Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations


Category: Christopher Columbus



Christopher’s practical experience, combined with a natural talent for drawing, helped him make an excellent chart-maker. Soon his charts were even better than his brother’s.

Bartholomew was happy.

Christopher suffered a great hunger for knowledge. The rich Genoese of Lisbon opened their libraries to him.

He was never tired of reading books about travels. The best known book of the time was “The Travels of Marco Polo”. Marco Polo, a merchant of Venice, had travelled across Asia to the far land of Cathay (China) two centuries before. Christoph­er was very much interested in the descriptions of Kublai Khan’s palaces at Cambalu, the twenty thousand bridges of Quinsay, the wealth of the Ganges lands. And the magic name that fixed itself in his mind was Cipango (Japan), the beautiful isle east of Cathay where the roofs of the houses were made of gold.

Everywhere the idea of the Indies (by which was meant all of Asia) and the Ocean Sea followed him. He could not escape it even in the books of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle wrote that it would be possible to sail west from Spain across the Ocean Sea and reach the Indies in just a few days. The Greek geographer, Strabo, said that such attempts had actually been made. He wrote that those navigators who had tried to sail round the earth said that there was no continent to stop them. The sea remained perfectly open and they could not finish their voyage because they were afraid of the unknown and because they had too little provisions.

Christopher looked up from his book. Out of the window he could see the Tagus River and the distant horizon of the Ocean Sea. Could it really be so? Was it possible to sail west, out into the Ocean Sea, round the globe, and reach the Eastern shores of Indies? Why not? Perhaps the Ocean Sea was not as big as everyone thought it was. Then a brave man could sail across it and reach Marco Polo’s Cathay in just a couple of weeks, not more!

With the help of Paoli di Negro and a big banking house Columbus became an importer and a merchant with important connections in Genoa.

By the time he was thirty years old, Christopher was regarded as a successful young man. No one was surprised when he married a very aristocratic young lady, Dona Felipa Pe- restrello, whose father had been a navigator at the time of Prince Henry.

A young couple went to live on the romantic isle of Madeira, in a flower-covered house over­looking the Ocean Sea. They were very happy, especially when their son Diego was born the next year.

Felipa’s mother was delighted with her son-in-law, who was so interested in navigation and who asked so many questions about her dead husband.

Dona Isabel opened her hus­band’s long-locked sea chests and let Christopher study the charts and journals he found there.

But soon Columbus became restless. He could not remain ashore any longer. His constant dream was about getting on a ship again.

Paoli di Negro wanted him to go on a business voyage, but another dream pursued him. He went to Ireland, where salty old sailors told him legends about the westward voyages, nine hundred years before, of Saint Brendan, the Irish priest who had found many islands in the northern sea far to the west.

Christopher’s voyages took him to the Portuguese settlements on the coast of West Africa. There he observed carefully and wrote down everything he could. He learned more about navigation on these voyages than he had in all his years of sailing the Mediterranean. He also learned how to sail Portuguese caravels and carracks.

When he got back home, he found Bartholomew waiting for him. Pedro, Christopher’s brother-in-law, was also there, filled with excitement. King Alfonso V had died and John II had become the new king. Pedro had been in Lisbon for the coronation and had heard an interesting conversation at the court. He could hardly wait to tell Christopher about it.

“It seems that some time ago,” Pedro began, “King Alfonso decided that navigators were wrong. He concluded that it might be possible to reach the Indies not by rounding Africa, but by sailing west across the Ocean Sea.”

Christopher became very excited. “Go on,” he said. “Well,” Pedro continued, “the king wrote to Toscanelli, the great astronomer of Florence, and asked him for advice.

Toscanelli sent back a long letter, which I have seen. He said it was completely possible and that it would take only a few weeks. He even drew a map of the Ocean Sea and gave directions for sailing.”

“Can you imagine!” exclaimed Bartho­lomew. “And King Alfonso never did any­thing about it! I wonder if the new king will.” Pedro said, “All that is needed is a brave man.”

Christopher was determined. “I’m writing to Toscanelli tonight!” he said.

Toscanelli’s answer came quickly. Christopher locked himself in his study and opened the letter with trembling fingers. He read it hurriedly and then his heart leaped. He had a copy of the letter to King Alfonso and the chart of the Ocean Sea!

Toscanelli’s chart indicated that there were some five thousand nautical miles from Spain to China, with stopping places at the mythical island of Antillia, which he had even attempted to locate, and at Japan.

But Columbus thought he knew better than Toscanelli. He was certain that the Ocean Sea was even narrower than Toscanelli indicated on his chart. The voyage could be made. It had to be done! He folded the papers carefully and locked them in his desk.

The next week, although Felipa was ill, Christopher left for Lisbon and an audience with King John.

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