Christopher Columbus

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.

The best result of Columbus' labors in drawing maps was, that he thereby became acquainted with the small extent of that part of the earth's surface known to geographers and navigators, as compared with the conjectural extent of the whole. This fact appears to have made a deep impression on his mind, and to have been the germ of his future speculations. It was not long, however, before the idea began to assume a more definite shape. Like all the navigators of the time, he was full of the notion of discovering a new route to India, Cathay, or Cipango - the land of gold, and diamonds, and spices - which was supposed to lie in the east of Asia, and respecting which the most gorgeous fancies were entertained. There was this difference, however, between the speculations of Columbus and other navigators as to this imaginary route to India, that while they universally followed Prince Henry in supposing that it was to be sought by sailing round Africa, he was employed in considering the possibility of effecting the same object by sailing due west across the Atlantic. This most original idea was fully formed in Columbus' mind before the year 1474.

The globular form of the earth had been for a considerable time known to all scientific men, and various calculations had been made as to its probable size. On this latter point all were at fault, the general supposition being, that the globe was much smaller than it is. Columbus, in pondering on its imaginary magnitude, arrived at the conviction that the Atlantic was a comparatively narrow sea, and that if any one were to push boldly across it, he would inevitably reach the shores of India. These ideas were confirmed by the various rumors which prevailed of lands existing in the Atlantic to the west of Africa. Plato's fabled island of Atalantis was supposed to be a real country lying in that quarter. There were many traditionary recollections of mariners having been cast upon unknown shores when driven far out to sea by the violence of a storm. There were legends also of adventurers who had embarked in ships in the northern countries of Europe, and gone to seek homes across the Atlantic; and of fugitive bishops and priests, who, to escape persecution in their own country, had committed themselves to the waves, and been conducted by the hand of Providence to fertile and happy islands to the west of the Azores. Moreover, certain circumstances had come within Columbus' own knowledge, which seemed to argue the existence of land in that direction. Martin Vicenti, a pilot in the Portuguese service, had picked up a piece of carved wood floating in the ocean four hundred and fifty leagues west of St. Vincent, which, as the wind was westerly, he concluded must have come from some land opposite to Africa. Columbus' brother-in-law, Pedro Correa, had seen a similar piece of wood, which had drifted across the ocean from the same quarter; and had also heard of large canes seen floating on the waves west of Madeira, apparently resembling the reeds known to be produced in the East Indies. It was likewise reported that, when the wind had blown long from the west, trunks of huge pine-trees were often cast ashore upon the Azores; and that once two dead bodies, evidently the corpses neither of Europeans nor Africans, were driven upon the beach of the island of Flores.

All these and many other arguments convinced Columbus that the East Indies could be reached by sailing westward from Gibraltar, or the western coast of Africa. Every circumstance corroborative of this view which came to his knowledge he diligently noted down; and at last the conviction became so strong, that he conceived himself to be expressly destined by God for the great work of discovering a new world. No doubt or hesitation remained in his mind; and his only wish was to find the means of making the contemplated voyage. Once launched upon the Atlantic, he was absolutely certain that, after having sailed seven or eight hundred leagues to the west of the Canaries, he would come upon Marco Polo's island of Cipango, or the dominions of the great khan of Tartary.

Impressed with these delusive convictions, Columbus was eager to make application to some of the governments of Europe for means to make a voyage of discovery on the Atlantic. He first applied to John II, king of Portugal, who inherited the enterprising spirit of his grand-uncle, prince Henry, and in whose reign the means of finding the latitude at sea had been discovered. Columbus, without much difficulty, obtained an interview with the Portuguese monarch, to whom he explained his scheme of reaching the East Indies, not by the route round Africa, which all other navigators were pursuing, but by a shorter one across the Atlantic. Various accounts are given of the manner in which the proposal was received. John himself was a wise and magnanimous prince, and he appears to have been much impressed by the earnestness of the noble-looking foreigner who addressed him. Naturally cautious, however, of patronising an enterprise which might turn out to be a mere chimera, he referred the matter to some of his counselors, who dissuaded him from en g aging in it. Still, such was the effect of Columbus' representations, that John did not at once dismiss the project. On the contrary, by a piece of meanness not agreeing with his general character, he followed the advice of some of his counselors, and having, on false pretenses, procured from Columbus a detailed plan of his contemplated voyage, with maps and charts to correspond, he secretly despatched a vessel to ascertain the practicability of the intended route. The vessel actually sailed a considerable way beyond the Cape Vend islands; but a storm arising, the crew became afraid to venture farther, and put back, reporting that Columbus' notion was mad and irrational.

Indignant at this unjust treatment, Columbus, whose wife had for some time been dead, secretly left Lisbon, taking with him his young son Diego. The reason for his leaving the city secretly is said by some to have been the fear of being prevented by the government; by others, the fear of being apprehended for debts which he was unable to pay. Proceeding to his native city of Genoa, he renewed an offer which he had previously made by letter, of conducting the enterprise under the patronage of the Genoese government - an offer which was contemptuously refused, Genoa being al ready in the decline of her fortunes, and too broken-spirited to engage in any more bold enterprises. It is said that Columbus' next offer was made to the Venetian government; which, however, is improbable. The usual account, also, of his sending his brother Bartholomew at this time to England to propose the scheme to Henry VII, is incorrect: it was not till the year 1488, when the negotiations with Spain had begun, that Bartholomew proceeded to England on this errand.