Biography of Christopher Columbus, Italian Explorer

The Columbus Monument in Barcelona

 Mehmet Salih Guler/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Christopher Columbus (c. October 31, 1451–May 20, 1506) was an Italian explorer who led voyages to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. His exploration of these areas paved the way for European colonization. Since his death, Columbus has been criticized for his treatment of Native Americans in the New World.

Fast Facts: Christopher Columbus

  • Known For: Columbus completed four voyages to the New World on behalf of Spain, preparing the way for European colonization.
  • Born: October 31, 1451 in Genoa
  • Died: May 20, 1506 in Castile, Spain

Early Life

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa (now Italy) in 1451 to Domenico Colombo, a middle-class wool weaver, and Susanna Fontanarossa. Though little is known about his childhood, it is assumed that he was well-educated because he was able to speak several languages as an adult and had considerable knowledge of classical literature. He is known to have studied the works of Ptolemy and Marinus, among others.

Columbus first took to the sea when he was 14 years old, and he continued to sail throughout the rest of his youth. During the 1470s, he went on numerous trading trips that took him to the Aegean Sea, Northern Europe, and possibly Iceland. In 1479, he met his brother Bartolomeo, a mapmaker, in Lisbon. He later married Filipa Moniz Perestrello, and in 1480 his son Diego was born.

The family stayed in Lisbon until 1485, when Columbus' wife Filipa died. From there, Columbus and Diego moved to Spain, where Columbus began trying to obtain a grant to explore western trade routes. He believed that because the earth was a sphere, a ship could reach the Far East and set up trading routes in Asia by sailing west.

For years, Columbus proposed his plans to the Portuguese and Spanish kings, but he was turned down each time. Finally, after the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reconsidered his requests. Columbus promised to bring back gold, spices, and silk from Asia, to spread Christianity, and to explore China. In return, he asked to be made admiral of the seas and governor of discovered lands.

First Voyage

After receiving significant funding from the Spanish monarchs, Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492, with three ships—the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria—and 104 men. After a short stop at the Canary Islands to resupply and make minor repairs, the ships set out across the Atlantic. This voyage took five weeks—longer than Columbus had expected, as he believed the world was much smaller than it is. During this time, many of the crew members became ill and some died from diseases, hunger, and thirst.

Finally, at 2 a.m. on October 12, 1492, sailor Rodrigo de Triana sighted land in the area of what is now the Bahamas. When Columbus reached the land, he believed it was an Asian island and named it San Salvador. Because he did not find any riches here, Columbus decided to continue sailing in search of China. Instead, he ended up visiting Cuba and Hispaniola.

On November 21, 1492, the Pinta and its crew left to explore on its own. On Christmas Day, the Santa Maria wrecked off the coast of Hispaniola. Because there was limited space on the lone Nina, Columbus had to leave about 40 men behind at a fort they named Navidad. Soon after, Columbus set sail for Spain, where he arrived on March 15, 1493, completing his first voyage west.

Second Voyage

After the success of finding this new land, Columbus set sail west again on September 23, 1493, with 17 ships and 1,200 men. The purpose of this second journey was to establish colonies in the name of Spain, check on the crew at Navidad, and continue the search for riches in what Columbus still thought was the Far East.

On November 3, the crew members sighted land and found three more islands: Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Jamaica, which Columbus thought were islands off of Japan. Because there were still no riches to be found, the crew went on to Hispaniola, only to discover that the fort of Navidad had been destroyed and the crew killed after they mistreated the indigenous population.

At the site of the fort, Columbus established the colony of Santo Domingo, and after a battle in 1495 he conquered the entire island of Hispaniola. He then set sail for Spain in March 1496 and arrived in Cadiz on July 31.

Third Voyage

Columbus’s third voyage began on May 30, 1498, and took a more southern route than the previous two. Still searching for China, Columbus found Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and Margarita on July 31. He also reached the mainland of South America. On August 31, he returned to Hispaniola and found the colony of Santo Domingo there in shambles. After a government representative was sent to investigate the problems in 1500, Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain. He arrived in October and was able to successfully defend himself against the charges of treating both the locals and the Spaniards poorly.

Fourth and Final Voyage

Columbus' final voyage began on May 9, 1502, and he arrived in Hispaniola in June. He was forbidden from entering the colony, so he continued to explore areas nearby. On July 4, he set sail again and later found Central America. In January 1503, he reached Panama and found a small amount of gold but was forced out of the area by those who lived there. After encountering numerous problems, Columbus set sail for Spain on November 7, 1504. After he arrived there, he settled with his son in Seville.

Death

After Queen Isabella died on November 26, 1504, Columbus tried to regain his governorship of Hispaniola. In 1505, the king allowed him to petition but did nothing. One year later, Columbus became ill, and he died on May 20, 1506.

Legacy

Because of his discoveries, Columbus is often venerated, notably in the Americas where places such as the District of Columbia bear his name and where many people celebrate Columbus Day. Despite this fame, however, Columbus was not the first to visit the Americas. Long before Columbus, various indigenous peoples had settled and explored different areas of the Americas. In addition, Norse explorers had already visited portions of North America. Leif Ericson is believed to have been the first European to visit the area and set up a settlement in the northern portion of Canada's Newfoundland some 500 years before the arrival of Columbus.

Columbus's major contribution to geography is that he was the first to visit and settle in these new lands, effectively bringing a new area of the world to the forefront of the popular imagination.

Sources

  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Great Explorers: the European Discovery of America." Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Phillips, William D., and Carla Rahn Phillips. "The Worlds of Christopher Columbus." Cambridge University Press, 2002.