When it comes to Christopher Columbus, most famous of the explorers of the Age of Discovery, it's hard to separate truth from myth, and fact from legend. Here are ten things that maybe you didn't already know about Christopher Columbus and his four legendary voyages.
Christopher Columbus Wasn't His Real Name
Christopher Columbus is an Anglicization of his real name, given to him in Genoa where he was born: Cristoforo Colombo. Other languages have changed his name, too: he is Cristóbal Colón in Spanish and Kristoffer Kolumbus in Swedish, for example. Even his Genoese name is not certain, as historical documents about his origin are scarce.
He Almost Never Got to Make His Historic Journey
Columbus became convinced of the possibility of reaching Asia by traveling west, but getting the funding to go was a hard sell in Europe. He tried to get support from many sources, including the King of Portugal, but most European rulers thought he was a crackpot and didn’t pay much attention to him. He hung around the Spanish court for years, hoping to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to finance his journey. In fact, he had just given up and was headed to France in 1492 when he got the news that his voyage had finally been approved.
His agreement with Ferdinand and Isabella signed April 17, 1492, included a proviso that he would keep 10% of the"pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices...which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired, or obtained."
He Was a Cheapskate
On his famous 1492 voyage, Columbus had promised a reward of gold to whoever saw land first. A sailor named Rodrigo de Triana was the first to see land on October 12, 1492: a small island in the present-day Bahamas Columbus named San Salvador. Poor Rodrigo never got the reward, however: Columbus kept it for himself, telling everyone he had seen a hazy sort of light the night before. He had not spoken up because the light was indistinct. Rodrigo may have gotten hosed, but there is a nice statue of him sighting land in a park in Seville.
Half of His Voyages Ended in Disaster
On Columbus’ famed 1492 voyage, his flagship the Santa Maria ran aground and sank, causing him to leave 39 men behind at a settlement named La Navidad. He was supposed to return to Spain loaded with spices and other valuable goods and knowledge of an important new trade route. Instead, he returned empty-handed and without the best of the three ships entrusted to him. On his fourth voyage, his ship rotted out from under him and he spent a year with his men marooned on Jamaica.
He Was a Terrible Governor
Grateful for the new lands he had found for them, the King and Queen of Spain made Columbus governor in the newly-established settlement of Santo Domingo. Columbus, who was a fine explorer, turned out to be a lousy governor. He and his brothers ruled the settlement like kings, taking most of the profits for themselves and antagonizing the other settlers. Although Columbus instructed his settlers to make sure that the Tainos on Hispaniola be protected, during his frequent absences, the settlers rampaged the villages, robbing, raping, and enslaving. Disciplinary actions by Columbus and his brother were met with open revolt.
It got so bad that the Spanish crown sent an investigator, who took over as governor, arrested Columbus, and sent him back to Spain in chains. The new governor was far worse.
He Was a Very Religious Man
Columbus was a very religious man who believed that God had singled him out for his voyages of discovery. Many of the names he gave to islands and lands he discovered were religious ones: On his first landing in America, he named the island San Salvador, in hopes that the natives he had seen from the ship would find "salvation in Christ." Later in life, he took to wearing a plain Franciscan habit everywhere he went, looking much more like a monk than a wealthy admiral (which he was). At one time during his third voyage, when he saw the Orinoco River empty out into the Atlantic Ocean off of northern South America, he became convinced he had found the Garden of Eden.
He Enslaved People
Since his voyages were primarily economic in nature, Columbus was expected to find something valuable on his travels. Columbus was disappointed to find that the lands he discovered were not full of gold, silver, pearls and other treasures, but he soon decided that the Indigenous people themselves could be a valuable resource. He brought 550 of them back as enslaved people after his first voyage—most of them died and the rest were sold—and his settlers brought more when they returned after his second voyage.
He was devastated when Queen Isabela decided that the New World Indigenous people were her subjects, and therefore could not be enslaved. Of course, during the colonial era, the Indigenous people would be enslaved by the Spanish in all but name.
He Never Believed He Had Found a New World
Columbus was looking for a new passage to Asia... and that’s just what he found, or so he said until his dying day. In spite of mounting facts that seemed to indicate that he had discovered lands previously unknown, he continued to believe that Japan, China and the court of the Great Khan were very close to the lands he had discovered. Isabella and Ferdinand knew better: the geographers and astronomers they consulted knew the world was spherical and estimated that Japan was 12,000 miles from Spain (correct if you go by ship heading eastward from Bilbao), while Columbus held out for 2,400 miles.
According to biographer Washington Irving (1783–1859), Columbus even proposed a ridiculous theory for the discrepancy: that the Earth was shaped like a pear, and that he had not found Asia because of the part of the pear that bulges out towards the stem. At court, it was the width of the ocean westward that was in question, not the shape of the world. Fortunately for Columbus, the Bahamas was located about the distance he expected to find Japan.
By the end of his life, he was a laughingstock in Europe because of his stubborn refusal to accept the obvious.
Columbus Made First Contact With One of the Major New World Civilizations
While exploring the coast of Central America, Columbus came upon a long dugout trading vessel whose occupants had weapons and tools made of copper and flint, textiles and a beer-like fermented beverage. It is believed that the traders were from one of the Mayan cultures of northern Central America. Interestingly, Columbus decided not to investigate further and turned south instead of north along Central America.
No One Knows for Sure Where His Remains Are
Columbus died in Spain in 1506, and his remains were kept there for a while before being sent to Santo Domingo in 1537. There they remained until 1795 when they were sent to Havana and in 1898 they supposedly went back to Spain. In 1877, however, a box full of bones bearing his name was found in Santo Domingo. Since then, two cities—Seville, Spain, and Santo Domingo—claim to have his remains. In each city, the bones in question are housed in elaborate mausoleums.
Sources and Further Reading
- Burley, David V., et al. "Jamaican Taíno Settlement Configuration at the Time of Christopher Columbus." Latin American Antiquity 28.3 (2017): 337–52. Print.
- Carle, Robert. "Remembering Columbus: Blinded by Politics." Academic Questions 32.1 (2019): 105–13. Print.
- Cook, Noble David. "Sickness, Starvation, and Death in Early Hispaniola." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2002): 349–86. Print.
- Deagan, Kathleen, and José M. Cruxent. "Columbus's Outpost among the Tainos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493–1498." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.
- Hazlett, John D. "Literary Nationalism and Ambivalence in Washington Irving's the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus." American Literature 55.4 (1983): 560–75. Print.
- Kelsey, Harry. "Finding the Way Home: Spanish Exploration of the Round-Trip Route across the Pacific Ocean." Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific. Ed. Ballantyne, Tony. The Pacific World: Lands, Peoples, and History of the Pacific, 1500–1900. New York: Routledge, 2018. Print.
- Stone, Erin Woodruff. "America's First Slave Revolt: Indians and African Slaves in Española, 1500–1534." Ethnohistory 60.2 (2013): 195–217. Print.