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Christopher Columbus
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Christopher Columbus

One of many artist portrayals
of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (1451May 20, 1506) was an explorer and trader who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Americas in 1492 under the flag of Castilian Spain. He had been searching for a new route to the East Indies. Christian Europe, long allowed safe passage all the way to China 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 the broader context, the story of Columbus is not so much that of an individual or even a journey, but how Europeans were forced out into the Atlantic to find silk and spices. Portugal was seeking a way around Muslim profits by probing down the coast of Africa, but Columbus had another idea. He never publicly acknowledged that he had found land unknown to any of the civilizations of Old World. The fact is that someone, sooner or later, would have found the American continents and the Pacific Ocean, and the human traits of the man who dared to sail West are only of interest because he did it first. Columbus was of course not the first person to reach the Americas, which he found already populated. Nor was he the first European to reach the continent, as Vikings from Northern Europe had visited North America in the 11th century, not to mention Irish Christian Missionaries who probably did so even earlier. But the Vikings thought they'd found just another island, and nothing had come of their encounter with hostile "skraelings" but a settlement in east Canada that lasted for a century or so.

The Columbian landfall, however, was a turning point in world history. It brought a great influx of Europeans into the American continents over the next century, causing widespread colonization, intermingling, construction of new civilizations and destructions of old ones. It also inaugurated the Columbian Exchange, whereby things from tomatoes and corn to diseases and horses passed between the "Old" and "New" Worlds.

Columbus remains a controversial figure. Some – including many Native Americans – view him as responsible, directly and 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 career gave to Western expansion and culture.

It is believed that he was Genoese, and his name in Spanish is Cristóbal Colón, in Portuguese Cristóvão Colombo and in Italian Cristoforo Colombo. Columbus is a Latinate form of his surname.

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.

Table of contents
1 Early life
2 The idea
3 Columbus lobbies for funding
4 Voyages
5 Columbus's National Origin: Subject of Debate
6 Perceptions of Columbus
7 References
8 External links
9 See also

Early life

There are various versions of Columbus's origins and life before 1476. (see ). What is shown here is the account supported by most historians.

Columbus was born around September in the year 1451, supposely, in the Italian port city of Genoa. His father was Domenico Colombo, a woollens merchant, and his mother was Suzanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a woollens merchant. Christopher had 3 younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta.

In 1470, the family moved to Savano, 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 Spenola 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 and, its believed that, that's where he recruited some of his sailors from.

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. 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' 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, to Madeira in 1478 to purchase sugar, and along the coasts of West Africa between 1482 and 1485, reaching the Portuguese trade post São Jorge da Mina at the Guinea coast.

Columbus married Felipa Perestello e Moniz, a daughter from a noble Portuguese family of Italian ancestry, in 1479. Felipa's father had partaken in the conquest of the Madeira Islands and owned one of them, but died when Felipa was a baby, leaving his second wife a wealthy widow. As part of his dowry the mariner received all 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, but Felipa died in January of 1485. Columbus later found a lifelong partner in Spain, an orphan named Beatriz Enriquez living with a cousin in the weaving industry of Córdoba, and the two had a son, Ferdinand in 1488. They never married, but Columbus left Beatriz a rich woman and directed Diego to treat her as his own mother. Both boys served as pages to Prince Juan, son of Ferdinand and Isabella, and each later contributed, with fabulous success, to the rehabilitation of their father's reputation.

The idea

By the 1480s, Columbus 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, rather than by going south and east around Africa.

It is sometimes claimed that the reason Columbus had a hard time receiving support for this plan was that Europeans believed in the flat earth. This myth can be traced to Washington Irving's novel The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

In fact, that the Earth is round was evident to most people of Columbus's time, especially other sailors and navigators. 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 (in fact, it occupies about 120 degrees, leaving 240 degrees unaccounted for at that time).

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 40,000km (24,900 statute miles of 5,280 feet each), whereas the circumference of Columbus's earth was the equivalent of at most 19,000 modern statue miles (or 30,600km). Columbus calculated that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was 2,400 nautical miles (about 4,444km).

In fact, the distance is about 19,600km (or 10,600 nautical miles), 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 – but, ultimately, like so many successful men, extraordinarily fortunate.

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's probable that he made the same outrageous demands for himself that he later did 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 discovered."

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 discover, 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.


First Voyage

That year, on the evening of August 3, Columbus left from
Palos with three ships, the Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta. The ships were property of the Pinzón brothers 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.

One of the enduring legends is that of a faked logbook to make his crew believe they had covered a smaller distance than they actually had. All we have is Bartolome de Las Casas's abstract, and he was not a mariner. Nor was it ever easy to read Columbus's nonnative Spanish with its Portuguese phonetics and Genoese locutions. Until the original diary is found we'll never be sure, but he could never have fooled all the sailors, the pilots, masters, nor least of all the experienced captains at the helms of the Niña and Pinta, the Pinzón brothers. Most likely he calculated the distance as he'd been taught as a youth, and then converted it into numbers the crew would understand. Another 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 or suggestions.

There is still much discussion about which island he reached, but many historians believe that it was likely San Salvador Island in the Bahamas (landing was on October 12, 1492).

The Native Americans he encountered, the Taíno or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. In his log for October 14, 1492, Columbus drafted a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella concerning the Taíno:

Vuestras Altezas cuando mandaren puedenlos todos llevar a Castilla o tenellos en la misma isla captivos, porque con cincuenta hombres los ternan todos sojuzgados, les haran hazar todo lo que quisieren.

("When your highnesses should so command, all of them can be brought to Castile, or be kept captive on their own island, for with fifty men you will keep them all in subjugation and make them do anything you wish.")

He wrote with such awe of the friendly innocence and beauty of these Indians in their tropical paradise 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." (Just to the West were their enemies, the Caribs, who lived on human flesh, castrating captured Taíno boys and raising them to be plump and juicy.) No blood was shed on this first voyage, and 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. He'd heard the word "Kulkukan" (Feathered Serpent), and rejoiced that the land of "Kublai Khan" or the "Great Khan" was nigh. He believed the peaks of Cuba to be the Himalayas, 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 discovery of 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. Isabella immediately had the Indians clothed in warm velvets; her tenderness for her new subjects would be a thorn in conquistador plans for years. Columbus also displayed the previously unknown tobacco plant, the pineapple fruit, the turkey and the sailor's first love, the hammock.

Europeans had not yet accidentally set off the epidemics that would kill as many as 85,000,000 Native Americans in fifty years, but one of the Pinzóns was dying of syphilis, a new ailment that would reach China by 1505. And no one realized that back in the islands the world's first Latin Americans were in their mothers' wombs.

Second voyage

He left 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.

He laid his course more southerly than on his first voyage, first sighting Dominica, which is quite rugged, so he turned north, discovering and naming Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Antigua, and Nevis in the Lesser Antilles, landing on them and claiming them for Spain as he did the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He then went 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 discovered; 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 explored the south coast of Cuba but did not round the western end, thus convincing himself that it was a peninsula rather than an island, and discovered Jamaica.

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. 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' 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 native susceptibility to European diseases.

In his letters to the Spanish king and queen, Columbus would repeatedly suggest slavery as a way to profit from the new discoveries, but these suggestions were all rejected: the monarchs preferred to view the natives as future members of Christendom.

More importantly, Columbus oversaw the establishment of the encomienda (trusteeship) system, by which Spaniards were granted exclusive use of Indian labor in return for converting them to Christianity; this policy amounted to enslavement of the local population. In some cases, Indians were worked to death; in other cases they died due to newly introduced diseases and malnutrition. Estimates of the pre-Columbian population vary enormously; see fuller discussion at Taíno. Cook and Borah (see references below) estimated the native population (Taíno) of Hispanola at the time of Columbus's conquest in 1493 at 8,000,000, probably the highest estimate. In 1496 Bartolome de las Casas conducted a census after the conquest and initial imposition of the encomienda system, arriving at an estimate of only 3,000,000 Taíno. A Spanish census in 1514 records only 22,000 Taíno, and a census in 1542 recorded only 200. Columbus established his brothers as commanders of the settlements and left Hispaniola for Europe on March 10, 1496; they and other Spanish conquerors employed the encomienda system with similar results elsewhere in the Americas.

Third voyage and arrest

In 1498, Columbus left for the New World a third time, accompanied by the young Bartolome de Las Casas, who would later provide partial transcripts of Columbus's logs. This time he discovered the island of Trinidad (July 31) and the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River, before returning to Hispaniola. 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.

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 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 voyage and later life

Nevertheless he made a fourth voyage, in 1502-1504 (he left Spain on May 9, 1502). On this voyage, accompanied by his younger son Ferdinand, he explored the coast of Central America from Belize to Panama. In 1502, off the coast of what is now Honduras, a trading ship as "long as a galley" was encountered, filled with cargo. This was the first recorded encounter by the Spanish with the Native American civilization of Mesoamerica. Later Columbus was stranded on Jamaica for a year; he sent two men by canoe to get help from Hispaniola; in the meantime, he impressed the local population by correctly predicting an eclipse of the moon. Help finally arrived, and he returned to Spain in 1504.

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 discoveries of the "paradise" as part of God's plan which would soon result in the Last Judgement and the end of the world.

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 Spain, fairly wealthy due to the gold his men had accumulated in Hispaniola. He was still convinced that his discoveries were along the East Coast of Asia. Even after his death, his travels continued: first interred in Valladolid and then in Seville, the will of his son Diego, who had been governor of Hispaniola, had the corpse transferred to Santo Domingo in 1542. In 1795 the French took over, and the corpse was moved to Havana. After the war of 1898, Cuba became independent and Columbus' remains were moved back to Spain, to the cathedral of Seville. However, some claim that he is still buried in the cathedral of Santo Domingo.

Columbus's National Origin: Subject of Debate

There has been doubt about Columbus's national origin. Although he is generally assumed to be 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 kept a secret deliberately. It has also been noted that he not only wrote flawless Castilian, but that he used the language even when writing with Italians.

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' 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.

Genoese documents have been found about a weaver named Colombo. Another hypothesis is that Columbus served under the French caper Guillaume Casenove Coulon and took his surname, but later tried to hide his piracy. Some Basque historians have claimed that he was Basque. Others have said that he was a converso (Spanish Jew converted to Christianity). In Spain, even converted Jews were much mistrusted; it was suggested that many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secret. Another theory is that he was from the island of Corsica, which at the time was part of the Genoan empire. 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), or Greek, or Portuguese. Documents were found in Alentejo, a region of Portugal, suggesting he was born there. Others say that he named the island of Cuba, after the Portuguese town Cuba in Alentejo.

There is a lot of speculation that Columbus came 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. 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".

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 for evil.

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 Roman Catholic faith is seen as positive or negative.

Columbus as The Great Hero

Hero worship of Columbus perhaps reached its zenith around 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus were erected throughout the United States and Latin America, extolling him as a hero.

The myth that Columbus thought the world 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 defiance of convention in sailing west to get to the far east was hailed as a model of "American"-style can-do inventiveness.

In the United States, the glorification 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.

Columbus as The Great Villain

Friar Bartolome de Las Casas wrote of Columbus's cruelties contemporaneously with Columbus - these texts were used to substantiate the "black legend" by which English imperialists justified their conquests through comparison with Spanish atrocities. However, it was not until the 1960s that Columbus increasingly became seen in the U.S. as an example of what was and is wrong with European imperialism – conquest, exploitation, slavery, genocide. Some argue that the policies Columbus enacted as viceroy and governor of Spanish-occupied territories in the Americas between 1493 and 1500 meet the modern legal definition of genocide.

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.. (For more, see Columbus Day)


External links

Discovery Channel says Columbus was Catalan - [1]

See also