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Columbus, Christopherfree

(?–20 May 1506)
  • Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Christopher Columbus.

Reproduction of a painting by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103980).

Columbus, Christopher (?–20 May 1506), explorer, was born in the Republic of Genoa, the son of Domenico Colombo, a weaver, and Susanna Fontanarossa. His early life is poorly documented. A date of birth late in 1451 or 1452 would be consistent with verifiable facts. Brought up in Genoa and Savona, he went to sea, by his own report “at an early age,” though in 1472 he was still working in his father’s business. In 1478 he was employed by the Lisbon branches of the Centurione and diNigro firms of Genoese merchants, buying sugar for Genoa in Madeira. By that time his normal place of residence was in Lisbon but only romanticized traditions of how he got there survive. Probably toward the end of the 1470s, he married Felipa Moniz Perestrelo, daughter of the deceased explorer and hereditary captain of the island of Porto Santo, Bartolomeu Perestrelo. This was, as far as is known, the first big step in his ascent from the humble rank of society in which he was born.

The extent of his navigation before 1492 is much debated but, by his own accounts, included Iceland, Galway, and (by reasonable inference) Bristol in the north; Chios in the east; the Azores and Madeira group in the Atlantic (to which the Canaries may be added by inference); Tunis; and, in the south, the Portuguese fort of São Jorge da Mina (modern Elmina), founded in 1482 on the Gold Coast.

Also much debated is the chronology of his process of self-education. The earliest date mentioned in the marginal annotations of his surviving books is 1481, though the significance of this has been questioned; the evidence of perusal by the late 1480s is beyond cavil. He never became confident of his own learning and always tended, in debate with savants, to defend himself as a man of practical sagacity or revealed knowledge. But by 1492 he had acquired a certain plausibility and later in the 1490s had a reputation at the Castilian court for erudition in navigation and cosmography. To judge from his surviving books and evidence of the sources of influence on his own writings from 1492 onward, his reading included geography, astronomy and astrology, travel literature, chivalric romance, hagiography, eschatological prophecy, and Scripture.

According to tradition, he began in 1484 to seek patronage in Portugal for a voyage of exploration in the Atlantic. Certainly by the spring of 1486 he was seeking such patronage in Castile; in May of that year he had his first recorded interview with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Cordova. Atlantic exploration had made much progress in the course of the fifteenth century, and projects to extend it were afoot in the 1480s in Bristol and the Azores; the possible objectives were a commonplace subject of speculation among geographers and cartographers. Columbus’s own plans had not yet taken definitive form. At different times, addressing different prospective patrons, he seems to have put forward at least three different proposals: first, a journey in search of undiscovered islands, such as had often been made into the Atlantic during the fifteenth century; secondly, an attempt to discover the hypothetical “antipodean” continent, located by some classical authorities (and by humanistic geographers and cartographers) in the western ocean—just such a new continent, indeed, as America ultimately proved to be; and, thirdly, a voyage in search of a direct transoceanic route to the extremities of the Orient, perhaps via the island of Cipangu, reported by Marco Polo.

Of these projects, the first two were of doubtful profitability, the third of doubtful practicality. Among the potential patrons unsuccessfully approached by Columbus and his brother, Bartolomeo (always known in Castilian orthography as Bartolomé), up to 1492 were the monarchs of Portugal, Castile, France, and perhaps England.

During the late 1480s and early 1490s, however, a powerful group of supporters came together at the Castilian court in favor of Columbus, though his own self-image as the hero of a lonely struggle against indifference and derision has obscured the process. His backers included political lobbyists—members of the household of Prince Juan, heir to the throne, and members of the mendicant orders, especially the Observant Franciscans, who were influential at court. Perhaps even more important were the financial investors: Genoese and Florentine merchants and bankers in Seville, and a group of treasury officials concerned with the administration of revenues from the sale of indulgences, from which financiers of Columbus’s enterprise would ultimately be indemnified. Some of Columbus’s backers had already collaborated in financing conquests in the Canary Islands. He also secured the support and participation of leading members of the Pinzón shipping family of Palos. Martín Alonso and Vicente Yañéz Pinzón were to be unruly fellow captains on the transatlantic voyage. The Castilian monarchs, anxious for new sources of riches, were open to persuasion: their conquest of Granada, completed in January 1492, was costly, and the enviable wealth acquired by Portuguese rivals from access to the African gold trade made a short route to the proverbially lucrative commerce of the East seem attractive.

When Columbus received a royal commission for his Atlantic voyage in April 1492, his objective was vaguely stated to be “islands and mainlands in the Ocean Sea”; it is evident from his own records, however, that he sailed from Palos on 3 August with the conscious purpose of discovering a western route to Asia, “by which,” he wrote, “no man, as far as we know, has ever sailed before.”

Since the discovery of the outermost islands of the Azores in 1452, various voyages of Atlantic exploration had been commissioned in Portugal, but none made any recorded successes because they were launched from the Azores in the belt of westerly winds. Columbus was bold or foolhardy enough to sail with the wind at his back, via the Canary Islands. Departing after victualing and repairs from San Sebastián de la Gomera on 6 September 1492, he set his course due west and maintained it, assisted for most of the time by the northeast trade winds, for over a month. The voyage into the unknown bred a tense atmosphere in which Columbus quarreled with his fellow officers and feared mutiny. Eventually, under pressure from Martín Alonso Pinzón, he turned southwest on 7 October, making a landfall in the New World very early on the twelfth, probably in the Bahamas or, perhaps, the Turks and Caicos. Claims on behalf of particular islands are not justified by the evidence.

During a cruise of three months in the Caribbean, Columbus made a vivid but often fantastic and romanticized record, substantial fragments of which have survived. He described Cuba and Hispaniola as well as some smaller islands and recorded conflicting perceptions of the inhabitants, seeing them at times as semibestial savages, at others as models of sylvan innocence or dependence on God; at times as potential slaves to be exploited, at others as souls to be saved. Those of Hispaniola (Arawak Tainos) he was inclined to praise as remarkable civilized beings bearing implicit promise of great civilizations near at hand.

Treating as providential the grounding of his flagship on the north coast of Hispaniola on Christmas Day 1492, he left thirty-nine men behind on terms of apparent amity with the locals. The discovery of what seemed exploitable amounts of gold toward the end of his stay was encouraging, but he fell out with Martín Alonso Pinzón and displayed obvious anxiety at his inability to find conclusive evidence of the proximity of Asia. His priorities became increasingly religious as he contemplated the future evangelization of the people he discovered. On 14 February 1493, during a storm-wracked voyage home, he had the first of a series of experiences of the presence of God, when a “celestial voice” comforted him, as it was to do recurrently in future crises of his life.

Martín Alonso died, exhausted by the voyage, almost immediately on reaching Spain; Columbus’s return, by contrast, was triumphant. Extricating himself from Portuguese captors in the Azores in February and from the blandishments of the king of Portugal in Lisbon in March, he reached the presence of the monarchs of Castile in Barcelona in April 1493. Though some observers withheld belief that he could have reached Asia after so short a voyage, the exotica he brought aroused universal admiration. The monarchs confirmed his promised titles of Don and hereditary Viceroy and Governor and Admiral of the Ocean Sea and commissioned him to return to his discoveries as soon as possible. They published their claims to possess the lands (which Columbus had formally proclaimed on the spot) and initiated appropriate suits at the papal and Portuguese courts.

The return voyage to Hispaniola, departing 25 September 1493 in a large and expensive fleet, was the high point of Columbus’s career. Leaving the Canaries behind on 13 October, he essayed a new route to the southwest, more directly in the path of the wind, and reached Dominica on 3 November. As a result of this voyage he established the best routes possible to and from his discoveries: indeed, with only slight modifications, these remained the standard routes throughout the age of sail. He discovered a string of islands in the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica and reconnoitered much of the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola.

Yet he also proved incompetent as a colonial administrator, shying from his responsibilities, breeding insurrection, and wasting resources. His discoveries, moreover, seemed disappointing. The natives, whose “docility” he had praised, proved hostile; the climate, which he had likened to “spring in Andalusia,” proved lethal; the profits uncertain; and Asia elusive.

He returned to Spain to defend himself successfully against growing criticisms in 1496. On a third voyage, commissioned in 1498, he again experimented with a new route, via the Cape Verde Islands, leaving São Tiago on 4 July and reaching Trinidad on the last day of the month. The voyage again produced great discoveries: the mainland of South America, correctly classified by Columbus as an enormous continent; Trinidad; the Orinoco delta; the Pearl Coast of Venezuela. But the colony on Hispaniola was so rebellious that when a royal administrator arrived in the late summer of 1500, Columbus was shipped home in disgrace. This sort of experience was not unusual for a servant of the Castilian monarchy in this period; it was intelligible in Columbus’s case in the context of a contemporary campaign of anti-Genoese xenophobia in Spain. And although Columbus never recovered the monarchs’ full confidence or favor, he was formally exonerated and—by any standards but his own—amply rewarded.

The rest of his life, however, was clouded by resentment. He argued that he really had got close to Asia; partly on the grounds that he had proved it by his (wildly inaccurate) attempts to measure his longitude by timing eclipses in 1494 and 1498; secondly on the basis of an underestimate by about 25 percent of the true size of the world, justified by garbled reading of evidence, mostly collected in the early fifteenth-century Imago Mundi of Pierre d’Ailly; and thirdly on the assumption that his third voyage had taken him to the environs of the earthly paradise (associated with the end of the Orient in medieval cartography and hagiography). He waged a tireless campaign of lobbying for increased rewards, claiming, with some justice, that the monarchs had not fulfilled the contract implied in the terms of their original commission to him. He grew increasingly religious, compiling in 1500–1501 a collection of mostly biblical prophecies that, he averred, were divine foreshadowings of his own discoveries.

Tired of his importunities, the monarchs commissioned a final voyage, on which Columbus departed from Gran Canaria on 25 May 1502. Though not conclusive, the evidence strongly suggests that Columbus’s aim was to leave his earlier discoveries at his stern and go on to reach unquestionably oriental lands. Forbidden to put into harbor at the Hispaniola colony, he survived a hurricane on 30 June and made the first recorded crossing of the Caribbean, arriving off Bonacca Island on 30 July; he was particularly proud of this achievement, which he attributed to celestial navigation, “which is like a kind of prophetic vision.” He remained on the coast of the Central American isthmus until 1 May 1503, exploring it as far as the Maracaibo region: the effect, in combination with voyages further east and south by other explorers since 1499, was to establish that the coast of the New World was continuous from the Gulf of Honduras at least as far as Rio de Janeiro. Columbus discovered the gold-rich province of Veragua and the harbor—of future importance—of Porto Bello and professed himself satisfied that he was in a region contiguous with or joined to Asia. Almost throughout the voyage, however, he battled terrible weather and termites holing his ships’ hulls. Attempting to cross to Hispaniola, the expedition just made it to Jamaica, where they went aground in St. Ann’s Bay on 25 June. They remained marooned until June of the following year, while Columbus contended with mutineers and cajoled food from the natives. The rescue was effected by a subordinate, Diego Méndez, who crossed to Hispaniola by canoe to procure help.

Columbus arrived back in Spain on 7 November 1504, less than three weeks before the death of Queen Isabella of Castile, whom he considered one of his most important patrons. He resumed his lobbying at court, unleashing a series of self-pitying memoranda. His pleas of poverty were much exaggerated, for he was gaining a fortune from his royalty on the gold of Hispaniola. His complaints of ill health, however, were convincing. In May 1505 he managed to make a painful journey to court in person. Ferdinand—now regent in Castile—received him in the early summer but without conceding his claims to enormously inflated rewards. When the new king and queen arrived from Flanders in April 1506, Columbus wrote, promising greater service than ever, but he was already virtually on his deathbed. He died in Valladolid, leaving an heir, Don Diego Colón, and, by a long-lasting liaison with Beatriz Enríquez of Córdova, who also survived him, an illegitimate son, the distinguished man of letters Don Fernando Colón.

Columbus’s principal achievement was the discovery of fast, reliable, and exploitable routes both ways across the Atlantic, which linked the shores of the ocean for the rest of the age of sail and inaugurated the continuous history of transatlantic navigation. He was also the founder of the first enduring European colony in the New World and the author of the first written descriptions of the environments of the central Atlantic and of any part of America. As an explorer he was remarkable—indeed, up to his day, unique—for the extent of his navigation and for his additions to geographical tradition.


The main collections of Columbus’s papers, some of which survive only in early copies or abstracts, are in the Biblioteca Nacional and the Archivo de la Casa de Alba, Madrid, and the Archivo General de Indias, Seville. The most reliable biographies are W. D. Phillips and C. R. Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1992), and Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (1991). Important contributions have been added by David Henige, In Search of Columbus (1991); B. W. Ife, Letters from America: Columbus’s First Accounts of the 1492 Voyage (1992); V. I. J. Flint, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (1992); and Consuelo Varela, Cristóbal Colón: Retrato de un hombre (1992). A good review of the vast literature on Columbus is Foster Provost, Columbus: An Annotated Guide to the Scholarship on His Life and Writings, 1750–1988 (1991).