Christopher Columbus



Occupation 1


Occupation 2

Spanish employ






Europe's Reconnaissance (1351-1640)






Robert A. McCaughey


Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, on the Liguorian coast of northwestern Italy, in 1451, the son of a wool weaver. He had two younger bothers later associated themselves with his various enterprises. He was raised a Catholic and became an increasingly observant one later in his life. His early schooling before going off to sea at 14 was rudimentary, although included exposure to commercial Latin later useful in business dealings. As a teenaged sailor, he regularly voyaged throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1476, at age 25, Columbus relocated to Portugal, likely as part of a Genoese commercial venture. While based there for the next decade, he regularly signed on for voyages northward to the British Isles and Flanders and southward to Madeira, the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands. In doing so, he became an experienced seagoing mariner, familiar with most of what was then the western navigated reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1478 he married Felipe Moniz, the daughter of one of the first Portuguese owners of the Madeira Islands and someone known in Portuguese court circles. The marriage produced three sons, who later joined him in his subsequent activities. It was also in Portugal, then well along in its incremental explorations of the east coast of West Africa, where he became committed to mounting a sailing expedition westward across the Atlantic in search of the Indies as described by Marco Polo. Failing to interest the king of Portugal, Joao II, in his Indies Enterprise, when he presented it to him in 1485, he set off to try his luck in Spain.

Here, too, a year later, he met with a royal rebuff, this time delivered by Isabella of Castile and Philip of Aragon, then in the culminating phase of their efforts to rid the Iberian peninsula of the once dominant Muslim presence by mounting a siege of Granada. Columbus was given some reason to believe, however, that once the Muslims were disposed of, Isabella and Ferdinand might be more amenable to supporting Columbus in his scheme. Meanwhile, he and his brother Bartolomeu tried selling the idea of a westward voyage to the East to Henry VII of England and Charles VIII of France. A second attempt to interest Joao II was frustrated in 1488 by news reaching Lisbon that Bartolomeu Diaz had rounded the southern end of Africa and opened up the prospect of a Portuguese-controlled eastern sea route to the Indies.

In 1491 Isabella called Columbus back to court to make a second pitch. Like the first, it was rejected by a royal commission charged with evaluating Columbus�s case that he could reach China with relative ease, a he case based on an underestimation of the actual distance between Spain and China by some 10,000 miles. Despite the Commission�s rejection, Ferdinand decided that royal backing was in order and that Columbus�s requirements that he be named �Admiral of the Ocean Sea� and viceroy of all lands discovered, and have a 10% share in all profits, were not excessive. The voyage was to be financed by some royal funding, by money Columbus borrowed from a Florentine banker, and by the citizens of Palos, the coastal town from which Columbus was to sail. They were ordered by the crown to provide Columbus with two ships and crew, their price for having been caught doing business along the African west coast where the Portuguese had a monopoly acknowledged by a 1479 treaty signed by Isabella and Ferdinand.

What became the first of Columbus�s four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean left Palos on August 3, 1492. His fleet consisted of three small ships, the two Three-masted caravels, the Pinta and Nina, supplied by Palos, and the larger flagship Santa Maria, a full-rigged ship (what the Spanish called a nao), chartered by Columbus from its Galician owners. The three ships carried 39 men in all, most of them recruited from among the seasoned sailors of Palos. Included among them were two brothers, Martin Alonzo and Vincente Pinzon, who were to command the Pinta and Nina respectively. Columbus was to sail on the Santa Maria, with its owner, Juan de la Casa, serving as master.

The first 1800-mile leg lasted nine days and ran southwest from the southwestern coast of Spain to the Canary Islands, a Spanish colony, where the Nina�s lateen sail on its mizzen mast was exchanged for two square sails, the better to accommodate what was the hoped for following winds westward across the Atlantic. Departing the Canaries on September 6th, the three ships enjoyed good weather, fair seas and favorable winds for nearly all the 33-day, 3300 nautical-mile passage, coming into sight of land on October 7th and making its first landfall, almost certainly on San Salvador, one of the western Bahamas, October 12th. While at sea, Columbus had kept the grumblings of the sailors and even those of his officers under control, in part by keeping to himself his own growing doubts about the accuracy of his distance calculations. Once ashore, ample evidence to the contrary, he convinced himself they were inboard (west ) of Japan and just off the coast of mainland China.

The next two months were taken up exploring the Caribbean windward islands that we now know as Hispanola (Haiti, the Dominican Republic) and Cuba. When the Santa Maria ran aground off the coast of Hispanola on Christmas eve, it was decided that the Pinta and Nina should to return to Spain, leaving most of crew of the Santa Maria ashore to establish a settlement and await a promised return voyage. Columbus shifted his flag to the Nina.

The homeward leg proved difficult sailing, not least because Columbus insisted on setting the most direct course for Spain by way of the Canaries, which had both ships constantly fighting westerly head winds. A storm drove them several hundred miles off their intended course northward to the Azores, where they then fortuitously picked up the northeastern trade winds that clocked them down to the Iberian peninsula, which Columbus�s Nina came upon just off Lisbon and the Pinta further north off Galica. Both then sailed down to Palos, with Columbus�s Nina arriving March 15, 1493, the Pinzon brothers on the Pinta a day later.

Columbus was well received at court, having anticipated his appearance by publishing an upbeat and self-serving account of his voyage in a letter to Luis Santangel, which Ferdinand and Isabella subsequently doctored to serve their imperial claims to whatever Columbus happened upon. Now comfortably in control of all of the Iberian peninsula save Portugal, the Spanish monarchs had within that very year conquered the last of Muslim-held lands thus ending a five-century presence, and effected the forced expulsion of Jews from their kingdom. Diplomatic negotiations were underway with the Spanish-borne Pope Alexander VI and Portugal�s King Joao II to confirm Spanish title to the lands Columbus surveyed, even as Spain assured Portugal control over West Africa, the Indian Ocean, and, as it soon turned out, the western projection of South America we know as Brazil. These negotiations eventuated in a series of papal bulls in 1493 and then in the more definitive Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. In this heady atmosphere, is it uncertain who -- Columbus or his royal sponsors -- were the more anxious to send him off on a second voyage.

Columbus�s second voyage got underway from Cadiz on September 25, 1493; it was a much bigger undertaking than the first 13 months earlier. It employed some 1200 men, many of whom were hired as prospective settlers, along with the crews of the 17 ships commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella and commanded by their �admiral of the Ocean Sea.� This voyage also went by way of the Canary Islands, from whence the fleet sailed the oceanic leg even more quickly (30 days) and less eventfully than had the ships of the first voyage, making a more southerly landfall, on the Leeward Island of Dominica on November 3rd.

This second time around Columbus faced growing difficulties with the administrative end of his duties. His first disappointment was to discover that none of the 39-man contingent left behind the previous December on Hispanola had survived the interim. Conflicts with the once thought-to-be compliant native Indians was decided to have been the cause of the settlement�s demise. Thereafter Spanish-Indian relations took on a more hostile character, with Columbus, despite the court�s explicit opposition to such practice, backing the enslavement and sale of Indians who resisted his authority. There also remained the twin problems of proving that these Caribbean islands really were part of Asia and that, even if not, they abounded in gold and other valuable minerals. In the two years Columbus spent on Hispanola and neighboring islands during his second voyage, he came up with no evidence to convince an increasing dubious Spanish court on either count. His earlier hyping was now working against him.

Columbus returned to Spain in June 1496, where he was greeted with an openly skeptical royal officialdom. Yet Ferdinand and Isabella approved a scaled-back third voyage, this to leave from Seville with 6 ships to sail with Columbus to the Canaries, where the fleet would be divided in two, with three ships proceeding westward to the Caribbean, and with Columbus taking three ships as far south as the Cape Verde Island before turning westward for his transoceanic leg. This proved to be the fastest of all Columbus�s crossings, with a landfall on Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela after only 25 days out from the Cape Verde Islands. A subsequent landfall on the coast of Venezuela marked Columbus�s first direct contact with continental America -- four years after his first Caribbean landfall. Like his second visit, his third was characterized by administrative challenges that went largely unmet. Indeed, so dissatisfied did the authorities back in Spain become that in August 1500 a royal agent arrived on Espanola with orders to bring Columbus home. He was replaced as viceroy by a loyal court functionary, Nicholas de Ovando, who succeed where Columbus had failed in bringing order to the fledgling Spanish Caribbean empire.

And yet, once back in Spain, Columbus again managed to persuade Ferdinand and Isabella that he merited another chance � a fourth voyage. This was to be, it was clearly understood, an strictly exploratory undertaking, with Columbus having no responsibilities for establishing settlements and that while in the Caribbean he was under the authority of Governor Ovando. This last of Columbus�s voyages, like the second, was to sail from from Cadiz, but involved only four small (50-70 tons) ships bought by Columbus and with combined crews of 135, many of whom were teenagers. They departed on May 2, 1502, and proceeded to the Canaries after a brief stop on the Moroccan coast. Once the fleet turned westward in the open Atlantic, Columbus�s son Hernando later reported, the amazingly fast 27-day crossing occurred �without having to touch the sails,� with the landfall at Martinique, the most eastward of the Leeward Islands. He thereupon sailed to Hispanola to pay his respects to Governor Ovando, only to encounter the first stages of a hurricane as he approached the harbor of Santo Domingo. His warnings sent in to the governor went unheeded and a 29-ship convoyed scheduled to return to Spain was dispatched into the eye of the ensuing hurricane, with the loss of all but one ship. Columbus�s little fleet more effectively weathered the storm and then proceeded with two ships to fulfill his charge by exploring the east coast of Central America. While doing so, the captain and crew of the ship accompanying Columbus mutinied and left Columbus on his own. He then returned to Cadiz, landing there on November 7, 1504, never to sea again.

Within three weeks of Columbus�s return, one of his two royal sponsors, Queen Isabella, died. Although his standing at court had been in decline well before her death, this effectively ended his once ready access to the royals. He had, however, through his arrangements become personally wealthy and, while out of royal favor, by no means denied whatever claims he made for himself as the first European to sail to Asia. Before his death on 1506, at the age of 55, he had organized his papers and set members of his loving family to work on securing him the immortality they believed his due. Although fate denied him the honor of having the continents he unwittingly discovered, this going to Amerigo Vespucci, history has acknowledged him as the first European since the Vikings to reach America and the first person to bring America to the lasting attention of his fellow Europeans, for better or worse.

Related Images

external image head3_christopher_columbus_1671.jpg
Date: 1671
Image Id: 1112
external image columbus1.jpg
Image Id: 1470
external image columbus4trips.jpg
Image Id: 1664

Related People

las Casas, Bartoleme de

Related Vessels

Santa Maria (1492), Pinta (1492), Nina (1492),

Related Maps

Toscanelli Map (1474), Juan de la Casa (1500), Juan de la Cosa World Portolan (1500),

Related Events

1492 - First voyage of Columbus to Americas, 1493 - Columbus makes second of his four voyages, 1498 - Columbus makes third voyage to Caribbean, 1502 - Columbus makes 4th and last voyage to Caribbean, 1474 - Toscanelli estimate of distance from Portugal to China,

Related Source

Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1942)
Worlds of Christopher Columbus, The (1992)
Columbian Exchange, The: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972)
Thr Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies (2008)

External Links

Columbus Navigation Page Diary of Christopher Columbus, first voyage to America, 1492

Record ID: 474