Christopher Columbus Biography

Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus and his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean have radically changed the course of history of the Americas, Europe and Africa. The famous Italian navigator and explorer who was long heralded as the first European to set foot in the New World, however, died convinced that he had found a westward route to Asia.

Table of Contents

Quick Facts

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa in 1451.

In 1479, he married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo who gave birth to his son Diego.

Columbus first sought support for his voyage across the Atlantic at the Portuguese court but he was rejected.

Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon sponsored Columbus' first voyage and gave him three ships – Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in 1492.

The crew on Pinta spotted land after 29 days of sailing on October 7, 1492.

Columbus made four voyages to the Americas in total.

During his third voyage, he was arrested and stripped of the title of governor.

He died on May 20, 1506, believing that he had reached Asia.

Columbus’ Birthplace and Early Life

Christopher Columbus, the famous navigator and explorer who is credited with the discovery of America (although he was not the first European to visit the New World) was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. The site of his birth has been a matter of debate for quite some time but several documents confirm that he was born in the Republic of Genoa as the eldest of five children to Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa. Little is known about Columbus’ early life and childhood. He first went to sea when he was 18 years old and started making voyages for the Genoese firms at age of 21.

Life in Portugal

When Columbus arrived to Portugal is not exactly known but in 1479, he married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, a daughter of the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Perestrelo (c. 1395-1457). He first lived with his wife in Lisbon where his mother-in-law showed him Perestrelo’s documents about the western lands in the Atlantic which probably influenced his theory about a westward route to Asia. He then moved to Porto Santo where his wife Filipa died shortly after giving birth to his son Diego.

Development of the Theory of a Westward Route to Asia

Columbus gave up a promising maritime career and dedicated himself completely to his “Enterprise of the Indies” as he called his plan to reach Asia by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He began to study ancient, and medieval European and Arab authors who claimed that the Earth was spherical rather than flat. Based on the knowledge he had gained from a number of sources and his own observations, he calculated that Asia is only three thousand nautical miles from Europe across the Atlantic.

Rejection of Columbus’ Proposal by the Portuguese Court

In 1484, Columbus presented his theory of a westward route to Asia to the Portuguese court and asked for financial support but he was rejected. In contrary to popular misbelieve, the Portuguese authorities did not refuse to sponsor Columbus’ voyage due to the flat Earth theory but because they believed that he had seriously miscalculated the distance between Asia and Europe. And he did as reaching Asia across the Atlantic Ocean would mean sailing a distance of 10,600 nautical miles which is more than three times the distance he had calculated.

Winning the Catholic Monarchs for His Plan

After he had failed to gain the Portuguese support for his voyage, Columbus moved to Spain. Little is known about his life in Spain except that he had an affair with Beatriz Enriquez de Arana who bore him a son, Ferdinand and that he persisted asking Isabella I of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon to sponsor his voyage for seven years before they finally gave him three ships - Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria by which he departed westwards from the Canary Islands on September 6, 1492.

Columbus’ First Voyage

The crew on the Pinta spotted land after 29 days of sailing on October 7, 1492. Three days later, Columbus and his crew landed on Guanahani which he renamed San Salvador and called the indigenous Arawak found on the island as the Indians because he was convinced that he had reached Asia. During his first voyage, Columbus also discovered a number of other Caribbean islands including Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Cuba. He decided to return to Spain after he lost Santa Maria off the coast of Cuba on January 4, 1493, but did not reach Spain until March due to the bad weather. Forty-eight men were left at La Navidad in Hispaniola and La Navidad became the first European colony in America.

Return to Spain and the Second Voyage

Columbus was hailed as a hero by the Spanish after he had shown the items from Hispaniola including a turkey, pineapple, tobacco plant and several natives who were either kidnapped or went on board voluntarily. He was given 17 ships and about 1,500 men for his second voyage which began on September 15, 1493, only six months after his return.

He discovered the Leeward Islands and Porto Rico on his way to Hispaniola to check the men he had left behind. However, he found the settlement at La Navidad destroyed and all his men killed for mistreating the indigenous population. Columbus then established another settlement, La Isabela about 62 miles (100 kilometers) east of La Navidad which was, however, short-lived as well. He left Hispaniola in April 1494, discovered Jamaica one month later and explored the south coast of Cuba before returning to Hispaniola where he found the colonists discontent. This forced him to return to Spain to defend his actions and leave his brother Bartolomeo in charge in Hispaniola. In 1495 or 1496, Bartolomeo Columbus founded a new settlement - Santo Domingo that became the capital of Hispaniola and later the capital of the Dominican Republic.

Columbus’ Third Voyage and Arrest

Complaints of the colonists and low profits from the distant posts diminished Columbus’ prestige in Spain. Nevertheless, he managed to win the Castilian court for his third voyage between 1498 and 1500 which, however, turned out to be a disaster. The colonists in Hispaniola, angered on Columbus and his failed promises of wealth, rebelled and forced the Spanish court to intervene. Francisco de Bobadilla who was sent to Hispaniola as a royal commissioner had Columbus arrested and sent back to Spain together with his brothers Bartolomeo and Diego in November 1500. Christopher Columbus and his brothers were accused of misgovernment and thrown in jail.

Columbus’ Fourth Voyage and Death

All three Columbus brothers were released from jail by the Spanish court after six weeks but Christopher was stripped of governorship of Hispaniola. The Catholic Monarchs, however, gave him support for his fourth and last voyage to the New World between 1502 and 1504. During his last trip to the Americas, he made landfall in Central America and discovered Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Columbia but he failed to find considerable amounts of gold and other treasures he had hoped to discover. He spent most of his final year in the New World in Jamaica and returned to Spain on November 7, 1504. Christopher Columbus died broken, ill and unaware of the significance of his discoveries on May 20, 1506.