"In our own times by the wonderful enterprise of Christopher Columbus of Genoa another world has been found and added to the Christian community"
These words begin the first writing about Christopher Columbus to appear in a printed book. It is found in Psalter (a book of the Psalms from the Bible) in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Chaldaic. The editor has put a note about Christopher Columbus next to the part of Psalm 19 which says “their words have gone to the ends of the earth”.
This book was printed in Genoa, where Columbus was born in 1451. By 1477 he had moved to Portugal, the seafaring capital of the world.
Columbus knew that the world was round. He had read the work of Ptolemy and other ancient geographers. He believed that he could reach the east by sailing west - he could get to Asia by crossing the Atlantic. No one knew that the American continents lay in the way.
The Portuguese wanted to find a sea route to the riches of Asia in order to cut out the network of traders in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. This would make spices and other luxuries less expensive for Europeans. But they would not back Columbus’ idea. Neither would England or France.
Finally, Columbus won the support of Spain. The Queen made him Admiral and gave him three ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria . He set sail in August 1492. He sailed for 61 days until he reached land. The map below shows the route he took on this first voyage.
Like Ptolemy, Columbus believed the world was much smaller than it really was. He believed he had reached the Indies. He was actually in the Bahamas.
Columbus made three more voyages to the Americas. He was sure that he had reached Asia and that China and Japan were just over the horizon. It was left to other people like Amerigo Vespucci to spread the idea that Columbus had discovered a new world.
The book pictured below is called The new world of regions and islands unknown to the ancients. It was published in Switzerland in 1532. It includes a section on the discoveries that Columbus made 40 years before. It describes Columbus as a man "of tall stature, with a colour inclined to redness, with a longish face". Click on the picture to see more.
First line of a note about Christopher Columbus in the Polyglot Psalter printed in Genoa in 1516. Click on the image to see more
Title-page from the Polyglot Psalter. Click on the image to see more.
This detail from a map published in 1535 shows the Bahamas. The caption under the island of 'Spagnoha' says that it was "discovered by Christopher Columbus of Genoa, captain of the King of Castile, in the year 1492". Click on the image to see more