Columbus's early years


Christopher Columbus, as he is known today, was born "Cristoforo Colombo" in Genoa, sometime between August and October of 1451. Genoa is today part of Italy, but at that time it was an independent city-state and renowned trading center, the wealthiest city in the western Mediterranean. Although we know nothing about his education, there is every indication that he was well-schooled. The native language of Genoa at that time was Ligurian, but Columbus had learned to speak several languages by the time he was an adult, including Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, and perhaps Catalan. He was also well-read in classical literature, including the geographies of Ptolemy and Marinus, and the works of Seneca, St. Augustine, Marco Polo, and many others.

Columbus's father Domenico was a prosperous weaver and wool merchant in Genoa. There are a number of records of Domenico buying and selling real estate, an indication that the family was at least moderately wealthy. Columbus himself became a member of the weaver's guild, but for unknown reasons he went to sea as a young man. After being shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal in 1476, he ended up in Lisbon where his brother Bartolomeo was working as a mapmaker. From Lisbon, Columbus sailed on merchant voyages as far as Ghana, Ireland, and even Iceland. There are indications that Columbus was either owner or master of the ships on which he sailed, another sign that he was either well-off or well-connected. During his time in Portugal, Columbus married Doña Felipa Perestrello y Moniz, the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman. In about 1480 she bore him a son, Diego, but she died in 1485.

When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, the price of oriental trade goods had gone sky-high in Europe. There was a fortune to be made if a route to "the Indies" -- China, India, and Japan, the great civilizations of East Asia -- could be found, a route that bypassed the Muslim-controlled territories of the Middle East. Columbus devised a scheme to do just that: he would sail west across the "Ocean Sea", going the long way around the world, and arrive at China from the east. He tried to interest King John of Portugal in his plan, but the Portuguese were working on their own exploration route going down the coast of Africa, and weren't interested. So around 1486, the recently widowed Columbus left Portugal for Spain, and tried to interest the Spanish court in his "Enterprise of the Indies."

But Spain was involved in a war against the Moors, and the Spanish Sovereigns (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) had neither time nor money for Columbus's plan. The war was going well, however, and Columbus felt that it would soon be won. Columbus bided his time talking up his plan and making friends around the Spanish royal court. He made no objection when the Spanish form of his name, Cristóbal Colón, was used by his Spanish friends. During this time he met another woman, Beatriz Enriquez de Harana. Although Columbus never married her, in 1488 she bore him a second son, Fernando, out of wedlock.

In January 1492, the Spanish finally captured Granada, the last Moorish city in Spain, thus ending 700 years of war. Columbus immediately pressed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to take up his plan. Instead, the Spanish Sovereigns kicked the idea to a royal commission, to examine the feasibility of the scheme. Europeans had known that the earth was round since the time of Aristotle, so the plan was theoretically possible. But drawing on ancient Greek measurements of the earth's size, the commission determined (quite correctly, as it turned out) that the distance from Spain westward to China was so great that no ship of that era could hope to make the voyage.

Columbus was again disappointed, and he made plans to leave Spain for France, hoping that the French would back his plan instead. But as he was on his way out of the country, he was caught by a royal messenger: one of Columbus's friends at court had persuaded Queen Isabela to take a gamble on the Enterprise of The Indies anyway, in spite of the unfavorable review by the royal commission.

The Spanish Sovereigns granted Columbus three ships, and he set sail on his first voyage on August 3, 1492.


Return to The Columbus Navigation Homepage.