- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
Almost none. Columbus touched on the mainland of South America, in what today is Venezuela, on August 4, 1498. He thus became the first European on record ever to set foot on a continent of the Western Hemisphere. He had mistaken the horizontal stretch of the peninsula for an island and turned north without trying to sail around it.
For Columbus this so-called island nonetheless represented an astounding discovery; he believed it to be the doorway to the Earthly Paradise often cited in the Bible, in tales of antiquity, and in the medieval literature he knew so well.
His initial landing on the beautiful island of Trinidad was also one of the important discoveries of his third voyage. It had prompted the sensation that he was in this divine territory; the land and sea in this region appeared to swell in height somewhat “like a woman’s breast,” he observed. Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi and Sir John Mandeville’s Travels , two books that had stirred Columbus’s imagination, claimed that the lands of the Earthly Paradise would swell almost to the height of the moon. Surely, then, Columbus was skirting the shores of Eden. If this was not Paradise, how could he account for the mysterious torrent of fresh waters—actually issuing from the delta of the Orinoco River—that mingled with the salt of the Ocean Sea? The Earthly Paradise was believed the locus of a great spring that flowed underground and resurfaced to become the four great rivers of the inhabited world: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Ganges, and the Nile. The admiral would have little success in promoting this idea. Renaissance scholars were abandoning the fable-laden geography of the medieval cosmos.
The admiral’s fortunes reached a nadir when he was arrested on Hispaniola for mismanagement of colonial affairs, by an official sent over to the New World by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He was without question a poor administrator—by turns weak, stubborn, and horrifyingly ruthless. Yet few could have satisfactorily handled the crises that were continually arising as part of Spain’s conquest of the New World. There were rebellions and near rebellions among the hundreds of Spaniards cut off from their families and the comforts of their homeland, and the greed for gold drove them to break up into factions and to savagely abuse the natives. Columbus was returned to Spain in October 1500 in chains, along with his brothers, Bartolomeo and Diego, who had been given a large measure of authority in colonial affairs.
Thus the explorer’s third search for the splendors of Cathay in the name of the Spanish monarchs met its ignominious end.
It was a voyage that, indeed, appeared to have been ill fated from the start. It had begun with none of the excitement of the first and certainly little of the grandeur of the second. Columbus’s insistence on the magical reality of the Earthly Paradise struck his contemporaries as little more than the imaginings of a man obsessed with the idea that he was an agent of divine providence.
“In Spain they judge me,” he complained, “as if I had been governor of Sicily or of a province or city under an established government, and where the laws can be observed without fear of chaos. This is most unjust. I should be judged as a captain sent from Spain to the Indies to conquer a numerous and warlike people.”
Eventually the admiral was vindicated by the Spanish court, but the psychological damage to the infirm and aging man was profound. Now, more than ever, he wanted to seize those elusive riches, and this time he insisted that the wealth lay beyond a strait that led directly to the Indian Ocean. He proposed to find the strait.
Permission was long in coming, and humiliating when it arrived. The admiral would be accompanied by an official comptroller who was to keep a strict inventory of the gold, silver, pearls, and spicery that Columbus had long dangled before the imagination of the Spanish court, and the explorer would be under the jurisdiction of a Spanish governor whom the king and queen had appointed to replace him in the New World.
Thus began a gloomy voyage in a modest fleet of four caravels. He sailed past islands already discovered but found no strait. He believed—correctly—that he was on an isthmus between the waters but had neither the men nor the supplies to push through the jungles that separated him from becoming the discoverer of the Pacific.
His ships began to disintegrate. Two had to be abandoned. The admiral was frequently delirious, his men explosively dissatisfied. “What with the heat and dampness,” wrote Columbus’s fourteen-year-old son, Ferdinand, “our ship biscuit had become so wormy that, God help me, I saw many who waited for darkness to eat the porridge made of it, that they might not see the maggots.”
In the holds of his rotting vessels, captive natives committed suicide by hanging themselves from the low beams overhead, bending their knees in the cramped space to assure their death.
So ended the final voyage of Christopher Columbus.