Why was Columbus funded for his Atlantic journey?

Why did Christopher Columbus receive funding for his Atlantic voyage? As I understand it, there was no debate about the world being round versus square or anything. The debate was that given the size of the Earth (calculated with remarkable accuracy by ancient Greeks), the journey was impossible. Columbus wildly underestimated it, he was wrong, it could be proven so, and most people with brains or money knew it. The distance from Spain to China was too great, and enough supplies simply could not be brought. Given this, why was he funded? Were they simply hoping the ocean wasn’t entirely empty on the way there? Did they think he might find something else? Were they simply getting rid of him?

Well, the king of Portugal did decline, for just those reasons - his experts concluded it was a bad bet. Same with the Italian maritime states. And initially at least, same for Spain.

However Ferdinand and Isabella ( primarily Ferdinand apparently ) eventually decided it was worth the risk, even as a poor bet. The potential income from such a trans-Pacific route, if realized, could be enormous. Vasco de Gama’s first expedition to India, despite significant casualties, reaped a 6000% profit. The outfitting of three ships was trivial in the face of those kind of returns.

And though Columbus was way off on the size of the earth, there were some estimates at the time that indicated his numbers were correct (that’s where he got the idea – there was a range, and he assumed the lower number of the range).

But the potential for riches if he was right made it worth the risk.

The Portuguese had pretty much locked up the eastward route. Going west, if it worked, would be a way of getting there without having to fight Portugal for every outpost and base along the way.

And even if he didn’t make it to “the Indies,” there was always the chance he might come across a lesser discovery like the Azores and Madiera, discovered in the early 1400s (or maybe earlier).

In fact, Columbus’s contract with the crown suggests they didn’t really expect him to discover all that much. It promised to appoint him Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands discovered, and give him a fairly generous cut of the proceeds. Once the size of Columbus’s discoveries became apparent, the crown began to try to figure out ways to cut back on all these promises.

Even if (and I assume so) the general consensus was that Columbus’s estimate was insanely “optimistic”, I imagine the actual cost of the expedition to be easily expendable for a royal family at the time. And if he was wrong, at least he’d never bug you again. :slight_smile:

6000% ?!? That’s a better return than the jackpot on those scratch and win lottery tickets that I bo-- er, my grandma buys all the time! :slight_smile:

Actually, the monarchs were pretty hard up at the time due to the expenses of the final campaign to expel the Moors from Spain, which was finally successful in 1492. They put up only part of the funding; some of the rest came from Italian investors.

The odds were heavily against the expedition’s success, but Ferdinand and Isabella were willing to bet somebody else’s life on it.

Although Ferdinand and Isabella had spent a lot of money to kick the Moors out of Spain, this also gave them an incentive to try to find new ways of bringing in revenue. As others have said, the amount of money a successful voyage to the East Indies could make was huge. The east was blocked by the Ottoman Empire after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Portuguese had the African route sewed up. There were also other competing nations (Portugal, the Italian city-states, England) that might change their minds and fund Columbus.

From what I remember reading about Columbus during the 500th anniversary in 1992, one thing about him that stands out is he was always able to find someone in a higher social position to believe him and sponsor him. A lot of other experts thought his calculations were wrong and based on faulty assumptions (they were right) but no one was 100% sure. Columbus was also a very capable sailor and knew about the trade wind patterns that helped him sail west and return east at a different latitude with the wind in his sails.

Primarily Isabella. She funded it privately, rather than from kingdom moneys; she was always more of a dreamer than her husband. Columbus claimed the land he’d found for Castilla, not for Aragon: if his funding had come from Ferdinand, he would have claimed it for Aragon. That would have led to a different legal system in America, and down a different path in History.

There were rumours that Chris and Bella were “getting biz-zay” if you know what I mean :slight_smile:

Really? In what manner?

I thought that the legal system in the U.S. was based primarily on British Common Law, except for the French influence in Louisiana.

Or were you referring to America in the continental sense, meaning Central and South American countries?

The continental sense.

They found an additional source of finance soon enough. We all know what other major event occured in Spain in 1492.

I read something once that said that two different ancient Greek philosophers ahd calculated the size of the earth. The accepted view was that it was 8,000 miles diameter, which would have made the voyage impossible. (Magellan barely made just the Pacific).

Columbus took the contrary view of another Greek calculation, that the world was 4,000 miles diameter; added up the rough calculations of distance eastward derived from Marco Polo’s memoirs of his voyages, and concluded that China was only a few thousand miles west from Spain, within reach of a modern ocean voyage.

I guess he was persuasive enough to get a backer. As mentioned, most potential backers were persuaded by others that his premise over the size of the earth was incorrect.

There’s a fair bit of speculation that people in the exploration business at that time knew that there was land to the west of Europe.

The Vikings had been there, Basque fishermen certainly fished pretty close to North America, various others might have been there, John Cabot probably did go there, and it’s certainly possible that Columbus had heard about Cabot’s explorations.

It seems likely to me that well informed people with an interest in navigation believed (or knew for a fact) that there was reachable land in that direction. They probably didn’t have any idea of where it was exactly, or what it was, but they had a pretty good idea that there was something solid in that direction.

Can I piggyback a question off of this statement?

When I was in Barcelona, they showed us the steps where Columbus met the King and Queen to bear tidings of his voyage. According to the tour guide, if the King and Queen received bad news from their subject, he would be killed on the spot. So apparently anyone who asked for funding from the King and Queen was putting their life on the line as collateral.

Is this actually true?

I have never heard of anything like that about Columbus, or about other explorers from the era, in pretty extensive readings on the subject. That sounds like pure invention by the tour guide. And if it were true, why would an unsuccessful returning explorer ever go back to Spain, when they could easily just defect to Portugal or England?

Columbus screwed up his governorship of Hispaniola so badly that he was sent back to Spain in chains, and his discoveries turned out to be disappointing in terms of gold and other riches compared to what the real Orient would have brought in (at least until the Aztec and Inca Empires were found long after Columbus’s death). Despite this, he wasn’t executed, but given more ships for his fourth voyage, which although it made some discoveries, was a huge disaster (he lost all his ships and spent over a year shipwrecked on Jamaica). And even when he returned after that debacle, he wasn’t punished, although the crown did try to keep him at arm’s length.

It was indeed a Castilian venture, but the old idea of Isabella hawking her jewels was apparently mythical glorification by de Las Casas. And Ferdinand claimed credit for her change of heart. Wiki:

Isabella turned Columbus down on the advice of her confessor, and he was leaving town by mule in despair, when Ferdinand intervened. Isabella then sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later claimed credit for being “the principal cause why those islands were discovered”.

Ferdinand’s secretary, Luis de Santangel, apparently was a backer of the plan ( and would help heavily finance it ), which may have strongly influenced Ferdinand’s views. Of course so did Isabella’s former confessor Juan Perez and Elliot has speculated that in the wake of the conquest of Granada the pious Isabella may have been swept up in fervor. The idea of outflanking the Ottomans was apparently on her mind.

At any rate it appears the monarchs were more minority backers in terms of immediate financial return ( from the initial voyage ), a great deal of the cash was raised privately including by de Santangel. Isabella’s importance was to give it the official go ahead and political cover for any discovered territories ( i.e. Columbus’ eventual financial rewards and high political office as viceroy - being so in hock to financiers, Columbus otherwise wouldn’t have gotten diddly other than glory for discovering the Americas ).