At a time when European kingdoms were beginning to establish new trade routes and colonies, motivated by imperialism and economic competition, Columbus proposed to reach the East Indies (South and Southeast Asia) by sailing westward. This eventually received the support of the Spanish Crown, which saw a chance to enter the spice trade with Asia through this new route. During his first voyage in 1492, he reached the New World instead of arriving in Japan as he had intended, landing on an island in the Bahamas archipelago that he named "San Salvador". Over the course of three more voyages, he visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Central America, claiming all of it for the Crown of Castile.
Columbus was not the first European explorer to reach the Americas, having been preceded by the Viking expedition led by Leif Erikson in the 11th century, but his voyages led to the first lasting European contact with the Americas, inaugurating a period of exploration, conquest, and colonization that lasted several centuries. These voyages thus had an enormous effect on the historical development of the modern Western world. He spearheaded the transatlantic slave trade and has been accused by several historians of initiating the genocide of the Hispaniola natives. Columbus himself saw his accomplishments primarily in the light of spreading the Christian religion.
Columbus never admitted that he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans, rather than the East Indies for which he had set course. He called the inhabitants of the lands that he visited indios (Spanish for "Indians"). His strained relationship with the Spanish crown and its appointed colonial administrators in America led to his arrest and dismissal as governor of the settlements on the island of Hispaniola in 1500, and later to protracted litigation over the benefits that he and his heirs claimed were owed to them by the crown.
The name Christopher Columbus is the Anglicisation of the Latin Christophorus Columbus. His name in Italian is Cristoforo Colombo and, in Spanish, it is Cristóbal Colón. He was born before 31 October 1451 in the territory of the Republic of Genoa (now part of modern Italy), though the exact location remains disputed. His father was Domenico Colombo, a middle-class wool weaver who worked both in Genoa and Savona and who also owned a cheese stand at which young Christopher worked as a helper. His mother was Susanna Fontanarossa. Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo were his brothers. Bartolomeo worked in a cartography workshop in Lisbon for at least part of his adulthood. He also had a sister named Bianchinetta.
Columbus never wrote in his native language, which is presumed to have been a Genoese variety of Ligurian (his name would translate in the 16th-century Genoese language as Christoffa Corombo Ligurian pronunciation: [kriˈʃtɔffa kuˈɹuŋbu]). In one of his writings, he says he went to sea at the age of 10. In 1470, the Columbus family moved to Savona, where Domenico took over a tavern. In the same year, Christopher was on a Genoese ship hired in the service of René of Anjou to support his attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. Some modern historians have argued that he was not from Genoa but, instead, from the Aragon region of Spain or from Portugal. These competing hypotheses have generally been discounted by mainstream scholars.
In 1473, Columbus began his apprenticeship as business agent for the important Centurione, Di Negro and Spinola families of Genoa. Later, he allegedly made a trip to Chios, an Aegean island then ruled by Genoa. In May 1476, he took part in an armed convoy sent by Genoa to carry valuable cargo to northern Europe. He docked in Bristol, England and Galway, Ireland. In 1477, he was possibly in Iceland. In the autumn of 1477, he sailed on a Portuguese ship from Galway to Lisbon, where he found his brother Bartolomeo, and they continued trading for the Centurione family. Columbus based himself in Lisbon from 1477 to 1485. He married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, daughter of the Porto Santo governor and Portuguese nobleman of Lombard origin Bartolomeu Perestrello.
In 1479 or 1480, his son Diego Columbus was born. Between 1482 and 1485, Columbus traded along the coasts of West Africa, reaching the Portuguese trading post of Elmina at the Guinea coast. Some records report that Filipa died sometime around 1485, while Columbus was away in Castile. He returned to Portugal to settle her estate and take his son Diego with him. He had left Portugal for Castile in 1485, where he found a mistress in 1487, a 20-year-old orphan named Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. It is likely that Beatriz met Columbus when he was in Córdoba, a gathering site of many Genoese merchants and where the court of the Catholic monarchs was located at intervals. Beatriz, unmarried at the time, gave birth to Columbus's natural son Fernando Columbus in July 1488, named for the monarch of Aragón. Columbus recognized the boy as his offspring. Columbus entrusted his older, legitimate son Diego to take care of Beatriz and pay the pension set aside for her following his death, but Diego was negligent in his duties.
Ambitious, Columbus eventually learned Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian. He read widely about astronomy, geography, and history, including the works of Claudius Ptolemy, Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly's Imago Mundi, the travels of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, Pliny's Natural History, and Pope Pius II's Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum. According to historian Edmund Morgan,
Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, ...
Throughout his life, Columbus also showed a keen interest in the Bible and in Biblical prophecies, often quoting biblical texts in his letters and logs. For example, part of the argument that he submitted to the Spanish Catholic Monarchs when he sought their support for his proposed expedition to reach the Indies by sailing west was based on his reading of the Second Book of Esdras (Ezra): see 2 Esdras 6:42, which he took to mean that the Earth is made of six parts of land to one of water. Towards the end of his life, he produced a Book of Prophecies in which his career as an explorer is interpreted in the light of Christian eschatology and of apocalypticism.
Under the Mongol Empire's hegemony over Asia (the Pax Mongolica, or Mongol peace), Europeans had long enjoyed a safe land passage, the Silk Road, to the Indies (then construed roughly as all of south and east Asia) and China, which were sources of valuable goods such as spices and silk. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the land route to Asia became much more difficult and dangerous. Portuguese navigators tried to find a sea way to Asia.
In 1470, the Florentine astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli suggested to King Afonso V of Portugal that sailing west would be a quicker way to reach the Spice Islands, Cathay, and Cipangu than the route around Africa. Afonso rejected his proposal. Portuguese explorers, under the leadership of King John II, then developed the Cape Route to Asia around Africa. Major progress in this quest was achieved in 1488, when Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope, in what is now South Africa. Meanwhile, in the 1480s, the Columbus brothers had picked up Toscanelli's suggestion and proposed a plan to reach the Indies by sailing west across the "Ocean Sea", i.e., the Atlantic. However, Dias's discovery had shifted the interests of Portuguese seafaring to the southeast passage, which complicated Columbus's proposals significantly.
Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus popularized the idea that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because many Catholic theologians insisted that the Earth was flat. In fact, nearly all educated Westerners had understood, at least since the time of Aristotle, that the Earth is spherical. The sphericity of the Earth is also accounted for in the work of Ptolemy, on which medieval astronomy was largely based. Christian writers whose works clearly reflect the conviction that the Earth is spherical include Saint Bede the Venerable in his Reckoning of Time, written around AD 723. In Columbus's time, the techniques of celestial navigation, which use the position of the sun and the stars in the sky, together with the understanding that the Earth is a sphere, had long been in use by astronomers and were beginning to be implemented by mariners.
As far back as the 3rd century BC, Eratosthenes had correctly computed the circumference of the Earth by using simple geometry and studying the shadows cast by objects at two different locations: Alexandria and Syene (modern-day Aswan). Eratosthenes's results were confirmed by a comparison of stellar observations at Alexandria and Rhodes, carried out by Posidonius in the 1st century BC. These measurements were widely known among scholars, but confusion about the old-fashioned units of distance in which they were expressed had led, in Columbus's day, to some debate about the exact size of the Earth.
From d'Ailly's Imago Mundi Columbus learned of Alfraganus's estimate that a degree of latitude (or a degree of longitude along the equator) spanned 56⅔ miles, but did not realize that this was expressed in the Arabic mile rather than the shorter Roman mile with which he was familiar (1,480 m). He therefore estimated the circumference of the Earth to be about 30,200 km, whereas the correct value is 40,000 km (25,000 mi).
Furthermore, most scholars accepted Ptolemy's estimate that Eurasia spanned 180° longitude, rather than the actual 130° (to the Chinese mainland) or 150° (to Japan at the latitude of Spain). Columbus, for his part, believed the even higher estimate of Marinus of Tyre, which put the longitudinal span of the Eurasian landmass at 225°, leaving only 135° of water. He also believed that Japan (which he called "Cipangu", following Marco Polo) was much larger, farther to the east from China ("Cathay"), and closer to the equator than it is, and that there were inhabited islands even farther to the east than Japan, including the mythical Antillia, which he thought might lie not much farther to the west than the Azores. In this, he was influenced by the ideas of Florentine astronomer Toscanelli, who corresponded with Columbus before his death in 1482 and who also defended the feasibility of a westward route to Asia.
Columbus therefore estimated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 3,000 Italian miles (3,700 km, or 2,300 statute miles). The true figure is now known to be vastly larger: about 20,000 km. No ship in the 15th century could have carried enough food and fresh water for such a long voyage, and the dangers involved in navigating through the uncharted ocean would have been formidable. Most European navigators reasonably concluded that a westward voyage from Europe to Asia was unfeasible. The Catholic Monarchs, however, having completed an expensive war in the Iberian Peninsula, were eager to obtain a competitive edge over other European countries in the quest for trade with the Indies. Columbus's project, though far-fetched, held the promise of such an advantage.
Though Columbus was wrong about the number of degrees of longitude that separated Europe from the Far East and about the distance that each degree represented, he did possess valuable knowledge about the trade winds, which would prove to be the key to his successful navigation of the Atlantic Ocean. During his first voyage in 1492, the brisk trade winds from the east, commonly called "easterlies", propelled Columbus's fleet for five weeks, from the Canary Islands to The Bahamas. The precise first land sighting and landing point was San Salvador Island. To return to Spain against this prevailing wind would have required several months of an arduous sailing technique, called beating, during which food and drinkable water would probably have been exhausted.
Instead, Columbus returned home by following the curving trade winds northeastward to the middle latitudes of the North Atlantic, where he was able to catch the "westerlies" that blow eastward to the coast of Western Europe. There, in turn, the winds curve southward towards the Iberian Peninsula.
It is unclear whether Columbus learned about the winds from his own sailing experience or if he had heard about them from others. The corresponding technique for efficient travel in the Atlantic appears to have been exploited first by the Portuguese, who referred to it as the Volta do mar ("turn of the sea"). Columbus's knowledge of the Atlantic wind patterns was, however, imperfect at the time of his first voyage. By sailing directly due west from the Canary Islands during hurricane season, skirting the so-called horse latitudes of the mid-Atlantic, Columbus risked either being becalmed or running into a tropical cyclone, both of which, by chance, he avoided.
In 1485, Columbus presented his plans to King John II of Portugal. He proposed that the king equip three sturdy ships and grant Columbus one year's time to sail out into the Atlantic, search for a western route to the Orient, and return. Columbus also requested he be made "Great Admiral of the Ocean", appointed governor of any and all lands he discovered, and given one-tenth of all revenue from those lands. The king submitted Columbus's proposal to his experts, who rejected it. It was their considered opinion that Columbus's estimation of a travel distance of 2,400 miles (3,860 km) was, in fact, far too low.
In 1488, Columbus appealed to the court of Portugal once again and, once again, John II invited him to an audience. That meeting also proved unsuccessful, in part because not long afterwards Bartolomeu Dias returned to Portugal with news of his successful rounding of the southern tip of Africa (near the Cape of Good Hope). With an eastern sea route to Asia apparently at hand, King John was no longer interested in Columbus's far-fetched project.
Columbus traveled from Portugal to both Genoa and Venice, but he received encouragement from neither. He had also dispatched his brother Bartholomew to the court of Henry VII of England to inquire whether the English crown might sponsor his expedition, but also without success.
Columbus had sought an audience from the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who had united several kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula by marrying and were ruling together. On 1 May 1486, permission having been granted, Columbus presented his plans to Queen Isabella, who, in turn, referred it to a committee. After the passing of much time, the savants of Spain, like their counterparts in Portugal, replied that Columbus had grossly underestimated the distance to Asia. They pronounced the idea impractical and advised their Royal Highnesses to pass on the proposed venture.
However, to keep Columbus from taking his ideas elsewhere, and perhaps to keep their options open, the Catholic Monarchs gave him an annual allowance of 12,000 maravedis and, in 1489, furnished him with a letter ordering all cities and towns under their domain to provide him food and lodging at no cost.
After continually lobbying at the Spanish court and two years of negotiations, he finally had success in January 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, and they received Columbus in Córdoba, in the Alcázar castle. Isabella turned him down on the advice of her confessor. Columbus was leaving town by mule in despair when Ferdinand intervened. Isabella then sent a royal guard to fetch him, and Ferdinand later claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were discovered".
In the April 1492 "Capitulations of Santa Fe", King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promised Columbus that if he succeeded he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he could claim for Spain. He had the right to nominate three persons, from whom the sovereigns would choose one, for any office in the new lands. He would be entitled to 10 percent of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity. Additionally, he would also have the option of buying one-eighth interest in any commercial venture with the new lands and receive one-eighth of the profits.
Columbus was later arrested in 1500 and dismissed from his posts. He and his sons, Diego and Fernando, then conducted a lengthy series of court cases against the Castilian crown, known as the pleitos colombinos, alleging that the Crown had illegally reneged on its contractual obligations to Columbus and his heirs. The Columbus family had some success in their first litigation, as a judgment of 1511 confirmed Diego's position as Viceroy, but reduced his powers. Diego resumed litigation in 1512, which lasted until 1536, and further disputes continued until 1790.
Between 1492 and 1503, Columbus completed four round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas, each voyage being sponsored by the Crown of Castile. These voyages marked the beginning of the European exploration and colonization of the American continents, and are thus of enormous significance in Western history.
Columbus always insisted, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that the lands that he visited during those voyages were part of the Asian continent, as previously described by Marco Polo and other European travelers. Columbus's refusal to accept that the lands he had visited and claimed for Spain were not part of Asia might explain, in part, why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci and not after Columbus.
On the evening of 3 August 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera with three ships: a larger carrack, the Santa María ex-Gallega ("Galician"), and two smaller caravels, the Pinta ("The Pint", "The Look", or "The Spotted One") and the Santa Clara, nicknamed the Niña ("Girl") after her owner Juan Niño of Moguer. The monarchs forced the citizens of Palos to contribute to the expedition. The Santa María was owned by Juan de la Cosa and captained by Columbus. The Pinta and the Niña were piloted by the Pinzón brothers (Martín Alonso and Vicente Yáñez).
Columbus first sailed to the Canary Islands, which belonged to Castile. He restocked provisions and made repairs in Gran Canaria, then departed from San Sebastián de La Gomera on 6 September, for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean. At about 2:00 in the morning of 12 October, a lookout on the Pinta, Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodríguez Bermeo), spotted land, and immediately alerted the rest of the crew with a shout. Thereupon, the captain of the Pinta, Martín Alonso Pinzón, verified the discovery and alerted Columbus by firing a lombard. Columbus later maintained that he himself had already seen a light on the land a few hours earlier, thereby claiming for himself the lifetime pension promised by Ferdinand and Isabella to the first person to sight land.
Columbus called the island (in what is now The Bahamas) San Salvador; the natives called it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas this corresponds to is unresolved. Based on primary accounts and on what one would expect from the geographic positions of the islands given Columbus's course, the prime candidates are San Salvador Island (so named in 1925 on the theory that it was Columbus's San Salvador), Samana Cay, and Plana Cays.
The indigenous people he encountered, the Lucayan, Taíno, or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. Noting their gold ear ornaments, Columbus took some of the Arawaks prisoner and insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. From the entry in his journal of 12 October 1492, in which he wrote of them: "Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language." Columbus remarked that their lack of modern weaponry and metal-forged swords or pikes was a tactical vulnerability, writing, "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased."
Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba, where he landed on 28 October. On 22 November, Martín Alonso Pinzón took the Pinta on an unauthorized expedition in search of an island called "Babeque" or "Baneque", which the natives had told him was rich in gold. Columbus, for his part, continued to the northern coast of Hispaniola, where he landed on 5 December. There, the Santa María ran aground on Christmas Day 1492 and had to be abandoned. The wreck was used as a target for cannon fire to impress the native peoples. Columbus was received by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his men behind. Columbus left 39 men, including Luis de Torres, the Converso interpreter, who spoke Hebrew and Arabic, and founded the settlement of La Navidad at the site of present-day Bord de Mer de Limonade, Haiti. Columbus took more natives prisoner and continued his exploration. He kept sailing along the northern coast of Hispaniola with a single ship, until he encountered Pinzón and the Pinta on 6 January.
On 13 January 1493, Columbus made his last stop of this voyage in the New World, in the Bay of Rincón at the eastern end of the Samaná Peninsula in northeast Hispaniola. There he encountered the warlike Cigüayos, the only natives who offered violent resistance during his first voyage to the Americas. The Cigüayos refused to trade the amount of bows and arrows that Columbus desired; in the ensuing clash one Ciguayo was stabbed in the buttocks and another wounded with an arrow in his chest. Because of this and because of the Cigüayos' use of arrows, he called the inlet where he met them the Bay of Arrows (or Gulf of Arrows). Columbus kidnapped about 10 to 25 natives and took them back with him (only seven or eight of the natives arrived in Spain alive).
Columbus headed for Spain on the Niña, but a storm separated him from the Pinta, and forced the Niña to stop at the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. Half of his crew went ashore to say prayers in a chapel to give thanks for having survived the storm. But while praying, they were imprisoned by the governor of the island, ostensibly on suspicion of being pirates. After a two-day standoff, the prisoners were released, and Columbus again set sail for Spain.
Another storm forced him into the port at Lisbon. He anchored next to the King's harbor patrol ship on 4 March 1493 in Portugal. There, he was interviewed by Bartolomeu Dias, who had rounded the Cape of Good Hope a few years earlier, in 1488–1489. Dias's success had complicated Columbus's attempts to secure funding from the Portuguese court because the sure route to the Indies that Dias pioneered made a risky, conjectural western route unnecessary. Not finding King John II of Portugal in Lisbon, Columbus wrote a letter to him and waited for John's reply. John asked Columbus to go to Vale do Paraíso north of Lisbon to meet him. Relations between Portugal and Castile were poor at the time. Columbus went to meet with John at Vale do Paraíso. Hearing of Columbus's discoveries, John told him that he believed the voyage to be in violation of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas.
After spending more than a week in Portugal, and paying his respects to Eleanor of Viseu, Columbus again set sail for Spain. Ferdinand Magellan was a young boy and a ward of Eleanor's court; it is likely he saw Columbus during this visit. After departing, and after reportedly being saved from assassins by King John, Columbus crossed the bar of Saltes and entered the harbor of Palos de la Frontera on 15 March 1493. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe.
Columbus left the port of Cádiz on 24 September 1493, with a fleet of 17 ships carrying 1,200 men and the supplies to establish permanent colonies in the New World. The passengers included priests, farmers, and soldiers, who would be the new colonists. This reflected the new policy of creating not just "colonies of exploitation", but also "colonies of settlement" from which to launch missions dedicated to converting the natives to Christianity. Modern studies suggest that, as reported by the Washington Post, "crew members may have included free black Africans who arrived in the New World about a decade before the slave trade began."
As in the first voyage, the fleet stopped at the Canary Islands, from which it departed on 13 October, following a more southerly course than on the previous expedition. On 3 November, Columbus sighted a rugged island that he named Dominica (Latin for Sunday); later that day, he landed at Marie-Galante, which he named Santa María la Galante. After sailing past Les Saintes (Los Santos, "The Saints"), he arrived at the island of Guadeloupe, which he named Santa María de Guadalupe de Extremadura, after the image of the Virgin Mary venerated at the Spanish monastery of Villuercas, in Guadalupe, Cáceres, Spain. He explored that island from 4 to 10 November.
Michele da Cuneo, Columbus's childhood friend from Savona, sailed with Columbus during the second voyage and wrote: "In my opinion, since Genoa was Genoa, there was never born a man so well equipped and expert in the art of navigation as the said lord Admiral." Columbus named the small island of "Saona ... to honor Michele da Cuneo, his friend from Savona."
The same childhood friend reported in a letter that Columbus had provided one of the captured indigenous women to him. He wrote, "While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores."
Pedro de las Casas, father of the priest Bartolomé de las Casas, also accompanied Columbus on this voyage.
The exact course of Columbus's voyage through the Lesser Antilles is debated, but it seems likely that he turned north, sighting and naming several islands, including:Montserrat (for Santa María de Montserrate, after the Blessed Virgin of the Monastery of Montserrat, which is located on the Mountain of Montserrat, in Catalonia, Spain),Antigua (after a church in Seville, Spain, called Santa María la Antigua, meaning "Old St. Mary's"),Redonda (Santa María la Redonda, Spanish for "St. Mary the Round", owing to the island's shape),Nevis (derived from the Spanish Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, "Our Lady of the Snows", because Columbus thought the clouds over Nevis Peak made the island resemble a snow-capped mountain),Saint Kitts (for St. Christopher, patron of sailors and travelers),Sint Eustatius (for the early Roman martyr, St. Eustachius),Saba (after the Biblical Queen of Sheba),Saint Martin (San Martín), andSaint Croix (from the Spanish Santa Cruz, meaning "Holy Cross").
Columbus also sighted the chain of the Virgin Islands, which he named Islas de Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes, "Islands of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins" (shortened, both on maps of the time and in common parlance, to Islas Vírgenes). He also named the islands of Virgin Gorda ("Fat Virgin"), Tortola, and Peter Island (San Pedro).
He continued to the Greater Antilles, and landed in Puerto Rico, which he named San Juan Bautista in honor of Saint John the Baptist (a name that was later retained only for the capital city of San Juan). One of the first skirmishes between Native Americans and Europeans since the time of the Vikings occurred when Columbus's men rescued two native boys who had just been castrated by their captors in another tribe.
On 22 November, Columbus returned to Hispaniola, where he intended to visit the fort of La Navidad, built during his first voyage and located on the northern coast of Haiti. Columbus found the fort in ruins, destroyed by the native Taino people. Among the ruins were the corpses of 11 of the 39 Spaniards who had stayed behind as the first colonists in the New World.
Columbus then sailed more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) eastwards along the northern coast of Hispaniola, establishing a new settlement, which he called La Isabela, in the present-day Dominican Republic. However, La Isabela proved to be poorly located and the settlement was short-lived.
According to the abstract of Columbus's journal made by Bartolomé de Las Casas, the objective of the third voyage was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal suggested was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. King John reportedly knew of the existence of such a mainland because "canoes had been found which set out from the coast of Guinea [West Africa] and sailed to the west with merchandise."
On 30 May 1498, Columbus left with six ships from Sanlúcar, Spain, for his third trip to the New World. Three of the ships headed directly for Hispaniola with much-needed supplies, while Columbus took the other three in an exploration of what might lie to the south of the Caribbean islands he had already visited, including a hoped-for passage to continental Asia.
Columbus led his fleet to the Portuguese island of Porto Santo, his wife's native land. He then sailed to Madeira and spent some time there with the Portuguese captain João Gonçalves da Camara, before sailing to the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. As he crossed the Atlantic, Columbus discovered that the angle between North as indicated by a magnetic compass and North as measured by the position of the pole star changed with his position (a phenomenon now known as "compass variation"). He would later use his previous measurements of the compass variation to adjust his reckoning.
After being becalmed for several days in the doldrums of the mid-Atlantic, Columbus's fleet regained its wind and, dangerously low on water, turned north in the direction of Dominica, which Columbus had visited in his previous voyage. The ships arrived at King John's hypothesized continent, which is South America, when they sighted the land of Trinidad on 31 July approaching from the southeast. The fleet sailed along the southern coast and entered Dragon's Mouth, anchoring near Soldado Rock where they made contact with a group of native Amerindians in canoes. Columbus then landed on Trinidad at Icacos Point (which he named Punta de Arenal) on 2 August. After resupplying with food and water, from 4 to 12 August Columbus explored the Gulf of Paria, which separates Trinidad from what is now Venezuela, near the delta of the Orinoco River. He then touched the mainland of South America at the Paria Peninsula.
Exploring the new continent, Columbus correctly interpreted the enormous quantity of fresh water that the Orinoco delivered into the Atlantic Ocean as evidence that he had reached a large landmass rather than another island. As he sailed the Gulf of Paria, he observed the diurnal rotation of the pole star in the sky, which he erroneously interpreted as evidence that the Earth was not perfectly spherical, but rather bulged out like a pear around the new-found continent. He also speculated that the new continent might be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. He then sailed to the islands of Chacachacare and Margarita. He sighted Tobago (which he named "Bella Forma") and Grenada (which he named "Concepción").
In poor health, Columbus returned to Hispaniola on 19 August, only to find that many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony were in rebellion against his rule, claiming that Columbus had misled them about the supposedly bountiful riches of the New World. A number of returning settlers and sailors lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him and his brothers of gross mismanagement. Columbus had some of his crew hanged for disobedience. He had an economic interest in the enslavement of the Hispaniola natives and for that reason was not eager to baptize them, which attracted criticism from some churchmen. An entry in his journal from September 1498 reads: "From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold ..."
Columbus was eventually forced to make peace with the rebellious colonists on humiliating terms. In 1500, the Crown had him removed as governor, arrested, and transported in chains to Spain (see "Accusations of tyranny during governorship" section below). He was eventually freed and allowed to return to the New World, but not as governor.
Before leaving for his fourth voyage, Columbus wrote a letter to the Governors of the Bank of Saint George, Genoa, dated at Seville, 2 April 1502. He wrote "Although my body is here my heart is always near you."
Columbus made a fourth voyage nominally in search of the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. Accompanied by his brother Bartolomeo and his 13-year-old son Fernando, he left Cádiz on 11 May 1502, with his flagship Santa María and the vessels Gallega, Vizcaína, and Santiago de Palos. He sailed to Arzila on the Moroccan coast to rescue Portuguese soldiers whom he had heard were under siege by the Moors.
On 15 June they landed at Carbet on the island of Martinique (Martinica). A hurricane was brewing, so he continued on, hoping to find shelter on Hispaniola. He arrived at Santo Domingo on 29 June but was denied port, and the new governor refused to listen to his storm prediction. Instead, while Columbus's ships sheltered at the mouth of the Rio Jaina, the first Spanish treasure fleet sailed into the hurricane. Columbus's ships survived with only minor damage, while 29 of the 30 ships in the governor's fleet were lost to a storm on 1 July. In addition to the ships, 500 lives (including that of the governor, Francisco de Bobadilla) and an immense cargo of gold were surrendered to the sea.
After a brief stop at Jamaica, Columbus sailed to Central America, arriving at Guanaja (Isla de Pinos) in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras on 30 July. Here Bartolomeo found native merchants and a large canoe, which was described as being "long as a galley" and filled with cargo. On 14 August he landed on the continental mainland at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo, Honduras. He spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before arriving in Almirante Bay in Panama on 16 October.
On 5 December 1502, Columbus and his crew found themselves in a storm unlike any they had ever experienced. In his journal Columbus writes,
For nine days I was as one lost, without hope of life. Eyes never beheld the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foam. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter; hence we were forced to keep out in this bloody ocean, seething like a pot on a hot fire. Never did the sky look more terrible; for one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that we all thought that the ship would be blasted. All this time the water never ceased to fall from the sky; I do not say it rained, for it was like another deluge. The men were so worn out that they longed for death to end their dreadful suffering.
In Panama, Columbus learned from the Ngobe of gold and a strait to another ocean, but was told by local leader Quibían not to go past a certain point down the river. After much exploration, in January 1503 he established a garrison at the mouth of the Belén River. On 6 April one of the ships became stranded in the river. At the same time, the garrison was attacked by Quibían and the other ships were damaged. Shipworms also damaged the ships in tropical waters.
Columbus left for Hispaniola on 16 April heading north. On 10 May he sighted the Cayman Islands, naming them "Las Tortugas" after the numerous sea turtles there. His ships next sustained more damage in a storm off the coast of Cuba. Unable to travel farther, on 25 June 1503 they were beached in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica.
For one year Columbus and his men remained stranded on Jamaica. A Spaniard, Diego Méndez, and some natives paddled a canoe to get help from Hispaniola. The governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, detested Columbus and obstructed all efforts to rescue him and his men. In the meantime Columbus, in a desperate effort to induce the natives to continue provisioning him and his hungry men, won their favor by predicting a lunar eclipse for 29 February 1504, using Abraham Zacuto's astronomical charts. Help finally arrived, no thanks to the governor, on 29 June 1504, and Columbus and his men arrived in Sanlúcar, Spain, on 7 November.
Following his first voyage, Columbus was appointed Viceroy and Governor of the Indies under the terms of the Capitulations of Santa Fe. In practice, this primarily entailed the administration of the colonies in the island of Hispaniola, whose capital was established in Santo Domingo. By the end of his third voyage, Columbus was physically and mentally exhausted, his body wracked by arthritis and his eyes by ophthalmia. In October 1499, he sent two ships to Spain, asking the Court of Spain to appoint a royal commissioner to help him govern.
By this time, accusations of tyranny and incompetence on the part of Columbus had also reached the Court. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand responded by removing Columbus from power and replacing him with Francisco de Bobadilla, a member of the Order of Calatrava. Bobadilla, who ruled as governor from 1500 until his death in a storm in 1502, had also been tasked by the Court with investigating the accusations of brutality made against Columbus. Arriving in Santo Domingo while Columbus was away in the explorations of his third voyage, Bobadilla was immediately met with complaints about all three Columbus brothers: Christopher, Bartolomeo, and Diego. A recently discovered report by Bobadilla alleges that Columbus regularly used torture and mutilation to govern Hispaniola. The 48-page report, found in 2006 in the national archive in the Spanish city of Simancas, contains testimonies from 23 people, including both enemies and supporters of Columbus, about the treatment of colonial subjects by Columbus and his brothers during his seven-year rule.
According to the report, Columbus once punished a man found guilty of stealing corn by having his ears and nose cut off and then selling him into slavery. Testimony recorded in the report claims that Columbus congratulated his brother Bartolomeo on "defending the family" when the latter ordered a woman paraded naked through the streets and then had her tongue cut out for suggesting that Columbus was of lowly birth. The document also describes how Columbus put down native unrest and revolt; he first ordered a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed and then paraded their dismembered bodies through the streets in an attempt to discourage further rebellion. "Columbus's government was characterised by a form of tyranny," Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists. "Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place."
Because of their gross mismanagement of governance, Columbus and his brothers were arrested and imprisoned upon their return to Spain from the third voyage. They lingered in jail for six weeks before busy King Ferdinand ordered their release. Not long after, the king and queen summoned the Columbus brothers to the Alhambra palace in Granada. There, the royal couple heard the brothers' pleas; restored their freedom and wealth; and, after much persuasion, agreed to fund Columbus's fourth voyage. But the door was firmly shut on Columbus's role as governor. Henceforth Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres was to be the new governor of the West Indies.
Columbus had always claimed the conversion of non-believers as one reason for his explorations, but he grew increasingly religious in his later years. Probably with the assistance of his son Diego and his friend the Carthusian monk Gaspar Gorricio, Columbus produced two books during his later years: a Book of Privileges (1502), detailing and documenting the rewards from the Spanish Crown to which he believed he and his heirs were entitled, and a Book of Prophecies (1505), in which he considered his achievements as an explorer but a fulfillment of Bible prophecy in the context of Christian eschatology.
In his later years, Columbus demanded that the Spanish Crown give him 10 percent of all profits made in the new lands, as stipulated in the Capitulations of Santa Fe. Because he had been relieved of his duties as governor, the crown did not feel bound by that contract and his demands were rejected. After his death, his heirs sued the Crown for a part of the profits from trade with America, as well as other rewards. This led to a protracted series of legal disputes known as the pleitos colombinos ("Columbian lawsuits").
During a violent storm on his first return voyage, Columbus, then 41, suffered an attack of what was believed at the time to be gout. In subsequent years, he was plagued with what was thought to be influenza and other fevers, bleeding from the eyes, and prolonged attacks of gout. The suspected attacks increased in duration and severity, sometimes leaving Columbus bedridden for months at a time, and culminated in his death 14 years later.
Based on Columbus's lifestyle and the described symptoms, modern doctors suspect that he suffered from Reiter's syndrome, rather than gout. Reiter's syndrome is a common presentation of reactive arthritis, a joint inflammation caused by intestinal bacterial infections or after acquiring certain sexually transmitted diseases (primarily chlamydia or gonorrhea). "It seems likely that [Columbus] acquired reactive arthritis from food poisoning on one of his ocean voyages because of poor sanitation and improper food preparation," writes Dr. Frank C. Arnett, a rheumatologist and professor of internal medicine, pathology and laboratory medicine the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
On 20 May 1506, aged probably 54, Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain. His remains were first interred at Valladolid, then at the monastery of La Cartuja in Seville (southern Spain) by the will of his son Diego Colón, who had been governor of Hispaniola. In 1542, the remains were transferred to Colonial Santo Domingo, in the present-day Dominican Republic. In 1795, when France took over the entire island of Hispaniola, Columbus's remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. After Cuba became independent following the Spanish–American War in 1898, the remains were moved back to Spain, to the Cathedral of Seville, where they were placed on an elaborate catafalque.
However, a lead box bearing an inscription identifying "Don Christopher Columbus" and containing bone fragments and a bullet was discovered at Santo Domingo in 1877. To lay to rest claims that the wrong relics had been moved to Havana and that Columbus's remains had been left buried in the cathedral at Santo Domingo, DNA samples of the corpse resting in Seville were taken in June 2003 (History Today August 2003) as well as other DNA samples from the remains of his brother Diego and younger son Fernando Colón. Initial observations suggested that the bones did not appear to belong to somebody with the physique or age at death associated with Columbus. DNA extraction proved difficult; only short fragments of mitochondrial DNA could be isolated. The mitochondrial DNA fragments matched corresponding DNA from Columbus's brother, giving support that both individuals had shared the same mother.
Such evidence, together with anthropologic and historic analyses, led the researchers to conclude that the remains found in Seville belonged to Christopher Columbus. The authorities in Santo Domingo have never allowed the remains there to be exhumed, so it is unknown if any of those remains could be from Columbus's body as well. The Dominican remains are located in "The Columbus Lighthouse" (Faro a Colón), in Santo Domingo.
The anniversary of Columbus's 1492 landing in the Americas is usually observed on 12 October in Spain and throughout the Americas, except Canada. In Spain it is called the Fiesta Nacional de España y Día de la Hispanidad, while a number of countries in Latin America celebrate it as Día de la Raza. In the United States it is called Columbus Day and is observed annually on the second Monday in October.
The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, commemorated the 400th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. Over 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month duration.
The United States Postal Service participated in the celebration issuing the first US commemorative postage stamps, a series of 16 postage issues called the Columbian Issue depicting Columbus, Queen Isabella and others in the various stages of his several voyages. The issues range in value from the 1-cent to the 5-dollar denominations. Under Benjamin Harrison and his Postmaster General John Wanamaker the Columbian commemorative stamps were made available and were first issued at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. Wanamaker originally introduced the idea of issuing the nation's first commemorative stamp to Harrison, the Congress and the U.S. Post Office. To demonstrate his confidence in the new Columbian commemorative issues Wanamaker purchased $10,000 worth of stamps with his own money. The Columbian Exposition lasted several months, and over $40 million in commemorative postage stamps had been sold. The 400th anniversary Columbian issues were very popular in the United States. A total of two billion stamps were issued for all the Columbian denominations, and 72 percent of these were the two-cent stamps, "Landing of Columbus", which paid the first-class rate for domestic mail at the time.
In 1992, a second Columbian issue was released that was identical to the first to commemorate the 500th anniversary, except for the date in the upper right hand corner of each stamp. These issues were made from the original dies of which the first engraved issues of 1893 were produced. The United States issued the series jointly for the first time with three other countries, Italy in lire, Portugal in escudos and Spain in pesetas.
Though Christopher Columbus came to be considered the "discoverer of America" in US and European popular culture, his true historical legacy is more nuanced. America was first discovered by its indigenous population, and Columbus was not even the first European to reach its shores, as he was preceded by the Vikings at L'Anse aux Meadows. But the lasting significance of Columbus's voyages outshone that of his Viking predecessors, because he managed to bring word of the continent back to Europe. By bringing the continent to the forefront of Western attention, Columbus initiated the enduring relationship between the Earth's two major landmasses and their inhabitants. "Columbus's claim to fame isn't that he got there first," explains historian Martin Dugard, "it's that he stayed."
Historians have traditionally argued that Columbus remained convinced to the very end that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia, but writer Kirkpatrick Sale argues that a document in the Book of Privileges indicates Columbus knew he found a new continent. Furthermore, his journals from the third voyage call the "land of Paria" a "hitherto unknown" continent. On the other hand, his other writings continued to claim that he had reached Asia, such as a 1502 letter to Pope Alexander VI where he asserted that Cuba was the east coast of Asia. He also rationalized that the new continent of South America was the "Earthly Paradise" that was located "at the end of the Orient". Thus, it remains unclear what his true beliefs were.
The term "pre-Columbian" is usually used to refer to the peoples and cultures of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and his European successors.
Columbus is often credited with refuting a prevalent belief in a flat Earth. However, this legacy is a popular misconception. To the contrary, the spherical shape of the Earth had been known to scholars since antiquity, and was common knowledge among sailors. Coincidentally, the oldest surviving globe of the Earth, the Erdapfel, was made in 1492 just before Columbus's return to Europe. As such it contains no sign of the Americas and yet demonstrates the common belief in a spherical Earth.
The scholar Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed to America in the years following Columbus's first voyage, was the first to speculate that the land was not part of Asia but in fact constituted some wholly new continent previously unknown to Eurasians. His travel journals, published 1502–04, convinced German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to reach the same conclusion, and in 1507—a year after Columbus's death—Waldseemüller published a world map calling the new continent America from Vespucci's Latinized name "Americus". According to Paul Lunde, "The preoccupation of European courts with the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the East partly explains their relative lack of interest in Columbus's discoveries in the West."
Historically, the English had downplayed Columbus and emphasized the role of the Venetian John Cabot as a pioneer explorer, but for the emerging United States, Cabot made for a poor national hero. Veneration of Columbus in America dates back to colonial times. The name Columbia for "America" first appeared in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament. The use of Columbus as a founding figure of New World nations and the use of the word "Columbia", or simply the name "Columbus", spread rapidly after the American Revolution. Columbus's name was given to the federal capital of the United States (District of Columbia), the capital cities of two U.S. states (Ohio and South Carolina), and the Columbia River. Outside the United States the name was used in 1819 for the Gran Colombia, a precursor of the modern Republic of Colombia. Numerous cities, towns, counties, streets, and plazas (called Plaza Colón or Plaza de Colón throughout Latin America and Spain) have been named after him. A candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church in 1866, celebration of Columbus's legacy perhaps reached a zenith in 1892 with the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus like the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and Columbus Circle in New York City were erected throughout the United States and Latin America extolling him.
In 1909, descendants of Columbus undertook to dismantle the Columbus family chapel in Spain and move it to Boalsburg near State College, Pennsylvania, where it may now be visited by the public. At the museum associated with the chapel, there are a number of Columbus relics worthy of note, including the armchair that the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" used at his chart table.
More recent views of Columbus have been critical of his colonization and treatment of natives. Among reasons for this criticism is the treatment and disappearance of the native Taíno people of Hispaniola, where Columbus began a rudimentary tribute system of gold and cotton. The people disappeared rapidly after contact with the Spanish because of overwork and the first pandemic of European diseases, which struck Hispaniola after 1519. Las Casas records that when he first came to Hispaniola in 1508, "there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...." Modern estimates for the pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola are around 250,000–300,000. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than five hundred Taínos were left on the island.
The native Taíno people of the island were systematically enslaved via the encomienda system implemented by Columbus, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe. Disease played a significant role in the destruction of the natives. Indirect evidence suggests that some serious illness may have arrived with the 1500 colonists who accompanied Columbus's second expedition in 1493. By the end of 1494, disease and famine had claimed two-thirds of the Spanish settlers. When the first pandemic finally struck in 1519 it wiped out much of the remaining native population.
Columbus's soldiers killed and enslaved with impunity at every landing. When Columbus fell ill in 1495, "what little restraint he had maintained over his men disappeared as he went through a lengthy period of recuperation. The troops went wild, stealing, killing, raping, and torturing natives, trying to force them to divulge the whereabouts of the imagined treasure-houses of gold." According to Las Casas, 50,000 natives perished during this period. Upon his recovery, Columbus organized his troops' efforts, forming a squadron of several hundred heavily armed men and more than twenty attack dogs. The men tore across the land, killing thousands of sick and unarmed natives. Soldiers would use their captives for sword practice, attempting to decapitate them or cut them in half with a single blow.
The historian Howard Zinn writes that Columbus spearheaded a massive slave trade; in 1495 his men captured in a single raid 1500 Arawak men, women, and children. When he shipped five hundred of the slaves to Spain, 40 percent died en route. Historian James W. Loewen asserts that "Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual... other nations rushed to emulate Columbus."
Las Casas writes that when slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus switched to a different system of forced labor: he ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to collect a specified amount (one hawk's bell full) of gold powder every three months. Natives who brought the amount were given a copper token to hang around their necks, and those found without tokens had their hands amputated and were left to bleed to death.
The Arawaks attempted to fight back against Columbus's men but lacked their armor, guns, swords, and horses. When taken prisoner, they were hanged or burned to death. Desperation led to mass suicides and infanticide among the natives. In just two years under Columbus's governorship more than half of the 250,000 Arawaks in Haiti were dead. The main cause for the depopulation was disease followed by other causes such as warfare and harsh enslavement.
Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and author of a multivolume biography on Columbus writes, "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide." Loewen laments that while "Haiti under the Spanish is one of the primary instances of genocide in all human history", only one major history text he reviewed mentions Columbus's role in it.
However some of these accounts may be part of Black Legend. Noble David Cook, writing about the Black Legend and the conquest of the Americas wrote, "There were too few Spaniards to have killed the millions who were reported to have died in the first century after Old and New World contact". He instead estimates that the death toll was caused by diseases like smallpox, which according to some estimates had an 80–90% fatality rate in Native American populations.
There is evidence that the men of the first voyage also brought syphilis from the New World to Europe. Many of the crew members who served on this voyage later joined the army of King Charles VIII in his invasion of Italy in 1495. After the victory, Charles's largely mercenary army returned to their respective homes, thereby spreading "the Great Pox" across Europe and triggering the deaths of more than five million people.
Although an abundance of artwork involving Christopher Columbus exists, no authentic contemporary portrait has been found. James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, believes the various posthumous portraits have no historical value.
Sometime between 1531 and 1536, Alejo Fernández painted an altarpiece, The Virgin of the Navigators, that includes a depiction of Columbus. The painting was commissioned for a chapel in Seville's Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) and remains there, as the earliest known painting about the discovery of the Americas.
At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, 71 alleged portraits of Columbus were displayed; most did not match contemporary descriptions. These writings describe him as having reddish or blond hair, which turned to white early in his life, light colored eyes, as well as being a lighter-skinned person with too much sun exposure turning his face red. Accounts consistently describe Columbus as a large and physically strong man of some six feet (1.83 metres) or more in height, easily taller than the average European of his day.
The most iconic image of Columbus is a portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, which has been reproduced in many textbooks. It agrees with descriptions of Columbus in that it shows a large man with auburn hair, but the painting dates from 1519 and cannot, therefore, have been painted from life. Furthermore, the inscription identifying the subject as Columbus was probably added later, and the face shown differs from other images, including that of the "Virgin of the Navigators."