Christopher Columbus was born in the port city of Genoa, Italy in 1451. His father
was a wool weaver named Domenico Columbo. As a boy, Christopher had no schooling. He
and his younger brother Bartholomew helped their father by carding raw wool. Christopher
grew up to be a tall, red-haired, quiet and deeply religious man. He worked for his father until
he was 22. He went out with the sardine fishing fleets, as other Genoese boys did and he sailed
along the coast to Corsica on business for his father. Genoese traders had their own schooners as
did Christopher Columbus’ father. He made at least one trip to the North African coast. On
long trips such as these, Christopher learned the elements of seamanship.
In 1476, Columbus sailed as a common seaman aboard a Genoese merchant ship
that was headed for Lisbon, England and Flanders. Since the Mediterranean nations were at war
at the time, the ship Columbus was on was attacked and went down. Luckily, Columbus was
able to swim to shore and make his way to Lisbon where he settled.
At this time Portugal was the world’s greatest seafaring nation. Many Genoese had
become rich and had prospered in Lisbon and Columbus saw his chance to do the same by
becoming sea captain under the Portuguese flag. First, however, he had to educate himself. He
learned to speak Portuguese and Castilian which was the official language of Spain at the time.
He also mastered Latin so that he may be able to read scholarly books on geography.
To earn his living, Columbus became a chart maker. He also made voyages as an
agent for a Genoese merchant in Lisbon. In 1479 he married Dona Felipa Perestrello, whose
father had been one of Prince Henry’s captains. They had one son, Diego. Felipa’s high social
rank enabled Columbus to meet important officials. She also gave him her father’s collection of
charts and documents. From these Columbus gained more knowledge of Portuguese discoveries
and plans. In 1481, he entered the service of King John II of Portugal and voyaged to the gold
coasts of Africa.
During that time the wealth of Asia was being discovered and Europeans were eager
for more of it. Asian goods had to be brought over to Europe through a perilous overland route
which made them scarce and expensive. Ships could carry the good more cheaply and with
greater quantity. To reach India, China, Japan and the East Indies the Portuguese were trying to
make a route that stretched all around the coast of Africa for trading. Another possibility was
across the Atlantic Ocean. At the time all educated men knew that the world was round and that
Asia was west of Europe. But, no one knew how far it was.
Columbus’ studies lead him to believe that the Earth was much smaller than it really
was so Asia was a lot...