74 Interesting Facts about Christopher Columbus

By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published November 11, 2016
  • Christopher Columbus (c. 1450-51–May 20, 1506) was born in the Republic of Genoa, Italy, although the exact location of his birth is not known with certainty. His father was a wool weaver who also owned a cheese stand.[2]
  • Columbus’ mother was Susanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a wool merchant. He had three brothers: Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo. He also had a sister, Bianchinetta. Columbus was the eldest.[2]
  • Christopher Columbus’ family was a member of a very small and lucky group during the Middle Ages: the middle class. Most people were extremely poor (the peasants). A few were very rich (the nobility).[2]
  • When he was only 19, in 1470, Columbus took his first long voyage on one of his employer’s ships to the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea. It was probably on this trip and a second trip to Chios in 1475 that he learned how to navigate and steer a ship on open water on a long voyage.[1]
  • As a teenager, Columbus started working on trade ships that passed through his hometown
  • When Columbus was 14, he left school and his father’s wool workshop to apprentice himself to a merchant on a trading ship.[1]
  • Columbus spoke frequently about his desire to spread Christianity to heathen cultures, and it was a popular cause during the time. However, converting people also meant European governments could control them.[1]
  • As a young man, Columbus was tall, well above the 5′ 7″ that was average for men in the Middle Ages. He had pale skin that burned easily in the sun. He had a hooked nose, pale blue eyes, and red-blond hair that turned completely white by the time he was in his 30s.[6]
  • Columbus operated a little mapmaking and bookselling shop with his brother Bartolomeo while he lived in Portugal.[2]
  • During Columbus’ time, most people believed that the world was formed mainly of one giant landmass consisting of Europe, Asia, and Africa—mainly because these are the only continents mentioned in the Bible. These were surrounded by one enormous body of water they called the Ocean Sea.[1]
  • Some scholars speculate that Columbus may have received secret information from a close friend about lands far west across the ocean. This sailor is sometimes called the “Unknown Pilot.” Present historians haven’t found any evidence of him except for what is written by some early Columbus biographers.[1]
  • Columbus had two sons by two different women. Diego Columbus (1480–1526) and Fernando (1488–1539).[2]
  • Columbus disrupted the entire economy of three continents. Post-Columbian diseases killed 3–5 million people during the subsequent 50 years after his arrival in the New World. Additionally, African slaves became a dominant commodity.[2]
  • Columbus first landed near the coast of what is today known as Watling Island in the Bahamas. Although he thought he was near China, Japan, and India, he was actually more than 8,000 miles away.[2]
  • Many historians note that Viking Leif Eriksson "discovered" America before Columbus
  • Columbus was not the first European to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Some 500 years earlier, Norse Viking Leif Eriksson is believed to have landed in present-day Newfoundland, around A.D. 1000. Some historians believe that Ireland’s Saint Bernard or other Celtic people crossed the Atlantic even before Eriksson.[4]
  • Columbus first landed in the Bahamas. All the Caribbean islands—including the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba—were settled by a group of peaceful people called the Tainos.[2]
  • When Columbus landed in the New World, he believed that he had reached the Indies; thus, he thought, the people he met were Indians. Even though more than 500 years have passed since that voyage, the native people of the Americas are still often referred to as “Indians.”[1]
  • Before Columbus was a famous admiral and governor of the New World, he was a pirate, or Privateer, who helped attack Moorish merchant trips.[2]
  • Columbus was very religious and believed God had called him to make his voyages. Many of the names Columbus gave to the lands he discovered were religious names.[2]
  • Later in his life, for reasons unknown, Columbus wore a plain Franciscan habit everywhere he went.[2]
  • Near the end of his life, Columbus wrote a book called Book of Privileges that listed all the promises the Spanish crown had made to him over the years and the ways the crown had not honored these promises.[2]
  • Later in his life, Columbus began to write a bizarre book titled Book of Prophecies. In this book, he insisted that all his voyages had been divine missions directed by God. He believed the world was coming to an end and that he, Columbus, was bringing it about.[2]
  • During his fourth voyage, Columbus was in intense pain. His eyes bled regularly, which left him blind for long periods of time. He could barely sit or stand due to the pain in his joints. Many historians believe he was suffering from Reiter’s Syndrome, which causes diarrhea and inflammation in the joints, eyes, and bladder.[2]
  • Columbus is often referred to as the “Father of the New World.”[1]
  • Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.

    - Christopher Columbus

  • Before he died, Columbus began requesting a new sort of voyage: a Christian crusade to Jerusalem to rescue it from the Muslims.[2]
  • On May 20, 1506, at the age of 55, Columbus died at the court in Valladolid, Spain. His death went mostly unnoticed. In fact, the official court registry did not even record his passing until 10 days later. However, in the years and decades after his death, much of his fame and glory were returned to him.[2]
  • When Columbus saw the Orinoco River empty into the Atlantic off of northern South America during his third voyage, he thought he had found the Garden of Eden.[1]
  • Columbus is considered one of the best “dead reckoning” sailors who ever walked the planet.[1]
  • Columbus was inspired by a letter by Italian scholar Paolo Toscanelli to find Asia through a western sea. He believed sailing west would be a faster way of getting to India.[2]
  • Whether or not Columbus brought syphilis back to Europe is still debated
  • Skeletal evidence suggests Columbus and his crew brought back syphilis to the Old World. As one of the first global diseases, it devastated Europe.[2]
  • Columbus was a talented admiral, but he was also a slave trader. While he soon discovered that the new lands did not hold silver, pearls, and other treasures, they did hold people, whom Columbus viewed as valuable resources. He is believed to have instigated the slave trade.[2]
  • When Columbus returned to Spain with natives, Queen Isabella believed they were her subjects and, therefore, could not be enslaved unless they refused to be converted. However, during the Colonial era, the Spaniards enslaved them all the time.[2]
  • Until the day he died, Columbus did not believe he found a new world. He died believing he had found a new passage to India. To justify his position, he proposed that the Earth was actually shaped like a pear, which made him the laughingstock of Europe.[2]
  • Many countries in Europe and in the New World celebrate Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492. In the United States, October 12 is called Columbus Day; in Latin America, it is Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race), in the Bahamas, it is Discovery Day; in Argentina, it is Dia del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity); and in Belize and Uruguay, it is Dia de las Americas (Day of the Americas).[1]
  • Though Columbus Day had been celebrated unofficially since Colonial days, it became an official holiday first in Colorado in 1906 and a federal holiday in 1937. In 1970, the holiday was moved to the second Monday of October.[2]
  • Columbus has been viewed as an intrepid explorer, a monster, and a slave trader who unleashed horrors and conquest upon unsuspecting natives. However, scholars note he had both admirable qualities and negative ones: he was brave but a very flawed human being.[1]
  • In Berkeley, California, Columbus Day was replaced with Indigenous People’s Day in 1992.[2]
  • Activists have sought to abolish Columbus Day since at least the 19th century because of its association with immigrants and with the Knights of Columbus. Additionally, some were afraid it was being used to expand Catholic influence.[1]
  • Christopher Columbus did not discover America. Humans had lived in the Americas for at least 20,000 years. By the time Columbus arrived, the Americas were already populated by several empires and hundreds of small nations.[1]
  • Columbus helped create the Atlantic slave trade
  • Because Columbus destroyed the native population of Haiti (the Taino Indians), he began shipping African slaves to the island. This move has had consequences reaching into modern day.[2]
  • Christopher Columbus introduced horses into the New World. They later spread to the mainland and became essential to the Plains Indians.[1]
  • After the destruction of the La Navidad garrison, Columbus created a new colony named Isabella (after the queen) 75 miles away. Over the next three years, it would be the center of the most horrific destruction and bloodshed the land had ever seen.[6]
  • Columbus and his men destroyed the island’s natural, delicate ecosystem. His ships brought sugar cane, wheat, olives, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, dates, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, and grapes. These new species grew and spread, overwhelming the native plants that had lived on the continent for hundreds of thousands of years.[1]
  • The Europeans and the native Tainos traded two things that would shape cultures for the remainder of history: tobacco and horses. Sailors brought back tobacco to Europe, and the first European nicotine addicts were soon created.[6]
  • Columbus was intensely interested in gold, so he imposed a gold tribute system. Every Tainos adult would supply a certain quota of gold dust on a regular schedule. If they did, they were given a token to wear around their necks. If they did not, they had a hand chopped off.[1]
  • The Taino population was completely extinct within 50 years of the Europeans’ first landfall. This was due to murder and desperate suicides, as well as a declining birth rate. However, disease was the most devastating factor in their demise. Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards unleashed a deadly cargo of dysentery, tuberculosis, and influenza. Settlers wrote home about the unbearable stench of rotting bodies that filled the air.[2]
  • During his third voyage, Columbus became the first European to see the coast of South America.[1]
  • Columbus died believing that he had found was Asia. However, the closest Columbus ever came to Asia was when he went on a voyage to the island of Khios in modern day Greece when he was a teenager.[2]
  • While the Santa Maria was the official flagship, Columbus frequently complained about its clumsiness and slowness. His favorite ship was the Nina, which was swifter and smaller.[2]
  • Of the three ships (the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria), the Niña was Columbus' favorite
  • Christopher Columbus made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain, in the years 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502. His goal: to find a direct water route west from Europe to Asia. He never found the route. He did find America—specifically, the Caribbean Islands, South America, and Central America.[5]
  • In 1500, a royal commissioner was dispatched to Hispaniola to arrest Christopher Columbus and his brothers. They were brought back to Spain in chains under accusations of mismanagement of the colony. Although Columbus was stripped of his governorship, King Ferdinand granted him his freedom and subsidized a fourth trip.[5]
  • In 1504, Columbus was stuck in Jamaica with angry islanders who would not give him food. Knowing that a lunar eclipse was going to happen, Columbus told the islanders that his gods were angry for refusing him food. After the eclipse, the scared islanders gave Columbus plenty of food and begged for mercy.[5]
  • Christopher Columbus’ remains have been transported between the Old and New Worlds so many times that many historians believe that his remains are scattered in both worlds.[5]
  • Columbus’ heirs were engaged in a legal battle with the Spanish monarchy until 1790 (nearly 300 years after his death). They argued that the monarchy did not give them the money or profits due the explorer.[5]
  • Christopher Columbus lived during the Age of Discovery, a time between the 15th and 16th centuries when several European nations went exploring to search for wealth and lands.[3]
  • Columbus’ first voyage into the Atlantic Ocean in 1476 almost cost him his life. French privateers off the coast of Portugal attacked the commercial fleet he was on. His shipped was burned and he had to swim to the Portuguese shore with the aid of a piece of driftwood.[3]
  • Columbus' ships were filthy, and Columbus and his crew constantly battled lice
  • During Columbus' first voyage, every person—including Columbus—had lice. Fleas and rats were everywhere. There was no plumbing and the ships were filthy. The first voyage took about 43 days.[2]
  • While in Portugal, Columbus married Felipa Perestrelo and had one son, Diego, in about 1480. After his wife died (some scholars say he simply left her), Columbus moved to Spain. He had a second son out of wedlock, Fernando, in 1488 with a 20-year-old orphan named Beatriz Enriíquez de Arana.[1]
  • After his wife died, Columbus never married his mistress Beatriz Enríquez de Arana, most likely because she was not of noble blood. For someone as status conscious as Columbus, a wife who could not appear in royal court was unthinkable.[1]
  • Both of Christopher Columbus’ sons served as pages to Prince Juan, the son of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.[6]
  • The crew of the first of Columbus' voyages consisted of 24 men for the Nina, 26 for the Pinta, and 40 for the Santa Maria. Most were common sailors, and no women were allowed. There was also a secretary and an interpreter who spoke Arabic so that they could communicate with Ghengis Kahn and his people when they reached the East. There were also barrel makers, caulkers, and carpenters to fix the ships, as well as a surgeon.[2]
  • The sailor’s clothes on Columbus’ ships were extremely filthy. Everyone wore the same set of clothes they had when they left Europe until they returned to Europe. All crewmembers wore leggings, a woolen smock with a hood to protect salt spray, and a red cap called a gorro. And everyone went barefoot.[1]
  • On his first voyage, Columbus kept two log books to avoid mutiny. In one log book, he recorded the actual distance the ships traveled each day. This book was only for him. In the second book, he recorded fake numbers, reducing the daily distance by many miles.[1]
  • In April 1492 Columbus signed the contract with the King and Queen of Spain to set sail for the "New World"
  • When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella initially hesitated to fund Columbus’ exploration, a priest named Father Perez interceded and said that if Columbus succeeded, he would be able to convert heathen races to Christianity. In 1492, they finally give Columbus the funds and the ships.[6]
  • Christopher Columbus isn’t the explorer’s birth name; rather, it is Anglicization of his real name Cristoforo Colombo. His name has been changed in other countries as well: in Spanish it is Cristóbal Colón, and in Swedish it is Kristoffer Kolumbus.[2]
  • Columbus was not interested in proving the Earth was round. By Columbus’ time, most people knew this fact thanks to the ancient Greeks—specifically the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century B.C., and later Aristotle, who backed him up with astronomical observations.[1]
  • The first sailor in Columbus’ crew to see land (on October 12, 1492) was named Rodrigo de Triana. It was a small island in the present-day Bahamas named San Salvador.[1]
  • Some historians believe that Muslims came to the Americas in the 700s, several hundred years before Christopher Columbus. In fact, Columbus used maps created by Muslim explorers.[4]
  • Not all of Columbus’ voyages were successful; in fact, half of them ended in disaster. On his first voyage (1492), his fully outfitted flagship ran aground and sank. On his fourth trip, his ship rotted away and he spent a year with his men marooned on Jamaica.[6]
  • A section from Columbus’ logbook notes that the natives “would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.” He later wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”[1]
  • While Columbus was not the first to “discover” America or the first European to visit the New World (Viking explorers had sailed to Greenland and Newfoundland in the 11th century), he did kick off centuries of exploration and exploitation of the American continents.[2]
  • The Pinta, the name of one of Columbus' ships, is Spanish for “the painted one” or “prostitute.”[1]
  • Columbus vastly underestimated the length of his trip
  • Three countries refused to fund Columbus’ voyage: Portugal, England, and France. They refused because they thought he was a crackpot. They told him the Earth was much larger than he had calculated. They were actually right.[1]
  • One reason Columbus estimated the distance around the Earth shorter than other navigators is that he had read Arab maps. As he read the maps, he used a shorter distance for a mile than the Arab map makers had used, causing him to estimate the circumference as being one-fourth less than the actual number of miles. Additionally, Marco Polo’s book, which Columbus relied on, estimated China as much larger than it really was, which also shrank the distance from Europe to Asia.[1]
  • Christopher Columbus never set foot on the mainland of North America.[1]
  • Notable Events
    1451Christopher Columbus is born Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa, Italy
    August 3, 1492Begins his first voyage
    October 12, 1492Lands on an island in the Caribbean Sea
    March 1493Returns from his first voyage
    September 1493Starts his second voyage
    November 1493Reaches Hispaniola
    June 8, 1496Returns from his second voyage
    May 30, 1498Begins his third voyage
    October 1500Is arrested and returns home in chains
    May 11, 1502Sets out for his fourth voyage
    November 7, 1504Returns from his fourth voyage
    May 20, 1506Christopher Columbus dies in Valladolid, Spain
References

1 Berne, Emma Carlson. Christopher Columbus: The Voyage That Changed the World. New York, NY: Sterling, 2008.

2 Chrisp, Peter. Christopher Columbus: Explorer of the New World. NY, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001.

3Christopher Columbus.” History. 2014. Accessed: January 27, 2014.

4 Fachner, Rebecca. “Did Muslims Visit America before Columbus?History News Network. 2014. Accessed: January 27, 2014.

5 Klein, Christopher. “10 Things You May Not Know about Christopher Columbus.” History. October 5, 2012. Accessed: January 27, 2014.

6 Molzahn, Arlene Bourgeois. Christopher Columbus: Famous Explorer. Berkeley Heights: NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc, 2003.

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