Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator, explorer, and colonizer who toured across the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the American continents. He contributed to establishing good relations between the indigenous Americans and the Europeans.
It is believed that Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. Coming from a middle class family, he worked with his father at his cheese stand. He was a student of the Prince Henry's School of Navigation, located in Portugal.
His original name was Cristoforo Colombo. Christopher Columbus is an Anglicization of this Italian name. In Spanish, it is Cristóbal Colón, which, according to most sources, is what Columbus called himself on settling in Spain.
Columbus was light-eyed, and had reddish hair. His son Ferdinand has described him as a person with a good stature and appearance, taller than the average and strong-limbed. He has been described as having lively eyes, red hair, a ruddy and freckled face, cheeks somewhat high, an aquiline nose, and a light complexion with a tinge of red. Ferdinand also says that Columbus' hair was blonde till thirty years of age, after which it turned white. Ironically, there exists no authentic portrait of his.
As a teenager, Columbus took part in trading voyages to the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
In 1470, he was hired on a Genoese ship to help Rene I, the Duke of Anjou, in his mission to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. In 1473, Columbus served as a business agent for the Centurione, Spinola and Di Negro families in Genoa.
One of his early voyages of 1474-75 to the island of Chios had brought him closest to Asia.
The following year, he sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. This was his first voyage to the Atlantic. During this 1476 voyage, he was attacked by the French privateers, his ship was burned, and he had to swim his way to Portugal. There he went to Lisbon (Portugal's capital).
In 1477, Columbus visited Galway. That's where he halted on his way to Iceland.
Columbus returned to Portugal and settled there. He married Felipa Perestrelo, the daughter of Bartolomeo Muniz de Perestrelo, an Italian sailor. They had a son in 1480. Out of the wedlock with Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, he had a second son Ferdinand in 1488.
After marrying Felipa, Columbus worked as a draftsman, illustrating books and making terrestrial globes. He drew charts and maps, and collected material for his geographical study. That was the time when geographical research was in its rudimentary stage which made these drawings important for the sailors and navigators of the time. Vespucius is said to have paid 130 ducats (equals to an amount greater than today's $500) for one map.
In 1480, Columbus, with the help of his brothers, came up with a plan to travel to the Indies, which covered the south and east Asia, by crossing the Atlantic that was then known as the Ocean Sea.
Columbus probably underestimated the Earth's diameter and thought he would easily reach Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. Interestingly, Columbus had calculated the Earth's circumference to be just 25,255 kilometers. Contrary to common belief, he did not prove that the Earth was round.
Before Columbus was to take up a voyage to the Indies, the Europeans believed that a westward voyage was very risky and would surely prove fatal for the voyager. Spain wanted to gain supremacy over the European countries in some way, and hence the Spanish king was ready to accept Columbus' plans. He funded Columbus' voyage that was aimed at finding a route to Asia.
Columbus began his first voyage on August 3, 1492. He left Palos de la Frontera with a ship (Santa María) and two caravels (La Niña and La Pinta). He sailed to the Canary Islands from where he left for a five-day tour across the waters. He was accompanied by around 90 crew members. Most of them were Spanish.
With land out of their sight and no surety of whether they would return, it was natural for the crew members to panic. So that they feel less insecure, Columbus is believed to have not disclosed to them, really how far they were from land.
On October 12, 1492, one of the sailors accompanying Columbus noticed a patch of land, which is today a part of the Bahamas. He named that patch 'San Salvador' (Christ the Savior). According to his records, the inhabitants of the island were "sweet and gentle".
Columbus ventured to parts of Cuba and Hispaniola. On his arrival, Cuba became a Spanish colony. Hispaniola got its name when Columbus named this island as Hispana in Latin and La Isla Española in Spanish, after which the term Hispaniola came to be used commonly among the English-speaking people.
Santa Maria broke down near Hispaniola. Columbus headed for Spain in La Niña. On March 15, 1493, Columbus reached Spain. He is believed to have offered Ferdinand and Isabella (king and queen from Spain) gold and slaves in return of sponsoring his next voyage. He is believed to have taken along some people whom he kidnapped, some gold, and a few birds and plants to show Ferdinand and Isabella what he could offer.
Columbus' second voyage began in the September of 1493. In October that year, he, along with 17 ships that carried over 1000 men, left the Canary Islands. This time, he was also accompanied by domesticated animals like pigs, horses, and cattle. He explored a number of islands like Guadalupe, Montserrat, Redondo, and Antigua during the journey.
Was Columbus guilty of genocide? After arriving somewhere in South America, Columbus was greeted by Arawaks (term used for people inhabiting that region). He was attracted to the gold they wore and driven by his greed to acquire it, he is said to have ill-treated and enslaved them. There are accounts of him compelling the Arawaks to tell him where gold could be found and also bring him gold.
Columbus is believed to have threatened and punished the Arawaks and managed to exercise complete control over them. This, in some way, is thought to have led to mass-killings, what we better know as genocide.
The truth of these accounts is debatable and historians and writers are divided over whether these accounts should be included in or omitted from history. Some think they can be ignored considering Columbus' excellent seamanship skills and role in the discovery of America. However, others think of him as the initiator of mass killings and slavery, and believe that history should be understood in its entirety without ignoring any aspects, good or bad.
During his third voyage that began in May 1498, Columbus explored the Gulf of Paria and traveled to the Chacachacare and Margarita Islands.
Columbus made his fourth voyage in search of the Strait of Malacca. This time, his brother Bartolomeo accompanied him. They had to fight many natural calamities during the voyage. Their ship had to remain stranded in Jamaica for one long year. He returned to Spain with his troops in November 1504.
There's an interesting story of how Columbus, in a creative way, managed to make an egg stand on its tip. During a dinner with some Spanish nobles, one of them demeaned Columbus' feat of the discovery of Americas. He didn't choose to react and ordered an egg instead. He challenged the noblemen to make it stand on its tip. When everyone failed, he tapped the egg on the table, breaking it slightly to flatten it, which made it stand.
With the passing years, Columbus grew religious. He claimed to be hearing divine voices. Till death, he believed that he had toured to Asia during his voyages.
Columbus died of Reiter's syndrome on May 20, 1506.
In the southwest region of today's Galway, is a memorial of Columbus. It was presented by the people of Genoa to the people of Galway in 1992, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first voyage to New India, and to commemorate Columbus' visit to the city.
San Salvador houses a Club Med resort called Columbus Isle.
The day Columbus reached the Americas that is October 12 is celebrated as Columbus Day in many parts of the world.
Was Columbus the real discoverer of America? He was not the first European to travel to the region, as Leif Erikson, in the 11th-century Norse expedition he led, was first to land in North America. However, it was Columbus who played a vital role in establishing European relations with the Americans. This paved the way for European colonization, encouraged trade, led to developments in the Western world, and in some ways, also led to the spread of Christianity.
The Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci showed that Brazil and West Indies were not a part of Asia as Columbus had thought them to be. He brought out the fact that the region discovered by Columbus was a separate continent, which came to be known as 'America', deriving itself from Vespucci's name.
Christopher Columbus remains to be one of the iconic figures, especially in the United States, for it was him, who brought the existence of this country to the world's notice.