The Journey of Christpher Columbus
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Before the Voyage

Biography of Christopher Columbus
Fifteenth Century Europe and Spain
Columbus’s Idea and How He Supported It


Biography of Christopher Columbus

A portrait of Christopher Columbus
A portrait of Christopher Columbus

According to most historians, Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colón in Spanish, was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. There is little concrete evidence about the background of the man who came to be known as the discoverer of America. Some have speculated that Christopher Columbus was not even his real name! A current theory being discussed by historians is that Columbus may actually have been Jewish, at a time when Jews were being expelled from Spain. The threat of expulsion may have been enough to persuade Columbus to change his name and identity in order to fit in with the Christian populous. If this is the case, he hid his Jewish identity so well that historians—until recently—had no doubt that he was Christian.

His ancestry aside, historians have not yet been able to pinpoint the exact date or location of Columbus’s birth. While prominent biographer Samuel Morison claims that Columbus was born between August and October 1451 in Genoa, other researchers have made very different claims. The suggested dates of his birth have ranged from as early as 1436 to as late as 1455. With these two extremes Columbus would have been setting out on his voyage to America as young as 37 or as old as 56. To imagine that, in a time of plague and poor health, a man could live into his seventies (the later date would place Columbus at seventy years old at his death) is unlikely. Most historians agree with Morison’s choice of a birth date.

The location of Columbus’s birth has also caused confusion. Morison’s suggestion of Genoa is widely accepted to be Columbus’s birthplace. But one of the most startling pieces of evidence, or lack of evidence, which disputes Morison’s findings is the fact that Columbus neither wrote nor spoke Italian. There is no letter, diary entry, or contract written in Italian and no mention of Columbus speaking Italian at court or on his ships. Furthermore, all of his names for islands and bodies of water in the New World were Spanish in origin. Supporters of Morison’s theory have argued that letters, diaries, and contracts were mostly written in Latin, so the lack of Italian is not surprising. As for the lack of spoken Italian, they argue that in the Spanish court and while on a voyage under the Spanish flag, it is not surprising that Columbus would have used primarily Spanish. To speak Italian in the presence of Spain’s king and queen would have been in terribly poor taste.

Regardless of when and where Columbus was born, it is evident from his earliest writings and from testimonies by friends and family members that he had a fascination with the ocean. From a young age he would watch boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea as they traded up and down the European coast. Columbus read everything about the sea that he could find. This passion for adventure and exploration led Columbus to take his life to the waters. He set out from home, wherever that may have been, with the intent to explore and discover unknown and interesting places.

Columbus spent much of his youth sailing on small vessels in and around Europe. He built up a small reputation as a successful and talented mariner. Around the age of 25 he settled in Lisbon, Portugal, where he worked with his brother as a mapmaker. During his time in Lisbon, Columbus continued to pursue life on the ocean. During the 1480s he sailed and explored frequently in Africa. It was here that the ideas he would later apply to his New World voyage were born. By the late 1480s he was certain that his theories about the world were correct, and he took his ideas to the king of Portugal in hopes of being given an expedition of his own. He no longer wanted to be a mere sailor on small expeditions. He wanted to be Christopher Columbus, Explorer.


Fifteenth Century Europe and Spain

Inscription 
                              in the front of the house where Columbus is believed 
                              to have been born, Genoa, Italy
Inscription on the front of the house where Columbus is believed to have been born, Genoa, Italy

Spain in the time of Christopher Columbus was, generally, violent and unstable. Outbreaks of plague, tortures of citizens, and religious inquisitions against Jews and Muslims contributed to the turbulence. According to historians, the outbreak of diseases throughout Europe killed 10 to 20 percent of many towns’ populations with each new wave. An unpredictable, unstable economic climate contributed to famine and malnutrition. Large pits of sewage and mass graves were breeding grounds for disease, and most of the population neither bathed nor kept clean. Ill health and squalid conditions were not the only hardships with which the people of the late fifteenth century had to contend. Wars, riots, and crime also killed tens of thousands in Europe. Often, the leaders of each country were powerless to stop the deadly sweep of war and disease. At times, they were the ones to encourage it.

During the years in which Columbus was traveling from court to court in search of someone to support his trip and his theories, the Inquisition was raging in Spain. The powerful leaders within Spain tortured, maimed, and killed those believed to be non-Christian. Jews and Muslims received the brunt of the attack. They were forced to give up their own religion in favor of Christianity, or face the penalty of torture, expulsion, or death. Nearly 150,000 Jews were expelled from the country, with most being shipped to Africa.


Columbus’s Idea and How He Supported It

 

Columbus 
                              at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella
Columbus at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella

There are many theories concerning Christopher Columbus and the origin of the idea that, because the world was round, a person could set sail from one side and journey back around to the other. While Columbus was sure that the idea was sound, so much so that he withstood ridicule from his peers, he was not the first to come up with the theory. Scholars and historians have found evidence that Columbus had researched the works of significant scientists and explorers like Ptolemy, Marco Polo, and Eratosthenes. With their influence and his own naturally stubborn will, Columbus set out to prove that a journey across the Atlantic to China and Japan was possible.

In order to pay for his voyage, and to gain the fame and power he desired, Columbus needed to find support from the royal court of a European nation. In 1483, Columbus approached the royal court of Portugal and presented his idea to King John II. King John rejected Columbus, having conferred with other explorers and mariners who claimed that the idea was unthinkable and unrealistic. Thus dismissed, Columbus sought out the King and Queen of Spain. His first attempt to convince Ferdinand and Isabella of his intended journey left them with many questions. They did not, however, reject his proposal. Queen Isabella was quite impressed with Columbus and his presentation. The King and Queen strongly desired a chance to catch up with the power and influence of their Portuguese neighbors, and Columbus’s plan—if it succeeded—offered this chance. They soon agreed to finance and support his expedition. After many years at many courts, Christopher Columbus had finally convinced a nation to support his journey across the Atlantic.

Columbus’s journey did not come cheap, however. He demanded lofty payments for his services. Columbus asked for one-tenth of all the wealth (gold, spices, textiles, slaves, etc.) Spain would receive from the lands which he visited. He asked that he receive this money for all trips made by Spain to the new lands, for all time. He wanted to secure a financial gain not only for himself, but for his heirs as well. On top of this he requested that he be named “Viceroy” of the lands he discovered and “Admiral of the Ocean Seas.” After much negotiation the King and Queen consented. In April 1492 Columbus signed the contract with the King and Queen of Spain guaranteeing him all that he desired, setting in motion the first steps toward the New World.



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The Journey of Christopher Columbus