Everything You Need To Know About Columbus

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By November 3, all seventeen ships had successfully crossed the Ocean Sea. It was an amazing maritime feat; so large a Renaissance fleet had never gone so far in company. The fleet dropped anchor off a small Caribbean island, which Columbus named Marie Galante, after the nickname of his flagship.

There was much to be done. But first Columbus made his crew swear he was on the threshold of fabled Cathay. Having proved to the Renaissance world that the Ocean Sea was navigable, the admiral was now equally determined to prove that the Indies lay close to its western shores. As soon as he reached the New World on his second voyage, he began a systematic search for the Asian mainland. During nearly two months of the most skillful navigation, he made his way around hundreds of islands, giving many of them the names they hold today and describing the incomparable beauty of the region in terms evocative of a golden age. Groves of majestic palms on the shores of Cuba “seemed to reach the sky” above springs of water “of such goodness and so sweet, that no better could be found in the world.” His men rested on the grass “by those springs amid the scent of the flowers which was marvellous, and the sweetness of little birds, so many and so delightful, and under the shade of those palms so tall and fair that it was a wonder to see it all.”

The admiral insisted that Cuba was a “peninsular” island depending from the mainland of China, and with stores running low he sent his public notary to gather testimony supporting this shaky claim that he was on the threshold of Cathay. Depositions were taken from the men in Columbus’s entourage to the effect that Cuba was part of a mainland. All eighty were willing so to swear. Anyone who suggested the contrary could be fined ten thousand maravedis and the loss of his tongue.

The expedition left behind three colonies. Two soon disappeared, but the third, planned by Columbus and built by his brother Bartolomeo after the admiral’s return to Spain in early 1496, enjoyed a fine harbor and flourished. The brothers named it Santo Domingo after their father, and by early in the next century the town could boast a cathedral and a university. Today, as capital of the Dominican Republic, the busy port has a population of nearly 1.5 million and is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in the Western Hemisphere.

But this second foray into the New World also left a less happy legacy. Spaniards forced the Indians to hunt for gold and to share their provisions and, when they failed to submit, exterminated them. In 1494 Columbus sent to Spain about five hundred captured members of the Taino tribe—the same people of whom he had written “they show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.” The three hundred who survived the passage were sold on the block in Seville. Here was the sorry inauguration of the slave trade between the Old World and the New.

DID ANYBODY SPEAK OUT AGAINST THE MURDER AND ENSLAVEMENT OF THE INDIANS?

Bartolomé de Las Casas, an eminent Spanish bishop, used the accounts of his father and uncle, who had sailed with Columbus, to frame his luminous Apologia . He devoted himself to the denunciation of the plundering and devastation of the new territories with the “loss of so many thousands of souls.” Appalled by Spanish cruelties, Las Casas passionately insisted that the peoples of the New World “are our brothers, redeemed by Christ’s most precious blood, no less than the wisest and most learned men in the whole world.” Through books, sermons, and direct representation to the crown, he pleaded the cause of the oppressed Indians for more than half a century.

WHY DID COLUMBUS GO BACK A THIRD TIME?

No sooner had he returned from his second expedition than he petitioned the Spanish monarchs to finance yet a third. He insisted that he was certain to discover the mainland of Asia if allowed to press westward beyond the islands he had already discovered—and he was sure that territories to the south of where he had been would prove abundant in gold. After all, lands in the Indies located in the same latitude as those where the Portuguese had struck it rich in Africa (eight to ten degrees above the equator, in Sierra Leone) must be topographically equivalent in tropical heat, in gold, and in spices. This equivalency theory had been conceived by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. , and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea swallowed it whole.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella assented to a third voyage, yet it was some two years before written permission, money, and the requested fleet of eight ships became a reality. Wars with France and the kingdom of Naples were denuding Spanish coffers, and there were marriage alliances to negotiate that required staggering outlays. For example, no fewer than 130 vessels were assembled in an elaborately equipped flotilla to escort the king’s daughter Joanna to Flanders for her marriage to the son of the Habsburg emperor. Columbus must have envied that fleet. But the Enterprise of the Indies no longer occupied center stage in the Iberian world. Vasco da Gama had just made it around the Cape of Good Hope to the real India in a stunning feat of navigation during the winter of 1497-98, and the Italian Giovanni Cabote was claiming islands off Nova Scotia for the English crown. Columbus’s glory as an explorer was being eclipsed, and he knew it.