Main Columbus Page

Columbus' Journal

Letter To The Queen

List Of Persons Who Sailed With Columbus

Care to express an opinion on a current or past historical event?

Need to ask a question from our many visitors?

Just visit our Message Board and leave your message.

Message Board

Weekly Poll

Christopher Columbus: Extracts from Journal

Edited by: Robert Guisepi

2002

Discovery Of America
Book: Appendix C
Author: Fiske, John
Date: 1892

His four voyages (1492-93, 1493-96, 1498-1500, and 1502-04) opened the way for European exploration, exploitation, and colonization.

Columbus was the eldest son of Domenico Colombo, a Genoese wool worker and small-time merchant, and Susanna Fontanarossa, his wife. He is widely thought to have been the first European to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and make landfall on the American continent. He made his voyages across the Atlantic under the sponsorship of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs of Aragon, Castile , and Leon in Spain . On the first and second voyages (Aug. 3, 1492-March 15, 1493 , and Sept. 25, 1493-June 11, 1496) Columbus sighted the majority of the islands of the Caribbean and established a base in Hispaniola (now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic ). On the third voyage (May 30, 1498-October 1500) he reached Trinidad and Venezuela and the Orinoco River delta. On the fourth (May 9, 1502-Nov. 7, 1504) he returned to South America and sailed from Cape Honduras to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Veragua, and Panama. Although at first full of hope and ambition, an ambition partly gratified by his title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea ," awarded to him in April 1492, and by the grants enrolled in the Book of Privileges (a record of his titles and claims), Columbus died a disappointed man. He was removed from the governorship of Hispaniola in 1499, his chief patron, Queen Isabella, died in 1504, and his efforts to recover his governorship of the "Indies " from King Ferdinand were, in the end, unavailing. In 1542, however, the bones of Columbus were taken from Spain to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic ), where they may still lie.

The period between the quatercentenary celebrations of Columbus ' achievements in 1892-93 and the quincentenary ones of 1992 saw great advances in Columbus scholarship. A huge number of books about Columbus have appeared in the 1990s, and the insights of archaeologists and anthropologists now complement those of sailors and historians. This effort has given rise, as might be expected, to considerable debate. The past few years have also seen a major shift in approach and interpretation; the older pro-European and imperialist understanding has given way to one shaped from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Americas themselves. According to the older understanding, the discovery of the Americas was a great triumph, one in which Columbus played the part of hero in accomplishing the four voyages, in being the means of bringing great material profit to Spain and to other European countries, and in opening up the Americas to European settlement. The second perspective, however, has concentrated on the destructive side of the European intrusions, emphasizing, for example, the disastrous impact of the slave trade and the ravages of imported disease on the native peoples of the Caribbean and the American continents. The sense of triumph has diminished accordingly, and the view of Columbus as hero has now been replaced, for many, by one of a man deeply flawed. While Columbus ' abilities as a navigator are rarely doubted in this second perception, and his sincerity as a man sometimes allowed, he is emphatically removed by it from his position of honor. The further interventions of political activists of all kinds have hardly fostered the reconciliation of these so disparate views. In an attempt at a balanced account attention will therefore first of all be restored to the nature and quantity of the surviving written and material sources about Columbus . All informed scholarly comment must depend primarily upon these. Then the admiral's achievements and failures will be examined in light of recent research. Finally, the focus will briefly return to the debate, in the full recognition that it is far from ended.

 Major written sources

The majority of the surviving primary sources for Columbus were written to be read by other people. There is, then, an element of manipulation about them. This fact needs to be borne fully in mind for their proper understanding. Foremost among these sources are the journals written by Columbus himself for his sovereigns--one for the first voyage, now lost but able partly to be reconstructed; one for the second, almost wholly gone; and one for the third, again accessible through reconstructions made by using later quotations, like the first. Each of the journals may be supplemented by letters and reports to and from the sovereigns and their trusted officials and friends, provisioning decrees from the sovereigns, and, in the case of the second voyage, letters and reports of letters from fellow voyagers (especially Michele da Cuneo, Diego Alvarez Chanca, and Guillermo Coma). There is no journal and only one letter from the fourth voyage, but a complete roster and payroll survive from this, alone of all the voyages, and Columbus ' younger son Ferdinand (b. c. 1488) traveled with the admiral and left an eyewitness account. The so-called Pleitos de Colón, judicial documents put forward by the Pinzón family in 1515 against the claims of Columbus ' heirs, throw oblique further light upon the explorations. The recent discovery of a 16th-century copybook containing five narrative letters and two personal ones from Columbus, all previously unknown, as well as additional copies of two known ones, may allow one to believe that more may yet be found. In the meanwhile, Ferdinand Columbus' The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, the Historia de los Reyes Católicos (c. 1500) of Andrés Bernáldez (a friend of Columbus' and chaplain to the archbishop of Seville), and the Historia de las Indias put together about 1550-63 by Bartolomé de las Casas (bishop of Chiapas and champion of the indigenous people of the Americas) supplement the other narratives.

Further important material may be gleaned from the few books still extant from the admiral's own library. Some of these were extensively annotated, often by the admiral and sometimes by his brother Bartholomew. The readings and annotations from Columbus' copies of the Imago mundi by the 15th-century French theologian Pierre d'Ailly (a compendium containing a great number of cosmological and theological texts), the Historia rerum ubique gestarum of Pope Pius II, published in 1477, the version of The Travels of Marco Polo known as the De consuetudinibus et condicionibus orientalium regionum of Francesco Pipino (1483-85), Alfonso de Palencia's late 15th-century Castilian translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, and the 15th-century humanist Cristoforo Landino's Italian translation of the Natural History of Pliny the Elder cast a most important light on Columbus' intentions and presuppositions. So do the contents of certain other books known to have been in his possession, such as the Guide to Geography of the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, the Catholicon of the 15th-century encyclopedist John of Genoa, and a popular handbook to confession, the mid-15th-century Confessionale produced by the Dominican St. Antoninus of Florence. The whole shows that the admiral was adept in Latin, Castilian, and Italian, if not expert in all three. He annotated primarily in Latin and Spanish, very rarely in Italian. He had probably already read and annotated at least the first three named texts before he set out

on his first voyage to the "Indies ." His Christian interests are manifest. He was plainly a deeply religious and reflective man as well as a distinguished seaman, and, being largely self-taught, had a reverence for learning, especially, perhaps, the learning of his most influential Spanish supporters. The Book of Prophecies, a collection of prophetic passages and pronouncements, taken largely from the Bible and seeming to bear upon his western voyages, which seems largely to have been put together between September 1501 and March 1502 (with additions until c. 1505) by Columbus and his friend the Carthusian friar Gaspar Gorricio, is a striking manifestation of these sensibilities and seems to contain many passages and extracts that were personally important to the admiral.

Direct material remains of Columbus ' travels are few. Efforts to find the Spaniards' first settlement on Hispaniola (Haiti ), at Navidad, have so far failed, but the local chieftain's settlement nearby has been identified, and the present-day fishing village of Bord de Mer de Limonade may be close to the original site. Concepción de la Vega, which Columbus also founded on Hispaniola , on the second voyage, may be the present La Vega Vieja, in the Dominican Republic . Remains at the site of La Isabela are still to be fully excavated as are those at Sevilla la Nueva, on Jamaica , where Columbus ' two caravels were beached on the fourth voyage. The techniques of skeletal paleopathology and paleodemography are being applied with some success to determine the fates of the native populations.

Early career and the first voyage

Little is known of Columbus ' early life. His career as a seaman began effectively in the Portuguese marine. After surviving a shipwreck off Cape St. Vincent at the southwestern point of Portugal in 1476, he based himself in Lisbon , together with his brother Bartholomew. Both were employed as chartmakers, but Columbus was principally a seagoing entrepreneur. In 1477 he sailed to Iceland and Ireland with the marine, and in 1478 he was buying sugar in Madeira as an agent for the Genoese firm of Centurioni. In 1479 he met and married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, a member of an impoverished noble Portuguese family. Their son, Diego, was born in 1480. Between 1482 and 1485 Columbus traded along the Guinea coast and made at least one voyage to the Portuguese fortress of São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast of equatorial West Africa , gaining knowledge of Portuguese navigation and the Atlantic wind systems along the way. His search for support for an Atlantic crossing in both Portugal and Spain has encouraged conspiracy theorists to suspect a secret pact with King John II of Portugal , but there is no evidence of this. Felipa died in 1485, and Columbus took as his mistress Beatriz Enríquez de Harana of Córdoba, by whom he had his second son, Ferdinand. By 1486 Columbus was firmly in Spain , asking King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for patronage. After at least two rejections, he at last obtained royal support in January 1492. This was achieved chiefly through the interventions of the Spanish treasurer, Luis de Santángel, and of the Franciscan friars of La Rábida, near Huelva , with whom Columbus had stayed in the summer of 1491. Juan Pérez of La Rábida had been one of the queen's confessors and perhaps procured him the crucial audience. Royal patronage was finally advanced in the euphoria that followed the fall of Granada , the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain , on Jan. 2, 1492 .

Columbus had been present at the siege of Granada in January 1492. He was in fact riding back from it to La Rábida when he was recalled to court and the vital royal audience. Granada 's fall encouraged Spanish Christians to believe that they might indeed triumph over Islam, albeit chiefly, perhaps, by the back way round the globe. In the letter that prefaces his journal of the first voyage, the admiral vividly evokes his own hopes and binds them all together with the conquest of the infidel, the victory of Christianity, and the westward route to discovery and Christian alliance:

. . . and I saw the Moorish king come out of the gates of the city and kiss the royal hands of Your Highnesses . . . and Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians . . . took thought to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said parts of India, to see those princes and peoples and lands . . . and the manner which should be used to bring about their conversion to our holy faith, and ordained that I should not go by land to the eastward, by which way it was the custom to go, but by way of the west, by which down to this day we do not know certainly that anyone has passed; therefore, having driven out all the Jews from your realms and lordships in the same month of January, Your Highnesses commanded me that, with a sufficient fleet, I should go to the said parts of India, and for this accorded me great rewards and ennobled me so that from that time henceforth I might style myself "Don" and be high admiral of the Ocean Sea and perpetual Governor of the islands and continent which I should discover . . . and that my eldest son should succeed to the same position, and so on from generation to generation.

Thus a great number of interests were involved in this great project, which was, in essence, the attempt to find a route to the rich continent of Cathay (or modern China), to India, and to the fabled gold and spice islands of the East by sailing westward over what was presumed to be open sea. Columbus himself clearly hoped to rise from his humble beginnings in this way, to accumulate riches for his family, and to join the ranks of the nobility of Spain . In a similar manner, but at a more exalted level, the Catholic Monarchs sought, through such an enterprise, to gain greater status among the monarchies of Europe , especially against their main rival, Portugal . Then, in alliance with the papacy (in this case, with the Borgia pope Alexander VI [1492-1503]), they might hope to take the lead in the Christian defense against the infidel. The power of the Ottomans and other Islamic nations of the eastern Mediterranean was growing at an alarming pace, threatening the Christian monarchies themselves. This power had also effectively closed the land routes to the East, via the Caspian Sea , Samarkand , and northern India , and made the sea route south from the Red Sea extremely hard to access.

At a more elevated level still, Franciscan preachers sought to prepare for the end of the world, as they interpreted the Book of Revelation to prophesy. According to the eschatological vision contained in Revelation, Jerusalem would be recaptured by Christendom and a Christian emperor installed in the Holy Land . These events were a precondition for the coming, and defeat, of Antichrist and the conversion of the whole human race and, ultimately, for the Last Judgment. The westward project would, it was hoped, help to finance a crusade to the East. It might also be another arm of it, linking with Christians such as Prester John, a legendary Christian ruler of the East, and his descendants, who, it was thought by many, still survived east of the lands of the infidel. The Great Khan of the Golden Horde was himself held to be interested in Christianity. Columbus carefully carried a letter of friendship from his sovereigns to the Great Khan with him on his journeys. Finally, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was known to have pressed southward along the coast of West Africa , beyond São Jorge da Mina, in an effort to find an easterly route to Cathay and India by sea. It would never do to allow the Portuguese to find the sea route first.

Christian missionary fervour, the power of Castile and Aragon, the fear of Portugal, the lust for gold, the desire for adventure, the hope of conquests, and Europe's genuine need for a reliable supply of herbs and spices for cooking, preserving, and medicine all combined to produce that explosion of energy which launched the first voyage. Adventurous emigration may have been encouraged by the decree signed March 31, 1492 , ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

The time has come to lay to rest, finally and for good, the ghost of the notion that Columbus had ever thought that the world was flat. Europeans had known that the Earth was spherical in shape ever since the spread of the popular Etymologies of St. Isidore of Seville , produced (in Spain ) in the early 7th century. Columbus ' miscalculations, such as they were, lay in quite other areas. First, his estimate of the sea distance to be crossed to Cathay was wildly inaccurate. A chart (now lost) supplied by the Florentine mathematician and geographer Paolo Toscanelli, together with Columbus ' preference for the calculations of the ancient Greek geographer Marinus of Tyre, encouraged him to reject Ptolemy's estimate of the journey from West to East overland and to substitute a far longer one. Again, on the authority, primarily, of the 13th-14th-century Venetian Marco Polo's Travels, he conceived the idea that the lands of the East stretched out far around the back of the globe, with the island of Cipango, or Japan, located a further 1,500 miles from the mainland of Cathay and itself surrounded by islands. This cluster of islands might, then, almost touch, he seems to have argued, the islands of the Azores . Columbus' reading of the seer Salathiel-Ezra in the books of Esdras, from the Apocrypha (especially II Esdras 6:42, in which the prophet states that the Earth is six parts land to one of water) reinforced these ideas of the proportion of land- to sea-crossing, and the mistake was compounded by his idiosyncratic view of the length of a degree of geographic latitude. The degree, according to Arabic calculators, consisted of 56 2/3 Arab miles, and an Arab mile measured 1,975.5 metres. Given the fact that a nautical mile measures 1,852 metres, this degree, then, amounts to approximately 60.45 nautical miles. Columbus , however, used the Italian mile of 1,477.5 metres for his calculations and thus arrived at a calculation of approximately 45 nautical miles to a degree. This shortened the distance across the sea westward yet again. According to this reckoning, Zaiton, Marco Polo's great port of Cathay, would have lain a little to the east of present-day San Diego, Calif., U.S., and Cipango (Japan) on the meridian of the Virgin Islands. The latter were, of course, surprisingly, and confusingly, close to where Columbus actually made his landfalls.

The miscalculation of distance may have been willful on Columbus ' part and made with an eye to his sponsors. The first journal suggests that Columbus may have been aware of his inaccuracy, for he consistently concealed from his sailors the number of actual miles they had covered, lest they become fearful for the journey back. Such economies with the truth may be evidence rather of bravery and the need to inspire confidence than of simple dishonesty or error. Columbus ' other miscalculations were a little more serious, however. He declined, for instance, ever to admit that he had not found the true Indies and Cathay . Perhaps he genuinely believed that he had been there; but, at all events, this refusal to accept that he had discovered a brand new world in the Caribbean, in the face of mounting evidence that he had, both prevented his adapting his preformed plans and ideas to his actual experiences and dented his later reputation. Last, Columbus was autocratic to his sailors and remote from his companions and intending emigrants. He was thus a poor judge of the ambitions, and perhaps the failings, of those who sailed with him. This combination was to prove fatal to almost all of his hopes.

The ships for the first voyage, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María, were fitted out at Palos, on the Tinto River in southern Spain . Santángel and Columbus' collaborators and suppliers in Palos (led by the shipowner Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the Pinta) provided at least 1,140,000 maravedis, and Columbus supplied more than a third of the sum contributed by the king and queen. Queen Isabella did not, then, have to pawn her jewels (a myth first put about by Las Casas). The little fleet left on Aug. 3, 1492 . The admiral's navigational genius showed itself immediately, for they dropped down to the Canary Islands , off the northwest African mainland, rather than sailing due west to the Azores . The westerlies prevailing in the Azores had defeated previous sailors to the west, but in the Canaries they could pick up the northeast trade winds, trusting to the westerlies for their return. After nearly a month in the Canaries the ships set out from San Sebastián de la Gomera on September 6. On October 12 land was sighted from the Pinta (though Columbus , on the Niña, later meanly claimed the privilege for himself). The place of the first Caribbean landfall is hotly disputed, but San Salvador , or Watling, Island is currently preferred to Samana Cay, Rum Cay, the Plana Cays, or the Turks and Caicos Islands . Beyond planting the royal banner, however, Columbus spent little time there, being anxious to press on to Cipango . He thought, on October 24, he had found it in Cuba , but by his journal entry of November 1 he had convinced himself that Cuba was the mainland of Cathay , though so far without evidence of great cities. Thus, on December 5, he turned back southeastward to search for the fabled city of Zaiton , missing Florida through this decision and, as it turned out, his sole chance of setting foot on the North American continent.

The fleet was carried by adverse winds to Ayti (Haiti ) on December 6, which Columbus renamed La Isla Española, or Hispaniola . He seems to have thought that Haiti might be Cipango or, if not Cipango, then perhaps one of the rich isles from which King Solomon's triennial fleet set sail so long ago, bringing gold and gems and spices back to Jerusalem for the king (I Kings 10:11, 22), or the biblical lands Sheba and Seba, confused by some commentators with the Tharsis and the isles of Psalm 71:10-11 in the Vulgate. Columbus found there at least enough gold and prosperity to save him from ridicule on his return to Spain . With the help of a cacique, or local Taino Indian chief, Guacanagarí, he set up a stockade on the northern coast of the island, named it La Navidad, and posted 39 men to guard it against his return. The accidental running aground of the Santa María provided additional planks and provisions for the garrison.

On Jan. 16, 1493 , Columbus left with his remaining two ships for Spain . The journey back was a nightmare. Although the westerlies did indeed direct them homeward, in mid-February a terrible storm engulfed the fleet. The Niña was driven to seek harbour at Santa Maria in the Azores , and then, still storm-bound, to limp on to Lisbon . In Santa Maria a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the shrine of the Virgin led to the temporary capture of 10 sailors by the hostile Portuguese authorities. An unavoidable interview with King John II in Lisbon left Columbus under the suspicion of collaborating with Spain 's enemies. These events cast a shadow on his return to Palos.

Many of the tensions endemic to all Columbus ' succeeding efforts had already made themselves felt on this first voyage. First and perhaps most damaging of all were those engendered by the incompatibility between the admiral's apparently high religious and even mystical aspirations and the realities of trading, competition, and colonization. Columbus never openly acknowledged this gulf and so was quite incapable of bridging it. He chose, for instance, in his reports, to interpret the grounding of the Santa María and the establishing of his fortress as events decreed by God. They were in fact deliberate and radical departures from the original simple project of exploration and contact, but Columbus preferred to justify them on religious rather than rational or economic grounds. (The admiral had begun even now to adopt a mode of sanctification in retrospect and validation through sheer force of autocratic personality that would make him so many enemies in the future.) Also, there had been looting, violence, and kidnapping, especially on Hispaniola . Columbus did control excesses, but he was determined to take back both material and human cargo to his sovereigns and for himself. This blunted his ability to retain the high moral ground. Further, the latent doubts about the foreigner Columbus' total loyalty to Spain had been revived, and, last, there were clear divisions in the ranks of Columbus ' companions. Pinzón had disputed the route as the fleet reached the Bahamas and had sailed away from Cuba , and Columbus , on November 21. He rejoined him, with lame excuses, only on January 6. The Pinta made port at Bayona on its homeward journey, separately from Columbus and the Niña. Had Pinzón not died so soon after his return, Columbus ' command of the second voyage might have been less than assured.   As it was, the Pinzón family became now his rivals for reward.

The second and third voyages

The gold, parrots, spices, and human captives Columbus displayed for his sovereigns at Barcelona convinced all of the need for a rapid second voyage. Columbus was now at the height of his popularity, and at least 17 ships set out from Cádiz on Sept. 25, 1493 . Colonization and Christian evangelization were openly included this time in the plans, and a group of friars shipped with him. The presence of some 1,300 salaried men with perhaps 200 private investors and a small troop of cavalry are testimony to the expectations invested in the expedition. The confiscated properties of expelled Jews had swelled the royal coffers and probably largely financed it.

Sailing again via Gomera in the Canaries, the fleet took a more southerly course than on the first voyage and reached Dominica in the Lesser Antilles on Nov. 3, 1493 . After sighting the Virgin Islands , it entered Samaná Bay in Hispaniola on November 23. Cuneo , deeply impressed by this unerring return, remarked that "since Genoa was Genoa there was never born a man so well equipped and expert in navigation as the said lord Admiral." An expedition to Navidad four days later, however, was shocked to find the fortress destroyed and the men dead. Here was a clear sign that native resistance had gathered strength. More fortified places were rapidly built, including a city, founded on January 2 and named La Isabela after the queen. On February 2 Antonio de Torres left La Isabela with 12 ships, a little gold, spices, parrots, captives (most of whom died en route), the bad news about Navidad, and some complaints about Columbus ' methods of government. While Torres headed for Spain , two of Columbus ' subordinates, Alonso de Ojeda and Pedro Margarit, took revenge for the massacre at Navidad and captured slaves, both seemingly with the admiral's full connivance. In March Columbus explored Cibao (thought to be the gold-bearing region of the island) and established the fortress of St. Thomas there. Then, late in April, three ships, led by Columbus in the Niña, explored the Cuban coastline and searched for gold in Jamaica , only to conclude that Hispaniola promised the richest spoils for the settlers. It was, the admiral decided, indeed the biblical Seba (Saba in the Vulgate), and Cuba was the mainland of Cathay . On June 12, 1494 , Columbus insisted on a sworn declaration to that effect--a sure indication that, though not all of the company agreed with him, he was bent on insisting to his sovereign that he had reached Cathay .

The year 1495 saw the determined conquest of the island of Hispaniola and the beginning of troubles for the Taino Indians. There is evidence, especially in the objections of a friar, Bernardo Buil, that Columbus ' methods remained harsh. The admiral's brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, were left in charge of the settlement when, on March 10, 1496 , the admiral left La Isabela for Spain . He reached Cádiz on June 11 and immediately pressed his plans for a third voyage upon his sovereigns, at Burgos . Spain was at war now with France and in need of buying allies; moreover, the yield from the second voyage had fallen well short of the investment. But Portugal still threatened, and, though the two nations, in the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494 ), had divided the Atlantic conveniently between themselves, they had as yet made no agreement about rights in the East. According to the treaty Spain might take all discovered land west of a line drawn from pole to pole 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands and Portugal that to the east of the line; but what about the other side of the world, where West met East? Also, there might be a previously undiscovered antipodean continent; who, then, should be trusted to draw the line there? Ferdinand and Isabella therefore made a cautious further investment. Six ships left Sanlúcar de Barrameda on May 30, 1498 , three filled with explorers and three with provisions for the settlement on Hispaniola . It was clear now that Columbus was expected both to find great prizes and to establish the flag of Spain firmly in the East.

Certainly he found prizes, but not, sadly, quite of the kind his sponsors required. The aim this time was to explore to the south of the existing discoveries, in the hope of finding both a strait from Cuba/Cathay to India and, perhaps, the unknown antipodean continent. Thus, on June 21, the provision ships left Gomera for Hispaniola , while the explorers headed south for the Cape Verde Islands . Columbus began the Atlantic crossing on July 4, 1498 , from São Tiago Island in Cape Verde . He discovered the principle of compass variation (the variation at any point on the Earth's surface between the direction to magnetic and geographic north), for which he made brilliant allowance on the journey from Margarita Island to Hispaniola on the later leg of this voyage, and he also observed, though misunderstood, the diurnal rotation of the Pole Star. After stopping at Trinidad (named after the Holy Trinity, whose protection he had invoked for the voyage), Columbus entered the Gulf of Paria and planted the Spanish flag on the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela . He sent the caravel El Corréo southward to investigate the mouth of the Rio Grande (the northern branch of the Orinoco), and by Aug. 15, 1498, knew by the great floods of fresh water flowing into the Gulf of Paria that he had discovered another continent--"another world." But he did not find the strait to India , nor did he find those mines of King Solomon's gold his reading had led him and his sovereigns to expect in these latitudes; and he made only disastrous discoveries when he returned to Hispaniola.

The rule of his brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, had been resented there, by both the native inhabitants and the immigrants. A rebellion by the alcalde (mayor) of La Isabela, Francisco Roldán, had led to appeals to the Spanish court, and, even as Columbus attempted to restore order (partly, it must be said, by hangings), the Spanish chief justice, Francisco de Bobadilla, was on his way out to the colony with a commission from the sovereigns to investigate all the complaints. It is hard to explain exactly what the trouble was. Columbus' report to his sovereigns from the second voyage, taken back by Torres and so known as the Torres Memorandum, speaks of sickness, poor provisioning, recalcitrant natives, and undisciplined hidalgos (gentry). It may be that these problems had intensified. But the Columbus family's repressive policies must be held at least partly responsible, intent as it undoubtedly now was on enslaving the native population, both to work the placer mines of Hispaniola and for export to Europe . The adelantado (governor) Bartholomew Columbus had replaced Columbus ' original system of gold production, whereby the local chiefs had been in charge of delivering gold on a loose per capita basis, by direct exploitation through favored Spaniards, and this had caused widespread dissent among both un-favored Spaniards and indigenous chiefs. Certainly Bobadilla found against the Columbus family when he arrived in Hispaniola . He clapped Columbus and his two brothers in irons and sent them promptly back, on the La Gorda, to Cádiz. They arrived there in late October 1500.

The long letter Columbus composed on the journey back and sent to his sovereigns immediately on his return is one of the most extraordinary he wrote, and one of the most informative. One part of its exalted, almost mystical, quality may be attributed to the humiliations the admiral had endured (humiliations he compounded by refusing to allow the captain of the La Gorda to remove his chains during the voyage) and another to the fact that he was now suffering severely from sleeplessness, eyestrain, and a form of rheumatoid arthritis, which may have hastened his death. Much of what he said in the letter, however, seems genuinely to have expressed his beliefs. One can learn from it that Columbus had absolute faith in his navigational abilities, his seaman's sense of the weather, his eyes, and his reading. The last is apparent in his conviction that he had reached the outer region of the Earthly Paradise. Thus, as he approached Trinidad and the Paria Peninsula , the rotation of the Pole Star gave him, he wrote, the impression that the fleet was climbing. The weather had become extremely mild, and the flow of fresh water into the Gulf of Paria was, as he saw, enormous. All this could have one explanation only--they had mounted toward the temperate heights of the Earthly Paradise, heights from which the rivers of Paradise ran into the sea. Columbus had found all such signs of the outer regions of the Earthly Paradise in his reading, and indeed they were widely known. He was, then, on this estimate, close to the realms of gold that lay near Paradise . He had not found the gold yet, to be sure; but he knew now where it was. Columbus ' expectations thus allowed him again to interpret his discoveries in terms of biblical and classical sources and to do so in a manner that would be comprehensible to his sponsors and favourable to himself.

This letter, desperate though it was, convinced the sovereigns that, even if he had not yet found the prize, he had been close to it after all. They ordered his release and gave him audience at Granada in late December 1500. They accepted that, although Columbus ' capacities as governor were wanting (on Sept. 3, 1501 , they appointed Nicolás de Ovando, not Columbus , to succeed Bobadilla to the governorship), those as navigator and explorer were not. Columbus , even ill and importunate, was a better investment than the many adventurers and profiteers who had meantime been licensed to compete with him, and there was always the danger (revealed in some of the letters of this period) that he would offer his services to his native Genoa . In October 1501, then, Columbus went to Seville to make ready his fourth and final expedition.

The fourth voyage and death of the admiral

The winter and spring of 1501-02 were exceedingly busy. The four chosen ships were bought, fitted, and crewed, and some 20 of Columbus ' extant letters and memoranda were written then, many in exculpation of Bobadilla's charges, others pressing even harder the nearness of the Earthly Paradise and the need to reconquer Jerusalem . Columbus took to calling himself "Christbearer" in his letters and to using a strange and mystical signature, never satisfactorily explained. He began also, with all these thoughts and pressures in mind, to compile both his Book of Privileges and his Book of Prophecies. The first, in defending the titles and financial claims of the Columbus family, seems oddly annexed to the Christian apocalypticism of the second; yet both were linked most closely in the admiral's own mind. He seems to have been certain that his mission was divinely guided. Thus, the loftiness of his spiritual aspirations increased as the threats to his personal ones mounted. In the midst of all these efforts and hazards, Columbus sailed from Cádiz on his fourth voyage on May 9, 1502 .

The four ships allowed him contrasted sharply with the thirty granted to the governor of Hispaniola , Ovando. The confidence his sovereigns had formerly had in Columbus had now diminished, and there is much to suggest that pity mingled with hope in their support. His illnesses were worsening, and the hostility to his rule in Hispaniola was unabated. Thus, Ferdinand and Isabella forbade him to return there. He was to resume, instead, his interrupted exploration of the "other world" to the south that he had found on his third voyage and to look most particularly for gold and the strait to India . Columbus expected to meet the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama in the East, and the sovereigns instructed him on the appropriate courteous behavior for such a meeting--another sign, perhaps, that they did not wholly trust him. They were right. He departed from Gran Canaria on the night of May 25, made landfall at Martinique on June 15 (after the fastest crossing to date), and was, by June 29, demanding entrance to Santo Domingo on Hispaniola . Only on being refused such entry by Ovando did he take to the farther west and the south. July to September 1502 saw him coasting Jamaica , the southern shore of Cuba , Honduras , and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. The feat of Caribbean transnavigation, which took him to Bonacca Island off Cape Honduras on July 30, deserves to be reckoned on a par, as to difficulty, with that of crossing the Atlantic , and the admiral was justly proud of it. Constantly probing for the strait, the fleet sailed round the Chiriquí Lagoon (in Panama ) in October, then, searching for gold, along Veragua and Panama in the foulest of weather. In February 1503 Columbus attempted to establish a trading post at Santa María de Belén on the bank of the Belén (Bethlehem ) River under the command of Bartholomew Columbus in order to exploit the promising gold yield he was beginning to find in Veragua. Indian hostility and the poor condition of his ships (of which only two now remained, and these fearfully holed by shipworm) determined him, however, to turn back to Hispaniola . On this voyage the ultimate disaster struck. Against Columbus ' (right) judgment, the pilots turned the fleet north too soon. The ships could not make the distance and had to be beached on the coast of Jamaica . By June 1503 Columbus and his crews were castaways.

Columbus had hoped, as he said to his sovereigns, that "my hard and troublesome voyage may yet turn out to be my noblest"; it was in fact the most disappointing of all and the most unlucky. In its searches for the strait and for gold the fleet had missed discovering the Pacific and making contact with the great Mayan empire of Yucatán by the narrowest of margins. Also, though two of the men (Diego Méndez and Bartolomeo Fieschi, captains of the wrecked ships La Capitana and Vizcaíno, respectively) left about July 17 to get help for the castaways, traversing the 450-mile journey to Hispaniola safely by canoe, Ovando made no great haste to deliver that help. In the meantime, the admiral displayed his acumen once again by correctly predicting an eclipse of the Moon from his astronomical tables, thus frightening the natives into providing food; but it was June 1504 before rescue came, and Columbus and his men did not reach Hispaniola until August 13 of the same year. On November 7 he sailed back into Sanlúcar, to find that Queen Isabella had made her will and was dying.

It would be wrong to suppose that Columbus spent his final two years wholly in illness, poverty, and oblivion. His son Diego was well established at court, and the admiral himself lived in Seville in some style. His "tenth" of the gold diggings in Hispaniola , guaranteed in 1493, provided a substantial revenue (against which his Genoese bankers allowed him to draw), and one of the few ships to escape a hurricane off Hispaniola in 1502 (in which Bobadilla himself went down) was that carrying Columbus ' gold. He felt himself ill-used and short-changed nonetheless, and these years were marred, for both him and King Ferdinand, by his constant pressing for redress. He followed the court from Segovia to Salamanca and Valladolid , attempting to gain an audience. He knew that his life was nearing its end, and in August 1505 he began to add codicils to his will. He died on May 20, 1506 . First he was laid in the Franciscan friary in Valladolid , then taken to the family mausoleum established at the Carthusian monastery of Las Cuevas in Seville . Finally, by the will of his son Diego, Columbus ' bones were laid with his own in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola .

The debate

The debate about Columbus ' character and achievements began at least as early as the first rebellion of the Taino Indians and continued with Roldán, Bobadilla, and Ovando. It has been revived periodically (notably by Las Casas and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) ever since. The Columbus quincentenary of 1992 rekindled the intensity of this early questioning and redirected its aims, often profitably. The word "encounter" is now preferred to "discovery" when describing the contacts between the Old World and the New, and more attention has come to be paid to the fate of the Native American peoples and to the sensibilities of non-Christians. Enlightening discoveries have been made about the diseases that reached the New World through Columbus ' agency as well as those his sailors took back with them to the Old. The pendulum may, however, now have swung too far. Columbus has been made a whipping boy for events far beyond his own reach or knowledge and a means to an agenda of condemnation that far outstrips his own guilt. Thus, too little attention has recently been paid to the historical circumstances that conditioned him. His obsessions with lineage and imperialism, his seemingly bizarre Christian beliefs, and his apparently brutal behavior come from a world remote from that of modern democratic ideas, it is true; but it was the world to which he belonged. The forces of European expansion, with their slaving and search for gold, had been unleashed before him and were at his time quite beyond his control. Columbus simply decided to be in the vanguard of them. He succeeded. Columbus' towering stature as a seaman and navigator, the sheer power of his religious convictions (self-delusory as they sometimes were), his personal magnetism, his courage, his endurance, his determination, and, above all, his achievements as an explorer, should continue to be recognized.

Valerie I.J. Flint: G.F. Grant Professor of History, University of Hull , England . Author of The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center