Christopher Columbus, Mariner


Exactly when and how he got the idea we do not know. It may have been put to him, as we suggest, by a shipmaster impatient of the dangers and disappointments of the Guinea trade. It may have come to him in a rush of religious emotion at Mass, when he heard Psalm 19, “The Heavens declare the Glory of God”; for a Genoa compatriot remarked that Christopher fulfilled the prophecy of the fourth verse, “And their words unto the ends of the world.” He may have read that prophecy of Seneca in the Medea , “A time will come when the chains of the Ocean will fall apart, and a vast continent be revealed; when a pilot will discover new worlds and Thule no longer be the ultimate.” That prophecy, too, was fulfilled by him, as his son Ferdinand duly noted in his copy of Seneca. We do not know how Columbus came by the idea of sailing west to reach the East, but once he had it, that was the truth for him; he was the sort of man in whom action is the complement of a dream. He knew the truth, but he could not rest until it was proved, until the word became flesh. And, let us admit, his combination of creative imagination with obstinate assurance, his impatience with all who were slow to be convinced and contempt for those who withstood him, made Columbus a fool in the eyes of some men and a bore to most. Like the pioneers of aviation, he was considered a little touched in the head: one who would fly in the face of God. And the worst of it was that he had to persuade stupid people in high places that his Enterprise of the Indies, as he called it, was plausible, because he wanted money, men and equipment to carry it out.

More maritime experience than that of foremast hand and apprentice chartmaker was needed before he could hope to convince anyone. And that he obtained, under the Portuguese flag. In the fall of the same year that he arrived in Lisbon, he shipped on one of the Portuguese vessels in the “Atlantic Corridor” trade—exchanging wool, dried fish and wine between Iceland, Ireland, the Azores and Lisbon. His vessel called at Galway, where, in later years, he recalled having seen two dead people in a drifting boat, of such extraordinary appearance that the Irish said they must be Chinese; probably they were Finns who had left a sinking ship. The master of the vessel in which Columbus sailed, in February 1477 went exploring to the north of Iceland for a hundred leagues before returning to Portugal, so Columbus could boast that he had sailed to the edge of the Arctic Circle.

The following year, when Columbus was twenty-seven years old, the Genoese firm under which he had earlier sailed to Chios employed him to purchase a quantity of sugar at Madeira and carry it to Genoa. They neglected, however, to supply him with money to pay for it, and the merchants of Funchal refused to deliver on credit, so Columbus reached Genoa without the sugar. There was a lawsuit, and Christopher made a deposition about the case at Genoa in the summer of 1479. That was probably his last visit to his native place. But “that noble and powerful city by the sea,” as he called it in his will, was ever close to his heart, and he hoped to be able from his property to maintain a home there forever for his descendants. He never became naturalized in any other country, and he appointed the Bank of St. George at Genoa executor of his will.

Upon his return to Lisbon from Genoa, Christopher married Dona Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, scion of one of the first families of Portugal, daughter of Bartholomew Perestrello, hereditary captain of Porto Santo in the Madeira group, and granddaughter to Gil Moniz, a knight companion of Prince Henry. The young couple lived for a time in Lisbon with Dona Felipa’s mother, who broke out her late husband’s logbooks and charts for the benefit of her son-in-law. Later they settled in Porto Santo, where Dona Felipa’s brother was governor, and there their only child, Diego, later known as Don Diego Colon, Second Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies, was born. About the year 1482 they moved to Funchal in Madeira, and while there Columbus made one and probably two voyages to São Jorge da Mina, the fortified trading post which the Portuguese crown had established on the Gold Coast. And on one of these voyages he was in command.

There is evidence, too, that he knew the Azores fairly well. Although it may not be true that on the northern point of Corvo he saw a natural rock statue of a horseman pointing west, the rock formations there are so fantastic that it requires no great imagination to see such figures. We, in 1939, made out there an armed and vizored crusader with folded arms, gazing toward Newfoundland, and hoped it did not mean Adolf Hitler!