Columbus certainly was not the first arrival to the New World, Asians beat him by 10,000 years or more. Neither was he the first European to make a settlement in the New World. Leif Erikson beat him by almost 500 years, albeit with a very brief settlement. What Columbus accomplished that none other had was to report his discovery to a receptive Renaissance population eager for exploration, new settlements, exploitation, and wealth. Spain and Portugal were the primary seafaring nations and in the best position to seize the opportunity. They hit it big with shiploads of gold filling their coffers. Soon the Spanish had settlements and governments set up in the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and Dominican Republic). Planters came and created plantations of crops for the settlements and for export back to Europe. Spain’s presence spread to the mainland in Mexico and Florida, then north and south into two continents claiming immense tracts of land. England and France joined the game and the Columbian Exchange continued for nearly 400 years until two entire continents were transformed. For better or worse this is Columbus’s legacy.
Unfortunately Columbus could not foresee all the recognition that was to come. In fact during his lifetime he felt unappreciated, unrecognized, and extremely frustrated with his ill-treatment by the Spanish king and queen. More on that later.
The three now famous ships, Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, left Spain in early August, 1492 and sailed west in steady trade winds. But the voyage was not without some troubles. The Pinta was not fully seaworthy, resulting in a lost rudder and a serious leak requiring constant pumping. There was a delay while the rudder was replaced and the leak stopped. Later the crew became very restive at the failure to find land, but mutiny was averted by a promise to turn back if land was not sighted in three more days. Luck was with Columbus and land was sighted the third day. The first landing was in mid-October on an island that Columbus named El Salvador. Some controversy exists concerning which island was the site of the landing, but the consensus now is either Watlings Island or Samana Island in the Bahamas.
The Spaniards were welcomed by the Arawaks who were immediately named Indians on the assumption they were in the “Indies”—another 9,000 miles westward. Columbus took an Arawak man to act as pilot as they searched for other islands. The Arawak identified one large island by the name of Cuba and Columbus believed it to be Cipango (Japan), which of course was just what he was looking for. In his log he wrote, “I am sure Cuba and Cipango are one and the same.” He also discovered the large island of Hispaniola. Bad luck hit again when the flagship, Santa Maria, ran aground on a coral reef at Hispaniola. They salvaged wood from the ship to make a fort, named La Navidad because the wreck occurred on Christmas Eve, and a contingent of thirty-nine men were left behind to establish the first European settlement in the New World. The Niña and Pinta returned to Spain where the Spanish monarchs, pleased with the gold artifacts and Indians, bestowed great honors on Columbus. Immediately the king and queen approved another voyage. Often the story stops here with a statement that he made three other trips to the New World.
In late September, 1493, a fleet of seventeen ships returned to the new world with instructions to establish colonies, initiate trade, and further explore the “Indies.” When Columbus reached Fort Navidad he found the inhabitants dead or missing. The first settlement had lasted less than a year due to infighting, disease, and hostile natives. He relocated to another site on Hispaniola where many of the new settlers also became ill and died. Workers sent out to explore the area came back with large nuggets of gold and the others abandoned their work to gain sudden riches, leaving crops abandoned. Nearly all the Spaniards began roaming the interior finding gold and terrorizing the natives. When the Indians resisted they were killed, tortured, or enslaved. Soon Columbus sent twelve ships back to Spain loaded with twenty-five captured natives, a wealth of gold nuggets, and some “Oriental” spices. Columbus wrote that he shipped 500 slaves back to Spain.
In March, 1496, after two and a half years as governor of the new colony, Columbus returned to Spain with two ships and a cargo of slaves. Men on the under-provisioned ships were near starvation when they arrived in Cádiz. The monarchs had heard poor reports on Columbus’s colonial management and their enthusiasm toward him cooled considerably. It took two years for him to get their support for another voyage.
In May, 1498, Columbus returned with three ships intending to continue searching for the Eurasian continent he knew must be near. He sailed farther south and discovered the coast of South America at present day Venezuela. When he reached Hispaniola he found conditions in the colony had worsened. Many enslaved Indians died of hard labor or cruel mutilations and rebellion was brewing.
Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand let it be known they were unhappy about the way Columbus handled the new colony. They expressed concern about treatment of the natives but were especially bothered that the flow of gold had dropped—due in part to the ill-treatment of the natives. The monarchs hoped to rectify the situation by replacing Columbus. They sent Francisco de Bobadilla as their viceroy and he immediately arrested Columbus, sending him back to Cádiz in irons. He stayed in jail for six weeks before he was called to an audience with the queen and king. Columbus hoped he could change their opinion of him, but instead they dumped him as governor of the Indies and appointed Nicolás de Ovando. The only bright side was that Columbus was allowed to make a fourth voyage—far better than staying in prison.
The objective for this voyage was to find a passage through that annoying land obstruction and find a way to the real Indies. Columbus left Cádiz with four ships in May, 1502. When he reached the settlement of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, Columbus requested permission to harbor his ships for protection from a coming hurricane. The new governor, Ovando, spitefully refused. At the same time Ovando sent thirty ships filled with treasure off to Spain. Columbus must have felt some vindication upon learning that only one of those ships made it safely through the hurricane to Spain.
He sailed west to explore the coast of Central America from Honduras to Panama. His four ships were obviously in very poor condition. He had to abandon one ship that simply collapsed from rot. He lost another ship from worms boring into the wooden hull. The two remaining caravels required constant pumping just to keep afloat. The two ships limped along as far as Jamaica, arriving with their decks almost awash. He ran the ships aground and remained there almost two years dependent on the natives for food and shelter. He eventually got a message to Ovando requesting rescue and nine months later Ovando sent him one caravel. Columbus finally reached Spain in November 1504. Eighteen months later he died at fifty-four, a resentful and bitter man. He had led Spain to an immense empire and unimaginable riches yet he was cast aside.
The Crown had promised Columbus ten percent of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity, and he initiated lengthy litigation that was continued by his sons with modest success. Legal disputes finally ended in 1790, almost 300 years later. He and his family certainly felt he deserved more recognition.
History has since bestowed ample acclaim on Columbus. Only fifty years after Columbus’s death, the historian Francisco López de Gómera wrote that his first voyage was the “greatest event since the creation of the world.” He did indeed change the world but historians now recognize that the change resulted in many losses of Native American cultures. Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian, wrote that Columbus’s governance was tyranny. "Even those who loved him [Columbus] had to admit atrocities had taken place."
An anonymous writer quipped that Columbus, “didn’t know where he was going, when he got there he didn’t know where he was, and when he got back he didn’t know where he had been.” For one so unaware he certainly changed everything.
There are countless excellent sources on Columbus. Morison is my favorite.
Fuson, Robert H. The Log of Christopher Columbus. Camden, ME: International Marine Publishing Co. 1987.
Jeans, Peter D. Seafaring Lore and Legend. Camden, ME: International Marine Publishing Co. 2004.
Morison. Samuel E. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages A. D. 1492 - 1616. New York: Oxford University Press. 1974.
Morison, S.E. Admiral of the Ocean Sea. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. Originally published 1942.