- Historic Sites
Christopher Columbus, Mariner
The discoverer of the New World was first and foremost a sailor
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
The Colombo family were respectable, but rather happy-go-lucky. Domenico was always on the move, though he never went farther than Savona, a few miles from Genoa, and he was always taking on new “lines” besides weaving, and losing money on them. After Christopher the eldest-at least of those who survived infancy—he had a boy who died young, a girl who married a neighboring cheesemonger, Bartholomew, who became the Discoverer’s partner, shipmate and executive; and Giacomo, Christopher’s junior by seventeen years, who also accompanied him to the New World and is always known by the Spanish equivalent, Diego, of his first name. Domenico’s brother Antonio also had a large family, and one of his sons, Giannetto (Johnny), commanded a caravel on the Third Voyage. Family feeling was very strong among the Genoese, as among the Corsicans (who then belonged to the same Republic), and just as Napoleon Bonaparte found thrones or titles for his entire family, so Christopher Columbus, a stranger in Spain, felt he could best trust his bothers and kindred.∗
∗ The name Colombo means “dove.” The English-speaking peoples have always called the Discoverer, Colombus, probably because they first read about him in the Latin history of Peter Martyr. When Colombus went to Portugal, he was called Colom; in Spain he first called himself Coloma and then changed to Colon, by which he is always known in Spanish-speaking lands. The French call him Christophe Colomb, but the Italians still refer to him by the name he was christened, Cristoforo Colombo.
The little we know about the Discoverer’s childhood and early youth can be quickly told. He had very little formal schooling, spoke the Genoese dialect, which was almost unintelligible to other Italians, and never learned to read and write until he went to Portugal. As everyone who described him in later life said that he had a long face, an aquiline nose, ruddy complexion and red hair, we can picture him as a little, freckled-faced redhead with blue eyes. One imagines that he was a dreamy little boy and very religious for one of his age, and he must have disliked working in his father’s loom shed, as he took every opportunity to go to sea.
There were plenty of opportunities in that seafaring community. Almost all the traffic along the Ligurian coast was sea-borne. And everyone who had no other job, besides many who did, went fishing. Big carracks and galleons were built in the harbor; there were boat yards in every cove along the shore; and the ships of the Republic traded with all parts of the Mediterranean and with Northern Europe.
In later life Columbus said that he first went to sea in 1461 when he was ten years old. Probably his seafaring at that age did not amount to much; maybe his father let him sail with a neighbor to Portofino to load dried fish, or even over to Corsica, which would have seemed like a foreign voyage to a little boy. What sailor can forget his first cruise? Every incident, every turn of wind, every vessel or person you meet stays in your memory for years. What pride and joy to be given the tiller while the skipper goes below and the mate snoozes on the sunny side of the deck! What a thrill to sight five mountains above the horizon, to watch them rise, spread out and merge into one as you approach! Then, to go ashore, to swap your jackknife for a curiosity, to see the island gradually sink below the horizon on the homeward passage, and to swagger ashore feeling you are a real old salt! Such things a sailor never forgets.
Exactly when Christopher decided to quit the weaving trade and make the sea his profession we do not know. Facts about his early life are few; one has to piece together incidents that he or his friends remembered after he became famous, or which were recorded in a notary’s office because of some litigation. It is probable that for a period of about eight years, between ages fifteen and twenty-three, Christopher made several long voyages in the Mediterranean but spent most of his time ashore helping his father. When he was nineteen, he served in a Genoese ship chartered by King René II of Anjou as part of his war fleet in a brief brawl with the King of Aragon. Christopher also made at least one voyage to Chios in the Aegean, in a ship owned by Genoese merchants, who had the monopoly of trade with that island.
In May 1476, in his twenty-fifth year, came the adventure that changed the course of Christopher’s life. Genoa organized an armed convoy to carry a valuable cargo to Northern Europe, and in this convoy Christopher sailed as seaman in a Flemish vessel named Bechalla . On August 13, when it had passed the Strait of Gibraltar and was off the southern coast of Portugal, the fleet was attacked by a French task force. The battle raged all day, and by nightfall three Genoese ships and four of the enemy’s had gone down. Bechalla was one of the casualties. Christopher, though wounded, managed to grasp a floating sweep and, by alternately kicking it ahead and resting on it, reached the shore six miles distant. The people of Lagos, near which he landed, treated him kindly, and on learning that his younger brother Bartholomew was living at Lisbon, sent him thither as soon as he could travel.
That was one of the best things that could have happened to Christopher Columbus.