Christopher Columbus was the son and grandson of cloth weavers. His grandfather, Giovanno Colombo, was a weaver who lived in Fontanabuona and later in Quinto, both near Genoa. His father, Domenico, became an apprentice weaver at age 11 in Genoa. How is it, then, that Christopher, the oldest son, became not a weaver but the greatest mariner of his age?
It is a question of some interest. Columbus scholars uniformly take the position that Genoa was, above all, a seafaring town, and what young boy of high intelligence and a keen observer of his environment would not be captivated by the excitement of great ships coming and going from a busy port? Samuel Eliot Morison explains it this way:
Christopher was living in a seafaring community, where every healthy boy took all the sailing he could get. Fishing trips, out at evening with the land breeze, net sardines all night by flaring torches under the stars and race the fleet home at dawn with the fresh libeccio to be first to market with your catch. (Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1942, p. 19)
One may picture him looking wistfully out on the harbor from the weave-room… or letting his eyes linger on the broad sweep of Mediterranean from the home in Savona where he worked at a loathed trade. (Ibid, p. 17).
Such “creative non-fiction” is found in virtually every biography of Columbus. Such writing is based on the possible, even probable, but is unsubstantiated by actual evidence. It is certainly possible that Columbus was simply drawn to sea as boy living in one of the great seaports of his time. But Columbus himself suggests that there may have something else that pulled him from the weaver’s loom the ship’s helm.
Regarding when he first went to sea, Columbus states in a letter to the Spanish Monarchs written about 1501, “At a very tender age I entered upon the sea sailing, and so have I continued to this day.” His son, Ferdinand, states that Columbus first went to sea at age 14.
By why did he turn from the loom to sea at such a young age? In a letter to the Monarchs dated 7 July 1503, Columbus writes that he received a vision “in my youth” in which the Holy Spirit spoke directly to him in these words: “God…will cause your name to be wonderfully proclaimed throughout the world…and give you the keys of the gates to the ocean which are closed with strong chains.”
It is a remarkable statement, particularly in light of Nephi’s prophecy where he says he “beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man.” (1 Nephi 13:12)
We know nothing more of this vision of Columbus’s. How old was he? He states only that it was “in my youth.” But if Ferdinand’s assertion is correct, it may well have been at about age 14 that a young man from an otherwise unremarkable family had a life-changing vision that would ultimately change the world.
NOTE: Professor Delno West provides the translation of Columbus’s record as it is quoted above. Having read the original Spanish transcription, I find it hard to render the text in English in the way Prof. West did. Whether Columbus actually had some type of spiritual manifestation in his youth is a question that cannot be verified with certainty based on existing documents.