Society - People
By: - at September 22, 2013

15 Interesting Facts about Christopher Columbus

When it comes to selecting the most influential persons in history, the choice is vast. Christopher Columbus is certainly one of the most notable characters, as his "discovery" of what is now known as the Americas had profound consequences on history, and kick started the era of European colonization. Born in the Republic of Genoa, sometime before October 31, 1451, the Italian explorer had a storied life full of achievements and downfalls.

First Landing of Columbus on the Shores of the New World - Painting By San Salvador (1862)
First Landing of Columbus on the Shores of the New World - Painting San Salvador (1862)

One of the most interesting things to note about Columbus is that the popular image of the explorer differs from the actual character. The reasons for this are numerous, mostly stemming from his popularity in culture as the discoverer of the New World and the grandfather of the Americas as we know them. Here are 15 fascinating facts about Christopher Columbus and his life.

15)  His Origins are a Matter of Debate
With Christopher Columbus' prominence, one can assume that nearly everything about his life is known. One particular thing about his life that stands out is that question of his origin. The most commonly accepted hypothesis, supported by Genoese documents, is that he was born in Genoa Italy, to a lower-middle-class family. However, several other theories have also been proposed. Many of them seek to reconcile certain facts from his life with a seemingly incompatible beginning. For instance, as a man from the lower middle class, Columbus would not be permitted to marry a woman from the noble class in Spain. And yet he did. Another reason his origin is debated is the question of language. Columbus wrote predominantly in Spanish, with the exception of a handful of notes and glosses in Genoese and Italian present in books he owned.

portrait of christopher columbus

Alternative theories of Columbus' heritage include him being of Cataln descent, mostly based on linguistic investigations, because he referred to himself consistently as Christobal Colom. Other proposals suggest he was descended from Byzantine Greek nobility, from the Spanish-Jewish community, and even that he was the son of Polish King Wladyslaw III, who survived the battle of Warna in 1444.

14)  Columbus was Almost Rejected
It's easy to say that the expedition was profitable in hindsight, but in the 15th century people were skeptical of Columbus' plans to discover a western sea route to Japan, China, and India. The explorer first presented his plans to the Portuguese King in 1485, asking for three seafaring ships, the title of Admiral, and 10 percent from all commercial revenue from the trade routes he would plot. His plans were rejected, not because of Columbus' price, but because the proposed plan was considered to be unfeasible by royal experts. Undaunted, Columbus attempted to convince the King again three years later. He was denied, as the eastern route to Asia was within grasp with Bartholomew Dias' successful navigation around Africa.

Columbus Showing His Projects to Salamanca Council
Columbus Showing His Projects to Salamanca Council

Columbus turned his sights to the merchant republics of Genoa and Venice, again to no success. Likewise, his brother's mission to the English King, Henry VII, was unsuccessful. Ultimately, Columbus would find funding and support at the court of Spain in 1492, but only after six years spent waiting. All this time, Columbus was on the royal payroll, and was given money as well as free lodging to keep him from traveling to another court.

13)  Columbus' Ships Were Not Named the Way You Think They Were
The first voyage of Columbus used three ships, furnished and equipped for a long-term sea voyage. While everyone knows that the explorer traveled with Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina, not everyone knows that these names are actually a mix of their proper names and nicknames given to them by their crew. The Santa Maria, a carrack-type vessel that was the flagship of the expedition, was formally known as La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción (The Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception), and nicknamed by its crew Marigalante (Gallant Mary).

Replicas of Columbus's Three Ships Built For the 1912 World's Fair
Replicas of Columbus's Three Ships Built For the 1912 World's Fair

The situation gets more complicated with the other two ships. La Pinta was a caravel-type vessel, smaller than the Santa Maria. The name Pinta is actually the nickname given to it by its crew. It means Painted. Pinta was the fastest ship in the expedition's fleet, and it seems her actual name disappeared off the pages of history just as fast. Last, La Nina was also a caravel-type ship. Her actual name is known. Like the Santa Maria and other Spanish ships, she was traditionally named after a saint, in this case, Santa Clara.

12)  Columbus Never Set Foot in North America
While the popularity of Columbus in the United States of America might make you think otherwise, the Italian explorer never once set foot on the North American continent. None of his four voyages took him even remotely close to the eastern seaboard nor to what is now known as the state of Florida. His first voyage, one that determined subsequent destinations, took him to what is known now the Bahamas. The exact island he arrived at is unknown, with likely candidates being San Salvador Island, Samana Cay, and the Plana Cays.

Map Outlining Columbus's Four Voyages to the New World
Map Outlining Columbus's Four Voyages to the New World
By Roke via Wikimedia Commons

His exploration of the newly discovered region took him to the northern coast of Cuba and then to the northern coast of Hispaniola. His final stop was the Bay of Rincon in the Dominican Republic. During later voyages Columbus further explored the region, visiting the northern shores of the South American continent (the third voyage), and the shores of Central America (his fourth and last voyage). Of course, additional voyages were not just exploratory in nature, but were meant to establish permanent colonies on the coasts and to set up missions to spread Christianity among the natives.

11)  He Never Acknowledged He Discovered a New Land
One of the most interesting facts is that despite his accomplishments (after all, a new continent isn't discovered every day), Columbus never acknowledged that the islands and landmass he discovered actually formed a new continent. He was convinced, until his death, that he did, indeed, discover the West Indies. More interestingly, when he came upon South Africa and the delta of the Orinoco River, he was convinced that he had discovered the Garden of Eden, once lost biblically in Christendom.

Columbus's Map Circa 1490
Columbus's Map Circa 1490

Columbus' persistence did not manage to get in the way of the facts. Spearheaded by cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, the theory that the discovered islands and landmass belonged to an entirely new continent became increasingly popular, until it was finally accepted at the navigators conference in Toro in 1505, and in Burgos in 1508. After reviewing all the materials gathered on the New World, the cartographers and navigators came to the only logical conclusion. They concluded that Columbus had in fact discovered something, except it wasn't the West Indies but a completely new continent. The first map to represent the Americas as a separate landmass, the German Waldseemuller map, used Amerigo's name as its source for christening the new continent. Understandably, Spain resisted this new name, insisting that Columbus get the credit, not Amerigo. It took two centuries for the Spanish Kingdom to cave in.

10)  Columbus' Descendants Sued the Spanish Crown
This isn't the only notable posthumous fact about Columbus. Another is that, stemming from his original agreement with the Spanish Crown as to the expedition, Columbus was convinced that the Crown owed him 10 percent of the entire commercial revenue generated by the colonies set up in the New World. This amounted to an astronomical amount, resulting in the Crown looking for a convenient excuse to deny Columbus the stipulated benefits. The explorer provided one himself when he was relieved of his governorship of the New World. As the contract depended on Columbus being a governor, the Spanish crown simply considered the agreement to be null and void.

Columbus Being Greeted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on his Return to Spain
Columbus Being Greeted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on his Return to Spain

Understandably, Columbus was none too pleased about this, and fought vigorously to obtain what he thought was rightfully his. The legal battle survived him and continued for centuries, ending in the 18th century. The pleitos colombinos (Colombian lawsuits) primarily took place between 1508 and 1536. Subsequent centuries saw occasional attempts to obtain a favorable ruling, but they were universally unsuccessful. An interesting side-effect of this protracted litigation was the creation of an extensive archive of knowledge relating to the settlement of the New World, as the family and the Crown called witnesses to testify from among the colonists.

9)  His Resting Place was Disputed
Another interesting posthumous fact is that the remains of Christopher Columbus have a rather storied history. Originally interred at Valladolid, his body was then moved to a monastery in Seville, based on the will of Columbus' son, Diego, the governor of Hispaniola. Then, circa 1542, his body was removed from Seville and transported to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), where it remained until the end of the 18th century with the French takeover of Hispaniola. In response, Columbus' mortal remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. Then, they were moved again, this time returning to Spain in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Tomb Of Christopher Columbus - Cathedral of Seville
Tomb Of Christopher Columbus - Cathedral of Seville
By Montrealais via Wikimedia Commons

Problems appeared when a lead box marked Don Christopher Columbus was recovered in Santo Domingo circa 1877. Containing fragments of bone and a musket bullet, these were considered by some to be the true remains of Columbus and were interred as such in Santo Domingo. The problem was resolved (though not completely) in the 21st century, when DNA testing, supported by anthropologic and historical analysis, concluded that the correct bones were moved to Seville. Of course, since Dominican authorities never exhumed the remains claimed to belong to Columbus nor determined the age of the bones, DNA testing did not yield 100 percent accurate results.

8)  No Actual Portrait of Him Exists
A simple answer to the above-mentioned problem would be to take Columbus' skull, perform digital reconstruction, and compare it against surviving portraits of the explorer. Although logical, this procedure rests on the assumption: that such portraits exist. Although many are in circulation, there is no genuine contemporary portrait of Christopher Columbus. As such, his exact appearance is lost to time. Even artworks closest to the period when Columbus lived were made several years after his death. Perhaps the most well-known is Alejo Fernandez's altarpiece, The Virgin of the Navigators, painted between 1530 and 1536, commissioned for a chapel in Seville. It depicts Columbus in the crowd of navigators, but the accuracy of the painting is unknown.

Engraving of Christopher Columbus- Notice the Variation
Engraving of Christopher Columbus- Notice the Variation

The most commonly reproduced portrait of Columbus is a 1519 painting by Sebastiano del Piombo. Of note is the fact that unlike many later portraits, including those circulated as part of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, it remains true to descriptions of Columbus available from contemporary written sources. Columbus was a tall, powerfully built man of imposing stature, not, as some would have it, the stereotypical frail genius.

7)  Genius or Not, He Had Bad Luck
Of course, every legend is idealized and most common portrayals of Columbus show him as nothing short of a world-class hero. The reality is a little more complex and decidedly bleaker. For starters, Columbus didn't have a perfect run of luck throughout his voyages. In fact, on the very first expedition, he lost his best ship, the Santa Maria, in a completely avoidable incident.

Recreation of Santa Maria
Recreation of Santa Maria
By Dietrich Bartel (my father) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The incident occurred when, after a night of heavy drinking and celebrating their arrival in the West Indies (or so they thought), Columbus insisted on sailing to Cuba through the night. As everyone knows, drunk driving is dangerous. Drunk piloting of a ship weighing more than a hundred tons is an even worse idea. The end result is that the crew, tired from all the drinking and celebrating, fell asleep one by one, until the ship, piloted by a single cabin boy, ran aground near what is now known as Cap-Haitien, Haiti, on December 25th, 1492. His run of luck also included surviving a terrible storm on his fourth voyage and ending up stranded on the island of Jamaica due to damage incurred during the storm.

6)  Columbus Wasn't Nice
Bad luck aside, Christopher Columbus wasn't a particularly pleasant person. One of the most interesting anecdotes, though definitely not amusing to the person on the receiving end, concerns the discovery of the New World. The Spanish rulers funding the expedition promised a lifetime pension to the person who first saw land on the expedition. As this effectively amounted to living in splendor for the rest of your life, everyone in the crew had a keen interest in seeing land first.

Monument of Columbus
Monument of Columbus

The first, was a sailor on the Pinta. Rodrigo de Triana spotted land around 2 a.m. on October 12th. After verifying the discovery, the Pinta's captain alerted the flagship. Whatever Triana felt when he saw land, it gave way to bitter disappointment when Columbus claimed that he already saw light on the land just a few hours earlier. Nobody disputed the expedition leader's claims, and so Columbus secured a lifetime pension for himself without any effort.

5)  In General, He Was a Pretty Nasty Governor
Whatever qualities Columbus possessed as an explorer didn't apply to his talents as a governor. As the man in charge of the Spanish colonies in the new world, he revealed himself to be a thoroughly unpleasant person instituting a rule best described as tyrannical. During the seven years Columbus and his brothers governed, they treated the colonies like personal kingdoms, imposing harsh regulations and executing the citizenry without regard for mercy.

Christopher Columbus Arrives in America
columbus nasty governor, Christopher Columbus Arrives in America

One example cited by a report from the colonies mentions that Columbus employed torture and mutilation to maintain control. An investigation conducted by Columbus' replacement, de Bobadila, cited several examples of brutality. For example, stealing corn was punished by cropping the thief's ears and nose, followed by selling him into slavery. A more gruesome example occurred when a woman mentioned that Columbus came from the lower strata of society. What was the result? Columbus forced her to walk naked through the streets of the colony, and then ordered her tongue to be cut out. Ouch!

4)  His Own Men Retaliated Against Him
As a result, the Spanish colonists and sailors intensely lobbied in the royal court against Columbus, requesting that he and his brothers be replaced on charges of mismanagement. Their resentment culminated in open rebellion in the colonies when Columbus returned from his expedition to the northern shores of the South American continent, where he scouted the Orinoco River. The colonists felt cheated and worse, abused by Columbus and his family. Columbus retaliated by hanging rebellious crewmen. Such extreme measures did nothing to help the situation, but on the contrary it only worsened things.

Columbus Before the Queen - Painting By Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze - Oil on Canvas 1843
Columbus Before the Queen - Painting By Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze - Oil on Canvas 1843

Columbus was forced to agree to the terms set forward by the colonists. However, he was truly humiliated when the Spanish Crown ordered him to be removed as governor, arrested, and returned to Spain. One would expect for him to be publicly tried and punished for his mismanagement of the colonies, but reality doesn't always work in a logical way. Columbus and his brothers were pardoned by the King, their riches restored, and Columbus was even permitted to lead a fourth expedition to the New World, but, thankfully, not as a governor.

3)  Native Americans Really Don't Like Columbus
Columbus’ accomplishments resulted in him being elevated to near sainthood in modern culture, particularly in the United States. The personification of the United States is named Columbia, as is the district the nation's capital is located in. The veneration of Columbus exploded following the American Revolutionary War and persists to this day. However, it has to be noted that this is a sentiment limited to people descended from immigrants and colonists. The opinion of Native Americans is a lot harsher and less forgiving of the explorer.

Landing of Columbus - Showing Objects to Native Americans
Landing of Columbus - Showing Objects to Native Americans

It is not without reason. The age of colonialism started by Columbus led to massive changes for the indigenous peoples of the American continent, almost never for the better. The critical opinion is grounded in the numerous adverse events that followed in the wake of European colonization. Perhaps the most striking of these were pandemics, where diseases commonly resisted in Europe were introduced to a population that never had the opportunity to develop an immunity to them, most notably devastating the empires established by the Aztecs and the Inca. And, of course, there's the issue of abuse suffered by the indigenous peoples at the hands of the colonists, Columbus included.

2)  And They Have Good Reasons for It
Whatever transgressions Columbus perpetrated against colonists and crewmen he led in the New World, they pale in comparison with what was done to the natives under his administration. Native unrest and revolt was countered with brutal retaliatory campaigns, which sometimes culminated in the dismembered bodies of the natives being paraded through the streets to throttle attempts at rebellion. In another instance, responding to a native attack on the colony of La Navidad erected at the spot the Santa Maria was shipwrecked, Columbus demanded large quantities of gold dust or spun wool as reparation, to be delivered every several weeks. In case the demand was not delivered, Columbus' men would cut off the hands of the natives and leave them to bleed out.

Columbus Landing on Hispaniola and Greeted by Arawak Islands on December 6, 1492
Columbus Landing on Hispaniola and Greeted by Arawak Islands on December 6, 1492

However, the most horrifying example of Columbus mistreating the indigenous people is given by Bartolome de las Casas, who describes how the mild-mannered, gentle inhabitants of Hispaniola were nearly totally exterminated. In order to please the Spanish rulers, Columbus forced the natives into a system of forced labor, herding them into mining and farming camps. They were then forced to work until they died. As Casas observed, this reduced the population of the island from millions to thousands in slightly over a decade. The worst part? Columbus wouldn’t be the last to abuse the natives in such a way. Subsequent governors would continue to misuse the indigenous populations of the colonies, with perhaps the most horrific examples being the conquests of the Spanish conquistadors; all done in pursuit of gold and glory.

1)  He Certainly Wasn't the First to Discover the Americas

Eric the Red - Known for Founding Greenland:
Eric the Red - Known for Founding Greenland

Perhaps the most interesting fact is that Christopher Columbus wasn't the first European to discover the Americas. This credit goes to the Norse explorers that settled Greenland around the 10th century. The Norse explorers slowly started migrating westward, and eventually discovered the North American continent. These early explorers formed small settlements meant to exploit the local resources, such as timber and fur, as well as trade with the indigenous peoples. The exact extent of Norse colonization of the North American continent is a debatable issue, since no permanent colonies were established. Most famous of the Norse explorers was a Viking explorer known as Erik Thorvaldsson, or commonly known as Erik the Red.

Numerous factors were proposed to explain this phenomenon, many including the hostility of the natives. Regardless, Norse explorers are known to have reached the continent, with perhaps the most famous being Leif Erikkson, who explored Vinland (the Norse name for North America) in detail after hearing of the travels of Bjarni Herjolfsson. Finally, in spite of the ultimate failure of the effort, the Norse voyages to North America remain chronologically the earliest known exploration of the continent by Europeans.

Final Thoughts
As is true of all influential people in history, Columbus is a complex person who has been left to the interpretation of time, and historical accounts that many famous figures of history are subjected to. A great accomplished explorer that opened the Americas for colonization, he unlocked a new chapter in history, traditionally accepted at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. At the same time his conduct in the Americas, especially toward the indigenous peoples, is criminal at best, and permanently damning at the extreme end of the moral spectrum. Even accounting for the differences in morality and approach to the value of human life, it is difficult to excuse activities that would now be described as genocide. Yet for all the horrors of the Spanish colonization, it provided an impulse that would ultimately transform Europe and open a new chapter in the history of the world.





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