The Childhood of Christopher Columbus

Much of Christopher Columbus’ childhood remains a mystery, though some of his biographers, including the explorer’s son, chose to weave their own tales. A few things about the boyhood of Columbus are accepted as fact. He was born in the Italian republic of Genoa, most likely between August and September of 1451.  His contemporaries noted that he was the oldest son born to his parents, and that he had blue eyes, red hair, and was tall. Unfortunately, no paintings of Columbus were made while he was alive so later artists had to use their imaginations. Columbus’ father, Domenico, was a wool weaver and tavern keeper. Domenico also owned property, though Columbus occasionally helped his father with debts.

Although his humble family heritage was respectable, Columbus and his son often told stories of his aristocratic upbringing. Columbus’ son Ferdinand wrote that the Columbuses “were persons of worth who had been reduced to poverty”, but he provided no evidence to support his claim. Columbus claimed his birthplace as Genoa but never mentioned his family background, likely out of concern that people from wealthy families were more highly regarded in fifteenth century Europe. Yet as even Ferdinand Columbus acknowledged, his father’s accomplishments were great regardless of his family origins.

The historical record on Columbus’ schooling is scant as well. It is possible that he attended one of the schools set up by the weavers in the community for their sons. Some historians speculate that he may have attended Pavia University before his sailing adventures, though Columbus claimed that he “entered upon the sea sailing” at a “very tender age.” Regardless of how he was educated, Columbus eventually learned what he needed to become a successful seaman, which included math, Latin, and map-making.

Columbus loathed working for his father’s weaving business, so he was probably in a hurry to leave on one of the trade ships that passed though his town each day. Going out to sea was an exciting prospect for a young man, but also a dangerous one. Genoa’s ships carried exotic goods from the East like silk, tea, cotton, and gold so piracy was common. Though he likely started out on short voyages working for trading companies, Columbus’ first major trip was to the Genoese colony Chios, a transfer point to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) where the overland trade with the East began.

Past Chios, however, Genoa’s trade with the East was blocked because the Ottoman Turks had captured Constantinople one year after Columbus’ birth. Religious differences caused the blockade, which hurt Genoa’s economy. Seamen, including young Columbus, began to dream of finding another route to the west which would allow them to resume their trade with the East.

Columbus’ View of Native Americans

In February of 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to the Treasurer of Aragon who supported his adventures. Columbus’ views of the Native Americans he encountered in the Western Hemisphere were made clear in the letter. Some of the natives knew how to sail, and Columbus gave them credit for their skill: “They are most ingenious men, and navigate these seas in a wonderful way.” Aside from this statement, however, Columbus’ descriptions of the natives portrayed them as inferior to Europeans.

Columbus made it clear that it was easy to take land from the Native Americans not only because they had inferior weapons, but because they were fearful. He wrote, “They [the natives] have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because…they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane…with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.” Columbus easily made friends with the local rulers and claimed their territories because they had no knowledge of European weapons.

In addition to their ignorance of weapons, Columbus stated that the natives were also clueless about what their possessions were worth. Whenever the sailors traded with the natives, the sailors could get much more in return than they gave to the natives. Columbus claimed to have stopped his men from taking advantage of the Native Americans, but he had his own selfish motives for doing so. He wrote that he “gave a thousand good and pretty things that I had to win their love, and induce them to…love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help to get for us things they have in abundance, which are necessary to us.” Although Columbus appeared to be protecting the natives, he only did it because the natives had materials which his men wanted.

Columbus also believed he had the right to make the natives into slaves. He captured some to provide him with knowledge about the land he discovered: “I took by force some of the natives, that we might gain some information of what there was in these parts.” In addition, he also promised the king and queen of Spain that “their Highnesses will see that I can give them…as many slaves as they choose to send for, all heathens.” The inferiority which Columbus perceived in the Native Americans (their timidity and lack of knowledge of Christianity) supposedly gave him the right to make them serve Europeans. Yet Columbus did not see that without the help of the natives to guide him, he and his men would not have learned much about the new territory.