In the 15th Century a wool-merchant’s son from Genoa fell in love with the sea. By the age of ten he was already sailing. At 25 he first sailed the Atlantic--the ocean on which he would find his fame--and his ship was set upon by pirates, burned, and the unfortunate sailor was tossed into the sea to die. He had to swim six miles from the wreckage to the Portuguese shore, clinging on a piece of debris to save himself from drowning. He recovered at Lagos, then moved to Lisbon where he settled, met his wife and learned the everything the Portuguese could teach him about the sea.
The man’s name was Cristoforo Colombo but depending on your language of choice you might call him Cristóbal Colón. We know him today as Christopher Columbus.
Lisbon was a city open to the sea. Countless ships from innumerable ports docked there every day, bustling with traders, pirates, adventurers, seamen; all the flotsam and rabble of long-distance life. Over the next decade, Columbus learned all the Portuguese arts of maritime adventure: what foods would not spoil on the months spent on long sea voyages; how to navigate the open oceans using the astrolabe and the sextant and the position as the stars; he sailed as far north as Iceland and as far south as Guinea; and most importantly, it was in Lisbon that Columbus learned of the marvelous riches of the East.
The East meant spices from the fabled strait of Malacca--nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper--seasonings worth more than their weight in gold. The East meant fine lacquered boxes, silks, brocade, porcelain, tinctures, potions, and remedies from the nearly-mythical Empire of China. The East meant Indian fabrics, so well-made that no European manufacturer could match them. If you could get your ship to a port in the Far East and then return to Europe with your hold full of these luxuries, you made your fortune--if you returned alive.
Portuguese traders were trying to open a route to the East by following the western coast of Africa south, turning around the Horn of Africa, and only then going east. It was a long and risky journey. Columbus thought that he had a better way. To reach the east he would venture west--and he would go around the earth.
The fact that the earth was round had been known since the time of Aristotle. If there was an unbroken body of water girdling the earth, then if you sailed far enough west you would eventually make it to the East. But how long would it take? Columbus calculated that the distance from the Canary Islands--the westernmost extent of European settlement--to Japan was only 2,300 miles. A long way on foot, to be sure--but a lot shorter than the slog around the horn of Africa.
But to make his journey around the globe, he needed ships, he needed men, he needed material and--after he had filled in the blank parts of the map, he wanted the promise that he would profit from the lands he had discovered. But for that he required money and the support of a government that could muster the might to defend whatever trading routes he discovered. Columbus pitched his plan to the venture capitalists of his age, the Kings of Europe.
First he met with King John the Second of Portugal. The King palmed off the scheming sailor to a committee who came up with the judicious ruling that Columbus was an idiot and no one should bother listening to him. All Columbus would find if he sailed west, they reasoned, were barren rocky points. Besides, Columbus had done his math wrong. He had made the world too small. He was nothing but an impractical visionary who would waste the crown’s money and his own life.
Unphased, Columbus next asked the Spanish crown whether they’d be interested in the whole discovering new routes to the East business, but they were too busy with battle to deal with discovery, so they advised Columbus to ask them again later. Finally he went to Henry the 7th of England, who was too stingy to bother with impractical assails into unknown oceans. For ten years Columbus was stuck in meetings, making proposals, going from one king to another--and he got no after no after no after no.
Finally in 1491 Columbus got the a yes from the Spanish. He would get his ships and men and material, and the promise that he would be viceroy of all he discovered, as Admiral of the Ocean Seas. The first person to see land on the journey would receive a pension of ten thousand marvedis a year for the rest of his life--a tidy sum when most sailors made close to twelve thousand marvedis a year by working in hazardous, pirate-rich waters.
In 1492 Columbus moved to the port town of Palos, where he was to muster ships and sailors for his crazy scheme. The famous Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were soon commandeered, and about ninety sailors were rustled up from the reluctant population.
Columbus set sail on August 3rd, reaching the Canary Islands on September 6th. From there it was weeks of open ocean, dead reckoning, and waiting--though the wind was swift, carrying them further and further west. Some writers suggest that the crew attempted mutiny, worried whether they would make it to the East alive. And then in the middle of September, the watchful sailors could see signs of land--birds, flying west across the water.
Finally in the deep morning of October 12, a seaman called Rodrígo de Triana saw something on the horizon that was not water, not a cloud, and not birds. “Tierra! Tierra!” he yelled. Land.
Nope, Columbus said. That’s not land. Wait a second. You see that? Over there? That thing. Yeah. That’s land. And I’m the one who saw it first, not you, Triana you shortsighted scallywag. That delicious ten thousand a year pension is all mine.
They were somewhere in the Bahamas. Columbus thought that he landed in Japan. He explored a few islands, spoke with the friendly natives, saw that some of the friendly natives wore gold studs in their noses, heard that other natives fruther west wore gold bands around their arms, searched for these natives so that he could find the source of the gold, was attacked by bow-wielding unfriendly natives, slaughtered these natives, and fled. The Santa Maria struck a reef near the island of Hispaniola, and it was scrapped, and the wood used to build a fort. Thirty-nine men were left behind with a year’s worth of provisions, at what became the first European outpost in the new world--christened La Navidad. His survey done, Columbus sailed back to Spain with a few dozen live specimens of Indiankind to show off back home--seven of which survived the journey, to serve out their fate as discussion pieces for polite Spanish society.
On his return, Columbus was famous. He dined at the same table as the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. He showed off gold trinkets, parrots, and tales of native attack to rapturous audiences. With more ships and more men, he promised, he would secure spices, gold, treasure, and pagan souls. Spain had recently conquered the last pockets of native Muslim resistance on the southern tip of the country, and their warriors--used to centuries of expansion and conversion--were happy to go aboard Columbus’ vessels to find new lands and new idolaters.
When Columbus returned to La Navidad around November 1493, he found the site burned to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered. A new European colony was founded called Isabella, built and maintained by a policy of forcibly enslaving the native population. But Columbus’ governorship of his new possessions was graceless, and tension mounted between him and his colonists.
In letters home, unruly colonists complained that their adventures in the new world were less hack-and-slash and loot, and more toil. They complained that Columbus’ brother, Diego--who Christopher had left in charge while he explored the Antilles--added the sin of being Italian to the inconvenience of incompetence. The complaints became more vile, and the Spanish court began an investigation against the Columbus brothers. Columbus was forced to return to Europe in late 1494, to explain himself before the situation got even more out of hand.
Columbus’ third voyage in 1498 was when things got really bad. Columbus left his brother Bartolomeo in charge of the Hispaniola with orders to build a new city, while he set sail to discover Trinidad, the Orinoco River, and a couple idyllic islands ripe for conquest.
When Columbus returned to the settlement on Hispaniola, he found no shining city waiting for him like he had hoped. He found riot and tumult, unrest and infighting, revolt and recrimination. While Columbus had been enjoying the Bahamian beaches, the settlers had split into two factions, one loyal to the Columbus family, the other led by the headstrong Mayor Francisco Roldán. It took two years of negotiation to bring peace to the colonists, and peace came with a grant of land to each man--along with rights to all the natives who happened to be living on it.
Columbus called for help. Someone who might be able to square the high-minded plans Columbus had for permanent settlement, profit, and the spread of Christianity with the colonists’ hope for gold, slaves, and easy money. A judge named Fransisco de Bobadilla was sent from Spain and was duly appointed governor of the Indies. He took over Columbus’ house, his records, and his power, arrested Christopher and Bartolomeo, and sent them back to Spain in chains to be held in judgement for the crime of brutally mismanaging the new colony. Columbus stroppily said that only the King or Queen of Spain would remove his chains. When Isabella saw the former hero, shackled and grumpy, she ordered him released immediately.
On his fourth and final trip in 1502, Columbus was banned from visiting Hispaniola, the island he had discovered. He was too weak to captain his own ship, leaving the actual sailing to subordinates. He was looking for the straits of Malacca, where the spice was. Of course, it was on the other side of the earth. After being lashed by a hurricane, talking with traders in Panama, and being stranded on Jamaica for a year, Columbus returned home, never again to go out on the open sea--at least while he lived. He returned home to live out his dotage, filing lawsuits and dying.
When Columbus died in 1506 he still believed that the islands he had discovered were the easternmost jut of Japan, and the natives he was dealing with were members of the Mongol Horde. He was buried in Spain, a hero.
But even in death the great explorer could not stop moving. In 1542 his body was exhumed and moved to the island of Hispaniola. When the French took over Hispaniola in 1795, the Spanish hero’s body was reexhumed and then reinterned in Cuba, at the time an island still safely in the hands of the Spanish crown. When Cuba wrested its independence from the mother country, Columbus was yet again yanked from the earth, set upon the sea, and moved to Seville--where he remains today.
Columbus was so important a figure in the history of the world that his name marks a change in era--we have time before Columbus, and time after Columbus. His life was a hinge that connected Medieval and Modern Europe, old world and new, commerce and discovery. But Columbus was only as great as he was because he was wrong. If he had done his math correctly, he never would have dared to sail west at all.
This post was inspired by a great lecture by William Fowler called Early Atlantic Exploration. My main source for dates and details was a short biographical article by Thomas Tirado. The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on Columbus' failures.