Christopher Columbus

There are thousands of books on Christopher Columbus(1). We will stick to our theme “little known trivia, legends, and mysteries” and include the parts of his story that are relevant to the later colonization of America. As we have already said, Columbus was not the first European to sail west hoping to reach the East. He was just the first European to return and get credit for it.

This big man lived only fifty-four years. Circumstantial evidence concludes he was born in 1451. He stated in a real estate document, “I was born in Genoa.” Many writers from his day referred to him as “a Genoese.” However, some of Columbus’ descendents beg to differ. They have pointed to his writing style and claimed he was Catalonian. Catalonia, the northeast corner of today’s Spain, was a province of Aragon. [Little else defines Columbus as Spanish, however.]

A poet from Milan named Peitro Martire d’Anghiera wrote that Columbus was “a man of tall and eminent stature, ruddy, of great intelligence and long in face.” Antonio Gallo(2), a banker and merchant who did business with Columbus and his brother, Bartolomé, wrote that the brothers had a limited education as children, were brought up by plebian [lower class] relatives, and that their parents were in the textile trade.

Christopher was the oldest of Domenico Colombo and Susannah Fontanarossa’s five children. Domenico worked as a master weaver, ran a tavern, made cheese, and dealt in wool and in wine. To be considered a master, Domenico must have spent a long time working his way up in the business. He probably owned his own workshop. In 1470, when Christopher was nineteen, he worked with his dad as a carder [the people who combed and cleaned the raw wool]. Two years later, Christopher was listed in the city register as a lanaiolao [wool worker]. But soon after, he and Bartolomé went to sea “in the manner of their countrymen.”

The Genoese were superior mariners, as we have already seen. Their carracks were considered the finest in the world. Historians believe the only reason the Genoese did not build an empire like the Portuguese and the Spanish was because Genoa was a house divided. Her lordly families fought against each other so much [turf wars] that they were unable to agree on a central government. Between 1464 and 1499, including the time Columbus lived there, Genoa was governed by her neighbor, the Duchy of Milan.

Bartolomé soon changed paths and became a cartographer, while Christopher stayed aboard ships and became a merchant’s agent – like a traveling salesman. He would claim that over the next two decades he saw “everything from east to west.” He probably sailed north with the Venetian flotillas that traded in Southampton Harbour and in Flanders. He probably sailed south with the Portuguese fleets that traded in St. Jorge da Mina in Guinea.

The farthest east we know Christopher traveled was Chios Island in the Ottoman Empire, where, in the 1470s, the Genoese maintained a trading post. The rest of the Mediterranean was still dominated by the Venetian monopoly. The Muslim Ottoman Turks had taken control of Constantinople right after Columbus’ birth, ending the Pax Mongolica [Mongolian Peace] that facilitated Venetian trade with them.

Genoese families had built up wealthy merchant, banking, and diplomatic networks that connected the most important trading centers in the world: Genoa, the Levant, Portugal, Seville, Valencia, Cadiz, Cordóba, Málaga …. The same Genoese merchant families had underwritten Castile when she conquered the Canaries and Granada. They would eventually underwrite the Spanish conquests in the New World. They were already investing in Portugal’s new Guinea trade. Between all of those centers of trade moved gold, cash, and, most important of all, information.

Christopher could have worked for a number of those merchant families. Records indicate he was involved with the Centuriones, the di Negris [di Negros] and the Spinolas. The de Negri family had been trading along London’s Thames River since as early as 1304. The Spinolas would underwrite John Cabot’s venture to Newfoundland in 1497.

In the mid 1470s, Christopher and Bartolomé moved to Portugal, the latter probably before the former. According to Christopher’s son Fernando, who later wrote his father’s biography, in 1476 Columbus sailed on a flotilla owned by Giovanni Antonia di Negro that was attacked by a French corsair named Coulomb as it sailed past Portugal. When fire erupted on the ship on which Columbus sailed, he leapt into the sea. He grabbed an oar to keep himself afloat and swam two leagues to the Portuguese shore. Several months later, in December, Pedro di Negro commanded another Venetian flotilla that sailed to Lisbon to pick up the survivors of the earlier wreck. Columbus chose to stay in Portugal. [Other records hint he had established himself in Portugal earlier than that, though he may have been just visiting, serving as an agent of the Spinolas or the di Negris.]

A tourist guidebook on Portugal claims that after the pirate attack in 1476, Columbus ended up at Henry the Navigator’s navigation center on the Sagres peninsula, where he studied navigation from the Portuguese. Evidently that is the local folklore you will hear if you travel today to Cape St. Vincent.

One of the first concrete dates we have for Columbus’ whereabouts is a document from 1478. He had temporarily returned to Genoa to testify for a lawsuit involving Paulo di Negro and Luigi Centurione over a shipment of Madeiran sugar. It is fairly certain that by 1479, Bartolomé was living in Portugal and working for King Afonso V’s studio of royal cartographers.

In 1479, the year King Afonso V of Portugal and Queen Isabella I of Castile negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Alcáçovas-Toledo, Christopher Columbus married Doña Felipa Moniz Perestrello. [Doña means Lady, and Felipa was the Portuguese version of Philippa, from whom she may have descended.] Her aristocratic connections will help Columbus tremendously.

Felipa was the daughter of the late Bartolomeu Perestrello and his fourth wife, Isabel Moniz. We met Bartolomeu Perestrello in the article about Henry the Navigator. He was the sea captain who piloted the ship carrying explorers John GonçalvesZarco” and Tristão vas Teixeira when they returned to Pôrto Santo Island in the Madeiras archipelago to claim it for the Portuguese. Perestrello was the man who shipped the pregnant doe rabbit to the islands, the descendants of which caused havoc with the crops. When Zarco and Teixeira moved on to claim and govern the more prosperous Madeira Island, Henry the Navigator assigned Perestrello to take cattle to Pôrto Santo Island. As compensation, Henry awarded Perestrello a hereditary Capitão Donatario to serve as Pôrto Santo’s first governor.

Perestrello came from Genoese nobility. As we know, it was typical for the Portuguese to hire captains from Genoa to sail their ships. Perestrello then became a knight of the Order of São Tiago, the same order over which King João II became Grand Master, and which was formerly Castilian. Besides being a captain, explorer, and nobleman, Perestrello was a scholar. While guarding the Order of São Tiago’s navigation records, he collected a library of charts, maps, ship logs, instruments, and diaries that became second in importance only to Henry the Navigator’s library at Sagres [owned by the rival Order of Christ].

Bartolomeu Perestrello was related by earlier marriages to King João II. He married Felipa’s mother Isabel Moniz in 1450, as his fourth wife. [Many books claim Isabel was related to Queen Isabella of Castile, but we have yet to find out how]. Sadly for Felipa, her father died in 1457, when she was five years old. Felipa’s brother, Bartolomeu II, and sister, Violante(3), were only slightly older.

Their mother Isabel must not have been happy on Pôrto Santo Island because after the death of her husband, she sold his captaincy to a relation. By hereditary rights, it should have gone to her son Bartholomeu II when he came of age some five or so years later. The key to the library, however, remained hers.

Isabel moved her family to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, where her niece by marriage, Branca Dias Perestrello [daughter of her husband’s second wife Branca Dias(4)] was married to the Archbishop of Lisbon, Dom Pedro de Noronha, and where her brother, Christopher Moniz, was a Carmelite bishop.

At first she and her children lived with the Noronhas. [We will return to this family later. As you can see by the chart above, their daughter, Isabel, married King João II’s cousin, João of Bragança, which will cause problems for the Columbus family.] Then Isabel set up more permanent residency in the Convento de Todos os Santos(5) [the Convent of All Saints] run by the Order of São Tiago.

She sent Felipa and Violente to the convent school. Wives and children of knights of the Order of São Tiago were required to follow the rules set out by the order, however they could leave the convent whenever they wanted, or marry [or remarry] as long as they received permission from the king.

According to Fernando Columbus, Christopher and Felipa met at the convent, where Columbus often attended mass. Felipa and her sister had become politically savvy young ladies. Felipa served as one of twelve Comendadoras [the aristocratic council of women] who ran the convent.

Felipa’s brother, Bartolomeu Perestrello II, had married a descendant [maybe granddaughter] of Tristão vas Teixeira, the fellow who sailed with Bartolomeu’s father decades before.(6) Five years earlier, Bartolomeu II had sued his mother’s family to regain his position as the third Capitão Donatário [Lord and Governor] of the Island of Pôrto Santo Island. King Afonso V anointed him as the capitão on March 15, 1473.

Felipa’s sister Violante had also married. She was living in Seville(7) with her husband Miguel Moliarte(8) of Huelva, a navigator who traveled so far in his lifetime that he was later nicknamed Portugal’s Columbus. Huelva is a port close to Seville, right next to Palos, from where Columbus will sail in 1492. [Remember the Huelva connection when you read about Alonso Sánchez of Huelva.]

Perestrello’s library was well known and probably one of the Order of São Tiago’s most prize possessions. Christopher must have been aware of it before he married Felipa. It has been suggested that he received the key to the library as part of Felipa’s dowry. It is historical fact that he received the key. It is a mystery why the Order of São Tiago allowed Columbus possession of their library if he did not belong to the order.

Felipa needed King Afonso’s approval before she could marry Columbus, which means Christopher’s pedigree must have been better than some historians claim. After the wedding at Todos Santos, the couple moved with Doña Isabel back to Pôrto Santo, maybe because the library was housed there. Bartolomeu II lived in the Governor’s residence, but his lawsuit had ruined his relationship with his mother.

Columbus took over his father-in-law’s library. Maybe that was how he obtained the valuable copy of Marco Polo’s Travels. Probably many other documents and books in the collection inspired his future expedition.(9)

Within a year Felipa gave birth to a son she and Christopher named Diogo(10). Diogo’s birth record is the last historical document confirming Columbus’s activities until he shows up in Portugal in 1484. It is suspected that he and his family resided in Pôrto Santo during those four years. Columbus would have had plenty of time to read through his new book collection. Possibly he supported himself drawing charts. Inevitably, he got to know his in-laws.

Even if Christopher’s brother-in-law Bartolomeu II was angry at his mother, the tiny aristocratic society on Pôrto Santo Island had to communicate with each other. The Perestrellos had connections to the aristocracy of other Atlantic Islands, as indicated by their family tree. As we said, Bartolomeu II’s wife was related to the Teixieras who governed Madeira Island. Felipa’s cousin Inez Perestrello was married to the capitão donatário of Graciosa Island in the Azores. Henrique Moniz, a relation of Felipa’s mother, Inez Moniz, was married to the sister of João vas Corte-Real, one of the capitãos of Terceira Island, also in the Azores. Columbus was surrounded by Portuguese trading activities. At the least, his life on Pôrto Santo Island was an educating experience.

No later than 1484 [after João became king in 1481], Christopher joined Bartolomé in Lisbon, leaving his wife and several sons behind. Historians learned that Columbus and Felipa had more than one child from a letter he wrote later, but before his son Fernando was born. He said, “to serve these Princes [João, Ferdinand, and Isabella] from so far away, I left wife and children whom I never saw on account of it.” Note the plural children. A later letter written to Columbus after Fernando’s birth in 1488 referred to “otros vuestros hijos” [“your other sons”]. But in 1504, when Diogo was about twenty-four-years old, Columbus wrote to him, “Treat your brother [Fernando] as an elder brother should treat the younger. You have no other brother.” So apparently those other brothers died before 1504.

In Lisbon, Bartolomé and Christopher looked for sponsors for their expedition. Antonio Gallo, chancellor of the Bank of St. George in Genoa that helped sponsor Columbus, wrote that the ideas behind the expedition were all Bartolomé’s. Columbus only executed them because of his experience at sea.

The Perestrello and Moniz families probably helped Columbus obtain his audience with the Portuguese king to pitch his [or Bartolomé’s] scheme to sail west to reach the east. Bartolomé was already working in the king’s cartography studio. Letters have survived from witnesses to Columbus’ presentation to the king, but they do not say when it occurred. It was probably the early part of 1485, and certainly before Bartolomeu Diaz returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope in December of 1488.

The question is, what did the Columbus brothers need to prove to King João II to convince him to support their quest?


  1. Known in Portugal as Cristóbal Colón and in Spain as Cristoforo Colombo.
  2. Antonio Gallo was a public notary of Genoa and a chancellor of the principal bank in Genoa, the Bank of San Giorgio [St. George].
  3. Also spelled Brigulanga and Briolanje.
  4. Additional research is needed to see if Brance Dias was related to Bartolomeu Dias. Chances are she was.
  5. One account called it the “Convent and Cloisters of Santos-o-Velho."
  6. Bartolomeu’s wife was descended, on her mother’s side, from a Scottish navigator named Henry Sinclair.
  7. Author and historian Douglas Hunter asserts they did not move to Seville until 1493.
  8. Also spelled Muliar.
  9. Even though we know Paolo Toscanelli’s letter to King Afonso’s confessor was an inspiration to Columbus, the letter was not part of Perestrello’s collection. Toscanelli did not write the letter until 1474, long after Bartolomeu Perestrello’s death.
  10. His formal name was Diego Colón Moniz, Duke De Veragua Colon (1480–1526), 2nd Admiral of the Indies, 2nd Viceroy of the Indies, 3rd Governor of the Indies.

Next Article: The Columbus Brothers’ Faulty Calculations