Christopher Columbus was an Italian mariner and navigator and is today widely known as the "discoverer of the New World," as he was the first Renaissance-age explorer from Europe to discover the Americas. He discovered the Americas on October 12, 1492, and so on October 12 (or thereabouts; it is quite often celebrated on the previous Monday to get a three-day weekend), Americans celebrate Columbus Day.
Christopher Columbus is an Anglicized version of his name. He was born Cristoforo Colombo in September 1451 in Genoa, Italy. Young Chris was the oldest son of Domenico Colombo, a wool-worker and small-scale merchant, and Domenico's wife, Susanna Fontanarossa. He also had two younger brothers, Bartholomew and Diego. Essentially, he grew up in Italy during the early Renaissance in a low-middle class family.
Chris received little formal education and was largely self-taught, later learning to read Latin and write Castilian. Middle class folks in Italy at that time did not receive an education, as their hands were often needed to provide food and money for the family.
As a result of his middle-class stature, Chris began working at a young age. He quickly took a liking to the sea, and after showing his adept hand on fishing vessels near Genoa, he made his first notable voyage to the Aegean island of Chios in 1475. A year later in 1476, Chris survived a shipwreck off Cape St. Vincent and swam ashore. Without work and nearly destitute, Chris moved late in 1476 to Lisbon, Portugal, where he moved in with his brother Bartholomew. Both brothers worked as cartographers, but Chris had already been bitten by the sailing bug and dreamed of making a fortune on the seas. In 1477, he joined up with the Portugese merchant marines and sailed to England and Ireland.
Chris had a burgeoning personal life as well at this time. He married Felipa Perestello e Moniz, a girl from an impoverished noble Portuguese family, in 1479, and the pair had a son, Diego, in 1480. Felipa died in 1485, and Columbus would later father a second child with Beatriz Enríquez de Harana of Cordoba. Although he and Beatriz never married, he did recognize their child, Ferdinand, as his son.
By the mid-1480s, Chris had become focused on his plans of discovery, chief among them the desire to discover a westward route to Asia. Chris firmly believed that such a passage did exist, and that a direct trade route to India could bring untold riches. Unfortunately, he needed funding for his journey, so he went to where the money was at that time: the royalty.
In 1484, Chris began to make the rounds of the royalty in southern Europe. He asked King John II of Portugal to back his voyage west, but had been refused. Not giving up that easily, in 1485, he went to Spain with his young son, Diego, to seek the aid of Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon. Though the Spanish monarchs at first rejected Chris's plan, they did find it somewhat intriguing, as they gave him a small annuity to live on.
Chris was emboldened by his minor success, so he stayed in Spain and continued to refine his plans. In January of 1492, after being rejected again in 1488 by the royalty in Spain, Columbus finally obtained the support of Ferdinand and Isabella. The favorable response came directly after the fall of Granada, which was the last Moorish stronghold in Spain. This victory led Spanish Christians to believe they were close to eliminating the spread of Islam in southern Europe, and thus Christian missionary zeal was on the rise. Ferdinand and Isabella were keen to this, as well as to the desire to increase Spanish prominence in Europe over that of Portugal and the desire for gold and conquest, so as a result, the time was finally right to fund Chris's historic voyage.
On August 3, 1492, the fleet (consisting of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María) set sail from Palos, on the Tinto River in southern Spain. The fleet stopped for a month in the Canary Islands, making final preparations, and finally on September 7, 1492, they set sail due west. According to records of the voyage, weather remained fair throughout, which is perhaps a large reason why the voyage was successful. The first sighting of land came at dawn on October 12, which is why this day is celebrated as Columbus Day). The fleet made landfall the next day, in what is now San Salvador in the Caribbean Sea.
Chris believed he had reached the East Indies. As a result, he referred to the native inhabitants of the island as "Indians" in his discussions and reports. This term was eventually applied to all of the indigenous people of the New World. The three ships sailed among other Bahama islands, most notably Cuba, which Columbus convinced himself was the mainland of China. There was little gold there, and so the voyage continued to Haiti, which he renamed Hispaniola. Chris believed he had found Japan this time. Haiti was rich with gold and natural resources, and so by the end of 1492, he set sail back to Europe with many riches and proof of his journey.
Upon his return to Europe, Chris landed in Portugal and paid a visit to King John II of that nation. He then appeared before Isabella and Ferdinand in Barcelona, displaying gold, exotic birds, herbs and spices, and even human captives that he had brought from the New World. The king and queen were duly impressed and immediately agreed to fund a second voyage. The second voyage contained at least 17 ships and 1300 men, and it set sail from Cádiz, Spain on September 25, 1493. This trip involved visits to Dominica and Puerto Rico in addition to the previous places he had visited on the first voyage.
Upon reaching Navidad, the settlement he had founded on his first voyage on Hispaniola, Chris found the settlement destroyed and the settlers dead, victims of strong native resistance against their strong-armed colonial tactics. After building more fortified settlements, including one named La Isabela, in honor of the queen, Columbus declared himself governor of Hispaniola, intending it to become a trading post for European settlers to conduct business. He still expected to find great Oriental empires in the unexplored lands nearby.
In February 1494, 12 ships returned to Spain from La Isabela, commanded by an associate of Chris's, Antonio de Torres. Other associates of his led a campaign of terror and violence against the native inhabitants of Hispaniola, in revenge for the murder of their comrades at Navidad (supposedly). They killed and captured many natives, taking them as slaves, seemingly with the full knowledge and approval of Columbus. By 1496, the Spanish had conquered and began to colonize Hispaniola.
On March 10, 1496, Chris set sail for Spain, leaving his two brothers in charge of Hispaniola. When he reached Spain at the end of his second voyage, he found Spain at war with France and a king and queen even more eager to acquire gold and other riches from the New World to help gain the upper hand in the war. Chris was given six ships and he set sail for a third trip across the ocean on May 30, 1498. Early on this trip, Trinidad was discovered and named.
When the expedition arrived back at Hispaniola, he found it in chaos and on the verge of civil war between two factions, one led by his brothers and the other led by an angry mayor of one of the settlements. In addition, the indigenous tribes were very angry with Bartholomew's reorganization of the gold production process, which favored certain Spaniards over others and exploited the native labor force. As Chris tried to restore order, sometimes resorting to hangings and military attacks, the angry mayor and his fellow opposition leaders sent a great many letters of complaint against Columbus and his brothers back to the king and queen of Spain. The rulers finally gave in and sent the Spanish chief justice, Francisco de Bobadilla, to Hispaniola. Bobadilla was the subject of a great deal of bribery, but finally the opposition to the Columbus brothers won Bobadilla over and he took Columbus and his brothers into his custody and sent all three men back to Spain in shackles.
Ferdinand and Isabella later ordered Columbus’ release, and he appeared before them at Granada in December 1500. The monarchs agreed that Columbus was a superior mariner and navigator, but questioned his abilities to govern. As a result, he was stripped of the governorship of Hispaniola, but was given supplies and ships for a fourth voyage. As he prepared for the voyage, which would be his last, Columbus revealed in his writings an even stronger mystical vision of himself as the bearer of Christianity to these foreign lands.
He set sail on May 9, 1502, with four ships, arriving at Santo Domingo on Hispaniola on June 29. He continued onward, exploring past Jamaica, the southern shore of Cuba, Honduras, and Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Columbus showed great navigation skill on a very difficult voyage, involving an encounter with at least one hurricane. Christopher was searching for the strait to India, but due to his lack of success and dwindling supplies, he was eventually forced to turn back. En route to Hispaniola, however, his ships were beached on the coast of Jamaica in June of 1503 due to significant damage incurred over the long, dangerous voyage. Columbus and his crew spent a year in Jamaica, building some settlements, before returning to Spain on a ship sent from Hispaniola. Upon his final return to Spain in October 1504, he learned that Queen Isabella, long his most sympathetic supporter, was very ill. She died on November 26, 1504.
By the end of this final voyage, Chris was becoming quite ill; he was suffering from arthritis as well as malaria. He kept a small portion of the gold brought from Hispaniola and lived relatively comfortably in Seville for the last year of his life. He was quite angry with the king, though, because he believed that the crown had failed to live up to their side of the agreement. He felt that the crown should have provided him with New World property and gold, which he didn't recieve. He continually petitioned King Ferdinand, but was denied each time. He died in Vallodid, Spain on May 20, 1506. Chris's remains were later moved to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, where he was laid to rest with his son Diego. In 1899, his remains were returned to Spain and today they rest in Seville Cathedral.
The debate over Columbus’ character and legacy rages on even today. Many attribute his visits to the New World with the dawning of a new age, and attribute to him much of the prosperity of the modern world; in this light, the United States celebrates Columbus Day. Others argue that his legacy is one of death, fraud, and persecution, and that his legacy is strongly overblown. The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle.