Age of Discovery
He was credited with the discovery of the Americas in 1492, but Leifr Eiriksson and his Norse crew had explored the North American continent centuries before Columbus set foot on the land.
Although Christopher Columbus’ exact date of birth is unknown, historians believe he was born in Genoa, part of present-day Italy. Genoa was a large and wealthy city that served as an ideal seaport. Like most Columbus became an apprentice in his father’s business (weaving), but he also studied mapmaking and sailing. Eventually, he left his father to sail on the Mediterranean Sea. On one voyage, his ship wrecked off the coast of Portugal. Columbus decided to stay in Portugal with his brother Bartholomew, and worked as a cartographer (mapmaker) and bookseller. While living in Portugal, Columbus married Doña Felipa Perestrello e Moniz and she gave birth to their son Diego in 1480. Their son Fernando was born in 1488.
The Big Idea
During the time Columbus worked as a merchant sailor, Portugal was desperately trying to find an eastern sea route to Asia. The land route had been blocked off from Western Europe by Muslim nations, and the Europeans wanted trade goods from Asia including spices and silk. The eastern sea route, around the continent of Africa, was taking a very long time to find. Bartholomew Dias had rounded the tip of Africa in 1488, but had made no further progress up the coast. Christopher Columbus had heard rumors from other sailors that it was possible to reach Asia by sailing to the west, and he hoped to make such a voyage himself.
This idea was revolutionary – not because most people believed the earth was flat, but because no one knew how big the earth really was. No one knew how far it would be or how long it would take to get to the other side of the world. Scholars had put forth several different ideas about how large the earth was; as it turns out, Columbus underestimated the size, believing it to be much smaller than it really is.
He tried to convince the Portuguese royalty to fund his voyage, but they ultimately declined his request. The monarchies of France and England also refused to fund such an expedition. Columbus then went to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain . It took Columbus seven years to convince the rulers of Spain to fund his trip west across the Atlantic. When he finally succeeded, about half the money was provided by the government of Spain, and the other half was provided by private citizens. Columbus demanded quite a bit of wealth and status for his trouble, including the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea , and governorship of all lands discovered or conquered. The following document is the agreement between Columbus and Ferdinand and Isabella:
Title granted by the Catholic Sovereigns to Cristobal Colon of Admiral, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands and Mainland That May be Discovered.
Don Ferdinand and Donna Isabella, by the grace of God King and Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Seville, Sardinia, Cordova, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, Algarbe, Algeciras, Gibraltar, and the Canary Islands; Count and Countess of Barcelona; Lords of Biscay and Molina; Dukes of Athens and Neopatria; Counts of Roussilon and Cerdagne, Marquises of Oristano and Goziano; Forasmuch as you, Cristobal Colon, are going by our command, with some of our ships and with our subjects, to discover and acquire certain islands and mainland in the ocean, and it is hoped that, by the help of God, some of the said islands and mainland in the said ocean will be discovered and acquired by your pains and industry; and as it is a just and reasonable thing that since you incur the said danger for our service you should be rewarded for it, and since we desire to honor and favor you on account of what is aforesaid, it is our will and pleasure that you, the said Cristobal Colon, after you have discovered and acquired the said islands and mainland in the said ocean, or any of them whatsoever, shall be our Admiral of the said islands and mainland which you may thus discover and acquire, and shall be our Admiral and Viceroy and Governor therein, and shall be empowered from that time forward and entitle yourself Don Cristobal Colon, and that your sons and successors in the said office and charge may likewise entitle and call themselves Don, and Admiral and Viceroy and Governor thereof; and that you may have power to use and exercise the said office of Admiral, together with the said office of Viceroy and Governor of the said Islands and mainland which you may discover and acquire, by yourself or by your lieutenants, and to hear and determine all the suits and causes civil and criminal appertaining to the said offices of Admiralty,Viceroy, and Governor according as you shall find by law, and as the Admirals of our kingdoms are accustomed to use and exercise it; and may have power to punish and chastise delinquents, and exercise the said offices of Admiralty, Viceroy, and Governor, you and your said lieutenants, in all that concerns and appertains to the said offices and to each of them, according as our High Admiral in the Admiralty of our kingdoms levies and is accustomed to levy them. And by this our patent, or by the transcript thereof signed by a public scrivener, we command Prince Don Juan, our very dear and well beloved son, and the Infantes, dukes, prelates, marquises, counts, masters of orders, priors, commanders, and members of our council, and auditors of our audiencia, alcaldes, and other justices whomsoever of our household, court, and chancery, and sub-commanders, alcaldes of castles and fortified and unfortified houses, and all councilors, assistants, regidores, alcaldes, bailiffs, judges, veincuatros, jurats, knights, esquires, officers, and liege men of all the cities, towns, and places of our kingdoms and dominions, and of those which you may conquer and acquire, and the captains, masters, mates, officers, mariners, and seamen, our natural subjects who now are or hereafter shall be. And each and any of them, that upon the said islands and mainland in the said ocean being discovered and acquired by you, and the oath and formality requisite in such case having been made and done by you or by him who may have your procuration, they shall have and hold you from thenceforth for the whole of your life, and your son and successors after you, and successor after successor for ever and ever, as our Admiral of the said ocean, and as Viceroy and Governor of the said islands and mainland, which you, the said Don Cristobal Colon, may discover and acquire; and they shall treat with you, and with your said lieutenants whom you may place in the said offices of Admiral, Viceroy, and Governor, about everything appertaining thereto, and shall pay and cause to be paid you the salary, dues, and other things annexed and appertaining thereto, and shall pay and cause to be paid to you the salary, dues and other things annexed and appertaining to the said offices, and shall observe and cause to be observed toward you all the honors, graces, favors, liberties, pre-eminences, prerogatives, exemptions, immunities, and all other things, and each of them, which in virtue of the said offices of Admiral, Viceroy, and Governor you shall be entitled to have and enjoy, and which ought to be observed towards you in every respect fully and completely so that nothing may be diminished therefrom; and that neither therein nor in any part thereof shall they place or consent to place hindrance or obstacle against you; for we by this our patent from now henceforth grant to you the said offices of Admiralty, Viceroy, and Governor, by right of inheritance for ever and ever, and we give you actual and prospective possession thereof, and each of them, and power and authority to use and exercise it, and to collect the dues and salaries annexed and appertaining to them and to each of them, according to what is aforesaid. Concerning all that is aforesaid, if it should be necessary and you should require it of them, we command our chancellor and notaries and the other officers who are at the board of our seals to give, deliver, pass, and seal for you our patent of privilege with the circle of signatures, in the strongest, firmest, and most sufficient manner that you request and may find needful, and neither one nor the other of you or them shall do contrary hereto in any manner, under penalty of our displeasure and of ten thousand maravedis to our chamber, upon every one who shall do the contrary. And further we command the man who shall show them this our patent, to cite them to appear before us in our court, wheresoever we may be, within fifteen days from the day of citation, under the said penalty, under which we command every public scrivener who may be summoned for this purpose, to give the person who shall show it to him a certificate thereof signed with his signature, whereby we may know in what manner our command is executed. Given in our city of Granada, on the thirtieth day of the month of April, in the year of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. I, the King, I, the Queen, I, Juan de Coloma, Secretary of the King and of the Queen, our Lords, caused this to be written by their command. Granted in form, Roderick, Doctor. Registered, Sebastian de Olano. Francisco de Madrid, Chancellor.
The First Voyage
Three ships were outfitted for Columbus’ first voyage: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. Columbus was to command the Santa María, while the Niña would be led by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and the Pinta would be led by Martín Pinzón. The voyage departed in August of 1492 with about 87 men sailing the three ships. After a brief stop in the Canary Islands, Columbus and his crew began their journey across the Atlantic on September 6. On October 12, land was sighted. Columbus gave the first island he landed on the name San Salvador, although the native population called it Guanahani. Today, the island is part of the nation we call the Bahamas.
Columbus continued to explore, and in addition to San Salvador, he spent time in Cuba and in Hispaniola. He firmly believed that he was in Asia. He even proposed that the island of Cuba was a part of China. He wrote in a letter to Luis de Sant’Angel:
When I reached Juana (Cuba), I followed its coast westwardly, and found it so large that I thought it might be mainland, the province of Cathay (China).
He made several remarks in this same letter about the people he encountered on the island of Hispaniola, and the ways his crew was to have dealings with them. When he encountered the natives of Hispaniola, these were his first impressions:
The people of this island (Hispaniola), and of all the others that I have found and seen, or not seen, all go naked, men and women, just as their mothers bring them forth; although some women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant, or a cotton something which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons; nor are they fit thereunto; not because they be not a well-formed people and of fair stature, but that they are most wondrously timorous. They have no other weapons than the stems of reeds in their seeding state, on the end of which they fix little sharpened stakes. Even these, they dare not use; for as many times as it happened that I sent two or three men ashore to some village to parley, and countless numbers of them sallied forth, but as soon as they saw those approach, they fled away in such wise that even a father would not wait for his son. And this was not because any hurt had ever been done to any of them: – on the contrary, at every headland where I have gone and been able to hold speech with them, I gave them everything which I had, as well cloth as many other things, without accepting aught therefore; – but such they are, incurably timid.
Knowing that sailors sometimes tricked people who were unfamiliar with the value of European goods, he tried to closely regulate trade between the natives of Hispaniola and the crew:
I forbade that anything so worthless as fragments of broken platters, and pieces of broken glass, and strap buckles, should be given them; although when they were able to get such things, they seemed to think they had the best jewel in the world, for it was the hap of a sailor to get, in exchange for a strap, gold the weight of two and a half castellanos, and others much more for things of far less value; while for new blancas they gave everything they had, even though it were the worth of two or three gold castellanos, or one or two arrobas of spun cotton.
Columbus had high hopes for the natives. He believed that they could easily be converted to Christianity:
…furthermore may become Christians; for they are inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and all of the Castilian nation, and they strive to combine in giving us things which they have in abundance, and of which we are in need.
When they reacted with such astonishment to the Spanish, Columbus understood that the Spanish must appear as unusual to the natives as the natives appeared to them:
And this comes not because they are ignorant: on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelously good account of everything, but because they never saw men wearing clothes nor the like of our ships.
He was also interested in the manner in which the people traveled:
They have in all the islands very many canoas, after the manner of rowing-galleys, some larger, some smaller; and a good many are larger than a galley of eighteen benches. They are not so wide, because they are made of a single log of timber, but a galley could not keep up with them in rowing, for their motion is a thing beyond belief.
Columbus also wrote carefully of the people. Rather than creating fantastical creatures, he wrote only about what he saw. There was a surprising lack of “unusual” people:
Down to the present, I have not found in those islands any monstrous men, as many expected, but on the contrary all the people are very comely; nor are they black like those in Guinea, but have flowing hair; and they are not begotten where there is an excessive violence of the rays of the sun.
As he sailed around the Caribbean, he named the islands he encountered, after his ship, his king, and his queen: La Isla de Santa María de Concepción, Fernandina, and Isabella. While it is difficult to determine exactly which islands Columbus visited on his voyage, his descriptions of the native peoples, the geography, and the plant life give us some clues. One place we know he stopped was in present-day Haiti. While there, he founded a small fort he called La Navidad, and left 39 men to live there.
From the very beginning, Columbus was thinking about maintaining Spanish colonies in this part of the world. He wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to tell them how he felt the island of Hispaniola should be used:
Letter from Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella Concerning the Colonization and Commerce of Espanola.
Most High and powerful Lords: In obedience to what your Highnesses command me, I shall state what occurs to me for the peopling and management of the Spanish Island and of all others, whether already discovered or hereafter to be discovered, submitting myself, however, to any better opinion.
In the first place, in regard to the Spanish Island: that there should go there settlers up to the number of two thousand who may want to go so as to render the possession of the country safer and cause it to be more profitable and helpful in the intercourse and traffic with the neighboring islands.
Likewise, that in the said island three or four towns be founded at convenient places, and the settlers be properly distributed among said places and towns.
Likewise, in order to secure the better and prompter settlement of the said island, that the privilege of getting gold be granted exclusively to those who actually settle and build dwelling0houses in the settlement where they may be, in order that all may live close to each other and more safely.
Likewise, that in each place and settlement there be a mayor or mayors and a clerk according to the use and custom of Castile.
Likewise, that a church be built, and that priests or friars be sent there for the administration of the sacraments, and for divine worship and the conversion of the Indians.
Likewise, that no settler be allowed to go and gather gold unless with a permit from the governor or mayor of the town in which he lives, to be given only upon his promising under oath to return to the place of his residence and faithfully report all the gold which he may have gathered, this to be done once a month, or once a week, as the time may be assigned to him, the said report to be entered on the proper registry by the clerk of the town in the presence of the mayor, and if so deemed advisable, in the presence of the friar or priest selected for that purpose.
Likewise, that all the gold so gathered may be melted forthwith, and stamped with such a stamp as the town may have devised and selected, and that it be weighed and that the share of that gold which belongs to your Highness be given and delivered to the mayor of the town, the proper record thereof being made by the clerk and by the priest or friar, so that it may not pass through only one hand and may so render the concealing of the truth impossible.
Likewise, that all gold which may be found without the mark or seal aforesaid in the possession of any one who formerly had reported once as aforesaid, be forfeited and divided by halves, one for the informer and the other for your Highness.
Likewise, that one per cent of all the gold gathered be set apart and appropriated for building churches, and providing for their proper furnishing and ornamentation, and to the support of the priests or friars having them in their charge, and, if so deemed advisable, for the payment of some compensation to the mayors and clerks of the respective towns, so as to cause them to fulfill their duties faithfully, and that the balance be delivered to the governor and treasurer sent there by your Highnesses.
Likewise, in regard to the division of the gold and of the share which belongs to your Highnesses, I am of the opinion that it should be entrusted to the said governor and treasurer, because the amount of the gold found may sometimes be large and sometimes small, and, if so deemed advisable, that the share of your Highnesses be established for one year to be one-half, the other half going to the gatherers, reserving for a future time to make some other and better provision, if necessary.
Likewise, that if the mayors and clerks commit any fraud or consent to it, the proper punishment be inflicted upon them, and that a penalty be likewise imposed upon those settlers who do not report in full the whole amount of the gold which is in their possession.
Likewise, that there be a treasurer in the said island, who shall receive all the gold belonging to your Highnesses, and shall have a clerk to make and keep the proper record of the receipts, and that the mayors and clerks of the respective towns be given the proper vouchers for everything which they may deliver to the said treasurer.
Likewise, that whereas the extreme anxiety of the colonists to gather gold may induce them to neglect all other business and occupations, it seems to me that prohibition should be made them to engage in the search of gold during some season of the year, so as to give all other business, profitable to the island, an opportunity to be established and carried on.
Likewise, that as far as the business of discovering other lands is concerned, it is my opinion that permission to do so should be made to them to engage in the search of gold during some season of the year, so as to give all other business, profitable to the island, an opportunity to be established and carried on.
Likewise, that as far as the business of discovering other lands is concerned, it is my opinion that permission to do so should be given to everyone who designs to embark in it, and that some liberality should be shown in reducing the fifth to be given away, so as to encourage as many as possible for entering into such undertakings.
And now I shall set forth my opinion as to the manner of sending vessels to the said Spanish Island, and the regulation of this subject which must be made, which is as follows: That no vessels should be allowed to unload their cargoes except at one or two ports designated for that purpose, and that a record should be made of all that they carry and unload; and that no vessels should be allowed either to leave the island except from the same ports, after a record has been made also of all that they have taken on board, so that nothing can be concealed.
Likewise, in regard to the gold to be brought from the island to Castile, that the whole of it, whether belonging to your Highnesses or to some private individual, must be kept in a chest, with two keys, one to be kept by the master of the vessel and the other by some person chosen by the governor and the treasurer, and that an official record must be made of everything put in the said chest, in order that each one may have what is his, and that any other gold, much or little, found outside of the said chest in any manner be forfeited to the benefit of your Highnesses, so as to cause the transaction to be made faithfully.
Likewise, that all vessels coming from the said island must come to unload to the port of Cadiz, and that no person shall be allowed to leave the vessels or get in them until such person or persons of the said city as may be appointed for this purpose by your Highnesses go on board the same vessels, to whom the masters must declare all that they have brought, and show the statement of everything they have in the cargoes, so that it may be seen and proved whether the said ships have brought anything hidden and not declared in the manifests at the time of shipment.
Likewise, that in the presence of the Justice of the said city of Cadiz and of whosoever may be deputed for the purpose by your Highnesses, the said chest shall be opened in which the gold is brought and that to each one is given what belongs to him.
May your Highnesses keep me in their minds, while I, on my part, shall ever pray to God our Lord to preserve the lives of your Highnesses and enlarge their dominions.
In January of 1493, Columbus sailed back to Europe. Enduring rough seas, he was forced to land in Portugal. Relations between Spain and Portugal were not good at the time, and Columbus was not allowed to continue on to Spain. This did not look good to Ferdinand and Isabella; they suspected that Columbus was taking valuable information or maybe goods to Portugal, the country he had lived in for several years. Those who stood against Columbus would later use this as an argument against him. Eventually, though, Columbus was allowed to return to Spain. He brought with him tobacco, turkey, and some new spices. He also brought with him several natives of the islands, of whom Queen Isabella grew very fond.
Historians sometimes question the accuracy of Columbus’ account of his voyage, as the original diary he sent to the King and Queen was lost and has not been seen since 1545. Historians today only have one copy to study. Transcribed by Bartolomé de las Casas, it is confusing and full of errors and misspellings.
The Second Voyage
Columbus’s first voyage had been a test voyage, to see if reaching Asia by a westward sea route was even possible. Columbus still believed that he had reached Asia, and that he had found Asian lands fit for conquering and colonization. His second expedition was much larger than the first: seventeen ships carried 1,200 men, along with the animals and supplies they needed to start a colony. This large force had two purposes: to conquer the native peoples and to begin settlements. Leaving Cádiz, Spain in September of 1493, Columbus and his fleet arrived in the islands in the fall of that year.
The location of Columbus’ second landing has been placed in the Lesser Antilles. Columbus explored the islands throughout the month of November, either landing on or sighting Dominica, Santa María la Galante (Marie-Galante), Todos los Santos (Les Saintes), Santa María de Guadalupe (Guadaloupe), Santa María de Monstserrate (Montserrat), Santa María la Antigua (Antigua), Santa María la Redonda (Redonda), Santa María de las Nieve or San Martin (Nevis), San Jorge (Saint Kitts), Santa Anastasia (Saint Eustatius), San Cristobal (Saba), Santa Cruz (Saint Croix), the Virgin Islands, San Pedro, and Puerto Rico.After this exploration, Columbus returned to Hispaniola, where he had left many colonists at the fort called La Navidad. When he arrived, he found that the Native Americans living there had attacked and killed the settlers.
Columbus continued to explore Hispaniola and Cuba, but by this time, he had become disenchanted with the natives. Although he had been ordered to keep the peace with them, he chose instead to enslave some of the population. He sent some to Europe and used others to mine gold for the Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. Even with the enslaved native people, Columbus was largely unsuccessful at finding gold. It seems that Columbus may have exaggerated the amount of gold that had initially been available. He traveled back to Spain in 1495, with little gold to show for his efforts.
The Third Voyage
In 1498, Columbus left Spain on his third voyage, this time with six ships. In addition to exploring several islands, he also investigated some of mainland South America. The third voyage was the first time that, for just a bit of time, he believed that he had reached a new land, and not simply a part of Asia. He quickly retracted this claim. He spent some of the third voyage exploring, but when he returned to Hispaniola to govern his colonists, he began to have some problems.
The colonists gradually grew more and more upset with Columbus’ leadership. He turned out to be a very harsh governor, giving out terrible punishments, and the people felt he had lied to them about the wealth that was available in these islands. The people appealed to the rulers of Spain, who sent a new governor: Francisco de Bobadilla. Columbus was taken prisoner on board a ship and sent back to Spain. While on this journey, he wrote a letter to the nurse of Ferdinand and Isabella’s son, begging the sovereigns for reconsideration, and pleading his case. The following is Columbus’s letter to the nurse:
Most virtuous Lady: –
Though my complaint of the world is new, its habit of ill-using is very ancient. I have had a thousand struggles with it, and have thus far withstood them all, but now neither arms nor counsels avail me, and it cruelly keeps me under water. Hope in the Creator of all men sustains me; His help was always very ready; on another occasion, and not long ago, when I was still more overwhelmed, he raised me with his right arm, saying, O man of little faith, arise, it is I; be not afraid.
I came with so much cordial affection to serve these Princes, and have served them with such service, as has never been heard of or seen.
Of the new heaven and earth which our Lord made, when saint John was writing the Apocalypse, after what was spoken by the mouth of Isaiah, he made me the messenger, and showed me where it lay. In all men there was disbelief, but to the Queen my Lady He gave the spirit of understanding, and great courage, and made her heiress of all, as a dear and much loved daughter. I went to take possession of all this in her royal name. They sought to make amends to her for the ignorance they had all shown by passing over their little knowledge, and talking of obstacles and expenses. Her Highness, on the other hand, approved of it, and supported it as far as she was able.
Seven years passed in discussion, and nine in execution. During this time very remarkable and noteworthy things occurred whereof no idea at all had been formed. I have arrived at, and am in such a condition that there is no person so vile but thinks he may insult me; he shall be reckoned in the world as valor itself who is courageous enough not to consent to it.
If I were to steal the Indies or the land which lies towards them, of which I am now speaking, from the altar of Saint Peter, and give them to the Moors, they could not show greater enmity towards me in Spain. Who would believe such a thing where there was always so much magnanimity?
I should have much desired to free myself from this affair had it been honorable towards my Queen to do so. The support of Our Lord and of Her Highness made me persevere; and to alleviate in some measure the sorrows which death had caused her, I undertook a fresh voyage to the new heaven and earth which up to that time had remained hidden; and if it is not held there in esteem like the other voyages to the Indies, that is no wonder because it came to be looked upon as my work.
The Holy Spirit inflamed Saint Peter and twelve others with him, and they all fought here below, and their toils and hardships were many, but last of all they gained the victory.
This voyage to Paria I thought would somewhat appease them on account of the pearls, and of the discovery of gold in Espanola. I ordered the pearls to be collected and fished for by people with whom an arrangement was made that I should return for them, and, as I understood, they were to be measured by the bushel. If I did not write about this to their Highnesses, it was because I wished to have first of all done the same thing with the gold. The result to me in this has been the same as in many other things; I should not have lost them nor my honor, if I had sought my own advantage, and had allowed Espanola to be ruined, or if my privileges and contracts had been observed. And I say just the same about the gold which I had then collected, and for which with such great afflictions and toils I have, by divine power, almost perfected the arrangements.
When I went from Paria I found almost half the people of Espanola in revolt, and they have waged war against me until now, as against a Moor; and the Indians on the other side grievously harassed me. At this time Hojeda arrived and tried to put the finishing stroke: he said that their Highnesses had sent him with promises of gifts, franchises and pay; he gathered together a great band, for in the whole of Espanola there are very few save vagabonds, and not one with wife and children. This Hojeda gave me great trouble; he was obliged to depart, and left word that he would soon return with more ships and people, and that he had left the royal person of the Queen our Lady at the point of death. Then Vincent Yanez arrived with four caravels; there was disturbance and mistrust, but no mischief; the Indians talked of many others at the Canibales (Caribee Islands) and in Paria; and afterwards spread the news of six other caravels, which were brought by a brother of the Alcalde, but it was with malicious intent. This occurred at the very last, when the hope that their Highnesses would ever send any ships to the Indies was almost abandoned, nor did we expect them; and it was commonly reported that her Highness was dead.
A certain Adrian about this time endeavored to rise in rebellion again, as he had done previously, but Our Lord did not permit his evil purpose to succeed. I had purposed in myself never to touch a hair of anybody’s head, but I lament to say that with this man, owing to his ingratitude, it was not possible to keep that resolve as I had intended; I should not have done less to my brother, if he had sought to kill me, and steal the dominion which my King and Queen had given me in trust. This Adrian, as it appears, had sent Don Ferdinand to Xaragua to collect some of his followers, and there a dispute arose when the Alcalde seized him and a part of his band, and the fact was that he would have executed them if I had not prevented it; they were kept prisoners awaiting a caravel in which they might depart. The news of Hojeda which I told them, made them lose the hope that he would now come again.
For six months I had been prepared to return to their Highnesses with the good news of the gold, and to escape from governing a dissolute people, who fear neither God, nor their King and Queen, being full of vices and wickedness. I could have paid the people in full with six hundred thousand, and for this purpose I had four millions of tenths and somewhat more, besides the third of gold. Before my departure I many times begged their Highnesses to send here, at my expense, some one to take charge of the administration of justice; and after finding the Alcalde in arms I renewed my supplications to have either some troops or at least some servant of theirs with letters patent; for my reputation is such that even if I build churches and hospitals, they will always be called dens of thieves. They did indeed make provision at last, but it was the very contrary of what the matter demanded: may it be successful, since it was according to their good pleasure.
I was there for two years without being able to gain a decree of favor for myself or for those who went there, yet this man brought a coffer full; whether they will all redound to their Highnesses’ service, God knows. Indeed, to begin with, there are exemptions for twenty years, which is a man’s lifetime; and gold is collected to such an extent that there was one person who became worth five marks in four hours; whereof I will speak more fully later on.
If it would please their Highnesses to remove the grounds of a common saying of those who know my labors, that the calumny of the people has done me more harm than much service and the maintenance of their Highnesses’ property and dominion has done me good, it would be a charity, and I should be re-established in my honor, and it would be talked about all over the world; for the undertaking is of such a nature that it must daily become more famous and in higher esteem.
When the commander Bobadilla came to Santo Domingo, I was at La Vega, and theAdelantado at Xaragua, where that Adrian had made a stand, but then all was quiet, and the land rich and all men at peace. On the second day after his arrival he created himself Governor, and appointed officers and made executions, and proclaimed immunities of gold and tenths and in general of everything else for twenty years, which is a man’s lifetime, and that he came to pay everybody in full up to that day, even though they had not rendered service, and he publicly notified that, as for me, he had charge to send me in irons, and my brothers likewise, as he has done, and that I should nevermore return thither, nor any other of my family; alleging a thousand disgraceful and discourteous things about me. All this took place on the second day after his arrival, as I have said, and while I was absent at a distance, without my knowing either of him or of his arrival.
Some letters of their Highnesses signed in blank, of which he brought a number, he filled up and sent to the Alcalde and to his company, with favors and commendations; to me he never sent either letter or messenger, nor has he done so to this day. Imagine what any one holding my office would think when one who endeavored to rob their Highnesses, and who has done so much evil and mischief, is honored and favored, while he who maintained it at such risks is degraded.
When I heard this, I thought that this affair would be like that of Hojeda or one of the others, but I restrained myself when I learnt for certain from the friars that their Highnesses had sent him. I wrote to him that his arrival was welcome, and that I was prepared to go to Court and had sold all I possessed by auction; and that with respect to the immunities he should not be hasty, for both that matter and the government I would hand over to him immediately as smooth as my palm. And I wrote to the same effect to the friars, but neither he nor they gave me any answer. On the contrary, he put himself in a warlike attitude, and compelled all who went there to take an oath to him as Governor; and they told me that it was for twenty years.
Directly I knew of those immunities, I thought that I would repair such a great error and that he would be pleased, for he gave them without the need or occasion necessary in so vast a matter, and he gave to vagabond people what would have been excessive for a man who had brought wife and children. So I announced by word and letters that he could not use his patents because mine were those in force; and I showed them the immunities which Juan Aguado brought. All this was done by me in order to gain time, so that their Highnesses might be informed of the condition of the country, and that they might have an opportunity of issuing fresh commands as to what would best promote their service in that respect.
It is useless to publish such immunities in the Indies; to the settlers who have taken up residence it is a pure gain, for the best lands are given to them, and at a low valuation they will be worth two hundred thousand at the end of the four years when the period of residence is ended, without their digging a spadeful in them. I would not speak thus if the settlers were married, but there are not six among them all who are not on the lookout to gather what they can and depart speedily. It would be a good thing if people should go from Castile, and also if it were known who and what they are, and if the country could be settled with honest people.
I had agreed with those settlers that they should pay the third of the gold, and the tenths, and this at their own request; and they received it as a great favor from their Highnesses. I reproved them when I heard that they ceased to do this, and hoped that the Commander would do likewise, but he did the contrary. He incensed them when I heard that they ceased to do this, and hoped that the Commander would do likewise, but he did the contrary. He incensed them against me by saying that I wanted to deprive them of what their Highnesses had given them; and he endeavored to set them at variance with me, and did so; and he induced them to write their Highnesses that they should never again send me back to the government, and I likewise make the same supplication to them for myself and for my whole family, as long as there are not different inhabitants. And he together with them ordered inquisitions concerning me for wickedness the like whereof were never known in hell. Our Lord, who rescued Daniel and the three children, is present with the same wisdom and power as he had then, and with the same means, if it should please him and be in accordance with his will.
I should know how to remedy all this, and the rest of what has been said and has taken place since I have been in the Indies, if my disposition would allow me to seek my own advantage, and if it seemed honorable to me to do so, but the maintenance of justice and the extension of the dominion of Her Highness has hitherto kept me down. Now that so much gold is found, a dispute arises as to which brings more profit, whether to go about robbing or to go to the mines. A hundred castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.
I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world; and now they are returning thither, and leave is granted them. I assert that when I declared that the Commander could not grant immunities, I did what he desired, although I told him that it was to cause delay until their Highnesses should receive information from the country, and should command anew what might be for their service. He excited their enmity against me, and he seems, from what took place and from his behavior, to have come as my enemy and as a very vehement one; or else the report is true that he has spent much to obtain this employment. I do not know more about it than what I hear. I never heard of an inquisitor gathering rebels together and accepting them, and others devoid of credit and unworthy of it, as witnesses against their governor. If their Highnesses were to make a general inquisition there, I assure you that they would look upon it as a great wonder that the island does not founder.
I think your Ladyship will remember that when, after losing my sails, I was driven into Lisbon by a tempest, I was falsely accused of having gone there to the King in order to give him the Indies. Their Highnesses afterwards learned the contrary, and that it was entirely malicious.
Although I may know but little, I do not think anyone considers me so stupid as to know that even if the Indies were mine I could not uphold myself without the help of some prince. If this be so, where could I better find support and security than in the King and Queen our Lords, who have raised me from nothing to such great honor, and are the most exalted princes of the world on sea and on land, and who consider that I have rendered them service, and preserve to me my privileges and rewards; and if anyone infringes them, their Highness increase them still more, as was seen in the case of Juan Aguado; and they order great honor to be conferred upon me, and, as I have already said, their Highnesses have received service from me, and keep my sons in their household; all which could by no means happen with another prince, for where there is no affection, everything else fails.
I have now spoken thus in reply to a malicious slander, but against my will, as it is a thing which should not recur to memory even in dreams; for the Commander Bobadilla maliciously seeks in this way to set down his own conduct and actions in a brighter light; but I shall easily show him that his small knowledge and great cowardice, together with his inordinate cupidity, have caused him to fail therein.
I have already said that I wrote to him and to the friars, and immediately set out, as I told him, almost alone, because all the people were with the Adelantado, and likewise in order to prevent suspicion on his part. When he heard this, he seized Don Diego and sent him on board a caravel loaded with irons, and did the same to me upon my arrival, and afterwards to the Adelantado when he came; nor did I speak to him any more, nor to this day has he allowed anyone to speak to me; and I take my oath that I cannot understand why I am made a prisoner. He made it first his business to seize the gold, which he did without measuring or weighing it, and in my absence; he said that he wanted it to pay the people, and according to what I hear he assigned the chief part to himself and sent fresh exchangers for the exchanges. Of this gold I had put aside certain specimens, very big lumps, like the eggs of geese, hens, and pullets, and of many other shapes, which some persons had collected in a short space of time, in order that their Highnesses might be gladdened, and might comprehend the business upon seeing a quantity of large stones full of gold. This collection was the first to be given away, with malicious intent, so that their Highnesses should not hold the matter in any account until he has feathered his nest, which he is in great haste to do. Gold which is for melting diminishes at the fire; some chains which would weigh about twenty marks have never been seen again. I have been more distressed about this matter of gold than even about the pearls, because I have not brought it to Her Highness.
The Commander at once set to work upon anything which he thought would injure me. I have already said that with six hundred thousand I could pay everyone without defrauding anybody, and that I had more than four millions of tenths and constabulary dues, without touching the gold. He made some free gifts which are ridiculous, though I believe that he began by assigning the chief part to himself. Their Highnesses will find it out when they order an account to be obtained from him, especially if I should be present thereat. He does nothing but reiterate that a large sum is owing, and it is what I have said, and even less. I have been much distressed that there should be sent concerning me an inquisitor who is aware that if the inquisition which he returns is very grave he will remain in possession of the government.
Would that it had pleased our Lord that their Highnesses had sent him or some one else two years ago, for I know that I should now be free from scandal and infamy, and that my honor would not be taken from me, nor should I lose it. God is just, and will make known the why and wherefore.
They judge me over there as they would a governor who had gone to Sicily, or to a city or town placed under regular government, and where the laws can be observed in their entirety without fear of ruining everything; and I am greatly injured thereby. I ought to be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a numerous and warlike people, whose customs and religion are very contrary to ours; who live in rocks and mountains, without fixed settlements, and not like ourselves; and where, by the divine will, I have placed under the dominion of the King and Queen, our sovereigns, another world, through which Spain, which was reckoned a poor country, has become the richest. I ought to be judged as a captain who for such a long time up to this day has borne arms without laying them aside for an hour, and by gentlemen adventurers and by customs and not by letters, unless they were Greeks or Romans, or others of modern times of whom there are so many and such noble examples in Spain; or otherwise I receive great injury, because in the Indies there is neither town nor settlement.
The gate to the gold and pearls is now open, and plenty of everything – precious stones, spices, and a thousand other things – may be surely expected, and never could a worse misfortune befall me; for by the name of our Lord the first voyage would yield them just as much as would the traffic of Arabia Felix as far as Mecca, as I wrote to their Highnesses by Antonio de Torres in my reply respecting the repartition of the sea and land with the Portuguese; and afterwards it would equal that of Calicut, as I told them and put in writing at the monastery of Mejorada.
The news of the gold that I said I would give is, that on the day of the Nativity, while I was much tormented, being harassed by wicked Christians and Indians, and when I was on the point of giving up everything and, if possible, escaping from life, our Lord miraculously comforted me and said, “Fear not violence, I will provide for all things; the seven years of the term of the gold have not elapsed, and in that and in everything else I will afford thee a remedy.” On that day I learned that there were eighty leagues of land with mines at every point thereof. The opinion now is that it is all one. Some have collected a hundred and twenty castellanos in one day, and others ninety, and even the number of two hundred and fifty has been reached. From fifty to seventy, and in many more cases fifteen to fifty, is considered a good day’s work, and many carry it on. The usual quantity is from six to twelve, and any one obtaining less than this is not satisfied. It seems too that these mines are like new, and so are the workers: it is the opinion of everybody that even if all Castile were to go there, every individual, however inexpert he might be, would not obtain less than one or two castellanos daily, and now it is only commencing. It is true that they keep Indians, but the business is in the hands of the Christians. Behold what discernment Bobadilla had, when he gave up everything for nothing, and four millions of tenths, without any reason or even being requested, and without first notifying it to their Highnesses. And this is not the only loss.
I know that my errors have not been committed with the intention of doing evil, and I believe that their Highnesses regard the matter just as I state it; and I know and see that they deal mercifully even with those who maliciously act to their disservice. I believe and consider it very certain that their clemency will be both greater and more abundant towards me, for I fell therein through ignorance and the force of circumstances, as they will know fully hereafter; and I indeed am their creature, and they will look upon my services, and will acknowledge day by day that they are much profited. They will place everything in the balance, even as Holy Scripture tells us good and evil will be at the day of judgment. If, however, they command that another person do judge me, which I cannot believe, and that it be by inquisition in the Indies, I very humbly beseech them to send thither two conscientious and honorable persons at my expense, who I believe will easily, now that gold is discovered, find five marks in four hours. In either case it is needful for them to provide for this matter.
The Commander on his arrival at Santo Domingo took up his abode in my house, and just as he found it so he appropriated everything to himself. Well and good; perhaps he was in want of it. A pirate never acted thus towards a merchant. About my papers I have a greater grievance, for he has so completely deprived me of them that I have never been able to obtain a single one from him; and those that would have been most useful in my exculpation are precisely those which he has kept most concealed. Behold the just and honest inquisitor! Whatever he may have done, they tell me that there has been an end to justice, except in an arbitrary form. God our Lord is present with his strength and wisdom, as of old, and always punishes in the end, especially ingratitude and injuries.
The Fourth Voyage
In 1502, Columbus made his fourth and final journey to the west. This time, Columbus’s goal was to find the “Strait of Molucca,” the way to the Spice Islands. This trip was almost as unfortunate as the third voyage. Weathering a hurricane, being denied entrance to Hispaniola, exploring the mainland and islands of South America, and surviving yet another storm, Columbus was finally forced to stop in Jamaica. His ship was so badly damaged that he and his crew had to stay on Jamaica, stranded, for two years. Eventually, help from Hispaniola arrived, and Columbus and his men were taken back to Spain in 1504.
Columbus spent much of his later life petitioning the crown of Spain to allow him to reap some of the benefit of his discoveries. He was constantly denied, and never recovered his governorship, or the percentage of the wealth that he was promised in the original agreement between himself and Spain. Columbus died in 1506 in Valladolid, Spain, firmly believing that he had traveled to the eastern part of Asia.
On his maiden voyage in 1492, Columbus’ three ships were Niña and Pinta, both caravels, and a carrack/nao called Santa Maria. On his final voyage, his ships most likely were named Santo, Santiago de Palos, Vizcaina, and Gallega.
Although Columbus did not discover America, his “re-discovery” inspired a new era of exploration of the American continents by Europeans. While there were great benefits for Europeans, the results were not so positive for Native Americans. Huge portions of the native populations Columbus and other explorers encountered were wiped out. Within 50 years, an estimated 3-5 million native people died from disease, starvation and war.