Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator and explorer whose four voyages to the Americas ”opened the gates” for western Europe’s overseas expansion.
Columbus was born in Genoa, a thriving commercial port on the Mediterranean Sea, in 1451—the same year as Queen Isabella (1451-1504). Two years later, Ottoman Turks took control of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), the last Christian foothold in Asia. Columbus thus grew up among merchants seeking new routes to the silks, spices, and gold of the ”Indies” to circumvent the routes that the Turks had restricted.
By age twenty, Columbus was a full-time trader with the Spinola family, sailing the Mediterranean and the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic) north to England. Shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal in 1476, he swam ashore near Prince Henry the Navigator’s (1394-1460) school for mariners in Sagres. Columbus then moved to Lisbon, where he took up mapmaking. Lured by the sea, he sailed south to Portuguese trading forts along the African coast and far north of England, improving along the way his knowledge of commerce, navigation, and sea and wind currents. In 1479 he married Felipa Moniz Perestrello, an impoverished Portuguese noblewoman whose father had been raised by Henry the Navigator and was now governor of Porto Santo in the Canary Islands. Perestrello gave his son-in-law all his papers and nautical instruments.
The Voyages of Columbus. Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the Americas during the 1490s and early 1500s set off a new era of European competition, exploration, and expansion.
It may have been while residing on Porto Santo, watching the sun set to the west and thinking about his future and that of his newborn son Diego (Felipa died shortly after giving birth), that Columbus came up with the idea for his Great Enterprise of the Indies—an enterprise that would take him west across the Ocean Sea to the riches of the East faster than the circum-African route the Portuguese were seeking. After Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482), a scholar in Florence, confirmed that such an enterprise was feasible, Columbus approached King John II (1455-1495) of Portugal for backing. King John turned him down.
Columbus spent eight frustrating years seeking backing from the Spanish monarchs. In 1492, triumphant but broke after finally reconquering Granada, the last Moorish stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, Queen Isabella agreed to support Columbus and his enterprise. She needed money, and she admired Columbus’s religious fervor.
Leaving Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492, and stopping in the Canary Islands for fresh food and water, Columbus and his men sailed west in three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. They sighted land on October 12, an island that was part of a continent previously unknown to Europeans, later called America, though Columbus believed he had reached islands off the Asian continent.
Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 as viceroy and governor of the Indies, a title granted to him along with ”admiral of the Ocean Seas” and a percentage of the Spanish Crown’s profits through the legal agreement (capitulations) he had signed with the crown. He was quickly granted permission to return and colonize the island of Hispaniola, which Columbus said was rich with gold—1,200 Spaniards accompanied him in 17 ships. Although Columbus was an excellent navigator, he was not a good governor. So many complaints were made against him and his two brothers that the crown permanently replaced him as governor in 1502.
Columbus made two more exploratory voyages in 1498 and 1502. On his last voyage, he explored the eastern coast of Central America, seeking a strait to the Indian Ocean. Many scholars think he died without knowing he had discovered a new continent. Columbus’s notes indicate that he realized it, but could not admit it, for that would nullify the capitulations and the benefits that were to be passed on to his heirs.
Columbus’s discoveries of new lands, mineral wealth, and new people and animals, and the idea of a strait through the American continent to Asia, set off a new era of European competition, exploration, and expansion.