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Christopher Columbus

Early Years

Columbus spent some of his early years at his father's trade of weaving and later became a sailor on the Mediterranean. Shipwrecked near the Portuguese coast in 1476, he made his way to Lisbon, where his younger brother, Bartholomew, an expert chart maker, lived. Columbus, too, became a chart maker for a brief time in that great maritime center during the golden era of Portuguese exploration. Engaged as a sugar buyer in the Portuguese islands off Africa (the Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira) by a Genoese mercantile firm, he met pilots and navigators who believed in the existence of islands farther west. It was at this time that he made his last visit to his native city, but he always remained a Genoese, never becoming a naturalized citizen of any other country. Returning to Lisbon, he married (1479?) the well-born Dona Filipa Perestrello e Moniz.

By the time he was 31 or 32, Columbus had become a master mariner in the Portuguese merchant service. It is thought by some that he was greatly influenced by his brother, Bartholomew, who may have accompanied Bartholomew Diaz on his voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, and by Martín Alonso Pinzón, the pilot who commanded the Pinta on the first voyage. Columbus was but one among many who believed one could reach land by sailing west. His uniqueness lay rather in the persistence of his dream and his determination to realize this "Enterprise of the Indies," as he called his plan. Seeking support for it, he was repeatedly rebuffed, first at the court of John II of Portugal and then at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Finally, after eight years of supplication by Columbus, the Spanish monarchs, having conquered Granada, decided to risk the enterprise.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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