Christopher Columbus’ momentous voyage of 1492 marked the culmination of much speculation and probing and opened the way for an era of exploration the like of which the world has never seen. Most of what we know about the voyage is contained in a journal that Columbus kept. (
West and By North
, p. 39)
Columbus’ journal begins with a prologue addressed to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. He relates the highlights of their reign at the time of his voyage: Ferdinand and Isabella entering Granada and expelling the Moors and Jews from Spain; and their command to him to sail to India to convert the people to Catholicism. He mentions also what his voyage will do for their royal majesties and what it will do for him as well.
Another of Columbus’ jobs is to record the details of the voyage daily—how far they went, what happened during the day, etc.
Also, Lords Princes, I resolved to describe each night what passed in the day, and to note each day how I navigated at night. ... Above all, I shall have accomplished much, for I shall forget sleep and shall work at the business of navigation, that so the service may be performed; all which will entail great labor. (
West and By North
, p. 41)
In the first part of the excerpt, Columbus tells of the voyage crossing the sea. He tells how he lied about the number of leagues they had gone so as to not frighten the sailors. He then describes the sighting of land, after seeing sandpipers, other birds, and some kinds of weeds in the water.
When they said the ‘Salve,’ which all the sailors were accustomed to sing in their way, the admiral asked and admonished the men to keep a good lookout on the forecastle and to watch well for land; and to him who should first cry out that he saw land, he would give a silk doublet, besides the other rewards promised by the Sovereigns—which were 10,000 maravedis (about $67.50) to him who should first see it. At two hours after midnight the land was sighted at a distance of two leagues. They shortened sail and lay by under the mainsail without the bonnets. (
West and By North
, pp. 45-46)
Columbus then describes the landing on Watling Island, called Guanahani by the Indians. The natives were naked, and very handsome. They saw mostly youths, with very coarse hair. They were painted black, white, red, or other colors. Some had the paint only on their faces while others had paint all over their bodies. They didn’t have any weapons and didn’t know what they were when Columbus showed them some swords.
The natives would make good servants and Christians, according to Columbus. He plans on taking six natives back to Spain for the King and Queen.
Columbus describes the island as being very green with many trees, much fruit and a lot of water. The only animals he sees are parrots.
Columbus believes he has found India and that China and Japan are close by. He is searching for gold and spices, and will go wherever they are to bring them back to Isabella and Ferdinand.
Columbus describes his trip to Cuba from the island of Hispaniola. He goes there to find gold, spices, merchandise and large ships. He says that “this island is the most beautiful that eyes have seen, full of good harbors and deep rivers, ... full of very beautiful mountains, although they are not very extensive as regards length, but high... (
West and By North
, p. 48)
The natives are very helpful to Columbus. They tell him of riches beyond belief and of glories yet to come. The Indians of the interior of Cuba all want to go with Columbus because “they thought the Spaniards were returning to heaven.” (
West and By North
, p. 49) And, for the first time, the Indians are seen smoking.
The excerpt ends with a description of the ship destroyed on a sandbar, and the return to Palos. Columbus intends to report to Isabella and Ferdinand as soon as possible.
Before Columbus reached Europe after the discoveries made on his first voyage, he sat down in his cabin aboard ship and composed a letter which he proposed to send by some messenger from his first landfall in case anything should happen to him before his arrival in Spain. Actually, he carried the letter to Spain himself. It was enclosed with one addressed to the sovereigns, which has been lost. (
West and By North
, p. 51)
This letter gives many more details of Columbus’ explorations in the various islands he finds while searching for China. The letter is published in several languages which helps to spread the news of Columbus’ successful voyage, even though he still thinks that he has found India.
Bartolomé de Las Casas
Bartolomé de Las Casas was born in Sevilla in 1474. He had a good education and served in the army against the Moors. In 1493 he saw Columbus’ triumphant return with seven Indians who were carrying red and green parrots, fishbone belts, and masks.
In September, 1493 his father and two uncles sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. When his father returned in 1498, he gave Bartolomé a Taino Indian boy as his servant. Later Queen Isabella ordered the boy to be set free and sent back.
In January, 1502, Las Casas left for the Indies with his father in Nicolas de Ovando’s ship. Because of his knowledge of Latin, Las Casas was given the job of teacher of Christian doctrine to the Indians. He received a good salary, and he could acquire property like other settlers. They landed in Santo Domingo and heard about gold being found and a war with the Indians (which meant there were plenty of slaves for the taking).
While he was living in Hispaniola, Las Casas “helped put down Indian uprisings and was rewarded by Admiral Diego Columbus with an
near La Concepción. An
was a tract of land or village whose Indians were entrusted to a Spanish settler who, in return for instructing the Indians in Christian doctrine or promising to instruct them had the right to their forced labor in fields or mines.” (Sanderlin, p. 7)
In 1513 Las Casas went with Pánfilo de Narváez to conquer Cuba. He received another
in Cuba where he farmed, raised cattle, traded with Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, and became wealthy. He treated his slaves well but became concerned with others’ treatment of the Indians. Nine tenths of the Indian population disappeared on Hispaniola, due to overwork, abuse, and disease. In Cuba, Las Casas saw Indians being slaughtered and tried to stop it.
Because of his growing concern for the natives, Las Casas arranged for the release of his slaves and preached a sermon denouncing the Spanish treatment of the Indians (1514). In 1515, Las Casas met with King Ferdinand about the abuse of the natives. Ferdinand died before he could take any action.
Between 1516 and 1522 Las Casas went all over asking for changes in the handling of the Indians. He developed a plan of “communities” to replace the system of
. The Indians would be living in villages of their own, grouped around Spanish towns. They would work with carefully chosen supervisors, and would get a share of the profits.
Las Casas was appointed Protector of the Indians in 1516. He did the best he could to fulfill his obligations.
In 1518-1519, Las Casas attempted to recruit Spanish farmers who would emigrate to the Indies and help establish an integrated society of Spaniards and Indians working together, in place of Spanish masters exploiting Indian slaves. (Sanderlin, p. 10)
Las Casas received some land in Venezuela for a colony. For this tract of land, he promised Charles I (Ferdinand’s successor) to establish five Spanish towns, to convert the Indians, and to deliver 15,000 ducats in three years from the sale of various products.
He left Spain with seventy colonists, but before they arrived, Spaniards from Cuba enslaved some of the Indians. In revenge, the Indians had killed two Dominican friars and destroyed the monastery.
Spaniards from Hispaniola with Gonzalo de Ocampo were on their way to punish the Indians by taking more slaves. Las Casas tried to stop them when they arrived in Puerto Rico. He went to Santo Domingo to protest to the authorities. Then he proposed a merger of the two groups. They could share the profits and only Indians judged guilty of cannibalism would be made into slaves.
The seventy colonists Las Casas left in Puerto Rico while he protested, ran away and joined Ponce de León in his attempt to conquer Florida. When he arrived at his land in Venezuela, there was only a small number of settlers with him.
Ocampo’s men continued to raid Las Casas’ settlement until he was persuaded to go back to Hispaniola to protest. When he left, his second in command, Francisco de Soto left in their only ships to get slaves. Soon afterwards, the Indians killed a lay brother, a gunner, an interpreter, and de Soto, and burned the monastery.
On his return, Las Casas’ ship landed at the wrong end of Hispaniola, and it took him weeks to return to his land. On his way, he heard about the massacre and decided that God was punishing him for the compromises he had made. He entered the Dominican monastery, and in 1523 was professed a Dominican.
For the next eleven years, he studied law and theology. In 1527 he was sent to the monastery at Puerto de Plata in the northern part of Hispaniola. He refused “to grant absolution to Spanish colonists unless they would make restitution for goods and services taken from the Indians.”(Sanderlin, p. 13) He began to work on his book,
History of the Indies
while he was in this monastery.
In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a bull
which “proclaimed the rationality of the Indians and their capacity to receive the Faith. They were not ‘beasts who talked,’ as the conquistadors called them.” (Sanderlin, p. 13) This papal bull became the basis for Las Casas’ beliefs and encouraged him to continue fighting for Indian rights.
Las Casas returned to Spain in 1540 to bring more monks back to Guatemala to help christianize the natives. The climate was more favorable to his proposals this time, and Charles I (Charles V Holy Roman Emperor) enacted the New Laws on November 20, 1542. The New Laws stated that the Indians could not be made into slaves and there were to be no more
given out. Those
that were functioning, would revert to the Crown upon the death of the owners.
Las Casas was offered the bishopric of Chiapa in Mexico where he was to administer the New Laws. This was a very difficult time for him because the Spanish settlers were hostile and hated him for his beliefs. Soon there were revolts in Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua against the New Laws. Las Casas planned to return to Spain to get support for his reforms. Before he left he received word that “the emperor had revoked the Law of Inheritance, which had provided for phasing out the encomiendas.” (Sanderlin, p. 17)
In spite of the news Las Casas left for Spain and stopped in Mexico City for a bishops’ conference. While he was there he wrote the
or rules for confessors. This book caused Las Casas to be accused of treason.
He had insisted on every penitent’s freeing his Indian slaves and making full restitution before receiving absolution, no matter what heirs were waiting for his property—because the penitent’s wealth had been unjustly acquired. But if everything done by Spaniards in the New World had been unlawful, what just claim did Spain have to the Indies? What right did Spaniards have to be there at all? (Sanderlin, p. 18)
All copies of the book were confiscated, and Las Casas had to explain his ideas to the Council of the Indies.
At this time, Las Casas found himself with a literary adversary, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, the emperor’s chronicler served in the Spanish army in Italy and France.
Alvar Nu–ez Cabeza de Vaca
Cabeza de Vaca was appointed
of the Narváez expedition to the New World. In 1527 Narváez and six hundred men sailed from San Lúcar de Barrameda with Cabeza de Vaca as second in command.
Pánfilo de Narváez participated in the conquest of Cuba. He was sent by governor Diego de Velásquez to go to Mexico and arrest Hernán Cortés because he defied the governor’s authority, but Cortés imprisoned him for a while, and he returned to Cuba without Cortés.
In 1527 Carlos I granted him land along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to R’o de las Palmas, as a reward for his loyalty. “As governor and captain-general he was empowered to explore, conquer, and settle this area—this, to be sure, was to be done at his own expense, as was the common practice in the Age of the Conquistadors.” (Cabeza de Vaca, p. XVII)
Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his voyage is called “La relación” end “picks up the story of the attempt to activate Narváez’ grant, as they sailed from Spain, the stop in Espa–ola, the defection of one hundred and forty of the prospective colonists there, the progress of the party along the south shore of Cuba, the loss of two ships during the hurricane season, the landing in Florida, the imprudent dispatch of the ships to explore westward, the overland advance of the land party to the north, the continuing disappointments at finding no great riches, the realization that they were stranded, the decision to fashion boats and make for Pánuco (New Spain/Mexico), the loss of several of these boats in the Gulf, the arrival of some eighty survivors on the Texas coast, the gradual reduction of these to four, the trials and experiences of these four until their final arrival in new Spain.”(Cabeza de Vaca, p. XVII)
In November, 1528, the survivors of the voyage landed on the Texas coast, traveled up the Florida peninsula from Tampa Bay, and fifteen days later reached the Withlacoochee River. They crossed the river and the Suwanee, went to the northwest and entered Tallahassee. Cabeza de Vaca gives an early picture of the Florida countryside, the flora, fauna, sources of food, and the natives.
The party stayed in Tallahassee about a month exploring inland and toward the Gulf, with no success in finding riches. They decided to return to Christian lands, to Pánuco, in particular, as it was supposed to be closer than the Antilles.
The Spanish went toward the west across the Apalachicola toward the Gulf. Near Panama City on St. Andrew Bay (Bah’a de los Caballos) they built five boats for two hundred fifty men and left on September 22. Seven days later they were in Penascola Bay. When they reached Mobile Bay they hit a storm.
They met Indians, members of the five Civilized Tribes of the old southwest. They reached the Mississippi, whose strong current helped by the north wind, pushed the barges far into the Gulf. They could not stay together, so it was each group for itself. Three of them were lost, including the one with Narváez aboard.
Cabeza de Vaca’s boat landed on the eastern end of Galveston Island in early November. Dorantes-Castillo’s group also made land. There were more than eighty men who landed, but many died from exposure, difficulties, or Indians. Some tried to find Pánuco by walking, but they perished also. Only four men survived to continue the exploration.
The most interesting and exciting segment of the narrative begins with this landing, so called, on the Texas coast. The following seven and a half years is an amazing record of human endurance, suffering, courage, ingenuity, and many things more. (Cabeza de Vaca, p. XXII)
Cabeza de Vaca’s men and those of Dorantes-Castillo found each other on Galveston Island. They tried to repair the barge that was in better condition, but they couldn’t. The men split up, each group going with a different group of Indians. The next few years were hard.
After a while, the Dorantes-Castillo survivors went to Matagorda Bay and stayed there for several years. During this time Cabeza de Vaca, “playing the role of trader, moved farther inland than any of the others, and saw more of the country and its strange wonders, among them the American bison, the ‘shaggy cow.’ ” (Cabeza de Vaca, p. XXIII)
Toward the end of 1532, Cabeza de Vaca went to Matagorda Bay and found only Castillo, Dorantes, and Estevanico. All others had died. They stayed together, with their Indians during the pecan-gathering season of 1532-1533. They were separated by the Indians.
The four men met again in 1533 in the area of San Antonio during the
is the prickly pear cactus. The four men talked of escaping, but they decided to wait for another year. They separated again with the Indians going in different directions.
In 1534, during the
season, they decided to escape. They went north, probably as far as the beginning of the Colorado River.
Spring, 1535 found the men acting as medicine men for the Indians, and moving toward the west through New Mexico. They never saw any buffalo. They did see robes made from buffalo skin made by the Indians.
The four travelers stayed with many different Indian groups. They heard of Indians beyond the mountains who always had a lot of maize. They heard of Indians who lived in towns who also had a lot of food. Cabeza de Vaca and the others were only interested in going to the west to find their own people. They went up the R’o Grande to find a westward route but missed meeting the Pueblo Indians.
They also met the Opata farmers and the Pima farmers and hunters. They crossed many rivers and heard of white men to the south. They met Diego de Alcaráz, one of Ni–o de Guzmán’s men. Melchor D’az, the mayor of Culiacán greeted them warmly. From there it was relatively easy to get back to Spain.
Cabeza de Vaca tells about Indian customs, their foods, and the animals such as the buffalo, antelope, and jackrabbit. His report on precious metals was disappointing to the Spanish. He did not find any precious metals in his travels.
The three men who endured the adventures with Cabeza de Vaca ended their lives in different ways. Castillo went back to Spain with Cabeza de Vaca, but then returned to New Spain, married a widow, and lived a very comfortable life on the revenues from the Indian town of Tehuacán. Dorantes was supposed to be a member of the expedition to the north led by Mendoza, but for some reason, he didn’t go. He married Do–a Mar’a de la Torre. They had a big family. He received several
and became quite wealthy. Estevanico fared the worst of the four men. Dorantes gave him to Mendoza who sent him as a guide to Fray Marcos de Niza to do some scouting for the expedition. Estevanico was impatient to arrive at his destination so he went before the priest. He “reached Háwikuh, principal of the cities of ‘C’bola,’ vexed the men of the Zu–i nation by his swagger and swash buckling manner; the Indians, fearing that he was a spy or an advanced agent of potential conquerors and finding that he was much too attractive to their women, saw to it that he was eliminated.” (Cabeza de Vaca, p. XXIX)