The Search for Columbus
An in-depth analysis of the genealogy
of Christopher Columbus
Written by Eugene Lyon
From the National Geographic
Vol.181, No.1, January 1992
In the years before commanding the
Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus prepared and then tenaciously
pressed his ambitious plan: to sail west from Europe to the Orient.
Just who was this stubborn, single-minded enigma of a man? Salt air
and sailing ships seduced a teenage Columbus. By the early 1470's he
set sail along European trade routes, working as a commercial agent
aboard naos (ships similar to the Santa Maria). He chartered and
stocked boats, hired sailors, and managed money.
A man on a mission as well as a mariner, Columbus believed God
"granted me the gift of knowledge . . . [and] revealed to me that it
was feasible to sail . . . to the Indies, and placed in me a burning
desire to carry out this plan."
Shipwrecked off the Portuguese coast in 1476, Columbus struggled
ashore. For nine years he lived amid sailors and explorers energized
by the world view of Prince Henry the Navigator, who drew scholars
to his school atop the cliffs at Sagres.
A cloud of swallows wheeled around Seville's great Gothic cathedral,
roused by the clangor of its bells. In the dim interior a shaft of
sunlight bathed the draped sarcophagus of Christopher Columbus,
borne on the massive carved figures of four kings. Spain, itself an
infinite tangle of ends and beginnings, was the fitting place to
begin an inquiry about Columbus, at the spot that marks the finish
of his unique career.
Gazing at the tomb, I wondered at the controversy that swirls around
this man, perhaps even more today than when he lived. The events of
his remarkable life, as well as the results of his epochal voyages,
still spark lively, often bitter debate. Even his final resting
place is hotly disputed: Do his bones lie here in Seville or in a
lead coffin across the sea? I faced a difficult task. How could I,
across a gulf of five centuries, probe the nature of this historic
figure? How could I explore the restless, questing mind of the man
who sought to reach the East by sailing west?
As a historian who works with original documents, I would have to
follow a widely scattered paper trail. The Columbus documents,
though many are contested, include more than 2,500 notes penned in
the margins of books he owned; some 80 letters, notes and memorials;
copies of the log from his first New World voyage; volumes he
compiled; and his will. Most of the books and manuscripts reside in
Spain, but there are important Columbus materials in Italy, France,
and the United States.
Most scholars agree Genoa was the birthplace of Christopher
Columbus, yet even this gives rise to emotional debate. Some believe
his signature in code reveals Portuguese ancestry. Others declare
him Scandinavian (a "Spanish-Jewish-Norwegian prince", says one
enthusiast). Ibiza, in the Balearic Islands, has its partisans, and
there are a host of other claimed Columbuses: Greek, Galacian,
Swiss, Catalonian, even American and Chinese. Surely, to find the
nature of the man, I would have to fix with certainty the place and
time of his birth. A solid clue came as I searched the archives of
the Dukes of the Infantado in their Madrid palace. Here, I knew,
priest-historian Bartolome' de las Casas' copy of Columbus's log had
been found in the 18th century.
After examining many tightly packed bundles, or Legajos, on shelves
that filled a small room in the Infantado Palacio, I felt a stir of
excitement. In a slim bundle I came upon a creased and folded binder
fastened with knotted string. On its cover was traced in pencil:
Genealogia de Colon-Genealogy of Columbus. Inside, a chart described
the succession to the Columbus estate, the subject of lawsuits for
more than 200 years.
My eye fell on the circle enclosing "Cristobal Colon, first
Admiral", one of the mariner's many titles. In the circle above was
"Domingo Colombo", a reference to Christopher's father-Domenico
Colombo as his name appears in official Genoese records. Here was a
link placing the Columbus family in Genoa. But I would have to go to
Italy to test the evidence.
In Genoa, I was greeted by Aldo Agosto, a noted Columbus scholar and
director of the provincial archives. He led me upstairs to the Sala
Colombiana, a small room that holds many original Columbus family
documents. They have survived the losses and traumas of five
centuries, including Louis XIV's 1684 naval bombardment of Genoa,
when notary records were largely destroyed by fire.
More than 60 documents recount the story of the Columbus family,
beginning with the youth of Domenico, whose name I had seen in
Madrid. He was apprenticed to a Flemish weaver at 11 and rose to
become a master weaver. In the boisterous, enterprising spirit of
Genoa, he also worked as cheese maker, tavern keeper, and dealer in
wool and wine. Domenico Colombo married Susanna Fontanarossa, the
papers attest. Their firstborn was Cristoforo, in 1451; later came
Giovanni Pellegrino, Bartolomeo, Giacomo, and daughter Bianchinetta.
As a youth, Christopher was already at work with his father. He
first appears in the notarial record of September 1470; later that
year, at "greater than nineteen years of age", e obligated himself
for a quantity of wine. By 1472 Columbus had learned his father's
trade, for in that year he is called LANAIOLO, a worker in wool.
Dr. Agnosto next showed me the Assereto document, named for the man
who in 1904 recognized its importance. It involves a 1479 lawsuit
over a sugar transaction on the Atlantic island of Madeira. In it
young Christopher swore that he was a 27-year-old Genoese citizen
resident in Portugal and had been hired to represent the Genoese
merchants in that transaction. Here was proof that he had relocated
Then I saw a document that clearly identifies Genoa's Columbus as
Spain's celebrated Admiral of the Ocean Sea. In 1496 three of his
Genoese cousins agreed to share the cost of sending one of them,
Giovanni, to serve "Lord Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the King
of Spain". Giovanni captained a ship on Columbus's third voyage and
acted later as his aide.
Columbus himself alludes to his birthplace. In 1502 he wrote from
Spain to directors of Genoa's Bank of San Giorgio, offering an
endowment to relieve the city's poor of the tax on food and wine.
"Even though my body walks here," he wrote poignantly, "my heart is
There exist many other contemporary testimonies to his origin. After
seeing the primary documents, I was convinced; wherever he may have
gone thereafter, Christopher Columbus, son of the weaver Domenico
Colombo, began his life in 15th century Genoa. What early influences
helped form the mind of Columbus? We find little about him during
the Mediterranean years. One writer believes he was illiterate until
1494. At the other extreme the Admiral's son Ferdinand says of his
father: "He learned his letters at a tender age and studied . . . at
the University of Pavia.
The University of Pavia has no record that Christopher Columbus ever
studied there. But Aldo Agosto has suggested that he may have
attended a monestary school in a district of Genoa called Paverano,
thus giving rise to the word "Pavia". Antonio Gallo, a Genoese who
knew the family, wrote that the boys learned their few letters in
their youth. A tantalizing bit of evidence in this regard came years
later, in 1509, when Columbus's brother Bartholomew gave his nephew
Ferdinand an instruction book on handwriting; probably Christopher
and Bartholomew had used it as youngsters. Recent study of
Columbus's papers by noted handwriting expert Charles Hamilton
strongly suggests that he learned to write while young.
Columbus may have acquired the rudiments of Latin-a language he
later used widely, if imperfectly-in Genoa. It appears, however,
that he was only semi-illiterate; certainly he did not then learn to
His Genoese heritage helped greatly to shape Columbus and his view
of the world. I took a taxi to the best place from which to see
Genoa, its hilltop citadel, the Castelletto. From that vantage point
one can grasp the nature of the city and the destiny of her people:
Compressed between surrounding hills and the shore, Genoa spills
down to the Ligurian Sea. Blocked in by such powerful rival cities
as Milan and Florence and with little fertile hinterland, the people
of Genoa were forced to seek their livelihood upon the Mediterranean
In the 15th century the Republic of Genoa was a lively, turbulent
place, its atmosphere harsh but stimulating. The Genoese had no
king, but selected powerful men as doges to rule them. Sporadic
warfare between prominent families often led to bloodshed.
Throughout his life Columbus displayed many of the same traits as
his fellow Genoese. They were a stubborn, acquisitive people,
prospering through hard work and thrift, diligent in details,
jealous of time. They created business enterprises far beyond the
confines of their city. As Columbus himself would become, the
Genoese were true cosmopolitans. They often married abroad and
learned other languages, coexisting readily with other peoples.
During the late Middle Ages, trade from Genoa expanded rapidly into
nearby Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily; Genoses merchants sought the
wheat, salt, wine, and wool of Iberia. They spread through western
Europe and the Levant and built trading centers near Constantinople,
on the Black Sea, and on the Greek island of Chios. They traded on
the Danube and in Kiev.
In Tunis, an entrepot in northern Africa, they traded for gold. As
Columbus himself said, "Genoese . . . and all the people who have
pearls, precious stones and other valuable things, take them to the
end of the earth . . . to convert them into gold." Gold was, for the
Genoese, the ultimate store of wealth.
Exotic African and Eastern products-sugar, spices, and slaves-always
attracted the Genoese. As militant Islam closed the roads to the
riches of the East, Genoese merchants gradually looked westward to
the Atlantic. It was inevitable that some of these enterprising
traders became explorers: Both activities share a common element of
In the Mediterranean and later in the Atlantic context, the same
Genoese family names appeared time and again: Cattaneo, Rivarolo,
Spinola, Pinelli, Di Negro, Doria, Centurione. One of these clans,
the Di Negro family, may have given Columbus his start as a
"From a very early age," he states in a 1501 letter, "I entered
sailing upon the sea and have continued it until today." It is
possible he had already undertaken one or more voyages by the year
1470; after 1472, he was evidently committed to the life of the sea.
Columbus first sailed the Mediterranean, and his career is only
understandable in light of his experience.
His log, letters, and notes reveal a wide familiarity with that part
of the world. He knew Marseille and may have been involved in the
wine and wool trade with Spain's Castile. He knew the coasts of
Aragon well and visited or sighted Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and
the Balearic Islands. He voyaged to Chios off the coast of Asia
Minor, likely in 1475. Beyond, the young Genoese could not fail to
note, lay the East.
In a letter written in 1502 to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of
Castile, Columbus outlined detailed sailing directions between Cadiz
and Naples, for both summer and winter. In the letter he might have
been describing himself: "For this navigation there are noted men,
who have so committed themselves to it that they know all the
courses, and what storms they may expect, according to the season of
year in which they sail." Many testimonies describe his profound
understanding of weather and prevailing winds. He correctly
predicted storms. He practiced using the sounding line and the
mariner's compass. He mastered reading charts and calculating the
complex time-speed-distance equation that is basic to dead-reckoning
sailing. All these things and more he undoubtedly learned in the
More than all else, the Mediterranean years sharpened the natural
powers of observation Columbus displayed throughout his lifetime. It
was here that he raised his eyes to the skies, a vast theatre across
which there wheeled a multitude of stars and planets. He believed,
in this century before the Copernican revolution, that the earth,
fixed in space, was surrounded by the other heavenly bodies, which
revolved around it. He studied the constellations and how to mark
the passage of the sun through the 12 houses of the zodiac. The
young seaman noted the errant track of meteors and watched for
special arrays, or conjunctions, of the planets visible to the naked
These phenomena aroused Columbus's natural curiosity about the earth
for, as he later said, navigation is an "art which inclines him who
follows it to wish to know the secrets of this world."
Christopher Columbus had left the Mediterranean behind when events
occurred that would irrevocably link him with Atlantic exploration.
In 1476 the Spinola and Di Negro families organized a trading
venture to England. Five vessels sailed from Genoa, passed through
the Strait of Gibraltar, and entered the broad Atlantic. Near
Europe's extreme southwest point at Cape St. Vincent, they were
attacked by French pirates.
In the bitter battle, ships from both sides were sunk, including the
one the Genoese agent was on. Although many drowned, Columbus
reached shore, near Lagos in Portugal. Soon the young sailor made
his way to Lisbon, where a new and important stage in his life
Lisbon's Praca do Comercio, where exploration caravels and spice
ships once moored, still bustles with maritime life; beyond, the
Tagus estuary widens out into the Atlantic. But time has erased
virtually all traces of Columbus. A significant part of the 15th
century Portuguese archives, as well as the Genoese quarter near the
waterfront, was destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake of 1755.
In Lisbon, Columbus naturally established himself among the Genoese.
He joined in a stimulating atmosphere of ocean exploration. A long
rivalry between Portugal and Castile was continuing along the
African coast and in the Atlantic. Maps displayed newly discovered
islands: Madeira, Porto Santo, the Azores, and the Canaries. There
were also imaginary ones: Antilia, St. Brendan's, and Brazil.
Many sailors felt about the Atlantic as had 12th century Arab
geographer Al-Idrisi: "No one knows what is in that sea, because of
many obstacles to navigation-profound darkness, high waves, frequent
storms, innumerable monsters which people it, and violent winds. No
sailor dares to penetrate it; they limit themselves to sailing along
the coasts without losing sight of land."
So the Atlantic became known by the Arab name, Sea of Darkness. A
1367 chart depicted a giant figure with an arm upraised, warning
against voyaging westward. Despite such fears and encouraged by the
remarkable Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese proceeded to
develop their seaborne enterprise. At Sagres on Cape St. Vincent,
land's end in Portugal, Henry held symposia on navigation and
cartography to pursue his goals: an eastern sea route to the Orient
and exploration of Atlantic isles. His vessel of choice was the
nimble, shallow-draft caravel, altered to carry square sails before
the steady Atlantic winds. By 1420 the Portuguese had planted their
first settlements in the Madeiras. Twelve years later, exploration
of the Azores began.
Meantime, the Portuguese were pushing down the west coast of Africa.
By 1470 they reached the Equator; the next year they found gold in
Guinea (present-day Ghana). Castile soon challenged Portugal by
disputing the claim to Guinea and settling the Canary Islands.
By this time Columbus was ready to advance his career. He courted
Felipa Moniz Perestrello, whose father had been an Atlantic island
colonizer before his death. When they married in 1479, commoner
Columbus moved up into a noble family with access to the Portuguese
The young man from Genoa was sent by the Centurione and Di Negro
families to Madeira as factor to handle their affairs. I found
evidence that Columbus and his bride lived there for some time-not
on Porto Santo, as popularly believed: When he later passed through
the islands on his third New World voyage, he was welcomed as a
former resident on Madeira but enjoyed no such greeting at Porto
Santo, where he also put in. Columbus was on Madeira in 1478, when
the sugar transaction occurred that required his return to Genoa to
testify. In the lawsuit he declared that he had a personal fortune
of "more than 100 florins". Clearly the young factor had married
well and risen in the world of trade.
By 1480 the couple had returned to Lisbon, where their son Diego was
born. There, Columbus acquired from his father-in-law's widow the
charts and documents describing the Atlantic voyages. These excited
him, stirring his developing interest in ocean exploration.
Perhaps among those papers he discovered a copy of a letter by Paolo
dal Pozzo Toscanelli, respected Florentine geographer and
mathematician, dated June 25, 1474, that was to be sent to
Portugal's king. Another copy was found in the 19th century, at the
back of one of Columbus's books and containing Latin errors typical
of him. Charles Hamilton firmly believes that the text is in
The letter displays Toscanelli's knowledge of travels to the Orient
by Marco Polo and others and describes how one might travel to the
East by sailing west from Europe. First, he said, you would reach
Antilia (mythical) and then the rich island of Cipangu (Japan). It
would then be a fairly short sail to the Asian mainland and its
spices and precious stones. Further, the letter tells of the great
prince of Cathay (China), the Grand Khan, who had sent emissaries to
the Pope seeking teachers of the Gospel. These themes are repeated
in later writings of Columbus.
With the letter was a map incorporating Toscanelli's theories.
Columbus probably possessed a copy. The Toscanelli map and letter
either began or confirmed Columbus's interest in the idea of sailing
west across a relatively narrow Atlantic directly to Asia. These
documents must have been among the mariner's most prized
possessions. Columbus began to collect evidence of what might lie
beyond the western horizon. He sought sailors and island residents
who could contribute to his growing store of rumor, conjecture, and
data. He placed this material in what he called his "papers".
We know that he heard, and evidently believed, the tale of the
island of Antilia and its Seven Cities. Supposedly, in the time of
Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese ship was blown off course to the
island, where the crew found remnants of settlement by an Iberian
archbishop and six other bishops. Columbus also heard reports of
other islands to the west of Madeira and the Canaries.
From one Martin Vicente, a Portuguese pilot, he learned that, some
1,400 miles west of Cape St. Vincent, the sea yielded a piece of
wood carved by human hand, which must have drifted from the west. A
similar piece had been found on Porto Santo.
An avocation helped Columbus grow as a cosmographer: With his
brother Bartholomew, who had come to Lisbon, he began to produce and
sell marine charts. Other maps available in this marine enterprise
kept him abreast of new discoveries and settlements. Prior to 1492,
Columbus sailed extensively in the Atlantic, where he learned
open-ocean navigation. In addition to the Madeira journeys, Columbus
tells us that he made a voyage to Porto Santo in command of two
ships. He continued his interrupted 1476 trip to England, sailing
there "with the Portuguese". On that or another trip he went to
Galway Bay in Ireland. There, he reported, two bodies with "strange
features" had washed ashore in two small boats. In a secondary
source Columbus says that in February 1477 he traveled a hundred
leagues beyond Tile (Thule), where he noted the immense tides.
Perhaps he had reached Iceland.
The difficult northern navigation certainly appears very familiar to
Columbus: "The trade and traffic from Spain to Flanders continues
substantial. They are great sailors who sail this route. . . . In
the month of January . . . it is rare that there are not some strong
ENE and NNE winds. These . . . are savage, cold, and even
dangerous." In the log from his first voyage to the New World,
Columbus displays his experience in the wintry Atlantic: "We will
return from the Indies with the westerly winds, which I have
observed firsthand in the winter along the coast of Portugal and
Galicia." His long passages southward were especially useful.
Genoese trade with Portuguese Guinea and the new Castilian colonies
in the Canary Islands involved Columbus in more than one trip from
Lisbon to the African coast. He displayed knowledge of the Cape
Verdes, the Canaries, and the Portuguese fortress of Sao Jorge da
Mina (Elmina) on the Gold Coast.
These African expeditions further prepared Columbus for his
enterprise of the Indies. They involved him directly in
long-distance navigation and the outfitting of vessels for such
voyages. They exposed him to the landscape and products of the
Now he knew, despite age-old beliefs, that the torrid zone was
inhabited. This had wider implications: No place on earth was
forbidden. Man could travel to, even settle, any part he could
reach. His southern voyages involved Columbus in trade and barter
with indigenous peoples-black Africans and Canarian Guaunches. He
also became acquainted with the slave trade, in which Genoese,
Portuguese, and Castilians were active.
On his long African passages Columbus, like other dead-reckoning
sailors, grappled with the problems of time and distance on the open
sea. He says: "In sailing frequently from Lisbon to Guinea
southward, I noted with care the route followed, and afterwards I
took the elevation of the sun many times with quadrant and other
Perhaps the most important insight gained by Christopher Columbus
was his discovery concerning the great oceanic wind system. Along
the Portuguese coasts and in the Madeira Islands, he had experienced
the strong wets winds that brought flotsam ashore from the direction
of the sunset. Then, on voyages to Africa and the Canary and Cape
Verde Islands, he felt the steady northwest trades. In this,
Columbus reasoned, lay the secret to an Atlantic round-trip: Drop
down south to go westward with the trade winds, and return at a
higher latitude with the westerlies.
At last, Columbus felt ready. He determined to go petition John II,
the Portuguese king, for ships and men to undertake the Atlantic
voyage. In late 1483 or early 1484, he approached the king, offering
to find Cipangu and India. The king called in experts, including
astronomers and mathematicians, to judge the proposal. They turned
the Genoese down, calculating that the Atlantic distances involved
were far greater than he had estimated. Nonetheless, John II
secretly sent a vessel to test Columbus's theory; it returned
without reaching any shore.
Life soon took another turn for Columbus. With his wife's death in
the early 1480's and the rejection of his proposal, he abandoned his
career as merchant-navigator to follow his plan, now an obsession.
He would seek support from the rulers of Castile and Aragon. When he
left Lisbon, Columbus owed money to several Genoese merchants.
Later, moved by conscience, he asked his heirs in his will to
satisfy his debts anonymously. In spring 1485 with his son Diego,
Christopher Columbus arrived by ship at the small Andalusian port of
Palos de la Frontera. he intended to leave young Diego with his late
wife's sister, in nearby Huelva. This would free him to pursue his
enterprise at court. As to Columbus's appearance at the time,
accounts agree: Plainly dressed, he was tall and heavyset, of ruddy
complexion, wit an aquiline nose set in a long face. His eyes were
gray-blue and could sparkle wit emotion. Although the widower was
only 34, his hair already was white. His accent immediately marked
him as a foreigner to Castile, but Columbus could be eloquent when
the force of his enthusiasm burst through the barriers of language.
Beneath an outwardly cordial manner, tempered with gravity, there
lay concealed a massive pride and a quick fierce temper.
By now his spoken Genoese was probably tinged with sailor's patois.
He may have already acquired Castilian on voyages to Cadiz or
Barcelona. Virtually all is writings not in Latin are in Castilian.
But many Portuguese usages dot his notes and letters, showing that
Columbus had also learned that language in Lisbon or at sea with
In need of shelter until he could settle his son, Columbus heard
that a local monastery, Santa Maria de la Rabida, housed travelers.
He and Diego walked the short distance from Palos to the monastery,
carrying their personal possessions. In later years he must surely
have considered his arrival at La Rabida providential.
A serene and lovely place, the monastery stands on a pine-covered
eminence, overlooking the junction of the Tinto and Odiel Rivers
where their estuary flows out toward the open Atlantic. This was a
house of Franciscan friars, and its guardian, Antonio de Marchena,
was to be a figure of supreme importance to the career and mission
of Christopher Columbus.
Marchena belonged to the Observations, a group with an apocalyptic
agenda: Looking to the end times, when all the world would be
converted to Christ, they hoped to recover Jerusalem's holy places
from the Muslims. Significantly, these tenets became ruling motives
in the life and writings of Columbus.
The Genoese mariner and the friar became fast friends. Columbus
received spiritual and intellectual counsel from Marchena, an
educated man and dedicated cosmographer, and possibly accepted help
in composing and reading Latin and Castilian. More important the
friar had access to the power structure at court.
Columbus's religious beliefs must have intensified during his time
at La Rabida. He is reported to have been a regular in prayer and at
Mass and to have possessed and used a Book of Hours, reciting it
like any churchman. Some later writers have expressed doubt about
the sincerity of his faith, but it was not questioned by clergymen
who knew him. Even beyond personal piety, Columbus began to believe
that his plan for Atlantic navigation was divinely supported, that
it was somehow connected with God's purpose for the world.
Antonio de Marchena wrote a letter on is behalf to Hernando de
Talavera, the queen's confessor. The letter asked the right to
petition the royal council, which made recommendations to the crown.
The itinerant court was then at Cordoba, more than a hundred miles
away. Columbus made his way to the city and found it a crowded,
bustling military camp, the advance base for the war to regain
The land to which Columbus had come was not yet the Spain we know
today. The marriage in 1469 of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of
Castile united several Christian kingdoms. As their court moved
around the land, the monarchs gained control over local nobles and
authorities and built an army that would one day be Europe's most
powerful. These were kingdoms on crusade against Islam. This
700-year battle, the RECONQUISTA, had shaped a warrior people,
created a dominant language-Castilian-and fostered ardent
Catholicism. Christian rulers had pushes the Moors southeastward
until they occupied only the Kingdom of Granada.
After submitting his petition, Columbus began a seven-year struggle
for approval. He appeared repeatedly before Isabella and Ferdinand,
making presentations to the royal council and before learned
Offering the monarchs what he believed was the key to the riches of
the Indies, Columbus was met with skepticism, even ridicule. The
LETRADOS, the advisors, disputed his brief in a relatively short
Atlantic crossing, just as the Portuguese had done. Finally, in
1487, Columbus was dismissed.
Although he was given hope of future support, he felt personal
rejection. With the bitterness of humbled pride, he swore that he
would seek out authorities to confound his enemies. Another of his
enduring traits was persistence: "I plow ahead," he said, "no matter
how the winds might lash me."
In Cordoba, which became his home base, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana,
the orphaned daughter of a farming family, caught the widower's eye.
They became lovers, and in August 1488 Beatriz bore him a son.
Columbus named him Ferdinand, for the king. But it seems the
ambitious man would not compromise his advancement by marrying a
commoner; although it weighed on his conscience, he would never give
her his name. A contemporary, Andres Bernaldez, describes how
Columbus mad his living at this time: "There was a man from the land
of Genoa, seller of printed books, who traded in this land of
Andalusia and principally in Seville, who was called Cristobal
Colon." As a bookseller Columbus was participating in a veritable
revolution. By 1480 European printing presses-more than a
hundred-were publishing scores of titles. Columbus also acquired his
own small book collection.
Seeking Columbus's thought through the works he owned, I returned to
Seville's magnificent cathedral to visit the Biblioteca Colombina,
which holds ten of them. There the director, Father Juan Guillen
Torralba, seated me in a small chamber and carefully placed before
me a printed book bound in leather.
The rumble of traffic outside, the close heat within the room-all
distractions faded as I opened the small volume. It was perhaps the
most portentous thing I would ever hold in my hands: the HISTORIA
RERUM UBIQUE GESTARUM, or HISTORY OF ALL THINGS AND ALL DEEDS, by
Aeneas Sylvius (later Pope Pius II), printed in Venice in 1477.
Christopher Columbus had cherished this book and studied it over
many years. Leafing through the pages, I saw that they were covered
with marginal notes.
At the end of the printed text were five additional handwritten
pages, including Columbus's copy of the Toscanelli letter. On the
last of these pages was a finely drawn, delicately tinted
planisphere, with the Equator and other major dividing lines traced
on its surface. As I puzzled out the Latin notes on the sphere, I
felt a surge of excitement. Here, I was certain, Columbus had placed
his master plan on paper. His notation on the right side refers to
the SINUS SINARUM, the sea of China. Combined with the note on the
left, he indicates that the Far East is also the Far West. Never, I
thought, could I come any closer to the mind, and driving vision, of
Others, of course, had preceded me. One of them, the distinguished
Italian interpreter of Columbus, Senator Paolo Emilio Taviani, has
deduced that these five pages were once separate from the book.
Researchers have also concluded that they were precious remnants of
Columbus's original "papers", sewn into the end of one of his
These pages evidently hold the earliest surviving writings of
Columbus. On one he lists the Old Testament books and prophets on
whom he relied. He tells of "the Holy Spirit, which with rays of
marvelous brightness comforted me with His holy and sacred
Scripture, in a high clear voice." The Scriptures spoke strongly to
him: passages about the East, the conversion of heathens, the
recovery of holy Jerusalem, and the approaching end times, when
Christ would come again.
Columbus's papers also refer to Flavius Josephus's DE
ANTIQUITATIBUS, stating that King Solomon's treasures came from
"Ophir, now called the Land of Gold, in India". The text describes
how, from a kingdom on the Sea of Tarshish, he received silver,
"elephants, peacocks and apes". There was something familiar about
the quotations; then I recalled that the narrative of Columbus's
fourth voyage to the New World and a letter from his later years
repeat, almost word for word, the same themes-the search for King
Solomon's mines, the gold of Ophir, the valuables from the Sea of
Tarshish, the riches of India. To the end of his days Christopher
Columbus would seek these treasures. Presumably, the master seaman
owned only a few books because he preferred compendiums like the
HISTORIA RERUM and Pierre d'Ailly's collection of geographic tracts
called IMAGO MUNDI. These enabled him to avoid tackling lengthy and
difficult works directly, for he apparently felt his way slowly into
the world of knowledge.
Those works Columbus had, he read minutely, covering the margins
with more than 2,500 notes. He underlined many passages, often
drawing a pointing hand for emphasis. All but two of the marginalia
are written in Latin or Castilian. Some are cryptic, and a few, like
his signature, appear to be in code; many scholars have been struck
by this secretive aspect of his nature.
Opinions vary widely about authorship of the notes. German
paleograper Fritz Streicher claimed that only about 220 could be
attributed to Columbus. On the other hand Italian scholar Cesare de
Lollis believed that nearly all were his. Charles Hamilton agrees. I
found many connections between the marginalia and other Columbus
writings. Cross-references exist. Other unifying factors include
language, handwriting style, and some consistent errors. The notes
were clearly created by one dominant mind and form a coherent whole.
Many reflect his curiosity about astonishing diverse topics: the
Evil Eye, fine horseflesh, the Colussus of Rhodes, the death of
Attila, medicine and disease, chameleons, the Punic Wars, Amazons,
the Greek origin of Latin words, Icarus, Plato, St. Paul, Alexander
the Great, one-eyed Scythians, birds of Egypt, and the precious
stones and metals of the Orient. One entry affirms his staunch
Christian belief in life after death. Underlining Pliny's skeptical
statement that mortals could not become immortal, he declares in the
margin: "This is untrue."
His belief in the value of personal experience and practical
experiment is also displayed. The notes disclose his struggle to
measure, comprehend, and master the secrets of the earth. He was
obsessed with time; he repeatedly measured the length of days,
months, and the solar year.
Columbus calculated and recalculated the days until the end of the
world. Among the HISTORIA RERUM endpapers is a chart entitled "An
account of the Creation of the world according to the Jews". It
recounts the years from the time of Adam "until now, the year of the
birth of Our Lord of 1481". Columbus determined later that there
remained 150 years to bring earth's godless multitudes into Christ's
Vital clues to his vision of the universe are given, and the
writings reveal his debt to early geographers, especially Ptolemy, a
2nd-century Alexandrian. Both believed in an immovable, spherical
earth at the center of the universe. Prolemy divided the globe into
seven climate zones. So did Columbus. Ptolemy's earth featured one
great island of Eurasia, with an incomplete Africa appended,
surrounded by the Ocean Sea. Completely missing from Ptolemy's world
and Columbus's were the Americas and the vast Pacific Ocean.
Columbus made a rough measure of east-west distance by calculations
in hours and degrees. He knew that 24 hours of 15 degrees apiece
would encircle the earth, but he clung to an outdated yet common
misconception that the size of a degree was 56 2/3 Roman miles.
Consequently, he underestimated earth's circumference by some 25
Columbus eagerly sought scholarly support for his theory that Asia
lay a relatively short sail west. In the IMAGO MUNDI, he found an
assertion from one of the apocryphal books of Esdras that the world
was six parts land and one part ocean (actually more than 70 percent
is water). D'Ailly quoted another statement: "According to Aristotle
the end of the inhabited lands to the east and the end of the
inhabited lands to the west are quite close and between them is a
small sea, navigable in a few days." Columbus repeated this verbatim
in the margin; one can almost see him nodding in agreement.
Thus, although as a practical navigator the Genoese knew his leagues
and miles well, his foray into theoretical cosmography was a dismal
failure. He clung stubbornly to underestimating the length of a
degree and overextending Asia eastward. But, of course, without
these errors, Columbus might never have made is momentous voyages.
Columbus's geography was colored by fantasy and legend. In one book
he writes of wild men at the ends of the earth "who eat human flesh;
they have corrupt and horrible faces". Perhaps he expected to find
what he had seen painted on parchment charts: Arabs riding camels,
Christian king Prester John sitting on his throne in exotic lands.
He hoped to see the Grand Khan, China's Mongol ruler, unaware that
the Mongol dynasty had ceased its reign more than a hundred years
In 1488 Columbus made another visit to Portugal, again seeking
support from John II. The timing was abysmal: The court was
celebrating the return of Bartolomew Dias with two caravels from his
voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, thereby opening the eastern
route to India.
The urgency was all too clear: The Genoese would have to find funds
for his enterprise in Castile or go elsewhere. He sent his brother
Bartholomew to England to present the project to Henry VII and
contemplated approaching the king of France.
A turning point came early in 1492 when Boabdil-the last of the
Moorish rulers-surrendered the keys to Granada. Columbus was an
eyewitness: "On the second day of January . . . in the great city of
Granada, I saw the royal banners of Your Highnesses placed by force
of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, the citadel of that city, and
I saw the Moorish King come to the city gates and kiss the royal
hands of Your Highnesses." The long war against the Moors had ended;
now the energies of the kingdom could be directed outward.
At this critical juncture Columbus's repressed pride broke through;
he made extravagant demands that almost destroyed his chances for a
royal agreement. He asked for the hereditary positions of Admiral of
the Ocean Sea as well as Viceroy and Governor of lands that he might
find, and requested a percentage of all revenues from these new
Again his plan was rejected, then reconsidered, and finally
approved. On April 17, 1492, he signed a contract with Castile that
gave him the titles he had asked for and one-tenth of all revenues
from his discoveries. But Columbus never lost sight of the crusading
aspect of his journey; he intended that the forthcoming Indies
revenues should primarily be dedicated to the recovery of Jerusalem
from the Muslims.
Now, after years ashore, the sailor could return to his element: "I
left the city of Granada on Saturday, May 12, and came to the town
of Palos, where I outfitted three very good ships." On Friday,
August 3, just before dawn, the NINA, PINTA, and SANTA MARIA sailed
downriver to the sea. As the rising sun struck their sails, they
were under way to the Canary Islands to catch the winds that,
Christopher Columbus knew beyond all doubt, would carry them by way
of Cipangu to Cathay and on to India.
Ultimately, on four fateful voyages from Spain and back, Columbus
reached and explored the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles,
encountered the great South American land mass, and coasted the
Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama.
The islands and mainland he sighted did not resemble his vivid dream
geography. Refusing to accept that his Indies were not Asia, he
continued to seek the Great Khan and the source of Solomon's riches.
Exploring Cuba, he made his crew swear that it was the Asian
mainland. On the coast of South America he though he had found the
"earthly paradise". Certain that Hispaniola was the "end of the
East", he said: "Either it is Ophir, or it is Cipangu." He would go
to his grave believing all of it.
On returning from his first voyage, Christopher Columbus was
showered with honors. He rode out on horseback with King Ferdinand
and enjoyed the unique favor of sitting in the presence of the king
and queen. He was now to be titled "Don". Far indeed had the
weaver's boy come; up, as Columbus himself wrote, "from nothing".
His triumph was uneasy and short-lived. Opposition grew at court,
where many disdained him as a foreigner. And the brilliant navigator
proved to be a harsh and questioning administrator: Rebellion flared
in the colony he had planted on Hispaniola during his second voyage,
and he was returned to Spain humiliated, in chains. The crown had
already opened the exploration of the Indies to other captains.
Columbus labored for restoration of his awards and benefits; all
these he had carefully documented in his BOOK OF PRIVILEGES to
assure that they would be passed on to his sons and their
descendants. Gradually he regained a degree of royal favor, and
revenues he had been promised began to trickle in.
The last part of the Admiral's life was plagued with illness. On his
first voyage he noted the "sore eyes" that later disabled him. He
may have contracted malaria and typhus, and probably suffered from
Reiter's syndrome, which combines eye and urinary tract disorders
Columbus was sustained by his firm religious faith. He resolved to
give up science and "cleave to the Holy and Sacred Scriptures", for
he was convinced that prophecies had been fulfilled by his voyages
to the Indies. "God," he said, "made me the messenger of the new
heaven and the new earth. . . . He showed me where to find it." Wit
the help of clerics, he began to write his BOOK OF PROPHECIES, which
foretold the coming world unity. No longer to follow the court as it
moved from city to city, he retired to a modest house at Valladolid.
In the spring of 1506, at age 55, Columbus complained, "This illness
now works me without pity." Cardiac complications had probably set
in; his body was swollen with dropsy. The end was near. His
testament reveals a conscience not yet at rest. He ordered Diego to
"provide for Beatriz Enriquez, mother of my son Don Ferdinand, so
that she might live decently, as a person to whom I am greatly
On May 20, 1506, Christopher Columbus died, and was buried in
Franciscan robes. Perhaps now the striver, the bearer for Christ,
had found the paradise at the east end of the earth.
His body was removed to a monastery, the Cartuja of Seville. Yet his
spirit was restless even in death. His bones were shipped to Santo
Domingo about 1540 to rest with honor in the cathedral. His presumed
remains were moved to Havana in 1796 and thence again to Seville in
1899. But were they? The argument still rages; some claim that the
wrong bones were moved from Santo Domingo and that he rests in his
beloved island of Hispaniola. So even the Admiral's honored dust
still arouses passionate debate.
Who then was Christopher Columbus? A man both of and beyond his
time, he bestrode the boundary between ages, possessing a nature
rich in contradictions.
This most singular sailor was in fact an empirical mystic, within
whom the temporal and the spiritual warred. A plebian who rose to
noble state, he inwardly disdained the citadels of power while
ardently seeking their privileges. Not highly educated, he deeply
admired learning. Believing that his God would open for him the sea
road to the earthly paradise, he felt empowered on his mission by
the Holy Spirit.
At the end he had triumphed over his detractors to conquer the Sea
of Darkness. While pursuing one vision, he had inadvertently
realized another: the outreach of Europe into a hitherto separate,
but henceforth vastly wider world.
Truly this uncommon commoner Christopher Columbus began a process
that, in words from a passage in one of the books of Esdras:
"...shook the earth,
moved the round world,
made the depths shudder,
and turned creation upside down".
Click on the Piece of Eight to return to the Main Page