“Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World, was foremost a sailor.” Being a discoverer of the New World has stirred controversy and debate. It even questions historical accuracy about him. What is correct about Christopher Columbus is that he was an explorer. Exploring was his passion. From a small child to an adult, Christopher Columbus imagined and dreamed of discovering new maritime pathways in vast oceans near where he lived (1).
In the country of Genoa where Christopher was born sometime in 1451, statistical authorities did not keep historical records of exact birth dates, so his is unknown. He was born to Catholic parents who were staunchly religious. He grew up learning the art of sailing on his Dad’s fishing boat. From there he and his brother pursued a career in map charting not just any map but ocean map charting.
As Christopher studied maps day and night, he consulted his Bible, particularly the books and verses of the Old Testament to guide him into new discoveries of oceanic routes. His ultimate goal was to find a more efficient course to the West Indies, which was located in East Asia. Because the continent of Africa created a long diversion, Christopher sensed he could find a shorter route by bypassing Africa altogether. The problem for him was his calculations along with previously traveled passages did not tell him exactly where to begin his journey of discovery. He had a hunch though and became obsessed with finding his route.
Poverty was a way of life for Christopher in his youth. Due to this, he had a hard time getting sponsors to back his quest financially. Families that were wealthy had prestige and were noticed and respected by the Royal family. Christopher knew a shorter route would buy him wealth and a successful mission would bring prestige he needed to get the recognition for future explorations. After many failed attempts by Christopher to win the favor of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Christopher began to give up on receiving funding for his explorations. In a twist of fate, the Royal family accountant encouraged his superiors to accept Christopher’s offer of a commissioned bonus that he would share with Ferdinand and Isabella. All parties agreed with the proposal and soon Christopher was well on his way in new voyages of exploration.
Along the discovery of a quicker route to the West Indies Jews looked to hop aboard and travel as well in search of new continents to settle. However, Christopher refused to do so but wished them goodwill. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews from the country of Spain previously. Naturally, this created conflict with Christopher and those who backed him financially. Everyone aboard the ship was required to practice religion. Usually a morning prayer and song was conducted by an individual each day.
Once Christopher arrived ashore, he thought he had landed at the West Indies and so when Christopher met the native inhabitants he called them, “Indians.” Europe quickly caught onto the term to identify similar native inhabitants they could not identify. Christopher wanted to enslave the locals for labor and to convert them to Christianity. He felt God sent these peoples to “aid” Europeans in colonizing new land. Miscommunications about a bountiful supply of gold and bejeweled decorations further cemented divine justification of colonization. Natives in future explorations of the island brought Christopher Columbus in contact with tobacco. These things he could bring back to show evidence of a successful mission (2).
After sending a letter back to the Spain updating the crown of his missions, Christopher awaited a response to his report. He got it. He also obtained his coveted title (count) which gave him prestige and clout with the Royals. This promotion elevated him from commoner to respected voyager and explorer. It also opened up state funding of another voyage supported by the Royals. Since Christopher was also a trader, it was natural to him to come up with a plan colonize Hispaniola. Because this would be a major stop along the route to the West Indies, it could impact the trade routes in many economical ways Christopher knew would benefit the Royals as well as himself. Also natural was to hire priests to convert and control natives who might protest the colonization (3).
Christopher brought some residents back to Spain with him to show the Ferdinand and Isabella of the people who inhabited the island. The Royals had the natives baptized, but once they arrived they were introduced to European diseases. When Christopher returned to Hispaniola, some of his crew became exposed to syphilis there. The native people who had grown up there for thousands of years were either immune or could fend off the disease. Europeans had no natural immunity to disease of the New World. Most of the labor population was wiped out shortly after Christopher’s expedition due to intermixing of natives and Europeans (4).
Christopher Columbus did not discover America, but he did discover lands unfamilar to the Spanish crown. His explorations are fascinating to understand in the development of the New World, colonization and how people viewed each other in this curious time.
1. Samuel Eliot Morison, Christopher Columbus: Mariner (Meridian, 1983), 3. ; http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/10/14/232120128/how-columbus-sailed-into-u-s-history-thanks-to-italians.
2. Morison, 52.
3. Morison, 72.
4. Morison, 86.