Christopher Columbus


               Christopher Columbus, Master Mariner and Navigator, was born in Genoa, Italy, about
               August/October 1451 and died at Valladolid, Spain, May 20, 1506. He was the eldest son
               of Domenico Colombo, a Genoese wool worker and small-time merchant, and Susanna
               Fontanarossa, his wife. Columbus is widely thought to have been the first European to sail
               across the Atlantic Ocean and make landfall on the American continent. He made four
               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. (see also Index: West Indies)

               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 honour. 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.

               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,

               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

               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

               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. (see also Index:
               Trinidad and Tobago, Orinoco River)

               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 favoured Spaniards, and this had caused widespread dissent
               among both unfavoured 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 behaviour 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

               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 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 behaviour 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.