Christopher Columbus, Italian Cristoforo Colombo, Spanish Cristóbal Colón, (born between August26 and October 31?, 1451, Genoa Italy—died May 20, 1506, Valladolid, Spain), master navigator and admiral whose four transatlantic voyages (1492–93, 1493–96, 1498–1500, and 1502–04) opened the way for European exploration, exploitation, and colonization of the Americas. He has long been called the “discoverer” of the New World, although Vikings such as Leif Eriksson had visited North America five centuries earlier. Columbus made his transatlantic voyages under the sponsorship of Ferdinand II and Isabella I, the Catholic Monarchs of Aragon, Castile, and Leon in Spain. He was at first full of hope and ambition, an ambition partly gratified by his title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” awarded to him in April 1492, and by the grants enrolled in the Book of Privileges (a record of his titles and claims). However, he died a disappointed man.
The period between the quatercentenary celebrations of Columbus’s achievements in 1892–93 and the quincentenary ones of 1992 saw great advances in Columbus scholarship. Numerous books about Columbus appeared in the 1990s, and the insights of archaeologists and anthropologists began to complement those of sailors and historians. This effort gave rise to considerable debate. There was also a major shift in approach and interpretation; the older pro-European understanding gave way to one shaped from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Americas themselves. According to the older understanding, the “discovery” of the Americas was a great triumph, one in which Columbus played the part of hero in accomplishing the four voyages, in being the means of bringing great material profit to Spain and to other European countries, and in opening up the Americas to European settlement. The more recent perspective, however, has concentrated on the destructive side of the European conquest, emphasizing, for example, the disastrous impact of the slave trade and the ravages of imported disease on the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region and the American continents. The sense of triumph has diminished accordingly, and the view of Columbus as hero has now been replaced, for many, by one of a man deeply flawed. While this second perception rarely doubts Columbus’s sincerity or abilities as a navigator, it emphatically removes him from his position of honour. Political activists of all kinds have intervened in the debate, further hindering the reconciliation of these disparate views.