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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was born sometime before October 31, 1451 in Genoa. His birthplace is now a historic attraction.

He was the son of Domenico Colombo, an Italian wool weaver and Susanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a wool weaver. Christopher's father also owned a cheese stand and later, a tavern.

Christopher was the oldest of five. Her had three younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo, and a sister, Bianchinetta.

As his family was of limited means Christopher's education was also restricted. He would have learnt basic Latin and Mathematics until the age of 14. From his teens when he first set sail he learnt a great deal about Astronomy and map reading.

His first documented voyage was to the Island of Chios in the Aegean Sea.

After being shipwrecked off Portugal, (when a French ship sank his ship) Columbus swam to land clinging onto an oar, and settled there in 1476.

He worked as a Cartographer in Lisbon in the late 1470s with his brother, Bartholomew.


Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera, Spain on August 3, 1492 to try to find a new route to the Orient. Palos is also the site of the Rábida Monastery where Columbus consulted with the Franciscans about his plans for organizing an expedition of discovery.

Before Spain agreed to bankroll Christopher Columbus's journey across the Atlantic, he was turned down by Portugal, England and France.

The Pinta, Niña, and Santa María made their first landfall when they landed on an island in the West Indies on October 12, 1492, 71 days after leaving Spain. Columbus named the newly discovered island, “San Salvador” meaning, “Saint of Salvation”, to express his thankfulness at landing safely.

On landing in San Salvador, Columbus offered the natives red caps and green beads, which they accepted gratefully.

Landing of Columbus (12 October 1492), painting by John Vanderlyn

On reaching America, Columbus thought he was in the East Indies because of Biblical scripture. His calculations were based on the Second Book of Esdras in the Apocrypha which suggested the Earth was six parts land to one part water.

Columbus’ mission was gold and the gospel, to fill up the Spanish coffers, (he was being sponsored by the Spanish monarchy) and convert the eastern people (he mistakenly though he had landed on an island near Japan).

On January 6, 1494 Columbus and all his men disembarked at Isabela on the island of Haiti and entered the temporary church that they had built. There they heard Fray Buil offer mass--the first mass ever heard on land in the New World.


Columbus' crews survived on salted meat or fish stews cooked on wood burning stoves, hard biscuits and watered wine.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit Cuba during his first voyage to the New World on October 28, 1492. Two of Columbus' scouts in Cuba came back with wild tales of a sort of grain, which was "well tasted baked, dried and made into flour." The natives in their language called it “mahiz”; Columbus named it “maize”.

Columbus anchored next to the King's harbor patrol ship on March 4, 1493 in Portugal. Hearing of Columbus's discoveries, the Portuguese king informed 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, he again set sail for Spain. Columbus crossed the bar of Saltes and entered the harbor of Palos on March 15, 1493. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe.

Christopher Columbus audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella by Eugène Delacroix

1200 colonists went in 1495 with Columbus to Hispaniola but he was not a successful governor and he got upset with the natives when they couldn't find gold. Soon Columbus' governorship was in disgrace and in 1500 he returned in chains.

Columbus often stayed at Los Palmas in the Canaries on the way back from America, whilst his ships were refitted. The house where he stayed is now a museum.

During his fourth voyage westwards Columbus was given, as a sign of welcome by the Aztecs, a sack of brown cocoa beans. He ascertained these beans were used as money but was unaware a drink couldn be made from them. He gave the Spanish King Ferdinand some beans, but overwhelmed by the countless other treasures Columbus brought, they were ignored.

Columbus took wine not water on his voyages as water becomes stagnant and deteriorates on long trips across the seas, whilst ways had been found to enable wine to keep its taste better and remain wholesome.

During Columbus’ fourth voyage, his crew waited until nightfall before tucking into their meal of crumbled-biscuit porridge, so that they wouldn't see the worms.

During his fourth voyage westwards Columbus was anchored off Jamaica and rations were low (the natives wouldn't trade.)  The explorer learned from his Zacuto almanac that on February 29, 1504 there was to be an eclipse of the moon. Columbus summoned the Jamaican chiefs and told them if they don't give him food he had the power to blot out the moon. They laughed but then the eclipse begun. The terrified natives begged him to bring the moon back and they would give him what he wanted.

Columbus predicts lunar eclipse to the natives

A lay Franciscan himself, Columbus bought with him a group of Franciscans who hoped to convert the Native Americans to Christianity.

Columbus grew increasingly religious in his later years. He claimed to hear divine voices and lobbied for a new crusade to capture Jerusalem.  He was prepared to sell what remained of his possessions to sail again this time eastwards to take back the Holy City from the hands of the infidel.

Columbus described his discoveries of the "paradise" as part of God's plan which would soon result in the Last Judgement and the end of the world.

No contemporary portrait of Columbus has ever been found so we can’t say what he looked like, but writings at the time describe him as tall, with blond or red hair and light eyes and skin.

Columbus' body was twisted by arthritis and he suffered from what is probably Reiter's syndrome.

His last residence was a modest home in Valladolid, Spain.

Columbus died in poverty at Valladolid in Spain on May 20, 1506 after four voyages westwards to the New World.

The first celebration of Columbus Day in the USA held in was held in New York on October 12, 1792.

Colorado was the first state to officially recognize Columbus Day as a state holiday in 1905.

Columbus Day only became an official American Holiday in 1937. It happened because The Knights of Columbus, an influential male-only Catholic organization, wanted a strong Catholic role model for their children to be dignified by the government. After intense lobbying by the Knights, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress declared Columbus Day a legal and federal holiday.

Since 1971, Columbus Day has been commemorated in the United States on the second Monday of each October.

Sources Daily ExpressFood For Thought by Ed Pearce

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