- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
Ever optimistic, the explorer decided to interpret the woeful disaster as a sign “that our Lord had caused me to run aground at this place so that I might establish a settlement here.” He had a tower and a fortress constructed out of the ship’s timbers, and volunteers to man the settlement presented themselves eagerly, since word had got around that gold mines lay not far off in the territory of Cibao, a location that Columbus took to be the local name for Cipangu (Japan). Thirty-nine men, including three officers, were chosen to be the first Spanish settlers in the New World. Columbus left them with artillery, a year’s supply of bread and wine, seeds, merchandise for trading, and the Santa María ’s small boat. He was confident that when he returned to the New World, the colony would be nothing less than a storehouse of gold. But only desolation greeted him on his second trip, in November of 1493. In their greed for treasure and in their lust for local women, the colonists had quarreled with one another and antagonized the natives. None survived.
To the king who had turned him down. Columbus’s ship was so battered on the return that he was forced to drop anchor in a Portuguese seaport before moving on to Spain. After receiving the crown’s permission to enter the outer harbor of Lisbon, he presented himself to King John II of Portugal on March 9, 1493, accompanied by some of the native Americans whom he had brought back from the New World. Confronted with this evidence of the navigator’s extraordinary discovery, the envious king attempted to make counterclaims of his own in the name of Portugal. After detaining Columbus for some tense days of interrogation, John II permitted the forty-two-year-old mariner to sail on.
Meanwhile, Columbus sent word of his discovery to the Spanish monarchs in Barcelona by a soon-to-be-famous letter that was forthwith printed and issued in many editions. A key passage reflects Columbus’s pride in what he had done: “For although men have talked or written of these lands, all was conjecture, without getting a look at it, but amounted only to this, that those who heard for the most part listened and judged it more a fable than that there was anything in it, however small.”
Columbus presented himself, at last, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Barcelona in late April 1493. By then he had already received the reward for which he had yearned: a communication from the Spanish monarchs welcoming him back, addressed to “Don Cristóbal Colón [Columbus], their Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands that he hath discovered in the Indies.” The illiterate sailor from Genoa had become a gentleman, an admiral, and a political power.
They were received ceremoniously. Columbus organized a grand procession to the Spanish court, and as the native Americans paraded through Barcelona in their exotic dress, crowds thronged to see them. What the Indians thought of it all, we shall never know.
In years ahead Columbus would exhibit a fierce authority over the inhabitants of the New World, but his first recorded impression of them is glowing: “Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the things be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them. … I gave them a thousand good, pleasing things which I had bought, in order that they might be fond of us, and furthermore might be made Christians and be inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of the whole Castillan nation, and try to help us and to give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us.”
Making them Christians was the highest priority. The six he brought back to Spain were promptly baptized and given Christian names, with King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and the infante Don Juan, their godparents. When Columbus embarked on his second voyage to the New World, in September of 1493, five of them returned with him. The sixth, named Don Juan, remained attached to the royal Spanish household. He died within two years.
Four—in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502.
Columbus’s second voyage was crowded with events, few of which redounded to the glory of either the explorer or Spain. Yet it began in the grandest manner. With a fleet of no fewer than seventeen ships and his imposing new title of admiral, Columbus set sail on September 25, 1493, from the ancient port city of Cadiz in Spain. The trip was to last more than two and a half years. Officially the goal was the expansion of Christendom through the acquisition of territories and the conversion of the New World natives, but the quest for gold always took priority. The admiral was instructed to ensure that the natives were “treated very well and lovingly” by all the Spanish expeditionaries. These numbered around thirteen hundred: gentlemen-adventurers, cavalry and infantry, farm laborers, a wide range of craftsmen, and five ecclesiastics to perform conversions. Horses were brought for the first time to the New World, along with cattle, other livestock, grains, and seeds. There were no women.