CHRISTOPHER COLUMBO or COLON, better known by his latinized name of Columbus, was born at Genoa about the year 1436. His father was a woolcomber, in not very affluent circumstances; although connected, according to some accounts, with persons of superior rank. Columbus was the eldest of a family of four. His two brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, will afterwards be mentioned in connection with his discoveries; his sister married an obscure person of the name of Bavarello.
Of the early life of Columbus very little is known. Considering the habits of the age, and the condition of his parents, he appears to have received a good education. While yet a mere child, he learned reading, writing, and arithmetic; he was also such a proficient in drawing and painting, that according to one of his biographers, he could have earned a livelihood by them. At an early age he went to the university of Padua, in Lombardy, then a celebrated school of learning. Here he acquired the Latin language, and devoted himself with zeal to the study of mathematics in all its branches, especially those connected with geography and navigation, towards which he seems to have been drawn from the first by an irresistible propensity. His stay at Padua cannot have been long; for in his fourteenth year he returned to his father's house in Genoa, where he is said to have pursued for some time the occupation of woolcombing. This, however, was far from his taste; and he made choice of the seafaring profession. Genoa being at that time one of the greatest commercial cities in the world, the enthusiasm for maritime enterprise was universal amongst its inhabitants. A historian of the period speaks of the proneness of the Genoese youth to wander through the world in quest of riches, which they intended to return and spend in their native city: few, however, he says, were able to carry their intention into effect not one in ten of those who left Genoa ever revisiting it. Of these adventurous youths, whose ambition to be sailors was nursed by the sight of the merchant-vessels landing their rich freights on the quays of Genoa, Columbus was one; and, as we have already seen, his education was suitable for the mode of life he had chosen.
At fourteen years of age Columbus left Genoa in the humble capacity of a sailor boy on board a Mediterranean trader; and for many years, at first as a common sailor, and latterly as master of a vessel, he appears to have sailed along the Mediterranean from the Levant to Gibraltar, possibly also undertaking an occasional voyage to some of the northern countries of Europe, with which the Genoese merchants may have had dealings. In this undistinguished course of life he passed his youth; and he does not come prominently into notice till he settled in Lisbon in 1470, when he was thirty-four years of age. At this period he is described as being above the middle size, and of strong muscular frame. His visage was long; his nose aquiline; his eyes of a bluish gray; his complexion fair, but somewhat inflamed. His hair in youth was reddish, but before he was thirty years of age it had turned quite white. His habits were simple; his manners grave and affable; his temper, which was naturally irritable, he had subdued by the force of his will; and in his attention to the observances of religion, he was devout and enthusiastic. His acquirements were far beyond what might have been expected in one whose life had been spent at sea. Besides being a skillful navigator, he was well-informed in astronomy, geography, and all the general science of the age; and while on shore, his leisure appears to have been spent in studying such scientific works as were within his reach. A marriage which he contracted about this period seems to have had some effect in determining his subsequent career. The lady to whom he became attached was Felipa de Palestrello, the daughter of Bartolemeo de Palestrello, an Italian who had distinguished himself as a navigator in the Portuguese service. Marrying this young lady, Columbus obtained from her mother all the charts, journals, and memorandums of her late husband, the possession of which was a treasure to him. After his marriage he lived for many years as a humble citizen of Lisbon, earning a livelihood for himself and family by constructing maps and charts, or by making an occasional voyage in a Portuguese vessel to the Guinea coast, then the ultimate limit of African navigation.
Columbus seems to have acted from deliberate choice in making Lisbon his place of residence. In no city in the world would the demand be so great at that time for maps and charts, or for persons skilled in any of the arts connected with navigation. Portugal had taken the lead of all the nations of Europe in maritime enterprise; and for upwards of twenty years all the great discoveries which had been made by navigators of new coasts or islands had been effected under the auspices of the Portuguese government.