The man known as Christopher Columbus is celebrated throughout the United States as the explorer who brought the Americas to Europe. What many people do not realize, however, is that his theories, while admirable, were based on mistruth and miscalculation. Regardless, undying determination and a passion for exploration guarantees that his name will continue on the annals of history forever.
Frustratingly so, very few substantive details of Columbus’s life before his famous voyages survive. He was born circa 1506 in what is popularly believed to be Genoa, Italy, though some historians argue he might have been born somewhere in Portugal or even Greece.
Contrary to common thought, most European scholars in Columbus’s time did not in fact believe the earth to be flat; instead, they believed the ocean was simply too vast and wide for a manned ship to cross. The accepted theory of the time belonged to Ptolemy, who wrote that the known landmasses — Eurasia and Africa — were all clumped on side of the planet, comprising 180 degrees, and that the other 180 degrees contained only seawater. According to this hypothesis, therefore, no ship could depart from the west coast of Europe and sail the entire distance to the east coast of Asia without its crew dying of thirst and starvation.
As we all know, Columbus disagreed, but what remains unsaid in secondary school history books is that his own calculations were even more erroneous than his opponents’. He estimated that the circumference of the planet was around 25,255 kilometers, a much shorter distance than the prevailing opinion — and close to half of its actual size, 40,000 kilometers. Whereas Ptolemy accurately assessed the size of the Earth yet failed to account for unknown land between Europe and Asia, Columbus completely miscalculated the Earth’s circumference as well as seconded Ptolemy’s error of not anticipating any unexplored land west of Europe. Ironically, Columbus’s miscalculation led him to discover what he assumed was a new route to Asia.
His search to convince others to lend him their help wasn’t easy and took up nearly 10 years of his life. In 1484, committed to proving his theory right, Columbus sought King John II of Portugal’s sponsorship for a voyage west. At the time, though, Portugal was interested only in finding a new trade route to India via Africa, an undertaking which already consumed much of their time, effort and money. They also disagreed — rightfully so — with Columbus’s calculations. Rejected, a recently widowed Columbus tried to seek the support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had recently united the kingdoms of Spain with their marriage. They initially turned him away in 1486. It wasn’t until the fateful year of 1492, after Columbus had looked for funding in France and England, that the two monarchs changed their minds. The need to compete more aggressively with a Portugal growing in political and economic power, as well as a desire to spread Christianity abroad, fueled Ferdinand and Isabella’s decision to help the would-be explorer. Furthermore, they had just conquered the final Muslim stronghold in Granada, freeing up quite a bit of the public coffers for more venturesome pursuits.
In the event that Columbus’s voyage proved fruitful, the two were willing to reward him and his offspring handsomely by giving him authority to exercise absolute control over the people of any lands he claimed in the name of Spain. A document dated April 30, 1492, states:
Our will is, That you, Christopher Columbus, after discovering and conquering the said Islands and Continent in the said ocean, or any of them, shall be our Admiral of the said Islands and Continent you shall so discover and conquer; and that you be our Admiral, Vice-Roy, and Governour in them, and that for the future, you may call and style yourself, D. Christopher Columbus, and that your sons and successors in the said employment, may call themselves Dons, Admirals, Vice-Roys, and Governours of them.
As such, Columbus and his lieutenants were conferred the freedom to “decide all causes, civil and criminal… as you shall think fit in justice” and the “power to punish offenders.” They even agreed to give him a large portion of all profits, even though Spain was short on capital. Such a sweetheart deal leads many now to assume that the two Spanish monarchs simply did not count on Columbus ever returning. In any case, he was given command of the three well-known ships — La Niña, La Pinta and Santa María — and on August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus pushed off from the small port of Palos on the Gulf of Cadiz. Confident that his expedition would take him to Asia, he took with him an Arabic interpreter and a letter addressed to the grand khan.
But as every kindergartener knows, he never made it to Asia. Not many people in Columbus’s time thought he would either, judging from the size of the ships commissioned to him — two of them were small caravels, certainly not what one would expect to make such a voyage — and his crew’s lack of enthusiasm.
The first leg of his expedition didn’t take him very far. He landed on the Canary Islands, where he made repairs to his ships and took on supplies. After being delayed for four weeks because of calm winds, he set off again, this time for a five-week voyage to what he anticipated to be Japan, or Cipangu, as Marco Polo called it.
According to the ship’s log, birds were spotted flying west on October 7, 1492, after 29 days at sea. Five days later, land was finally spotted by a sailor on La Pinta. Called Guanahani by the natives, Columbus christened the island San Salvador. He had discovered what we now know as the Bahamas. Of the indigenous people, whom he found very agreeable, he wrote:
They took everything we gave them and gave willingly from anything they they had. And it looked to me that they were very much in need. They wore no clothes and were as naked as when their mothers gave their birth. The women were also naked, although I saw only one, quite young. The men I saw were young also; I didn’t see anyone who appeared to be over thirty years old… They have a good size and… must make good servants.
Using his monarch-given authority as viceroy and admiral, he claimed the island in the name of the Spanish throne and imposed a Eurocentric bureaucratic order over its people.
Soon afterward he set sail again, this time discovering, on October 28, Cuba, which he thought was Japan. There, the captain of La Pinta, Martín Alonso Pinzón, sailed off without permission to search for an island called “Babeque.” With the other two ships, Columbus set sail and, on December 5, found Hispaniola — Haiti and the Dominican Republic — where he founded the first European settlement. Unfortunately, it was here that La Santa Maria had to be abandoned when it ran aground Christmas morning. With only La Niña remaining and not enough room for his entire crew, Columbus was forced to leave 40 of his men behind at La Navidad to await help from Spain. He departed on January 2, 1493 and, on the sixth, serendipitously came across the wayward Pinzón and La Pinta.
Together again, the two ships left Hispaniola on the sixteenth for home but, just a month later, lost sight of one another during a torrential storm, during which time both Pinzón and Columbus thought the other had died. The following day, Columbus arrived at the Azores, about 1,500 kilometers west of Portugal. From there he headed for Spain but was cast off-course by yet another storm. He eventually anchored in a harbor in Lisbon on March 4, 1493 and He soon set sail for Spain, which he reached on the fifteenth. Thus his first voyage to the Americas — in all, requiring 224 days — had reached its end.
As expected, Columbus was embraced as a hero upon his arrival, and word quickly spread across Europe of his triumphant discovery. He had returned with until-then unknown goods, like tobacco, pineapple and turkeys. He even showed off a few kidnapped Americans. What was clearly missing from his boon, however, were the valuable Eastern spices for which he originally set out, namely cloves and ginger and pepper. Nevertheless, he was granted an audience with Ferdinand and Isabella, who retained all of their promises and, further, set plans in motion for Columbus to lead more future expeditions. The two monarchs’ gamble to fund the explorer with an erroneous yet bold theory had paid off. In 1943, Pope Alexander VI granted Spain sovereignty over all of the lands Columbus had discovered in the name of the Mediterranean nation.
Until the day he died, Christopher Columbus insisted that he had found not uncharted land but instead an alternate trade route to Asia — which is why even today Native Americans are also known as “Indians.” Although this belief was incorrect, not to mention his miscalculation of the Earth’s circumference, sheer luck and dogged persistence prevailed, making Columbus one of the most celebrated Europeans of all time.
A translated copy of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s privileges and promises made to Columbus.
What did Columbus and his men eat during their voyage? Find out here.
A general introduction to Columbus.
A history of his first voyage.
A recent examination of what some historians believe to be Columbus’s Jewish roots.
Five myths explained about Columbus and his discoveries.
A simple, easily-navigable site with bulleted facts.
A general history, but includes some helpful illustrations of his ships and expeditions.
Contains a comprehensive manifest of the ships’ personnel.
A translated copy of Columbus’s own journals.
A translated copy of Columbus’s original letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
A simple and helpful timeline of Columbus’s exploits.
Further evidence of Columbus’s secret Jewish roots.
Contains interesting and colorful pictures of Columbus and his crew.
A comprehensive history of Columbus and his travels, including his subsequent voyages.