Touted as the founder of America, Christopher Columbus has been heralded in the US and Spain for over five hundred years. As children, we were taught that Columbus was a dreamer. He had far-fetched ideas about the world being round, instead of flat as it was once thought to be. And when someone finally gave him the opportunity to prove his theory, he discovered America and named its inhabitants “Indians”. Just as shocking as finding out that the Tooth Fairy is one of your parents, this version of Columbus couldn’t be further from the truth. The real truth about Columbus is far different and less magical than what we have come to accept as the truth.
Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish, Cristoforo Columbo in Italian) was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. The eldest of five children, Christopher was the son of a wool weaver, Domenico Columbo, who was also involved in local politics.
As a boy and young man, Columbus helped his father in the family business of wool processing and selling. As he was closest to his younger brother, Bartolomeo, the two spent much of their time together. They studied cartography together, sold books, and planned for a trip to the west, eventually they traveled to the New World together. Although it was common for a son to follow his father’s footsteps, it was not uncommon to pursue a career in the seas.
At fourteen years of age, Columbus began as an apprentice and served as a messenger, ship’s boy, and a common sailor. In 1474, Columbus was hired as an ordinary sailor on a Mediterranean ship headed for the Aegean Sea. This was his first long voyage. The great irony is that this trip brought him the closest he would ever get to Asia.
In 1476, Columbus was given his first opportunity to leave the Mediterranean and sail to the Atlantic. Having passed through the Straits of Gibraltar with ease, the entire fleet came under attack by the French. Columbus’ ship was burned and he survived only be swimming six miles to shore.
After regaining his strength, without money or position, Columbus made his way to Lisbon where he arrived in 1477. Soon after he arrived, he began sailing for Italian merchants to Northern Atlantic ports. His travels kept him busy with trips as far away as Iceland. However, Columbus did find the time to meet and marry Felipa Perestrello of Portugal. In their brief marriage, Columbus fathered a son before his wife died, only two years after they first met. Later, he would have another son out of wedlock.
The next four years up until 1484, Columbus spent his time devising a way to sail to the Indies. He studied maps and text provided to him by the king of Portugal. While Felipa’s family had not had much money, they were still nobility, which gave Columbus access to the Portuguese court and the King.
It was during this time that Columbus came up with his plan to find a westward route to Asia. Contrary to modern day textbooks, by the end of the 15th century, most everyone knew...