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All About Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

Learn about the explorer's early life, his fateful trip, and his later voyages.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Christopher Columbus was an Italian-born navigator who sailed in the service of Spain. He is commonly described as the discoverer of the New World — America. Although Columbus was in search of a westward route to Asia by sea, the discoveries he did make were more important and valuable than the route he failed to find. It is certain, however, that Columbus was not the first European to cross the Atlantic. Documentary evidence supports claims that the Vikings reached the New World about A.D. 1000. And there is good circumstantial evidence, though no documentation, to suggest that both Portuguese and English fishing vessels made the crossing during the 14th century; they probably landed in Newfoundland and Labrador. Columbus, though he sailed a different route, followed many Europeans who earlier had crossed the Atlantic.

The Man: Columbus's Early Life

The best available evidence suggests that Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian; Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) was born in Genoa in 1451. His father was a weaver. Christopher had at least two brothers. The boy had little education; he learned to read and write only as an adult. He went to sea, as did many Genoese boys, and voyaged in the Mediterranean. In 1476 he was shipwrecked off Portugal, found his way ashore, and went to Lisbon. He apparently traveled to Ireland and England and later claimed to have gone as far as Iceland. Columbus was in Genoa in 1479. Returning to Portugal, he got married; however, he soon lost his wife, Dona Felipa, shortly after his son, Diego, was born (c.1480).

By this time Columbus had become interested in westward voyages. He had learned of the legendary Atlantic Ocean voyages and sailors' reports of land to the west of the Madeira Islands and the Azores. Acquiring books and maps, Columbus accepted Marco Polo's erroneous location for Japan — 2,400 km (1,500 mi) east of China. In addition, he accepted Ptolemy's underestimation of the circumference of the Earth and overestimation of the size of the Eurasian landmass. He came to believe that Japan was about 4,800 km (3,000 mi) to the west of Portugal — a distance that could be sailed in existing vessels. His idea was furthered by the suggestions of the Florentine cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. In 1484, Columbus sought support for an exploratory voyage from King John II of Portugal, but he was refused. The Portuguese also underestimated the distance but believed it to be beyond the capabilities of existing ships.

In 1485, Columbus took his son and went to Spain; there he spent almost seven years trying to get support from Isabella I of Castile. He was received at court, given a small annuity, and quickly gained both friends and enemies. An apparently final refusal in 1492 made Columbus prepare to go to France, but a final appeal to Isabella proved successful. An agreement between the crown and Columbus set the terms for the expedition.

The First Voyage

The Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María were outfitted in the minor port of Palos. Columbus was aided in recruiting a crew by two brothers — Martín Alonso Pinzón, who received command of the Pinta, and his younger brother Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, who commanded the Niña. They left Palos on Aug. 3, 1492; rerigged the Niña in the Canary Islands; and sailed to the west. Landfall was made on the morning of Oct. 12, 1492; it was an island in the Bahamas that Columbus named San Salvador and historians later identified as Watling Island. (Watling was subsequently renamed San Salvador.) In 1986 a group of scholars claimed that the true landfall was Samana Cay, 105 km (65 mi) to the south.

The landing was met by Arawak, a friendly local population that Columbus called Indians. Some days later the expedition sailed on to Cuba; there delegations were landed to seek the court of the Mongol emperor of China and gold. In December they sailed east to Hispaniola, where, at Christmas, the Santa María was wrecked near Cap-Haïtien. Columbus got his men ashore. The Indians seemed friendly; therefore 39 men were left on the island at the settlement of Navidad while Columbus returned to Spain on the Niña. He had sailed due west from the Canaries with favorable winds; now he sailed north before heading east and so again found favorable winds. Martín Alonso Pinzón, who had explored on his own with the Pinta, rejoined Columbus, but the ships were separated at sea. Columbus finally landed (March 1493) in Lisbon and was interviewed by John II. Then he went to Palos and across Spain to Barcelona; there he was welcomed by Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon. Columbus claimed to have reached islands just off the coast of Asia and brought with him artifacts, Indians, and some gold.

The Second Voyage

Portuguese claims to Columbus's discoveries led Pope Alexander VI to issue papal bulls in 1493. These bulls divided the world into areas open to colonization by Spain and Portugal. The two nations moved the line of demarcation to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and undertook colonization.

Funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus set sail from Cádiz on his second voyage on Sept. 25, 1493. This time he had 17 ships and almost 1,500 men. Again they stopped in the Canaries and then made landfall on Nov. 3, 1493, near Dominica among the Lesser Antilles. The expedition then sailed through the Lesser Antilles; islands were sighted and named, and some were landed on. The explorers went past Puerto Rico and reached the site of Navidad on Nov. 27–28, 1493. The encampment had been destroyed, and the Spaniards, who had seized gold and women, had been killed.

About 113 km (70 mi) to the east of Navidad's site, Columbus set up a new colony, named Isabela. He left in April 1494; explored the southern coast of Cuba, but did not prove it an island; discovered and circumnavigated Jamaica; and returned to Isabela after five months. Columbus tried to govern the colony until he returned to Spain in 1496. He was not a good administrator, however. With instructions to move the settlement to the south coast of Hispaniola, he left his brother Bartolomé in charge. This was done in 1496, and the settlement, named Santo Domingo, became the first permanent European settlement in the New World.

Columbus reached Cádiz in June 1496. He was coolly received at court. He had not found the rich Asian mainland, and his efforts to get gold from the Indians on Hispaniola had been only moderately successful. The Spanish settlers were unruly and would not work, and some had returned to Spain with complaints about Columbus.

The Third Voyage

Columbus was finally authorized to make a third voyage after the Portuguese had sent Vasco daGama off to India in 1497. Despite difficulties in recruiting a crew, Columbus departed Spain in May 1498. With six ships, he made landfall on Trinidad on July 31, 1498. The next day he reached the mainland and thus encountered South America.

Having found pearls at islands near the coast, the expedition then sailed across the Caribbean to Santo Domingo. The colonists there were in revolt, and Columbus soon had to face a royal commissioner, Francisco de Bobadilla, who arrived from Spain in 1500 with full powers. Bobadilla removed the Columbus brothers from the government and sent them back to Spain in chains. Although the ship's captain was willing to remove the shackles, Christopher insisted on going before Ferdinand and Isabella bound.

Fourth Voyage

Freed by royal command after arrival in Cádiz in November 1500, Columbus soon mounted a fourth expedition. It left Spain in May 1502, made a landfall at Martinique, and sailed to Santo Domingo. There he was denied permission to land, and his warnings about a hurricane were ignored. His ships weathered the storm, sailed west, and reached Guanaja Island, and then Honduras in Central America. Having missed the sites of the Maya, he sailed along the coast past Panama, finally heading again for Santo Domingo. His vessels, rotted by shipworm, were abandoned in Jamaica, where Columbus was marooned for a year. Finally rescued, he reached Spain in November 1504.

Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid on May 20, 1506, while pressing his claims at court. He still believed that he had reached Asia. He no longer had royal support, and the crown had, from 1495 onward, violated its original agreement with Columbus by authorizing others to sail to the Indies. Columbus's real greatness lies in the fact that having found the West Indies — making major errors in his navigational computations and location in doing so — he was able to find his way back to Europe and return to the Indies. It is as a result of Columbus's "discovery" that the New World became part of the European world.

Reviewed by Bruce B. Solnick

The Legend: Who Was Columbus?

In 1828 the heroic image received canonization, with the publication of Washington Irving's massive biography of Columbus. Although Irving used recently published documents to correct the record on certain points, he deliberately retained the heroic portrait of Columbus that had become the popular staple. The work enjoyed sensational popularity. In all, 175 full editions and abridgments were published between 1828 and 1900, and Irving's biography influenced virtually every textbook for the next several decades.

As the 400th anniversary of the historic voyage approached, other authors were willing to take a less laudatory view. Justin Winsor's balanced biography, published in 1892, dealt with Columbus's overweening desire for fame and fortune, his misrepresentations of what he had found across the ocean, and his maladministration in the Indies, as well as with the positive qualities of mind and character that made him a pivotal historical figure. Winsor's views eventually made inroads into the standard myth of Columbus, at least among serious scholars. In the early 20th century, many authors were also willing to temper their admiration of Columbus with a discussion of his failings.

Nonetheless, the celebrations surrounding the fourth centenary of Columbus's voyage, particularly the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, reconfirmed the popular image of Columbus as a prototypical American who embodied all the triumphant features of an America preparing to play a global role, as a rugged individualist who had opened the Western Hemisphere to the progress of American initiative.

In 1942, on the 450th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage, Samuel Eliot Morison published Admiral of the Ocean Sea, a massively documented, two-volume biography. Although he recognized the unappealing aspects of Columbus's career, Morison emphasized Columbus's talents as a mariner and geographical visionary. Morison's picture of Columbus the scientist and technician fit well with the 20th-century development of American technology, and his biography became popular and influential.

In textbooks and high school curricula, more recent events necessarily squeezed Columbus and other early figures into a diminishing compass. Even though scholars continued to publish well-rounded assessments of Columbus, and even though the extensive documents about him had been published for many decades, in the late 20th century it was possible for people to believe that little was known about Columbus because they had never learned much about him.

As 1992 and the quincentenary approached, new challenges loomed to the traditional view of Columbus. His image, manipulated for over two centuries to support American traditions, now became appropriated by critics of American policies. Supporters of Native Americans accused Columbus of initiating centuries of genocide toward the indigenous populations, even though it was disease that caused most of the demographic decline. Environmental activists sought to depict him as beginning a never-ending desecration of the supposedly pristine environment of the Americas, even though geographers and other scholars recognized the extensive human alterations made to the American landscape before 1492. Despite the furor, during the course of the quincentenary, books and articles, museum exhibits, and television programs disseminated a rounded view of Columbus. Columbus's attempt to reach Asia from Europe in 1492 failed, but from it developed increasingly complex global ties. The ultimate consequence, whether one celebrates or deplores it, is the interconnected modern world.

Reviewed by William D. Phillips, Jr.

How to Cite This Article:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style:

"Columbus, Christopher." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2014. Web. 1 July 2014. (use the date you accessed this page)

Chicago Manual of Style:

"Columbus, Christopher." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0068130-0 (accessed July 1, 2014). (use the date you accessed this page)

APA (American Psychological Association) style:

Columbus, Christopher. (2014). Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 1, 2014, (use the date you accessed this page) from Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0068130-0

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