|3. Everything / History & Politics / Historical Figures|
Christopher Columbus - Explorer - Part Three
Part One in this series of entries covered Columbus from his early life to his first voyage. Part Two covered Columbus's second and third voyage. This entry will cover the period from his fourth voyage until his death - in essence, the twilight of the life of the great navigator.
Columbus's instructions for his fourth voyage were:
You will make a direct voyage, if the weather does not prevent you, for discovering the islands and the mainland of the Indies in that part which belongs to us
…which meant that he wouldn't stay at Hispaniola, but try to find a water route to Asia. He brought three caravels with him and another small vessel on this voyage with a crew of 140 men. It was a relatively small group for this voyage, but Columbus was no longer a governor, and the King and Queen didn't trust him as much. He wasn't young at that time either, being in his later years.
The squadron left the port of Cadiz on 11 May, 1502. It went to a port in Africa, then to the Canaries. From there, he had a very short voyage, lasting a mere 17 days, to an island in the Indies which is probably either St Lucia or Martinique today.
Columbus had to stop at Hispaniola because he could easily see that a bad storm was coming. He asked to be given shelter for his ships, but the colony's governor, Ovando, turned him away. He had to find shelter for his four ships elsewhere on the island. When the storm (probably a hurricane) hit, 20 of the colony's ships were sunk, one of which held two of Columbus's enemies, Bobadilla and Roldan, but all of Columbus's ships remained intact, though with some damage.
With Columbus's squadron repaired, they continued on around the south of Jamaica, to Cuba and then west to what is today Honduras, in late July. Along the coast of Honduras, Columbus encountered a long Mesoamerican1 ship, which was the first encounter between Europeans and a Mesoamerican civilisation. He kept going southeast along the coast of central America for a few months until they found what is today Panama. Of course, Panama is now known to have the most thin strip of land between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, but at the time had no strait of water to pass through the land and into the Pacific2. Columbus obviously did not know there was no natural strait, but found out from the natives that another ocean was only a few days walk to the west. This encouraged Columbus to search for a passage to the west. He named the area Veragua.
He also discovered from the natives that there was gold nearby, which the Europeans traded for. Columbus was encouraged by this as well, and went along Veragua trading for gold. He stopped for about a week at a harbour he called Puerto Bello, which is still known as that today. He continued along the coast, but eventually abandoned his search for a westward passage, because he was confident that another exploration with more time could find it. He continued on his other priority of finding gold and did it successfully for a while.
At one point, Columbus encountered a strong tropical storm and a water spout, which he had to fight. The crew shouted passages from the Bible, but the ships were tossed around and weren't safely along the coast for some time. Unfortunately for him, this storm led him away from the area rich with gold, and set him down where the Rio Belen river meets the Caribbean on 9 January, 1503.
Natives led Columbus and his men to a mine near the Rio Belen, where they mined a great deal of gold. The Europeans settled here for a period of time. Spain was satisfied with the results of this, and he earned some favour among the King and Queen as well as the citizens. However, the natives of the area grew organised and annoyed at the Europeans. They had forced them to work in the gold mines for their own profit.
When Columbus was certain that the colony was secure, he set up a small fort led by Bartholomew, leaving one ship behind there. He then set out for Spain. Yet again, though, Columbus encountered bad weather and sent back one boat with a message to the small colony. However, this ship was captured by the natives, and a messenger had to swim to the settlement. He found out that it was besieged by the natives, and delivered the news to Columbus.
Columbus chose to go back to the settlement and bring his brother and the new settlers on their ships. The ship that Columbus had left at the settlement had to be abandoned, because it wasn't in water. All of the artillery and people had to be crowded into the three vessels. They then headed back to Spain... or they tried to.
Columbus and his ships were in poor condition and eager to go back to Spain, but they encountered some problems. The ships had the teredo worms in them that made many holes. He had to leave a ship at Puerto Bello. On 20 June, Columbus and his two remaining ships arrived at a harbour in Jamaica. His ships were now worthless, littered with holes and leaks. On Jamaica, he met a tribe of savage natives, and traded with them for a canoe. With this, they sent a message to the colony at Hispaniola and a message for the King and Queen. However, this canoe was captured.
One man, named Diego Mendez (the only European on the canoe - the rest were natives that were basically loaned to Columbus) managed to make it back to Jamaica. Another mission was sent to communicate with the colony on Hispaniola, but Columbus did not hear from Mendez for many months.
Of course, living in a tropical paradise now frequented by fun-seeking tourists can only lead to disorder in the ranks. Columbus's authority was challenged by the Porras brothers, Francesco and Adelantado. They spread lies that Columbus was exiled from Spain and turned the crew against the Columbus brothers. At one point, the crew became a serious threat to Columbus's life, but they did not kill him. Instead, 48 men left him behind and decided to set out for Hispaniola with several natives to assist them.
In ten canoes, the mutinous bunch stole food and left the island. While the men had pleasant weather in the early part of the journey, they met huge waves and tried to lighten their canoes. They tossed out food and supplies, and even tried to get the natives to jump out. The natives of course refused, but the Europeans stabbed them and cut them, killing 18 of them. Since they weren't very far away from land when the waves hit, they were tossed back to Jamaica. They could have tried again to brave the tough waves or go back to Columbus, but they opted to wait and try again to get to Hispaniola. It was as bad as before, and they decided to return to Columbus.
Columbus and his men began to starve on the island, becoming sicker from the native food and hungrier from the lack of European food. Though Columbus and the island's natives had maintained a fairly amicable relationship, it broke down and they stopped supplying the Europeans with food. Columbus had to convince the natives to feed them now.
Columbus tried to use his knowledge of astronomy to impress the natives and make them think that God was angry at the natives. He called together the tribe and told them that God was angry with them. He told them that if this were true, then the moon would darken and change colour, or as we know it, eclipse. The natives saw that it did, and were scared incredibly. They ran to Columbus with food and water, begging him to take it. He refused to at first, but when he knew that a full moon would form, he took the food and told the natives that he had convinced God not to be angry at them, and so the darkness would be lifted. It was, of course.
After this, Columbus and his men lived an easy life, being showered with gifts and foods, so that God wouldn't be angry at them. Columbus had tricked them cleverly. However, even though Columbus had the natives fooled and on his side, mutiny broke out again. Just as they were about to make another attempt to get to Hispaniola, a small ship appeared on the horizon after over about a year of being stranded on the island.
The vessel was far too small to accommodate the Spaniards who were once occupying four ships. Ovando, the governor of Hispaniola, promised in a letter that he would bring a more suitable ship though, and that this one was for bringing Columbus supplies. The ship soon departed, leaving the Europeans in essentially the same situation they were in earlier. Columbus said that he trusted the word of Ovando, however, and waited for the next vessel to show that he trusted Ovando. Secretly, he was not sure of this.
Meanwhile, the rebels were growing more and more annoyed. Their leader convinced them, though, that this new ship was only a lie made by Columbus. He marched them to attack Columbus and try to take him prisoner. However, Columbus saw this attack and prepared a 50 man force of his own. A small battle took place, in which several of the rebels were killed, and Francesco de Porras was taken prisoner. None of Columbus's men clearly won, and only two were wounded. The rebels fled once Porras was captured.
When the natives saw men that they thought were immortal lying dead, they must have been curious and confused.
Soon after the battle, two ships arrived in the harbour to bring Columbus back to Hispaniola, which took about six weeks. He was well received at the island, both because the men had heard of his sufferings, and that Ovando was a poor governor. He ruled the natives just as hard, if not harder. Columbus spent a month at the colony to try to make his beloved island more orderly, but he was more interested in going home. On September 12, 1504, Columbus went back to Spain.
He had a bad trip home, especially as he was very old, almost 70 years old (depending on which date of his birth you believe), and there were some bad storms. But he made it to Spain safely on 7 November, 1504 after about two and a half years away from Europe.
I have not a roof over my head in Castile. I have no place to eat nor to sleep excepting a tavern, and there I am often too poor to pay my scot.
When he returned to Spain, Columbus had a goal to remove his name from the shame that came with failing to find a passage to the East and failing to bring much gold home. He went back to Seville to meet with the King and Queen. He fought in court to make sure that all of the men who came with him were properly paid, even for the time they spent stranded at Jamaica. Though many people think that Columbus was poor during his last few years. This is not true, because he brought in a large amount of money from his 10% of the revenue from the Indies.
Queen Isabella died less than a month after Columbus returned to Spain, and Ferdinand was preoccupied with other things after this. He couldn't be bothered with the requests of Columbus, who wanted the governorship of the Indies restored to him and wanted pay for him and his men for the fourth voyage. These requests weren't fulfilled, but Columbus kept fighting for his money and his power. When a court date was made, Columbus was too ill to go to court though, and spent his last years in humiliation and frustrated.
In manus tuas, Pater, commendo spiritum meum3
He executed his will on 19 May, 1506, and died three days later. He was probably buried at the convent of San Francisco at Valladolid.
Today, Columbus is honoured for discovering America, although many were before him in this journey. It is now named after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who probably wasn't the first to discover America, but more or less by accident, North and South America were named after him. Other explorers, such as Leif Eiríksson, St Brendan the Navigator etc could have seen the continents before him, but his discovery was symbolic.
Columbus is remembered by the general public for opening European exploration of America, and not as a mean leader. He is well honoured, especially in America. For instance, he has a bank holiday in the United States called Columbus Day, falling on the second Monday of October. He also lends his name to a large city in Ohio, the capital district of the United States, as well as the entire country of Colombia in South America.
Most of the content on this site is created by h2g2's Researchers, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here to alert our Moderation Team. For any other comments, please start a Conversation below.