Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus Biography Page 2

After his disappointment in Portugal, Columbus took his young son and moved to Spain in 1485 with the intention of presenting his plan to the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I. Spain lagged far behind Portugal in exploration of the Atlantic. The two powers had engaged in open hostilities since Spain had begun to dispute some of Portugal’s claims in Africa and to Atlantic island groups, such as the Canaries and the Azores. In 1479 Spain had gained control of the Canary Islands, although Portugal did not abandon its claims. A fragile peace existed because neither side wanted to go to war over the issue. According to tradition, one of the reasons the Portuguese king rejected Columbus’s plan was his concern over aggravating the situation with Spain.

One of Columbus’s first stops in Spain was the monastery of La Rábida in the southern port town of Palos de la Frontera, not far from the Portuguese border . At the monastery Columbus found not only a boarding place for his son Diego but also support from the friars, several of whom became great believers in his vision. One of them, Friar Antonio Marchena, spent many hours discussing geography with Columbus. He also helped shape Columbus’s plans by directing him to the writings of the ancients and of church authorities who were known to support the idea of a westward crossing of the ocean. Through Marchena, Columbus was introduced to powerful noblemen as well, including Friar Juan Pérez, one of the guardians of the monastery—and the confessor of Queen Isabella. Pérez introduced Columbus to the court of the Spanish monarchs.

Columbus moved to Sevilla (Seville) in 1485, and between May 1486 and September 1487, he was maintained at the expense of the queen. Although interested in his ideas, the king and queen were in the midst of a protracted war to conquer the province of Granada in southern Spain, which had been held by the Moors, a Muslim group, since 711. This war left the monarchs little time to consider Columbus’s plan. Finally, in 1487, Columbus presented his project to a committee of experts called to hear the case. The committee raised numerous objections, asked many questions, and, in the end, rejected the plan. Among the reasons given for the rejection was that the ocean was simply too large to cross.

While waiting for the war in Granada to end, Columbus established a liaison with a young peasant woman named Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. During this period of great despair, Columbus’s one comfort was his love for Beatriz. Although the two never married, in 1488 they had a son named Ferdinand, who later accompanied his father on his final voyage to the Americas.

In the last weeks of 1491 Columbus made his final appeal to the Spanish monarchs in the royal camp as the monarchs prepared for their final battle with the Moors in Granada. But again his plan was rejected. Columbus had successfully won over many of the learned scholars and scientific advisers, but this time the rejection was due primarily to his excessive demands for rewards. His requested payment (one-tenth of all riches from the Indies), and his demands for the titles of admiral, which would give him the right to judge commercial disputes; of viceroy, which would make him the personal representative of the monarchs; and of governor, which would enable him to act as supreme civil and military authority in any new lands he discovered, caused the king and queen to flatly refuse the project. According to tradition, as Columbus rode away on his mule, Ferdinand’s treasurer, Luis de Santángel, interceded on Columbus’s behalf. Arguing that the investment was small considering the potential reward, Santángel convinced the king and queen to reverse their decision. A court official was dispatched on horseback to bring Columbus back. After several more weeks of negotiating a contract, in April 1492 Columbus left for Palos de la Frontera and his rendezvous with history.

The people of Palos were ordered to provide and equip two caravels (small, light sailing ships). The first, owned by Cristóbal Quintero, was called the Pinta; the second, owned by Juan Niño, was officially named the Santa Clara but known as the Niña. The third ship, a small, round ship with a large hold, most likely a type of vessel known as a nao, was Columbus’s flagship. It was called the Santa María and was owned by Juan de la Cosa. Little is known about the actual construction of the ships, but evidence suggests that the Niña and the Pinta were small, about 54 metric tons each and 21 to 24 m (70 to 80 ft) in length. The Santa María was 80 to 90 metric tons and not much longer than the other two. Of the three, the Pinta was the fastest.

Initially Columbus had difficulty recruiting a crew because many sailors feared a voyage into the unknown. The royal secretary tried to help by offering freedom to any convict who enlisted. Some experienced seamen objected to this plan, but in the end only a few convicts accepted. More than anything, the friars of La Rábida and Martín Alonso Pinzón, an experienced sea captain from Palos, persuaded local sailors to join the expedition. Two other Pinzón brothers also joined the voyage; all were commanding officers.

About 40 men including Columbus sailed on the Santa María. Between 20 and 30 men were each on the Pinta and Niña. Most were Spanish, with the largest number coming from around Palos. The crew was made up largely of experienced seamen and a few government officials. But the crew included no priests, no soldiers, and no settlers—this was a voyage of exploration and discovery.

Little is known about life aboard the ships, but it could not have been comfortable. There were no crew’s quarters and no mess halls. Only the captains and pilots had cabins, and they were very small. At night the crew slept wherever they could find a vacant spot, tying themselves down to prevent being tossed into the sea. Prayers, songs, stories, chores, eating, and waiting filled the sailors’ days. Stargazing under a new, unknown sky filled their restless nights.

The ships carried enough provisions for a year, at a time when two weeks at sea was a long voyage. Supplies on board included foodstuffs, such as water, dried fish, salt meat, live pigs and hens (to be killed aboard ship), rice, cheese, and figs; navigational instruments, including nautical almanacs, charts, compasses, magnets, hourglasses, and rulers; and trade items, such as glass beads, brass rings, knitted caps, gold, silver, pearls, and spices.

Navigation in the 15th century was far from an exact science, although several navigational tools and aids were available. The most important navigational aids were compasses, astrolabes, hourglasses, maps, and charts. Although celestial navigation (finding direction by checking the positions of stars and other heavenly bodies) was the favored method while sailing under familiar skies, a technique known as dead reckoning was more dependable on voyages in unknown seas.

Using an astrolabe, a metal disk inscribed with a map of the major celestial bodies, a mariner could tell location simply by positioning the stars on the astrolabe to match the stars in the sky. But the astrolabe worked only when the skies were clear and the positions of the stars were known. On cloudy days or when the stars in the sky were unfamiliar, celestial navigation and the astrolabe were ineffective.

In dead reckoning, the technique often used for traveling in unknown waters, the position of the ship was determined by starting with its last known location. Then, by calculating what direction the ship was going, how fast it was going, and how much time had passed, the pilot could come up with a new position. Pilots could calculate the distance they had traveled in an hour or a day by dropping a floating object in the water at the front of the ship and timing how long it took to get to the back of the ship. Knowing how long the ship was, the pilot could calculate how fast the ship was moving and, thus, how far they had traveled.

Columbus preferred dead reckoning over celestial navigation and was never comfortable with the astrolabe and other devices for navigating using the heavenly bodies. Above all, he was masterful in interpreting the signs of nature, such as the behavior of birds, the smell of the air, the color of the sky, the condition of the seas, the pressure he felt in his joints, the appearance of floating debris, and more. Successful navigators survived by “reading” nature in this way. Columbus was expert at this and could even predict hurricanes accurately.

At daybreak on August 3, 1492, the small flotilla of ships left Palos de la Frontera for parts unknown. At the age of 41, standing on the bow of the Santa María, watching the coast slowly slip below the horizon, Columbus left behind on dry land a struggle that had lasted a quarter of his life. He was now in his element, doing what he had dreamed about for the past ten years.

After a trip to the Canary Islands, where the rudder of the Pinta was repaired, the voyagers departed the known world on September 6, 1492. Throughout the voyage the ships traveled primarily westward. The choice of sailing from the Canary Islands proved to be a good one, as the Canaries Current speeded their journey. On September 25 it was thought that land was sighted, but it was nothing more than low-lying clouds. As the trip lengthened, many of the crew feared that the strong daily winds would prevent them from getting back to Spain. Columbus had difficulty with his crew at times, and he found it hard to work with the Pinzóns, especially Martín Alonso, who had much more experience than Columbus. However, there is little evidence that the crew was ever close to mutiny. Moreover, the story that Columbus tried to deceive the crew by keeping two sets of logs, one that showed the distance they had traveled as much shorter than it actually was, is only legend.

Two hours past midnight on the morning of October 12 a lookout named Rodrigo de Triana (sometimes called Juan Rodríguez Bermejo) on the Pinta cried out “Tierra! Tierra!” (“Land! Land!”). A reward of a pension of 10,000 maravedis per year (an able seaman could earn about 12,000 maravedis per year) was to go to he who saw land first. Rather cruelly, Columbus pocketed the money himself, claiming that he had seen several lights the night before.

On October 12, 1492, Columbus and a handful of the excited but weary voyagers set foot on land after 36 days of sailing. Columbus raised the royal standard, claiming the island for Spain, and two of the captains carried banners decorated with green crosses and letters representing Ferdinand and Isabella. Soon the curious islanders, with some trepidation, came out of their hiding places and greeted the visitors.

The location of the actual landfall site is still in question. Called Guanahaní by the Taínos, the island was renamed San Salvador (“Holy Savior”) by Columbus, but no one today knows for sure which island it was. Most favor either Watling Island (renamed San Salvador in 1926 to honor Columbus’s discovery) or Samana Cay in the Bahamas. Ten or more islands in the Bahamas fit the physical description as recorded by Columbus in his journal, which described the island simply as large and flat, with bright green trees and a great deal of water.

The islanders were friendly and open to trade with the sailors. They traded anything for anything: balls of spun cotton, parrots, and spears for the sailors’ glass beads, red caps, and trinkets. Called Taínos by the Spaniards, the islanders belonged to a larger language family called the Arawak. The Taínos showed neither fear nor knowledge of Spanish swords and cut themselves while examining the weapons. Most interesting to the explorers, however, was the fact that the islanders had small pieces of gold pierced in their noses. In addition, they told Columbus that the inhabitants of other islands wore gold bands around their arms and legs. They also described countless islands, all like theirs. The Spaniards, believing that they had arrived in the Indies, soon called all islanders “Indians.”

On the third day, Columbus, accompanied by several Taíno guides, left San Salvador to explore other islands. By the end of October, Columbus reached the coast of Cuba. After sailing north and then south along its coast, he was convinced that it was one of the lands described by Marco Polo. Despite the fact that the local pilots told him it was an island, Columbus convinced himself that Cuba was a promontory of China. Shortly after this event, Martín Alonso Pinzón suddenly sailed off in the Pinta without leave. Although historians disagree on the reasons why, many suspect that Pinzón, disgruntled with the lack of riches that had been discovered to that point, went off in search of gold.

Crossing the Windward Passage to the east of Cuba, Columbus sailed to another large island, which he called La Isla Española (“The Spanish Island,” modern Hispaniola). For a month he cruised the coast, stopping occasionally to inspect the land and the people. On one of these excursions, Columbus met and befriended a young Taíno chief by the name of Guacanagarí. After a brief meeting aboard ship, arrangements were made for another meeting, this one on Christmas Day, December 25, at the chief’s residence in a nearby village. Before the meeting could take place, however, the Santa María struck a reef off the coast and grounded. Over the next few days, the crew of the two ships and Taínos in canoes sent by Guacanagarí removed everything that could be salvaged. They constructed a fort out of the lumber of the ship and stored enough supplies to last a year. Thirty-nine men stayed behind in the fort, the first European settlement in the Americas since the Vikings had landed in what is now Newfoundland and Labrador some 500 years earlier. But the settlement, named Villa de la Navidad (“Christmas Town”), would prove no more enduring than had those of the Vikings.

On January 6 the Pinta rejoined the expedition, and shortly thereafter the two remaining vessels headed home. Upon leaving the Caribbean, Columbus again had the good fortune of finding an ocean current, just as he had in the Canaries. Entering the Gulf Stream, his ships sailed far enough north to catch the prevailing westerly winds. But the return trip was not uneventful. As the ships approached Europe, they encountered a terrible storm. The Pinta became separated from the Niña and arrived at the port of Bayona on the northwest coast of Spain several days before the Niña made landfall. Columbus limped into Lisbon, where he was apprehended by agents of King John II. Although suspicious of Columbus’s story, the king accused him of violating Portuguese sovereignty in the Atlantic, which had been extended to all lands south and west of the Canary Islands by a series of papal decrees beginning in the 1450s. Afraid that the king might not release him, Columbus sent a secret messenger to the Spanish court relating his experiences and his detention. By mid-March he was free to return to Spain. On March 15, 1493, at noon, the Niña entered the harbor of Palos de la Frontera, 32 weeks after leaving from the same port. Although Pinzón had arrived in Spain earlier, he did not reach Palos until several hours after Columbus. Very sick, Pinzón died before he had a chance to report to the king.

Columbus alone held the stage. When he appeared before Ferdinand and Isabella at the royal palace in Barcelona, he was accorded the honor of being invited to sit with them and to eat at the same table. With a parade of exotic islanders and colorful parrots, he told his tale of the voyage and of the islands he discovered, describing their lush vegetation and strange inhabitants. He also showed the gold he had brought home, some of it in the form of crowns, masks, and ornaments, and some in the form of nuggets and dust.

All of his rewards were reconfirmed and he was addressed by his new title, “Admiral of the Ocean Seas.” He received 1,000 doubloons, the equivalent of 345,000 maravedis. Columbus had delivered what he had promised—at least everybody at the Spanish court thought so—and as such he owned the day. He urged the sovereigns to equip another expedition as soon as possible, promising gold, spices, and other riches. The admiral had little difficulty persuading the Spanish royalty to sponsor a second voyage.

To prevent the Portuguese from attempting to claim his discoveries, Columbus had sent a letter to Pope Alexander VI (himself a Spaniard) as soon as he arrived in Spain. His letter explained his discoveries in as much detail as he felt he could reveal. The pope issued a papal bull, or decree, in May 1493 granting control of every island Columbus had discovered to Spain. At Columbus’s urging, an imaginary line, called the Line of Demarcation, was drawn in the ocean 100 leagues (about 483 km/about 300 mi) west of the Cape Verde Islands. It was declared that all undiscovered land west of the line not belonging to a Christian sovereign belonged to Spain; anything east of the line went to Portugal. This declaration resulted in an immediate conflict because of the grant that had been made to Portugal in 1481. A resolution was reached in the following year when the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. In this treaty the Line of Demarcation was moved to 370 leagues (about 1,780 km/about 1,110 mi) west of the Cape Verde Islands.

The second voyage departed from Cádiz on September 25, 1493, and was of a much larger scale—17 ships and about 1,200 colonists accompanied Columbus. Included in the crew were two of Columbus’s brothers, Bartholomew and Giacomo (who, after moving to Spain, used the Spanish version of his name, Diego). The purposes of the voyage were to return to La Navidad in Hispaniola to relieve the men left behind from the first voyage, settle more colonists on the islands, and explore and claim other islands.

To quicken the departure, in case another nation might attempt an expedition, the sovereigns did not hesitate to provide Columbus with whatever supplies he requested. The cargo included horses, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, grain, seed, and all the supplies needed for sailing, fending off attacks, building settlements, and setting up an administration overseas.

The fleet left Cádiz and, as before, stopped at the Canary Islands to make repairs and to store more meat, wood, and water. After leaving the Canary island of Hierro, the fleet took a more southerly route than before. On November 2, 21 days later, land was sighted. This new group of smaller islands (known as the Lesser Antilles) were south and east of the large islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (part of the Greater Antilles).

Discovering the islands of Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico along the way, Columbus reached Hispaniola at the end of November. The sailors fired a cannon to announce their arrival, but no one returned the salute. To their horror, they discovered that the entire settlement of La Navidad had been massacred and the site burned to the ground. As they searched for any trace of their compatriots, the newcomers found a mass grave in which several Spaniards had been buried. They discovered also that the village of Columbus’s friend Guacanagarí had been burned and destroyed. No one will ever know for sure what happened at La Navidad. The popular theory is that local islanders destroyed the settlement out of disgust with the Europeans’ greed and avarice.

A new settlement, Isabela, was built a short distance east of La Navidad. Some of the settlers, however, balked at the prospect of doing manual labor. Many were ill, and others were more interested in finding gold and other riches than in building a settlement. To keep the colonists happy, Columbus organized an expedition to search for gold. When little gold was found, the settlers grew restive, and he decided on a policy of forced labor. Local peoples were put to work on the settlement. Enslavement of the indigenous peoples had not been one of the stated goals of the expedition and, in fact, it was offensive to the queen. Yet Columbus justified it on the grounds that it would be profitable.

Despite his policy of enslavement, Columbus did not find his first real riches on Hispaniola until 1496. Taking part in an expedition into the interior of the island, Columbus and his men forced the inhabitants of the region to gather loose gold. Within a few days they had collected about 10 kg (about 22 lb) of the precious metal. Although Columbus was impressed with the beauty of the Caribbean, he did not come looking for that. With incredible single-mindedness, the admiral was looking for riches and a doorway to Asia, to the land of Marco Polo, and hoping that Hispaniola might be Japan, and Cuba part of China.

Before returning to Spain in 1496, Columbus explored more of Cuba and discovered Jamaica. The admiral was determined to prove that Cuba belonged to mainland Asia and was part of the empire of the Mongols. Although he never sailed completely around the island, he did force his men to take a solemn oath that Cuba was a promontory of Asia.

As time wore on, relations between the Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola began to deteriorate. Instead of searching for provisions while Columbus was off exploring other islands, the men left behind raided Taíno villages in search of riches. With little hope for anything more than poverty and unhappiness, disgruntled settlers began returning home. Many of the men were sick, many died, and most were unhappy with the lack of opportunity. The fact that Columbus had left his brother Diego behind as governor of Isabela contributed to the admiral’s problems with the settlers. Diego was not an administrator. The colonists repeatedly protested against his ineffective rule and resented him for being an Italian. Some of the settlers began sending letters back to relatives and officials in Spain complaining about the conditions and the leadership. In October 1495 a Spanish official arrived with a royal commission to investigate Columbus and the charges that had been made by the discontented settlers. On March 10, 1496, Columbus had no choice but to return home hoping to preempt any royal inquiries into the complaints of the settlers. Leaving his brothers Bartholomew and Diego in charge of the colony, Columbus boarded a ship for Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus a friendly welcome upon his return and listened with interest to his story about the discovery of new islands with great potential. They appeared grateful and continued to show him favor but waited more than a year before approving a third voyage.


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