For Columbus the spring and summer of 1493 were the happiest period of his life. The scanty records of the time depict him as enjoying the admiration of the crowd and the grateful appreciation of his sovereign. Spain had never seen such a cavalcade as slowly wended its way from Seville to Barcelona in early April, 1493. "From all the neighboring places the people gathered along the highway to see him and the Indians and the other things so novel that he brought with him."1 He was met by the dignitaries of Barcelona and the court and escorted to the place where the royal pair awaited him with all majesty and grandeur, on a richly decorated seat under a canopy of cloth of gold. And when he went to kiss their hands they rose as to a great lord and made him sit beside them, thus bestowing the highest distinction that could be shown to a subject in Spain.2 Later he was p34accorded a coat of arms, which in after years bore the legend:
"For Castile and Leon
Colon found a New World."3
These summer months, however, were not mere holiday for the admiral, for preparations went on apace for his return to the Indies, with a colony and for further explorations. During the last week of May, Ferdinand and Isabella issued no less than twenty-five executive orders, commissions, and proclamations relating to the equipment of the expedition which, it was announced as early as May 23, 1493, was to be despatched to "the Indies,"4 the name henceforth adopted in Spain for the New World. Fifteen thousand ducats were appropriated for the expenses, or about five times the cost of the first voyage. Authority was conferred upon Columbus and Juan de Fonseca, archdeacon of Seville, to take charge of the preparations, and Columbus was appointed captain-general of the fleet. Finally everything was ready and the fleet set sail September 25, 1493.
These seventeen ships were freighted with the seeds of European life. Among the fifteen hundred men on board were the returning converted Indians, soldiers, missionaries, artisans of all kinds, field laborers, knights, and young courtiers. All but p35about two hundred volunteers were under pay.5 Besides a few horses for cavalry service, there were carried for breeding purposes mares, sheep, heifers, and other animals. Vegetables, wheat, barley, and other cereals were not forgotten, nor the vine and fruit trees. All kinds of tools, too, that would be needed in a colony were included. At the Canary Islands they added to their stock calves, she-goats, ewes, pigs, chickens, seeds of oranges, lemons, melons, and other garden-plants, and, most important of all, sugar-cane.6 It is not strange that no women were taken upon an expedition so hazardous and so military. Yet to their absence must be attributed some of the most serious causes for the subsequent troubles with the natives, and their presence would have lessened the terrible homesickness and have been a consolation in illness.
Thus laden with the gifts of the Old to the New World, this fleet pursued its way across the Atlantic to lay the foundations of the Spanish colonial empire. November 3 they reached one of the smaller Antilles, which was named Dominica, as it was Sunday. Sailing from one island to another — among them was Porto Rico — it was the night of November 27 before they arrived at the site of the little garrison of Navidad. A salute from the ships' cannon was followed by an ominous silence. p36About midnight a canoe approached Columbus's ship full of Indians crying out "Almirante! Almirante!" When the admiral appeared they came on boat to say that some of the Christians had died of illness, and that others had gone into the country with their wives and some with many wives. The admiral felt they must all be dead.7 The morning revealed a scene of complete desolation. Not a Spaniard had survived.
For his new station Columbus tried to select a more favorable site, somewhat farther east, on the north coast of Hayti. Here all disembarked, and the foundations for a permanent settlement were laid in December, 1493. Everything seemed full of promise — a fertile soil, good building-stone, clay for bricks and tiles. Columbus set his people at work with energy on the new town of Isabella. Streets and a plaza were laid out, and solid public buildings, ever a characteristic feature of the Spanish colonies, were planned — an arsenal and storehouse, a church, a hospital, a fort, all built of stone. Private homes were of wood and straw. But the men, worn by the long and unaccustomed sea-voyage, especially the laborers, put to such heavy work in a strange climate, soon fell sick; even Columbus did not escape. For a time among all the hundreds of colonists there was hardly a well man.8
Early in January, 1494, two young cavaliers, one of them Alonso de Hojeda, a notable explorer and p37conquistador, led out reconnoitring parties to the reputed gold-bearing region of Cibao, in the interior. Their reports were glowing and stimulated Columbus to a more thorough exploration of the country.9 In the mean time, however, reinforcements and supplies were urgently needed; and, consequently, about the middle of February Antonio de Torres was sent back to Spain with twelve ships. The memorial that Columbus despatched by him setting forth the seeds of the new colony is devoid of visionary schemes; it shows to great advantage the practical side of Columbus's abilities, and forecasts some features of the later colonial system.
The prevalent sickness he correctly attributed to the change of air and water and the lack of fresh meat; he emphasized the need of fresh provisions, wine, raisins, sugar, honey, rice, and medicines, clothes, shoes, and leather, more domestic animals for work and for breeding. Gloriously rich in some aspects of nature, the New World was notably poor in food plants and domesticable animals, those two indispensable aids to advancing culture. He proposed, when the supply-vessels should return, to send to Spain some of the cannibals — men, women, and children — to learn Spanish, so that communication could be had with them, for their language was different from that of the Lucayans whom he had taken to Spain. Columbus reported hopefully p38in regard to gold and spices, but sent little of the precious metal.10
To bridge over the costly and unprofitable years of laying the foundations of his colony, in case there should not be much gold, Columbus proposed that their majesties should authorize contractors every year to bring over cattle and beasts of burden, for which they might be paid with slaves taken from among these cannibals, "who are a wild people fit for any work, well proportioned, and very intelligent, and who, when they have got rid of their cruel habits to which they have been accustomed, will be better than any other kind of slaves."11 The proposition gave pause to Ferdinand and Isabella, and they reserved it for further consideration.
To characterize Columbus as ambitious to become a slave-driver, as a recent biographer has done,12 reveals a lack of the historical spirit. It is more reasonable to imagine him already haunted by the problem of keeping in progress the great movement he had started. Already may he have had a premonition of the angry cries of impoverished and starving Spaniards accusing his spurious Indies of being their ruin.13 In any case, the suggestion proposed a means rather than an end, and a means sanctioned by the past,14 however much to be p39discredited in the future or questioned at the time.
After Torres' departure, the first serious trouble in the colony arose during the illness of Columbus. Unexpected hardships, disease, and homesickness, in place of a holiday adventure, undermined both courage and discipline. Still worse, one of the gold assayers, Fernin Cedo, scouted the idea of there being much gold in the island. In this time of trial one of the royal officials, Bernal de Pisa, headed a plot to seize the remaining ships and make for Spain. Columbus acted with promptitude and resolution. Bernal was confined in one of the ships, to be sent to Spain with a statement of his offence.15 But even this exercise of authority galled the discontented colonists, and from their resentment Las Casas traces the beginning of Columbus's later troubles.
When the admiral felt fully recovered he selected from the well and strong about four hundred men, who, in full martial array, with banners and trumpets to dazzle and impress the islanders, followed him, March 12, in a southerly direction towards Cibao. After passing the first ridge they beheld a magnificent plain, affording, according to Las Casas, one of the most splendid prospects in the whole world.16 •About seventy miles south of Isabella, in the mountains of Cibao, nuggets were found and other indications of gold. For the security of miners and p40prospectors, Columbus built a fort which he named St. Thomas, on account of the doubters, who there could see the precious metal with their eyes and handle it with their hands. It was garrisoned by Pedro Margarite and fifty-six men.17
Upon his return to Isabella the admiral found the settlers still more wasted, for the few who had escaped illness or death were much reduced in strength, owing to the scarcity of provisions. As most of the laborers were disabled, Columbus ordered the gentlemen to take hold and work, under threat of severe penalty. To add the degradation of labor with their hands to their suffering was too much for the Spanish hidalgos, and Columbus never escaped from the resentment engendered at this time.
Leaving the colony under a commission, Columbus, towards the end of April, undertook the exploration of Cuba. Sailing along the southern shore, he diverged to the south and discovered Jamaica, May 14, 1494. The next month was spent in cautiously threading his way along the Cuban coast towards the west through a bewildering number of islets. The vaguely understood signs of the natives were interpreted, now to indicate that Cuba was an island, and now the main-land. Its coast-line seemed interminable; and, provisions growing short, it was necessary to return, and apparently equally necessary to have some positive results to show for the exploration. So all the ship's officers and common p41sailors and the expert map-maker, Juan de la Cosa, on whose famous map, six years later, Cuba was plainly depicted as an island, were required to take solemn oath that they had no doubt that this land was main-land, the beginning of the Indies and the terminus that whosoever desired to come from Spain overland to these parts would reach.18
It is a strange irony of fate that two more days' sailing would have brought Columbus to the western end of Cuba and possibly have led to the immediate discovery of Yucatan, or Mexico.19 His illusion, however, gave rise to the first project of going round the world, for his son Ferdinand writes in a passage almost certainly derived from Columbus's journal of the second voyage, no longer extant, "that if he had had abundance of provisions he would not have returned to Spain except by way of the East."20 This is confirmed by Bernaldez, the curate of Los Palacios, who derived the account of this voyage from Columbus himself. One notes with interest, however, that the circuit of the globe was not to involve the circumnavigation of Africa, but a land journey from the Arabian gulf to the Mediterranean.21
p42 On the return the south shores of Jamaica and of Española were explored. Late in September, 1494, Columbus, worn out by labors and watchings, collapsed and remained insensible for a long time; and five months passed before he was fully recovered.22
During his absence his brother Bartholomew arrived at Isabella, having been sent from England. Bartholomew was a most energetic man, thoroughly devoted to the interests of his brother, who immediately appointed him "adelantado of the Indies," that is, provincial military governor. Yet this appointment so natural under the circumstances, did not prove an unmixed advantage. Bartholomew ruled with more severity than Christopher, and in the eyes of the proud Spaniards he was even more of a foreigner and an upstart. His rigorous discipline did much to create the subsequent impression that the admiral was cruel.23
That a strong hand was needed at the helm was only too evident. During the admiral's absence the native population had grown more and more apprehensive and restless. The hunger of the Spaniards seemed insatiable,24 and in the gratification of their lust they respected neither the rights nor feelings of husbands and parents. Under the circumstances p43these evils were inevitable, yet they nearly wrecked the colony. In addition, the officials had proved false to their trust. Margarite deserted his post at St. Thomas, and with Friar Boil, accompanied by some priests and many others, took the ships that Bartholomew brought and went back to Spain, where they disparaged the Indies, declaring that the was no gold there nor any other thing of profit.25
With the recovery of Columbus began a period of open warfare with the various native kings, in which the clumsy fire-arms of the period and the cross-bows were frightfully effective. Even more terrible were the centaur-like monsters, the cavalrymen; and next the hounds that at the words "take him," would each kill — so Las Casas reports — a hundred Indians an hour.26 These raids lasted nine or ten months, until the islanders were thoroughly terrorized and subjected to the payment of tribute. Those who lived near the mines must furnish a Flemish hawksbell (half to two-thirds of an ounce)27 full of gold every three months; while from those not near the mines was exacted an arroba (twenty-five pounds) of cotton.
These burdens Las Casas pronounces excessive, and adds that in despair the Indians fled to the mountains, preferring to starve to death by renouncing all cultivation of the soil, if only they could bring famine upon the Spaniards. The friendly p44cacique Guarionex offered to put an enormous tract of land under cultivation for growing grain if the admiral would only not demand gold, but Columbus needed gold to demonstrate that the colony would be profitable. When he found that the tribute was too high he commuted it to one-half, but even then it was beyond the power of many of the unfortunate natives.28 In these three years of conquest — a life-and-death struggle between the invaders and the natives — the population of Española was supposed to have been reduced by at least two-thirds; such was the opinion of Las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus, and they no doubt represent the belief of the admiral.29
In March, 1496, Columbus having become convinced that the interests of the colony required his return to Spain, set sail with two caravels containing some two hundred and twenty homesick and enfeebled colonists and thirty Indians. His brother Bartholomew was left in authority at Española.
When Columbus arrived in Spain, June, 1496, three years had passed since the triumphal progress from Seville to Barcelona. They had been years of no small achievement compared with the initial years of later English or French exploration and colonization; but the results had been disappointing to the expectations aroused by the announcement that the Indies of Marco Polo had been reached and the doors opened to fabulous wealth. As a consequence p45Columbus was thrown upon the defensive. He must vanquish his detractors and those who decried the vaunted Indies; the popular imagination must again be kindled and the sovereigns allured to further ventures.
Columbus assumed the garb of humility and of religion, that of a Franciscan friar, presenting striking contrast to the Indian captive prince Don Diego, with a gold chain about his neck weighing six pounds. Gold dust and nuggets, crowns, masks, and girdles, and specimens of Indian workmanship were laid before Ferdinand and Isabella.30 These picturesque arguments, reinforced by Columbus's persuasive eloquence, restored his fortunes. Yet, unfortunately for him, the foreign enterprises of the crown caused delays and diminished the funds available for the new colony; and, unfortunately for the colony, Columbus succeeded in securing the reversal of measures taken for its advantage because they clashed with his monopoly rights.
In particular, in April, 1495, the sovereigns adopted a plan of voluntary assisted emigration to Española, of free opportunity to any one to make explorations and to engage in trade,31 a policy in marked contrast to that subsequently pursued. Promptly availing themselves of this opportunity, different shipmasters set sail for different shores p46of "the other hemisphere,"32 but these private ventures resulted in no new discoveries of which we have record. Such enterprises the admiral not unnaturally regarded as an infringement upon his rights, and he induced the king and queen to revoke the privilege.
We cannot tell how the plan would have succeeded, but it is melancholy to observe to what extent Columbus was reduced to get colonists beyond those numbered on the royal pay-list. In June, 1497, a general order was issued to all the officers of justice in Spain authorizing the transportation to Española of criminals — excepting heretics, traitors, counterfeiters, and sodomites — in commutation of death or prison sentences.33 The three hundred and thirty authorized to be on the royal pay-list were to comprise forty esquires, one hundred foot-soldiers, thirty able seamen, thirty common sailors, twenty goldsmiths, fifty field laborers, ten gardeners, twenty handicraftsmen of various kinds, and thirty women. Their stipend was to be $4 a month, a bushel of wheat every three months, and a further allowance for food of eight cents a day.34
After most discouraging delays occasioned by the lack of money, Columbus was able to despatch two ships in January, 1498; and then to follow himself with six ships and two hundred colonists on his p47third voyage, the last of May. At the Canaries the fleet was divided, three ships being sent direct to Española, while Columbus with three others turned southward to take his westward course along the equator. In these regions the suffering from the heat was intense, and Columbus veered again to the northward as soon as the wind permitted. Land was sighted July 31, and the name Trinidad was given to the island.
Far to the south, on August 1, the main-land of South America was descried, and on the supposition that it, too, was an island it was called "Isla Santa." Two weeks later he perceived the truth in regard to the land to the south and west and recorded in his journal, "I am convinced that this is the main-land and very large, of which no knowledge had been had until now."35 This continental region he declared to his sovereigns to be an "otro mundo," "another world."36
The tribulations of the last few years had deepened the vein of religious mysticism in Columbus. Thrown back upon himself in the strain of his ceaseless labors on the sea, of the racking contests with insubordinate and angry colonists, and of adverse conditions in Spain, he came more and more to regard himself as the chosen messenger of God, the instrument for the fulfilment of prophecy. "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the p48new earth, of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John, after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah, and He showed me where to find it."37 His hold on the shreds of scientific knowledge and scientific spirit, that had filtered down from Aristotle through Roger Bacon to Pierre d'Ailly, relaxed, and he yielded to the spell of the mythological geography of Sir John Mandeville. Cipango and the Indies fade away into visions of the earthly paradise, forming the summit of a pear-shaped earth from which flow the four great rivers of the world.38
The mass of fresh water emptying into the ocean from the northern mouths of the Orinoco River, and the fact that he was south of Cipango, led him to the conclusion that he had reached "the end of the East" and that he was near the earthly paradise.39 It is in the early glow of this conviction that he described his outgoing voyage and its results. Those who disparage his work should remember that no "princes of Spain ever acquired any land out of their own country, save now that your highnesses have here another world." "These lands," he concludes, "which I have recently discovered, and where, I believe in my soul, the earthly paradise is situated, will be immediately explored by the adelantado" — i.e., Bartholomew Columbus.40
From such dreams he was rudely awakened a few p49days later, when he arrived at the new town on the south shore of Española, founded by Bartholomew and named Santo Domingo for their father, Dominico,41 the oldest European settlement in the New World which still exists. Here he heard the disheartening tale of renewed revolts on the part of the Indians, and, more serious still, of civil war among the Spaniards. The Indian chiefs had found the tribute almost insupportable, and the lassitude and illnesses which afflicted so many of the Spaniards encouraged them to plan to exterminate the invaders. The design, however, proved beyond their strength, even with the Spaniards divided into two hostile parties.
The causes of this dissension lay in Columbus's prolonged absence of thirty months, the belief that his cause was waning, the desperation engendered by want and disease, and the severe discipline enforced by Bartholomew. Francis Roldan, a protégé of the admiral, who had appointed him alcalde, or chief-justice, raised the standard of revolt, planned the death of Bartholomew and Diego Columbus, and, failing of that, withdrew into the interior with about ninety men, where they preyed upon the Indians and gave themselves up to the indulgence of the passions of lust and cruelty.
Of the total number of Spaniards left on the island p50two years before a large proportion had died, and of the remainder over one hundred and sixty were afflicted with the "mal francese".42 Columbus felt it expedient to come to terms with Roldan, and with many concessions he was granted immunity from punishment and restored to his official position.
In the mean time, Columbus had sent to Spain (October, 1498) for reinforcements, characterizing the insurgents as "abominable knaves and vilands, theeves and baudes, ruffians, adulterers, and ravishers of women, false-perjured vagabonndes, and such as head had bin evther convict in prysons, or fledde for feare of judgement, etc." Not less passionate was the indictment preferred against him by the insurgents and despatched by the same ship, for they accused the admiral and his brother of being "unjust menne, cruell enemies, and shedders of Spanishe bloode," declaring that upon every light occasion they "would racke them, hang them, and head them, and that they tooke pleasure therein, entirety they departed from them as from cruell tyrantes and wilde beastes rejoycing in bloode, also the kinges enemies, etc."43
Confronted by such charges and counter-charges, and shocked by the reports of the condition of Española and by Columbus's reliance upon the slave-trade as the economic basis of the colony, not only p51advocated in his letters but exemplified by a cargo of six hundred shipped on this return voyage,44 the monarchs felt the gravest misgivings of Columbus's capacity as a ruler. Nor was the constant railing clamor of impoverished returned colonists without weight. Ferdinand Columbus, in his life of his father, recalled the bitter experience of his boyhood, when in the summer of 1500 fifty or more of these vagabonds followed him and his brother in Granada, shouting, "There go the sons of the admiral of the mosquitoes who has found lands of vanity and delusion, the grave and misery of Castilian gentlemen."45
Under the pressure of all these circumstances, Ferdinand and Isabella, in the spring of 1499, appointed as judge and governor of the islands and main-land Francisco de Bobadilla; but owing to lack of money he did not sail till July, 1500. He was ordered to take back some of the Indians whom Columbus had shipped.46 Bobadilla was a knight-commander of the military order of Calatrava, and is described by Oviedo as an old servant of the royal house, very honest and religious.47 Yet he evidently started strongly prejudiced against Columbus, and this prejudice seems to have been turned upon his arrival to violent animosity by the sight of seven p52Spaniards hanging on the gallows and the report that five more were to be executed on the morrow.48 After a one-sided hearing of accusations he acted with military promptness and put the admiral and his brothers in irons.
Early in October, 1500, Columbus sailed for Spain, his fortunes apparently sunken to their lowest ebb. His feelings found expression in pathetic eloquence in a letter to a noble lady, formerly the nurse of Prince John. In this he reviews his career, and protests against the unjust standard by which he is judged in Spain. Instead of being treated like a provincial governor in Spain accused of malfeasance, he "ought to be judged as a commander sent from Spain to the Indies . . . by the Divine will I have subdued another world to the dominion of the king and queen." Bobadilla, he wrote, had treated him worse than a pirate treats the merchant.49
That Bobadilla proceeded with undue haste and relentless severity cannot be denied. Yet if he earlier bore the character ascribed to him by Oviedo, we must believe that he was impelled by a feeling of remorseless indignation aroused by the accumulation of charges preferred against the Columbus brothers. Las Casas summarizes them, and in their aggregate they recall those preferred against the iron rule of Governor Dale in Virginia.50 Some of the p53accusations Las Casas pronounces false, but that the majority of the colonists were "discontented and very indignant against the admiral and his brothers"51 is only too clear; and the friendly Las Casas writes that he has "no doubt that they did not show the modesty and discretion in governing Spaniards which they should have done, and that they were much at fault, particularly in the severity and parsimony with which they allotted provisions, not distributing them according to each one's need, when the monarchs designed them for the support of all."52
As soon as the monarchs heard of Columbus's arrival they ordered his release, and requested that he should appear at court at Granada. The meeting was an affecting one, and the monarchs assured Columbus that Bobadilla had exceeded his instructions, that they had not intended his imprisonment, and that his property and rights should be restored to him. In two respects, however, Columbus was never to recover his former position: he was not promised nor was he ever afterwards intrusted with political authority; and his monopolistic control over the whole field of western exploration was more and more invaded.
1 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 125.
2 Peter Martyr, De rebus Oceanicis, 10; Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 125.
3 Oviedo, Historia General, I, 31.
4 Navarrete, Viages, II, 41.
5 Columbus in the Torres Memorial, Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 100.
6 Las Casas, Historia, I, 497, II, 3.
7 Las Casas, Historia, II, 11.
8 Ibid., II, 21, 22.
9 Torres Memorial, Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 73, 74; Las Casas, Historia, II, 24 ff.
10 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 85.
11 Ibid., 88.
12 Winsor, Columbus, 282.
14 The slave-trade had been the economic basis of the Portuguese African voyages of exploration, although not their principal object. Cf. Cheyney, European Background, chap. IV.
15 Las Casas, Historia, II, 27.
16 Ibid., 29.
17 Las Casas, Historia, II, 35‑39.
18 Navarrete, Viages, II, 145. The affidavits are translated in Thacher, Columbus, II, 327. On this oath cf. Markham, Columbus, 166; Ruge, Columbus, 175; Lollis, Colombo, 235‑237.
19 Peschel, Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, 200.
20 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 166.
21 Bernaldez, Historia de los Reyes Catolicos, chap. CXXIII; translated in Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections, series VIII, 42.
22 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 177.
23 Las Casas, Historia, II, 80.
24 Las Casas, with his usual exaggeration in numbers, says that "one Spaniard would eat more in a day than the whole household of a native in a month," Historia, II, 73.
25 Las Casas, Historia, II, 75.
26 Ibid., 96.
27 Ibid., 103.
28 Las Casas, Historia, II, 103, 104.
29 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 183; Las Casas, II, 106.
30 Bernaldez, Historia de los Reyes Catolicos, chap. CXXXI.
31 Navarrete, Viages, II, 162; in English in Memorials of Columbus, 88.
32 Letter of Peter Martyr, June 11, 1495, quoted by Hugues, Cronologia, 3.
33 Navarrete, Viages, II, 207, 212.
34 Ibid., 204; Memorials of Columbus, 83.
35 Las Casas, Historia, II, 264.
36 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 148.
37 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 153.
38 Book of Sir John Mandeville, chap. XXX.
39 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 134.
40 Ibid., 148, 150.
41 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 239; Las Casas, Historia, II, 136, says it received its name because the Spaniards arrived there on Sunday, "Domingo."
42 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 240.
Thayer's Note: As for the mal francese, the Italian phrase for "French disease", Prof. Bourne was writing in 1904; today an author would just speak of syphilis.
43 Eden's translation of Peter Martyr, in Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 199.
44 Las Casas, Historia, II, 323, 340.
45 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 276.
46 Navarrete, Viages, II, 237, 239, 246.
47 Oviedo, Historia General, I, 69.
48 Las Casas, Historia, II, 478.
49 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 169, 170.
50 Eggleston, Beginners of a Nation, 46, 66.
51 Las Casas, Historia, II, 492.
52 Ibid., 495.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Spain in America
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 23 Jan 08