CRISTOFOR COLUMB (1451-1506), navigator de origine italiano-spaniola who sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a route to Asia but achieved fame by making landfall, instead, in the Caribbean Sea. Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. His father was a weaver, and it is believed that Christopher entered this trade as a young man. Information about the beginning of his seafaring career is uncertain, but the independent city-state of Genoa had a busy port, and he may have sailed as a commercial agent in his youth. In the mid-1470s he made his first trading voyage to the island of Khíos (or Chios), in the Aegean Sea. In 1476 he sailed with a convoy bound for England. Legend has it that the fleet was attacked by pirates off the coast of Portugal, where Columbus’s ship was sunk, but he swam to shore and took refuge in Lisbon. Settling there, where his brother Bartholomew Columbus was working as a cartographer, he was married in 1479 to the daughter of the governor of the island of Porto Santo. Diego Columbus, the only child of this marriage, was born in 1480.
Based on information acquired during his travels, and by reading and studying charts and maps, Christopher concluded that the earth was 25 percent smaller than was previously thought, and composed mostly of land. On the basis of these faulty beliefs, he decided that Asia could be reached quickly by sailing west. In 1484 he submitted his theories to John II, king of Portugal, petitioning him to finance a westward crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. His proposal was rejected by a royal maritime commission because of his miscalculations and because Portuguese ships were already rounding Africa.
Soon after, Columbus moved to Spain, where his plans won the support of several influential persons, and he secured an introduction, in 1486, to Isabella I, queen of Castile. About this time, Columbus, then a widower, met Beatriz Enriquez, who became his mistress and the mother of his second son, Ferdinand Columbus. In Spain, as in Portugal, a royal commission rejected his plan. Columbus continued to seek support, however, and in April 1492 his persistence was rewarded: Ferdinand V, king of Castile, and Queen Isabella agreed to sponsor the expedition. The signed contract stipulated that Columbus was to become viceroy of all territories he located; other rewards included a hereditary peerage and one-tenth of all precious metals found within his jurisdiction.
The modest expedition consisted of the Santa María, a decked ship about 30 m (about 100 ft) long under his command, and the Pinta and the Nińa, two small caravels, each about 15 m (about 50 ft) long, which were commanded by Martín Alonzo Pinzón and his brother Vicente Yáńez Pinzón. The fleet sailed from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, on August 3, 1492, carrying perhaps 90 men. Three days out, the mast of the Pinta was damaged, forcing a brief stop at the Canary Islands. On September 6 the three vessels again weighed anchor and sailed due west. Columbus maintained this course until October 7, when, at the suggestion of Martín Pinzón, it was altered to southwest. Meanwhile, the experienced crews grumbled about their foreign commander’s failure to find his way, until signs appeared that they were approaching landfall.
Before dawn on October 12 land was sighted, and early in the morning the expedition landed on Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas. Before an audience of uncomprehending islanders, Columbus claimed that, by right of conquest, their island now belonged to Spain and renamed it San Salvador (“Holy Savior”). Additional landings made during the next few weeks included the islands of Cuba, which Columbus named Juana, in honor of a Spanish princess, and Espańola, later corrupted to Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), all believed by Columbus to be in Asian waters.
In December, the Santa María was wrecked off the coast of Espańola. La Navidad, a makeshift fort, was built of materials salvaged from the vessel, and garrisoned with fewer than 40 men. The Nińa, with Columbus in command, and the Pinta began the homeward voyage in January 1493. After storms drove the ships first to the Azores and then to Lisbon, Columbus arrived at Palos de la Frontera, Spain, in March. He was enthusiastically received by the Spanish monarchs, who confirmed the honors guaranteed by his contract. Additional honors followed, including a noble title.
Columbus planned immediately for a second expedition, with 17 vessels and about 1500 men, which left Spain in September 1493. Landings were made on the islands of Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Antigua. His stop at Puerto Rico is the closest he came to setting foot on land that would later form part of the United States, the main foundation for the claim that Columbus “discovered America.”
On November 27 the vessels anchored off La Navidad, where the fort had been destroyed and its men killed. Columbus abandoned the ruins, and near what is now Cabo Isabela, Dominican Republic, he established the colony of Isabela, which became the first settlement of Europeans in the New World. Leaving the colony on an exploratory voyage in the spring of 1494, he surveyed the coast of Cuba, which he insisted was not an island but part of the Asian mainland, and looked over the island of Jamaica.
When Columbus returned to Isabela on September 29, he found that serious dissension had developed among the colonists, a number of whom were already en route to Spain to press their grievances. One of the major problems confronting Columbus was the hostility of the islanders, whose initial friendliness had been alienated by the brutality of the Europeans. Columbus defeated the islanders in battle in March 1495 and shipped a large number of them to Spain to sell as slaves. Queen Isabella objected, however, and the survivors were returned. A royal investigating commission arrived at Isabela in October 1495. Because this group was consistently critical of his policies, Columbus established a new capital named Santo Domingo, and sailed for Spain leaving Bartholomew in command. He reported directly to Ferdinand and Isabella, who dismissed the critical charges. The sovereigns promised to subsidize a new fleet, but since enthusiasm for the unproductive enterprise had waned, nearly two years elapsed before eight vessels were sent out.
Columbus set sail on his third voyage on May 30, 1498. His first landing, made on July 31, was the three-peaked island of Trinidad, named in honor of the Holy Trinity. He then sighted what is now Venezuela. After cruising along the coast he sailed into the Gulf of Paria. At the mouth of the Orinoco River he led a party ashore. In his logbook he wrote that he had found a “New World,” unknown as yet to Europeans. Columbus set sail again, encountering several additional islands, including Margarita, and then laid a course for Espańola.
Arriving at Santo Domingo on August 31, Columbus found part of the colony in revolt against his brother. He placated the rebels and intensified efforts—fruitless, as it turned out—to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. He also expanded the colony’s gold-panning operations. Meanwhile, his enemies in Spain had convinced the monarchs that Espańola should have a new governor. In May 1499, the crown removed Columbus and appointed Francisco de Bobadilla, who arrived on August 23, 1500, and promptly had Columbus and Bartholomew arrested, shackled in irons, and returned to Spain. Columbus insisted on wearing his chains until the queen removed them. The monarchs pardoned the brothers and rewarded them, but refused to restore Columbus to his post. Bobadilla, however, was replaced as governor by Nicolás de Ovando.
Although Columbus obtained royal support for a fourth voyage to continue his search for a westward passage to Asia, only four worm-eaten caravels were put at his disposal and he was forbidden to stop at Espańola. The expedition sailed from Cádiz in May 1502. The ships were in desperate need of repair by the end of the speedy 21-day crossing. Columbus anchored off Santo Domingo, but he was denied permission to enter the harbor despite an approaching hurricane. The storm annihilated a homeward-bound fleet carrying his enemies, including Bobadilla. Only the ship with Columbus’s gold on board arrived safely.
After completing makeshift repairs on his vessels, Columbus sailed the waters off Honduras, and then cruised south along the coast of Central America for nearly six months in search of the elusive westward passage. In January 1503 he landed in Panama and established a settlement there, but mutiny in the crew and trouble with the islanders led to its abandonment. The expedition, reduced to two caravels, sailed for Espańola, but the rotten ships foundered near Jamaica on June 23, 1503. Columbus sent to Espańola for help, meanwhile forcing the islanders to provide food for his men. Relief arrived after a lapse of nearly a year—a deliberate delay by Ovando. The stranded party embarked on June 28, 1504, for Santo Domingo, and then sailed for Spain, reaching Sanlúcar de Barrameda on November 7. Columbus would never sail again.
The final months of his life were marked by illness and vain attempts to secure restitution from King Ferdinand of all his privileges, even though by then Columbus was quite wealthy. He died on May 20, 1506, at Valladolid. His remains were later interred in Sevilla (Seville), then transferred to Santo Domingo, moved to Havana, Cuba, and finally returned to Sevilla in 1899. (Some historians think the bones removed from Santo Domingo were not his, so his remains may still be there.) Wherever Columbus rests, modern research has considerably diminished the heroic reputation he had gained by the 19th century, although his maritime skills continue to be celebrated.
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