Six Things You Didn’t Know About Christopher Columbus
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Six Things You Didn’t Know About Christopher Columbus

Will Jeakle

Christopher Columbus sailed into the history books 528 years ago, arriving in The New World on October 12, 1492. His duration there has ebbed and flowed, depending on the cultural needs and mores of the time, but he’s an undeniably important historical figure who kicked off an age of exploration whose ramifications are still felt today.

Most Americans learned about Columbus at the beginning of a history unit in grade school, with maybe a refresher in high school. Beyond the few lines of a poem—In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue—and the names of his ships, many Americans would hard-pressed to come up with any more information about the man whose name is given to October furniture sales throughout the country.

That’s a shame. Like most historical events, the story of Christopher Columbus is varied and nuanced, filled with heroics and shame, and far more detailed than most Americans would imagine. Here are six facts about Columbus, his times, and his achievements that you might have skipped in school.

Until 1453, there wasn’t much reason to sail to Asia. There was a perfectly good land route, the silk road, made famous by explorer Marco Polo, traversed by traders for hundreds of years. But when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453, they forbade Christian traders, which created a huge incentive to find new routes to the East.

Lots of experts thought it was possible to reach Asia by sailing West. Most learned men of the 15th century were certain that it was possible to reach Asia by sailing west. Columbus was among them. But he may have gained his optimism by reading the calculations wrong, using the wrong conversion method in projecting his distances. The learned men of Portugal and Spain rejected Columbus’s entreaties because his calculations seemed so off.

Columbus was born in Italy, but he wrote in Spanish, not Italian. Columbus was truly a man of the world. He left Italy at age 10. He sailed to England, Ireland, maybe even Iceland before settling and even marrying in Portugal. When his wife died, and his proposal to sail west was rejected by the Portuguese monarch, he moved to Spain. When negotiation stalled there, he considered moving to France to gain support for his far-fetched idea.

Columbus was owed 10% of all revenues derived from The New World. Talk about a great negotiation. Columbus convinced Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella that he should be given 10% of all revenues from his discovered lands, and be made governor of any lands he discovered. He turned out to be such a bad governor that he was arrested and his contract was abrogated. He and his heirs sued for hundreds of years.

Columbus made four successful voyages to America. In a time when plague could strike someone down just walking across the street, Columbus made it to the New World and back four times, exploring the West Indies, Hispaniola, Cuba, and Central America over a span of 10 years. He was shipwrecked for a year on Jamaica on his final voyage. He brought booty back with him from his voyages, including strange plants, gold, and Indians, who he thought could be enslaved (though this idea was rejected by Queen Isabella of Spain).

He always thought he had reached Asia. Though we know Columbus today as the explorer who discovered The New World, he never thought of himself that way. Instead, he thought to the end that he had reached Asia and therefore should be lauded not as a pioneer, but as a master of planning and achievement.

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I'm an author, entrepreneur, former CNN exec, comedy writer, husband, and father. Tips, quips, advice and jokes on Twitter @willjeakle