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Columbus and His Voyages

No portrait of Christopher Columbus drawn or painted from life is known to exist. The engraving presented here, is a copy of a highly regarded portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, a student of Michelangelo’s. As a portrait, it is a bit unusual. All other paintings of Columbus show him without a hat. In this one the figure wears a hat with a curled border. A deep-edged and ornate mantle hangs from his shoulders. His fingers are long and delicate. His face is round, his eyes blue, and a dimple is barely visible in his chin.

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that what is today considered one of the most important voyages in history was something of a failure at the time. Columbus had promised to find a new, quicker route to the lucrative Chinese trade markets and he failed miserably. Instead of holds full of Chinese silks and spices he returned with some trinkets and a few bedraggled natives from Hispaniola: some ten more had perished on the voyage. In addition, he had lost the largest of the three ships entrusted to him. Columbus actually considered the natives his greatest find. He thought that a new slave trade could make his discoveries lucrative. Columbus was hugely disappointed a few years later when Queen Isabela, after careful thought, decided not to open the New World to slave trading. Columbus never believed that he had found something new: he maintained, to his dying day, that the lands he discovered were indeed part of the known Far East. During his second journey he explored the south coast of Cuba, which he believed to be a peninsula of China rather than an island. He described the lands discovered during his third journey as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured it hanging from China, bulging out to make the earth pear-shaped. Although Columbus was a gifted sailor, he was a terrible administrator, and the colony he founded on Hispaniola turned against him. After his third trip he was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. Although he was quickly freed by the King and Queen, his reputation was shot. The Fourth Voyage was a failure by almost any standard. Many of Columbus’ men died, the ships were lost and no passage to the west was ever found. Columbus himself would never sail again, and died convinced that he had found Asia, even if most of Europe already accepted the fact that the Americas were an unknown “New World.”

Engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry. Proof impression of the plate printed on page 3 of Theodor de Bry, ed., Americae pars quinta (German edition: Americae das funffte Buch), Frankfurt, 1595. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


Is it then so surprising that the discoverer has been bypassed when the “New World” was given its new name?

From left to right, original maps of the four voyages of Christopher Columbus, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Olin Library Map Collection.