Columbus, Christopher

(in Italian, Cristoforo Colombo; in Spanish, Cristobal Colón; 1451-1506)
   Italian-born Spanish navigator, explorer, and colonial administrator, conventionally recognized as the discoverer of the Americas. Although recent criticisms by ethnic groups who feel victimized by European imperialism rightly point out the defects of Columbus as a colonial administrator, he remains a great seaman and explorer. The claim that he did not "discover" America because its inhabitants were not lost is verbal sophistry: perhaps in one sense he did not "discover" America, but he certainly was the first to establish a route leading from Europe to the Americas, an event that has had enormous consequences (both for good and for ill) not only for the Americas but for all parts of the world.
   Beginning with his first voyage of 1492-1493, Columbus led four expeditions to the Americas, discovering several of the islands of the Caribbean on his first voyage and exploring the region from Cuba in the north to the northern coast of South America on his three subsequent voyages of 1493-1496, 1498-1500, and 1502-1504. On his second voyage, he founded the first permanent European settlement in the New World on Hispaniola, the predecessor of modern Santo Domingo. Columbus' original goal had not been the discovery of new islands or continents but finding a direct route to Japan and China. Despite the obvious differences between the peoples and lands that he found and his best information on East Asia, he never fully realized that he had discovered a portion of the earth completely unknown to Europeans.
   Columbus was born at Genoa in Italy, the son of a weaver. From an early age he went to sea. He had little or no formal education. In 1476 he was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal. He then settled in Lisbon, which was Europe's greatest center of maritime exploration. He sailed on Portuguese ships, and made at least one voyage to a Portuguese trading post in West Africa and another to England, Ireland, and perhaps Iceland. He married a Portuguese woman in 1479 and from about 1482 lived for a time at Funchal in the Madeiras.
   It remains uncertain just when Columbus conceived his plan to reach the fabled riches of China by sailing due west rather than pursuing the Portuguese enterprise of seeking a way to Asia by way of South Africa. Although he may still have been illiterate when he reached Lisbon in 1476, he learned to read not only vernacular languages but also Latin, and he seems to have read widely. In Lisbon he must have matured, if not even invented, his plan to sail west to Asia. His connections with his wife's family gave him ready access to the maritime experience of Portuguese explorers of West Africa. Columbus was also well informed about medieval and classical geographical theory; he knew the description of China by Marco Polo, and his plan may have been influenced by correspondence with the prominent Florentine geographer Paolo Toscanelli. From about 1483 he vainly attempted to persuade the king of Portugal to support his plan. About 1485-1486 he went to Spain and again was unsuccessful in selling his plan, though the Spanish rulers were sufficiently attracted to appoint a commission to study the project. Though the commissioners knew perfectly well that the earth was spherical, they concluded (correctly, as things turned out) that the distance was too great and the direct route to East Asia was not feasible. Queen Isabella, however, seems to have remained interested, and after Spain had completed its conquest of Granada in 1492, the rulers agreed to provide financial backing, even conceding his ambitious demands for personal and economic gain from any lands that he discovered. Although Columbus' failures as a colonial administrator eventually led the rulers to revoke some of the concessions they had granted, leaving Columbus bitterly aggrieved, he died a wealthy man.
   Except through his contacts (probable but disputed) with Toscanelli and his use of printed editions of classical texts on geography, Columbus had little contact with the high culture of the Renaissance. His dream of using his anticipated fortune to finance a crusade to recapture Jerusalem as well as his hope of converting China to Christianity show him to be in most respects a man of the late Middle Ages rather than a participant in the Renaissance culture of his Italian homeland.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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