21 Facts You Never Learned About Christopher Columbus

There’s more to this famous explorer than just sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.

1. We don’t know where Columbus was born

Historians agree that Columbus was born somewhere in the Republic of Genoa in northern Italy, but they’re not sure whether he was born in the city of Genoa or not. This is why Columbus Day is one of the most controversial holidays in America.

2. Or when he was born

His birthday was sometime between August and October in 1451. Some sources say he could have been born as early as October, 1450.

3. He was the oldest of five siblings

He had four brothers: Bartolomeo (who also became an explorer and even joined Christopher in Hispaniola for a few years), Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo. They also had a sister named Bianchinetta.

4. His first voyage was likely not to the New World

Not much is known about Columbus’ early life, but as a young man, he was allegedly involved in an attack on Spanish ships off the coast of North Africa. His first long voyage was said to be in 1474, when he was hired for an expedition to the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea.

5. He had two sons

His first son, Diego, followed in his footsteps and served as admiral, viceroy, and governor of the Indies. After his wife died or left him (historians aren’t sure), Columbus had his second son, Fernando, out of wedlock.

6. His hair turned completely white early in life

Columbus was born with blonde hair, but it turned white by the time he was 30, according to his son, Ferdinand. Here are more historical figures you’ve been picturing all wrong.


7. He first landed in the Bahamas

When Columbus reached the New World on October 12, 1492, his ships landed on one of the islands of the Bahamas, probably Watling Island, which he mistook for Asia.

8. Actually, he never set foot on the mainland of North America

The parts of the New World that Columbus saw were the Caribbean Islands, South America, and Central America.

9. He made four trips to the New World

After his first trip in 1492, Columbus returned to the colony Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1493, visited Trinidad and the South American mainland in 1498, and reached Panama during his last voyage in 1502.

10. He was an author

In addition to journaling about his journeys, Columbus wrote two books. The Book of Privileges contains royal charters, papal letters, and other legal documents from the Pope, the Spanish royalty, and himself about expeditions to the New World. Part of the reason for writing it was to prove the Spanish crown didn’t honor promises they made to him over the years. In his second book, the Book of Prophesies, he claimed all of his voyages were part of a divine mission and he was bringing about the end of the world. Don’t miss these famous historical moments that never actually happened.


11. He didn’t discover America

According to a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the first humans arrived on North America 13,300 years ago. Here are a few cities and states that have stopped celebrating Columbus Day.

12. He was not the first European to cross the Atlantic either

This title is believed to be Norse Viking Leif Eriksson, who reached North America (present-day Newfoundland) nearly 500 years earlier. Though Leif Eriksson Day, celebrated on October 9, was made a national day of observance in 1954, most people don’t celebrate it—or even know it exists.

13. He had many slaves

Since the new lands Columbus discovered didn’t have precious gems, he saw people as the most valuable resources. On his first day in the New World, he told his crew to take six of the natives as servants. Over the course of his journeys, he ordered thousands of Taino, the native people he called Indians, to either be shipped to Spain to be sold or stay on the island and work for his crew.

14. He nearly destroyed an entire race

Only a few hundred of the Taino population were left within 60 years after Columbus first made landfall, primarily due to the diseases his crew brought over. However, some descendants of the Taino still live on the Carribean Islands.

15. He never knew he discovered a new continent

He died convinced that he had found a new passage to India. Did you know these 15 countries no longer exist, too?

16. He was arrested

In 1500, during his third voyage, Columbus was arrested by a royal commissioner and brought back to Spain in chains. Spanish royalty accused him of mismanaging the colony Hispaniola, but he was eventually released. King Ferdinand even subsidized his final voyage. Here are more messed-up history facts you’ll wish weren’t true.


17. His remains are scattered

Historians believe Columbus’s remains are scattered between the old and new worlds because he was transported across the ocean so many times.

18. His name isn’t Christopher Columbus

Since he was Italian, his birth name is believed to be Cristoforo Colombo. In Spanish, his name is Cristobal Colon, and in Swedish, it’s Kristoffer Kolumbus. It’s not only Columbus. We’ve been picturing Columbus (and these other historical figures) all wrong.

19. His sailors were gross

Columbus’s crew wore the same clothes every day for the entire voyage, and no one wore shoes. At that time, only the wealthy owned multiple sets of clothes. Lice was also a persistent problem onboard.

20. Nina and Pinta weren’t actually names of his ships

Those are nicknames that sailors gave the vessels. The Nina was originally called the Santa Clara because of its owner, Juan Nino. Pinta was also a nickname, meaning “the painted one” or “prostitute.”

21. He is celebrated around the world

In the Bahamas, Columbus Day is called Discovery Day. It’s called Dia de las Americas (Day of the Americas) in Belize and Uruguay. Argentinians celebrate Dia del Respeto a la Diversidad (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity), and Latin Americans celebrate Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race). Next, read up on 11 of the biggest lies that made history.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest