Son of a Weaver
But Columbus was hardly alone in differing from the conservative view, which, by the late 1400s, was downright unfashionable among the enlightened and educated. Not that Cristoforo Colombo—to use the native Italian form of his name—was well educated. He had been born in Genoa in 1451 to a weaver and would not learn to read and write until he reached adulthood. As a youth, he took to the sea. In 1476, shipwrecked off Portugal, he went to Lisbon, then sailed as far as Ireland and England and even claimed to have sailed from England to Iceland (where, perhaps, he heard stories of an ancient place called Vinland, across the “Ocean Sea”). Columbus returned to Genoa in 1479, then went back to Portugal, where he married. His wife died while giving birth to their child Diego the following year. But, by this time, the seafarer’s thoughts were far from his family.
Having learned to read, he devoured shadowy accounts of westward voyages. He decided that the world was indeed round. And he was right about that. What he was wrong about was believing Marco Polo’s calculations concerning the location of Japan—1,500 miles east of China—and the work of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy (A.D. ca. 100-70), who grossly underestimated the circumference of the earth and overestimated the size of the Eurasian land mass. Further encouraged by the miscalculations of the Florentine cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, Columbus concluded that Japan (which Columbus called Cipangu) was a 3,000-mile voyage west of Portugal, over an ocean covering a round earth. Now, that was a long trip, but it was one that (Columbus believed) could be made by the vessels of the day.
In 1484, Columbus secured an audience with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back a voyage to Japan. Now, there were excellent reasons for going to the East—all of which involved lucrative trading opportunities, chief among which was the commerce in spices. In the time of Columbus, aromatic spices were not just pleasant condiments. They were rare and precious substances essential to the preservation of food in an age long before refrigeration was invented. Spice was as highly valued as gold. But King John 11 turned Columbus down just the same, believing that even a trip of three thousand miles was beyond the capabilities of existing ships.
Undaunted, the seafarer approached Don Enrique de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia, only to be rebuffed. He next asked Don Luis de la Cerda, Count of Medina Celi, who was sufficiently intrigued to arrange an audience, on or about May 1, 1486, with Queen Isabella I of Castile. For the next half-dozen years, Columbus, his son Diego in tow, cooled his heels in the Spanish court of Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon. During this time, he made many influential friends and enemies. Among the most powerful of the former was a courtier named Luis de Santangel, who, after the monarchs apparently turned down Columbus once and for all early in 1492, actually persuaded the pair to sponsor the voyage, which was financed by a combination of royal money and private funds. Commissioned “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as viceroy and governor of whatever lands he might discover, Columbus set sail from Palos on August 3, 1492. He was in command of three small ships, the Nina (skippered by Vincente Yanez Pinzon), the Pinta (under Vincente’s brother, Martin Alonso Pinzon), and his own flagship, the Santa Maria.