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Everything You Need To Know About Columbus

June 2024
27min read

Here are some interesting facts about his epic voyage and its impact.


Columbus and his crew landed in the West Indies, on an island that the natives called Guanahani and he named San Salvador, on October 12, 1492. Architect of the Capitol



No. But how pleased he would have been to learn that he is often credited with discovering two vast, far-flung continents whose size and variety he could scarcely have begun to imagine. Those continents had been populated for millennia by a mix of peoples whose cultures were as diverse as their lands. They may have migrated from northeastern Asia more than fifteen thousand years ago. When they came is still a matter of warring scholarship, but those natives were the discoverers of the New World.

Columbus met only a small number of them after he had successfully navigated the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was then known. His disclosure of their existence baffled Renaissance Europe but eventually led to knowledge of an entire new hemisphere. The Genoese mariner made the announcement of his triumphant crossing in a letter addressed to his Spanish patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He declared that he had “found very many islands filled with people without number, and of them all I have taken possession for their Highnesses, by proclamation and with the royal standard displayed, and nobody objected.” This arrogant usurpation was wholly in line with Europe’s determination to expand its ordained and Christian world.

There are claims that other explorers crossed the Ocean Sea long before Columbus. St. Brendan and the Irish are credited with the earliest voyages, dating from the opening phase of the Middle Ages in the seventh century. The Vikings touched base in the far northern lands during the eleventh century, as did Bristol seamen four centuries later. But it was not until Columbus’s extraordinary feat of navigation in 1492 that the presence of a New World was revealed to the wonderment of the Old.


Of course, the term New World is thoroughly Eurocentric. But it’s convenient, it’s here to stay, and we shall use it.


He sailed west from the Canary Islands following an ocean route he had mapped and survived a thirty-three-day trip to make landfall in a new world on October 12.

For years people had scoffed at the idea of a westward route to the Indies. The success of Columbus’s trip was due as much to his passionate belief in what he was doing as to his enlightened decision to sail west-southwest from the Canary Islands along the twenty-eighth parallel, thus avoiding the treacherous counter winds of higher latitudes. Had he invoked the words of the great Italian poet as he embarked? Dante had written in The Divine Comedy , “And turning our stern towards the morning we made wings of our oars for our wild flight, bearing always to the south-west.” It is doubtful that Columbus’s ships would have survived a more northerly crossing.


Not at all. Every educated man in his day believed it was a sphere, and every European university taught the concept in geography classes. There were, of course, some who clung to the ancient biblical notions that the earth was a flat disk with Jerusalem in the center and that one could fall off the edge. But seamen like Columbus knew better from practical experience: They saw that mountains appeared on the horizon before the land came into view and that the hulls of departing ships disappeared before the masts.

The controversial issue in Columbus’s day was not the earth’s shape but its size. This had enormous implications for the explorer’s ambitious plans. Geographers projected widely divergent calculations, but they shared a common belief that the earth was much smaller than it is, some gauging it at two-thirds of its actual circumference. In the third century B.C. Eratosthenes had come quite close to an accurate guess at the world’s true belt size of twenty-four thousand miles. Among those who inspired Columbus were Marinus of Tyre and Ptolemy, both of the second century A.D. , and Pierre d’Ailly and Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, geographers of his own century. Columbus shared with the last two a firm belief that the Ocean Sea was navigable.

Toscanelli’s concepts were particularly appealing because the Florentine not only had put forward low figures for the width of the ocean on a world chart but, as early as 1474, had urged the Portuguese king to consider a voyage westward to Cathay (China). When Columbus subsequently used Toscanelli’s chart to substantiate his claim that he could cross the Ocean Sea, he further reduced its low mileage estimates.


He hoped to reach the Indies. That was the geographic term then in use for the eastern stretches of Asia, which included the fabled land of Cathay, the island of Cipangu (Japan), Burma, India, Indonesia, and the Moluccas.

A route to the Indies had for some time been the goal of Portuguese princes who sought a nautical path to trade in Oriental silks and spices. Convinced the way lay eastward via the southern coast of Africa, they staunchly backed the repeated attempts of their navigators to find it. Columbus was aware of these forays but stubbornly held to his view that the most direct route to the Indies lay not eastward but westward, by the Ocean Sea. He expected he might pass some islands along the way, but he had no idea he would come upon new continents.



Columbus sailed with a diminutive fleet of three-masted vessels: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. The Niña and the Pinta , classed as caravels, measured at about sixty tons each—that is, they could carry sixty Spanish tuns, a liquid measure, of wine. Lightly constructed, caravels were known for their speed. The Santa María was classed as a nao (a Spanish word for ship) and estimated at about ninety tons. This somewhat larger vessel was round and chunky, less graceful-looking than the caravels, and definitely less maneuverable.

Columbus was proud of his ships, as well he might be, since all three made it on a blind journey to a phantom destination. Still, he did have his troubles with them. On the third day out, the rudder of the Pinta jumped. He wrote in his diary that it was repaired off the Canary Islands “with great labor and diligence of the Admiral.” There, too, the Niña, which was lateen-rigged (outfitted with triangular sails hung at a forty-five- to sixty-degree angle to the deck), had to be fitted with square sails on yards parallel to the deck. Lateens could sail closer to the wind, but square-rigged vessels were easier to maneuver.

The Santa María was Columbus’s flagship, but the Niña became his favorite ( Niña was a nickname; the craft’s true name was the Santa Clara ). The Santa María ran aground in the New World, and Columbus came home aboard the Niña . Measured against today’s transoceanic vessels, Renaissance ships were pitifully small. Their average length of seventy to one hundred feet would be dwarfed by the nearly one thousand sleek feet of the Queen Elizabeth 2 .


The phrase Mundus Novus (New World) was coined by a Venetian printer in 1504. He lit on it as a title for a letter written by the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci following the latter’s return from newly discovered Brazil. The phrase caught on. The revelation of an entirely unknown and inhabited world, credited to Vespucci, was far more sensational than Columbus’s report of a few islands and a new route to the Indies.

Moreover, Vespucci’s description of the New World, laden as it was with vivid accounts of cannibalism and sexual promiscuity among the natives, assured his account instant popularity. Columbus himself never used the phrase New World . His own characterization of the lands he discovered was Other World , a term perhaps more appropriate.

That other world was, of course, not new, but to this day we tend to date the history of the Americas in terms of the five centuries since Columbus’s landing there—the relatively brief span since European intervention. Shakespeare comes to the point in The Tempest when he has Miranda exclaim, “O brave new world, / That has such people in ’t!” and Prospero replies, “Tis new to thee.”


He had no real idea. He imagined that he had reached the Indies, and he promptly spoke of the natives he encountered as Indians. But nothing he saw in the Caribbean coincided with descriptions of the East. Instead of sophisticated Orientals dressed in sumptuous brocaded coats, he found naked inhabitants who seemed gentle and naive. Instead of the glittering city with golden-roofed temples that Marco Polo had recounted, there were simple huts. It was all rather baffling. Columbus pressed on from island to island, and when he reached Cuba, which he named La IsIa Juana, he followed its coast west. “I found it to be so long,” he wrote, “that I thought it must be the mainland, the province of Catayo [in China]. And since there were neither towns nor cities on the coast, but only small villages, with the people of which I could not have speech because they all fled forthwith, I went forward on the same course, thinking that I should not fail to find great cities and towns.”


Although no glittering citadels appeared on the horizon, the explorer and his sailors were quick to notice that the natives wore small gold pendants as nose ornaments, and Columbus took this as a sign that the Bahamian island on which he had first landed, which he called San Salvador, would perhaps turn out to be a steppingstone to Cathay.

His subsequent discovery of gold on the large island he named Hispaniola convinced him and his men that they had indeed landed in the outer reaches of the Indies, and this was what he believed when he commenced his return voyage to Spain on January 4, 1493.


columbus portugal
While living in Lisbon after being shipwrecked off the coast,  Columbus offered his services to the King of Portugal, John II. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Nobody knows. But one thing is certain: It was not an original idea. A westward route had been suggested as far back as Aristotle. Columbus’s interest in finding such a route may have arisen around 1476, when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal and took up residence in Lisbon. At that time Portugal stood proudly at the head of European navigation. Columbus was then twenty-five years old. Intensely religious, he found his geographic convictions strengthened by passages from the Bible and from such predictions as one in Seneca’s Medea : “An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose the chains of things, and a great part of the earth will be opened up and a new sailor such as the one who was Jason’s guide … will reveal a new world.” Columbus longed to be that sailor.


Years. He first presented the petition for his “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called it, to King John II of Portugal in 1484 or a bit earlier. It was turned over to a commission of experts just as it would be today. They rejected it.

When Columbus turned to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain for support in 1486, his proposal was submitted to an assemblage of Spanish scholars and ecclesiastics known as the Talavera Commission. Again a rejection. The commission ruled that the distance was far greater than Columbus claimed, and the enterprise therefore not feasible. They were right on the first count, wrong on the second. Over the years Columbus persisted. Finally, through the intervention of Luis de Santangel, the keeper of the privy purse, who had befriended him at the Spanish court, he obtained Queen Isabella’s permission in the spring of 1492. “By these presents,” announced the royal decree, “we dispatch the noble man Christoforus Colon with three equipped caravels over the Ocean Seas toward the regions of India for certain reasons and purposes.”


Rival claims follow in the wake of any heroic accomplishment. Columbus was born in Genoa of Italian parents in 1451, and it has been insisted that he was a full-blooded Spaniard, a Catalan, or a Jew of Portuguese or Catalan descent, but the evidence suggests that he was a Catholic of Genoese origin. Whatever his background, he basked in that wondrous confluence of Arab, Jewish, and Christian genius that marked the intellectual world of Portugal and Spain during the early Renaissance. The undisputed facts are that his father was Domenico Colombo, and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa, both of Genoa. They had two younger sons, Bartolomeo and Giacomo (later known as Diego), and a daughter, Bianchinetta. The family business was weaving. Domenico managed a decent living as a member of the clothiers’ guild, but his prospects for improvement were never very bright.

Columbus left Genoa as a young and illiterate sailor. After living in Portugal and then Spain and acquiring their languages, he taught himself to read and write. He also taught himself Latin, the medium of communication of educated men; many of the books on which he relied for his navigational theories were in Latin.


In his writings Columbus more than once described himself as un estranjero . Indeed, the Spanish officers and sailors who were eventually to serve under him often resented the fact that he was a “foreigner.” Although the population of fifteenth-century Spain was of a distinctly cosmopolitan mix, a fierce wave of nationalism was on the rise by the time Columbus settled there. The same year he sailed, Spain conquered the last of the Moors and ordered the expulsion of all unconverted Jews.


A compass, dead reckoning, and luck. Latitude and longitude existed as concepts, but both were shrouded in guesswork. Latitude was reckoned by Ptolemaic climata —parallel zones arbitrarily laid down on a chart in terms of climate and, where practical, by the length of the longest day of the year, found to be directly proportional to the angular height of the sun. Longitude was arrived at through a complicated procedure by timing an eclipse. Like most mariners, Columbus couldn’t manage it.

His indispensable instrument was a mariner’s compass. A combination of the ancient “rose of the winds” and a magnetized needle, the compass had been in use long before Columbus sailed. Known by the Chinese, Arabs, and Phoenicians, it had been rediscovered by the Europeans in the fourteenth century. In Columbus’s day the rose was a circular card on which a pattern of diamonds, lozenges, and lines marked the thirty-two compass points. No letters were used because most seamen could not read. Twelve winds were known to the ancients, but by Columbus’s time the number had been reduced to eight; we indicate them today as N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW.


Perhaps most important, Columbus was a master at dead reckoning, a half-instinctual process that involved laying down compass courses, noting speed through the water, charting direction and strength of winds, being aware of currents, and constantly picking up where you had left off.

His double crossing over the “sea of darkness” is a near miracle of dead reckoning.


He had sailed in the Mediterranean and had been to Africa, England, Ireland, and allegedly as far north as Iceland. Having grown up in the maritime community of Genoa, he had begun seafaring when he was fourteen years old. At least that’s what he says in his chronicles, though neither the records nor his claims are completely reliable. He also tells us in his log for December 21, 1492, that by then he had been at sea for twenty-three years “without leaving it for any time worth telling.”

We have very little data on what kinds of ships he sailed on, in what capacities, or under whose banners. In any event, Genoese mariners were among the most renowned of the Middle Ages. It was the Genoese marine that the pope called upon during the First Crusade, in the eleventh century, to conduct a massive fleet from the southern ports of France to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. During the following centuries, as the Mediterranean bustled with commerce and political intrigue, the republic of Genoa rose in power along with the republic of Venice. By the end of the thirteenth century the Genoese were attempting to find a water route to the Indies by way of Africa and in the process sailed far out into the Ocean Sea—or, as it was also known, the “green sea of gloom.”


He certainly did. But he was deeply devout, charged with a messianic zeal, and determined to take risks. Shipwrecks, drownings, mutinies, scurvy, gales, starvation—all were part of every sailor’s job at the time. The Renaissance poet Luis de Camoëns detailed the seamen’s working environment:

To tell thee all the dangers of the Deep (Which humane Judgment cannot comprehend) Suddain and fearful! storms, the Ayre that sweep; Lightnings, that with the Ayre the Fire doe blend; Black Hurracans; thick Nights; Thunders, that keep The World alarm’d, and threaten the Last end: Would be too tedious; indeed vain and mad, Though a brasse Tongue, and Iron lungs I had.

Nevertheless, Columbus believed that the mariner must, as he put it, probe “the secrets of this world.”

Seneca had prophesied, “The time will come when every land shall yield its hidden treasure; when men no more shall unknown course measure, for round the world no ‘farthest land’ shall be.” Columbus knew such words well. They fired his imagination and allayed his fears.


Columbus was a stranger at Palos de la Frontera, the small coastal town where the Spanish monarchs had made provision for two of his ships. He had virtually no connections with either common sailors or officers and was therefore obliged to rely on the help of two prominent seafaring families. The more powerful was that of Martin Pinzón of Palos; the other was the family of Juan Niño, of the nearby Andalusian town of Moguer. Together with Columbus, the Pinzóns and Niños managed to recruit about ninety men and boys for the three vessels. Martín Pinzón himself assumed command of the Pinta , while Juan Niño (with whom Columbus developed a close friendship) sailed as master of the Niña .

We know the names of all but three of those who signed on for the epochal trip. They came primarily from towns and villages in Andalusia; all but four were Spaniards. Columbus was, of course, one of the foreigners. Each ship had a master, a captain, a pilot, a marshal, and a surgeon, supported by the usual complement of able seamen and cabin boys.

Did they sign on eagerly? Not everyone. Experienced sailors questioned the feasibility of such a trip westward, but all were paid the going wage by the crown, and despite legends to the contrary, no prisoners were used to pad the crews.

One officer on board the flagship Santa María was the scholar Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who could speak Arabic. He was meant to be the interpreter between Columbus and the grand khan of China. Columbus, of course, never encountered the grand khan, and a leader of China wouldn’t have been likely to speak Arabic anyway, but Europeans believed that all languages stemmed from that tongue, and therefore it was best to be prepared.



If the New World was destined to be named by Europeans, it should have been named after Columbus. A more appropriate European name would have been North and South Columbia. But the two continents were named instead after Amerigo Vespucci, who voyaged to the New World after Columbus. The name America was assigned by an Alsatian geographer named Martin Waldseemüller when he attempted to chart the New World discoveries in 1507. Because Vespucci was more aggressive in promoting himself, Waldseemüfcller believed the glory to be his. That Vespucci was indisputably the more popular explorer at this time we learn from Thomas More’s Utopia , a book based on the Florentine’s accounts: “Everyone’s reading about the four voyages of Vespucci.”

Renaissance geographers were skilled and conscientious scientists, but as they worked to locate obscure New World islands on their charts, they found the data vague and often misleading. The mapmakers could only put faith in intelligent guesses, a course taken by Waldseemüller when he charted the discoveries of Columbus, Vespucci, and other early explorers as one continuous, continental land strip. By this bold and imaginative step, he in effect introduced a new hemisphere. The name America had been suggested for this new land mass by a fellow geographer and poet named Matthias Ringman. “I don’t see why anyone should justly forbid naming it Amerige,” he wrote, “land of Americus as it were, after its discoverer Americus, a man of true genius, or America, inasmuch as both Europe and Asia have received their names from women.” The name caught on.



The disease indeed made its first epidemic appearance in Europe following Columbus’s first voyage, when camp followers spread it among the soldiers of King Charles VIII during the French monarch’s 1494 campaign to seize the kingdom of Naples. Several tracts of the period discuss the outbreak and indicate that until then the morbus gallicus (French disease) had been unknown in Europe. Many scholars hold that it was spread among women infected by Spanish soldiers who had sailed with Columbus to the New World and contracted it there. Whether or not the affliction had existed in Europe before, its first virulent manifestations did date from the Neapolitan campaign.

Columbus is silent on the subject in his writings. In any case, it was not a fit topic to raise with Queen Isabella, for whom, together with King Ferdinand, his reports were intended. But the Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés wrote of the New World origin of the disease as an unimpeachable fact. In his General History of the Indies , published in 1535, he discourses on it at some length, claiming that “up to the time King Charles passed through there [Italy], no such plague had been seen in those lands. But the truth is that from this island of Haiti or Hispaniola this disease spread to Europe, as has been said; and it is a very common thing here among the Indians, and they know how to cure it, and have very excellent herbs, trees and plants appropriate to this and other infirmities. … ”

The disease became known in Europe by a string of names, most of them imputing blame for its spread: the French Pox, the German Sickness, the Polish Disease. Around 1512 Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian physician and poet, wrote a Latin poem dramatizing the disorder’s importation from the New World. He called the work “Syphilis or Morbus Gallicus,” after a young shepherd named Syphilus who had invoked the wrath of the gods, and thus he coined the name by which the disease is known to this day.


Yes, but it was catastrophic. The tiny settlement was called La Navidad because the plan to set it up was made on Christmas Day of 1492. Located in a shallow bay off the northeast coast of the large island that Columbus called Hispaniola, the site was not the most advantageous, but then Columbus had not exactly chosen it. Nor had it been his intention to establish a colony. The heady step of planting Europeans in the New World came about as the result of the shipwreck of the Santa María. While Columbus slept on Christmas Eve, his helmsman ran the flagship aground on the reefs of a Haitian bay.

Ever optimistic, the explorer decided to interpret the woeful disaster as a sign “that our Lord had caused me to run aground at this place so that I might establish a settlement here.” He had a tower and a fortress constructed out of the ship’s timbers, and volunteers to man the settlement presented themselves eagerly, since word had got around that gold mines lay not far off in the territory of Cibao, a location that Columbus took to be the local name for Cipangu (Japan). Thirty-nine men, including three officers, were chosen to be the first Spanish settlers in the New World. Columbus left them with artillery, a year’s supply of bread and wine, seeds, merchandise for trading, and the Santa María ’s small boat. He was confident that when he returned to the New World, the colony would be nothing less than a storehouse of gold. But only desolation greeted him on his second trip, in November of 1493. In their greed for treasure and in their lust for local women, the colonists had quarreled with one another and antagonized the natives. None survived.


To the king who had turned him down. Columbus’s ship was so battered on the return that he was forced to drop anchor in a Portuguese seaport before moving on to Spain. After receiving the crown’s permission to enter the outer harbor of Lisbon, he presented himself to King John II of Portugal on March 9, 1493, accompanied by some of the native Americans whom he had brought back from the New World. Confronted with this evidence of the navigator’s extraordinary discovery, the envious king attempted to make counterclaims of his own in the name of Portugal. After detaining Columbus for some tense days of interrogation, John II permitted the forty-two-year-old mariner to sail on.


Meanwhile, Columbus sent word of his discovery to the Spanish monarchs in Barcelona by a soon-to-be-famous letter that was forthwith printed and issued in many editions. A key passage reflects Columbus’s pride in what he had done: “For although men have talked or written of these lands, all was conjecture, without getting a look at it, but amounted only to this, that those who heard for the most part listened and judged it more a fable than that there was anything in it, however small.”

Columbus presented himself, at last, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Barcelona in late April 1493. By then he had already received the reward for which he had yearned: a communication from the Spanish monarchs welcoming him back, addressed to “Don Cristóbal Colón [Columbus], their Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands that he hath discovered in the Indies.” The illiterate sailor from Genoa had become a gentleman, an admiral, and a political power.


They were received ceremoniously. Columbus organized a grand procession to the Spanish court, and as the native Americans paraded through Barcelona in their exotic dress, crowds thronged to see them. What the Indians thought of it all, we shall never know.

In years ahead Columbus would exhibit a fierce authority over the inhabitants of the New World, but his first recorded impression of them is glowing: “Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the things be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them. … I gave them a thousand good, pleasing things which I had bought, in order that they might be fond of us, and furthermore might be made Christians and be inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of the whole Castillan nation, and try to help us and to give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us.”

Making them Christians was the highest priority. The six he brought back to Spain were promptly baptized and given Christian names, with King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and the infante Don Juan, their godparents. When Columbus embarked on his second voyage to the New World, in September of 1493, five of them returned with him. The sixth, named Don Juan, remained attached to the royal Spanish household. He died within two years.


Four—in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502.

Columbus’s second voyage was crowded with events, few of which redounded to the glory of either the explorer or Spain. Yet it began in the grandest manner. With a fleet of no fewer than seventeen ships and his imposing new title of admiral, Columbus set sail on September 25, 1493, from the ancient port city of Cadiz in Spain. The trip was to last more than two and a half years. Officially the goal was the expansion of Christendom through the acquisition of territories and the conversion of the New World natives, but the quest for gold always took priority. The admiral was instructed to ensure that the natives were “treated very well and lovingly” by all the Spanish expeditionaries. These numbered around thirteen hundred: gentlemen-adventurers, cavalry and infantry, farm laborers, a wide range of craftsmen, and five ecclesiastics to perform conversions. Horses were brought for the first time to the New World, along with cattle, other livestock, grains, and seeds. There were no women.


By November 3, all seventeen ships had successfully crossed the Ocean Sea. It was an amazing maritime feat; so large a Renaissance fleet had never gone so far in company. The fleet dropped anchor off a small Caribbean island, which Columbus named Marie Galante, after the nickname of his flagship.

There was much to be done. But first Columbus made his crew swear he was on the threshold of fabled Cathay. Having proved to the Renaissance world that the Ocean Sea was navigable, the admiral was now equally determined to prove that the Indies lay close to its western shores. As soon as he reached the New World on his second voyage, he began a systematic search for the Asian mainland. During nearly two months of the most skillful navigation, he made his way around hundreds of islands, giving many of them the names they hold today and describing the incomparable beauty of the region in terms evocative of a golden age. Groves of majestic palms on the shores of Cuba “seemed to reach the sky” above springs of water “of such goodness and so sweet, that no better could be found in the world.” His men rested on the grass “by those springs amid the scent of the flowers which was marvellous, and the sweetness of little birds, so many and so delightful, and under the shade of those palms so tall and fair that it was a wonder to see it all.”

The admiral insisted that Cuba was a “peninsular” island depending from the mainland of China, and with stores running low he sent his public notary to gather testimony supporting this shaky claim that he was on the threshold of Cathay. Depositions were taken from the men in Columbus’s entourage to the effect that Cuba was part of a mainland. All eighty were willing so to swear. Anyone who suggested the contrary could be fined ten thousand maravedis and the loss of his tongue.

The expedition left behind three colonies. Two soon disappeared, but the third, planned by Columbus and built by his brother Bartolomeo after the admiral’s return to Spain in early 1496, enjoyed a fine harbor and flourished. The brothers named it Santo Domingo after their father, and by early in the next century the town could boast a cathedral and a university. Today, as capital of the Dominican Republic, the busy port has a population of nearly 1.5 million and is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in the Western Hemisphere.

But this second foray into the New World also left a less happy legacy. Spaniards forced the Indians to hunt for gold and to share their provisions and, when they failed to submit, exterminated them. In 1494 Columbus sent to Spain about five hundred captured members of the Taino tribe—the same people of whom he had written “they show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.” The three hundred who survived the passage were sold on the block in Seville. Here was the sorry inauguration of the slave trade between the Old World and the New.


Bartolomé de Las Casas, an eminent Spanish bishop, used the accounts of his father and uncle, who had sailed with Columbus, to frame his luminous Apologia . He devoted himself to the denunciation of the plundering and devastation of the new territories with the “loss of so many thousands of souls.” Appalled by Spanish cruelties, Las Casas passionately insisted that the peoples of the New World “are our brothers, redeemed by Christ’s most precious blood, no less than the wisest and most learned men in the whole world.” Through books, sermons, and direct representation to the crown, he pleaded the cause of the oppressed Indians for more than half a century.


No sooner had he returned from his second expedition than he petitioned the Spanish monarchs to finance yet a third. He insisted that he was certain to discover the mainland of Asia if allowed to press westward beyond the islands he had already discovered—and he was sure that territories to the south of where he had been would prove abundant in gold. After all, lands in the Indies located in the same latitude as those where the Portuguese had struck it rich in Africa (eight to ten degrees above the equator, in Sierra Leone) must be topographically equivalent in tropical heat, in gold, and in spices. This equivalency theory had been conceived by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. , and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea swallowed it whole.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella assented to a third voyage, yet it was some two years before written permission, money, and the requested fleet of eight ships became a reality. Wars with France and the kingdom of Naples were denuding Spanish coffers, and there were marriage alliances to negotiate that required staggering outlays. For example, no fewer than 130 vessels were assembled in an elaborately equipped flotilla to escort the king’s daughter Joanna to Flanders for her marriage to the son of the Habsburg emperor. Columbus must have envied that fleet. But the Enterprise of the Indies no longer occupied center stage in the Iberian world. Vasco da Gama had just made it around the Cape of Good Hope to the real India in a stunning feat of navigation during the winter of 1497-98, and the Italian Giovanni Cabote was claiming islands off Nova Scotia for the English crown. Columbus’s glory as an explorer was being eclipsed, and he knew it.


Almost none. Columbus touched on the mainland of South America, in what today is Venezuela, on August 4, 1498. He thus became the first European on record ever to set foot on a continent of the Western Hemisphere. He had mistaken the horizontal stretch of the peninsula for an island and turned north without trying to sail around it.


For Columbus this so-called island nonetheless represented an astounding discovery; he believed it to be the doorway to the Earthly Paradise often cited in the Bible, in tales of antiquity, and in the medieval literature he knew so well.

His initial landing on the beautiful island of Trinidad was also one of the important discoveries of his third voyage. It had prompted the sensation that he was in this divine territory; the land and sea in this region appeared to swell in height somewhat “like a woman’s breast,” he observed. Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi and Sir John Mandeville’s Travels , two books that had stirred Columbus’s imagination, claimed that the lands of the Earthly Paradise would swell almost to the height of the moon. Surely, then, Columbus was skirting the shores of Eden. If this was not Paradise, how could he account for the mysterious torrent of fresh waters—actually issuing from the delta of the Orinoco River—that mingled with the salt of the Ocean Sea? The Earthly Paradise was believed the locus of a great spring that flowed underground and resurfaced to become the four great rivers of the inhabited world: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Ganges, and the Nile. The admiral would have little success in promoting this idea. Renaissance scholars were abandoning the fable-laden geography of the medieval cosmos.

The admiral’s fortunes reached a nadir when he was arrested on Hispaniola for mismanagement of colonial affairs, by an official sent over to the New World by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He was without question a poor administrator—by turns weak, stubborn, and horrifyingly ruthless. Yet few could have satisfactorily handled the crises that were continually arising as part of Spain’s conquest of the New World. There were rebellions and near rebellions among the hundreds of Spaniards cut off from their families and the comforts of their homeland, and the greed for gold drove them to break up into factions and to savagely abuse the natives. Columbus was returned to Spain in October 1500 in chains, along with his brothers, Bartolomeo and Diego, who had been given a large measure of authority in colonial affairs.

Thus the explorer’s third search for the splendors of Cathay in the name of the Spanish monarchs met its ignominious end.

It was a voyage that, indeed, appeared to have been ill fated from the start. It had begun with none of the excitement of the first and certainly little of the grandeur of the second. Columbus’s insistence on the magical reality of the Earthly Paradise struck his contemporaries as little more than the imaginings of a man obsessed with the idea that he was an agent of divine providence.


“In Spain they judge me,” he complained, “as if I had been governor of Sicily or of a province or city under an established government, and where the laws can be observed without fear of chaos. This is most unjust. I should be judged as a captain sent from Spain to the Indies to conquer a numerous and warlike people.”

Eventually the admiral was vindicated by the Spanish court, but the psychological damage to the infirm and aging man was profound. Now, more than ever, he wanted to seize those elusive riches, and this time he insisted that the wealth lay beyond a strait that led directly to the Indian Ocean. He proposed to find the strait.

Permission was long in coming, and humiliating when it arrived. The admiral would be accompanied by an official comptroller who was to keep a strict inventory of the gold, silver, pearls, and spicery that Columbus had long dangled before the imagination of the Spanish court, and the explorer would be under the jurisdiction of a Spanish governor whom the king and queen had appointed to replace him in the New World.

Thus began a gloomy voyage in a modest fleet of four caravels. He sailed past islands already discovered but found no strait. He believed—correctly—that he was on an isthmus between the waters but had neither the men nor the supplies to push through the jungles that separated him from becoming the discoverer of the Pacific.

His ships began to disintegrate. Two had to be abandoned. The admiral was frequently delirious, his men explosively dissatisfied. “What with the heat and dampness,” wrote Columbus’s fourteen-year-old son, Ferdinand, “our ship biscuit had become so wormy that, God help me, I saw many who waited for darkness to eat the porridge made of it, that they might not see the maggots.”

In the holds of his rotting vessels, captive natives committed suicide by hanging themselves from the low beams overhead, bending their knees in the cramped space to assure their death.

So ended the final voyage of Christopher Columbus.


It would be foolish to conjure up Columbus as a dashing, brilliant seaman or even as a bold and enlightened explorer. He certainly was a great sailor, and his successful crossing of the Ocean Sea was an unparalleled feat of navigation. Yet very little comes through from the scant information we have on Columbus the man, or from his own writings, to suggest that he was the swashbuckling, decisive, and gallant Renaissance figure often portrayed in schoolbooks.

He was, rather, contained, inflexible, and high-minded. He was also capable of ruthlessness and extreme cruelty. That he was imaginative and intrepid there can be no doubt. And although he proved a weak and fumbling administrator, we do gain the sense of a magnetic personality: he was able to wed a woman who was by far his social superior, and he won the compassionate support of Queen Isabella for an enterprise that was decidedly risky. Like all those held up to heroic stature, he had that admirable mix of courage, single-mindedness, and zeal that saw him through overwhelming obstacles.

But if there was a single key to his character, it was his intense religiosity. Columbus had a fundamental belief in the Bible and a sense of destiny that was clearly messianic.

When he invoked mystical cosmology, the Bible, ancient legends, and empirical fact to authenticate his ideas, he gave no more weight to science than to prophecy. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John … and he showed me the spot where to find it,” he wrote, after having taken his little fleet across a forbidding sea on that first epochal voyage. Such a statement helps us understand the Genoese explorer as a figure in transition from the medieval world, with its roots in the real and the unreal, to that of the boldly questioning Renaissance.



The voyages of discovery by Columbus and his followers provoked predictable excitement, yet for decades there was little understanding of the magnitude of what had transpired. Renaissance Europe had been guided by maps on which North America and South America were nonexistent; they did not suddenly jump into place. Scholars, merchants, and ecclesiastics found it inconceivable that the small islands first sighted by Columbus were not disconnected, negligible interruptions on the way to the Orient but part of a new land mass. Geographers worried that the astonishing disclosure of an undetected hemisphere would discredit traditional cosmography, built as it was on the precepts of classical antiquity and closely tied to biblical beliefs. That general bafflement prevailed is evident in the prelude to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia , in which the author remarks with a palpable sigh: “Nowadays countries are always being discovered which were never mentioned in the old geography books.” The process by which the Old World adjusted was slow, erratic, and frequently brutal. Acquisitiveness was stirred by the apparent sudden availability of silver and gold and the possibilities for territorial expansion; further, the New World’s populations were viewed as the opportunity for mass conversions to Christianity. There was as much caution as curiosity, but the desire to know and the desire to convert were passionate forces in the Renaissance, and they ensured that the ultimate response of Christendom to what was once the dark side of the earth would be vigorous and decisive. Indeed, Europe could accept the New World only by imposing its dominion over it.

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