Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus Biography Page 3

Having been cleared of any wrongdoing, and with the full confidence of the monarchs, Columbus left Sevilla with a fleet of six ships on May 30, 1498. Separating the expedition, Columbus sent one part to aid the settlement at Hispaniola, while he took the other part and sailed farther south than ever before. Departing from the Cape Verde Islands, he crossed the ocean in hope of discovering new islands in the southwest, toward the equator.

Columbus had the misfortune on this trip of entering the doldrums, a dead space in the ocean where wind and ocean currents die and the heat is unbearable . After a little more than a week, the crew was saved by a wind that pushed them westward. Changing course to the north brought Columbus to an island with three mountain peaks, which he named Trinidad. From there they sailed west into the Gulf of Paria and then to the coast of South America, where they found the mouth of the Orinoco River, the largest river any of the crew had ever seen. Seeing the huge amount of water flowing into the sea, Columbus believed that he had found the Garden of Eden—in those days people thought that all great rivers flowed from there. Without giving in to the idea that he was someplace other than Asia, he did manage to report, “I believe this is a very large continent which until now has remained unknown.”

After several weeks of exploring Trinidad, the Gulf of Paria, and nearby Margarita Island, Columbus headed for Hispaniola, where his brother Bartholomew had begun building a new settlement. Bartholomew had decided to move the settlement from Isabela, which had a poor water supply, to a new site near a place where the Spaniards had discovered gold mines. The new settlement was named Santo Domingo. When Columbus arrived at the new settlement at the end of August 1498, however, he found not a city at work but a country at war. Many of the settlers, upset about the lack of opportunity and unwilling to put the effort into building a long-lasting colony, were rebelling. Two factions had formed: those who were loyal to the Columbus family, and the rebels, led by Francisco Roldán, whom Columbus had appointed mayor of Isabela before returning to Spain after his second voyage. It took two years to put down the revolt and restore order. To end the rebellion Columbus had to agree to give each of the rebels a plot of land and the islanders who lived on it.

Despite these measures, however, conditions in the colony continued to deteriorate over the next several months. In great anguish over his inability to bring peace to the island, Columbus requested that the Spanish king and queen send a judge to the island to deal with the situation. In response, the monarchs sent Francisco de Bobadilla. Unfortunately for Columbus, Bobadilla carried a decree stripping Columbus of the titles of governor and viceroy and appointing Bobadilla governor of the Spanish possessions in the Americas. Shortly after his arrival, Bobadilla seized Columbus’s house and records and sent an order to have Columbus and his brothers found and arrested. They were placed in chains and returned to Spain. Columbus refused to have the chains removed until the monarchs themselves issued the order to do so. He arrived in Cádiz in November 1500. Upon hearing of the plight of the admiral, the sovereigns immediately ordered the chains removed and he and his brothers freed.

On December 17, 1500, Columbus went before the royal court. The king and queen instructed that whatever items were taken from Columbus at his arrest be restored to him. The monarchs would not reinstate Columbus’s titles, however. Instead they removed Bobadilla and replaced him with Nicolás de Ovando. This was, however, neither victory nor vindication for Columbus. With his titles annulled, the former governor spent the next two years in despair and humiliation.

Meanwhile, a flurry of exploration had taken place in the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. In South America, ships reached as far south as Río de la Plata, which forms the southern border of what is now Uruguay, and far north along the coast of North America. Columbus clung desperately to his original theory that the islands he had discovered were part of Asia, but he was alone in his belief. Other navigators saw it as a world hitherto unknown. Whatever it was, colonial activity in the Americas took on a life of its own, and Columbus could do very little to alter its course.

In 1488 the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias had successfully rounded the southern tip of Africa, and in 1499 Vasco da Gama had returned to Lisbon after a successful trip around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. This gave the Portuguese their direct trade route to Asia and finally outflanked the Muslims who controlled the overland trade routes between Europe and Asia. For Columbus, Portugal’s success was a new opportunity, and the Spanish monarchs were again receptive to his vision of finding a strait to mainland China. Rather than retiring with a pension and an estate, perhaps even a castle, Columbus suggested yet another voyage, his fourth.

The king and queen made it clear that the purpose of Columbus’s fourth voyage was to search for gold, silver, precious stones, spices, and other riches. But above all, for fear of aggravating the situation in the colony, they forbade Columbus to return to Hispaniola unless absolutely necessary on his return to Spain.

Columbus’s fleet of four ships and 150 men set sail from Cádiz on May 9, 1502. On this fourth and final voyage, Columbus was accompanied by his son Fernando, age 14, and his brother Bartholomew. Columbus, now 50 years old, could not captain his fleet because of ill health and poor eyesight, but seamen loyal to him were honored to serve the admiral once again.

After stopping to take on wood and water on Grand Canary, in the Canary Islands, the expedition began its crossing on May 25. They stopped first at the Caribbean island of Martinique, where they provisioned the ship again. Then, despite having been expressly forbidden to do so by the king and queen, Columbus headed directly for Hispaniola, where he dropped anchor at Santo Domingo on June 29.

Columbus felt this action was necessary for two reasons. First, one of his ships was in disrepair and he wished to purchase another. Second, and more pressing, was an oncoming hurricane. In a message to Governor Ovando seeking permission to enter the port, Columbus advised him not to allow any ships to depart for Spain. Ovando refused to allow Columbus and his fleet to enter the port and did not take the admiral’s advice. Columbus took refuge in a small harbor nearby and was saved, but the large fleet that Ovando ordered to sea was almost entirely destroyed. Columbus must have felt that divine justice had been done. Not only did the two men he hated most, Bobadilla and Roldán, die at sea, but the ship carrying Columbus’s share of the wealth from the colony made it the entire way to Spain.

After the hurricane, Columbus sailed southwest, past Cuba, and into open seas until he reached Central America. Tortuous sailing conditions and violent storms along the coast took their toll on both the ships and on Columbus. The admiral, sick with rheumatism, fever, and bad eyesight, was bedridden much of the time. Unsuccessful in finding a passage to the Asian mainland, Columbus was forced to leave the area he called Veragua (Panama). Skirmishes with the locals, intense storms, and damaged ships meant that he had to head back to Hispaniola. It was December 1502.

One ship was lost on the coast of Panama and another at sea to sea worms (small mollusks). Consequently, 130 men were forced to crowd onto the remaining, barely sea-worthy, worm-riddled ships. Once at sea, realizing that Hispaniola was too far to reach in such condition, Columbus turned north to Jamaica, which he had discovered on his second voyage. The ships were in such bad condition that they were beached, worthy only of being used as protection from the islanders. Columbus remained marooned there with his men for over a year. Half of the men mutinied when Columbus tried to instill order and discipline. A second problem surfaced that was potentially more disastrous: Tired of dealing with the Spaniards, the islanders stopped supplying them with food. In response, Columbus came up with an ingenious trick. Having an almanac with him, he threatened to punish the islanders by taking light away from the Moon. On the night of February 29, 1504, when the Moon began to disappear because of a lunar eclipse, the islanders became alarmed and agreed to reestablish trade with the Spaniards. The Europeans, however, were still stranded on the island.

One loyal and brave sailor, Diego Méndez de Salcedo, who had protected the life of Columbus on other occasions, agreed to try to cross the open channel by canoe to reach Hispaniola, a nearly impossible feat. The island was over 160 km (100 mi) away, and Santo Domingo, home of Governor Ovando, was almost 480 km (300 mi). In five days Méndez and one other sailor made it to Hispaniola in two canoes paddled by islanders. After finding Ovando on a mission inland, the men were kept waiting seven months before a ship was sent to check on their story. The rescue ship did not arrive until the end of July, and the shipwrecked sailors did not arrive in Santo Domingo until August 13. Not feeling welcome in the city, on September 12, 1504, Columbus took his last voyage across the ocean, this time as a passenger. On November 7 he, his son, and his brother arrived in Spain.

By the time the admiral returned to Spain, Queen Isabella was gravely ill, and she died on November 26, 1504, shortly after his arrival. Weakened by rheumatism, exposure, and years of bad food, Columbus was very ill as well, and he spent many months in Sevilla recuperating at the monastery of Las Cuevas. Over the next year and a half until his death, Columbus tried to regain his lost titles of governor and viceroy. He wrote letters, petitioned the crown, and persuaded others to intercede on his behalf. When he was well enough, he followed the court of King Ferdinand to several cities in Spain, hoping to see the king. In May 1505 King Ferdinand finally granted Columbus an audience in which the explorer was allowed to present his claims to his titles and the riches of the Indies. His titles were not returned, but the king did allow for arbitration regarding his financial claims. In the end, Columbus’s share was confirmed at 2 percent of the riches of the Indies, a considerable amount. Combined with the fact that Columbus already had a coat of arms and noble status, this afforded the Columbus family a lifestyle equal to that of the richest nobility in Spain.

In late 1505 Columbus became too ill to travel any more. He remained in the city of Valladolid until his death. On May 20, 1506, both of his sons, his brother Bartholomew, and his faithful friend Diego Méndez were at his side when the admiral murmured “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit” and passed away. His body was buried initially in Valladolid, but in 1509 his son Diego transferred the remains to the monastery of Las Cuevas in Sevilla. The current location of Columbus’s remains is still debated. They were moved to the Americas in the middle of the 16th century, first to Santo Domingo and then, in 1795, to Havana, Cuba. Then his remains supposedly traveled back to Spain in 1899 where, it is claimed, they are interred in the Cathedral of Sevilla.

Long after the death of Columbus, his family struggled to have his titles reinstated and his honor restored. This struggle resulted in a small victory in 1509 when Diego became governor of Hispaniola. What seems to be the greatest injustice of all, however, is that the new lands that Columbus discovered were never given his name. That honor fell to a fellow Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, from the city of Florence, who explored the southern and eastern coasts of South America around 1500.

To exaggerate the historical significance of Christopher Columbus is difficult. Extraordinary changes resulted from his voyages. Although he failed to find a new route to Asia, Columbus made the lands and peoples of the western hemisphere known to Europeans, setting in motion a chain of events that altered human history on a global scale. The interactions Columbus initiated between the peoples of Europe and the Americas led to what scholars refer to as the Columbian Exchange, the two-way transfers of diseases, plants, animals, and cultures that followed Columbus’s voyages.

European diseases such as diphtheria, measles, smallpox, and malaria devastated the indigenous American population, which previously had not been exposed to them. At the same time, however, the Americas received European crops, such as wheat, rice, coffee, bananas, and olives; and animals, including horses, cows, pigs, and chickens. The Americas, in turn, contributed a virulent form of syphilis to Europe as well as important crops, such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, lima beans, squash, peanuts, cassava, cacao, and pineapple.

Besides facilitating the exchange of disease, Columbus’s discoveries had another dark side. The societies of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas seemed primitive to the Europeans, and the Europeans formed an image of them as “barbarians” that, unfortunately, persisted. The Europeans simply could not see, or did not wish to see, the complexities and cultural importance of the indigenous societies. European settlers in the Americas cared little or not at all for indigenous culture and saw the local population as nothing more than a slave labor force. As a result, indigenous cultures—as well as indigenous peoples—began to disappear as the European invaders advanced. Disease, forced labor, invasion, and conquest inflicted by the Europeans caused the deaths of millions of American indigenous peoples, in what can only be described as one of the greatest tragedies of all time.

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