Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Italian-born Spanish navigator who sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a route to Asia but achieved fame by making landfall in the Americas instead.
On October 12, 1492, two worlds unknown to each other met for the first time on a small island in the Caribbean Sea. While on a voyage for Spain in search of a direct sea route from Europe to Asia, Christopher Columbus unintentionally encountered the Americas. However, in four separate voyages to the Caribbean from 1492 to 1504, he remained convinced that he had found the lands that Marco Polo reached in his overland travels to China at the end of the 13th century. To Columbus it was only a matter of time before a passage was found through the Caribbean islands to the fabled cities of Asia.
Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas—Vikings from Scandinavia had briefly settled on the North American coast, in what is now Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, in the late 10th or early 11th century. However, Columbus’s explorations had a profound impact on the world. They led directly to the opening of the western hemisphere to European colonization; to large-scale exchanges of plants, animals, cultures, and ideas between the two worlds; and, on a darker note, to the deaths of millions of indigenous American peoples from war, forced labor, and disease.
|II||EUROPE IN THE TIME OF COLUMBUS|
Understanding Christopher Columbus is difficult without understanding the world into which he was born. The 15th century was a century of change, and many events that occurred during that time profoundly affected European society. Many of these events were driven by the centuries-long conflict between Christians and Muslims, followers of the religion known as Islam.
The event that had the most far-reaching effects on Europe in the 15th century was the fall of the city of Constantinople (modern İstanbul, Turkey) to the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Constantinople had been the capital of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire for centuries, and it was an important center for trade between Europe and Asia. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire, which had already conquered much of southeastern Europe, captured the city, closing an important trade route from Europe to the east (see Ottoman Empire). European merchants could still buy Asian goods from Muslims in places such as Alexandria, Egypt. However, Europeans longed for a sea route to Asia that would allow them to bypass the Muslims and purchase Asian products directly. In addition, European princes and kings quickly realized that the first nation to find such a route could become very wealthy by monopolizing the highly profitable Asian trade.
The first European nation to begin actively seeking a sea route to Asia was Portugal. The Portuguese had already begun exploring Africa in the early 1400s, and in 1415 they invaded northern Africa and conquered the Muslim commercial center of Ceuta on the Strait of Gibraltar. This gained the Portuguese access to the lucrative African trade, which, until that time, had been dominated by the Muslims. Under the tutelage of Prince Henry the Navigator, who established a school for navigators in southern Portugal shortly after the Ceuta invasion, the Portuguese began exploring the western coast of Africa, hoping to find a route to the riches of Asia by going around the southern tip of the continent. Other nations, not wanting to be left behind, began sponsoring voyages of exploration as well. Into this world, full of the excitement of exploration and discovery, Christopher Columbus was born.
|III||CHILDHOOD AND EARLY YEARS|
Biographical facts on Columbus vary from author to author. However, most scholars generally agree that he was born in the Italian port city of Genoa, on the Ligurian Sea (an arm of the Mediterranean Sea), between August 25 and October 31, 1451. His name in Italian was Cristoforo Colombo, which is translated into English as Christopher Columbus, into Spanish as Cristóbal Colón, and into Portuguese as Christovão Colom. Columbus used the Portuguese version of his name while in Portugal and the Spanish version after moving to Spain in 1485.
Columbus’s father was Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver who was also involved in local politics. His mother was Suzanna Fontanarossa, the daughter of a wool weaver. The eldest of five children, Christopher had three brothers—Bartholomew, Giovanni Pellegrino, and Giacomo—and one sister, Bianchinetta. The entire family moved to the nearby port city of Savona, west of Genoa, in 1470.
Although how much formal education Columbus received as a child is not known, the schools of Italian craft guilds (which Columbus, as the son of a wool weaver, would have attended) did offer a rudimentary level of reading and writing. As a boy, Christopher joined his father in the family business of wool processing and selling. He may have worked as a clerk in a Genoese bookshop as well. However, as did many other young men who grew up in a major seaport, Columbus soon began a life of seafaring.
|A||Early Seafaring Career|
Beginning his seagoing career at age 14, Columbus served on various ships in various roles, including messenger, common sailor, and, perhaps, even as a 21-year-old privateer. Columbus’s son Ferdinand stated in History of the Life and Deeds of Christopher Columbus that in 1472 Columbus was given command of a ship on a privateering expedition to Tunis in northern Africa. In a lost letter, Columbus supposedly related to his son how René I, duke of the French province of Anjou, had commissioned Columbus to make a surprise attack on a large Spanish ship sailing off the coast of North Africa. Most historians doubt, however, that Columbus ever received command of the expedition.
Much more credible, though, is a subsequent expedition. In 1474 Columbus was hired as a sailor on a ship bound for the island of Khíos in the Aegean Sea, an arm of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This was his first long voyage and must have proved profitable, because after spending a year on the island he was able to become economically independent from his family. This voyage also represents a great irony in the life of Columbus—the trip to this small island in the Aegean brought him the closest he would ever get to Asia.
On August 13, 1476, a Genoese commercial expedition of five ships bound for England gave Columbus his first opportunity to leave the Mediterranean Sea and sail into the Atlantic Ocean. But it was an inauspicious beginning for Columbus: According to tradition, the entire fleet was attacked by French privateers off Cape Saint Vincent on the southwestern tip of Portugal. Both sides lost ships; Columbus, one of the unfortunate ones whose ship was burned, had no escape other than to swim for the Portuguese coast. He made it the 10 km (6 mi) to shore by clinging to wreckage. After regaining his strength in the port of Lagos, Columbus made his way to Lisbon and its large community of Genoese merchants and shipbuilders. He was 25 years old.
By 1477 Columbus was settled in Lisbon. Since the beginning of Portuguese voyages of exploration in the middle of the 14th century, Lisbon had become a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants, and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents. Columbus’s brother Bartholomew worked in Lisbon as a mapmaker, and for a time the brothers worked together as draftsmen and book collectors. Later that year, Columbus set sail on a convoy loaded with goods to be sold in northern Atlantic ports.
In 1478 or 1479 Columbus met and married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, the daughter of a respected, though relatively poor, noble family. Felipa’s father, Bartolomeo Perestrello, who was already deceased when Columbus met Felipa, had served as governor of Porto Santo in the Madeira Islands, a Portuguese possession off the northwest coast of Africa. Soon after their marriage, the newlyweds accompanied the rest of the family back to Porto Santo, where Felipa’s oldest brother took over the governorship. Columbus and Felipa moved to the larger island of Madeira in 1480 or 1481, soon after their son Diego was born. It is believed that Felipa died soon thereafter.
In late 1481 or early 1482 Columbus sailed to the Portuguese fortress of Elmina, in what is now Ghana, on the western coast of Africa. Columbus was impressed with the riches Africa offered, especially gold. In addition, like all good navigators, he was eager to learn about winds and ocean currents from the local pilots and sailors. In the waters off the coast of Africa and the nearby Canary Islands Columbus first observed the ocean phenomenon known as the Canaries Current (see Atlantic Ocean: Currents). Knowledge of this fast-moving current running west of the Canary Islands could well have been the reason that Columbus later chose to start his crossing of the Atlantic in the latitude of the Canaries, far south of Spain or Portugal.
|IV||THE “ENTERPRISE OF THE INDIES”|
The experiences of these years led directly to the genesis of Columbus’s plan to reach the east by going west, what he called his “Enterprise of the Indies.” (To Europeans in Columbus’s day, all lands to the east of the Indus River in Asia were “the Indies.”) Inspiration and assistance for his plan came from a number of sources. First, his marriage into the Portuguese nobility proved helpful because, although relatively poor, the family still had connections to the Portuguese court. Columbus apparently gained access to his father-in-law’s papers and found a wealth of information, including maps, charts revealing ocean currents, interviews with sailors, and stories about objects that had drifted to the coast of the Madeira Islands from the west.
Also contributing to the formation of Columbus’s plan were his association with the Genoese community in Portugal and his expeditions to Africa. Both furthered his knowledge of Atlantic waters, and his trips to Africa brought him close to the Canary Islands, giving him knowledge of the Canaries Current. Also, while in ports in England, Ireland, Iceland, and other northern regions, Columbus may have heard stories of lands to the west of Iceland. Although the histories of the Vikings, who settled Iceland and Greenland in the 9th and 10th centuries, never became part of the knowledge base of medieval Europeans, it is believed that stories of their encounters with unknown islands in the northern Atlantic were widespread. Columbus’s genius was his remarkable ability to gather information from around the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and combine his own experiences with ancient theories from books in a way that few navigators could.
Columbus’s idea of sailing west to get to the east was not original with him, nor did he ever claim that it was. Columbus drew upon science and knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. In Greek and Roman times, for example, geographers theorized that there was only one body of water on the surface of the Earth and that it connected Europe and Asia. If so, one could theoretically sail from the west to get to the east. Only the distance was disputed.
Columbus’s ideas of the size of the earth and the distance between Europe and Asia were based on the descriptions contained in several geographic works. These works included the 2nd-century manuscript Geography by Ptolemy; Imago Mundi (Image of the World) by Pierre d’Ailly, published in the early 1480s; and The Travels of Marco Polo, written in 1298 after Marco Polo returned from China. Unfortunately, his ideas did not prove particularly accurate.
Columbus founded his theory on two mistaken propositions—that the Asian continent stretched much farther to the east than it actually does, and that Japan lay about 2,400 km (about 1,500 mi) east of the Asian mainland. Columbus also greatly underestimated the circumference of the earth. Columbus calculated that the Canary Islands lay only about 4,440 km (about 2,760 mi) from Japan; the actual distance is about 19,000 km (about 12,000 mi). Similar errors were made by other learned men of the time, including the Florentine geographer Paulo de Pozzo Toscanelli, with whom Columbus may have corresponded. Neither Columbus nor anyone else in Europe suspected that two vast continents lay in the way of a westward passage to Asia.
|V||SEARCH FOR PATRONAGE|
Columbus decided to seek patronage for his plan first in Portugal. With few interruptions, the Portuguese crown had encouraged and supported exploration for over a century, and nearly all new discoveries in the Atlantic were Portuguese. Furthermore, it was well known that the reigning monarch, King John II, was personally committed to sailing around Africa and discovering a direct sea route to the Indian Ocean and Asia.
The king’s strong support of geographical exploration made him a logical choice for Columbus to approach. In addition, Columbus had been in Portugal for seven years and had married a Portuguese noblewoman. According to tradition, in 1484 the king listened to Columbus’s proposal to sail to the east by going west and summarily passed it on to his Council of Geographical Affairs. But after a public hearing, the council denied the request on the grounds that it was too expensive, that Columbus was wrong about distances and measurements, and that such a plan contradicted Portugal’s commitment to finding an eastward route to Asia by traveling around Africa.
After his disappointment in Portugal, Columbus took his young son and moved to Spain in 1485 with the intention of presenting his plan to the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I. Spain lagged far behind Portugal in exploration of the Atlantic. The two powers had engaged in open hostilities since Spain had begun to dispute some of Portugal’s claims in Africa and to Atlantic island groups, such as the Canaries and the Azores. In 1479 Spain had gained control of the Canary Islands, although Portugal did not abandon its claims. A fragile peace existed because neither side wanted to go to war over the issue. According to tradition, one of the reasons the Portuguese king rejected Columbus’s plan was his concern over aggravating the situation with Spain.
One of Columbus’s first stops in Spain was the monastery of La Rábida in the southern port town of Palos de la Frontera, not far from the Portuguese border. At the monastery Columbus found not only a boarding place for his son Diego but also support from the friars, several of whom became great believers in his vision. One of them, Friar Antonio Marchena, spent many hours discussing geography with Columbus. He also helped shape Columbus’s plans by directing him to the writings of the ancients and of church authorities who were known to support the idea of a westward crossing of the ocean. Through Marchena, Columbus was introduced to powerful noblemen as well, including Friar Juan Pérez, one of the guardians of the monastery—and the confessor of Queen Isabella. Pérez introduced Columbus to the court of the Spanish monarchs.
Columbus moved to Sevilla (Seville) in 1485, and between May 1486 and September 1487, he was maintained at the expense of the queen. Although interested in his ideas, the king and queen were in the midst of a protracted war to conquer the province of Granada in southern Spain, which had been held by the Moors, a Muslim group, since 711. This war left the monarchs little time to consider Columbus’s plan. Finally, in 1487, Columbus presented his project to a committee of experts called to hear the case. The committee raised numerous objections, asked many questions, and, in the end, rejected the plan. Among the reasons given for the rejection was that the ocean was simply too large to cross.
While waiting for the war in Granada to end, Columbus established a liaison with a young peasant woman named Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. During this period of great despair, Columbus’s one comfort was his love for Beatriz. Although the two never married, in 1488 they had a son named Ferdinand, who later accompanied his father on his final voyage to the Americas.
In the last weeks of 1491 Columbus made his final appeal to the Spanish monarchs in the royal camp as the monarchs prepared for their final battle with the Moors in Granada. But again his plan was rejected. Columbus had successfully won over many of the learned scholars and scientific advisers, but this time the rejection was due primarily to his excessive demands for rewards. His requested payment (one-tenth of all riches from the Indies), and his demands for the titles of admiral, which would give him the right to judge commercial disputes; of viceroy, which would make him the personal representative of the monarchs; and of governor, which would enable him to act as supreme civil and military authority in any new lands he explored, caused the king and queen to flatly refuse the project. According to tradition, as Columbus rode away on his mule, Ferdinand’s treasurer, Luis de Santángel, interceded on Columbus’s behalf. Arguing that the investment was small considering the potential reward, Santángel convinced the king and queen to reverse their decision. A court official was dispatched on horseback to bring Columbus back. After several more weeks of negotiating a contract, in April 1492 Columbus left for Palos de la Frontera and his rendezvous with history.
|VI||THE FIRST VOYAGE (1492-1493)|
The people of Palos were ordered to provide and equip two caravels (small, light sailing ships). The first, owned by Cristóbal Quintero, was called the Pinta; the second, owned by Juan Niño, was officially named the Santa Clara but known as the Niña. The third ship, a small, round ship with a large hold, most likely a type of vessel known as a nao, was Columbus’s flagship. It was called the Santa María and was owned by Juan de la Cosa. Little is known about the actual construction of the ships, but evidence suggests that the Niña and the Pinta were small, about 54 metric tons each and 21 to 24 m (70 to 80 ft) in length. The Santa María was 80 to 90 metric tons and not much longer than the other two. Of the three, the Pinta was the fastest.
Initially Columbus had difficulty recruiting a crew because many sailors feared a voyage into the unknown. The royal secretary tried to help by offering freedom to any convict who enlisted. Some experienced seamen objected to this plan, but in the end only a few convicts accepted. More than anything, the friars of La Rábida and Martín Alonso Pinzón, an experienced sea captain from Palos, persuaded local sailors to join the expedition. Two other Pinzón brothers also joined the voyage; all were commanding officers.
About 40 men including Columbus sailed on the Santa María. Between 20 and 30 men were each on the Pinta and Niña. Most were Spanish, with the largest number coming from around Palos. The crew was made up largely of experienced seamen and a few government officials. But the crew included no priests, no soldiers, and no settlers—this was a voyage of exploration and discovery.
|A||Life Aboard Ship|
Little is known about life aboard the ships, but it could not have been comfortable. There were no crew’s quarters and no mess halls. Only the captains and pilots had cabins, and they were very small. At night the crew slept wherever they could find a vacant spot, tying themselves down to prevent being tossed into the sea. Prayers, songs, stories, chores, eating, and waiting filled the sailors’ days. Stargazing under a new, unknown sky filled their restless nights.
The ships carried enough provisions for a year, at a time when two weeks at sea was a long voyage. Supplies on board included foodstuffs, such as water, dried fish, salt meat, live pigs and hens (to be killed aboard ship), rice, cheese, and figs; navigational instruments, including nautical almanacs, charts, compasses, magnets, hourglasses, and rulers; and trade items, such as glass beads, brass rings, knitted caps, gold, silver, pearls, and spices.
Navigation in the 15th century was far from an exact science, although several navigational tools and aids were available. The most important navigational aids were compasses, astrolabes, hourglasses, maps, and charts. Although celestial navigation (finding direction by checking the positions of stars and other heavenly bodies) was the favored method while sailing under familiar skies, a technique known as dead reckoning was more dependable on voyages in unknown seas.
Using an astrolabe, a metal disk inscribed with a map of the major celestial bodies, a mariner could tell location simply by positioning the stars on the astrolabe to match the stars in the sky. But the astrolabe worked only when the skies were clear and the positions of the stars were known. On cloudy days or when the stars in the sky were unfamiliar, celestial navigation and the astrolabe were ineffective.
In dead reckoning, the technique often used for traveling in unknown waters, the position of the ship was determined by starting with its last known location. Then, by calculating what direction the ship was going, how fast it was going, and how much time had passed, the pilot could come up with a new position. Pilots could calculate the distance they had traveled in an hour or a day by dropping a floating object in the water at the front of the ship and timing how long it took to get to the back of the ship. Knowing how long the ship was, the pilot could calculate how fast the ship was moving and, thus, how far they had traveled.
Columbus preferred dead reckoning over celestial navigation and was never comfortable with the astrolabe and other devices for navigating using the heavenly bodies. Above all, he was masterful in interpreting the signs of nature, such as the behavior of birds, the smell of the air, the color of the sky, the condition of the seas, the pressure he felt in his joints, the appearance of floating debris, and more. Successful navigators survived by “reading” nature in this way. Columbus was expert at this and could even predict hurricanes accurately.
|C||The Westward Journey|
At daybreak on August 3, 1492, the small flotilla of ships left Palos de la Frontera for parts unknown. At the age of 41, standing on the bow of the Santa María, watching the coast slowly slip below the horizon, Columbus left behind on dry land a struggle that had lasted a quarter of his life. He was now in his element, doing what he had dreamed about for the past ten years.
After a trip to the Canary Islands, where the rudder of the Pinta was repaired, the voyagers departed the known world on September 6, 1492. Throughout the voyage the ships traveled primarily westward. The choice of sailing from the Canary Islands proved to be a good one, as the Canaries Current speeded their journey. On September 25 it was thought that land was sighted, but it was nothing more than low-lying clouds. As the trip lengthened, many of the crew feared that the strong daily winds would prevent them from getting back to Spain. Columbus had difficulty with his crew at times, and he found it hard to work with the Pinzóns, especially Martín Alonso, who had much more experience than Columbus. However, there is little evidence that the crew was ever close to mutiny. Moreover, the story that Columbus tried to deceive the crew by keeping two sets of logs, one that showed the distance they had traveled as much shorter than it actually was, is only legend.
Two hours past midnight on the morning of October 12 a lookout named Rodrigo de Triana (sometimes called Juan Rodríguez Bermejo) on the Pinta cried out “Tierra! Tierra!” (“Land! Land!”). A reward of a pension of 10,000 maravedis per year (an able seaman could earn about 12,000 maravedis per year) was to go to he who saw land first. Rather cruelly, Columbus pocketed the money himself, claiming that he had seen several lights the night before.
On October 12, 1492, Columbus and a handful of the excited but weary voyagers set foot on land after 36 days of sailing. Columbus raised the royal standard, claiming the island for Spain, and two of the captains carried banners decorated with green crosses and letters representing Ferdinand and Isabella. Soon the curious islanders, with some trepidation, came out of their hiding places and greeted the visitors.
The location of the actual landfall site is still in question. Called Guanahaní by the Taínos, the island was renamed San Salvador (“Holy Savior”) by Columbus, but no one today knows for sure which island it was. Most favor either Watling Island (renamed San Salvador in 1926 to honor Columbus) or Samana Cay in the Bahamas. Ten or more islands in the Bahamas fit the physical description as recorded by Columbus in his journal, which described the island simply as large and flat, with bright green trees and a great deal of water.
The islanders were friendly and open to trade with the sailors. They traded anything for anything: balls of spun cotton, parrots, and spears for the sailors’ glass beads, red caps, and trinkets. Called Taínos by the Spaniards, the islanders belonged to a larger language family called the Arawak. The Taínos showed neither fear nor knowledge of Spanish swords and cut themselves while examining the weapons. Most interesting to the explorers, however, was the fact that the islanders had small pieces of gold pierced in their noses. In addition, they told Columbus that the inhabitants of other islands wore gold bands around their arms and legs. They also described countless islands, all like theirs. The Spaniards, believing that they had arrived in the Indies, soon called all islanders “Indians.”
On the third day, Columbus, accompanied by several Taíno guides, left San Salvador to explore other islands. By the end of October, Columbus reached the coast of Cuba. After sailing north and then south along its coast, he was convinced that it was one of the lands described by Marco Polo. Despite the fact that the local pilots told him it was an island, Columbus convinced himself that Cuba was a promontory of China. Shortly after this event, Martín Alonso Pinzón suddenly sailed off in the Pinta without leave. Although historians disagree on the reasons why, many suspect that Pinzón, disgruntled with the lack of riches that had been discovered to that point, went off in search of gold.
Crossing the Windward Passage to the east of Cuba, Columbus sailed to another large island, which he called La Isla Española (“The Spanish Island,” modern Hispaniola). For a month he cruised the coast, stopping occasionally to inspect the land and the people. On one of these excursions, Columbus met and befriended a young Taíno chief by the name of Guacanagarí. After a brief meeting aboard ship, arrangements were made for another meeting, this one on Christmas Day, December 25, at the chief’s residence in a nearby village. Before the meeting could take place, however, the Santa María struck a reef off the coast and grounded. Over the next few days, the crew of the two ships and Taínos in canoes sent by Guacanagarí removed everything that could be salvaged. They constructed a fort out of the lumber of the ship and stored enough supplies to last a year. Thirty-nine men stayed behind in the fort, the first European settlement in the Americas since the Vikings had landed in what is now Newfoundland and Labrador some 500 years earlier. But the settlement, named Villa de la Navidad (“Christmas Town”), would prove no more enduring than had those of the Vikings.
|E||Return to Spain|
On January 6 the Pinta rejoined the expedition, and shortly thereafter the two remaining vessels headed home. Upon leaving the Caribbean, Columbus again had the good fortune of finding an ocean current, just as he had in the Canaries. Entering the Gulf Stream, his ships sailed far enough north to catch the prevailing westerly winds. But the return trip was not uneventful. As the ships approached Europe, they encountered a terrible storm. The Pinta became separated from the Niña and arrived at the port of Bayona on the northwest coast of Spain several days before the Niña made landfall. Columbus limped into Lisbon, where he was apprehended by agents of King John II. Although suspicious of Columbus’s story, the king accused him of violating Portuguese sovereignty in the Atlantic, which had been extended to all lands south and west of the Canary Islands by a series of papal decrees beginning in the 1450s. Afraid that the king might not release him, Columbus sent a secret messenger to the Spanish court relating his experiences and his detention. By mid-March he was free to return to Spain. On March 15, 1493, at noon, the Niña entered the harbor of Palos de la Frontera, 32 weeks after leaving from the same port. Although Pinzón had arrived in Spain earlier, he did not reach Palos until several hours after Columbus. Very sick, Pinzón died before he had a chance to report to the king.
Columbus alone held the stage. When he appeared before Ferdinand and Isabella at the royal palace in Barcelona, he was accorded the honor of being invited to sit with them and to eat at the same table. With a parade of exotic islanders and colorful parrots, he told his tale of the voyage and of the islands he explored, describing their lush vegetation and strange inhabitants. He also showed the gold he had brought home, some of it in the form of crowns, masks, and ornaments, and some in the form of nuggets and dust.
All of his rewards were reconfirmed and he was addressed by his new title, “Admiral of the Ocean Seas.” He received 1,000 doubloons, the equivalent of 345,000 maravedis. Columbus had delivered what he had promised—at least everybody at the Spanish court thought so—and as such he owned the day. He urged the sovereigns to equip another expedition as soon as possible, promising gold, spices, and other riches. The admiral had little difficulty persuading the Spanish royalty to sponsor a second voyage.
To prevent the Portuguese from attempting to claim the results of his voyage, Columbus had sent a letter to Pope Alexander VI (himself a Spaniard) as soon as he arrived in Spain. His letter explained his explorations in as much detail as he felt he could reveal. The pope issued a papal bull, or decree, in May 1493 granting control to Spain of every island Columbus had encountered. At Columbus’s urging, an imaginary line, called the Line of Demarcation, was drawn in the ocean 100 leagues (about 483 km/about 300 mi) west of the Cape Verde Islands. It was declared that all previously unknown land west of the line not belonging to a Christian sovereign belonged to Spain; anything east of the line went to Portugal. This declaration resulted in an immediate conflict because of the grant that had been made to Portugal in 1481. A resolution was reached in the following year when the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. In this treaty the Line of Demarcation was moved to 370 leagues (about 1,780 km/about 1,110 mi) west of the Cape Verde Islands.
|VII||THE SECOND VOYAGE (1493-1496)|
The second voyage departed from Cádiz on September 25, 1493, and was of a much larger scale—17 ships and about 1,200 men accompanied Columbus. Included in the crew were two of Columbus’s brothers, Bartholomew and Giacomo (who, after moving to Spain, used the Spanish version of his name, Diego). The purposes of the voyage were to return to La Navidad in Hispaniola to relieve the men left behind from the first voyage, settle more colonists on the islands, and explore and claim other islands.
To quicken the departure, in case another nation might attempt an expedition, the sovereigns did not hesitate to provide Columbus with whatever supplies he requested. The cargo included horses, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, grain, seed, and all the supplies needed for sailing, fending off attacks, building settlements, and setting up an administration overseas.
The fleet left Cádiz and, as before, stopped at the Canary Islands to make repairs and to store more meat, wood, and water. After leaving the Canary island of Hierro, the fleet took a more southerly route than before. On November 2, 21 days later, land was sighted. This new group of smaller islands (known as the Lesser Antilles) were south and east of the large islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (part of the Greater Antilles).
Encountering the islands of Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico along the way, Columbus reached Hispaniola at the end of November. The sailors fired a cannon to announce their arrival, but no one returned the salute. To their horror, they discovered that the entire settlement of La Navidad had been massacred and the site burned to the ground. As they searched for any trace of their compatriots, the newcomers found a mass grave in which several Spaniards had been buried. They discovered also that the village of Columbus’s friend Guacanagarí had been burned and destroyed. No one will ever know for sure what happened at La Navidad. The popular theory is that local islanders destroyed the settlement out of disgust with the Europeans’ greed and avarice.
|A||Founding of Isabela|
A new settlement, Isabela, was built a short distance east of La Navidad. Some of the settlers, however, balked at the prospect of doing manual labor. Many were ill, and others were more interested in finding gold and other riches than in building a settlement. To keep the colonists happy, Columbus organized an expedition to search for gold. When little gold was found, the settlers grew restive, and he decided on a policy of forced labor. Local peoples were put to work on the settlement. Enslavement of the indigenous peoples had not been one of the stated goals of the expedition and, in fact, it was offensive to the queen. Yet Columbus justified it on the grounds that it would be profitable.
Despite his policy of enslavement, Columbus did not find his first real riches on Hispaniola until 1496. Taking part in an expedition into the interior of the island, Columbus and his men forced the inhabitants of the region to gather loose gold. Within a few days they had collected about 10 kg (about 22 lb) of the precious metal. Although Columbus was impressed with the beauty of the Caribbean, he did not come looking for that. With incredible single-mindedness, the admiral was looking for riches and a doorway to Asia, to the land of Marco Polo, and hoping that Hispaniola might be Japan, and Cuba part of China.
Before returning to Spain in 1496, Columbus explored more of Cuba and encountered Jamaica. The admiral was determined to prove that Cuba belonged to mainland Asia and was part of the empire of the Mongols. Although he never sailed completely around the island, he did force his men to take a solemn oath that Cuba was a promontory of Asia.
As time wore on, relations between the Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola began to deteriorate. Instead of searching for provisions while Columbus was off exploring other islands, the men left behind raided Taíno villages in search of riches. With little hope for anything more than poverty and unhappiness, disgruntled settlers began returning home. Many of the men were sick, many died, and most were unhappy with the lack of opportunity. The fact that Columbus had left his brother Diego behind as governor of Isabela contributed to the admiral’s problems with the settlers. Diego was not an administrator. The colonists repeatedly protested against his ineffective rule and resented him for being an Italian. Some of the settlers began sending letters back to relatives and officials in Spain complaining about the conditions and the leadership. In October 1495 a Spanish official arrived with a royal commission to investigate Columbus and the charges that had been made by the discontented settlers. On March 10, 1496, Columbus had no choice but to return home hoping to preempt any royal inquiries into the complaints of the settlers. Leaving his brothers Bartholomew and Diego in charge of the colony, Columbus boarded a ship for Spain.
Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus a friendly welcome upon his return and listened with interest to his story about the discovery of new islands with great potential. They appeared grateful and continued to show him favor but waited more than a year before approving a third voyage.
|VIII||THE THIRD VOYAGE (1498-1500)|
Having been cleared of any wrongdoing, and with the full confidence of the monarchs, Columbus left Sevilla with a fleet of six ships on May 30, 1498. Separating the expedition, Columbus sent one part to aid the settlement at Hispaniola, while he took the other part and sailed farther south than ever before. Departing from the Cape Verde Islands, he crossed the ocean in hope of discovering new islands in the southwest, toward the equator.
Columbus had the misfortune on this trip of entering the doldrums, a dead space in the ocean where wind and ocean currents die and the heat is unbearable. After a little more than a week, the crew was saved by a wind that pushed them westward. Changing course to the north brought Columbus to an island with three mountain peaks, which he named Trinidad. From there they sailed west into the Gulf of Paria and then to the coast of South America, where they found the mouth of the Orinoco River, the largest river any of the crew had ever seen. Seeing the huge amount of water flowing into the sea, Columbus believed that he had found the Garden of Eden—in those days people thought that all great rivers flowed from there. Without giving in to the idea that he was someplace other than Asia, he did manage to report, “I believe this is a very large continent which until now has remained unknown.”
After several weeks of exploring Trinidad, the Gulf of Paria, and nearby Margarita Island, Columbus headed for Hispaniola, where his brother Bartholomew had begun building a new settlement. Bartholomew had decided to move the settlement from Isabela, which had a poor water supply, to a new site near a place where the Spaniards had encountered gold mines. The new settlement was named Santo Domingo. When Columbus arrived at the new settlement at the end of August 1498, however, he found not a city at work but a country at war. Many of the settlers, upset about the lack of opportunity and unwilling to put the effort into building a long-lasting colony, were rebelling. Two factions had formed: those who were loyal to the Columbus family, and the rebels, led by Francisco Roldán, whom Columbus had appointed mayor of Isabela before returning to Spain after his second voyage. It took two years to put down the revolt and restore order. To end the rebellion Columbus had to agree to give each of the rebels a plot of land and the islanders who lived on it.
Despite these measures, however, conditions in the colony continued to deteriorate over the next several months. In great anguish over his inability to bring peace to the island, Columbus requested that the Spanish king and queen send a judge to the island to deal with the situation. In response, the monarchs sent Francisco de Bobadilla. Unfortunately for Columbus, Bobadilla carried a decree stripping Columbus of the titles of governor and viceroy and appointing Bobadilla governor of the Spanish possessions in the Americas. Shortly after his arrival, Bobadilla seized Columbus’s house and records and sent an order to have Columbus and his brothers found and arrested. They were placed in chains and returned to Spain. Columbus refused to have the chains removed until the monarchs themselves issued the order to do so. He arrived in Cádiz in November 1500. Upon hearing of the plight of the admiral, the sovereigns immediately ordered the chains removed and he and his brothers freed.
On December 17, 1500, Columbus went before the royal court. The king and queen instructed that whatever items were taken from Columbus at his arrest be restored to him. The monarchs would not reinstate Columbus’s titles, however. Instead they removed Bobadilla and replaced him with Nicolás de Ovando. This was, however, neither victory nor vindication for Columbus. With his titles annulled, the former governor spent the next two years in despair and humiliation.
Meanwhile, a flurry of exploration had taken place in the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. In South America, ships reached as far south as Río de la Plata, which forms the southern border of what is now Uruguay, and far north along the coast of North America. Columbus clung desperately to his original theory that the islands he had encountered were part of Asia, but he was alone in his belief. Other navigators saw it as a world hitherto unknown. Whatever it was, colonial activity in the Americas took on a life of its own, and Columbus could do very little to alter its course.
In 1488 the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias had successfully rounded the southern tip of Africa, and in 1499 Vasco da Gama had returned to Lisbon after a successful trip around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. This gave the Portuguese their direct trade route to Asia and finally outflanked the Muslims who controlled the overland trade routes between Europe and Asia. For Columbus, Portugal’s success was a new opportunity, and the Spanish monarchs were again receptive to his vision of finding a strait to mainland China. Rather than retiring with a pension and an estate, perhaps even a castle, Columbus suggested yet another voyage, his fourth.
|IX||THE FOURTH VOYAGE (1502-1504)|
The king and queen made it clear that the purpose of Columbus’s fourth voyage was to search for gold, silver, precious stones, spices, and other riches. But above all, for fear of aggravating the situation in the colony, they forbade Columbus to return to Hispaniola unless absolutely necessary on his return to Spain.
Columbus’s fleet of four ships and 150 men set sail from Cádiz on May 9, 1502. On this fourth and final voyage, Columbus was accompanied by his son Fernando, age 14, and his brother Bartholomew. Columbus, now 50 years old, could not captain his fleet because of ill health and poor eyesight, but seamen loyal to him were honored to serve the admiral once again.
After stopping to take on wood and water on Grand Canary, in the Canary Islands, the expedition began its crossing on May 25. They stopped first at the Caribbean island of Martinique, where they provisioned the ship again. Then, despite having been expressly forbidden to do so by the king and queen, Columbus headed directly for Hispaniola, where he dropped anchor at Santo Domingo on June 29.
Columbus felt this action was necessary for two reasons. First, one of his ships was in disrepair and he wished to purchase another. Second, and more pressing, was an oncoming hurricane. In a message to Governor Ovando seeking permission to enter the port, Columbus advised him not to allow any ships to depart for Spain. Ovando refused to allow Columbus and his fleet to enter the port and did not take the admiral’s advice. Columbus took refuge in a small harbor nearby and was saved, but the large fleet that Ovando ordered to sea was almost entirely destroyed. Columbus must have felt that divine justice had been done. Not only did the two men he hated most, Bobadilla and Roldán, die at sea, but the ship carrying Columbus’s share of the wealth from the colony made it the entire way to Spain.
After the hurricane, Columbus sailed southwest, past Cuba, and into open seas until he reached Central America. Tortuous sailing conditions and violent storms along the coast took their toll on both the ships and on Columbus. The admiral, sick with rheumatism, fever, and bad eyesight, was bedridden much of the time. Unsuccessful in finding a passage to the Asian mainland, Columbus was forced to leave the area he called Veragua (Panama). Skirmishes with the locals, intense storms, and damaged ships meant that he had to head back to Hispaniola. It was December 1502.
One ship was lost on the coast of Panama and another at sea to sea worms (small mollusks). Consequently, 130 men were forced to crowd onto the remaining, barely sea-worthy, worm-riddled ships. Once at sea, realizing that Hispaniola was too far to reach in such condition, Columbus turned north to Jamaica, which he had encountered on his second voyage. The ships were in such bad condition that they were beached, worthy only of being used as protection from the islanders. Columbus remained marooned there with his men for over a year. Half of the men mutinied when Columbus tried to instill order and discipline. A second problem surfaced that was potentially more disastrous: Tired of dealing with the Spaniards, the islanders stopped supplying them with food. In response, Columbus came up with an ingenious trick. Having an almanac with him, he threatened to punish the islanders by taking light away from the Moon. On the night of February 29, 1504, when the Moon began to disappear because of a lunar eclipse, the islanders became alarmed and agreed to reestablish trade with the Spaniards. The Europeans, however, were still stranded on the island.
One loyal and brave sailor, Diego Méndez de Salcedo, who had protected the life of Columbus on other occasions, agreed to try to cross the open channel by canoe to reach Hispaniola, a nearly impossible feat. The island was over 160 km (100 mi) away, and Santo Domingo, home of Governor Ovando, was almost 480 km (300 mi). In five days Méndez and one other sailor made it to Hispaniola in two canoes paddled by islanders. After finding Ovando on a mission inland, the men were kept waiting seven months before a ship was sent to check on their story. The rescue ship did not arrive until the end of July, and the shipwrecked sailors did not arrive in Santo Domingo until August 13. Not feeling welcome in the city, on September 12, 1504, Columbus took his last voyage across the ocean, this time as a passenger. On November 7 he, his son, and his brother arrived in Spain.
By the time the admiral returned to Spain, Queen Isabella was gravely ill, and she died on November 26, 1504, shortly after his arrival. Weakened by rheumatism, exposure, and years of bad food, Columbus was very ill as well, and he spent many months in Sevilla recuperating at the monastery of Las Cuevas. Over the next year and a half until his death, Columbus tried to regain his lost titles of governor and viceroy. He wrote letters, petitioned the crown, and persuaded others to intercede on his behalf. When he was well enough, he followed the court of King Ferdinand to several cities in Spain, hoping to see the king. In May 1505 King Ferdinand finally granted Columbus an audience in which the explorer was allowed to present his claims to his titles and the riches of the Indies. His titles were not returned, but the king did allow for arbitration regarding his financial claims. In the end, Columbus’s share was confirmed at 2 percent of the riches of the Indies, a considerable amount. Combined with the fact that Columbus already had a coat of arms and noble status, this afforded the Columbus family a lifestyle equal to that of the richest nobility in Spain.
In late 1505 Columbus became too ill to travel any more. He remained in the city of Valladolid until his death. On May 20, 1506, both of his sons, his brother Bartholomew, and his faithful friend Diego Méndez were at his side when the admiral murmured “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit” and passed away. His body was buried initially in Valladolid, but in 1509 his son Diego transferred the remains to the monastery of Las Cuevas in Sevilla. The current location of Columbus’s remains is still debated. They were moved to the Americas in the middle of the 16th century, first to Santo Domingo and then, in 1795, to Havana, Cuba. Then his remains supposedly traveled back to Spain in 1899 where, it is claimed, they are interred in the Cathedral of Sevilla.
Long after the death of Columbus, his family struggled to have his titles reinstated and his honor restored. This struggle resulted in a small victory in 1509 when Diego became governor of Hispaniola. What seems to be the greatest injustice of all, however, is that the new lands that Columbus encountered were never given his name. That honor fell to a fellow Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, from the city of Florence, who explored the southern and eastern coasts of South America around 1500.
To exaggerate the historical significance of Christopher Columbus is difficult. Extraordinary changes resulted from his voyages. Although he failed to find a new route to Asia, Columbus made the lands and peoples of the Western Hemisphere known to Europeans, setting in motion a chain of events that altered human history on a global scale. The interactions Columbus initiated between the peoples of Europe and the Americas led to what scholars refer to as the Columbian Exchange, the two-way transfers of diseases, plants, animals, and cultures that followed Columbus’s voyages.
European diseases such as diphtheria, measles, smallpox, and malaria devastated the indigenous American population, which previously had not been exposed to them and so had no immunity to them. At the same time, however, the Americas received European crops, such as wheat, rice, coffee, bananas, and olives; and animals, including horses, cows, pigs, and chickens. The Americas, in turn, contributed a virulent form of syphilis to Europe as well as important crops, such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, lima beans, squash, peanuts, cassava, cacao, and pineapple.
Besides facilitating the exchange of disease, Columbus’s explorations had another dark side. The societies of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas seemed primitive to the Europeans, and the Europeans formed an image of them as “barbarians” that, unfortunately, persisted. The Europeans simply could not see, or did not wish to see, the complexities and cultural importance of the indigenous societies. European settlers in the Americas cared little or not at all for indigenous culture and saw the local population as nothing more than a slave labor force. As a result, indigenous cultures—as well as indigenous peoples—began to disappear as the European invaders advanced. Disease, forced labor, invasion, and conquest inflicted by the Europeans caused the deaths of millions of American indigenous peoples, in what can only be described as one of the greatest tragedies of all time.