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.
Image: Portrait of Columbus made after his death
For information on Columbus and the Native Americans in the New World, see: