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In the early modern period, the voyages of Christopher Columbus initiated European exploration and colonization of the American continents. Christopher Columbus was a navigator and an admiral for the Crown of Castile whose voyages to America are of great significance in western history; particularly his original voyage of 1492, although he did not actually reach the South American mainland until his third voyage in 1498.

At the time of the European discovery of most of the islands of the Caribbean, three major Amerindian indigenous peoples lived on the islands: the Taíno in the Greater Antilles, The Bahamasmarker and the Leeward Islands; the Island Caribs and Galibi in the Windward Islands; and the Ciboney in western Cubamarker. The Taínos are subdivided into Classic Taínos, who occupied Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, Western Taínos, who occupied Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamian archipelago, and the Eastern Taínos, who occupied the Leeward Islands. Trinidadmarker was inhabited by both Carib speaking and Arawak-speaking groups. Most of modern Central America was part of the Mesoamerican civilization. The Native American societies of Mesoamerica occupied the land ranging from central Mexicomarker in the north to Costa Ricamarker in the south. The cultures of Panamamarker traded with both Mesoamerica and South America, and can be considered transitional between those two cultural areas.

Columbus' discovery of the Americas subsequently led to the major sea powers in Europe sending expeditions to the New World to build trade networks and colonies and to convert the native peoples to Christianity. Pope Alexander VI divided "newly discovered" lands outside Europe between Spain and Portugal along a north-south meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa). This division was never accepted by the rulers of England or France. (See also the Treaty of Tordesillas that followed the papal decree.)


Portugal's rival Castile (predecessor of Spain) had been somewhat slower than its neighbour to begin exploring the Atlantic. It was not until the late fifteenth century, following the unification of Castile and Aragon and the completion of the reconquista that Spain emerged and became fully committed to looking for new trade routes and colonies overseas. In 1492 the joint rulers of the nation conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which had been providing Castile with African goods through tribute, and they decided to fund Christopher Columbus' expedition that they hoped would bypass Portugal's lock on Africa and the Indian Ocean reaching Asia by travelling west.

Funding campaign

Search for backers

In 1485, Columbus presented his plans to John II of Portugal, King of Portugal. He proposed the king equip three sturdy ships and grant Columbus one year's time to sail out into the Atlantic, search for a western route to the Orient, and return. Columbus also requested he be made "Great Admiral of the Ocean Sea" (for they called the Atlantic the Ocean Sea), appointed governor of any and all lands he discovered, and given one-tenth of all revenue from those lands. The king submitted the proposal to his experts, who rejected it after many years. It was their considered opinion that Columbus's estimation of a travel distance of was, in fact, far too short.

In 1488 Columbus appealed to the court of Portugal once again, and once again John invited him to an audience. It also proved unsuccessful, in part because not long afterwards Bartholomeu Dias returned to Portugal following a successful rounding of the southern tip of Africa. With an eastern sea route now under its control, Portugal was no longer interested in trailblazing a western route to Asia. Columbus traveled from Portugal to both Genoa and Venicemarker, but he received encouragement from neither. Previously he had his brother sound out Henry VII of England, to see if the English monarch might not be more amenable to Columbus's proposal. After much carefully considered hesitation Henry's invitation came too late. Columbus had already committed himself to Spain.

Spanish procurement

He had sought an audience from the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragonmarker and Isabella I of Castile, who had united the largest kingdoms of Spain by marrying, and were ruling together. On May 1, 1489, permission having been granted, Columbus presented his plans to Queen Isabella, who, in turn, referred it to a committee. After the passing of much time, these savants of Spain, like their counterparts in Portugal, reported back that Columbus had judged the distance to Asia much too short. They pronounced the idea impractical, and advised their Royal Highnesses to pass on the proposed venture.

However, to keep Columbus from taking his ideas elsewhere, and perhaps to keep their options open, the King and Queen of Spain gave him an annual allowance of 12,000 maravedis and in 1489 furnished him with a letter ordering all Spanish cities and towns to provide him food and lodging at no cost.

After continually lobbying at the Spanish court and two years of negotiations, he finally had success in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella had just conquered Granadamarker, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsulamarker, and they received Columbus in Córdobamarker, in the Alcázarmarker castle. Isabella turned Columbus down on the advice of her confessor, and he was leaving town by mule in despair, when Ferdinand intervened. Isabella then sent a royal guard to fetch him and Ferdinand later claimed credit for being "the principal cause why those islands were discovered".

About half of the financing was to come from private Italian investors, whom Columbus had already lined up. Financially broke after the Granada campaign, the monarchs left it to the royal treasurer to shift funds among various royal accounts on behalf of the enterprise. Columbus was to be made "Admiral of the Seas" and would receive a portion of all profits. The terms were unusually generous, but as his son later wrote, the monarchs did not really expect him to return.

According to the contract that Columbus made with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, if Columbus discovered any new islands or mainland, he would receive many high rewards. In terms of power, he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands. He had the right to nominate three persons, from whom the sovereigns would choose one, for any office in the new lands. He would be entitled to 10 percent of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity; this part was denied to him in the contract, although it was one of his demands. Additionally, he would also have the option of buying one-eighth interest in any commercial venture with the new lands and receive one-eighth of the profits.

Navigation plans

Europe had long enjoyed a safe land passage to China and India— sources of valued goods such as silk, spices, and opiates— under the hegemony of the Mongol Empire (the Pax Mongolica, or Mongol peace). With the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the land route to Asia became more difficult. In response to this the Columbus brothers had, by the 1480s, developed a plan to travel to the Indies, then construed roughly as all of south and east Asia, by sailing directly west across the "Ocean Seamarker," i.e., the Atlantic.

Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus popularized the idea that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because Europeans thought the Earth was flat. In fact, the primitive maritime navigation of the time relied on the stars and the curvature of the spherical Earth. The knowledge that the Earth was spherical was widespread, and the means of calculating its diameter using an astrolabe was known to both scholars and navigatorsRussell, Jeffrey Burton 1991. Inventing the Flat Earth. Columbus and modern historians, Praeger, New York, Westport, London 1991;

Zinn, Howard 1980. A People's History of the United States, HarperCollins 2001. p.2.

Spherical Earth
A spherical Earth had been the general opinion of Ancient Greek science, and this view continued through the Middle Ages (for example, Bede mentions it in The Reckoning of Time). In fact Eratosthenes had measured the diameter of the Earth with good precision in the second century BC. Where Columbus did differ from the generally accepted view of his time is his (incorrect) arguments that assumed a significantly smaller diameter for the Earth, claiming that Asia could be easily reached by sailing west across the Atlantic. Most scholars accepted Ptolemy's correct assessment that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, comprising Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere, and dismissed Columbus's claim that the Earth was much smaller, and that Asia was only a few thousand nautical miles to the west of Europe. Columbus's error was put down to his lack of experience in navigation at sea.

Columbus's geographical conceptions.
Columbus believed the (incorrect) calculations of Marinus of Tyre, putting the landmass at 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water. Moreover, Columbus believed that one degree represented a shorter distance on the Earth's surface than was actually the case. Finally, he read maps as if the distances were calculated in Italian mile (1,238 meters). Accepting the length of a degree to be 56⅔ miles, from the writings of Alfraganus, he therefore calculated the circumference of the Earth as 25,255 kilometers at most, and the distance from the Canary Islandsmarker to Japan as 3,000 Italian miles (3,700 km, or 2,300 statute miles). Columbus did not realize Alfraganus used the much longer Arabic mile (about 1,830 m).

The true circumference of the Earth is about 40,000 km (25,000 sm), a figure established by Eratosthenes in the second century BC, and the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan 19,600 km (12,200 sm). No ship that was readily available in the 15th century could carry enough food and fresh water for such a journey. Most European sailors and navigators concluded, probably correctly, that sailors undertaking a westward voyage from Europe to Asia non-stop would die of thirst or starvation long before reaching their destination. Spain, however, having completed an expensive war, was desperate for a competitive edge over other European countries in trade with the East Indies. Columbus promised such an advantage.

While Columbus's calculations underestimated the circumference of the Earth and the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan by the standards of his peers as well as in fact, Europeans generally assumed that the aquatic expanse between Europe and Asia was uninterrupted.

Trade winds
There was a further element of key importance in the plans of Columbus, a closely held fact discovered by or otherwise learned by Columbus: the trade winds. A brisk wind from the east, commonly called an "easterly", propelled Santa María, La Niña, and La Pinta for five weeks from the Canaries. To return to Spain eastward against this prevailing wind would have required several months of an arduous sailing technique, called beating, during which food and drinkable water would have been utterly exhausted. Columbus returned home by following prevailing winds northeastward from the southern zone of the North Atlantic to the middle latitudes of the North Atlantic, where prevailing winds are eastward (westerly) to the coastlines of Western Europe, where the winds curve southward towards the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Columbus was wrong about degrees of longitude to be traversed and wrong about distance per degree, but he was right about a more vital fact: how to use the North Atlantic's great circular wind pattern, clockwise in direction, to get home.

The voyages and events

First voyage

On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Fronteramarker with three ships. They were property of Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers (Martín Alonso and Vicente Yáñez), but the monarchs forced the Palos inhabitants to contribute to the expedition. Columbus first sailed to the Canary Islandsmarker, which were owned by Castile, where he restocked the provisions and made repairs. While securing provisions from the island of La Gomeramarker, Columbus received word that three Portuguese caravels had been seen hovering near El Hierromarker with the supposed intention of capturing him. However, on September 6, 1492 the westward voyage began without incident.

On September 6, he departed San Sebastián de la Gomera for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean.
The Niña, Pinta, and Santa María
Image:Niña replica - Morro Bay CA.jpg|Replica of what the Niña could have looked like.Image:LaPinta.jpg|Replica of the Pinta, in Palos de la Fronteramarker.Image:Santa-Maria.jpg|Replica of Santa MariaOne large carrack, Santa María, nicknamed Gallega (the Galician), and two smaller caravels, Pinta (the Painted) and Santa Clara, nicknamed Niña after her owner Juan Niño of Moguer.

Three days into the journey, on August 6, 1492, the rudder of the Pinta became broken and unhung, rendering the ship disabled. The owners of the ship, Gomez Rascon and Christoval Quintero, were suspected of sabotage, as they and their ship had been pressed into service against their will. The captain of the Pinta, Martín Alonso Pinzón, was able to secure the rudder temporarily with cords until the Canary Islandsmarker could be reached on August 9, 1492. Here the fleet repaired the Pinta and re-rigged the Niña's lateen sails to standard square sails.

As described in the abstract of his log made by Bartolome de Las Casas, on the outward bound voyage Columbus recorded 2 sets of distance figures. He reported the shorter distances to his crew so that they would not worry about sailing too far from Spain. However, according Oliver Dunn and James Kelley, this was a misunderstanding by Las Casas. Columbus did report two distances each day but one was in measurements he normally used, the other in the Portuguese maritme leagues used by his crew.'

Magnetic deviation

On September 8, 1492, Columbus observed that the needle of his compass no longer pointed to the North star, a phenomenon which had never before been recorded in Europe. The needle instead had varied a half point to the Northwest, and continued to vary further as the journey progressed. Columbus keenly reasoned that the needle didn't point to the North star, but to some invisible point on the Earth. His reputation as a profound astronomer held weight with the crew, and his theory alleviated their alarm.

He at first made no mention of this, knowing his crew to be prone to panic with their destination unknown, but after several days his pilots took notice with much anxiety. A legend is that the crew grew so homesick and fearful that they threatened to sail back to Spain.

Discovery and exploration

The route of first voyage of Columbus in the Caribbean.
This map shows the Spanish-given names by which Columbus would have known these places.
After 29 days out of sight of land, on October 7, 1492, the crew spotted shore birds flying west, and they changed direction to make their landfall. A later comparison of dates and migratory patterns leads to the conclusion that the birds were Eskimo curlews and American golden plovers.

Land was sighted at 2 a.m. on October 12, by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodriguez Bermejo) aboard Pinta. Columbus would later assert that he had first seen the land and, thus, earned the reward of 10,000 maravedís. Columbus called the island (in what is now The Bahamasmarker or the Turks and Caicos) San Salvador, although the natives called it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos this corresponds to is an unresolved topic; prime candidates are Samana Caymarker, Plana Caysmarker, Grand Turk, or San Salvador Islandmarker (named San Salvador in 1925 in the belief that it was Columbus' San Salvador).

The indigenous people he encountered, the Lucayan, Taíno or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. Columbus proceeded to observe the natives and how they went about. Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cubamarker (landed on October 28) and the northern coast of Hispaniolamarker, by December 5. Here, the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas morning 1492 and had to be abandoned. He was received by the native cacique Guacanagari, who gave him permission to leave some of his men behind. Columbus founded the settlement La Navidadmarker and left 39 men.

On January 15, 1493, he set sail for home by way of the Azores. To achieve that goal, "He wrestled his ship against the wind and ran into a fierce storm." In his first journey, Columbus visited San Salvador in the Bahamas (which he was convinced was Japan), Cuba (which he thought was China) and Hispaniola (where he found gold).

First return

Leaving the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, Columbus headed for Spain, but another storm forced him into Lisbonmarker. He anchored next to the King's harbor patrol ship on March 4, 1493, where he was told a fleet of 100 caravels had been lost in the storm. Astoundingly, both the Niña and the Pinta were spared. Not finding the King John in Lisbon, Columbus wrote a letter to him and waited for the king's reply. The king requested that Columbus go to Vale do Paraíso to meet with him. Some have speculated that his landing in Portugal was intentional.

Relations between Portugal and Castile were poor at the time. Columbus went to meet with the king at Vale do Paraíso (north of Lisbon). After spending more than one week in Portugal, he set sail for Spain. Word of his finding new lands rapidly spread throughout Europe. He reached Barcelonamarker on March 15, and the Monument a Colommarker commemorates his arrival.

He was received as a hero in Spain. He displayed several kidnapped natives and what gold he had found to the court, as well as the previously unknown tobacco plant, the pineapple fruit, the turkey and the sailor's first love, the hammock. He did not bring any of the coveted East Indies spices, such as the exceedingly expensive black pepper, ginger or cloves. In his log, he wrote "there is also plenty of ají, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than black pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome" (Turner, 2004, P11). The word ají is still used in South American Spanish for chili peppers.

Columbus's report to the royal court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction: "Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful...the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold...There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals...".

Second voyage

Second voyage.
Before he left Spain on his second voyage, Columbus had been directed by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain friendly, even loving, relations with the natives.

Caribbean exploration

On November 3, 1493, Christopher Columbus sighted a rugged island that he named Dominicamarker. On the same day, he landed at Marie-Galantemarker, which he named Santa Maria la Galante. After sailing past Les Saintes (Todos los Santos), he arrived at Guadaloupemarker (Santa Maria de Guadalupe), which he explored between November 4 and November 10, 1493. The exact course of his voyage through the Lesser Antilles is debated, but it seems likely that he turned north, sighting and naming several islands including Montserratmarker (Santa Maria de Monstserrate), Antiguamarker (Santa Maria la Antigua), Redondamarker (Santa Maria la Redonda), Nevismarker (Santa María de las Nieves), Saint Kittsmarker (San Jorge), Sint Eustatiusmarker (Santa Anastasia), Sabamarker (San Cristobal), Saint Martinmarker (San Martin), and Saint Croixmarker (Santa Cruz). He also sighted the island chain of the Virgin Islands, which he named Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgines, and named the islands of Virgin Gordamarker, Tortolamarker, and Peter Islandmarker (San Pedro).

He continued to the Greater Antilles, and landed at Puerto Rico (San Juan Bautista) on November 19, 1493. The first skirmish between Americans and Europeans since the Vikings took place when his men rescued two boys who had just been castrated by their captors.

Hispaniola and Haiti

On November 22, he returned to Hispaniola, where he found his men at La Navidadmarker had fallen into dispute with natives in the interior and had been killed, but he did not accuse Chief Guacanagari, his ally, of any wrongdoing. Another Chief, named Caonabo, was charged and became the earliest known American native resistance fighter. Columbus established a new settlement at Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola, where gold had first been found, but it was a poor location and the settlement was short-lived. He spent some time exploring the interior of the island for gold. Finding some, he established a small fort in the interior.

He left Hispaniola on April 24, 1494, and arrived at Cuba (which he had discovered during his first voyage and named Juana) on April 30 and Jamaicamarker on May 5. He explored the south coast of Cuba, which he believed to be a peninsula (of Chinamarker) rather than an island, and several nearby islands including the Isle of Youthmarker (La Evangelista), before returning to Hispaniola on August 20. After staying for a time in Haiti he finally returned to Spain.

Slavery, settlers, and tribute

During the second voyage, Columbus sent a letter to the monarchs proposing to enslave some of the native peoples, specifically the Caribs, on the grounds of their aggressiveness and their status as enemies of the Taino. Although his petition was refused by the Crown, in February 1495 Columbus took 1,600 Arawak (a different tribe, who were also hunted by the Carib) as slaves. There was no room for about 400 of them and they were released.

The many voyages of discovery did not pay for themselves; there was no funding for pure science in the Renaissance. Columbus had planned with Isabella to set up trading posts with the cities of the Far East made famous by Marco Polo, but which had been blockaded as described above. Of course, Columbus would never find Cathay (Chinamarker) or Zipangu (Japanmarker), and there was no longer any Great Khan. Slavery was practiced widely at that time, amongst many peoples of the world, including some Indians. For the Portuguese — from whom Columbus received most of his maritime training — slavery had resulted in the first financial return on a 75-year investment in Africa.

Five hundred and sixty slaves were shipped to Spain; 200 died during the route back to Spain and half of the remainder were ill when they arrived. After legal proceedings, some survivors were released and ordered to be shipped home, others sent by Isabella to be galley slaves. Columbus, desperate to repay his investors, failed to realize that Isabella and Ferdinand did not plan to follow Portuguese policy in this respect. Rounding up the slaves led to the first major battle between the Spanish and the natives in the New World.

Columbus was anxious to pay back dividends to those who had invested in his promise to fill his ships with gold. And since so many of the slaves died in captivity, he developed a plan while in the province of Cicao on Haiti. Columbus imposed a tribute system similar to that of the Aztec on the mainland. The natives in Cicao on Haiti all those above 14 years of age were required to find a certain quota of gold every three months. Upon their return, they would receive tokens that they wore around their necks. Any Indian found without a copper token had their hands cut off and subsequently bled to death.

Despite such extreme measures, Columbus did not manage to obtain much and many "settlers" were unhappy with the climate and disillusioned about their chances of getting rich quick. A classic gold rush had been set off that would have tragic consequences for the Caribbeanmarker, though anthropologists have shown there was more intermarriage and assimilation than previously believed (see the Black Legend). Columbus allowed settlers to return home with any Indian women with whom they had started families or, to Isabella's fury, owned as slaves.

Third voyage

Third voyage.


On May 30, 1498, Columbus led the fleet to the Portuguese island of Porto Santo, his wife's native land. He then sailed to Madeira and spent some time there with the Portuguese captain João Gonçalves da Camara before sailing to the Canary Islandsmarker and Cape Verdemarker. Columbus landed on the south coast of the island of Trinidadmarker on July 31.

From August 4 through August 12, he explored the Gulf of Paria which separates Trinidad from Venezuelamarker. He explored the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River. He also sailed to the islands of Chacachacaremarker and Margarita Islandmarker and sighted and named Tobagomarker (Bella Forma) and Grenadamarker (Concepcion). He described the new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured it hanging from China, bulging out to make the earth pear-shaped.

Return and arrest

Columbus returned to Hispaniola on August 19 to find that many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony were discontent, having been misled by Columbus about the supposedly bountiful riches of the new world. Columbus repeatedly had to deal with rebellious settlers and natives. He had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him.

Francisco governorship
During Columbus's stint as governor and viceroy, he had been accused of governing tyrannically. Columbus was physically and mentally exhausted; his body was wracked by arthritis and his eyes by ophthalmia. In October 1499, he sent two ships to Spain, asking the Court of Spain to appoint a royal commissioner to help him govern.

The Court appointed Francisco de Bobadilla, a member of the Order of Calatrava; however, his authority stretched far beyond what Columbus had requested. Bobadilla was given total control as governor from 1500 until his death in 1502. Arriving in Santo Domingo while Columbus was away, Bobadilla was immediately peppered with complaints about all three Columbus brothers: Christopher, Bartolomé, and Diego. Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian, states: "Even those who loved him [Columbus] had to admit the atrocities that had taken place."

As a result of these testimonies and without being allowed a word in his own defense, Columbus upon his return, had manacles placed on his arms and chains on his feet and was cast into prison to await return to Spain. He was 53 years old.

Columbus detainment
Columbus was arrested in 1500 and supplanted from his posts. A number of returned settlers and friars lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him of mismanagement. Francisco de Bobadilla in 1500 arrived (August 23) and detained Columbus and his brothers and had them shipped home. On October 1, 1500, Columbus and his two brothers, likewise in chains, were sent back to Spain. Once in Cádiz, a grieving Columbus wrote to a friend at court:
It is now seventeen years since I came to serve these princes with the Enterprise of the Indies. They made me pass eight of them in discussion, and at the end rejected it as a thing of jest. Nevertheless I persisted therein... Over there I have placed under their sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe, and more than 1,700 islands... In seven years I, by the divine will, made that conquest. At a time when I was entitled to expect rewards and retirement, I was incontinently arrested and sent home loaded with chains... The accusation was brought out of malice on the basis of charges made by civilians who had revolted and wished to take possession on the land....

I beg your graces, with the zeal of faithful Christians in whom their Highnesses have confidence, to read all my papers, and to consider how I, who came from so far to serve these princes... now at the end of my days have been despoiled of my honor and my property without cause, wherein is neither justice nor mercy.

According to testimony of 23 witnesses during his trial, Columbus regularly used acts of violence to govern Hispaniola.

Columbus and his brothers lingered in jail for six weeks before the busy King Ferdinand ordered their release. Not long thereafter, the king and queen summoned the Columbus brothers to their presence at the Alhambramarker palace in Granadamarker. There the royal couple heard the brothers' pleas; restored their freedom and their wealth; and, after much persuasion, agreed to fund Columbus's fourth voyage. But the door was firmly shut on Christopher Columbus's role as governor. From that point forward, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres was to be the new governor of the West Indies.

In 2005, a long lost state report was rediscovered depicting Columbus as a particularly cruel ruler. The report may explain part of the reasons for the Spanish Crown's decision to remove Columbus from his position as first governor of the Indies. Columbus refused to have his shackles removed on the trip to Spain, during which he wrote a long and pleading letter to the Spanish monarchs. They accepted his letter and let Columbus and his brothers go free.

Although he regained his freedom, he did not regain his prestige and lost all his titles including the governorship. As an added insult, the Portuguese had won the race to the East Indies: Vasco da Gama returned in September 1499 from a trip to India, having sailed east around Africa.

Fourth voyage

Fourth voyage.

Fourth exploration

Columbus made a fourth voyage, nominally in search of a Westward Passage to the Indian Oceanmarker. Accompanied by his stepbrother Bartolomeo and his 13-year-old son Fernando, he left Cádiz, Spain on May 12, 1502, with the ships Capitana, Gallega, Vizcaína, and Santiago de Palos. He sailed to Arzilamarker on the Moroccan coast to rescue the Portuguese soldiers who he heard were under siege by the Moors. On June 15, they landed at Carbet on the island of Martiniquemarker (Martinica). A hurricane was brewing, so he continued on, hoping to find shelter on Hispaniola. He arrived at Santo Domingomarker on June 29, but was denied port, and the new governor refused to listen to his storm prediction. Instead, while Columbus's ships sheltered at the mouth of the Jaina River, the first Spanish treasure fleet sailed into the hurricane. The only ship to reach Spain had Columbus's money and belongings on it, and all of his former enemies (and a few friends) had drowned.

After a brief stop at Jamaica, he sailed to Central America, arriving at Guanaja (Isla de Pinos) in the Bay Islandsmarker off the coast of Hondurasmarker on July 30. Here Bartolomeo found native merchants and a large canoe, which was described as "long as a galley" and was filled with cargo. On August 14, he landed on the American mainland at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo, Hondurasmarker. He spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaraguamarker, and Costa Ricamarker, before arriving in Almirante Bay, Panamamarker on October 16.

In Panama, he learned from the natives of gold and a strait to another ocean. After much exploration, he established a garrison at the mouth of Rio Belen in January 1503. On April 6, one of the ships became stranded in the river.

Stranded and rescue

During the later part of the fourth voyage, the garrison he established was attacked and the other ships were damaged. He left for Hispaniola on April 16, but sustained more damage in a storm off the coast of Cuba. Unable to travel any farther, the ships were beached in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaicamarker, on June 25, 1503.

For a year Columbus and his men remained stranded on Jamaica. A Spaniard, Diego Mendez, and some natives paddled a canoe to get help from Hispaniolamarker. That island's governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, detested Columbus and obstructed all efforts to rescue him and his men. In the meantime Columbus, in a desperate effort to induce the natives to continue provisioning him and his hungry men, successfully intimidated the natives by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse for February 29, 1504, using the Ephemeris of the German astronomer Regiomontanus.

Help finally arrived, no thanks to the governor, on June 29, 1504, and Columbus and his men arrived in Sanlúcar, Spainmarker, on November 7.


After his death, Columbus's sons, Diego and Fernando, took legal action to enforce their father's contract. Many of the smears against Columbus were initiated by the Spanish crown during these lengthy court cases, known as the pleitos colombinos. The family had some success in their first litigation, as a judgment of 1511 confirmed Diego's position as Viceroy, but reduced his powers. Diego resumed litigation in 1512, which lasted until 1536, and further disputes continued until 1790.


Columbus in modern history is considered the discoverer of America and the person who brought the Americas into the forefront of Western attention. Columbus "discovered" the Americas and, subsequently, the major sea powers in Europe sent expeditions to the New World to build trade networks and colonies and to convert the native peoples to Christianity.

With the Age of Discovery started in the 15th Century, Europeans explored the world by ocean searching for trading partners and particular trade goods. The most desired trading goods were gold, silver and spices. Columbus did not reach Asia, but rather found what was to the Europeans a New World: America. In 1500, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral explored the land that is today called Brazil. For the two European monarchies a division of influence became necessary to avoid conflict. This was resolved by Papal intervention in 1494 when the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world between the two powers. The Portuguese "received" everything outside of Europe east of a line that ran 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands; this gave them control over Africa, Asia and eastern South America (Brazil). The Spanish received everything west of this line, territory that was still almost completely unknown, and proved to be mostly the western part of the American continent plus the Pacific Ocean islands.

Columbus and other Spanish explorers were initially disappointed with their discoveries - unlike Africa or Asia the Caribbean islanders had little to trade with the Spanish ships. The islands thus became the focus of colonization efforts. It was not until the continent itself was explored that Spain found the wealth it had sought in the form of abundant gold. In the Americas the Spanish found a number of empires that were as large and populous as those in Europe. However, small bodies of Spanish conquistadors, with large armies of indigenous Americans groups, managed to conquer these states. The most notable amongst the conquered states were the Aztec empire in Mexico (conquered in 1521) and the Inca empire in modern Peru (conquered in 1532). During this time, pandemics of European disease such as smallpox devastated the indigenous populations. Once Spanish sovereignty was established, the Spanish focused on the extraction and export of gold and silver.

See also

Further reading


General information

  1. Rouse, Irving. The Tainos : Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus ISBN 0-300-05696-6.
  2. "Dates of Epoch-Making Events", The Nuttall Encyclopaedia. ( Gutenberg version)
  3. The discovery of the Americas has variously been attributed to others, depending on context and definition. For example, the Vikings (c. 1000) had previously established a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. However, the information regarding other events did not advance the exploration of the Americas by Europe as a whole. See Discovery of the Americas for other "Americas discovery".
  4. Jensen, De Lamar (1992), Renaissance Europe 2nd ed. pg. 341
  5. Durant, Will "The Story of Civilization" vol. vi, "The Reformation". Chapter XIII, page 260.
  6. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos; the mean circumference of the Earth is 40,041.47 km.
  7. Morison, Samuel Eliot, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: The Life of Christopher Columbus Boston, 1942
  8. "Marco Polo et le Livre des Merveilles", ISBN 9782354040079 p.37
  9. Markham, pp. 21-22
  10. Markham, p. 22
  11. The Columbus Foundation: Santa Clara
  12. Markham, p. 19
  13. Irving, p. 121
  14. Markham, p. 20
  15. Review by Carla Rahn Phillips, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Autumn, 1991), pp. 572-574.The Diario of Christopher Columbus' First Voyage to America 1492-93, Abstracted by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas. by Oliver Dunn; James E. Kelley, Jr.
  16. The Navigational Mysteries and Fraudulent Longitudes of Christopher Columbus A Lecture given to the Society for the History of Discoveries and the Haklyut Society, August 1997 by Keith A. Pickering
  17. Shen Kuo discovered 400 years earlier, in Asia, the concept of true north in terms of magnetic declination towards the north pole, with experimentation of suspended magnetic needles and "the improved meridian determined by Shen’s [astronomical] measurement of the distance between the polestar and true north". For more see Sivin, Nathan. (1984). "Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—Or Didn't It?" in Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honor of I. Bernard Cohen, 531–555, ed. Everett Mendelsohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521524857. Vol. III, pg. 22.
  18. Markham, pp 35
  19. Markham, pp 36
  20. Clements R. Markham, ed., A People's History Of The United States 1492-Present, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 2.
  21. Philips and Philips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus
  22. Bobadilla's 48-page report—derived from the testimonies of 23 people who had seen or heard about the treatment meted out by Columbus and his brothers—had originally been lost for centuries, but was rediscovered in 2005 in the Spanish archives in Valladolid. It contained an account of Columbus's seven-year reign as the first Governor of the Indies.
  23. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, p. 576.
  24. The Brooklyn Museum catalogue notes that the most likely source for Leutze's trio of Columbus paintings is Washington Irving’s best-selling Life and Voyages of Columbus (1828).
  25. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, 1942, pp. 653–54. Samuel Eliot Morison, Christopher Columbus, Mariner, 1955, pp. 184-92.
  26. Mark McDonald, "Ferdinand Columbus, Renaissance Collector (1488-1539)", 2005, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714126449

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