"Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus"-  Sebastiano del Piombo (1519)
"Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus"- Sebastiano del Piombo (1519)

external image Ridolfo_Ghirlandaio_Columbus.jpg

Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.
When Christopher Columbus set sail to the West in 1492, he never expected to leave such a permanent mark on world history for centuries to come. Given royal permission by Queen Isabella I of Castile and by King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Christopher originally had set out to find a new trade route to the exotic East, namely India. The East was bursting with trade as countries such as India and China were offering exotic spices and herbs that couldn't be found anywhere else. However, what Christopher Columbus found was not a new trade route to India but a whole new world inhabited by exotic wildlife, new crops, and a variety of natives. Christopher believed he had found an unexplored part of India as he would originally refer to the Native Americans as Indians. What Christopher Columbus didn't know was that he had just found a whole new section of the world, and that his mark on history would inspire praise, debate, and criticism.

Early Life

Christopher Columbus was believed to have been born on or before October 31,1451 in Genoa, Italy. He was born son of Domenico Colombo, being the eldest of 3 brothers and 1 sister. Not much is known about his early childhood, with the earliest mention of him being around 1476 when he was just 14 year old. It was during 1476 that Columbus went on his first voyage to the Atlantic Ocean, nearly losing his life after French privateers attacked the commercial fleet he was riding in just off the coast of Portugal. However, this didn't discourage the young sailor and the journey actually left him inspired. Columbus then based himself in Lisbon, Portugal where he would meet his brother Bartholomew. From then on, Columbus was determined to sail the world as a seagoing entrepreneur.

A young Christopher Columbus
A young Christopher Columbus

Columbus went on several more trading voyages, most of them to the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.
The closest he would ever come to Asia was during these voyages, specifically to the island of Khios in modern day Greece. It is also believed that Columbus also voyaged to Northern Europe and possibly Iceland. In 1479, Columbus met Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, a woman from an impoverished noble Portuguese family, and would then marry her in Lisbon that same year. The two had a son, Diego Columbus, the following year in 1480. Columbus then continued his trading journey to Africa from 1482-1485, going to the Guinea and Gold coasts in West Africa. At one point, Columbus ventured to the Portuguese fortress of São Jorge da Mina located in modern-day Ghana. It was here where Columbus learned of the Portuguese secrets of navigation, learning how to read trade winds and how to navigate in the much more vast waters of the Atlantic. This ignited a spark in Columbus, as his long dream of exploring the unknown was finally within his grasp. He even petitioned King John II of Portugal for support to cross the Atlantic in 1484 but was denied. Even more bad news would befall Columbus, as Felipa would die in 1485. This saddened Columbus and he soon decided to leave Lisbon and moved to Spain.

Columbus quickly got over Felipa's death, finding a 20-year old mistress named Beatriz Enriquez de Arana in 1487 to be a suitable replacement for Felipa. Reinvigorated, Columbus took it upon himself to occupy his time by learning different languages such as Latin and expanding his knowledge about astronomy, geography and the world. He was especially fond of the travels of Marco Polo and was also very religious, burying himself in the Bible and living its philosophy in his daily life. Columbus never gave up on his dream to sail the world and eventually mustered the courage to ask the monarchs of Castile for their permission to allow him to sail to West and hopefully find another route to the Indian subcontinent. The Spanish, and for that matter most of Europe, were encouraged to find new trade routes to the East as the Ottomans had just conquered in 1453 the only city which gave most, if not all, of Europe access to the East: Constantinople. Due to the fact that the Ottomans had a very sour relationship with a Catholic Europe, the powerful Sunni Islam nation embargoed many European nations from trading in the city, therefore cutting off any trade route to the Silk Road which lead to the East and its riches. Trade became difficult and dangerous, as privateers would often raid trade ships and steal their goods as well raiding parties would attack land trade convoys.

After asking twice, with the help of the Spanish treasurer Luis de Santangel, Columbus finally received permission to sail to the West and find a new trade route to India and the Orient.

Voyages to the West


Upon acceptance of his request to sail West, Christopher Columbus was granted 3 ships: a carrack named "Santa Maria" and two smaller caravels called "Pinta" and "Santa Clara" which had been nicknamed "La Niña". Before officially departing, Columbus stopped by the Canary Islands. Unlike previous attempts made by other explorers, Columbus knew that the trade winds working off of the Canary Islands would be much more beneficial than the ones prevailing off the Azores. Effectively, the 3 ships were able to use the northeastern trade wind and after a month of repairs and provisions, the fleet finally set sail on September 6, 1492.


Christopher Columbus' first voyage
Christopher Columbus' first voyage


Initially, the sailors on board of Columbus' ships were just as inspired as he was. The discovery of new trade routes and unexplored lands would ultimately lead to riches for many of these sailors. However, by October 10, the crew started to lose patience. Talks of mutiny were abound and morale was very low. The sight of seaweed and seagulls would keep the crew going as the sight of such things usually meant land was nearby. Regardless, patience was running thin. Columbus never lost faith in his ideas but even he could recognize that if landfall wasn't made soon, mutiny would be all but certain. In an event that would seem as a fateful stroke of luck, a lookout on the "Pinta" finally spotted land. Verified by the captain, the fleet was notified of the discovery and the fleet quickly made landfall. Christopher Columbus, relieved and overjoyed, called the island where he made landfall "San Salvador" or what is known as modern day Watlings Island in the Bahamas. Please note that this claim is widely disputed as it is possible Columbus could have landed on other Bahamian islands such as Samana Cay, Rum Cay, or the Plana Cays. Anxious, Columbus spent little time on the island and quickly ventured out to the rest of the Caribbean where he made landfalls in modern day Cuba and Hispaniola.








With the discovery of the islands, Columbus was convinced he had just found a new trade route to the East. Columbus
The return of Christopher Columbus, by Eugène Delacroix
The return of Christopher Columbus, by Eugène Delacroix

even went as far to believe that he found Japan, when really it was Cuba. After leaving Cuba, the trade winds carried his fleet east where he encountered Hispaniola, inhabited by the native Taino. With the help of the local chieftain, Columbus was able to set up a temporary settlement for 39 men until Columbus could return from Spain with more materials. The accidental crashing of the "Santa Maria" on December 25, 1492 made the establishing of this settlement much easier and earned it its nickname "La Navidad (The Christmas)". On January 16,1493 with some local treasure in hand and with the two remaining ships still intact, Columbus made his way back to Spain to inform the monarchs of the great news. However, the journey was nightmarish as a storm had fallen upon the fleet. The whole of the fleet was forced to make landfall in the Azores. At the time, Portugal and Spain weren't exactly on the best of terms as both essentially rivaled each other when it came to trade. So when Columbus landed on the Azores, he was met with hostility rather than cheer. His fleet was captured and imprisoned until Columbus was able to secure the fleet's freedom. Due to the fact that "La Niña" had been damaged during the storm, Columbus was forced to make landfall once more, this time in Lisbon. He spent about a week here, during which he was interviewed by Bartholomew Dias whom had recently rounded the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. After the week was spent, he left Lisbon for Spain and arrived there on March 15. 1493 where he quickly informed the monarchs of Spain of his discovery. News of Columbus' discovery spread like wildfire throughout Europe.




Columbus was quickly given permission to set sail once more. This time, Columbus was given 17 ships with about 1,200 men and enough supplies to establish colonies all across the New World. Some of the men on board these boats were priests, farmers, and regular foot soldiers. This was in an effort to help establish permanent
Christopher Columbus' second voyage
Christopher Columbus' second voyage
on in colonies on the islands and create new Catholic missions in order to spread the faith to the local natives. This would be regarded as common practice by the Spanish and was mainly fueled by the Spanish Inquisition going on in Spain at the time. Much like the first voyage, Columbus departed from the Canaries, this time taking a more southern route which would eventually land him in Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. Columbus' second voyage was filled with a lot more discovery as he ventured through most of the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, the southern coasts of Hispaniola and Cuba as well as Jamaica. On November 22, 1493 Columbus decided to revisit the fort of "La Navidad" which he had set up during his first voyage. Much to his and his crew's surprise, the fort was in ruins. Apparently, the local Taino had destroyed the fort and had killed the Spaniards left to defend the fort (albeit only 11 of their bodies were found). Columbus then decided to set up a new fort farther east of the island, this time with heavier defenses and better equipment. This one would be called "La Isabela". Unfortunately for Columbus, the settlement was poorly located and had to be abandoned. Columbus then left for Spain once more with his newly acquired knowledge of the area.

Later Voyages, Decline, and Death


Christopher Columbus' third voyage
Christopher Columbus' third voyage

Columbus' third voyage was very important as he finally found the South American continent by making landfall in modern-day Venezuela. Convinced by the local fresh water, Columbus made it clear that him and his crew were in some sort of continent. Beyond this, however, Columbus' third voyage was anything but fruitful. The settlements that had been left on Hispaniola by Spanish colonists were under rebellion. These disgruntled colonists were livid as the promised riches that the New World was supposed to provide were nowhere to be found and were led to believe that Christopher Columbus had purposefully mismanaged them. At the same time this was happening, a group of returning settlers made landfall in Spain and made the monarchs aware of the disgruntled settlers. While Columbus had some of his crew hanged for disobedience, it was of no use. By order of the Spanish Crown, Columbus was forced to make peace with the rebellious colonists. To make matters worse, Columbus refused to baptize the natives as he would profit from their enslavement which wouldn't be possible if they were officially baptized. This angered the clergy and the monarchy. Finally, in 1500, Columbus was arrested and jailed and had his title of governor stripped from him. He was eventually released, but it is undeniable to believe that although Columbus was a free man, his reputation would forever be tarnished and his objectives questioned.


After this episode, Columbus was determined to reclaim his title and make himself worthy to the Spanish Monarchy once more. Disgruntled, Columbus was desperate to fix his reputation and his legacy, as the stripping of his title severed his financial income and made the recruitment of sailors very difficult. Regardless of the financial barriers, Columbus was able to set sail on his fourth and last voyage to the New World. This time, Columbus had a specific goal in mind which was to find the Strait of Malacca which was supposed to be located in the Indian Ocean (remember, Columbus still believed the New World was actually the Indian subcontinent). Accompanied by his brother Bartalomeo and his 13 year old son Fernando, Columbus set sail once again with 4 ships on May 11, 1502.

The beginning of the voyage was not very pleasant. The fleet had encountered a hurricane on the coast of the island known today as Martinique. While able to evade the hurricane,
Christopher Columbus' fourth and last voyage
Christopher Columbus' fourth and last voyage

Columbus looked for shelter in Hispaniola only to be denied by the new governor. At the same time, the very first Spanish treasure fleet had set sail to deliver riches to Spain. The only problem was that they sailed directly into the hurricane Columbus had steered away from. 29 of the 30 ships in the fleet were destroyed. During this, Columbus made a brief stop in Jamaica and set sail to what would later be known as Central America. Columbus would spend the next two months exploring the coast of Central America, making landfall in places such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. All was great until Columbus was told by one of the local tribes in Panama that there was gold and a strait that led to another ocean near a river. Despite the chieftain's warning to not go past a certain point down the river, Columbus sailed on and eventually one of the ships became stranded. At the same time, a garrison Columbus had helped establish near the mouth of the river was attacked by the tribe, resulting in the damage of other ships stationed there. Desperate for repairs and supplies, Columbus set sail for Hispaniola. Along the way he discovered the Cayman Islands. Suffering from a storm off the coast of Cuba, Columbus and his fleet finally beached in St.Ann's Bay, Jamaica. Columbus would remain here for one year whilst he tried to persuade the governor of Hispaniola to send support. The governor deeply absolutely hated Columbus and left him to die. While some of Columbus' crew left to find help on Hispaniola, Columbus was able to convince the natives to feed them and to give them shelter by predicting the sighting of a lunar eclipse, something the natives believed would be an omen until Columbus showed how "superior" he was. On June 29, 1504 help had finally arrived. Christopher Columbus made landfall in Spain one last time on November 7, 1504.

Once back in Spain, Columbus dedicated his late life to reclaiming what he believed was rightfully his. He also became even more religious, mainly thanks to his son Diego and a Carthusian monk named Gaspar Gorricio. He wrote two books, one called "A Book of Privileges" (1502) which detailed what the Spanish Crown was entitled to in the newly conquered lands, and another book named "Book of Prophecies" (1505) where he sees his accomplishments as not only achievements but also fulfillment of Biblical prophecy in Christian eschatology. It was during Columbus' final years where he would formally challenge the Spanish Crown to his rightful claims on the profits made from the newly discovered lands. However, since Columbus was stripped of his rank as governor, the crown did not feel obliged to hold up their end of the bargain and was declined the financial benefits. Even after his death, Columbus' heirs would fight for a part of the profit in a series of lawsuits known as the "Pleitos Colombinos (Columbian Lawsuits)".


The death of Columbus
The death of Columbus

Christopher Columbus' tomb
Christopher Columbus' tomb



Finally, on May 20, 1506, aged 54, Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain. It has since been speculated that Columbus was probably plagued with Reiter's syndrome which is very similar in effect to gout. It didn't help his later years would be also be plagued by the influenza. Dying a disgruntled and sad man, Christopher Columbus died still believing he had found India.





Legacy


To many of those reading this bibliography, it would seem very obvious what Christopher Columbus' legacy was. Without Columbus, most of us reading this bibliography today might have never existed. Columbus' discovery of the New World opened the gateway for centuries upon centuries of history to come to the new lands. The integration of the native societies and the European societies has created distinct and unique cultures that are still alive on many of the lands Columbus set foot on. The explosion of trade, including slavery, opened the New World to a variety of new inhabitants and new material which would heavily influence the daily lives of the natives as well as the European visitors. The creation of new societies, the ceaseless desire for liberty, and the determination of many people to become unique in their own image would drive the course of history in the West for many centuries, and in a way it still does. It is also undeniable that Columbus' finding have been heavily disputed, as it became clear at one point that Columbus was not the first to find the New World. Rather, the viking Leif Ericsson would have that honor when he discovered Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Regardless of conspiracy, it is undeniably true that without Christopher Columbus, the world would not have been the same.


"Riches don't make a man rich. They only make him busier."
"Riches don't make a man rich. They only make him busier."


If you wish to learn more about Christopher Columbus, click here

If you wish to read some of Columbus' diary entries, click here