- Historic Sites
Christopher Columbus, Mariner
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
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.
Portugal was then the liveliest and most progressive country in Europe, and Lisbon the center for exploration and discovery. Almost half a century earlier the Infante Dom Henrique, the Portuguese prince whom we call Henry the Navigator, had set up a combined hydrographic and marine intelligence office at Cape St. Vincent, which attracted ambitious seamen from all over the Mediterranean. He subsidized voyages out into the Atlantic and down along the west coast of Africa. His captains discovered the seven islands of the Azores, one third of the way to America; the Portuguese colonized not only the Azores but the Madeira group which had been discovered earlier, and the Cape Verde Islands off Africa. That “dark continent” was Prince Henry’s particular interest. Every few years his captains made a new farthest south along the west coast, and by the time Columbus reached Lisbon, they had crossed the Gulf of Guinea. Fleets of lateen-rigged caravels, fast and weatherly little vessels specially designed for the African trade, set forth from Lisbon every spring carrying cargoes of red cloth, glass beads, hawks’ bells and horses, and every fall returned with rich cargoes of ivory, gold dust, Malagueta pepper and Negro slaves. Lisbon is an ocean-facing city; from her quays there is no long and tedious sail to blue water. At a time when the Levantine commerce of Genoa was being taken away by the Venetians and Turks, Lisbon was up-and-coming, pioneering trade routes around the great circle from Iceland through the Azores to the Gold Coast. Enterprising merchants and seamen of all countries, including those of Genoa, flocked to Lisbon to share the wealth. And the Portuguese crown deliberately fostered voyages to discover new islands and find a way to India around Africa.
Lisbon, moreover, was a learned city where it was easy for a newcomer like Columbus to learn Latin and modern languages, and to acquire books that increased his knowledge of the world. Bartholomew, who had already joined the Genoese community there, was employed in one of the chart-making establishments, where he got a job for Christopher, and before long the Columbus brothers had a thriving chart business of their own. That put them in close touch with master mariners and the like, for all charts at that time were based on information and rough sketches that seamen brought home. The two brothers would manage to be on hand whenever a ship returned from Africa or the Western Islands to invite the master or pilot to dine or drink with them, and would extract from him all the data they could for correcting their charts of known countries or extending those of the African coast. It may well be that in one of these conferences a grizzled captain, looking at a chart of the known world, remarked, “I’m sick of sailing along the fever-stricken Guinea coast, chaffering with local chiefs for a cargo of blackamoors; why can’t we sail due west beyond the Azores, till we hit the Golden East, and make a real killing?”
Why not, indeed? People had been talking of doing that since the days of the Roman Empire, but nobody had tried it within the memory of man. The ocean was reputed too broad, winds too uncertain; the ships could not carry enough cargo to feed their crews for several months, and the sailors themselves had acquired deep respect for that dark and turbulent waste, the North Atlantic, and would not engage in such an enterprise. That it was theoretically possible to reach the Orient by sailing west every educated man would admit, since every educated man knew the earth to be a sphere, but nobody had done anything to test the theory. In 1476, when Columbus reached Lisbon, the proposition of sailing west to reach the Orient was at about the same stage as man-made flight in 1900- theoretically possible but full of practical difficulties. Habit, custom and superstition were against it, too: “Man should not tempt the Almighty by seeking unknown depths of the ocean,” in 1476; “Man was made for the earth, not the sky,” in 1900. Most sensible people admitted that a voyage west to China could be made, and a few said it should be done, but nobody cared to try, until that young Genoese Cristoforo Colombo began pestering people to finance his project.