Christopher Columbus & Why He Sailed for Spain (Instead of Italy)

Christopher Columbus is one of the most popular and best-known explorers who ever lived. But when we deal with the origin story of Columbus, then we find out that he was born in the Republic of Genoa (Italy), not in Spain. And yet Christopher Columbus explored for Spain. But why did Christopher Columbus discover the Americas for Spain? And why didn`t Columbus sail for Italy?

Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain because the Spanish monarchs Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon were the first (and only ones) willing to finance his expedition westwards. The monarchs were convinced by the advantageous risk-reward-ratio and motivated by the fear that if they wouldn`t finance Columbus, sooner or later another naval power (like Portugal) would do so and – in case of success – gain an advantage over Spain.

Let`s take a closer look!

The Origins of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 (only one year after Leonardo da Vinci) in the Maritime Republic of Genoa (Italy) as the son of a master weaver. Columbus was the oldest of four brothers and also had a younger sister. One of his brothers died young. While we know little to nothing about his parents and his sister (including what happened to them), Columbus and his two surviving brothers remained close throughout their lives.

Between 1465 and 1479, Christopher Columbus was working as a Genovese merchant mariner. At this time the Great Genovese maritime trading companies were not only active in the Mediterranean Sea, but also operated along the western coastline of Africa and even sailed to England. While we know that Columbus was well-traveled and even sailed to modern-day Ghana during his days with the Genovese maritime trading companies, little else is known about his early life aside from him being mostly self-taught in the fields of history, geography, astronomy, and languages.

It is unclear when exactly Columbus came up with the plan to sail west, but several experiences during his travels must have convinced him that traveling west to reach the Indies was not only possible but also a much faster way than surrounding the African continent (something the Portuguese were working on). Here you can find out more about why Columbus decided to sail west and why finding new routes to India and its spices became necessary in the first place.

Little is known about Columbus’s youth and early adult life, we only know that he came to Portugal in 1476 at the age of 25. It is here that the sources become more numerous. It seems like Columbus came to Portugal because the Genovese merchant fleet in which 25-year-old Columbus served at the time was attacked by Pirates and Columbus had to swim to shore to save his life.

From 1476 Christopher Columbus and his first wife Dona Filipa Perestrello e Moniz, her mother was related to the Portuguese royal family, as well as their son Diego lived in Lissabon until the death of Dona Filipa Perestrello e Moniz in 1484.

It is actually quite likely that the marriage with Dona Filipa Perestrello e Moniz gave Columbus his first chance to pitch his idea of sailing west to Portuguese King John II.

Christopher Columbus & His Long Way to Find Funding for His Journey Westwards

Christopher Columbus needed years until he was finally able to secure a sponsorship for his idea of sailing westwards to reach Asia. During all that time Columbus lived with the fear that someone else would be able to find sufficient funding before him. After all, the idea that the earth was round was common knowledge and at least one other (German) explorer called Martin Beheim also entertained the idea of sailing west to reach the Indies.

Here you can find out more about since when the knowledge that the earth was round had become common opinion. And here you can find out more about why both Christopher Columbus and Martin Beheim wanted to sail west instead of using the well-established ancient trade routes to India.

Columbus & His Failure to Find a Sponsorship in Portugal

In 1484, Columbus managed to get an audience with the Portuguese king John II where he could pitch his idea of reaching the Indies by sailing west. It is unclear how exactly Columbus managed to get an audience with the Portuguese king John II, but the marriage to Dona Filipa Perestrello e Moniz whose mother had been loosely related to the Portuguese royal family was certainly helpful.

However, the audience went horribly wrong and John II rejects the idea of sailing west.

Christopher Columbus decided to leave Portugal as a result of that unsuccessful meeting and his wife’s death in 1484.

Columbus in Spain – His Unsuccessful Attempts to Find Funding

After the death of his wife and his unsuccessful audience with King John II of Portugal, Christopher Columbus went to the city of Palos (Spain) in hopes of being able to convince the Spanish monarchs of sponsoring his voyage. In Palos, he left his son Diego in the care of the friars of the Franciscan priory of La Rabida.

For the next 8 years (until 1492) Columbus unsuccessfully tried to convince different dukes of his plan to sail west.

And even though some of the dukes had enabled an audience in 1484 in the city of Cordoba at the court of Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (their marriage had united the two kingdoms of Castille and Aragon into Spain in 1469), the monarchs refused to finance Columbus voyage.

The reason why the Spanish crown refused to fund Columbus’s voyage in 1486 can be found in the Reconquista, an almost 800-year-long series of wars fought to conquer the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims that was slowly coming to an end. So the Spanish crown could not afford to risk money and ships on a risky voyage west when they still had to conquer some of the territories they claimed from the Muslim principalities.

However, despite her refusal to fund his voyage in 1486 Queen Isabella II of Castille still decided to pay Columbus a small allowance (as records of the royal treasury show for May, July, August, and October of 1487 and June of 1488) to keep Columbus from offering his services to another naval power. Additionally, the Spanish crown also ordered a Junta to analyze the practicality of sailing west, a task that went on for the next 5 years.

During all that time Columbus followed Queen Isabella II of Castille on her campaign on defeating the Moors. But in 1491 Columbus gave up and returned to the monastery of La Rabida where he had left his son Diego.

It was here that the tables turned on Columbus…

1491 – Christopher Columbus is finally getting closer to his goal

In the year 1491, Columbus returned to the monastery La Rabida and had a lucky encounter.

The prior of the monastery La Rabida, Fra Juan Perez, had once served in the Royal Treasury and had been the Confessor of Queen Isabella I of Castille. Since he was fascinated by the ideas of Columbus he invited the monk Antonio de Marchena, a man of outstanding cosmo-geographical studies who was also held in high regard by Queen Isabella I.

The discussions of these men were so enthralling that another man, the highly respected and experienced sea captain Martin Alonso Pinzon, who had sailed along the coast of Africa and to the Canaries but had also fought in the wars against the Portuguese, was invited to join the round.

By the way, Martin Alonso Pinzon would also accompany Columbus on his first voyage west as the captain of the Caravel Pinta (both the Caravels Pinta and Nina that accompanied the flagship Santa Maria were provided by Martin Alonso Pinzon, who (as a member of an important merchant family) hoped for a huge financial profit.

These four well-respected and experienced men were now sitting together every night, talking and plotting the big journey west. But the financing was still open.

January of 1492: Columbus Convinces the Spanish Crown to Fiance his Voyage West – And Messes up at the Last Second!

In early January of 1492, things started to turn in Columbus’s favor due to the personal relationship between Queen Isabella I and Frau Juan Perez, her previous confessor and now prior of La Rabida.

Finally, Fra Juan Perez, the prior of La Rabida, sent a letter to Queen Isabella I. And while the exact details of the letter are unknown, it included the statement that the kings of England and France were showing interest in financing Columbus and his journey west. The letter was convincing, in early January of 1492 Columbus received a second audience at the Spanish court. And this time he was able to convince the Spanish monarchs!

One of the reasons (aside from the fact that Fra Juan Perez was basically blackmailing Isabella I by mentioning the interest of the kings of England and France) why the Spanish monarchs finally agreed to finance Columbus’s voyage west in January of 1492 was that the fall of the city of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, had ended the Reconquista and had opened up resources for new endeavors.

Here you can find out more about the Reconquista.

However, as soon as the Spanish monarchs had agreed to finance Columbus, Columbus started to voice extravagant demands as a reward for his service like the title of „Admiral of the Ocean Sea“. He also wanted to be named „Viceroy and Governor over all islands and continents he might discover“. Additionally, Columbus also demanded 10% of all treasures found in the lands he discovered as well as the promise that all that was to remain in his family for perpetuity.

Needless to say that that was too much. While Queen Isabella I had been protective of Columbus until now, her husband King Ferdinand II had never been overly fond of Columbus and the unreasonable demands of Columbus prompted him to have Columbus thrown out of court.

Columbus had once again lost his sponsorship. But this time he had even insulted the two monarchs who had already promised to finance his voyage. So he had a problem. Columbus must have been quite desperate when he was forced to leave the Spanish court, maybe he already thought about who else he could pitch his idea to.

But once again, Columbus was lucky.

At the bridge right by the city of Paros Christopher Columbus was surpassed and stopped by horsemen who had been sent out to return him to court. The Spanish Monarchs had changed their mind and were now willing to sponsor his voyage despite his overexaggerated demands!

But what did cause the monarchs to change their minds? Well, unknown to Columbus he had an ally at the Spanish court.

The Finance Minister Don Luis de Santangel, a man from a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity but greatly suffered during the Spanish Inquisition, had convinced Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon that Columbus and his idea of sailing west to reach the Indies was worth sponsoring despite Columbus exaggerated demands for compensation.

After all, if Columbus failed he would not get anything, and losing three ships including their crews was acceptable. But if he actually found a way to the Indies, then the financial reward would not only be huge but finding a westward route to the Indies would also massively increase Spain’s prestige.

So the risk-reward-ratio of Columbus’s voyage was really good for the Spanish monarchs since the potential loss of three ships and crews was an acceptable risk. The Fiance minister Don Luis de Santangel even offered to finance the voyage from his own pocket!

So, let`s summ it up:

So: Why Did Christopher Columbus Sail for Spain?

Bluntly speaking, Columbus sailed for Spain because the Spanish monarchs were the only ones willing to finance his voyage west.

The reasons why the Spanish monarchs were willing to finance Columbus are the following:

After the Reconquista had ended in 1492 with the territory of Spain being freed of the Moors, the Spanish monarchs could invest their funds into new endeavors. Additionally, the risk-reward ratio was pretty good since the Spanish crown only risked three small ships and their crews. And last but not least, by financing Columbus Spain prevented any other naval power (like for example its rival Portugal) from sponsoring Columbus.

So there we have it, the reason why Columbus sailed west.

But sailing into the Caribbean came with its own problems, especially when it came to the wooden ships. But that is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


John S. Collis: Christopher Columbus.*  

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