- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
Although no glittering citadels appeared on the horizon, the explorer and his sailors were quick to notice that the natives wore small gold pendants as nose ornaments, and Columbus took this as a sign that the Bahamian island on which he had first landed, which he called San Salvador, would perhaps turn out to be a steppingstone to Cathay.
His subsequent discovery of gold on the large island he named Hispaniola convinced him and his men that they had indeed landed in the outer reaches of the Indies, and this was what he believed when he commenced his return voyage to Spain on January 4, 1493.
Nobody knows. But one thing is certain: It was not an original idea. A westward route had been suggested as far back as Aristotle. Columbus’s interest in finding such a route may have arisen around 1476, when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal and took up residence in Lisbon. At that time Portugal stood proudly at the head of European navigation. Columbus was then twenty-five years old. Intensely religious, he found his geographic convictions strengthened by passages from the Bible and from such predictions as one in Seneca’s Medea : “An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose the chains of things, and a great part of the earth will be opened up and a new sailor such as the one who was Jason’s guide … will reveal a new world.” Columbus longed to be that sailor.
Years. He first presented the petition for his “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called it, to King John II of Portugal in 1484 or a bit earlier. It was turned over to a commission of experts just as it would be today. They rejected it.
When Columbus turned to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain for support in 1486, his proposal was submitted to an assemblage of Spanish scholars and ecclesiastics known as the Talavera Commission. Again a rejection. The commission ruled that the distance was far greater than Columbus claimed, and the enterprise therefore not feasible. They were right on the first count, wrong on the second. Over the years Columbus persisted. Finally, through the intervention of Luis de Santangel, the keeper of the privy purse, who had befriended him at the Spanish court, he obtained Queen Isabella’s permission in the spring of 1492. “By these presents,” announced the royal decree, “we dispatch the noble man Christoforus Colon with three equipped caravels over the Ocean Seas toward the regions of India for certain reasons and purposes.”
Rival claims follow in the wake of any heroic accomplishment. Columbus was born in Genoa of Italian parents in 1451, and it has been insisted that he was a full-blooded Spaniard, a Catalan, or a Jew of Portuguese or Catalan descent, but the evidence suggests that he was a Catholic of Genoese origin. Whatever his background, he basked in that wondrous confluence of Arab, Jewish, and Christian genius that marked the intellectual world of Portugal and Spain during the early Renaissance. The undisputed facts are that his father was Domenico Colombo, and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa, both of Genoa. They had two younger sons, Bartolomeo and Giacomo (later known as Diego), and a daughter, Bianchinetta. The family business was weaving. Domenico managed a decent living as a member of the clothiers’ guild, but his prospects for improvement were never very bright.
Columbus left Genoa as a young and illiterate sailor. After living in Portugal and then Spain and acquiring their languages, he taught himself to read and write. He also taught himself Latin, the medium of communication of educated men; many of the books on which he relied for his navigational theories were in Latin.
In his writings Columbus more than once described himself as un estranjero . Indeed, the Spanish officers and sailors who were eventually to serve under him often resented the fact that he was a “foreigner.” Although the population of fifteenth-century Spain was of a distinctly cosmopolitan mix, a fierce wave of nationalism was on the rise by the time Columbus settled there. The same year he sailed, Spain conquered the last of the Moors and ordered the expulsion of all unconverted Jews.
A compass, dead reckoning, and luck. Latitude and longitude existed as concepts, but both were shrouded in guesswork. Latitude was reckoned by Ptolemaic climata —parallel zones arbitrarily laid down on a chart in terms of climate and, where practical, by the length of the longest day of the year, found to be directly proportional to the angular height of the sun. Longitude was arrived at through a complicated procedure by timing an eclipse. Like most mariners, Columbus couldn’t manage it.