The history of mankind is replete with heroic accounts of daring champions taking on challenges previously thought to be impregnable. One of the most famous on this long list is Christopher Columbus. The man who discovered America not only laid the foundation for future Spanish dominance of the two westernmost continents, but also helped usher in the Age of Exploration.
This may come as a bit of a dampener on Columbus' reputation as an explorer extraordinaire, but Columbus discovered the Americas entirely by accident. Aiming to reach the flourishing Asian kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, Columbus hit a snag in the form of the previously unknown landmasses of the Americas.
He stubbornly refused to believe that the land he found was not, in fact, the alluring land of Asia. His reluctance to admit the fact led to the natives being termed as 'Indians', leading to the modern terms
› The precise date and place of Columbus' birth is debatable; most agree that he was born in the Republic of Genoa (present-day region of Liguria in northwestern Italy) in October 1451, to Domenico Colombo and his wife Susanna Fontanarossa. Domenico Colombo was a weaver and shopkeeper. Columbus had three brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino and Giacomo. Some authors also mention a sister -- Bianchinetta. The difference in Columbus' name and that of his father's can be explained by the fact that 'Christopher Columbus' is the anglicized version of his original Italian name, Cristoforo Colombo.
› Reliable information about Columbus' early life states that his life at sea began as early as 1461 (at the age of just ten). Although this seems a bit farfetched, it is certain that Columbus was well-versed in sailing before he was 20. In 1471, his family moved to Savona, a neighboring Ligurian town.
› Under the employment of Rene d'Anjou and, later, various political families of Genoa, Columbus participated in several sea voyages. He traveled to Naples as a part of Rene d'Anjou's attempt to take over the Kingdom of Naples in 1471. In 1473, he was employed as a business agent by the Centurione, Di Negro and Spinola families of Genoa. He traveled to Britain, Ireland and Iceland. A notable journey made by Columbus for the families is one to Chios, an Aegean island separated from the Asian landmass only by a narrow strait. Due to his failure to reach Asia on his future voyages, the journey to Chios was the closest Columbus ever got to his beloved Asia.
› While working for the Genoan families, Columbus settled in Lisbon along with his brother Bartolomeu. He married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo around 1479. A year later, his son Diego was born. Columbus found a mistress, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, in 1487. It has not been ascertained whether Filipa, his first wife, was deceased or had been abandoned by Columbus.
› Columbus used this time of relative peace and quiet to study and devise his plans for the journey to Asia.
In Pursuit of Asia
› Europe had an established land route -- the famous Silk Route -- to mighty Asian empires such as China and India during the Mongol Empire. These countries were vital sources of silk, spices and opiates, which could not be cultured or grown in the much cooler climate of Europe. However, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the consequent conquest of Egypt by the Ottomans made direct trade between European and Asian powers virtually impossible, since the hostile Ottomans controlled Istanbul and Suez, the two principal routes between the two continents.
› A Portuguese sailor known as Bartolomeu Dias discovered an alternate route to Asian shores by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in 1488. Although this was the route later taken by the iconic explorer Vasco da Gama en route to India, it was fraught with natural hazards in the shape of rocky coastlines, stormy winds and unpredictable Southern seas.
› Columbus proposed an entirely new train of thought to discover a way to Asia: Sailing towards the West to reach the East. Contrary to popular misconception that Columbus had to convince the European aristocracies that the Earth was round rather than flat, the Flat Earth theory had been rejected by the educated classes well before Columbus' time. Columbus was primarily hindered by the fact that no monarch was ready to take a huge gamble on Columbus' ambitious plan.
› Columbus calculated the distance between Europe and the coast of Japan based on calculations made by Marinus of Tyre and judged the distance between Europe (Spain) and Japan to be approximately 3,700 kilometers. However, due to differing units of measurement and a few other technical errors, Columbus ended up with a calculated distance about 16,000 km shorter than the actual distance between Spain (Canary Islands) and Japan, which is about 19,600 km. In effect, Columbus believed that the distance to Japan was about one sixth of the actual amount. No ship of the time would, therefore, have been able to carry the necessary supplies for such a distance. Some would, thus, consider it a stroke of luck that he hit the Caribbean shores before inevitably exhausting his supplies.
› In 1485, Columbus made an appeal to King John II of Portugal to fund his voyages. Along with this request he also asked to be made the Governor of all the lands he would discover, a tenth of the revenue from these lands and the title of the "Great Admiral of the Ocean". This proposal was rejected by the Portuguese king.
› In 1488, he made another appeal, but in vain. He also appealed to Genoa, Venice and Henry VII of England -- the latter via his brother -- but returned empty-handed from all.
› Columbus finally received support from the Spanish King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, who had, by marriage, united the two largest kingdoms in Iberia. Columbus sought their support in 1486, initially being rejected by Spanish experts, who (correctly) thought that the distance between Europe and Asia must be more than the figure calculated by Columbus. However, to prevent Columbus from taking his proposal to some other monarchy, they provided Columbus with an annual allowance and a royal grant enabling him to procure free lodging and food in any town under Spanish control.
› Meanwhile, Bartolomeu Dias' discovery of the Eastern route to Asia had rendered Columbus' plan void. Nevertheless, he received unexpectedly generous support from the Spanish Crown in 1492: The title of "Admiral of the Seas" and Governorship and a share of all profits from the discovered land. It is thought that the unusually generous conditions were partly facilitated by the Spanish monarch's disbelief that Columbus would survive his extremely ambitious enterprise.
› On August 3, 1492 Columbus finally departed for his first voyage in 3 ships, named Santa Maria -- the largest of the three -- Pinta and Nina. He then sailed to the Canary Islands, where he restocked his provisions and made some preliminary repairs.
› It took more than two excruciating months for the party to reach the Caribbean island of Guanahani, which Columbus named San Salvador. He later visited Cuba and Hispaniola. The Santa Maria ran aground at Hispaniola on Christmas Day and was abandoned. Columbus left behind 39 men in Hispaniola; they founded the settlement of La Navidad.
› On his return to Spain, he was forced to spend a week in Lisbon due to a storm and finally returned to Spain on March 15, 1493. He had brought around eight "Indians" back to Spain from the Caribbean (several more died during the journey). His (to many, surprising) success catapulted him to instant fame, and ensured adequate royal support for his subsequent voyages.
› His second voyage began on September 24, 1493. This time he had been provided 17 ships and about 1200 men, including priests, farmers and soldiers, in order to colonize the islands he had discovered. On November 3, he discovered and named the islands of Dominica (present-day Commonwealth of Dominica) and the islands constituting the present-day French overseas territory of Guadeloupe: Marie-Galante (which he named Santa Maria la Galante), Les Saintes (which he named Los Santos -- the Spanish equivalent of the modern French name) and Guadeloupe (which he named Santa María de Guadalupe de Extremadura).
› After exploring Guadeloupe for a week, he then turned northward, and sighted and named Montserrat (after a Catalonian monastery, the Monastery of Montserrat), Antigua (after Santa María la Antigua, meaning 'the Old Saint Mary'), Redonda (meaning 'round', owing to the island's shape), Saint Kitts (after St. Christopher, patron of sailors and explorers), Nevis (after Nuestra Senora de las Nieves - Our Lady of the Snow), Sint Eustatius (after the famous Christian martyr Saint Eustace/Eustachius), Saba (after the biblical Queen of Sheba), San Martin (present-day St. Martin - after the eponymous saint), Santa Cruz (present-day Saint Croix -- meaning 'Holy Cross'), and the Virgin Islands. Soon, he landed at Puerto Rico, which he named San Juan Bautista, after Saint John the Baptist.
› Columbus then returned to Spain via Hispaniola, Cuba (which he named Juana, possibly the source of the name of Cuba's capital city, Havana) and Jamaica.
› On May 30, 1498, he undertook his third voyage with 6 ships. On July 31, he landed on the island of Trinidad and, in early August, in the Gulf of Paria. After exploring the mainland of South America, he set sail to Margarita Island from where he sighted Tobago and Grenada.
› In August he returned to Hispaniola, only to find his Spanish settlers discontent. They had discovered that they had been misled by Columbus' exaggerated versions of the riches of these islands. Columbus desperately tried to quell the rebellion -- he even hanged a few of his crew for disobedience -- but in the end he was forced to come to a humiliating agreement. Furthermore, sailors who had returned to Spain from Hispaniola lobbied against him in the court, leading to Columbus' arrest in 1500. Francisco de Bobadilla was named the Governor of the West Indies, while Columbus and his brothers were sent back to Spain as prisoners.
› Columbus' rule in the Indies was filled with accounts of oppression of the natives and corruption, and it is doubtful whether his skills as an administrator matched those as a sailor.
› After being in jail for over 6 weeks, King Ferdinand finally had them released. After considerable persuasion (more than a year), Columbus was provided funding for a fourth voyage. However, he was denied the post of Governor of the West Indies; Nicolas de Ovando y Caceres was chosen to replace Bobadilla.
› In May 1502, Columbus sailed out for his fourth voyage, with 4 ships. He reached the island of Martinique, but pushed on towards Hispaniola, hoping to avoid an incoming storm. However, he was denied shelter at Santo Domingo, forcing him to shelter his ships at the mouth of the Rio Jaina. Ignoring Columbus' predictions of a storm, the governor sent out the first Spanish treasure fleet, which drowned, taking 500 lives and a cargo of gold with it.
› Thereafter, Columbus sailed to Jamaica, Central America, the Bay Islands, and finally arrived at Honduras in July. After exploring Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, he returned to Panama in October. On their way to Hispaniola, the ships sustained a lot of damage. The ships and crew were stranded on Jamaica for over a year while some sailors paddled to Hispaniola in a canoe in search for help. The governor refused to help them. Fortunately, Columbus managed to impress the natives by correctly predicting the lunar eclipse of February 29, 1504, thus ensuring food and other supplies for his men. Help finally arrived in June 1504, and Columbus finally returned to Spain in November.
› Columbus turned religious in his final days, going so far as to write a book, The Book of Prophecies, contextualizing his own achievements with Biblical passages.
› The King of Spain never gave Columbus his 10% share in the profit from the Indies; Columbus doggedly kept up his demand, while the court argued that since Columbus was no longer the governor, the terms in the original contract no longer applied.
› Christopher Columbus died on May 20, 1506 in Valladolid. He died convinced that his journeys had taken him to the east coast of Asia. His remains are preserved in the Cathedral of Seville in Spain, borne by four statues representing the Kingdoms of Navarre, Castile, Aragon and Leon.
› The legacy of Christopher Columbus presents a curious dilemma. Columbus wasn't the first to go around the world. His epic voyages didn't yield the result he expected -- Asia. Also, here's a caveat to his sole claim to fame as the discoverer of the Americas: he only rarely landed on continental American landmass, never venturing south and north of present-day Venezuela and Honduras, respectively. He wasn't even the first European to set foot on American soil; that honor goes to the Vikings of the 10th century.
› However, as historian Martin Dugard so aptly puts it, "Columbus' claim to fame isn't that he got there first, it's that he stayed." Columbus' expeditions not only added volume to the world maps, but brought the two virgin continents of America well and truly to the world's attention. Columbus' contribution to the discovery of the Americas has rightly been celebrated in the US by naming the federal capital, District of Columbia, as well as the state capitals of Ohio and South Carolina, after him. The terms 'pre-Columbian' and 'post-Columbian' show the -- quite literally -- epochal impact Columbus' arrival had on the Americas. We can but bow to the pioneer's adventure, bravery and indomitable desire to follow his dreams into the horizon with a full sail.