Of the youth of the discoverer of America little is known. Although a voluminous writer of letters, in which he reviews his struggles, in none of those which are extant did he ever mention the date of his birth; nor are there the materials of an authentic story of his early days in the papers which his son Ferdinand and his friend Las Casas utilized for their accounts of his life prior to his arrival in Spain.1 The self-made men of to‑day often fondly dwell upon their humble origin, but Columbus in after-life drew a veil over the lowly circumstances of his birth; adopted the form Colon2 for his name, thereby making more plausible his claim of relationship with the French admiral Coulon and of descent from a Roman general p9Colon (Cilon according to the best texts of Tacitus); and transformed the simple weavers from whom he sprang into wealthy merchants and importers who subsequently suffered reverses.
It is, however, the generally accepted view of modern scholars, based upon a careful collation of the notarial documents of Genoa relating to his family and to their business transactions, that he was born in Genoa about the year 1446,3 although as late a date as 1451 is supported by the fact that in 1470 his signature was appended to a legal document with the formal statement that he was upwards of nineteen years of age.4
His father, Domenico Colombo, was a woollen-weaver, and as late as 1472 Columbus signed a document in Genoa giving as his occupation "lanerius de Janua," wool-worker of Genoa.5 His earliest apprenticeship to the sea may have begun somewhat earlier, yet this signature precludes a long-private seafaring life and militates as well against the earlier dates conjectured for his birth. A story told of his studies at the University of Pavia cannot be authenticated, and is rejected by most modern scholars; yet in some way the wool-worker of Genoa in a few years mastered not only the whole art of navigation, but learned Latin and read voluminously in the geographical literature accessible in that language.
p10 Among the authors that he studiously examined and commented upon were the General History and Geography of Aeneas Sylvius,6 later Pope Pius II; the Image of the World,7 an encyclopaedic compilation by Pierre d'Ailly written early in the fifteenth century; and, most important of all, a Latin copy of the travels of Marco Polo.8 His comments upon these works are written in a Latin somewhat careless of grammatical rules. In these marginal notes are revealed a curiosity about the Orient and a critical disposition to rectify the geographical tradition by the light of his own experience and knowledge.
For example, when Aeneas Sylvius records that the frigid and torrid zones are uninhabitable, Columbus notes that the contrary is proved in the south by the Portuguese, and in the north by the English and the North Germans who sail those regions. Again, when D'Ailly pronounces the torrid zone uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, Columbus notes in the margin, "It is not uninhabitable, because the Portuguese sail through it; in fact, it is teeming with people, and near the equator is his Serene Highness the King of Portugal's castle of Mine, which we have seen." Of all the statements in Pierre d'Ailly none impressed Columbus p11more profoundly than the quotation from Aristotle that "between the end of Spain and the beginning of India the sea was small and navigable in a few days." Again, the assertion of the apocryphal book of Esdras that the earth is six parts land and that only the seventh part is water, seemed so striking that Columbus notes the opinion of Ambrose and Augustine that Esdras was a prophet.9
In the case of no navigator of that age or earlier is there such impressive evidence of protracted studies of all available sources of information in regard to any specific problem of geographical exploration. In addition to this investigation of literary sources, Columbus carefully noted all the indications which he observed or which were brought to his attention, pointing to the existence of islands to the west of the Azores, Canaries, and other groups already known. Reported voyages of exploration were also carefully recorded. This preparatory work was done while he was living in Portugal, whither he had gone early in his experience as a sailor. There he married Felipa Moniz, a connection of Bartholomew Perestrello, one of Prince Henry's navigators. During a part of his residence in Portugal he lived for a time in the island of Porto Santo; and at other times he sailed on the Portuguese ships to Guinea and to the north, certainly as far as the British Isles.10
p12 In such an environment a mind so boldly imaginative, at once so practical and so visionary, could not fail to be incited to independent activity in this stirring field of ever widening knowledge. It is quite impossible, however, to fix with certainty the date when, reaching beyond projects of western exploration, his mind grasped the great design of going to the East Indies by sailing west. According to the substantially identical narratives of Las Casas and of Ferdinand Columbus, the suggestion of this idea was derived from the letters of the Florentine physician and astronomer, Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, which they reproduce and of which they were the sole sources until 1871, when Harrisse identified the Latin original of the first Toscanelli letter.11
From the first of these documents, written in June, 1474, we learn that Toscanelli's friend, Fernam Martins, living in Lisbon and interested in the Portuguese efforts to reach the Indies by way of Africa, had brought before King Alfonso the opinion he had heard Toscanelli express that it would be a much shorter way to the Indies to sail due west. The king then desired to hear from Toscanelli his reasons for such a view. The astronomer's reply contained in the first letter could have afforded little assurance to Alfonso, for there is no reasoned argument in it, but merely a series of assertions unsupported p13by evidence, followed by an alluring description of the wealth of the Orient derived from Marco Polo. The text was accompanied by a chart divided into equal spaces which depicted the Atlantic as bounded on the west by the coast of Asia. This map is no longer extant, and almost all reproductions of it are merely reproductions of the Atlantic Ocean side of Behaim's globe, 1492, reduced to what is supposed to be the projection devised by Toscanelli.
World Map of Fra Mauro, 1457‑1459
This map is oriented inversely, and is consequently upside down. It is adapted from C. R. Markham, Christopher Columbus.
This letter, it is supposed, was brought to the notice of Columbus some years later and suggested to him the realization of the project. He then wrote to Toscanelli of his desire to go to the land of spices, and received in reply a copy of the letter to Martins and a chart similar to the one sent with the first letter. Somewhat later Toscanelli wrote again to Columbus in reply to his letters, but without conveying any further information as to how to make the voyage.
In recent years the authenticity of this correspondence has been challenged, and the effort has been made to prove that the letters are a subsequent forgery designed to give to Columbus's voyage the character of a reasoned scientific experiment and the dignity of the patronage of a renowned scholar.12 As yet the critical attack on these documents has won little assent among scholars. This, however, at least may be said with confidence, that, admitting the genuineness of Toscanelli's letter to Martins, it gave Columbus p15no information about the Orient or the distance across the Atlantic that is not more fully given in the passages in Pierre d'Ailly and Marco Polo that he annotated in the margin or copied. So far as making out a plausible case for seeking the east by the west is concerned, Columbus accumulated in the marked passages of his own books a far more convincing body of facts than anything in Toscanelli's letters. The most, then, that in any case can be attributed to Toscanelli is the direction of his mind to the problem, and not the furnishing of evidence or facts otherwise inaccessible. So far as can be determined by internal evidence, the date of the correspondence is to be placed between 1479 and 1482.13
The extant archives of Portugal are equally destitute of references to Toscanelli and to Columbus, and for our knowledge of the Columbus's attempt to secure the support of King John of Portugal in making his great experiment we are dependent upon the narrative of the Portuguese historian, Barros, whose work, though written two generations later, was in general based upon contemporary material. According to Barros, Christovão Colom, a Genoese by birth, an experienced and eloquent man, a good Latin scholar,14 but very boastful, had convinced himself by his studies and by his reading of Marco Polo p16that it was would be practicable to reach the islands of Cipango and other unknown lands by sailing west. He therefore appealed to King John for some ships that he might seek for Cipango in the western ocean. The king saw, however, that Colom was a great talker and boastful of his abilities and very visionary with his island of Cipango, and he placed little confidence in him. Yet, on account of his urgency, he referred him to the bishop of Ceuta and two physicians, expert cosmographers, who regarded his words as empty talk because it all rested on fancy and description of Marco Polo's Cipango.15
Columbus left Portugal for Spain in 1484 in secrecy and haste and there persistently advocated his project for seven years. During this period of futile effort, fearing for the outcome, he sent his brother Bartholomew to England to enlist the interest and assistance of King Henry VII. Of Bartholomew's activities there no local record remains; but according to the assertion of Las Casas and Ferdinand he succeeded in securing promises from Henry, and was returning to Spain to inform Christopher, when he was told in Paris that his brother had discovered some great lands which were called the Indies.16
p17 Of Columbus's occupations during these weary years we know little, but it is probable that in them he did much of the careful reading of which the marginal notes in his books bear testimony; for in his letter to the king and queen recounting his third voyage he says: "I gave to the subject six or seven years of great anxiety. At the same time I thought it desirable to bring to bear upon the subject the sayings and opinions of those who have written upon the geography of the world."17
Finally, through the powerful assistance of a former confessor of the queen, Father Juan Perez, and of Luis de Santangel, the treasurer of Aragon, Isabella decided to make the venture, and Columbus was hastily recalled just as he was leaving Spain for France.18
It is so frequently asserted that Columbus's exclusive purpose was to reach the East Indies by sailing west that it will not be out of place to indicate that he counted upon discovering islands and possibly main-land, which, though perhaps connected with the Asiatic continent, were not the wealthy and civilized countries of Cipango and of the Great Khan. In the contract drawn up April 17, 1492, Columbus demanded that in return for what he should discover in the Ocean Sea he should be made admiral of all those islands and main-land which p18should be discovered or acquired through his agency, with all the prerogatives belonging to the dignity of admiral of Castile; that he should be made viceroy and governor-general of all the said islands and main-lands; and that from all the trade within the limits of the said admiralship he should receive a royalty of ten per cent of all the net proceeds.19
It is not proposed here that Columbus should be invested with the kingdom of the Great Khan or Cipango, which were known and which were his proposed destination; but rather with such unknown regions as he should discover in the ocean in the course of his voyage. Similarly, Columbus in the opening pages of his journal describes his enterprise as an embassy to see the countries of India, "to see the said princes, and the cities and lands, and their disposition, with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith. . . . For this they [the Catholic sovereigns] . . . ennobled me, so that henceforth I should be called Don, and should be chief admiral of the Ocean Sea, perpetual viceroy, governor of all the islands and continents that I should discover and gain in the Ocean Sea."20
The son of the humble woollen-weaver of Genoa has gone far in twenty years. He is now a noble and a high official in an ancient monarchy, and intrusted with a unique mission. Yet all depends p19upon the chances of the voyage whether these honors shall fade away in the mists of the Sea of Darkness, leaving the mere shadow of a name, like Ugolino de Vivaldi, in some such record as this: "Christopher Colonus, a Ligurian, proposed to pass over to the Indies by way of the west. After he left the Canary Islands no news was heard of him;"21 or whether his name shall have eternal celebrity as the discoverer of the New World. No man ever faced chances of fortune so extreme. On the other hand, no sovereign ever secured imperial dominion at so slight a sacrifice as Isabella of Castile. Her venture was small — a few thousand dollars and presumably empty honors to an importunate visionary whose utterances seemed mere "fables."
1 Cf. Ruge, "Der Roman des Jugendlebens," in his Columbus, chap. I.
2 Cf. Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, I, 42‑43; and Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, chap. I. Apparently the Italian Peter Martyr did not know Columbus's family name, as he Latinized Colon as Colonus, not as Columbus. Oviedo always calls him Colom.
3 Ruge, Columbus, 24.
4 Vignaud, Real Birth-Date of Columbus, 74‑101.
5 Ibid., 17.
6 Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum (Venice, 1477).
7 Imago Mundi, printed between 1480 and 1483; Lollis, Vita di Cristoforo Colombo, 63.
8 Published at Antwerp or Gouda circa 1485; Thacher, Columbus, III, 462.
9 Raccolta Colombiana, pt. I, vol. II, 291.
10 Ibid., pt. II, vol. II, marginal note No. 10.
11 See Vignaud, Toscanelli and Columbus, 9‑13, for the story of the discovery.
12 Vignaud, Toscanelli and Columbus, passim.
13 Vignaud, Toscanelli and Columbus, 32‑35.
14 Harrisse, Christophe Colomb, I, 84, thinks Barros borrowed this personal description from Oviedo's "bien hablado, cauto é de gran ingenio, é gentil latino."
15 Barros, Da Asia, dec. I, liv. III, chap. IX; Feust's Barros, 102.
16 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, chap. IX; Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, II, 78, 79. Oviedo, Historia General, I, 19, places the proposition to King Henry VII before that made to the king of Portugal and says it was rejected. See also Harrisse, Christophe Colomb, II, 193, 194.
17 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 109.
18 Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, I, 241, 245; Lollis, Vita di Cristoforo Colombo, 105, 108.
19 Navarrete, Coleccion de los Viages, II, 9.
20 Markham, Journal of Columbus, 17.
21 A combination of Peter Martyr's first mention of Columbus with what Jacobus Doria reported of the attempt of Vivaldi. Pertz, Der Aelteste Versuch zur Entdeckung des Seeweges, 10.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Spain in America
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 12 Dec 09