Columbus Day has become an occasion not just to celebrate the first steps toward founding America, but a time to re-examine what we know about the famed explorer. The accomplishments of Christopher Columbus are myriad and well-known, but much of his life's story, as well as his subsequent voyages to the Americas, is lost in mythos and misconception.
While he did in fact "sail the ocean blue" in 1492, the biography of Christopher Columbus is filled with obscure facts and historical oddities that never make it into any school nursery rhyme - or even into many textbooks. Many people still believe that Columbus set out from Spain to prove the Earth was round - but we know he didn't. We also believe he made peaceful contact with the natives of what he thought was India - but he didn't, and he actually believed he'd reached the mythical land of Japan.
Could he have even made it there? What about his other trips to the New World? Or his revisionist reputation for brutality and cruel treatment of the natives? Here are some facts about Columbus that, despite decades of re-examination, most people don't know.
"Christopher Columbus" Wasn't Actually His Name
The famed explorer was born Cristoforo Colombo - or Cristóbal Colón, if you speak Spanish. "Christopher Columbus" is the Anglicized version of his name, but he likely wouldn't have answered to that. Among other unknowns about Colón/Columbus's life is what he looked like - as no portrait of him was painted during his lifetime.
Columbus sailed under the Crown of Spain, but definitely wasn't Spanish by birth. Little is known of his early life, but it's generally agreed upon that he was born in Genoa, at the time an independent city-state and satellite of Spain. He would be considered Italian today.
Writers like Washington Irving have implanted in the popular consciousness that Columbus set out to prove Catholic teaching wrong about the Earth being flat. But it was already widely believed that the Earth was round. As early as the sixth century BCE, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras used mathematics to surmise the world was round, and later, Aristotle proved it with astronomical observations. By 1492 most educated people knew the planet was not a flat disc.
While Columbus found the unexplored land that came to be known as "the New World," it wasn't what he was looking for. He was seeking a quicker passage to Asia that wouldn't involve crossing the Silk Road, which had been sealed off due to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire. The aims of his voyage were exploiting the gold and spices believed to be found in abundance in the Orient - and to grab some for himself.