There are so many misconceptions about Christopher Columbus. It is hard to even know where to start.
1 – Christopher Columbus was an Italian sailing for the Spanish
First of all, Columbus did not sail for the Spanish. He sailed in partnership with the joint crowns of Castille and Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand respectively. The two monarchs had united their kingdoms by their marriage but they still ruled their lands individually. It was not until their son-in-law Philip I’s reign that the nation was formed as “The Kingdom of the Spains”, which included Leon and Navarre.
Also, in the 15th century there was no such nationality as “Italian.” Italy was a geographic designation and it was a tapestry of various sovereign city-states, protectorates and open territories.
Columbus was Genoese. Genoa had a powerful fleet of ships for hire which plied the Mediterranean serving the highest bidder. Particularly, Genoa specialized in mercantiles and mercenaries. Columbus was of the former group.
He left Genoa in the 1470’s and never went back. He lived in Venice, Portugal, Castille (part of modern Spain) and even England. He sailed from whatever port he could get financing in to all kinds of places, possibly even Iceland.
In Genoa, he was known as Cristoffa Corombo; and in his lifetime, he used the Castillian spelling of Cristobol Colon. There is considerable controversy about whether he could even speak any dialect of the Italian language.
2 – Columbus proved the world was round
Only ignorant dolts and closeted librarians believed the earth was round in 1492. Anyone with any knowledge of the sea knew that shipped disappeared over the horizon because the earth was round. Globes were being manufactured all over Europe in Columbus’ time. He built several himself when he worked with his brother Bartholomew as a cartographer.
In fact, Columbus’ calculations on the sphere of the earth were tremendously off. He estimated the earth to be 1/3 the size of what it actually is, which is why he believed he could reach Asia and why his crew nearly mutinied when they had been sailing much longer than he predicted.
The worst thing was that other cartographers knew Columbus’ math was off. His proposal for a voyage to Asia had been turned down by the Portuguese king John because his council of scientists had checked Columbus’ numbers and knew he was wrong about the size of the earth.
His contemporary, Amerigo Vespucci, would later calculate the location of the Tordesillas demarcation to within two miles based on his own calculations once he had sailed to the New World himself.
3 – Columbus “discovered” America
There are several problems with this idea.
First of all, there were already people living in the Americas, so he didn’t discover it. He simply arrived there and exploited it.
Second, Europeans had been to the Americas before. The Norse had been there and even settled a small colony in what is now Labrador. The English merchants from Bristol had been to Canada. Even the Portuguese had one or two sailors who had seen land, although none made landfall.
Third, Columbus believed that he had reached Asia or rather the outlying islands in the Pacific (although he did not know the Pacific existed). It was not until he compared his work with those of John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci (who had actually been one of Columbus’ financiers) that Columbus began to realize that he had happened upon another continent.
In reality, Vespucci’s contributions to the cause of discovery and geography dwarf those of Columbus, which is why in 1507 Gaultier Lud would label the New World as “America” after Vespucci rather than “Cristoffa” after Columbus. In their own lifetimes Vespucci was much more respected, both because he was much more pleasant to be around and because he accomplished much more than Columbus (considerably less violently as well).
4 – Columbus was a devout Christian
Columbus was fanatical in his devotion to Franciscan Christianity, that much is true. But the reality is that he was somewhat maniacal in his faith.
Columbus carried on a twenty-year affair with a woman he never married, Beatriz Enriquez de Harana, possibly even while he was married to his wife Fillipa. He had at least one child with Beatriz but never married her, perhaps to protect the inheritance of his son with Fillipa, Diego.
When Columbus returned from his second voyage in 1495, he wandered Castille in a Franciscan frock, spouting all kinds of apocalyptic prophecies. In fact, he had sent long, prophetic missives declaring the end of the world and his own place as “bringer of Christ” to Ferdinand and Isabella. They expressed great concern for his sanity.
Columbus also resorted to enslaving the Tainto and Arawak Indians that he encountered on his voyages. He was a brutal dictator who could not contain his even more brutal subjects, who routinely gutted Indians for no reason other than pleasure and raped women without a stirring of morality. This flew in the face of the direct commands of Isabella and he was actually arrested for slavery and brutality in 1498.
Even if Columbus was truly a follower of Christ, he preferred violence to peace and did not care much for the other Christians who accompanied him to “convert” the Tainto on his second voyage.
As a side note, Columbus’ first voyage was also responsible for the arrival of syphilis in Europe. Since this disease is passed only through sexual contact, one must also assume that he did not take quite enough caution when controlling his sailor’s immoral activities – both on shore and on deck.
5 – Columbus found no gold in the New World
While Columbus’ first two voyages brought in little gold, during his third expedition, he discovered an extensive vein of gold on Hispaniola that would produce 200 tons of gold per year.
In 1502, the caravel Aguja arrived at Seville loaded down with gold, all of which belonged to Columbus. Unfortunately for Columbus, his discovery of the gold vein came after Ferdinand and Isabella had already discounted his leadership and passed the vice-regal authority over the new lands to one his rivals.
The foundation of this myth is the shortage of refined gold that Columbus encountered. It is a matter of expectations. Travelers to Asia had reported vast resources of gold in Asia, so Columbus naturally assumed since he was in Asia (which he wasn’t) the natives would have gold.
6 – Columbus died poor
Because of the gold that arrived in the holds of the Aguja, Columbus died in one of several homes, a wealthy man. His son Diego built a beautiful mausoleum for the family with only a small portion of the wealth his father left him.
This legend is due to Columbus’ declaration of poverty, which came about because Ferdinand’s court discounted some of Columbus’ outrages claims on the crown’s portion of the spoils of the new land. He felt he had been robbed, but in reality, he was quite wealthy.
As another interesting sidebar, Columbus has been buried no fewer than four times. In fact, he may very well be buried in two places now – Seville and Santo Domingo.
Why Columbus then?
The exaltation of Columbus was an intentional one, even a political one. He was technically the first commissioned European “explorer” to step foot on land in the Western Hemisphere, but more importantly, he worked for the ancestors of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, Charles V was Holy Roman Emperor and ruled most of Europe during his lifetime. Just for reference, his official title ran something like this: His Imperial Majesty, Charles of Gent of the House of Hapsburg; Holy Emperor and King of the Romans; King of Castile and Leon, Aragon and Sicily and Naples; Duke of Burgundy and Lord of the Netherlands; Duke of Brabant, Limburg, Lothier, Luxemburg, and Guelders; Count of Palatine Arois, Charolais, Flanders, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, and Zutphen; Margrave of Namur. The only parts of western Europe not directly under his control were France and England. Even Portugal was under his sway through his wife Isabella.
Remember that the intelligensia of Columbus’ time and later were clergymen. Spain was the great Catholic nation of Europe, resisting the Protestants both in England and in Germany. It made sense that a devout, Catholic discoverer should become the great discoverer. Cabot and Vespucci, who sailed at the same time and discovered far more than, would not do as heroes for Catholic Europe.
Columbus was a hero that everyone could agree on. So, his misgivings have been glossed over. What we don’t want to know about Columbus we just ignore.