In 1473, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) embarked on his first maritime voyage from his home near Genoa, Italy headed for the island of Khios in the Aegean Sea. Upon his return in 1476, he traveled in a convoy destined for England. Legend has it that pirates sunk Columbus’s ship near the coast of Portugal. Columbus swam to shore and settled in Lisbon, where his brother Bartholomew worked as a cartographer.
Based on speculative maps, Columbus concluded that there was a quicker route to the markets of Asia than was yet known. Instead of heading south and circumnavigating Africa, Columbus proposed to sail west. In the 1480s, Columbus presented this proposal to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain. In April 1492, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to sponsor Columbus’s proposed voyage. On August 3, 1492, the three modest ships that comprised Columbus’s party, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, set sail. They sighted land on October 12, 1492. The ships landed on Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas. Columbus claimed the land for the King of Spain and renamed the island San Salvador. Believing he had reached the West Indies, Columbus called the natives “los Indios,” or Indians. The members of the expedition returned to Spain triumphantly on March 15, 1493. After receiving a title of nobility, Christopher Columbus immediately launched a larger expedition. On November 3, 1493, this fleet of 17 ships anchored near present day Puerto Rico. His third and fourth voyages set sail in 1498 and 1502.
Columbus's early descriptions of the Americas, as in his “Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage” (1493), liken the land to an earthly paradise brimming with potential for European colonists. By the time that he sent his “Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella Regarding the Fourth Voyage” (1503), he had been undone by political charges against him, several mutinies, and the realities of his colonizing mission. He died impoverished in Spain in 1506 with his public reputation in tatters. Later, when Americans looked for founder-heroes in the early years of the republic, authors like Washington Irving (The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) documented Columbus’s story. Focusing largely on his arrival in the Americas as opposed to the colonization of the area, Irving and others enshrined Columbus as a hero. His popular reputation ever after became that of the bold, courageous adventurer who enabled American civilization, and he is memorialized here and elsewhere as such.
For the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in 1492, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society commissioned Spanish sculptor Jeronimo Sunol (1839–1902) to fashion this bronze portrait sculpture. The statue employs religious and imperialist imagery as the explorer holds in his right hand the Spanish flag with a cross on top. At his side, a globe is mounted to a cable-entwined capstan. The statue bears similarities to Sunol’s Columbus monument installed in 1885 at the Plaza de Colon in Madrid.
The statue rests on an elaborately carved granite pedestal with numerous undercuts, bevels and moldings designed by architect Napoleon Le Brun. It complements the monuments of Shakespeare, the Indian Hunter, and Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns installed earlier in the southern region of the Mall in Central Park. On May 12, 1894 the statue was unveiled during a ceremony presided over by the sculpture committee’s chairman, General James Grant Wilson. The large crowd of spectators and participants included Vice President Adlai Ewing Stevenson, Mayor Thomas Francis Gilroy, Park Board President Abraham Tappen, Bishop Henry C. Potter, Italian Ambassador Baron de Fava, Spanish Minister Senor Don Muruaga, business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and author and social reformer Julia Ward Howe. Mr. Chauncey M. Depew, the orator for the occasion commented, “New York can add nothing to the glory of Columbus, but she may enforce the lesson of his life and discovery.” The Central Park Conservancy last refurbished the statue in 1993.