Christopher Columbus, Ital. Cristoforo Colombo (krēstô´fōrō kōlôm´bō), Span. Cristóbal Colón (krēstō´bäl kōlōn´), 1451–1506, European explorer, b. Genoa, Italy.
Columbus spent some of his early years at his father's trade of weaving and later became a sailor on the Mediterranean. Shipwrecked near the Portuguese coast in 1476, he made his way to Lisbon, where his younger brother, Bartholomew, an expert chart maker, lived. Columbus, too, became a chart maker for a brief time in that great maritime center during the golden era of Portuguese exploration. Engaged as a sugar buyer in the Portuguese islands off Africa (the Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira) by a Genoese mercantile firm, he met pilots and navigators who believed in the existence of islands farther west. It was at this time that he made his last visit to his native city, but he always remained a Genoese, never becoming a naturalized citizen of any other country. Returning to Lisbon, he married (1479?) the well-born Dona Filipa Perestrello e Moniz.
By the time he was 31 or 32, Columbus had become a master mariner in the Portuguese merchant service. It is thought by some that he was greatly influenced by his brother, Bartholomew, who may have accompanied Bartholomew Diaz on his voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, and by Martín Alonso Pinzón, the pilot who commanded the Pinta on the first voyage. Columbus was but one among many who believed one could reach land by sailing west. His uniqueness lay rather in the persistence of his dream and his determination to realize this "Enterprise of the Indies," as he called his plan. Seeking support for it, he was repeatedly rebuffed, first at the court of John II of Portugal and then at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Finally, after eight years of supplication by Columbus, the Spanish monarchs, having conquered Granada, decided to risk the enterprise.
Voyages to the New World
On Aug. 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain, with three small ships, the Santa María, commanded by Columbus himself, the Pinta under Martín Pinzón, and the Niña under Vicente Yáñez Pinzón. After halting at the Canary Islands, he sailed due west from Sept. 6 until Oct. 7, when he changed his course to the southwest. On Oct. 10 a small mutiny was quelled, and on Oct. 12 he landed on a small island (Watling Island; see San Salvador) in the Bahamas. He took possession for Spain and, with impressed natives aboard, discovered other islands in the neighborhood. On Oct. 27 he sighted Cuba and on Dec. 5 reached Hispaniola.
On Christmas Eve the Santa María was wrecked on the north coast of Hispaniola, and Columbus, leaving men there to found a colony, hurried back to Spain on the Niña. His reception was all he could wish; according to his contract with the Spanish sovereigns he was made "admiral of the ocean sea" and governor-general of all new lands he had discovered or should discover.
Fitted out with a large fleet of 17 ships, with 1,500 colonists aboard, Columbus sailed from Cádiz in Oct., 1493. His landfall this time was made in the Lesser Antilles, and his new discoveries included the Leeward Islands and Puerto Rico. The admiral arrived at Hispaniola to find the first colony destroyed by the indigenous natives. He founded a new colony nearby, then sailed off in the summer of 1494 to explore the southern coast of Cuba. After discovering Jamaica he returned to Hispaniola and found the colonists, interested only in finding gold, completely disorderly; his attempts to enforce strict discipline led some to seize vessels and return to Spain to complain of his administration. Leaving his brother Bartholomew in charge at Hispaniola, Columbus also returned to Spain in 1496.
On his third expedition, in 1498, Columbus was forced to transport convicts as colonists, because of the bad reports on conditions in Hispaniola and because the novelty of the New World was wearing off. He sailed still farther south and made his landfall on Trinidad. He sailed across the mouth of the Orinoco River (in present Venezuela) and realized that he saw a continent, but without further exploration he hurried back to Hispaniola to administer his colony. In 1500 an independent governor arrived, sent by Isabella and Ferdinand as the result of reports on the wretched conditions in the colony, and he sent Columbus back to Spain in chains. The admiral was immediately released, but his favor was on the wane; other navigators, including Amerigo Vespucci, had been in the New World and established much of the coast line of NE South America.
It was 1502 before Columbus finally gathered together four ships for a fourth expedition, by which he hoped to reestablish his reputation. If he could sail past the islands and far enough west, he hoped he might still find lands answering to the description of Asia or Japan. He struck the coast of Honduras in Central America and coasted southward along an inhospitable shore, suffering terrible hardships, until he reached the Gulf of Darién. Attempting to return to Hispaniola, he was marooned on Jamaica. After his rescue, he was forced to abandon his hopes and return to Spain. Although his voyages were of great importance, Columbus died in relative neglect, having had to petition King Ferdinand in an attempt to secure his promised titles and wealth.
Columbus was not the first European mariner to sail to the New World—the Vikings set up colonies (c.1000) in Greenland and Newfoundland (see Leif Ericsson and Thorfinn Karlsefni)—but his voyages mark the beginning of continuous European efforts to explore and colonize the Americas. Although historians for centuries disputed his skill as a navigator, it has been proved that with only dead reckoning Columbus was unsurpassed in charting and finding his way about unknown seas.
During the 1980s and 90s the long-standing image of Columbus as a hero was tarnished by criticism from Native Americans and revisionist historians. With the 500th anniversary of his first voyage in 1992, interpretations of his motives and impact varied. Although he was always judged to be vain, ambitious, desirous of wealth, and ruthless, traditional historians viewed his voyages as opening the New World to Western civilization and Christianity. For revisionist historians, however, his voyages symbolize the more brutal aspects of European colonization and represent the beginning of the destruction of Native American peoples and culture. All interpretations, however, agree that his voyages, which permanently linked the Old and New Worlds, were a turning point in history.
See biographies by S. E. Morison (1942), E. D. S. Bradford (1973), H. Koning (1982), and F. Fernández-Armesto (1991); J. M. Cohen, comp., The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1969); J. Axtell, Beyond 1492 (1992); W. D. and C. R. Philips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1992); M. Dugard, The Last Voyage of Columbus (2005); L. Bergren, The Four Voyages (2011); D. Hunter, The Race to the New World (2011).