the Portuguese government about navigation. Before him, Portugal had been navigating and mapping very well, with a precedent set by Prince Henry the Navigator in the early 1400s.

Columbus spent much of the 1470s as a draftsman, illustrating for books and drawing maps (which, by today's standards are very inaccurate), but he still sailed the seas, as it was his true passion. When he could, he learned about the geography of the world for his maps and sailing. He was generally financially supported by his friends and family.

In the late 1480s, Columbus's wife died and he was left alone with his son Diego. He soon met a woman named Doña Beatriz Enriquez de Arana and had a child named Fernando. He later had to leave Lisbon to return to Genoa, because of creditors harassing him.

An Idea

His brother Bartholomew, who lived Lisbon, probably collaborated with Christopher to produce an idea to sail west to reach the other side of the world. Many people think (wrongly) that Columbus invented the idea that the Earth was round, but educated people of the time, such as his brother, knew that the earth was at the very least not truly flat. Still, to most people, the ocean was seen as a wall, rather than a road. He wanted to use the ocean as a road as a method for trade with Asia, and he wanted to arrive in the Indies, which was at the time, the name for the eastern side of Asia. This seemed a new idea, but Vikings had voyaged to American before, though most Europeans were largely unaware of this1. He became obsessed with this idea of his, and tried to make it happen.

It is sometimes claimed that Columbus didn't get his voyages financed because the popular view remained that the Earth was flat. In fact, it was for totally different reasons. Many people didn't finance his voyages because they believed that the ocean was too large to cross. Some people found faults in his mathematical calculations. Ptolemy supposed that the distance to the Indies was much smaller than it actually is, as he had been taught that the world was six parts land and one part water (where it actually around three parts water and one part land), so Columbus concluded that the voyage would be possible. He took his ideas to nobility and the church before taking them to royalty, but they were rejected. He soon went to the Portuguese King in 1488, but the plans were rejected there too. Columbus went to King Ferdinand of Spain, but he was preoccupied with expelling the Moors from Spain, and when he looked at the adverse reports of those who had rejected Columbus, the king quickly did the same. Columbus went to Charles VIII of France and Henry VII of England as well, in 1488, accompanied by his brother Bartholomew, but he failed again and again. In 1491, he went again to the Spanish court, accompanied by his son, Diego. The court was in Granada, Spain, which was the last stand for the Moors, where the Spanish were currently fighting what was called the Reconquista. He was again turned away, because the king could not be distracted from expelling the Moors, and Columbus was left to wander around the streets of Spain with Diego. He had to beg for shelter, but not for very long. He set out to Palos, Spain on his mule and again to ask the king of France to finance his voyage. He was on a mule alone, when something happened. A messenger of the monarchs asked him to return to see the King and Queen.

When the king took back Granada in 1492, the Reconquista was over and Spain was completely under Christian rule. Now that the court was not so distracted, as it had been for centuries, Columbus was called before Queen Isabella of Spain. She gave him some money with which to make his appearance suitable for the King. The King and Queen decided to finance Columbus's voyage, Isabella in the interests of spreading Christianity and Ferdinand because it could bring wealth and glory. As many know, the goal of many voyages around that time were for the '3 Gs' - God, Gold and Glory. This venture was exactly for that. Columbus signed deals with Spain on 17 April and on 30 April. The deal said that Columbus could govern over any lands he found and was entitled to 10% of his land's revenue. About half of the voyage was to be financed by investors, and Columbus set them up. The story that Isabella had to sell the crown jewels to pay for the voyage is a myth. With investors and favours used, the country really didn't have to use very much money to pay for the voyage.

The First Voyage

Columbus was made Admiral of the High Seas by the Monarchs and was given three small ships- the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria (originally named the Pelican). The Santa Maria, nicknamed La Gallega, was the most important ship, but was not built for travel. It was a slow-moving cargo ship. The Santa Maria was led by Columbus. The Pinta was a caravel, and was the swiftest sailor of the three. She was captained by Martín Alonso Pinzón. The Nina was the smallest of the ships, and led by Vicente Añes Pinzón (who was brother of Martín, the captain of the Nina). On the ships were about 87 people as the crew, who were gathered by Martín Alonso Pinzón. They were experienced sea-men, and four of them had taken an offer from the Spanish throne for amnesty from prison if they took the voyage. Many of these sailors were from the nearby towns of Lepe and Moguer.

He set sail from the southern port city of Palos, Spain (near Huelva) on Friday2, 3 August, 1492. The course he gave his sailors (from leaving the Canaries) was simply 'West; nothing to the north, nothing to the south'. He first went to the Canary Islands in early August, where he had to remain for several weeks because of unfavourable winds. There, he repaired the ships and gave the Pinta a square-rigged masthead. The ships left the island on September 6, 1492, but winds were still slow.

The Trip

Sunday, 9 September. Sailed this day 19 leagues, and determined to count less than the true number, that the crew might not be dismayed if the voyage should prove long.

There is a good record of the voyage because Columbus maintained a meticulous journal of the entire expedition in order to report back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. In his journal, he explained that he kept a fake logbook of how far the boat travelled each day so that the crew wouldn't think that the distance of the voyage was as long as it actually was. For instance, on 10 September, Columbus sailed about 60 leagues, but told the crew it was only 48 leagues that day. This made the sailors think that the ship was closer to Spain than it actually was, and it reassured the crew slightly. Despite this, the crew grew dismayed at the length of the voyage, and complained often. The conditions were poor for the sailors, without a proper place to sleep and no proper food. On several occasions, the crew asked Columbus to turn back, because they thought they would never see Spain alive again.

Most of the voyage was dull and discouraging to the crew, but although there was no mutiny aboard the ships, there was certainly a great deal of dissatisfaction and impatience. The voyage was mostly uneventful, with ideal weather and no deaths among the crew. On 10 October, after about ten weeks away from home (about five weeks on the seas since the Canary Islands) the crew asked Columbus to turn back to Spain. In his journal, he said-

Wednesday, 10 October ...Here the men lost all patience, and complained of the length of the voyage, but the Admiral encouraged them in the best manner he could, representing the profits they were about to acquire, and adding that it was to no purpose to complain, having come so far, they had nothing to do but continue on to the Indies, till with the help of our Lord, they should arrive there.

He convinced them to sail just three more days, and around 10:00 PM on 11 October, the ships saw a distinct light that seemed to indicate land. The crew had seen other false signs of land, such as weeds of the Sargasso Sea and birds, but this one made them particularly hopeful and they continued on cheerfully. Around 2:00 AM on 12 October, a crew member of the Pinta named Rodrigo de Triana saw land, and received a reward of an annual payment of ten thousand maravedis (about 600,000 dollars) from the King and Queen for discovering the land3.


Thinking he had crossed the ocean into the Indies, Columbus believed he landed in South-East Asia4. In fact, he had landed somewhere in the Bahamas, on an island he named San Salvador. It is not known exactly where he landed, probably not the island that is now known as San Salvador, and not, as many claimed for several years, Watlings Island, but it could have been the island of Samana Cay. He immediately claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain.

The people they encountered (probably the Taíno or Arawak) were naked, strong, honest and simple. The Europeans gave them small trifles, including beads and string, which they were excited about. Soon, the people of San Salvador came to the boats and gave the Europeans some small items, including parrots, cotton and javelins. The indigenous people gladly accepted whatever the Europeans gave them, and continued to trade curiously. Columbus and his officers noticed that they were very peaceful, not having swords or any real weapons, and that they didn't seem to have a religion5. The Europeans reported that they would probably be very easily converted to Christianity. Columbus and his crew also made plans to bring six of the people back to Spain to learn their language. The Spanish finally tried to find if they had any gold, and they gathered that there was some, judging by their gold nose-rings. Unfortunately for them, the indigenous people were not familiar with the route to the gold, and the expedition decided to carry on.


On 14 October, the Europeans went to another island and found similar people. Columbus took onboard a few of the natives to guide him to other islands, and soon found that there were over one hundred islands in the area. He went to one of the largest of them, and on 15 October, named it 'Santa Maria de la Concepcion'. Columbus and his men generally treated the honest people with respect, giving them things and helping them occasionally. He knew he could have conquered them with his small group of men, but in order to convert them, he made sure they were treated with courtesy.

He heard about a king, and gold, but Columbus decided not to follow up on those, but rather to venture to a large island which he believed to be Cipango (the European name of Japan), which was actually Cuba (he named it Juana). In the late hours of 23 October, Columbus set sail to Cuba from one of the surrounding islands.

Columbus arrived there on 28 October, and was immediately mesmerized by the beauty of the island. It was different from the other islands; it was much larger, busier and was more mountainous. The natives referred to Cuba as a city, rather than how it is now known as, an island. They also spoke of an island with plentiful gold called Bohio.

The mention of this island excited Columbus, who had been searching for gold the whole time. He was determined to find it, but it scared the natives Columbus had aboard his ship, who said that on that island, the inhabitants were well armed cyclopses who ate their prisoners. He also heard stories about cannibalistic tribes on small islands that brought their neighbours in through their boats and ate them. These people were the Caribs and besides some silly fictional accounts (such as those claiming the natives to be cyclopses), the stories of the Caribs were true.

Columbus only explored the north-eastern side of the island, and the expedition could have easily assumed that Cuba was not an island, because they only saw a small section of its coast. Columbus believed Cuba to be the mainland until he died. In the middle of the ships exploration of Cuba, on 22 November, the Pinta turned around without permission to search for gold on Bohio island (which natives had been speaking about). The Nina and Santa Maria continued east, hitting the island of Hispaniola, which Columbus named Santo Domingo, on 5 December.

In what is now Haiti, an accident occurred that altered the course of the trip. While everyone in the ship except the steersman was asleep, the Santa Maria drifted into a reef on 24 December and sank on Christmas day. Columbus took the remains of his flagship with the help of some nearby natives and built a fort near where Santa Maria sank. He named it 'La Navidad', which is Christmas in Spanish. 39 men happily settled in La Navidad, since the Nina alone couldn't hold the crew of 40 (the number of men who manned the Santa Maria) along with its own, especially since the Nina was the smallest of the ships, holding only 24 men. When Columbus was sure that the small settlement was safe and that neighbouring natives were friendly, he went aboard the Nina and left for Spain.

Back to Spain

The Nina went along Hispaniola and eventually came into sight of the Pinta, which hadn't discovered the promised island. Pinzon made an excuse, and Columbus detected it as a lie, but he ignored it.

The two sailed east along the coast until they eventually went into the high seas at what is today the bay of Samana. The Pinta and Nina sailed together until a fierce storm tossed them away from each other. Pinzón, the captain of the Pinta and Columbus thought that the other ship was lost. The Nina carried on to the Canary Islands, but the Pinta was badly damaged and went to the Azores islands. Both arrived at Palos, Spain on 15 March, 1493, the Pinta coming in only a few hours after the Nina arrived. Columbus' journal ended with the passage:

I see by this voyage that God has wonderfully proved what I say, as anybody may convince himself, by reading this narrative, by the signal wonders which he has worked during the course of my voyage, and in favour of myself, who have been for so long a time at the court of your Highnesses in opposition and contrary to the opinions of so many distinguished personages of your household, who all opposed me, treating my project as a dream, and my undertaking as a chimera. And I hope still, nevertheless, in our Lord, this voyage will bring the greatest honour to Christianity, although it has been performed with so much ease.

Columbus was received as a hero, and the news of a new passage to Asia, as they thought it was, spread rapidly. The Spanish saw the evidence of his voyage with certain items he brought with him, including some of the natives, tobacco and some wildlife. Most importantly, the knowledge of metals in the new world, including gold, led to the rest of his explorations to be financed quickly. His second voyage would begin later that year.

Meanwhile, Columbus was sent to journey from Lisbon to Barcelona, where the King and Queen were living in early 1493. His travel across the Iberian Peninsula was triumphant. When he arrived at Barcelona, seven of the natives Columbus took with him were baptised before Isabella and Ferdinand.

The Spanish crown's concerns that Portugal might send an expedition to the Indies were calmed because of Pope Alexander II drawing the line of Demarcation. But, Spain and Portugal were distrustful and didn't agree to the line immediately. Spain decided to send Columbus quickly, so that it could have the advantage in ruling the new world.

Further Reading

1Supposedly, Colombus had sailed around Iceland and had heard the stories of the Vikings landing in the Americas.2Indeed, Columbus set sail on a Friday, despite the superstition among sailors that doing this on a Friday was bad luck.3Rodrigo was never awarded this money, and the ten thousand maravedis was eventually awarded to Columbus instead.4Because of this, the natives are sometimes called Indians and the islands are called the East Indies, because Columbus thought he was in Asia.5Though Columbus reported that they looked on the Europeans as if they were gods.

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