The New International Encyclopædia/Columbus, Christopher

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COLUMBUS, Christopher (the usual English form, adopted from the Latinized form of the Italian Colombo, which was the original spelling of the family name. After the discoverer entered the Spanish service he became known as Cristóbal Colón) (c.1446-1506). The discoverer of America. Columbus was born in 1445 or 1446. The best authorities surmise that his birth took place in the village of Terrarossa, near Genoa, to which city his father, Domenico Columbus, removed about 1451, in order to be nearer the centre of the wool trade, from which he derived his livelihood. The exact date of Columbus's birth has been a subject of debate, opinions varying from 1436 to 1457, but the most trustworthy evidence seems to show that he was born not long before March 25, 1446. He was early apprenticed to his father's trade, and is referred to in legal documents dated 1472 and 1473 as living in Genoa or Lavona, and engaged in the wool trade. There is probably no foundation in fact for the stories which describe him as having received a university education at Pavia. He probably left home and went to sea in 1473, visiting various Mediterranean ports and eventually reaching Lisbon, where he lived until 1484 or 1485. After he had become famous, stories relating exploits of his early youth as a corsair and pirate, or as pilot or commander of a war vessel belonging to René d'Anjou, Count of Provence, became current, but most of the details of these stories are inconsistent with known historical facts. The Portuguese were at this time the most skillful sailors in Europe, and among them Columbus may easily have acquired all the knowledge and skill which his later career reveals. He engaged in the business of map-making, besides participating in several expeditions to Guinea, on the African coast, to the eastern Mediterranean, and to England, all of these being voyages which Portuguese merchant vessels were accustomed to make frequently. Slightly more unusual and adventurous was a voyage, to which the definite date 1477 is assigned, to the island of Thule or Iceland.

Columbus's interest in cartography explains his writing a letter concerning the shape of the earth to the learned Italian Toscanelli, accompanying it with one of his globes to illustrate his queries. This elicited the famous reply from Toscanelli, which is ordinarily accepted as marking the time when Columbus began to devote himself to the problem of a direct route from Europe to the Asiatic spice-lands. During one of his Mediterranean voyages he revisited Genoa, it is sometimes maintained, and tried to secure financial assistance which would enable him to test his theories of a direct ocean passage across the Atlantic to Asia, but without success. It is reported also that he tried to enlist help in Venice, and there is nothing improbable in the story. In Portugal, where he had married Philippa Moniz or Muñiz, who is said to have been a daughter of Bartholomé Perestrello, the first governor of Porto Santo, in the Madeiras, and a prominent figure in the history of Portuguese expansion. Columbus secured the ear of the King, who evinced much interest in his plan. The would-be discoverer, however, demanded so large a share of the prospective benefits that the King, who would have had to stand all the financial risk and the burden of popular disappointment in case of failure, was unable to make terms with him. As no compromise could be arranged, the King was persuaded by his courtiers to test the plan of Columbus by sending a vessel to see if the Atlantic offered any insuperable difficulty to the proposed voyage. An adventurer from Madeira, Fernam Dominguez do Arco, had petitioned the King for a grant of the lordship over an island in the west which persistent rumor declared could be seen from the Azores at certain seasons. Dominguez do Arco was therefore sent off to search for his island, and when he returned unsucessful, with terrifying tales of the dangers of the great ocean, the King was convinced that the scheme of Columbus was chimerical. Columbus felt that an attempt had been made to cheat him of his great idea, and so he hastily went to Spain, in the winter of 1484-85, leaving his wife and young children behind.

During the next five years Columbus was in constant attendance about the Spanish Court, practicing his profession of cartographer and seeking to gain the royal interest in his plans. During 1486 and 1487 he succeeded so far as to have two important councils held, at Salamanca and at Granada, at which his propositions were discussed by the principal ecclesiastical and political dignitaries. The consensus of opinion was strongly against him, and Columbus, thoroughly discouraged, reopened negotiations with Portugal, which he revisited in 1488, being present at the return of Dias from the Cape of Good Hope. It is supposed that his wife had died before this time, for his son Ferdinand, by Beatriz Henriquez, was born at Cordova in August, just before his visit to Portugal. Realizing the hopelessness of securing assistance in Portugal, Columbus induced his brother Bartholomew to go to England to lay his plans before King Henry VII., while he himself determined to try his fortune in France. The famous story is well authenticated which tells how he started off afoot with his little son Diego and stopped at the convent of La Rábida to ask for food. The prior, Juan Perez de Marchena, entered into conversation with the stranger, grew interested in him, called in a neighbor who was learned in maritime affairs, and eventually became convinced that Spain ought to benefit by the idea with which Columbus had become possessed. A messenger was sent off to the Court, Queen Isabella's interest was aroused, and Spanish America was the result. As soon as the royal support was granted, preparations for the voyage were hurried forward. The Pinzon brothers, merchant sailors of Palos, furnished the money for the share in the expense which Columbus had undertaken to provide, and the royal contribution of Queen Isabella was advanced by the Treasurer, Santangel, from his private resources. The story that the Queen pawned her jewels to secure this money is rendered unlikely by the fact that she had pledged everything she possessed, several years before, to assist in the war against the Moors.

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On August 3, 1492, everything was ready and Columbus, on the carack Santa Maria, accompanied by the caravels Niña and Pinta, sailed from Palos. A short stop was made at the Canaries, and then a course was steered due westward. Several days of calms followed, during which Columbus, foreseeing trouble with his crew, began to announce each day as the number of leagues sailed about three-fourths of the real distance. On September 14th he noticed that the compass, which had previously, as in European waters, pointed to the east of the pole-star, was beginning to point west of it. This discovery of the variation of the needle is the first of a series of observations which, after the accumulated information of four hundred years, still puzzles physicists. On October 8th, on the advice of Pinzon, who was captain of the Pinta, the course was changed to the southwest, and on the 12th land was reached. This was an island known to the natives as Guanahani, and named by Columbus San Salvador, probably the one now called Watling's Island, one of the Bahamas. The landfall has been a subject of long dispute, and investigators have at various times advocated the modern San Salvador, Cat, Grand Turk, Samana, and Acklin islands as the land on which Columbus first set foot in the New World. From San Salvador, Columbus sailed from island to island until October 26th, when he landed on Cuba. Having convinced himself by several trips into the interior that this was a part of the Asiatic mainland, or Cathay, he started back toward Spain. On Christmas Eve, as he was crossing to Haiti, which the Spaniards named Española, the Santa Maria was wrecked near the harbor named by Columbus ‘La Navidad.’ It was therefore decided to leave at this spot, in a fort which was built there, a part of the company, to serve as a nucleus for future exploring expeditions. Forty men agreed to stay, and were left with sufficient supplies, and on January 4, 1493, Columbus set off for Spain. On February 25th he entered the mouth of the Tagus, having been nearly wrecked in a storm which arose after the shores of Europe had been sighted. The Portuguese King welcomed him cordially and helped him to send word to Spain of his safe return. From Palos Columbus journeyed overland to the Court at Barcelona, where he arrived in April and was received with great honor by Ferdinand and Isabella.

Every assistance was promised Columbus toward equipping a second expedition. Seventeen vessels were soon ready, carrying 1500 persons, and on September 25, 1493, they set sail. The island of Dominica was reached on November 3d, and on the 27th Columbus anchored off the fort of La Navidad, which was found deserted. The garrison had been killed by the natives, whom the outrages committed by the white men had provoked beyond endurance. Abandoning this, Columbus founded a new town (Isabella) and the next two years were spent in an attempt to establish a form of government and in several exploring expeditions into the interior of Española and the neighboring islands. Many causes united to disturb the peace of the colony, and Columbus at length determined to return to Spain, where his enemies were actively trying to undermine the confidence of the sovereigns in him. Landing at Cadiz on June 11, 1496, he proceeded directly to the Court, where he was most graciously received and quickly restored to grace. He was promised whatever he desired for a new expedition, but there was a long delay, due largely to the persistent opposition of Fonseca, Bishop of Palencia, through whose hands everything had to pass before Columbus could secure his outfit. It was not until May 30, 1498, that six vessels were ready to sail. A more southerly route than before was followed and the voyage was prolonged until July 31st, when the three peaks of Trinidad were sighted. After a fortnight's rest in the Gulf of Paria, Columbus coasted the South American mainland, which he now saw for the first time, westward as far as Margarita, and then, having first decided that Paradise must be situated in the interior of the modern Venezuela, he stood across to Española. Arriving at Santo Domingo, which had become the principal town in the Indies, he learned that a number of the colonists had rebelled during his absence, and that everything was at odds. His temperament was ill-suited to dealing with the turbulent crowd who defied his authority, and he could do little toward restoring peace and order. Both sides sent agents and emissaries to Spain, with the result that, on August 23, 1500, Francisco de Bobadilla arrived at the island with royal orders authorizing him to supersede Columbus in the government. Without waiting to investigate the charges against him, Bobadilla arrested Columbus, treating him with heartless indignities for which no justification can be found in the surviving records of the colony. He was placed in irons, denied visits from his brothers and partisans, and in October sent back to Spain.

The news that the Admiral of the Ocean Seas had arrived home in chains served his cause better than any argument. He was promptly released and summoned to Court, where every favor was shown him. King Ferdinand, however, was too shrewd to restore him to the full powers of control which he claimed by virtue of his discovery. As soon as he became convinced that there was little use in trying to secure his rights, Columbus asked for a fleet with which to continue his discoveries. This was readily granted, and in May, 1502, he set sail with four caravels to seek a route to the real East. A part of the royal grant was the condition that he should not revisit Española, but on June 29th Columbus anchored off Santo Domingo. Being forbidden to enter the harbor, he refitted as best he could outside, where he successfully weathered a storm which, curiously enough overwhelmed a fleet on which Bobadilla and several of his bitterest enemies had set sail for Spain. Columbus proceeded westward, and between July 30, 1502, and January 24, 1503, he sailed along the coast of Central America, from Honduras to Veragua, where he attempted a settlement. In April, 1503, the disheartened survivors insisted on abandoning the enterprise. With the greatest difficulty the rotten ships were brought as far as Jamaica, where, in August, they had to be beached to save their cargoes. The Admiral had been confined for many weeks to his bed, with a complication of mental and bodily ailments, from which he aroused himself at moments of special danger to show his earlier courage, enthusiasm, and skill. From Jamaica a messenger, Diego Mendez, started across to Cuba in a canoe to seek help at Santo Domingo. It was many months before the pitiful survivors learned that he had not perished on the way. He reached Española in safety, but Ovando, who had succeeded Bobadilla, delayed as long as he could before permitting Mendez to hire a vessel to go to the rescue of the castaways on Jamaica. At last, in June, 1504, the survivors who had remained faithful to the Admiral through dangers and disasters were once more embarked on their way back to civilization. Refitting the vessel at Santo Domingo, Columbus proceeded to Spain, landing at San Lucar de Barrameda on November 7. Before the end of the month. Queen Isabella, upon whom all his hopes rested, died. Columbus went to Seville, where he busied himself during such intervals of freedom from pain as he had in trying to put his affairs in order, and in writing letters to all whose friendship or help he craved. In May, 1505, he vainly journeyed to Segovia to plead with the King for some recognition of his rights and those of his son. Thence he retired to Valladolid, where he died, May 20, 1506.

Columbus literature, already very voluminous, was more than doubled during the celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of his discovery of America in 1892. The chief source for information about him was for many years Navarrete's great collection of documents, published at Madrid between 1825 and 1837. This has been in a measure supplanted by a monumental work published by the Italian Government, Scritti di Colombo (Rome, 1892). The standard English version of the Letters is Major's translation in the Hakluyt Society volumes for 1848 and 1870j supplemented by Markham's translation of the Journal in 1843. There is a convenient edition of the Letters edited by W. C. Ford (New York, 1892). The great critical study of Columbus's life and family is by Harrisse, in two volumes (Paris, 1884), the results of which were presented in English by Winsor (Boston, 1892). Among the best of the many shorter biographies are those by Markham (London, 1893), and by Adams (New York, 1892).