Little is known about Columbus’s early years, except that he was born in 1451 and raised in the Italian city of Genoa. Genoa was a busy port, where the docks bristled with ship masts and the streets were crowded with sailors and sea captains.
Columbus went to sea with the small fleets that carried goods from Genoa to the rest of Europe. In 1476, his ship was attacked by French and Portuguese men-of-war. After his ship sunk, Columbus swam six miles to the coast of Portugal.
The disaster turned out to be the luckiest event in Columbus’s life. He traveled to Lisbon, a Portuguese port city that was the center of ocean exploration and trade. There Columbus learned mathematics, navigation, and astronomy, and joined several sailing expeditions.
In the 1480s, Columbus pondered a radical idea. Knowing that Earth was a sphere, he reasoned that the Indies could be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. Until then, European sailors pointed their ships south and east, trying to reach the Indies by sailing around or through Africa.
For years, Columbus tried to convince European monarchs to finance his voyage. The kings turned the matter over to their advisers. Some thought it too risky. Others correctly plotted that Japan and China were thousands of miles away and too far for a sea journey.
In England, King Henry VII’s advisers bluntly dismissed Columbus’s plans as “a joke.” Columbus finally found a sympathetic audience in Queen Isabella of Spain, but at the time the Spanish were busy fighting the Moors (Spanish Muslims) in southern Spain.
In January 1492, the last Moors surrendered, and Isabella and her husband, King Ferdinand, could provide Columbus with supplies, sailors, and three ships for his voyage, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.