Christopher Columbus has become a controversial historical figure.
Acclaimed for centuries as the discover of America (he wasn’t), he has gained notoriety
for the decimation of the native people’s that he encountered.
Obsessed with obtaining gold and slaves in order to pay off debt and impress the King
and Queen of Spain, he ended up as an outcast, unwanted in the place that he had discovered
and sent back to Spain in disgrace.
In this week’s Biographics we get to the uncomfortable truth about Christopher Columbus.
There is no agreed upon date as to when Christopher Columbus entered into the world.
Some historians put the date as early as 1436 and as late as 1455, but the majority agree
that he was likely born between August 25th and October 31st, 1451.
The place of his birth is more certain – the Italian coastal city of Genoa.
Christopher was the oldest of five children born to Susanna Fontanarossa and Domenico
Colombo, the name Columbus being an English derivation of the Italian Colombo.
Domenico was a weaver and an innkeeper.
But he was also a keen seafarer and his love of the ocean was soon transferred to his oldest
As early as age ten, Christopher ranged up and down the Genoese harbor in borrowed single
man sailboats and dreamed of venturing out in the vast expanse beyond.
We know very little about Christopher’s early life.
We do know that his father was able to provide a modest yet comfortable living for the family
and that he was a kindly, involved man who brought his sons up with strong Biblical morals.
We do not even know if young Christopher went to school.
It was recorded that he was of great intellect but little education and so he may have still
been illiterate when he left home at around the age of twenty.
Still, he overcame his lack of formal education by teaching himself many valuable skills,
including mapmaking, functional mathematics and a range of languages including Spanish,
Latin and Portuguese.
By the time he sailed to the Americas, he had also learned to read and write.
Heading out to Sea
It is generally agreed that Columbus first went to sea at the age of fourteen.
He began his maritime career as a messenger and worked his way up to the position of common
For the next six years, he worked on a variety of ships that plied the European oceans.
A legend has emerged that, at the age of twenty-one, Columbus tried his hand at piracy.
He was in the employ of Duke Rene of Anjou, who had appointed the young man to capture
a warship in the Tunis harbor, in North Africa.
En route, the men with Columbus got timid and persuaded him to turn back to France and
The story goes that during the night, Columbus played a trick on his men by altering the
ship’s compass so that they sailed south instead of north.
When day broke they were within sight of the target warship and Columbus managed to rally
his men for the successful attack.
Many scholars dismiss the account due to the fact that Christopher was only twenty-one,
which seems far too young to be given such a command.
There is more certainty regarding a voyage he took two years later.
The destination was the Greek island of Khios in the Aegean Sea.
He and the rest of the crew spent a year on the island.
In 1476, at the age of twenty-five, Columbus first ventured beyond the realms of the Mediterranean
and into the wider oceans beyond.
He was pat of a fleet of five ships bound for Lisbon, Portugal.
En route the fleet was attacked by a Franco-Portuguese war fleet.
In the ensuing battle, ships from both sides went down, with hundreds of men drowning.
Columbus was on the Bechella which was struck and sunk by a French warship.
It was only a stroke of fortune that his life was saved.
Diving into the sea he managed to cling to a floating oar and use it as a buoy to get
to the Portuguese shore at Lagos, some six miles away.
Luckily, the people of Lagos took him and treated him back to good health.
He managed to make his way from there to Lisbon, where he joined up with a large colony of
Genoese shipbuilders and merchants.
In 1477, he joined a voyage to Iceland, which he described as ‘much beyond the limit of
Returning to Lisbon, he learned much of the inner workings of the seafaring trade.
This port city was the center of seafaring voyage and discovery – the place where stories
of what lay beyond were told and schemes of exploration expounded.
During this time, Columbus undertook the study of astronomy, geography and celestial navigation.
In 1478, he set off for the three key Atlantic archipelagos.
The first island group visited were the Azores, 800 miles west of Portugal.
The other two were the Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands.
During these voyages Columbus ginned valuable experience on the open sea.
On his return to Lisbon, Christopher met and fell in love with a twenty-five-year-old woman
by the name of Felipa Moniz.
Despite being of noble birth and with family connections to the Portuguese court, Felipa
did not come from a wealthy family.
When the two were married just a few months after the courtship began, her father had
no dowry to offer.
The newlyweds settled in the town of Porto Santo on the Madeira Islands, where Felipa’s
father had previously been the governor.
In 1480, a son was born, Diego.
Soon after giving birth, Felipa died.
The detail surrounding her demise are unclear, but most historians believe the cause was
By the age of 30, Christopher Columbus had developed a great deal of skill and experience
as an ocean voyager.
He had travelled as far afield north as Iceland and west to Ghana.
Still, he was fascinated with what lay to the west.
The area beyond the horizon was known as the ‘Green Sea of Darkness’ and there was
much speculation as to what could be found there.
Columbus was convinced that by sailing west he would eventually end up in Asia.
This was a novel idea and before he could test it out, he needed to gain academic support
for his belief.
Along with his brother Bartolomeo, he spent months poring over geographical maps, astronomical
books and other related works.
When he found anything that supported his hypothesis, he underlined it and scribbled
it onto his notepad.
Columbus’ study led to three key assumptions upon which he funded his belief – firstly
that there was only one ocean, the, he believed, narrow Atlantic.
His second belief was that the world was relatively small and that Asia was much closer to Europe
than it actually proved to be.
His final assumption was that there was no large landmass between Europe and Asia.
In hindsight, we know that Columbus was guilty of selective research.
Anything that didn’t support his hypothesis was rejected outright.
He gained much support from the writings of Marco Polo and first century cartographer
Marinus of Tyre, convincing him that is he sailed due west out of Genoa he would reach
Asia in less than 3,000 miles.
With the scientific backing that he needed, Columbus now set out to find a backer for
his planned voyage of discovery.
More than mere financial support, he was after a royal backer who could garner him the prestige
and status that he would earn by such a perilous journey.
In his own words he wanted to . . .
be entitled to call myself Don and should be High Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy
and Governor in perpetuity of all the islands and mainland I discover and gain or that might
thereafter be discovered and gained in the Ocean Sea, and that my elder son should succeed
me and his heirs thenceforth, from generation to generation, forever and ever.
In return for such honors, Columbus would bestow the riches of Asia upon the sponsoring
To back his case, he quoted from the journals of Marco Polo about the riches of the Orient.
Having lived in Portugal for the past eight years, it was only natural that his first
request was made to that country’s king, Joao.
But, despite his persuasiveness, Columbus’s proposal was rejected.
The king viewed this unproved sailor as being vain and conceited and prone to bragging.
The fact that, in addition to honors, Columbus also demanded one tenth of all the income
derived, didn’t help his cause either.
Beyond all that the vast majority of the king’s advisers believed that the plan to reach the
Orient by sailing due west was nothing more than a fool’s errand.
With a round rejection from his adopted country, Columbus set his sights on the King of Spain.
By now the would-be adventurer was 34-years of age, penniless, widowed and with a young
son to care for.
Arriving in the Spanish port town of Palos with five-year-old Diego in tow, he first
set out to find food, lodging and a place for Diego to stay as his father made his approach
to the king.
Columbus made his way to a Franciscan monastery overlooking the port and pleaded poverty.
For the next five months this monastery would be his base.
Then, towards the end of 1485 he made his way to Cordoba to seek an audience with King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
He had to wait for the monarchs to return from Madrid, during which time he met a young
woman named Beatriz Enriquez de Harana.
She became his mistress, giving birth to his second son, Ferdinand on August 15th, 1488.
The audience before the king and queen was granted on May 1, 1486.
Columbus and Isabella developed an immediate bond, being of the same age and clearly like
Still the monarchs turned the idea over to a commission of investigator.
Columbus would have to wait for five and a half frustrating years to learn of their final
During that time he had returned to Lisbon in an attempt to reopen negotiations with
King Joao, but to no avail.
In the end the Spanish commission also rejected the plan.
Their main reasons for doing so were that a voyage to Asia would require an absence
of three years, which was far too long with the available technology and the belief that
if a ship did manage to get to the other side of the world, there is no way it could get
The final decision, however, was left to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
The king was happy to go along with the commission’s recommendation.
After all, he disliked Columbus on a personal level.
The queen, however, took pains to reassure Columbus that he would be able to re-submit
his plan in the future.
The Spanish struggle against the Moors had been going on for 700 years yet was nearly
at a conclusion.
When it was decided, the queen told him, he would get a better reception.
On January 2nd, 1492, the Moorish city of Granada fell to the Spanish.
Shortly thereafter, the royal minister of the budget who was friendly with Columbus
entrusted upon the queen to show favour to the mariner’s scheme.
She relented and Columbus, who was then on his way back to Cordoba on the back of a mule,
was intercepted and rushed to the royal palace to receive the good news.
Voyage to a New World
After waiting for five years, it took Columbus just ten weeks to gather together the three
ships, crew and supplies he needed.
His three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, were skillfully built and according
to him were ‘well suited for the task at hand.’
Columbus gathered a crew of ninety men to be split between the three ships.
The fleet sailed out of Palos on the early morning of August 3, 1492.
The first stop was the Canary Islands, a thousand miles to the south.
There the ships were refitted and resupplied before heading out into the green sea of darkness.
The ships made good progress thanks to the strong easterly winds.
After some days they entered into an area known as the Saragossa Sea.
All around the waters were filled with gulfweed, a thick green plant that floated on the surface.
At the same time the winds died down to nothing.
After three weeks at sea, the crew began to sight land nesting birds.
Still there was no sighting of land.
As the weeks passed with no indications of terra firma, the crew became increasingly
On board the Santa Maria they were close to mutiny.
With things coming to a boiling point, Columbus made an ultimate declaration on October 10th.
If land was not sighted in three days, he promised, he would turn back.
Two days later, the long-awaited word came.
At 2 am on the 12th, the cry of Terra!
Terra! resounded from ship to ship.
Ninety pairs of eyes strained to see the island that was six miles in the distance.
Columbus had promised that the first man to sight land would receive a yearly pension
of 10,000 maraveidas for life.
Yet that man, a sailor named Rodrigo, never received this reward.
Columbus claimed to have seen a light the evening before and gave himself the reward!
They had come across an island in the Bahamas situated in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
It was populated by Arawak Indians.
These were a friendly people and some of them swam out to meet the newcomers.
These people lived in village communes and had developed an agricultural economy.
They had no iron implements but, Columbus was quick to notice, wore tiny pieces of gold
in their ears.
Columbus was determined to get to the source of the Arawak’s gold.
He lured some of the natives aboard his ships and them took them as prisoners.
He demanded that they guide him to the place where the gold was located.
Not having success, he sailed on to modern day Cuba and then to Hispaniola.
There his visions of a vast gold empire were rekindled when a local chief presented him
a with a gold mask.
Decimating the Natives
Columbus had his men build a fort on the island of Hispaniola.
Naming it Navidad (Christmas), he left 39 men there with strict orders to find the gold.
He then took more prisoners and began for the return journey to Spain.
Before leaving his men killed two natives who refused to trade as many bows and arrows
as they demanded.
On the return journey, some of the prisoners died from exposure to the cold weather.
On his return to Spain, Columbus made extravagant claims about what he had encountered.
He stated that he had reached Asia, when in fact he had landed on Cuba, and he spoke of
rivers flowing with gold and an abundance of spices.
He promised that, with a little more financial help from the King and Queen, he would go
back and bring back as much gold as they needed . . . and as many slaves as they needed too.
The king and queen were suitably enamored.
The second voyage was made up of seventeen ships and more than 1200 men.
Whereas they first trip had been focused on reaching Asia, now the objective was twofold
– slaves and gold.
From island to island they raged, taking prisoners and demanding that they be led to the gold.
As word spread of the impending danger, villages were evacuated and the sailors who had been
left behind at Navidad were executed.
With no gold to be found, Columbus embarked upon a massive slave drive.
1500 Arawak men, women and children were thrown into pens and from them the 500 best specimens
were chosen to be taken back to Spain.
Two hundred of these died on the way back, with the remainder being sold at auction.
Still, Columbus was desperate to get his hands on the gold.
In Haiti he ordered that every person aged fourteen years or over was to collect a minimum
quota of gold every three months.
Those that did were given a copper necklace to wear.
Anyone without the necklace would have their hand cut off.
The reality was that there was hardly any gold to be had, apart from small amounts to
be found in streams.
The result of Columbus’ gold obsession was that, in two years, the Arawak population
was cut in half, with 125,000 people being murdered, starved to death or committing suicide.
Columbus established his base on Hispaniola and named himself governor of the island.
The situation quickly devolved into chaos.
Most of the Europeans on the island were sick and many of them were ex-convicts.
They occupied themselves raping the native women and terrorizing the men and children.
Looting was rampant and the quantity of gold gathered was pitiful compared to what Columbus
In October, 1495, a royal inspector arrived on Hispaniola in the wake of worrying reports
that had reached the Spanish court.
The inspector soon gathered plenty of evidence to implicate Columbus, giving him no choice
but to return to Spain in order to defend himself before the king and queen.
Setting sail on the Nina, the 45-year-old Columbus arrived back in Portugal on June
He clothed himself in a friar’s robe as a sign of penitence and set out to meet the
sovereigns at Burgis, some 500 miles from his landing port of Cadiz.
On meeting the king and queen he immediately reassured them there was still plenty of gold
to be had.
He also tried to convince them that he had reached the Malay peninsulas of south-east
As a final enticement he told the monarchs that he was convinced that there was a whole
new continent lying just to the south of the islands he had landed on.
To his surprise and great pleasure, the King and Queen were willing to overlook the bad
reports that they had received.
Further, they agreed to finance another voyage specifically to confirm the existence of the
proposed new continent.
However, Columbus would have to wait a further two years before again venturing forth.
This time, the sovereigns had insisted, he take with him colonists rather than soldiers.
The third voyage therefore included 30 women, 50 farmers, 20 mechanics and 10 gardeners,
along with 30 sailors.
The fleet consisted of six ships, which Columbus split into two separate commands.
The first three ships headed for Hispaniola with supplies for the colony that was stationed
The remaining ships made up the discovery fleet.
With Columbus at the helm it took a southerly route to the Indies in search of any lands
lying south of the Antilles.
Throughout this voyage, Columbus suffered from terrible pains, gout and fever.
Land was sighted on July 31st, 1498 and the fleet soon made in at Trinidad.
For the next two weeks they explored the area between Trinidad and the South American mainland.
Sailing further west they again saw land.
Columbus now declared that he had found the longed for undiscovered continent.
Having achieved his objective, Columbus set the fleet north for Hispaniola.
When he arrived, he found the place in a state of rebellion.
While he was gone, many of his men had died, mainly from starvation, while those who survived
were disgusted at the harsh treatment they had been subjected to under the nominal rulership
of Columbus’ brother, Bartolomew, the acting governor.
The rebels were led by a man named Roldan.
Gathering both Spaniards and natives to his cause, he set about the process of overthrowing
the fragile government that Columbus had established.
After a period of fierce fighting, the exhausted and physically ill Columbus entreated with
Roldan for peace terms.
Columbus gave in to all of Roldan’s demands, including appointing him as mayor and giving
land grants to every Spaniard who wished to stay on the island.
With this humiliating defeat, Columbus’ only desire now was to leave.
Meanwhile news of the latest rebellion had made its way back to Spain.
The king sent a man by the name of Francisco de Bobadilla, a servant of the crown and a
knight, to the Indies to sort the situation out.
He arrived in Hispaniola to discover that a mass execution of rebels was underway.
Displaying his royal orders, he put a halt to the proceedings and had Columbus and his
two brothers thrown into irons.
At the King’s Mercy
The three brothers were shipped back to Spain.
When the people of Cadiz saw the great Columbus in chains after the ship had docked they became
Hearing of this popular reaction, the king ordered that they be freed.
Columbus’ reunion with the King and Queen was an emotionally charged affair.
He threw himself at the Queen’s feet and, through sobs, kissed her hands and feet.
He pleaded innocence, saying that any wrongs he had committed were as a result of ignorance
The sovereigns took pity on him and promised to restore his wealth and titles.
The king, however, was convinced that, while he may be superior at sea, Columbus was no
governor of men on land.
Still, his skills as a voyager were an asset that could be further utilized.
As a result, Ferdinand authorized a fourth voyage to the West Indies in the hopes of
finding a direct route to Asia.
However, he was ordered to stay well away from Hispaniola.
This was strictly to be a voyage of discovery.
Columbus set forth on this final voyage of May 9th, 1502.
His fleet reached the West Indies in 21 days.
Two weeks later his three ships encountered a terrible storm which they managed to see
through with no loss of life.
The fleet eventually reached the offshore island of Bonacca, a few miles from Honduras.
From there they encountered terrible sea conditions for 38 days straight, which tested the men
to their absolute limits.
Finally, they found their way to the Panamanian coastline.
Here they were heartened to find gold in abundance.
They spent the next several months travelling up and down the coast gathering gold and then
headed back for Hispaniola.
But the weather beaten and worm-eaten ships never reached Hispaniola.
With the ships taking on water they barely limped into Jamaica.
The ships were now useless and the party remained stranded for over a year, only to be rescued
when two ships arrived from Santa Domingo.
Columbus and his men were taken to Hispaniola to recover from their ordeal.
But the former governor knew that he was not welcome there.
As soon as he could manage it, he found passage on a ship bound for Spain, arriving back in
Cadiz on November 7, 1504.
The Curtain Falls
Columbus returned to Spain sick, broken and disheartened.
He was so ill that he had could hardly stand on his own power.
However, he still had the stamina to demand an accounting of his accumulated possessions.
The agreement that he had made years ago with Ferdinand and Isabella for a tenth of all
bounty had made him a rich man and he now sought to claim it.
As a result, gold was shipped to him and he was given possession of land claims back in
But the wealth came to late for Columbus to enjoy it.
In May, 1506 his bad health deteriorated fatally.
He became bedridden and, on May 19th, a priest was called to administer the last rites.
He died the next day, moments after whispering, ‘In thy hands Lord, I command my spirit.’
He was just 54 years of age.