“He desired that many other prudent and credible witnesses might see it, and he was sure that they would be as unable to exaggerate the scene as he was.”
On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, departed from Spain for in search of a new route to the East Indies. Instead of that subcontinent, he came across the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and the Bahamas. Columbus kept two logs, the more accurate one of which was lost but recreated thanks to historian Bartolomé de las Casas about forty years later. When he returned, Columbus’s accounts of his trip fascinated the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, as well as the rest of Europe. He was quickly called upon to return to the western Atlantic Ocean and continue his exploration of the region.
During the late fifteenth century, there was increasing dissatisfaction with the fact that travel to and from East Asia and India took a great deal of time. Christopher Columbus, who had spent much of his career sailing up and down the eastern Atlantic Ocean, heard stories from his fellow sailors of a body of land only a few thousand miles west of the Iberian peninsula. Columbus, after conducting a great deal of research, surmised that the region in question must have been East Asia and that, by sailing west instead of east, he might find a much quicker route to trade zones in China and India.
Columbus spent several years attempting to convince the monarchs of Portugal and Italy to give him the money for ships and crew. Only when Columbus threatened to take his proposal to the French king did Ferdinand and Isabella agree to commission the ships. Columbus and his crews onboard the three ships set sail in August 1491. As the expected deadline for the ships to make landfall came and went, the crew grew impatient with the journey, with calls for a turnaround and return to Spain. Columbus became aware of the discontent and, in addition to his own log, kept a false journal that had shorter distances traveled—this latter journal initially mollified the crew, who were deceived into thinking that they had not traveled very far. Over time, the deception generated more doubt, and the crew all threatened suicide. Columbus addressed this issue by telling his crew that if no land was sighted within three days, the group would turn around. The very next day, the flotilla made landfall in what is now known as the Bahamas.
Columbus and his three ships spent the next few weeks exploring the Bahamas before heading southwest to Cuba. He traveled up and down Cuba’s eastern side before continuing southeast toward Hispaniola. During his travels, he searched for gold and other treasures that he believed to be located in the region, although he was unable to locate any such items. When the Santa María ran aground and sank on the northern coast of Hispaniola, Columbus consolidated as many of his crew as possible (leaving thirty-nine on the island) onto the Niña, as the captain of the Pinta had sailed off to another area. Columbus came across the Pinta shortly thereafter (the Pinta, captained by Martín Alonso Pinzón, had discovered the sought-for gold nuggets in a river during his travels), and the two ships returned to Spain. Isabella and Ferdinand were excited at Columbus’s successes. They immediately called upon Columbus to return to the region for more exploration.
Throughout his travels (and until his death), Columbus believed that he had reached islands near China and India. Others agreed with his views—although he had not discovered America (other parties had achieved that accomplishment many years prior), Columbus was credited with discovering a considerably quicker route to East Asia.
Christopher Columbus was born Christoforo Colombo in Genoa, Italy, in 1451 to weavers Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa. As one of five surviving children in a poor family, he did not obtain a strong education. Very little is known about his early childhood, although at the age of fourteen, young Columbus went to sea, sailing throughout the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic region along trade routes and even to northern Europe and Iceland. Among the jobs he held at sea was that of privateer, attacking ships belonging to the Moors.
In the mid-1470s, Columbus found himself in Lisbon, Portugal, where met up with his brother Bartolomeo, who was a cartographer. The two carefully studied trade routes and developed charts for other mariners. In 1479, Columbus married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, who bore him a son and heir, Diego, a year later. Columbus and his family moved to Madeira for a brief time, then back to Lisbon, and then on to Spain.
Columbus was greatly inspired by the example set by the Italian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1324), who had first traveled as far as China in the thirteenth century. During the centuries that followed, trade between Europe and East Asia was hampered significantly by the enormous amount of time it took to travel between points. Facilitating the trade in spices and precious metals from East Asia therefore had the potential to be highly lucrative. Shortly after Columbus’s wife died in 1485, he developed an interest in exploring alternate, shorter routes to this region. During his time at sea, he had heard tales from other sailors about lands that lay far to the west. No one knew that, heading west, the North American and South American continents lay between Europe and East Asia. Columbus became convinced that these legendary lands must be those of China.
Columbus spent many years attempting to gain support from various European governments for expeditions to China via this western route. The monarchs of Portugal, England, France, and Spain all initially turned him down. Over time, however, Spain developed a rivalry with Portugal, an international competition that Columbus sought to exploit. Enticed by the prospect of riches and besting their rivals, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain reconsidered, granting Columbus’s application and helping him develop his expedition. In total, Columbus would voyage to the New World four times, traveling throughout the Caribbean and even coastal South and Central America. During this time, he conquered Hispaniola, setting up a colony there while he continued to explore what he believed to be East Asia.
Columbus would not avoid controversy, as accusations that he mistreated natives living in these areas persisted during his visits. When he returned to Hispaniola for the last time in 1502, he was denied entry to the colony in light of his unpopularity. He returned to Spain in 1504 (shortly before Queen Isabella died) and settled there with his son. He petitioned the king to return but was largely ignored. Columbus took ill shortly thereafter, dying in 1506.
The Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus, quoted by Columbus to Bartolomé de las Casas, is occasionally written in the third person, with Columbus referring to himself as the Admiral. Columbus’s original journal was lost after his expedition, but he quoted it to de las Casas in the hope that it would be retained for the king and queen of Spain.
The journal begins after he departed southern Spanish port city of Palos on August 3, 1492. Columbus had three ships for his journey. The Santa María was a nao, a large cargo ship, captained by Columbus himself. This ship was wide and, by Columbus’s account, difficult to maneuver, especially when used for exploration purposes. The Pinta and Niña, on the other hand, were caravels, which were smaller and faster ships that were also known for their durability.
The Niña, Pinta, and Santa María made a port of call in the Canary Islands, the Spanish island chain located to the west of Morocco. There, Columbus made some modifications to the Niña and made modifications to the other ships as well. However, poor weather and delayed repairs kept the ships in the Canary Islands for four weeks.
The delays in departure from the Canaries, along with the long trip across the Atlantic, caused grumbling among the crew about the desire to return to Spain. Columbus offered the crew a deal—if no land was sighted in three days, they would return. However, on the second day, land was spotted. It is believed that Columbus made his first landfall in the Caribbean two months after leaving Palos, most likely arriving in what is now Samana Cay, located in the Bahamas.
Columbus mistakenly believed that he had arrived at his ultimate destination, China. He speculated that the islands he visited were in fact islands off the Indian coast. On a number of occasions, he even sent representatives ashore to make contact with the Chinese emperor. His ongoing misunderstanding (which he maintained until his death) explained his desire to locate gold, spices, and other valuable commodities to bring back to Ferdinand and Isabella. It also clarified his careful examination of the bays, river tributaries, and other areas where Spanish ships could make port to trade.
According to the journal, Columbus, who had christened the area San Salvador, used this region as a base of operations. He and his men had taken natives from that area to serve as guides for the surrounding islands. As he established his base of operations at San Salvador, he wrote, he noticed an abundance of other islands within manageable distance.
One island, which he named Santa María de la Concepción, drew his interest, as he believed there to be gold deposits there. His suspicions were strengthened by claims by his guides (local Arawaks whom he had captured to show them the region) that people on the island wore large gold jewelry. Columbus was skeptical of the guides’ claims, however, because in his view, it was possible that the guides might be telling him falsehoods in order to escape their servitude.
Columbus continued to state that his goal for the region was to take control of each island at which he dropped anchor. His rationale was simple: If he was going to conquer one of these islands, he would consequently need to conquer all of them. In light of this goal, he and his men made landfall at each island fully armed and, where necessary, ready to engage the natives there. Columbus understood that it was important to establish a strong Spanish presence in the region (which he assumed was East Asia), as his newly discovered route would undoubtedly draw expeditions from rival European nations.
Although Columbus was searching for valuable commodities to bring back with him to Spain, he also saw the value of the human capital he encountered on each island. The Arawaks were a gentle people not given to violent confrontations; Columbus reasoned that they would be easily conquered in the name of Spain. Many historians argue that the relative ease by which Columbus believed these peoples could be conquered inspired him to see another value for Spanish settlement in the region. Columbus is said to have presented the idea to Queen Isabella for the Spanish to develop a slave market from this indigenous population. Isabella considered the proposal but, to Columbus’s disappointment, ultimately decided against his idea.
The Arawaks were not entirely submissive to Columbus’s efforts to take advantage of their pacific ways, either. He reported in his journal that several of his captive guides jumped over the side of the Niña and escaped in a large canoe that had been pulled alongside the boat. Columbus’s men gave chase but were unable to recapture the guides.
Columbus recalled in his journal that, shortly after the escape, another Arawak pulled his large canoe alongside the Niña. This individual was looking to trade cotton and did not appear to be as untrusting as some of his fellow Arawaks. Rewarding this man’s trust, Columbus gave him some small trinkets. Columbus then allowed the would-be trader to leave the boat a free man, so that the Arawak man could return to his people and spread the word about the benevolence of Columbus and his fellow explorers.
Columbus’s actions toward the cotton trader was, in his own estimation, a gesture of goodwill designed to undo any efforts by the escaped guides to form a rebellion against the Spaniards. He added in his journal that it was his hope that, when Isabella and Ferdinand sent future expeditions to San Salvador, they would be greeted warmly by the natives there.
From San Salvador and Santa Maria, Columbus proceeded west toward another large island. This island, he concluded, might have large gold deposits, as the natives coming from this region wore a wide range of gold jewelry. After a short cruise of nine leagues (some thirty miles), Columbus gave careful study of the island he would dub Fernandina after his king. This island was not like the other Bahaman islands he had visited—it had a much flatter terrain with lush, green trees and grass. There were also many broken rocks off the coastline, but the clear water made it relatively easy for the Niña to avoid running aground.
Columbus was fascinated by the climate and sights of San Salvador, Santa Maria, and Fernandia, but because his primary focus was on finding gold, he could not stay at one island for very long. To help in his pursuit, Columbus enlisted the help of another native whom he met while traveling in the channel between Santa María and Fernandina. Columbus noticed that he had a number of items, including dried leaves—which Columbus believed were used for bartering purposes. Columbus further observed that the man was carrying two Spanish copper coins known as blancas. Columbus concluded that the man was from San Salvador, where he had been trading with the Spanish.
Again, Columbus reported that he and his crew treated the man with great respect and care, bringing him aboard, providing him food and drink and carefully storing the canoe until the man wished to leave. He made clear to Isabella and Ferdinand, whom he knew would read the journal upon his return to Spain, that he took great pains to create a positive image of the Spanish among the natives in the region.
As suggested earlier, Columbus’s friendly and altruistic approach to the people to whom he mistakenly referred as Indians (in light of the confusion regarding their geographic location), as reported in his journal, has been called into question. In particular, Columbus has since come to be known among many modern societies as culpable for the enslavement and near eradication of the natives when he returned to the region as Spain’s viceroy and governor of those islands. Then again, Columbus’s role in the enormous number of native deaths that occurred in the years that followed his 1492 arrival—including the number of those who died at the hands of Columbus and his men and those who were killed by disease—remains an important historical topic for debate regarding his subsequent trips to the area. It is possible that, although he and his men admitted to taking natives forcefully to serve as guides, he still believed it to be more important to create a positive reputation among them. Such an attitude aided him during his exploration in 1492 and, as stated in his journal, likely made it possible for more explorers and traders to arrive in this region.
By late November 1492, Columbus followed his pursuit of gold by sailing to what is now Cuba. He traveled along the Cuban coast, proceeding as far north along the eastern shore as far as what is now Point Mulas, a region to which he referred in his journal as Campana. Columbus was captivated by the beauty of the Cuban coastline. However, he was also inspired to continue his work, which meant locating gold and other commodities, as well as making contact with the Chinese leadership. To both ends, he continued to sail close to the shore, occasionally traveling into inlets and bays. He observed a number of sites Spain could one day develop into ports, including several large bays and four river inlets. In each of these areas, the waters were deep enough for a large ship to enter and drop anchor without fear of hitting rocks in the shallows.
As Columbus’s ships proceeded down the coast of Cuba, which he had dubbed Juana, the Pinta veered away from the Niña and the Santa María. It is believed that the Pinta, captained by Martin Alonso Pinzón, broke away from the other two ships after the three veered out to sea near the southeastern tip of Cuba. Whereas the Niña, captained by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, Martín Alonso Pinzón’s younger brother, and Santa María returned to the coastline, Pinzón (much to the consternation of Columbus) sailed to the northeast in search of an island known as either Babeque or Baneque. This island, according to Pinzón’s guides, had large gold deposits on it. As Pinzón sailed away, Columbus was left with two ships.
Proceeding southeast from the fourth river mouth, which he named Rio San Salvador, Columbus eventually came across a large village along the shore. Columbus provided a detailed review of his encounter with the natives there. As the ship approached, Columbus saw a large throng of unclothed people rushing to the shoreline with poison darts, shouting in a threatening manner. Columbus was unfazed by their defensiveness, ordering that the sails be furled and the anchor dropped. As the ship’s boats were lowered, Columbus gave explicit instructions that the men were not to harm the natives in any way. Rather, he instructed his crew to bring gifts to the villagers.
The natives, who had assumed a defensive posture, observed that the Spanish crew nevertheless continued to approach the shore fearlessly, and they quickly retreated from the shore. Columbus suggested that, rather than send a large group of men after them, only a handful of Christians should try to make contact. These “emissaries” were even able to speak some of the natives’ tongue, having learned it from the guides they obtained in San Salvador. However, when the group arrived in the village, there was not a single native left. Columbus decided to leave the evacuated community and continue his expedition in a southeasterly direction.
Columbus continued to marvel at the sights of the Cuban coastline. He observed the natural beauty of the mountains, valleys, and clear waters. During the excursion, he observed from the ship’s deck another large native village. He wished again to make contact with these natives but could not. However, he was able to find further natural features that would be conducive to the establishment of one or more ports, including a small river mouth that could easily conceal a ship.
From Cuba, the Niña and the Santa María traveled a short distance around the southern tip of Cuba before sailing north again and across a short inlet that led to what is now known as Hispaniola (to which Columbus referred as La Española). On Christmas Eve 1492, the Santa María ran aground on a reef in northwest Hispaniola. The ship was wrecked and sank on Christmas Day. Columbus and his crew used the ship’s wreckage to build a fort, dubbed La Navidad (Christmas) on the shoreline. The men of the Santa María could not all fit on board the Niña, so about forty of them stayed at the fort while Columbus and the Niña sailed onward along the northern coast of Hispaniola.
On January 6, the Niña encountered the Pinta, having returned from its tangential course. The reacquisition of the Pinta was a great relief to Columbus—not only did he have a second ship to lessen the load of the overcrowded Niña—Pinzón had also found gold nuggets in a riverbed during his travels. Columbus and the remaining two ships began their return home on January 16, 1493, leaving from the Golfo de las Flechas (now Samana Bay in the northwestern Dominican Republic). The ships traveled along the Gulf Stream toward the northern Atlantic and Europe. Despite being separated in a severe storm, the two ships reconnected and returned to port at Palos, Spain, on March 15, 1493.
As Columbus traveled from San Salvador to Cuba and down to Hispaniola during his first voyage, he was often taken aback by the natural beauty of the region’s waterways, landscapes, flora, and fauna. According to the journal of his expedition, he told his men that what they saw simply could not be described to anyone, even to the king and queen, in such a way that would do it justice. Then again, Columbus took pride in the fact that, by being the first European to visit this “enchanted” region, he was making it possible for others to follow in his footsteps and witness these amazing sights for themselves.
Columbus returned to Spain with very few of the valuables he promised to bring to the king and queen. However, his journal, describing the wealth, human capital, and usable port space, provided enough information for the sovereigns to return Columbus promptly to “East Asia.” By his accounts, the first voyage to the area encountered numerous issues, including the destruction of his flagship. Then again, the sights and experiences Columbus reported in his journal helped launch countless other expeditions from Europe to the New World.
Christopher Columbus’s first exploratory voyage to what he believed to be East Asia was not without many setbacks. The Niña, Pinta, and Santa María were held up for an unexpectedly long period in the Canary Islands. The crews of the three ships nearly mutinied two days before arriving in the Caribbean. The Pinta sailed off on her own for a long period. The Santa María ran aground. A number of storms further delayed exploration. Interactions with the natives were frequently strained. Finally, Columbus did not return with a hold filled with a large amount of gold or other commodities.
Nevertheless, Columbus’s journal told the story of an amazing journey. According to Columbus, the islands near China were lush and fertile, holding great promise for settlement by Spain. Columbus arrived with the expressed desire to claim all land and peoples in the name of his country, and he set about doing so with very little resistance. To Columbus, this region should be visited again soon.
In this regard, Columbus presented the Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus in 1492 with great optimism. This attitude would prove useful for the king and queen, who were so inspired by Columbus’s account that they sent him back to the area almost immediately upon reading the journal. He provided details about the best places at which ships may make berth. As shown in his account, Columbus already opened the door for trade, particularly at San Salvador, as the natives there demonstrated a great willingness to barter with the newcomers.
Columbus also made repeated reference to the positive manner in which he and his shipmates treated the natives. In the journal, he commented on the relative ease by which the natives could be captured (including examples of their kidnapping of guides). Columbus also referenced the negative experiences he had with natives who did not wish to be his guides. After the San Salvador incident in which kidnapped guides jumped over the side of the Niña to escape servitude, Columbus reported that he and his crew showed the natives that they meant no harm to the region’s indigenous population.
Christopher Columbus’s legacy has been tarnished by an ongoing historical debate regarding his treatment of the natives. However, Columbus’s account of the first voyage presented a theme of discovery and diplomacy (even though Columbus looked to claim the entire region in the name of Spain). Although he did not knowingly reach China, India, and Japan as planned, he nevertheless discovered a new world, one that countless others, who were inspired by his account, sought to visit.
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