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Christopher Columbus

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Christopher Columbus

Man and Myth

After five centuries, Columbus remains a mysterious and controversial figure who has been variously described as one of the greatest mariners in history, a visionary genius, a mystic, a national hero, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist.

Columbus's enterprise to find a westward route to Asia grew out of the practical experience of a long and varied maritime career, as well as out of his considerable reading in geographical and theological literature. He settled for a time in Portugal, where he tried unsuccessfully to enlist support for his project, before moving to Spain. After many difficulties, through a combination of good luck and persuasiveness, he gained the support of the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando.

The widely published report of his voyage of 1492 made Columbus famous throughout Europe and secured for him the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and further royal patronage. Columbus, who never abandoned the belief that he had reached Asia, led three more expeditions to the Caribbean. But intrigue and his own administrative failings brought disappointment and political obscurity to his final years.

In Search and Defense of Privileges

Queen Isabel and King Fernando had agreed to Columbus's lavish demands if he succeeded on his first voyage: he would be knighted, appointed Admiral of the Ocean Sea, made the viceroy of any new lands, and awarded ten percent of any new wealth. By 1502, however, Columbus had every reason to fear for the security of his position. He had been charged with maladministration in the Indies.

The Library's vellum copy of the Book of Privileges is one of four that Columbus commissioned to record his agreements with the Spanish crown. It is unique in preserving an unofficial transcription of a Papal Bull of September 26, 1493 in which Pope Alexander VI extended Spain's rights to the New World.

Much concerned with social status, Columbus was granted a coat of arms in 1493. By 1502, he had added several new elements, such as an emerging continent next to islands and five golden anchors to represent the office of the Admiral of the Sea.

Columbus' Coat of Arms

As a reward for his successful voyage of discovery, the Spanish sovereigns granted Columbus the right to bear arms. According to the blazon specified in letters patent dated May 20, 1493, Columbus was to bear in the first and the second quarters the royal charges of Castile and Leon -- the castle and the lion -- but with different tinctures or colors. In the third quarter would be islands in a wavy sea, and in the fourth, the customary arms of his family.

The earlist graphic representation of Columbus's arms is found in his Book of Privileges and shows the significant

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