Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: Washington Irving  | Date: 1435-1484

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Early Life of Columbus

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, or Colombo, as the name is written in Italian, was born in the city of Genoa, about the year 1435.

He was the son of Dominico Colombo, a wool comber, and Susannah Fonatanarossa, his wife, and it would seem that his ancestors had followed the same handicraft for several generations in Genoa. Attempts have been made to prove him of illustrious descent, and several noble houses have laid claim to him since his name has become so renowned as to confer rather than receive distinction. It is possible some of them may be in the right, for the feuds in Italy in those ages had broken down and scattered many of the noblest families, and while some branches remained in the lordly heritage of castles and domains, others were confounded with the humblest population of the cities. The fact, however, is not material to his fame; and it is a higher proof of merit to be the object of contention among various noble families, than to be able to substantiate the most illustrious lineage. His son Fernando had a true feeling on the subject. "I am of opinion," says he, "that I should derive less dignity from any nobility of ancestry, than from being the son of such a father."

Columbus was the oldest of four children having two brothers, Bartholomew and Giacomo, or James (written Diego in Spanish), and one sister, of whom nothing is known but that she was married to a person in obscure life, called Giacomo Bavarello. At a very early age Columbus evinced a decided inclination for the sea; his education, therefore, was mainly directed to fit him for the maritime life, but was as general as the narrow means of his father would permit. Besides the ordinary branches of reading, writing, grammar, and arithmetic, he was instructed in the Latin tongue, and made some proficiency in drawing and design. For a short time, also, he was sent to the university of Pavia, where he studied geometry, geography, astronomy, and navigation. He then returned to Genoa, where, according to a contemporary historian, he assisted his father in his trade of wool-combing. This assertion is indignantly contradicted by his son Fernando, though there is nothing in it improbable, and he gives us no information of his father’s occupation to supply its place. He could not, however, have remained long in this employment, as, according to his own account, he entered upon a nautical life when but fourteen years of age.

In tracing the early history of a man like Columbus, whose actions have had a vast effect on human affairs, it is interesting to notice how much has been owing to external influences, how much to an inborn propensity of the genius. In the latter part of his life, when, impressed with the sublime events brought about through his agency, Columbus looked back upon his career with a solemn and superstitious feeling, he attributed his early and irresistible inclination for the sea, and his passion for geographical studies, to an impulse from the Deity preparing him for the high decrees he was chosen to accomplish….

The short time passed by him at the university of Pavia was barely sufficient to give him the rudiments of the necessary sciences; the familiar acquaintance with them which he evinced in after life, must have been the result of diligent self-schooling, in casual hours of study amid the cares and vicissitudes of a rugged and wandering life. He was one of those men of strong natural genius, who, from having to contend at their very outset with privations and impediments, acquire an intrepidity in encountering and a facility in vanquishing difficulties, throughout their career. Such men learn to effect great purposes with small means, supplying this deficiency by the resources of their own energy and invention. This, from his earliest commencement, throughout the whole of his life, was one of the remarkable features in the history of Columbus. In every undertaking, the scantiness and apparent insufficiency of his means enhance the grandeur of his achievements.

COLUMBUS, as has been observed, commenced his nautical career when about fourteen years of age. His first voyages were made with a distant relative named Colombo, a hardy veteran of the seas, who had risen to some distinction by his bravery, and is occasionally mentioned in old chronicles; sometimes as commanding a squadron of his own, sometimes as an admiral in the Genoese service. He appears to have been bold and adventurous; ready to fight in any cause, and to seek quarrel wherever it might lawfully be found.

The seafaring life of the Mediterranean, in those days, was hazardous and daring. A commercial expedition resembled a warlike cruise, and the maritime merchant had often to fight his way from port to port. Piracy was almost legalized. The frequent feuds between the Italian states; the cruisings of the Catalonians; the armadas fitted out by private noblemen, who exercised a kind of sovereignty in their own domains, and kept petty armies and navies in their pay; the roving ships and squadrons of private adventurers, a kind of naval Condottieri, sometimes employed by hostile governments, sometimes scouring the seas in search of lawless booty; these, with the holy wars waged against the Mahometan powers, rendered the narrow seas, to which navigation was principally confined; scenes of hardy encounters and trying reverses.

Such was the rugged school in which Columbus was reared, and it would have been deeply interesting to have marked the early development of his genius amidst its stern adversities. All this instructive era of his history, however, is covered with darkness….

The first voyage in which we have any account of his being engaged was a naval expedition, fitted out in Genoa in 1459 by John of Anjou, Duke of Calabria, to make a descent upon Naples, in the hope of recovering that kingdom for his father King Reinier, of Ranato, otherwise called Rene, Count of Provence. The republic of Genoa aided him with ships and money. The brilliant nature of the enterprise attracted the attention of daring and restless spirits. The chivalrous nobleman, the soldier of fortune, the hardy corsair, the desperate adventurer, the mercenary partisan, all hastened to enlist under the banner of Anjou. The veteran Colombo took a part in this expedition, either with galleys of his own, or as a commander of the Genoese squadron, and with him embarked his youthful relative, the future discoverer….

During an interval of many years we have but one or two shadowy traces of Columbus. He is supposed to have been principally engaged on the Mediterranean and up the Levant; sometimes in commercial voyages; sometimes in the warlike contests between the Italian states; sometimes in pious and predatory expeditions against the Infidels. Historians have made him, in 1474, captain of several Genoese ships, in the service of Louis XI. of France, and endangering the peace between that country and Spain by running down and capturing Spanish vessels at sea, on his own responsibility, as a reprisal for an irruption of the Spaniards into Roussillon.

COLUMBUS arrived at Lisbon about the year 1470. He was at that time in the full vigor of manhood, and of an engaging presence. Minute descriptions are given of his person by his son Fernando, by Las Casas, and others of his contemporaries. According to these accounts, he was tall, well-formed, muscular, and of an elevated and dignified demeanor. His visage was long, and neither full nor meager; his complexion fair and freckled, and inclined to ruddy; his nose aquiline; his cheek bones were rather high, his eyes light gray, and apt to enkindle; his whole countenance had an air of authority. His hair, in his youthful days, was of a light color; but care and trouble, according to Las Casas, soon turned it gray, and at thirty years of age it was quite white. He was moderate and simple in diet and apparel, eloquent in discourse, engaging and affable with strangers, and his amiableness and suavity in domestic life strongly attached his household to his person. His temper was naturally irritable; but he subdued it by the magnanimity of his spirit, comporting himself with a courteous and gentle gravity, and never indulging in any intemperance of language. Throughout his life he was noted for strict attention to the offices of religion, observing rigorously the fasts and ceremonies of the Church; nor did his piety consist in mere forms, but partook of that lofty and solemn enthusiasm with which his whole character was strongly tinctured.

While at Lisbon, he was accustomed to attend religious service at the chapel of the convent of All Saints. In this convent were certain ladies of rank, either residents as boarders, or in some religious capacity. With one of these, Columbus became acquainted. She was Doña Felipa, daughter of Bartolomeo Monis de Perestrello, an Italian cavalier, lately deceased, who had been one of the most distinguished navigators under Prince Henry, and had colonized and governed the island of Porto Santo. The acquaintance soon ripened into attachment, and ended in marriage. It appears to have been a match of mere affection, as the lady was destitute of fortune.

The newly married couple resided with the mother of the bride. The latter, perceiving the interest which Columbus took in all matters concerning the sea, related to him all she knew of the voyages and expeditions of her late husband, and brought him all his papers, charts, journals, and memorandums. In this way he became acquainted with the routes of the Portuguese, their plans and conceptions; and having, by his marriage and residence, become naturalized in Portugal, he sailed occasionally in the expeditions to the coast of Guinea. When on shore, he supported his family by making maps and charts. His narrow circumstances obliged him to observe a strict economy; yet we are told that he appropriated a part of his scanty means to the succor of his aged father at Genoa, and to the education of his younger brothers….

While his geographical labors thus elevated him to a communion with the learned, they were peculiarly calculated to foster a train of thoughts favorable to nautical enterprise. From constantly comparing maps and charts, and noting the progress and direction of discovery, he was led to perceive how much of the world remained unknown, and to meditate on the means of exploring it. His domestic concerns, and the connections he had formed by marriage, were all in unison with this vein of speculation. He resided for some time at the recently discovered island of Porto Santo, where his wife had inherited some property, and during his residence there she bore him a son, whom he named Diego. This residence brought him, as it were, on the very frontier of discovery. His wife’s sister was married to Pedro Correo, a navigator of note, who had at one time been governor of Porto Santo. Being frequently together in the familiar intercourse of domestic life, their conversation naturally turned upon the discoveries prosecuting in their vicinity along the African coasts; upon the long sought for route to India; and upon the possibility of some unknown lands existing in the west….

IT is impossible to determine the precise time when Columbus first conceived the design of seeking a western route to India. It is certain, however, that he meditated it as early as the year 1474, though as yet it lay crude and unmatured in his mind. This fact, which is of some importance, is sufficiently established by the correspondence with the learned Toscanelli of Florence, which took place in the summer of that year. The letter of Toscanelli is in reply to one from Columbus, and applauds the design which he had expressed of making a voyage to the west. To demonstrate more clearly the facility of arriving at India in that direction, he sent him a map, projected partly according to Ptolemy, and partly according to the descriptions of Marco Polo, the Venetian. The eastern coast of Asia was depicted in front of the western coasts of Africa and Europe, with a moderate space of ocean between them, in which were placed at convenient distances Cipango, Antilla, and the other islands. Columbus was greatly animated by the letter and chart of Toscanelli, who was considered one of the ablest cosmographers of the day. He appears to have procured the work of Marco Polo, which had been translated into various languages, and existed in manuscript in most libraries. This author gives marvelous accounts of the riches of the realms of Cathay and Mangi, or Mangu, since ascertained to be Northern and Southern China, on the coast of which, according to the map of Toscanelli, a voyager sailing directly west would be sure to arrive. He describes in unmeasured terms the power and grandeur of the sovereign of these countries, the Great Khan of Tartary, and the splendor and magnitude of his capitals of Cambalu and Quinsai, and the wonders of the island of Cipango or Zipangi, supposed to be Japan. This island he places opposite Cathay, five hundred leagues in the ocean. He represents it as abounding in gold, precious stones, and other choice objects of commerce, with a monarch whose palace with plates of gold instead of lead. The narrations of this traveler were by many considered fabulous; but though full of what appear to be splendid exaggerations, they have since been found substantially correct. They are thus particularly noted, from the influence they had over the imagination of Columbus. The work of Marco Polo is a key to many parts of his history. In his applications to the various courts, he represented the countries he expected to discover as those regions of inexhaustible wealth which the Venetian had described. The territories of the Great Khan were the objects of inquiry in all his voyages; and in his cruisings among the Antilles, he was continually flattering himself with the hopes of arriving at the opulent island of Cipango, and the coasts of Mangi and Cathay….

Several more years elapsed, without any decided efforts on the part of Columbus to carry his design into execution. He was too poor to fit out the armament necessary for so important an expedition. Indeed it was an enterprise only to be undertaken in the employ of some sovereign state, which could assume dominion over the territories he might discover, and reward him with dignities and privileges commensurate to his services. It is asserted that he at one time endeavored to engage his native country, Genoa, in the undertaking, but without success. No record remains of such an attempt, though it is generally believed, and has strong probability in its favor. His residence in Portugal placed him at hand to solicit the patronage of that power, but Alphonso, who was then on the throne, was too much engrossed in the latter part of his reign with a war with Spain, for the succession of the Princess Juana to the crown of Castile, to engage in peaceful enterprises of an expensive nature….

The time, however, was at hand, that was to extend the sphere of navigation. The era was propitious to the quick advancement of knowledge. The recent invention of the art of printing enabled men to communicate rapidly and extensively their ideas and discoveries. It drew forth learning from libraries and convents, and brought it familiarly to the reading-desk of the student. Volumes of information, which before had existed only in costly manuscripts, carefully treasured up, and kept out of the reach of the indigent scholar and obscure artist, were now in every hand. There was, henceforth, to be no retrogression in knowledge, nor any pause in its career. Every step in advance, was immediately, and simultaneously, and widely promulgated, recorded in a thousand forms, and fixed forever. There could never again be a dark age; nations might shut their eyes to the light, and sit in willful darkness, but they could not trample it out; it would still shine on, dispensed to happier parts of the world, by the diffusive powers of the press.

At this juncture, in 1481, a monarch ascended the throne of Portugal, of different ambition from Alphonso. John II., then in the twenty-fifth year of his age, had imbibed the passion for discovery from his grand-uncle, Prince Henry, and with his reign all its activity revived.

The court of Portugal had shown extraordinary liberality in rewarding nautical discovery. Most of those who had succeeded in her service had been appointed to the government of the islands and countries they had discovered, although many of them were foreigners by birth. Encouraged by this liberality, and by the anxiety evinced by King John II. to accomplish a passage by sea to India, Columbus obtained an audience of that monarch, and proposed, in case the king would furnish him with ships and men, to undertake a shorter and more direct route than that along the coast of Africa. His plan was to strike directly to the west across the Atlantic. He then unfolded his hypothesis with respect to the extent of Asia, describing also the immense riches of the island of Cipango, the first land at which he expected to arrive….

The reasoning of Columbus must have produced an effect on the mind of the monarch, since it is certain that he referred the proposition to a learned junto, charged with all matters relating to maritime discovery.

This junto was composed of two able cosmographers, masters Roderigo and Joseph, and the king’s confessor, Diego Ortiz de Cazadilla, bishop of Ceuta, a man greatly reputed for his learning, a Castilian by birth, and generally called Cazadilla, from the name of his native place. This scientific body treated the project as extravagant and visionary.

Still the King does not appear to have been satisfied. According to his historian Vasconcelos, he convoked his council, composed of prelates and persons of the greatest learning in the kingdom, and asked their advice, whether to adopt this new route of discovery, or to pursue that which they had already opened….

Seeing that King John still manifested an inclination for the enterprise, it was suggested to him by the bishop of Ceuta, that Columbus might be kept in suspense while a vessel secretly dispatched in the direction he should point out might ascertain whether there were any foundation for his theory. By this means all its advantages might be secured, without committing the dignity of the crown by formal negotiations about what might prove a mere chimera. King John, in an evil hour, had the weakness to permit a stratagem so inconsistent with his usual justice and magnanimity. Columbus was required to furnish for the consideration of the council a detailed plan of his proposed voyage, with the charts and documents according to which he intended to shape his course. These being procured, a caravel was despatched with the ostensible design of carrying provisions to the Cape de Verde islands; but with private instructions to pursue the designated route. Departing from those islands the caravel stood westward for several days, until the weather became stormy; when the pilots, seeing nothing but an immeasurable waste of wild tumbling waves still extending before them, lost all courage and put back, ridiculing the project of Columbus as extravagant and irrational.

This unworthy attempt to defraud him of his enterprise roused the indignation of Columbus, and he declined all offers of King John to renew the negotiation. The death of his wife, which had occurred some time previously, had dissolved the domestic tie which bound him to Portugal; he determined, therefore, to abandon a country where he had been treated with so little faith, and to look elsewhere for patronage. Before his departure, he engaged his brother Bartholomew to carry proposals to the king of England, though he does not appear to have entertained great hope from that quarter; England by no means possessing at the time the spirit of nautical enterprise which has since distinguished her. The great reliance of Columbus was on his own personal exertions.

It was towards the end of 1484 that he left Lisbon, taking with him his son Diego. His departure had to be conducted with secrecy, lest, as some assert, it should be prevented by King John; but lest, as others surmise, it should be prevented by his creditors. Like many other great projectors, while engaged upon schemes of vast benefit to mankind, he had suffered his own affairs to go to ruin, and was reduced to struggle hard with poverty; nor is it one of the least interesting circumstances in his eventful life, that he had, in a manner, to beg his way from court to court, to offer to princes the discovery of a world.


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Chicago: Washington Irving, "Early Life of Columbus," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in America, Vol.1, Pp.59-73 Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Irving, Washington. "Early Life of Columbus." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in America, Vol.1, Pp.59-73, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Irving, W, 'Early Life of Columbus' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , America, Vol.1, Pp.59-73. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from