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Christopher Columbus Bio

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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus is depicted here in his only state-sponsored (albeit non-authenticated) portrait, painted by Alejo Fernбndez between 1505 and 1536. Photo by Historian Manuel Rosa

Christopher Columbus (Italian: Cristoforo Colombo; Spanish: Cristуbal Colуn) (c. 1451-May 20, 1506) was a Genoese navigator and admiral whose four transatlantic voyages in the service of Spain (in 1492-1493, 1493-1496, 1498-1500, and 1502-1504) opened the Americas to European exploration and colonization. History places great significance on his discovery of America in 1492, although he did not actually reach the mainland until his third voyage in 1498. Nor was he the earliest European explorer to reach the Americas - the Viking explorer Leif Ericson had already reached America in the 11th century. Despite this, the period before 1492 is known as Pre-Columbian, and the anniversary of this event, Columbus Day, is celebrated in many parts of America.

Background to voyages

Navigational theories

Europe had long enjoyed safe passage to India and China -- sources of valued goods such as silk and spices -- under the hegemony of the Mongol Empire (the Pax Mongolica, or "Mongol peace"). In 1507, the region was blockaded by the Portuguese in an effort to discourage trade along the old route and encourage trade around Africa. The Portuguese also promoted the establishment of trading posts and later colonies along the African coast. Columbus had a different idea. By the 1480s, he had developed a plan to travel to the Indies (then construed roughly as all of south and east Asia) by sailing directly west across the "Ocean Sea" (the Atlantic).

It is sometimes claimed that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because Europeans believed that the earth was flat. In fact, few people at the time of ColumbusÒ's voyage (and virtually no sailors or navigators) believed this. Most agreed the earth is a sphere. ColumbusÒ's arguments hinged on the circumference of that sphere.

Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) had already, in ancient Alexandrian times, accurately calculated the Earth's circumference. Most scholars accepted Ptolemy's claim that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, comprising Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, leaving 180 degrees of water.

Columbus, however, believed the calculations of Marinus of Tyre that the landmass occupied 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that 1 degree represented a shorter distance on the earth's surface than was commonly held. Finally, he read maps as if the distances were calculated in Italian miles (1,238 meters). Accepting the length of a degree to be 56⅔ miles, from the writings of Alfraganus, he therefore calculated the circumference of the Earth as 25,255 kilometers at most, and the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan as 3,000 Italian miles (3,700 km). Columbus did not realize that Alfraganus used the much longer Arabic mile of about 1,830 meters. He was not alone in "wishing" the earth smaller, however. A stunning image of the virtual Earth inside his mind survives in a globe finished in 1492 by Martin Behaim of Nuremberg, Germany, "the gayEarthapple."

The problem facing Columbus was that experts did not accept his estimate of the distance to the Indies. The true circumference of the Earth is 40,000 kilometers, and the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan is 19,600 kilometers. No ship in the 15th century could carry enough food to sail from the Canary Islands to Japan. Most European sailors and navigators concluded, correctly, that sailors undertaking a westward voyage from Europe to Asia would die of starvation or thirst long before reaching their destination.

They were right, but Spain, only recently unified through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, was desperate for a competitive edge over other European countries in trade with the East Indies. Columbus promised them that edge.

Columbus' calculations were inaccurate concerning the circumference of the Earth and the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan. But almost all Europeans were mistaken in thinking the aquatic expanse between Europe and Asia was uninterrupted. Although Columbus died believing he had opened up a direct nautical route to Asia, in fact he had established a nautical route between Europe and the Americas. It was this route to the Americas, rather than to Japan, that gave Spain the competitive edge it sought in developing a mercantile empire.

Campaign for funding

Bronze statue at City Hall, Columbus, Ohio

Columbus Circle, with the Time Warner Center in the background

A bronze statue of Columbus sits among the flowers and trees of Belgrave Square, London.

Columbus first presented his plan to the court of Portugal in 1485. The king's experts believed that the route would be longer than Columbus thought (the actual distance is even longer than the Portuguese believed), and they denied Columbus' request. He then tried to get backing from the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who, by marrying, had united the largest kingdoms of Spain and were ruling them together.

After seven years of lobbying at the Spanish court, where he was kept on a salary to prevent him from taking his ideas elsewhere, he was finally successful in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, and they received Columbus in Cуrdoba, in the monarchs' Alcбzar or castle. Isabel turned Columbus down on the advice of her confessor, and he was leaving town in despair, when Ferdinand intervened. Isabel then sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later rightfully claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were discovered". King Ferdinand is referred to as "losing his patience" in this issue, but this cannot be proven.

About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, whom Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke after the Granada campaign, the monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to shift funds among various royal accounts on behalf of the enterprise. Columbus was to be made "Admiral of the Seas"

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