(1451 – 20
May 1506) (Cristóbal Colón
in Spanish, Cristoforo
in Italian) was an explorer and trader who crossed the Atlantic
Ocean and reached the Americas on October 12, 1492 under the flag of Castile.
History places a great significance on his landing in America in 1492, with the
entire period of the history of the Americas before this date usually known as
Pre-Columbian, and the anniversary of this event, Columbus Day, celebrated in
many countries in the Americas. Besides the fact that there were many instances
of Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, and it is questionable whether one
person can "discover" a place which is inhabited by other people, Columbus is
often credited as having discovered America. His voyage marked the beginning of
the Spanish and European colonization of the Americas. He was most likely
Genoese, although some historians claim he could have been born in other places,
from the Crown of Aragón to the Kingdoms of Galicia or Portugal, or in the Greek
island of Chios among others.
Columbus believed that the Earth was a relatively small sphere, and argued
that a ship could reach India via a westward course. The widespread notion that
Columbus encountered opposition based on the idea that the Earth was flat is a
literary myth created by Washington Irving. Educated people in Columbus's time
agreed that the earth was round; anyone familiar with seafaring certainly knew
it, since the roundness of the Earth forms the basis of celestial navigation.
The main debate was over whether a ship could circumnavigate the planet without
running out of food or getting stuck in windless regions.
Columbus was not the first European to reach the continent. Many historians
today acknowledge the fact that Leifur Eiríksson had traveled to North America
from Iceland in the 11th century and set up a short-lived colony at L'Anse aux
Meadows. There are also many theories of expeditions to the Americas by a
variety of peoples throughout time; see Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact,
one of the most consistent is the exploration (before 1472) of two, led by João
Vaz Corte-Real to Terra Verde (today's Newfoundland). Giovanni Caboto (better
known as John Cabot) was first to reach the American mainland (which Columbus
did not reach until his third voyage). However, there is one thing that sets off
Columbus' first voyage from all of these: less than two decades later, the
existence of America was known to the general public throughout Europe. This is
likely due to the invention of the printing press. Additionally, although
Columbus is credited in Western classical education as the "discoverer of
America" , the two continents are named after Amerigo Vespucci, who reached what
is now the coast of Brazil in 1501 and whose name was first applied to the map
by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller.
Columbus landed in the Bahamas and later explored much of the Caribbean,
including the isles of Juana (Cuba) and Espanola (Hispaniola), as well as the
coasts of Central and South America. He never reached the present-day United
States where "Columbus Day" (The second monday of October, with 12 October being
the anniversary of Columbus' landing in the Bahamas) is celebrated as a holiday.
Unlike the voyage of the Icelanders, Columbus' voyages led to a relatively
quick, general and lasting recognition of the existence of the New World by the
Old World, the Columbian Exchange of species (both those harmful to humans, such
as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and beneficial to humans, such as tomatoes,
potatoes, maize, and horses), and the first large-scale colonization of the
Americas by Europeans.
Columbus remains a controversial figure. Some – including many Native
Americans – view him as responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of
tens, if not hundreds, of millions of indigenous peoples, exploitation of the
Americas by Europe, and slavery in the West Indies. Others honour him for the
massive boost his explorations gave to Western expansion and culture. Italian
Americans hail Columbus as an icon of their heritage.
It has generally been accepted that he was Genovese, although doubts have
persistently been voiced regarding this. His name in Italian is Cristoforo
Colombo, in Spanish is Cristóbal Colón, in Catalan it is Cristòfor
Colom and in Portuguese Cristóvão Colombo. Columbus is a
Latinized form of his surname. The Latin roots of his name can be translated
"Christ-bearer, Dove". Columbus' signature reads Xpo ferens ("Bearing
Columbus claimed governorship of the new territories (by prior agreement with
the Spanish monarchs) and made several more journeys across the Atlantic. While
regarded by some as an excellent navigator, he was seen by many contemporaries
as a poor administrator and was stripped of his governorship in 1500.
There are various versions of Columbus's origins and life before 1476. (See
Columbus's National Origin.) The account that has traditionally been supported
by most historians is as follows:
Columbus was born between August 26 and October 31 in the year 1451, in the
Italian port city of Genoa. His father was Domenico Colombo, a woollens
merchant, and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a woollens
merchant. Christopher had three younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni
Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta.
In 1470, the family moved to Savona, where Christopher worked for his father
in wool processing. During this period he studied cartography with his brother
Bartolomeo. Christopher received almost no formal education; a voracious reader,
he was largely self-taught.
In 1474, Columbus joined a ship of the Spinola Financiers, who were Genoese
patrons of his father. He spent a year on a ship bound towards Khios (an island
in the Aegean Sea) and, after a brief visit home, spent a year in Khios. It is
believed that this is where he recruited some of his sailors.
A 1476, commercial expedition gave Columbus his first opportunity to sail
into the Atlantic Ocean. The fleet came under attack by French privateers off
the Cape of St. Vincent, Portugal. Columbus's ship was burned and he swam six
miles to shore.
By 1477, Columbus was living in Lisbon. Portugal had become a center for
maritime activity with ships sailing for England, Ireland, Iceland, Madeira, the
Azores, and Africa. Columbus's brother Bartolomeo worked as a mapmaker in
Lisbon. At times, the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors.
He became a merchant sailor with the Portuguese fleet, and sailed to Iceland
via Ireland in 1477. He sailed to Madeira in 1478 to purchase sugar, and along
the coasts of West Africa between 1482 and 1485, reaching the Portuguese trade
post of Elmina Castle in the Gulf of Guinea coast.
Columbus married Felipa Perestrello Moniz, a daughter from a noble Portuguese
family with some Italian ancestry, in 1479. Felipa's father, Bartolomeu
Perestrelo, had partaken in finding the Madeira Islands and owned one of them
(Porto Santo Island), but died when Felipa was a baby, leaving his second wife a
wealthy widow. As part of his dowry, the mariner received all of Perestello's
charts of the winds and currents of the Portuguese possessions of the Atlantic.
Columbus and Felipa had a son, Diego Colón in 1480. Felipa died in January of
1485. Columbus later found a lifelong partner in Spain, an orphan named Beatriz
Enriquez. She was living with a cousin in the weaving industry of Córdoba. They
never married, but Columbus left Beatriz a rich woman and directed Diego to
treat her as his own mother. The two had a son, Ferdinand in 1488. Both boys
served as pages to Prince Juan, son of Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, and
each later contributed, with fabulous success, to the rehabilitation of their
Christian Europe, long allowed safe passage to India and China (sources of
valued trade goods such as silk and spices) under the hegemony of the Mongol
Empire (Pax Mongolica, or "Mongol peace"), was now, after the
fragmentation of that empire, under a complete economic blockade by Muslim
states. In response to Muslim hegemony on land, Portugal sought an eastward sea
route to the Indies, and promoted the establishment of trading posts and later
colonies along the coast of Africa. Columbus had another idea. By the 1480s, he
had developed a plan to travel to the Indies (then roughly meaning all of south
and east Asia) by sailing west across the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic Ocean)
It is sometimes claimed that the reason Columbus had a hard time receiving
support for this plan was that Europeans believed that the Earth was flat. This
myth can be traced to Washington Irving's novel The Life and Voyages of
Christopher Columbus (1828).
The fact that the Earth is round was evident to most people of Columbus's
time, especially other sailors, explorers and navigators (Eratosthenes (276-194
BC) had in fact accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth). The
problem was that the experts did not agree with his estimates of the distance to
the Indies. Most scholars accepted Ptolemy's claim that the terrestrial landmass
(for Europeans of the time, Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the
terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water.
Columbus accepted the calculations of Pierre d'Ailly, that the land-mass
occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus
believed that one degree actually covered less space on the earth's surface than
commonly believed. Finally, Columbus read maps as if the distances were
calculated in Roman miles (1524 meters or 5,000 feet) rather than nautical miles
(1853.99 meters or 6,082.66 feet at the equator). The true circumference of the
earth is about 40,000 km (24,900 statute miles of 5,280 feet each), whereas the
circumference of Columbus's earth was the equivalent of at most 30,600 km
(19,000 modern statute miles). Columbus calculated that the distance from the
Canary Islands to Japan was 2,400 nautical miles (about 4,444 km).
In fact, the distance is about 10,600 nautical miles (19,600 km), and most
European sailors and navigators concluded that the Indies were too far away to
make his plan worth considering. They were right and Columbus was wrong; had he
not unexpectedly encountered a previously uncharted continent in mid-travel, he
and his crew would have perished from lack of food and water.
Columbus lobbies for funding
Columbus first presented his plan to the court of Portugal in 1485. The
king's experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus thought
(the actual distance is even longer than the Portuguese believed), and denied
Columbus's request. It is probable that he made the same outrageous demands for
himself in Portugal that he later made in Spain, where he went next. He tried to
get backing from the monarchs of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon and
Isabella of Castile, who, by marrying, had united the largest kingdoms of Spain
and were ruling them together.
After seven years of lobbying at the Spanish court, where he was kept on a
salary to prevent him from taking his ideas elsewhere, he was finally successful
in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim
stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they received Columbus in Córdoba (in
the monarchs' Alcázar or castle). Isabella finally turned Columbus down on the
advice of her "think tank" and he was leaving town in despair when Ferdinand
lost his patience. Isabella sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later
rightfully claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were
About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, which
Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke from the Granada campaign, the
monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to shift funds among various royal
accounts on behalf of the enterprise. Columbus was to be made Admiral of the
Ocean Sea and granted an inheritable governorship to the new territories he
would reach, as well as a portion of all profits. The terms were absurd, but his
own son later wrote that the monarchs really didn't expect him to return.
Replica of Santa Maria
sailing ship that was used on Columbus's first voyage
The year 1492, on the evening of August 3, Columbus left from Palos with
three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta. The ships
were property of Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers (Martin and Vicente
Yáñez), but the monarchs forced the Palos inhabitants to contribute to the
expedition. He first sailed to the Canary Islands, fortunately owned by Castile,
where he reprovisioned and made repairs, and on September 6 started the five
week voyage across the ocean.
A legend is that the crew grew so homesick and fearful that they threatened
to hurl Columbus overboard and sail back to Spain. Although the actual situation
is unclear, most likely the sailors' resentments merely amounted to complaints
After 29 days out of sight of land, on 7 October 1492 as recorded in the
ship's log, the crew spotted shore birds flying west and changed direction to
make their landfall. A comparison of dates and migratory patterns leads to the
conclusion that the birds were Eskimo curlews and American golden plover.
Land was sighted at 2 AM on October 12 by a sailor aboard Pinta named
Rodrigo de Triana. Columbus called the island he reached San Salvador, although
the natives called it Guanahani. The Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno
or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. He wrote with such awe of the friendly
innocence and beauty of these Indians that he inadvertently created the enduring
myth of the Noble Savage. "These people have no religious beliefs, nor are they
idolaters. They are very gentle and do not know what evil is; nor do they kill
others, nor steal; and they are without weapons.". No blood was shed on this
first voyage; he believed conversion to Christianity would be achieved through
love, not force.
On this first voyage, Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba
(landed on October 28) and the northern coast of Hispaniola, by December 5. He
believed the peaks of Cuba were the Himalayas of India, which gives one a sense
of just how lost he was and how long it took the peoples of the world to map the
Earth. (The vast interior of the North and South American mainlands would of
course be largely mapped with the leadership of native guides and interpreters.)
Here the Santa Maria ran aground and had to be abandoned. He was received
by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his
men behind. Columbus founded the settlement La Navidad and left 39 men.
On January 4, 1493 he set sail for home, not yet understanding the elliptical
nature of the trade winds that had brought him west. He wrestled his ship
against the wind and ran into one of the worst storms of the century. He had no
choice but to land his ship in Portugal, where he was told a fleet of 100
caravels had been lost. (Astoundingly, both the Niña and the Pinta were spared.)
Some have speculated that landing in Portugal was intentional.
The relations between Portugal and Castile were poor at the time, and he was
held up, but finally released. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread
throughout Europe. He didn't reach Spain until March 15, when the story of his
journey was in its third printing. He was received as a hero in Spain, and this
was his moment in the sun. He displayed several kidnapped natives and what gold
he'd found to the court, as well as the previously unknown tobacco plant, the
pineapple fruit, the turkey and the sailor's first love, the hammock. Naturally,
he did not bring any of the coveted Indian spices, such as the exceedingly
expensive black pepper, ginger or cloves. In his log he wrote "there is also
plenty of ají, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than [black]
pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome" (Turner,
2004, P11). The word ají is still used in South American Spanish for
Columbus left from Cádiz, Spain for his second voyage (1493-1496) on
September 24, 1493, with 17 ships carrying supplies and about 1200 men to assist
in the subjugation of the Taíno and the colonization of the region. On October
13 the ships left the Canary Islands, following a more southerly course than on
the first voyage.
On November 3, 1493, Columbus sighted a rugged island which he named
Dominica. On the same day he landed at Marie-Galante (which he named Santa Maria
la Galante). After sailing past Les Saintes (Todos los Santos), Columbus arrived
at Guadaloupe (Santa Maria de Guadalupe), which he explored from November 4
through November 10. The exact course of his voyage through the Lesser Antilles
is debated, but it seems likely that Columbus turned north, sighting and naming
several islands including Montserrat (Santa Maria de Monstserrate), Antigua
(Santa Maria la Antigua), Redonda (Santa Maria la Redonda), Nevis (Santa María
de las Nieve or San Martin), Saint Kitts (San Jorge), Sint Eustatius (Santa
Anastasia), Saba (San Cristobal), and Saint Martin or Saint Croix (Santa Cruz).
Columbus also sighted the island chain of the Virgin Islands, (which he named
Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgines), and named the islands of Virgin Gorda,
Tortola, and Peter Island (San Pedro).
Columbus continued to the Greater Antilles and landed at Puerto Rico (San
Juan Bautista) on November 19, 1493 . On November 22, he returned to Hispaniola,
where he found his colonists had fallen into dispute with Indians in the
interior and had been killed. He established a new settlement at Isabella, on
the north coast of Hispaniola where gold had first been found but it was a poor
location and the settlement was short-lived. He spent some time exploring the
interior of the island for gold and did find some, establishing a small fort in
the interior. He left Hispaniola on April 24, 1494 and arrived at Cuba (which he
named Juana) on April 30 and Jamaica on May 5. He explored the south coast of
Cuba, which he believed to be a peninsula rather than an island, and several
nearby islands including the Isle of Youth (La Evangelista) before returning to
Hispaniola on August 20.
Before he left on his second voyage he had been directed by Ferdinand and
Isabella to maintain friendly, even loving relations with the natives. However,
during his second voyage he sent a letter to the monarchs proposing to enslave
some of the native peoples, specifically the Caribs, on the grounds of their
aggressiveness. Although his petition was refused by the Crown, in February,
1495 Columbus took 1600 Arawak as slaves. 550 slaves were shipped back to Spain;
two hundred died en route, probably of disease, and of the remainder half were
ill when they arrived. After legal proceedings, the survivors were released and
ordered to be shipped back home. Some of the 1600 were kept as slaves for
Columbus's men, and Columbus recorded using slaves for sex in his journal. The
remaining 400, who Columbus had no use for, were let go and fled into the hills,
making, according to Columbus, prospects for their future capture dim. Rounding
up the slaves resulted in the first major battle between the Spanish and the
Indians in the new world.
The main objective of Columbus's journey had been gold. To further this goal,
he imposed a system on the natives in Cicao on Haiti, whereby all those above
fourteen years of age had to find a certain quota of gold, which would be
signified by a token placed around their necks. Those who failed to reach their
quota would have their hands chopped off. Despite such extreme measures,
Columbus did not manage to obtain much gold. One of the primary reasons for this
was the fact that natives became infected with various diseases carried by the
In his letters to the Spanish king and queen, Columbus would repeatedly
suggest slavery as a way to profit from the new colonies, but these suggestions
were all rejected: the monarchs preferred to view the natives as future members
Third voyage and arrest
On May 30, 1498, Columbus left with six ships from Sanlúcar, Spain for his
third trip to the New World. He was accompanied by the young Bartolome de Las
Casas, who would later provide partial transcripts of Columbus's logs.
After stopping in the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, Columbus landed on the
south coast of the island of Trinidad on July 31. From August 4 through August
12, he explored the Gulf of Paria which separates Trinidad from Venezuela. He
explored the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River. He also
sailed to the islands of Chacachcare and Margarita Island and sighted and named
Tobago (Bella Forma) and Grenada (Concepcion). Initially, he described the new
lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but later he retreated
to his position that they belonged to Asia.
Columbus returned to Hispaniola on August 19 to find that many of the Spanish
settlers of the new colony were discontent, having been misled by Columbus about
the supposedly bountiful riches of the new world. Columbus repeatedly had to
deal with rebellious settlers and Indians. He had some of his crew hanged for
disobeying him. A number of returned settlers and friars lobbied against
Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him of mismanagement. The king and queen
sent the royal administrator Francisco de Bobadilla in 1500, who upon arrival
(August 23) detained Columbus and his brothers and had them shipped home.
Columbus refused to have his shackles removed on the trip to Spain, during which
he wrote a long and pleading letter to the Spanish monarchs.
Although he regained his freedom, he did not regain his prestige and lost his
governorship. As an added insult, the Portuguese had won the race to the Indies:
Vasco da Gama returned in September 1499 from a trip to India, having sailed
east around Africa.
Last (fourth) voyage
Nevertheless, Columbus made a fourth voyage, nominally in search of the
Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. Accompanied by his brother Bartolomeo and
his thirteen-year old son Fernando, Columbus left Cádiz, Spain on May 11, 1502.
On June 15, they landed at Carbet on the island of Martinique (Martinica). A
hurricane was brewing, so Columbus continued on, hoping to find shelter on
Hispaniola. Columbus arrived at Santo Domingo on June 29, but was denied port.
Instead, the ships anchored at the mouth of the Jaina River.
After a brief stop at Jamaica, Columbus sailed to Central America, arriving
at Guanaja (Isla de Pinos) in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras on July
30. Here Bartholomew found native merchants and a large canoe, which was
described as "long as a galley" and was filled with cargo. On August 14,
Columbus landed on the American mainland at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo,
Honduras. Columbus spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua,
and Costa Rica, before arriving in Almirante Bay, Panama on October 16.
In Panama, Columbus learned from the natives of gold and a strait to another
ocean. After much exploration, he established a garrison at the mouth of Rio
Belen in January 1503. On April 6, one of the ships became stranded in the
river. At the same time, the garrison was attacked, and the other ships were
damaged. Columbus left for Hispaniola on April 16, but sustained more damage in
a storm off the coast of Cuba. Unable to travel any farther, the ships were
beached in St. Anne's Bay, Jamaica, on June 25, 1503.
Columbus and his men were stranded on Jamaica for a year. Two Spaniards, with
native paddlers, were sent by canoe to get help from Hispaniola. In the meantime
Columbus, in a desperate effort to induce the natives to continue provisioning
him and his hungry men, successfully intimidated the natives by correctly
predicting a lunar eclipse, using the Ephemeris of the German astronomer
Regiomontanus. Grudging help finally arrived on June 29, 1504, and Columbus and
his men arrived in Sanlúcar, Spain, on November 7.
While Columbus had always given the conversion of non-believers as one reason
for his explorations, he grew increasingly religious in his later years. He
claimed to hear divine voices, lobbied for a new crusade to capture Jerusalem,
often wore Franciscan habit, and described his explorations to the "paradise" as
part of God's plan which would soon result in the Last Judgement and the end of
In his later years Columbus demanded that the Spanish Crown give him 10% of
all profits made in the new lands, pursuant to earlier agreements. Because he
had been relieved of his duties as governor, the crown felt not bound by these
contracts and his demands were rejected. His family later sued for part of the
profits from trade with America, but ultimately lost some fifty years later.
On May 20, 1506, Columbus died in Valladolid, fairly wealthy due to the gold
his men had accumulated in Hispaniola. He was still convinced that his journeys
had been along the East Coast of Asia. Following his death, the body of Columbus
underwent excarnation - the flesh was removed so that only his bones remained.
Even after his death, his travels continued: first interred in Valladolid and
then at the monastery of La Cartja in Seville, by the will of his son Diego, who
had been governor of Hispaniola, the remains were transferred to Santo Domingo
in 1542. In 1795 the French took over, and the corpse was removed to Havana.
After the war of 1898, Cuba became independent and Columbus's remains were moved
back to the cathedral of Seville, where they were given a pompous catafalque.
However, a lead box bearing an inscription identifying "Don Christopher
Columbus' and containing fragments of bone and a bullet was discovered at Santo
Domingo in 1877. To lay to rest claims that the wrong relics were moved to
Havana and that Columbus is still buried in the cathedral of Santo Domingo, DNA
samples were taken in June 2003 (History Today August 2003).
He was canonized by the antipope Gregory XVII, leader of the breakaway
Palmarian Catholic Church.
Columbus's national origin: subject of debate
Serious doubts have been expressed regarding Columbus's national origin.
Although in the popular culture he is generally assumed to be Italian (Genoese),
his actual background is clouded in mystery. Very little is really known about
Columbus before the mid-1470s. It has been suggested that this might have been
because he was hiding something—an event in his origin or history that he
deliberately kept a secret.
The issue of Columbus's 'nationality' became an issue after the rise of
nationalism; the issue was scarcely raised until the time of the quadricentenary
celebrations in 1892 (see Columbian exposition), when Columbus's Genoese origins
became a point of pride for some Italian Americans. In New York City, rival
statues of Columbus were underwritten by the Hispanic and the Italian
communities, and honourable positions had to be found for each, at Columbus
Circle and in Central Park.
One hypothesis is that Columbus served under the French corsair Guillaume
Casenove Coulon and took his surname, but later tried to hide his piracy. Some
Basque historians have claimed that he was Basque. Others had said that he was a
converso (Spanish Jew converted to Christianity). In Spain, even
converted Jews were forced to leave Spain after much persecution; it was
suggested that many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secret and
their success created much envy.
Another theory is that he was from the island of Corsica, which at the time
was part of the Genoese republic. Because the often subversive elements of the
island gave its inhabitants a bad reputation, he would have masked his exact
heritage. A few others also claim that Columbus was actually Catalan (Colom).
Documents found in the Alentejo region of Portugal suggest he may have been
born there. In accordance with this theory, he named the island of Cuba after
the Portuguese town Cuba in Alentejo — the town where he, according to
Portuguese historians, had been born under the name of Salvador Fernandes Zarco
(SFZ), son of Fernando, Duke of Beja, and Isabel Sciarra — and grandson of
Cecília Colonna. The Portuguese-origin thesis has him using Colom as a
pseudonym. This is based on interpretation of some facts and documents of his
life (as above), but mostly on an analysis of his signature under the Jewish
Kabbalah, where he described his family and origin (by Macarenhas Barreto: "Fernandus
Ensifer Copiae Pacis Juliae illaqueatus Isabella Sciarra Camara Mea Soboles
Cubae.", or "Ferdinand who holds the sword of power of Beja (Pax Julia in
Latin), coupled with Isabel Sciarra Camara, are my generation from Cuba"). Since
he never signed his name conventionally, the pseudonymus theory is reinforced,
his name meaning in Latin "Bearer of Christ" (Christo ferens) "and of the Holy
Spirit" (Columbus, dove in Latin), a reference to the Order of Christ which
succeeded the Templars in Portugal and initiated the age of exploration.
The corollary of the above is that he was (i) knowingly diverting the
Castilian kings from their target – India and (ii) had all the reasons to hide
his identity and origin, as Portugal was the biggest rival of Spain (Castille)
in its sea ventures. In sum, he was a "secret agent".
It is also speculated that Columbus may have come from the island of Khios
(or Chios) in Greece. The main point of this theory is that Columbus never said
he was from Genoa but from the Republic of Genoa, and that he kept his
journal in Latin and Greek instead of the Italian of Genoa. He also referred to
himself as "Columbus de Terra Rubra"(Columbus of the Red Earth), Khios was known
for its red soil in the south of the island where the mastic trees that the
Genoese traded grow. The island of Khios was under the Genoese rule (1346 - 1566
AD), for the period of his life, and therefore it was part of the Republic of
Genoa. There is a village named Pirgi in the island of Khios where to this day
many of its inhabitants carry the surname "Colombus."
It has even been suggested that the epitaph on his tomb, translated as "Let
me not be confused forever," is a veiled hint left by Columbus that his identity
was other than he publicly stated during his life. However, the actual phrase,
"Non confundar in aeternam" (in Latin), is perhaps more accurately translated
"Let me never be confounded," and is contained in several Psalms.
It is certain that Columbus taught himself to read and write after arriving
in Portugal, learned cutting-edge navigational and trading skills from the
Portuguese, was commissioned by Castile, received financial backing from Genoese
bankers, and was informed, in his own words, by "wise people, ecclesiastics and
laymen, Latins and Greeks, Jews and Moors and with many others of other sects."
He was, in other words, a man of the Mediterranean.
The language of Columbus
Although Genoese documents have been found about a weaver named Colombo, it
has also been noted that, in the preserved documents, Columbus wrote almost
exclusively in Castilian, and that he used the language, with Portuguese
phonetics, even when writing personal notes to himself, to his brother, Italian
friends, and to the Bank of Genoa.
There is a small handwritten Genoese gloss in an Italian edition of the
History of Plinius that he read in his second voyage to America. However, it
displays both Castilian and Portuguese influences. Genoese Italian was not a
written language in the 15th century, but one would expect a better
transliteration into this dialect from a native speaker. However, many people
become "tongue-tied" when using what is to them an intimate childhood
language. There is also a note in non-Genoese Italian in his own Book of
Prophesies exhibiting, according to historian August Kling, "characteristics
of northern Italian humanism in its calligraphy, syntax, and spelling." Columbus
took great care and pride in writing this form of Italian.
Phillips and Phillips point out that five hundred years ago, the Latinate
languages had not distanced themselves to the degree they have today. Bartolomé
de las Casas in his Historia de las Indias explained that Columbus did
not know Castilian well and that he was not born in Castile. In his letters he
refers to himself frequently, if cryptically, as a "foreigner." Ramón Menéndez
Pidal studied the language of Columbus in 1942, suggesting that while still in
Genoa, Columbus learned notions of Portugalized Spanish from travelers, who used
a sort of commercial Latin or lingua franca (latín ginobisco for
Spaniards). He suggests that Columbus learned Spanish in Portugal through its
use in Portugal as or "adopted language of culture" from 1450. This same Spanish
is used by poets like Fernán Silveira and Joan Manuel. The first testimony of
his use of Spanish is from the 1480s. Pidal and many others detect a lot of
Portuguese in his Spanish, where he mixes, for example, falar and
hablar. But Pidal does not accept the hypothesis of a Galician origin for
Columbus by noting that where Portuguese and Galician diverged, Columbus always
used the Portuguese form. Pidal doubts that Columbus could ever tell Portuguese
and Spanish apart, which is why he did not make the effort to learn them
Latin, on the other hand, was the language of scholarship, and here Columbus
excelled. He also kept his journal in Latin, and a "secret" journal in Greek.
According to historian Charles Merrill, analysis of his handwriting indicates
that it is typical of someone who was a native Catalan, and Columbus's phonetic
mistakes in Castilian are "most likely" those of a Catalan. Also, that he
married a Portuguese noblewoman is presented as evidence that his origin was of
nobility rather than the Italian merchant class, since it was unheard of during
his time for nobility to marry outside their class. This same theory suggests he
was the illegitimate son of a prominent Catalan sea-faring family, which had
served as mercenaries in a sea battle against Castilian forces. Fighting against
Ferdinand and being illegitimate were two excellent reasons for keeping his
origins obscure. Furthermore, the disinternment of his brother's body shows him
to be a different age, by nearly a decade, than the "Bartolome Colombo" of the
Perceptions of Columbus
Christopher Columbus has had a cultural significance beyond his actual
achievements and actions as an individual; he also became a symbol, a figure of
legend. The mythology of Columbus has cast him as an archetype for both good and
The casting of Columbus as a figure of "good" or of "evil" often depends on
people's perspectives as to whether the arrival of Europeans to the New World
and the introduction of Christianity or the Catholic faith is seen as positive
Columbus as a hero
Traditionally, Columbus is viewed as a man of heroic stature by the
European-descended population of the New World. He has often been hailed as a
man of heroism and bravery, and also of faith: he sailed westward into mostly
unknown waters, and his unique scheme is often viewed as ingenious. He "set an
example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through
perseverance and faith" (George H. W. Bush, June 8, 1989).
Hero worship of Columbus perhaps reached a zenith around 1892, the 400th
anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus
(including the Columbian Exposition in Chicago) were erected throughout the
United States and Latin America, extolling him as a hero. The story that
Columbus thought the world was round while his contemporaries believed in a flat
earth was often repeated. This tale was used to show that Columbus was
enlightened and forward looking. Columbus's apparent defiance of convention in
sailing west to get to the far east was hailed as a model of "American"-style
In the United States, the admiration of Columbus was particularly embraced by
some members of the Italian American, Hispanic, and Catholic communities. These
groups point to Columbus as one of their own to show that Mediterranean
Catholics could and did make great contributions to the USA. The modern
vilification of Columbus is seen by his supporters and by many scholars as being
politically motivated and non-historical.
Columbus as a villain
Much criticism focuses on the continuing positive Columbus myths and
celebrations (such as Columbus Day) and their effects on American thought
towards present-day Native Americans. Official celebrations of the 500th
anniversary of Columbus's first voyage in 1992 were muted, and demonstrators
protested marking the anniversary at all. It was in this spirit that Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez signed, in October, 2002, a decree changing the name of
Venezuela's "Columbus Day" to "The Day of Indigenous Resistance" in honor of the
nation's indigenous groups. On October 12, 2004, supporters of Chávez destroyed
a 100-year old statue of Columbus in Caracas. They did this because they found
Columbus guilty of 'imperialist genocide'. (For more, see Columbus Day.)
The genocide and atrocious acts committed by the Spanish against the natives
(the Tainos in particular) are well documented in terrifying detail by Bartolomé
de Las Casas in his letters and book A Short Account of the Destruction of
the Indies. See Native American Genocide for more details.
The view of Columbus as a villain received mass exposure in the United States
when an episode of the TV show "The Sopranos" included a shot of A People's
History of the United States by Howard Zinn and demonstrated a common
reaction to critical pedagogy in U.S. classrooms.
Columbus is also viewed as a villain for transporting Native Americans to
Europe for sale as slaves. There is no evidence of any previous trans-Atlantic
voyages that transported slaves for sale. Thus, he was the first known European
to transport slaves eastward across the Atlantic, and so is seen by some as the
founder of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of Africans were
transported westward across the Atlantic for sale as slaves in the atrocity of
the Middle Passage.
Nobody has ever found an authentic contemporary portrait of Christopher
Columbus. Over the years historians have presented many images that reconstruct
his appearance from written descriptions. They depict him variously with long or
short hair, heavy or thin, bearded or clean-shaven, stern or at ease. The image
at the beginning of this article (and which is shown again to the right for the
reader's convenience) dates from close to Columbus's time, but historians do not
know whether the artist painted it from personal knowledge of his appearance.
Despite the uncertainty, textbooks in the United States use this image so
uniformly that it has become the face of Columbus in popular culture.
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