The name of this holiday in the United States is officially Columbus Day. However, there is quite a large debate in regards to whether the holiday should be called Columbus Day or not. There are many reasons for the debate. One major reason is that it is evident that Christopher Columbus was not the first explorer to reach what is now North America from Europe. It is fact that the Vikings traveled to areas in North America including Greenland and Canada. And, many argue that the first people to discover North America were the Native Americans, since they likely arrived thousands of years earlier. Even earlier still, there may have been another group of people who resided in what is now known as the United States called the Clovis People. As you can see, it can be difficult to say who actually discovered what first! However, it is possible to celebrate the spirit of exploration and discovery. After all, explorers have to possess certain traits including bravery and fearlessness in order to be explorers. And each discovery has made an impact and left an imprint on the history of humanity, forever. Since the discovery of the Bahamas by Christopher Columbus occurred on a definitive date, October 12, it would still be a very fitting date for a new holiday – Discoverer’s Day.
As travel from Europe to Asia through the Middle East was cut off during the time period when Christopher Columbus lived, other means of gaining access to Asia were desired. Travel to Asia was necessary for merchants to purchase spices, jewels, and other items which were used throughout their daily businesses. Many voyagers tried to find ways to reach Asia with some succeeding and some never returning.
Around the year 1446, Christopher Columbus was born. Christopher Columbus was a person with unusual foresight, a person who had a gut feeling or a God given instinct that something was true. As with any adventurer, it is the unknown that sparks a person’s imagination and a person’s creativity for solutions. Through all his research, studies, and discussions, Christopher imagined and created a solution for westward oceanic voyages. He believed that traveling westward on the ocean would lead to the Asian continent, specifically China, Japan, and India.
The following story tells the beginning life of Christopher Columbus along with the challenges he faced trying to share his solution of westward oceanic travel. His four voyages will be described on future pages.
Christopher Columbus was born the son of Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa (the Italian spelling of Christopher Columbus is Cristoforo Columbo).1 Domenico lived in Genoa for many years with an occupation of "combing wool, and had also a cloth factory on a diminutive scale, giving employment to two men."2 The exact birth year of Christopher is unknown. Some historians list 1435 as his birth year; others suggest the year to be 1441; yet others list Christopher’s birth year as 'before 1451'. The closest research for an exact year appears in separate letters written by Christopher Columbus himself [in later years, he was called the Admiral]. "Don Ferdinand, the Admirals son, relates, that in a letter addressed by his father to the King and Queen, and dated 1501, he states, that he had been forty years at sea; and in another letter that he was fourteen years old when he went to sea; so that, allowing a year either way for probably inattention to minuteness in these statements, we get the date of his birth, fixed by his own hand, at about 1447."3
Domenico and Susanna had five children, four boys and one girl. Christopher was the oldest of the brothers who included Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino (John), and Giacomo (James). He also had one sister, Bianchinetta. Many resources omit Giovanni Pellegrino as he had died in his early adult years.4 Christopher’s sister, Bianchinetta, is also not well known and there is very little information regarding her life.
Domenico realized Christopher was a fast learner as he "quickly-learned reading writing, and arithmetic, and drawing and painting, but geography was his passion."5 Domenico, who was not at all a wealthy person, found a way to send Christopher to the University of Padua. However, Christopher was not interested in the courses offered as his heart was set on traveling the oceans and seas. Domenico pulled Christopher out of the University at age twelve and Christopher worked with Domenico until age fourteen.
It was at this time when Christopher took to the sea. For the next ten years, he sailed the seas and it is mentioned that "in the first years of his sailor life [he] engaged in expeditions of a somewhat dubious character. He served under two celebrated captains of his own name, and probably distantly related to his family – Colombo the elder, the 'arch-pirate,' and a nephew of the same, called Colombo the younger, both honorably distinguished for good service against the Turks."6
After sailing for ten years and learning the trade, his life in Portugal began around the year of 1470.# Some believe a battle took place near Portugal where Christopher jumped ship and floated on an oar to Portugal’s shores. However,
[O]n examining various histories of the times, the battle here described appears to have happened several years after the date of the arrival of Columbus in that country. That he was engaged in the contest is not improbable; but he had previously resided for some time in Portugal. In fact, on referring to the history of that kingdom, we shall find, in the great maritime enterprises in which it was at that time engaged, ample attractions for a person of his inclinations and pursuits; and we shall be led to conclude, that his first visit to Lisbon was not the fortuitous result of a desperate adventure, but was undertaken in a spirit of liberal curiosity, and in the pursuit of honorable fortune.8
While in Portugal, Christopher met his bride to be, Dona Felipa de Perestrello.# Her father, Bartolomeo Monis de Palestrello was also a navigator of the seas. As Bartolomeo had recently passed away, Christopher and Felipa, after being wedded, resided with her mother. During this time, Christopher was given many charts and maps that Bartolomeo had accumulated. Bartolomeo "had been one of the most distinguished navigators under Prince Henry, and had colonized and governed the island of Porto Santo."10
Christopher's meager income during this time came from making maps and charts of Portuguese sailing routes. Through this occupation, he became familiar with many of the expeditions, their routes, the seas, the locations of the many different countries, and so forth. His knowledge of the seas and oceans grew along with his curiosity. Christopher and Felipa moved to Porto Santo, an island discovered in 1418 by the Portuguese. It was while they resided on Porto Santo that their son, Diego, was born.
Throughout his stay on Porto Santo, Christopher learned about and discussed the many new discoveries of the seas and oceans. His vision of an easier way to travel to the Far East pointed westward while other navigators were focused on routes around the continent of Africa. "[H]is frequent occupation in making maps and charts, had led him more and more to speculate on the great object of geographical enterprise; but while others were slowly and painfully seeking a route to India, by following up the coast of Africa, his daring genius conceived the bold idea of turning his prow directly to the west, and seeking the desired land by a route across the Atlantic."11
After many years of dedicated work; after many years of fact finding; after many years of studying diligently the maps, navigational figures, measurements; after many years of reading past navigators experiences such as Marco Polo; and after many years of discussion with those knowledgeable of the oceans and seas including Paulo Toscanelli, Prince Henry, and others; Christopher's theory of sailing westward in search of an easier route to the continent of Asia including China, Japan and India began to come to life.
It would be several years later when he would approach King John of Portugal. Christopher presented his theory along with all his research to the king in hopes of securing the financial means to accomplish the initial journey across the ocean. King John, however, had different ideas. His council, along with the king, led Christopher along, pretending to support Christopher in his venture across the vast ocean only to later deceive him. "While they held him in suspense, awaiting their decision, they privately dispatched a caravel to pursue the designated route."12 When Christopher found out about the falsity of the Portuguese, and having no further ties to the country of Portugal as his wife, Felipa, had passed away, he took his son, Diego, and left Portugal in the year of 1484.
After leaving Portugal, Christopher was downtrodden and in despair. When he and his young son, Diego, were outside a gate of the Franciscan friars convent seeking food, "Friar Juan Perez de Marchena, happening to pass by, was struck with the appearance of the stranger, and observing from his air and accent that he was a foreigner, entered into conversation with him. That stranger was Columbus, accompanied by his young son Diego."13 Christopher and Diego were asked to stay as guests at the convent. Friar Juan, impressed by Christopher’s knowledge, maps and charts, sent for many consultants to review Christopher’s theories. The consultants included physicians, scientists, veteran pilots, mariners, and the most important consultant, Martin Alonzo Pinzon “one of the most intelligent sea captains of the day, and the head of a family of wealthy and distinguished navigators. Pinzon not only gave the project of Columbus his decided approbation, but offered to engage in it with purse and person.”14Friar Juan advised Christopher to meet with King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile at the Castilian court in Cordova. The king and queen were rulers of separate lands, Aragon and Castile. Eventually, through their marriage, the separate lands became one land known as Spain.
In the year of 1486, Christopher began his journey to Cordova to present his theories to the king and queen. His son, Diego, remained at the convent for educational studies. Christopher arrived in Cordova in the summer of 1486 full of hope for a prosperous and generous gift from the queen. However, when he met with the king and queen, he was told that the treasury money was being spent on various wars, especially the current war with the Moors. Christopher was doomed to wait once again to see if funding would be available for his journey across the ocean. While waiting for many years in Castile, Christopher met a young lady named Beatrix Enriquez. It is not known if the two were ever married; however, they did have a son named Fernando. Fernando was a brother to Diego and eventually became the historian of Christopher and his voyages.
After six long years of waiting in Castile and wondering if he would ever be funded, Queen Isabella contacted Christopher and finally released the much needed advanced funding. King Ferdinand was not supportive of this venture but knew that once the queen’s mind was made up, nothing could change the outcome. As funds were low in the treasury, the queen was going to "pledge her jewels to raise the funds required. However, money was a very small consideration at that stage of the proceedings. Ferdinand of Aragon agreed to lend to Isabella of Castile the sum required…."15
As this was a journey no one else had ever been on and it was uncertain if anyone would ever return, acquiring ships, shipbuilders, and sailors was difficult:
"We wonder at the courage of Christopher Columbus in undertaking his voyage of discovery, and we forget how much more courage was required of those who went with him. His sailors had not seen his vision of a new world, and they knew nothing of the 'lands of spices' of which he had dreamed for years. To him the Ocean-Sea was a straight path across the waters that he loved to lands that were as real to him as though he had visited them – he had seen a great vision, and he had faith; but to these men of Palos who had to go with him, he was only a foreigner who had crazy notions about things that every sensible sailor knew did not exist."16
Eventually, through some scheming and help from Martin Alonzo Pinzon, a friend of Father Juan Perez, ships and shipmates were found. The three ships that made the trip were the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Pinta. The Santa Maria was a ship donated by the township of Palos. Christopher, himself, would be in command of this ship. It held sixty-six persons. The Nina held twenty-four people and Vincent Pinzon was the commander. The Pinta held thirty persons and was commanded by Martin Pinzon along with another brother, Francis Pinzon.# The journey across the vast ocean began on August 3rd, 1492, as the three ships set sail on that early morning.
Christopher Columbus was a person with unusual foresight, a person who had a gut feeling or a God given instinct that something was true. There are many people who have these feelings or foresights but in Christopher’s case, he acted upon them. He did not give up or surrender to those who did not believe in him. He did not succumb to those who ridiculed him. Christopher continued to pursue his vision – a vision of sailing the ocean westward would lead to distant lands. When no one else believed in either his theories or his visions, Christopher knew they would result in successful ventures.
1. Bandelier, Adolph Francis, "Christopher Columbus," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, Robert Appleton Company, New York, 1908, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04140a.htm, accessed on September 21, 2012.
2. Knight, Rev. A. G., Life of Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World. A Biographical Sketch, D. & J. Sadlier & Co., New York, 1877, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 29, 2012, pg. 22.
3. Abbott, John S. C., Christopher Columbus, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1875, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 29, 2012, pg. 10.
4. Knight, Rev. A. G., Life of Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World. A Biographical Sketch, D. & J. Sadlier & Co., New York, 1877, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 29, 2012, pg. 21.
5. Ibid, pg 22.
6. Ibid, pg 23.
7. Irving, Washington, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1858, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on October 1, 2012, pg 15.
8. Ibid, pg 13.
9. Knight, Rev. A. G., Life of Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World. A Biographical Sketch, D. & J. Sadlier & Co., New York, 1877, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 29, 2012, pg. 24.
10. Irving, Washington, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1858, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on October 1, 2012, pg 15.
11. Ibid, pg 18.
12. Ibid, pg 24.
13. Ibid, pg 25.
14. Ibid, pg. 26.
15. Knight, Rev. A. G., Life of Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World. A Biographical Sketch, D. & J. Sadlier & Co., New York, 1877, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 29, 2012, pg. 35.
16. Moores, Charles W., The Story of Christopher Columbus, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1912, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 12, 2012, pg. 27.
17. Knight, Rev. A. G., Life of Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World. A Biographical Sketch, D. & J. Sadlier & Co., New York, 1877, [NOOK version], retrieved from Barnes and Noble Nook for PC on September 29, 2012, pg. 43.