Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, is an amazingly difficult man to pin down. Born about 1451, he died on 20 May 1506. We know that he sailed the Atlantic and reached the Americas on October 12, 1492 under the sponsorship of the Spanish kingdom of Castile. We can explore his life in two sections Birth to 1492 and then from 1492 till his death .
Columbus was not necessarily the first European to discover the Americas. But his voyage in 1492 marked the beginning of European exploration of the Americas.
Prior to 1492 Columbus past is somewhat obscure. He is often assumed to have come from Genoa, in Italy. This is based on statements attributed to Columbus himself, members of his family, and others who knew him. However a number of historians claim he could have been born elsewhere, and cite anywhere from Aragón to Galicia or Portugal, the Greek island of Chios and others.
Photo by historian Manuel Rosa in Unmasking Columbus
Christian Europe had conducted overland trade with India and China for products like silk and spices. But the Mogul Empire, which had allowed this trade to pass through lands under its control, started to fragment. The emerging Muslim states in the area started to prevent free movement of trade to Europe. The Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. The price of goods from the Far East rocketed. Portugal then tried to find a sea route eastwards to the Indies. Columbus had a different solution, his proposal was to travel west across the Atlantic to the Indies.
It is sometimes claimed that Columbus had difficulty obtaining finance for his plan because Europeans believed that the earth was flat, a claim mooted in Washington Irving's 1828 novel, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. In truth, it was not the shape of the earth that was an issue, but the circumference and hence the distances involved.
Most academics, in Columbus day, accepted Ptolemy's hypothesis that the world's landmass (for Europeans of the time this meant the known world of Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water to be crossed to get to Asia westwards. Columbus believed that 1° represented a shorter distance on the earth's surface than was commonly held. He calculated the circumference of the Earth as 25,255 km at most. The true circumference of the Earth is actually about 40,000 km. No ship in the 15th century could carry enough food for voyages of the real distance. Most European sailors concluded that undertaking a westward voyage from Europe to Asia would be impossible as crews would die of starvation or thirst before reaching Asia.
In the event both Columbus was wrong (the earth was bigger then he thought) and common wisdom was wrong (180 degrees between Europe and Asia to the west was not all water, America was in the way). Columbus died believing he had opened up a direct route to Asia.
While living in Portugal between 1476 and 1486 Columbus tried to get funding from King John of Portugal in 1485. The king's experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus postulated, and they refused Columbus money. In 1486, the recently widowed Columbus then left Portugal for Spain, and tried to interest the Spanish court in his idea. Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile had just united the largest kingdoms of Spain with their marriage.
He was turned down by the Spanish Court, but they did keep him on a salary to prevent him from hawking his ideas elsewhere. However by 1492, events came together to bring approval for his proposed expedition. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain and they interviewed Columbus in Córdoba that year. After a certain amount of prevarication they agreed to back Columbus expedition.
Ferdinand and Isabella were short of money, after their war against the arabs in Andalucia. About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, whom Columbus had already lined up. The monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to sort the rest. Columbus was to be made "Admiral of the Seas" and he would receive a portion of all profits. It appears that they agreed to Columbus' extravagant terms because they did not expect him to return. The Spanish Sovereigns gave Columbus three ships, and he set sail on his first voyage on August 3, 1492.
In the event the Spanish Crown refused to give him the 10% of all profits in these agreement. Columbus had been relieved of his duties as governor, the crown did not feel bound by these contracts. After his death, his family sued for the profits from trade with America, but after much legal expenditure, lost some 50 years later.
Then followed Voyage 2 , Voyage 3, and Voyage 4 before retirement in Spain and his death in 1506. On May 20, 1506, Columbus died in Valladolid, still a fairly wealthy man due to the gold that he had accumulated in Hispaniola. He was still convinced that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia.
Recent evidence in Newfoundland confirms that the Vikings discovered America well before Columbus, but it was Columbus' discovery that changed the world.
Some other sources of Columbus data:-
Timeline of Columbus Life
Columbus Data Base
Christopher Columbus Links - Open Directory
Spain information of tourism in Spain
Flag of Spain Background to the modern Spanish flag
Spanish Newspapers search the Spanish press fpr more on Columbus