IV. Overview of Columbus’s Voyages
Few stories in history are more familiar than the one of Christopher Columbus sailing west for the Indies and Japan and finding the New World instead. Not a school child in America is unfamiliar with the famous explorer who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 on the Nina, the Pints, and the Santa Mar’a. “America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it; we now honor Columbus for doing something that he never intended to do, and never knew what he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge, or the sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.”(8)
The story begins in Genoa in 1451 when Susanna Columbo gave birth to a son named Christoforo. Little is known about Christopher s childhood but we do Know that at an early age he became very interested in seafaring. By the time that Columbus was in his early thirties, he had arrived as a master mariner, having sailed from above the Arctic Circle almost to the Equator, and from the Eastern Aegean to the outer Azores. His practical navigational skills were excellent and he understood geography and cosmography as well as anyone. The stage was set for Columbus’s journey into history. “His mind was seething with the notion of sailing west to the Orient, acquiring wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, And glory exceeding that of any earlier mariner.”(9)
Columbus departed from the seaport of Palos on Friday, August 3, 1492 bound for the Indies with signed contracts with the Spanish Sovereigns guaranteeing “ten percent of all gold, gems, spices or other merchandise produced or obtained by trade within these domains, tax free; he shall have the right to invest in one eighth of any ship going thither; and these offices and emoluments will be enjoyed by his heirs and successors forever.”(10) Seventy days later, at 2:00 A.M. on October 1st, Rodrigo de Triana spotted land — Wattings Island. Columbus went ashore and gave this island the name San Salvador—Holy Savior.
After his initial landing Columbus continued to explore the Caribbean region, discovering additional islands named in honor of the Spanish Crown and of the Catholic Church. The second island was called Isla de Santa Marina de Conception; the third, Ferrandina; the fourth, La Isla Belles and the fifth, La Isla Juana. In his
First Letter From The New World
, Columbus described in detail the numerous large harbors and rivers as well as the magnificent vegetation with a wide variety of fruits and herbs. There were also many references to many mines of metals and the abundance of gold. However, the islands that he discovered were not rich. The quantities of gold that he claimed he was just about to discover were always on the next island. As for the herbs, the islands had large supplies of aloe and gum mastics but no valuable spices. The only real wealth of this area laid in its human inhabitants who were forced into digging for the non-existent gold almost immediately. Columbus also advocated exporting them to Spain but the Catholic sovereigns frowned on this suggestion and returned the natives to their islands (although slavery for people from Africa and other parts of the world was encouraged). As for Columbus’s
, it became the most important document for the first voyage since it summarized the Admiral’s discoveries and achievements. One should note, however, that it tells nothing of any adverse events because it was, after all, a success story that brought Columbus fame and honor as well as additional funding for his second voyage.
On his return from the first voyage, Columbus rode beside King Ferdinand through the streets of Barcelona. He was accorded great honors f or his service to his God and to his King. He enjoyed the unique favor of sitting in the presence of the King and Queen and he was accorded the title “Don”.
The following year, Columbus set sail for America with a major expedition of seventeen ships, twelve hundred immigrants and a wide variety of horses, cows, pigs and sheep. The Spanish Crown had directed Columbus to establish a major trading colony, to convert as many natives as possible, and to explore Cuba to ascertain whether or not it was the Asiatic mainland.
Whatever Columbus s skill as a mariner, he was extremely inept in his handling of his men and the inhabitants of the islands. He could not control his settlers in the island of Hispaniola and his relationships with the Arawaks disintegrated rapidly. On their first arrival, the Spaniards were favorably received by the Arawak people, who traded food, water, and a few gold ornaments for brass bells, broken glass and pottery. Since they believed that the white strangers had come down from the sky, they welcomed them with awe and affection. But soon after Columbus had left to return to Spain, it appeared that some of the original thirty-nine men at La Navidad had seized Indian women for sexual purposes. Returning from Spain on his second voyage in 1493, Columbus found the fort burned to the ground and all his men dead.
Though distraught at the loss at La Navidad, Columbus continued his mission sailing eastward to the island of La Isabela in his exploration for gold. But there was little gold to be found and soon the Admiral s empire began to fall apart as the settlers, most of them pardoned criminals, revolted. Several men were imprisoned or hanged. The struggling community of La Isabela was brought to her knees by violence, venereal disease, and a hurricane that destroyed several ships in the harbor. It was a bitter disappointment for Columbus.
Columbus’s third voyage to America yielded the discovery of Trinidad and some very strange theories about the shape of the world, but riots and revolts continued as Columbus ruthlessly executed anyone who rebelled against him—Spaniards were executed, men were refused supplies, and Native Indians were enslaved against the direct orders of the Crown. In 1500, Ferdinand and Isabella sent a royal investigator to Espanola where he wasted little time imprisoning Columbus, placing him in chains, and returning him to Spain. Columbus’s career as a colonizer was over. He would again sail to the West, but by then he would be only one of several adventurers exploring the Indies.
Columbus labored for the restoration of his awards and remunerations that he had initially contracted with the Sovereigns in April, 1492, and gradually he regained a degree of royal favor. He received substantial monies for that time period but nowhere near the revenues of the original pact.
The last part of the Admiral’s life was plagued with illness, probably having contracted malaria or typhus on his voyages, and he died on May 20, 1506 at the age of fifty-five. His body was buried in Franciscan robes, then moved to a monastery in Seville, then shipped to Santo Domingo about 1540, then moved to Havana in 1796, and then back to Seville in 1899. But controversy continues to this day because speculation exists that the wrong bones were moved.
Well, in any case, Columbus continues to be a controversial historical figure. He was a plebeian who rose to nobility. He was not highly educated but he deeply admired learning. He maintained a strong belief that his God would open the sea road to the earthly paradise. And, in the end, he had conquered the Sea of Darkness. “While pursuing one vision, he inadvertently realized another: the outreach of Europe into a hitherto separate, but henceforth vastly wider world. Truly this uncommon Christopher Columbus began a process that, in words from a passage in one of the books of Esdras, ‘shook the earth, moved the round world, made the deeps shudder, and turned creation upside down.’ (11)