"There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance." -- Goethe
"The search for truth is never wrong. The only sin is to lack the courage to follow where truth leads." -- Duke
Born in Genoa, Italy in 1451 Christopher Columbus is the Anglicized version of his Italian name. Although a lot of artwork bearing his image exists, no authentic portrait of Christopher Columbus has been found. Writings describe him as having reddish hair, which turned white early in life, light colored eyes, as well as being a lighter skinned person with too much sun exposure turning his face red. Columbus's father was a middle-class wool weaver and one of his three brothers, Bartolomeo, worked as a cartographer.
At the age of 14 Columbus attended Prince Henry's school of navigation in Portugal. He spoke the Genoese dialect. At the age of 19 he was on a Genoese ship hired in the service of Rene' I of Anjou to support his attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples.
For the next several years Columbus made various sailing trips landing in Galway, Ireland, possibly a Genoese colony in the Aegean Sea and maybe Iceland. In 1479 he was in Lisbon, the home of his brother Bartolomeo. He married and had a son, Diego.
Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus popularized the belief that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan to travel to the Indies by sailing directly west across the Atlantic because Europeans thought the Earth was flat. In fact, this idea had long been discarded. Maritime navigation of the time relied on the stars and the curvature of the spherical Earth. The spherical view of the Earth had been the general opinion of the Ancient Greeks and had generally been believed to be spherical since at least the 4th century BC by most scholars and almost all navigators! Eratosthenes of Cyrene, a Greek mathmetician, had even measured the diameter of the Earth with good precision in the second century BC.
Columbus made an incorrect argument that Asia could easily be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic based on significantly smaller diameter measurements for the Earth. Columbus's error was put down to his lack of experience in navigation at sea. Columbus read maps as if distances were calculated in Italian miles, not the more longer Arabic mile.
Ultimately Columbus's miscalculations don't matter. His discovery of the Americas, rather than the opening of trade with Asia, was to be his legacy.
Most people know that Spain funded Columbus's voyage to the Americas. What you may not know is that in 1485 he presented his plans to John II, King of Portugal and was rejected on the basis that Columbus's estimation of the distance was far too short. In 1488 Columbus appealed to the court of Portugal and was unsuccessful in part due to Bartholomeu Dias's successful rounding of the southern tip of Africa.
Columbus travelled from Portugal to both Genoa and Venice, but was unsuccessful. Columbus's brother asked Henry VII of England if he would fund the trip. After careful consideration and hesitation Henry's answer came. Yes, he would fund the voyage. But Columbus had already committed himself to Spain.
He had sought an audience from the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who had united the largest kingdoms of Spain by marrying, and were ruling together. On May 1, 1486, they granted him an audience and Columbus laid his plans before the Queen. Her savants also said that Columbus had judged the distance to Asia much too short and advised her to pass on the proposal.
However, the King and Queen did give him an annual annuity. Two years later after continually lobbying at the Spanish court Columbus finally had success in 1491. Isabella turned Columbus down and he was leaving town in despair when Ferdinand intervened. Isabella sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were discovered".
According to the contract that Columbus made with the King and Queen, if Columbus discovered any new islands or mainland, he would receive many high rewards. In terms of power, he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands. He was also entitled to ten percent of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity. This part was denied to him in the contract, although it was one of his demands.
Columbus was later arrested in 1500 and supplanted from these posts. After his death, Columbus's sons, Diego and Fernando, took legal action to enforce their father's contract. Many of the smears against Columbus were initiated by the Spanish crown during these lengthy court cases.
On the evening of August 3, 1492 Columbus left with his three ships. The larger one, named Santa Maria, and two smaller ships, Pinta and Santa Clara, nicknamed Nina. Columbus first sailed to the Canary Islands where he restocked the provisions and made necessary repairs. On September 6 he started his five week voyage across the ocean.
On October 12, 1492 Columbus spotted land that turned out to be the Bahamas. But he did not, nor would he ever, step foot on what today is the United States of America. Not on his first voyage, his second, third or fourth! Get this folks, Christopher Columbus never landed in the United States of America! He found Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Central America among others...but not what we would consider "our" country.
Between his third and fourth voyages Columbus was arrested, along with his brothers. He repeatedly had to deal with rebellious settlers and natives. He had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. A number of returning settlers and sailors lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him and his brothers of gross mismanagement. During his stint as governor and viceroy of Hispaniola he had been accused of governing tyrannically. In October 1499, racked with arthritis and his eyes weakened by ophthalmia he sent two ships to Spain, asking the Court of Spain to appoint a royal commissioner to help him govern.
The Court appointed Francisco de Bobadilla whose authority was stretched far beyond what Columbus had requested. Bobadilla was given total control as governor from 1500 until his death in 1502. Arriving in Santo Domingo while Columbus was away, Bobadilla immediately started receiving complaints about all three Columbus brothers. As a result and without being allowed a word in his own defense, on his return to Santo Domingo Columbus had manacles placed on his arms and chains on his feet and was cast into prison to await return to Spain. He was 53 years old. He brothers, likewise chained, were returned to Spain with him.
According to testimony of 23 witnesses during his trial, Columbus regularly used barbaric acts of torture to govern Hispaniola.
Columbus and his brothers lingered in jail for six weeks before the busy King Ferdinand ordered their release. Not long after, the king and queen summoned the Columbus brothers to their presence. There the brothers pled their case. Their freedom was restored, along with their wealth. And the king and queen agreed to fund Columbus's fourth voyage. But Christopher Columbus was permanently removed as governor of Hispaniola.
On May 20, 1506, at the age of 55, Columbus died in Spain of a heart attack caused by reactive arthritis. When he died he was still convinced that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia.
Taught to millions of American school children as the "man who discovered America" Columbus was actually preceded by the Vikings more than 1500 years before he re-"discovered" the Americas. He is regarded by historians more accurately as the person who brought the Americas into the forefront of Western attention. Historian Martin Dugard states that, "Columbus' claim to fame isn't that he got there first, it's that he stayed."
Amerigo Vespucci's travel journals were published in 1502-1504. These convinced Martin Waldseemuller that Columbis had discovered a new continent, and not India. A year after Columbus died Waldseemuller published a world map calling the new continent America from Vespucci's Latinized name "Americus".
Historically, the British had downplayed Columbus and emphasized the the role of John Cabot as a pioneering explorer. Cabot had voyaged under the British flag in 1497 and landed in Newfoundland, the actual soil of what we would consider North America. But for the emerging United States, Cabot made a poor national hero. So rightly or wrongly Christopher Columbus was thrust into the role of "discoverer and hero."
In 1909 descendants of Columbus undertook to dismantle the Columbus family chapel in Spain and move it to a site near State College, Pennsylvania, where it may now be visited by the public. At the museum associated with the chapel, there are a number of Columbus relics worthy of note, including the armchair which Columbus used at his chart table.
In recent years Christopher Columbus has received a lot of negative criticism from native groups regarding his treatment of Native Americans. In 2003 Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez urged Native American Latin Americans not to celebrate the Columbus Day holiday. Chavez blamed Columbus for leading the way to the mass genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish. It's easy to make judgments looking back in time. Columbus was an explorer. He followed his God given desire to "see over the next hill." Or in his case, the next wave.
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