Christopher Columbus, 1451 - 1506

portrait of Christopher Columbus
Detail from "Virgen de los Mavegantes" by Alejo Fernandez, oldest known likeness.
Christopher Columbus signature

Born: Between 25 August and 31 October 1451, Genoa, Republic of Genoa
Died: 20 May 1506, Valladolid, Crown of Castile

Born Christoffa Corombo in the Ligurian language used in Genoa at the time, his father was a weaver of wool. He had no known education, but in 1473 he apprenticed as a business agent for several trading families which required reading and writing. It also involved several sea voyages, taking him to Bristol (England), Galway (Ireland), possibly Iceland, and certainly the ports of the Iberian peninsula. In 1479 he married the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, who gave him a son, Diego. She may have died in 1485 or he may have just left her, he took a Spanish mistress in 1487. By this time he had learned Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian and read Ptolemy, Marco Polo, and other works relating to the world, leaving hundreds of annotations in the margins. Contrary to what some of us were taught in school, nobody thought the world was flat, but Columbus wildly miscalculated the diameter of the glove, believing Japan was some 2,300 miles to the west of Spain rather than the 12,200 miles we know now. Based on that error, in 1485 he began seeking a sponsor for a trip to establish a westward route, starting with John II, king of Portugal, but also Genoa and Venice, and he sent his brother to offer his services to Henry VII of England. Henry said yes, but news of that came only after Queen Isabella of Castile had granted him a salary to keep him from sailing for another country in 1489. In 1492, having retaken Grenada from the Moors, the Queen gave him three ships and a crew of about ninety. He made four trips, landing in the Bahamas on 12 October 1492. His attempts to govern the lands he claimed were not successful, during his third voyage he was arrested and returned to Spain in chains. He made one more trip, exploring the South American mainland and was shipwrecked and stranded on Jamaica for a year. After returning to Spain he took up residence at Valladolid, his fortune restored to him (but not his titles). He had suffered from reactive arthritis, which finally caused a heart attack.

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