In 1476 an impoverished Genoese sailor, son of a weaver, survived a shipwreck off of Cape St. Vincent and waded onto the shore of the Kingdom of Portugal. Good fortune had led the son of a common tradesman from the life of a sailor in the Mediterranean to a world with more broad opportunities.
Sailing in the Mediterranean exposed Europeans to harrowing dangers, not the least of which was slavery in Africa if captured by the Barbary Pirates. Ultimate rewards were few in this realm. Landing in Portugal, however, led the initially “naked, destitute, illiterate, and friendless” Christopher Columbus’s ambitions and skills away from what was known and toward the unknown.
As he rose through the ranks of Portugal’s merchant marine, Columbus definitely helped to explore the west coast of Africa and may have even traveled to Iceland. Contrary to Columbus mythology, the world had known the Earth was round since the Hellenistic Greeks, but the facts of its approximate size had been lost by the 1400s.
As historian John Edward Fagg explains, the impoverished youth through age and experience matured into “one of those unreasonable, tiresome, and often decisive makers of history.”
He first approached Joao II, King of Portugal, to propose reaching Asia by sailing west. Joao refused the proposal based on the, correct as it turns out, speculation that Columbus had underestimated the length of the trip.
Columbus then approached Ferdinand and Isabella of the newly constituted Kingdom of Spain, which was in the process of winning back the last of its territory from the Muslim conquest centuries prior. In 1492, the monarchs assented, allowed him to recruit a roughneck crew from the port town of Palos, and then launch his expedition in the three famous ships that August.
Imagine setting off across the open and turbulent Atlantic, completely unfamiliar with the expeditions of the Vikings, the distance to the destination mainly an educated guess. The largest of the vessels, the Santa Maria, would run from the edge of an endzone to the 35 yard line of a football field. The Nina and Pinta only extended about 20 yards.
These ships carried crew and the estimated supplies needed for the journey. Europeans of his time tended to keep their ships on the continental shelf, fearing moving too far from land. Superior skills of navigation did not chase away fears. As Fagg wrote, “his principal problem had not to do with nature, but with human beings, for the men became more restive as each day carried them farther from home and the supplies diminished.”
His men gave him an ultimatum as the trip extended into October. No one wants to die of starvation in a wooden ship on a tropical sea. By force of sheer personality alone, Columbus squeezed from his men a commitment of two or three more days.
That was all it took. Columbus’s men sighted land on Oct 12.
Columbus never fully understood what he had found, which led to personal bitterness. He could not control the rough men that accompanied him on subsequent voyages of colonization who abused the natives fiercely. He had no impact or influence over the culture or method of Spanish colonization, shaped so much by the violent past thrust upon that nation and people leading up to their time as a European power.
But what Christopher Columbus did succeed in doing was a feat of personal courage and determination rarely excelled in human history.
And for that, he is rightly celebrated on the first Monday of every October.