Christopher Columbus, Mariner

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Christopher Columbus, now aged thirty-one or -two, had “arrived,” according to the standards of his day. He was a master mariner in the Portuguese merchant service, then the finest and most far-ranging merchant marine in the world. He had sailed from above the Arctic Circle almost to the Equator, and from the Eastern Aegean to the outer Azores. He had learned all of practical navigation that could be acquired by entering ships “through the hawse hole” and working up to the captain’s cabin. He could make charts and figure latitude from the North Star. Besides, he was an avid reader of books on geography and cosmography. He was connected by marriage with two important families of Portugal. He had business connections with a leading merchant-banker house of Genoa. Columbus had only to continue in this career, persevere in the African trade with its many opportunities to make something on the side, and retire after a few years, a rich man. Or the King might give him one of the royal caravels to explore the African coast, as Diego Cão was doing in 1482∇1483; and Cão, for discovering a new farthest south on the African coast, was knighted and ennobled in 1484.

But Christopher had other ideas and a vaster ambition. His mind was seething with the notion of sailing west to the Orient, acquiring wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and glory exceeding that of any earlier mariner.

A Great Enterprise Is Born

The Indies, meaning most of Eastern Asia—India, Burma, China, Japan, the Moluccas and Indonesia—cast a spell over European imagination in the fifteenth century. These were lands of vast wealth in gold, silver and precious stones, in silk and fine cotton, in spices, drugs and perfumes, which in small quantities were taken by caravans across Asia to Constantinople or to Levantine ports, thence distributed through Europe by ship, wagon and pack train. The cost of handling by so many middlemen and over such long and complicated routes made the prices of Oriental goods to the European consumer exorbitant; yet the increase of wealth and luxury in European cities kept the demand far ahead of the supply. That is why the kings of Portugal made repeated attempts to get around Africa to India, where Oriental products could be purchased cheap. Columbus decided that the African route was the hard way to the Indies; he proposed to find a bold but easy way, due west by sea.

And there were other reasons for seeking a new and easy contact with the Far East, which appealed to so religious a man as Columbus, and still more to the churchmen who held many of the highest posts in European governments. It was a matter of intense mortification to them that the Crusades had failed, that Christians had been forced to evacuate the Holy Land, and that the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, and the birthplace of Our Lord, were now controlled by infidel Turks. Somewhere in the Orient, it was believed, existed a powerful Christian state ruled by a monarch known as Prester John. The substance behind this legend was the Kingdom of Ethiopia, over which Haile Selassie’s ancestors then ruled. If only contact could be made and an alliance concluded with Prester John, who was rumored to have enormous wealth and a big army, the Christian hosts might recover the Holy Land and send the Turks reeling back to Central Asia.

European knowledge of China at that time was slight and inaccurate. The Spanish Sovereigns, as their letter of introduction furnished to Columbus indicates, thought that the Mongol dynasty of Kubla Khan still reigned in the Celestial Empire, although the Ming dynasty had supplanted it as far back as 1368. Most of the information (and misinformation) that Europe had about China came from The Book of Ser Marco Polo , the Venetian who spent about three years in China around the turn of the fourteenth century. This account of his experiences was circulated in countless manuscript copies and was one of the earliest books to be printed. Marco Polo not only confirmed the rumors that Chinese emperors were rolling in wealth, but he wrote a highly embellished account of an even wealthier island kingdom named Cipangu (Japan) which, he said, lay 1500 miles off the coast of China.

We must constantly keep in mind that nobody in Europe had any conception or suspicion of the existence of the continent that we call America. The voyages of the Northmen in the eleventh century to a part of the east coast of the future Canada or New England, which they called Vinland, were either unknown or forgotten in Southern Europe; and if Columbus had heard about them on his voyage to Iceland, they were of no interest to him, since he was not interested in wild grapes, pine trees and codfish, but in gold and spices. Everyone regarded the Ocean Sea as one and indivisible, flowing around Europe, Asia and Africa, which formed, as it were, one big island in one big ocean. The great questions before Columbus, and before the various monarchs and officials who must decide whether or not to support him, were, “How far west is the Far East? How many miles lie between Spain and China or Japan? How long would the voyage take? And is such a voyage practicable?”