Friday, March 14, 2014

The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus

The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus  (by his son Hernando Colon and other historians) Edited and translated by J.M. Cohen

Columbus before the Queen by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1843
This is a rewritten account of the logbook, given by Columbus’ son, Hernando Colon.  The original document is missing.

It was an easy read, and I learned a few things.  For example, since Columbus was insistent that he had found a new way to the Asiatic continent, declared how aesthetically picturesque the environment was, and believed it was at a high point on the earth, he was confident that the Garden of Paradise must have been located in the proximity; after all, the Bible cited the Garden to be “in the East.”  Columbus believed that the earth was actually a pear shape, which is why he referred to the area as “high” on the earth, or closest to the sun.

Another speculative idea was that these Caribbean islands had been discovered by Spain, prior to Columbus, and that he would only be restoring them to Spain’s governance once he arrived, christianized the natives, and brought them under obedience of the King and Queen. 

Christopher Columbus Departing for the New World
It is difficult to believe that Columbus instigated this voyage for land, power, and riches.  It took profound courage and superior knowledge to take on this dangerous enterprise - he was a master navigator of the sea and sky.  It cost him seven discouraging years to convince anyone to support his outlandish claim (that he could find a more direct and less dangerous route to the Indies by going west into “unchartered waters"). 

Eventually, King Ferdinand - but mostly Queen Isabella - agreed to equip Columbus with what he needed to explore.  They promised him titles, wealth, and rewards for his accomplishments; and according to Columbus, the Monarchs’ first priority was to spread the Christian (Catholic) faith.

The First Voyage

The first voyage to the Caribbean was two months long; hence, Columbus lied to his crew that they did not go as many leagues as they truly did so they would not panic about being so far from Spain.  The first contact with natives was peaceful, and they believed the Europeans came from the sky.  Columbus suggested, in his logbook, he could remove all of the natives to Castile to be slaves, to demonstrate how docile the people were.  In fact, several were peaceably taken on the return voyage, like samples.

During the first visit, Columbus learned of the Caribs, the neighboring tribes who often attacked the docile natives, abducted their women, kept their men and boys for slaves, and practiced cannibalism.  These docile tribes hoped that Columbus’ men would help them make war against and defeat their enemies. 

Columbus left many men behind in order to return to Spain to give an account of his first contact and then expected to return quickly with more men and supplies.

Christopher Columbus Arriving in America by L. Prang & Co.
The Second Voyage

The Monarch was well pleased with the results, thus far, and Columbus was appointed captain-general and granted powers to appoint whomever he chose to lead the government of the islands.  This "...second expedition was designed to relieve the men who had remained there, to settle more colonists and to conquer the island..."  

But upon reaching the place where the Christians were settled, they were all missing.  The natives told inconsistent stories about what had happened, but it was obvious, by evidence, that the men were dead, probably murdered.   In addition, five of the natives taken to Spain died on the way back to the Indies.

Events grew worse for Columbus when some of the crew plotted against him.  Many of these men were Spanish criminals released early from prison because they agreed to go on the expedition.  They were not sailors and many just wanted to get rich easily and go home.  Unfortunately, the work was difficult, supplies were always low, and conditions were treacherous.   There was always tension, and Columbus may not have been the best people-manager.

The rebelling Spaniards caused extra hardships and complicated the situation with the natives, who no longer trusted the Christians.  Columbus had to use arms against the natives to defend his men.  Several Christians and natives were killed.  It was amazing that anyone even stayed behind at the settlement, but Columbus believed that he had defeated the natives back into submission.  Then he returned to Spain again.

The Third Voyage

On this third return with supplies to Hispaniola, which was thirty months later, the condition of the settlement was in ruin and rebellion; most men were dead or suffering from syphilis. One Spaniard led the remaining men in a revolt against Columbus and his brothers.  This conflict became a main focus for Columbus, and he could no longer explore the islands as he had wished because he was always negotiating with this relentless renegade.

Then Columbus had to deal with another explorer, Ojeda, who stopped at Hispaniola on his return from Brazil and Venezuela, He harassed Columbus and joined forces with the above-aforementioned renegade.  Interestingly, traveling with Ojeda was an Italian clerk named Amerigo Vespucci, whose name would later be used to identify the continent.  
Columbus Lands in the New World
And finally, the Spanish Monarchy sent a judge, Francisco de Bobadilla, to Hispaniola to oversee the uprising, and was given instruction to take position as governor if he believed Columbus to be unfit.  Long story short, Columbus and one of his brothers ended up in chains on the long voyage home, while Bobadilla took control as governor. 

The Fourth Voyage

Why Columbus wanted to return a fourth time is beyond my understanding.  After the Monarch rejected the harsh report from Bobadilla, Columbus had most of his dignity restored to him; and he went again to the Indies.  But the voyage was so disastrous – if I did not know any better, I would say that God’s wrath was upon the whole idea of Spain returning to the islands.  They were met with violent storms and utter destruction.  It was all about survival.  Even so, there was never any gold – ever.  The closest he ever came to it was right before he was arrested.  After that, Columbus said that the gold disappeared; hence, the Monarchs never saw shiploads of gold he promised them. 

If Columbus had to explore the islands alone, he probably would have been more productive and better-off. Most of his energy was used in dealing with greedy, selfish, whiny men who were not interested in hard work or exploring.  They complained when work was dangerous, and rebelled when they did not have supplies.  They obeyed only their selfish lusts for women and riches, and when they could not get what they wanted quickly, they revolted.  Columbus went days and weeks without sleeping and spent a lot of time babysitting and pacifying the crew. 

After his final voyage, he was exhausted, sick, and senseless.  Due to his mental incapacities, the King and Queen were adamant about not fulfilling any of their promises for titles, riches, or power.  He died eighteen months later.  


Death of Columbus, Lithograph by L. Prang & Co, 1893
For further discussion of The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, see ANALYSIS.

This title counts towards my History Reading Challenge.

6 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your review, Ruth. I always wish I could get into the heads of people like Columbus to see what drives them. They have one idea/passion and stick with it, no matter what. I can't think of anyone so single-minded nowadays, but then again we don't have the struggles and turmoil (physical) as they did back then. Your mention of Vespucci was interesting; I didn't know that.

    I don't think I've finished any books for my history challenge yet. Sigh! I'd better get moving!

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  2. Wow. I had no idea that Columbus crossed paths with Vespucci, or that Vespucci even visited the New World. Interesting!

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  3. Cleopatra and Hamlette:

    The trivia about Vespucci was not part of Columbus' logbook, but it was a side note of the translator's. It sort of adds insult to injury.

    And according to outside sources, Alonso de Ojeda sailed with Columbus originally, but after his return to Spain, he was granted by the Spanish Monarch's with his own crew to return to explore Venezuela and Brazil. I think this made Columbus a little jealous. But it did not help that Ojeda provoked him, and then ganged up on him with Columbus' crew that rebelled against him.

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  4. I get the feeling that Columbus was somewhat misunderstood, in his own time and historically as well. Not that he was perfect, but that his actions were done either in a manner that was understandable for the time in which he lived, or to try to contend with difficult situations. Did you get this impression, Ruth?

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    1. This is totally correct. Given that we only have his words to go on, and assuming he is telling the truth, he was typically loyal to the Crown and his religion, and wanted to please both. He understood everyone was to be submissive to THEM. He was so sure of his claims that he was eager to prove himself right, and he was motivated by the rewards offered - an incentive to be right.

      But he was wrong, unfortunately, and he has become the punching bag for those who want to be angry with Europe for settling these two continents. It's totally unwarranted against HIM just because he opened the flood gates to exploration of the West. It was bound to happen b/c it was God's will. But that's another story.

      I cannot believe how long this post is, and I still have my analysis to add, which is also long. But I just had so much to say about it.

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  5. Thanks for your comments, Ruth. I appreciate your input. I kind of had that feeling but it's nice to have it confirmed. I think we often do a disservice to people when we judge people historically through modern eyes. It's such a skill/talent to be able to put yourself into a period and imagine/understand how those people would have felt and perceived situations. It will be interesting to see how we are judged 500 years from now.

    Oh, and I like long comments (as you may have noticed)! ;-)

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