Columbus - The Last Voyage
Credit: Public Domain

Christopher Columbus Facts

Christopher Columbus is credited by western historians for discovering the Americas on his first voyage across the Atlantic. As for the discovery question, I will say this.

Did Christopher Columbus discover America? Almost assuredly not.

While he may have been given credit in the western history books, there is evidence of Nordic, Russian, and Asian explorers in North America at least 500 years before Columbus.[1]

Furthermore, evidence suggests that Pacific Islanders had been crossing vast stretches of ocean in small boats for centuries, eventually settling remote places such as Easter Island.[2]

Almost assuredly, someone from the old world or the Far East stepped foot on what we consider new world soil before Columbus, if only by accident from being blown off course or becoming hopelessly lost.

However, even with that consideration, who actually discovered the new world is irrelevant to the story of Columbus. Some say he was a tyrant and a villain and is directly or indirectly responsible for the destruction of millions of lives and countless cultures.

Too harsh? Probably. I try not to make the mistake of judging any historical figure by today’s standards. We cannot know what it was like to live in any other time. Even the founding fathers of the United States like Bejamin Franklin had their issues.

Life was extremely difficult and uncertain and people were lucky to make it to 40 years old just a few centuries ago. It’s unfair to judge anyone who lived centuries ago as we sit in our air conditioned homes watching tv in comfortable chairs with as much food at our fingertips as we want.

Having said that, he probably should not have a Federal holiday. There are many more deserving men and women in American history for that.

While most everyone is familiar with the story of Columbus’ first voyage, the names of his ships and his ultimate landing on the Caribbean Island he eventually named San Salvador, he actually made three other voyages to the new world after 1492.

Of all of the Christopher Columbus voyages, perhaps the most interesting one was the last one which has all but been forgotten in the history books.

Why a Fourth Voyage?

Christopher Columbus VoyagesCredit: Public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBy the time of his last voyage, Columbus was almost 55 years old, considered a very old man 500 years ago. Why would anyone with his resume at that age keep going and risk everything?

Having already completed three trips across the Atlantic and establishing Spanish colonies across the Caribbean, Columbus remained convinced that there was a water passage to China sailing west from Europe. It is hard for us to imagine the mysteries of the world at that time because all we have to do is pull up Google Earth and see satellite images of the world. They didn’t know any better. Think of every time you have been lost out on some highway. Everything beyond the horizon seems like a mystery.

In 1502, most of the region around the Americas still remained unmapped and explorers were convinced that there was a way to sail a ship through what we now know as North and Central America. Still others like the explorer Hudson tried to find a northern route, mapping the Hudson River and eventually becoming hopelessly lost and marooned by his crew in what is now known as Hudson Bay in Canada.

Eventually, the explorer Magellan would solve the mystery for good two decades later when he sailed around the tip of South America and across the vast Pacific Ocean. But the direct western passage so long sought after would not exist until the Panama Canal was completed in the early 1900s.

But in 1502, Columbus was obsessed with his legacy. After setting up and governing the Spanish colony of Hispaniola, what is today the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, he had become bitter. He felt he was not being given the credit he deserved, and the wealth he imagined would come remained elusive.

The bitterness changed Columbus and he became a tyrant during this time, ruling the colony with cruelty. Not only did he mutilate the natives as punishment, but even the Spanish colonists. It was not uncommon for Columbus to order ears or noses cut off for various acts he deemed offensive. Eventually, the colonists turned on him writing back to the authorities in Spain, who eventually recalled him as Governor.

Any accurate portrayal for the last voyage of Columbus begins with his time as Governor on Hispaniola. The decisions he made during this time would come back to haunt him throughout his fourth and final voyage across the Atlantic.

The Last Voyage of Columbus

Christopher Columbus Voyages
Credit: Public Domain via Wikicommons

Columbus struggled for years with his accomplishments and legacy in Spain before finally convincing the Spanish crown to give him one more chance to find the long sought after western passage to China.

He was given four ships and an inexperienced crew, some of which were purposely placed there by the crown to monitor and keep Columbus in check. The result of this decision would undermine the voyage throughout the next several years and lead to its ultimate failure but it had its roots in Columbus’ behavior as Governor on Hispaniola.

He set sail from Spain on May 11, 1502, eager to find the passage and claim more land for the crown of Spain just 5 months after the Portuguese had discovered and claimed what is now Rio de Janeiro and parts of Brazil.

Christopher Columbus Accomplishments
Credit: Google Earth

In the first few weeks, the fleet made good progress due to Columbus’ experience from his three previous trips. The final voyage was actually the fastest crossing of all. However, as they approached Hispaniola, Columbus detected a change in the winds. He knew from his past journeys that a hurricane was closing in on the islands.

He asked for safe harbor from the Governor of Hispaniola, but the request was promptly turned down. Columbus was forbidden from entering the island because the Governor absolutely despised him.

Therefore the fleet was forced to ride out the storm, becoming separated as their anchors gave way. Remarkably, none of the four ships were lost and they rendezvoused at a designated inlet to regroup. However, they were not allowed to replenish their supplies so they pushed westward into the Caribbean. This would not be the last unfortunate event of this final voyage.

Passing what is now known as Jamaica, the fleet moved west toward the Central American coast and begin to move southward searching for the long imagined westward waterway.

However, every promising inlet or bay turned into a swampy bog and a dead end.

Finally around what is now known as Nicaragua, Columbus and part of his crew went ashore and met up with some natives who at first were friendly. They assured the explorers that there was no such waterway, but told them of a trail that would lead them to the other side.

But Columbus was adamant that a waterway existed and declined the land crossing. To be fair, he was also concerned with the hike through the jungle and the safety of his men from other tribes and malaria.

Christopher Columbus
Credit: Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín via Wikimedia Commons

Before departing the area, Columbus ordered 80 of his men to stay in a new colony he had created in the area. However, by this time, the natives who had helped the explorers in the beginning were realizing that these Spaniards were not Gods and were only interested in exploiting the land.

The colony was attacked and several of the Spaniards were killed before fleeing back to the ships. Columbus abandoned the idea of a colony in this region and sailed further south down the Central American coastline.

By this time, the morale of his men was extremely low. It had been over a year since they left Spain and much of that time had been away from any civilization of any kind.  At the point of near mutiny, Columbus had a change of heart and decided to turn north to head back home.

However, warm waters of the Caribbean took a heavy toll on their hulls. Ship rot begin to set in caused by microbes that are common in warm, tropical waters. All of his ships begin to take on water and they frantically bail and used crude pumps to remove the water overboard day and night for weeks.

Then it went from bad to worse as they were caught in yet another hurricane. The ships survived the storm but their journey was over and they beached themselves on what is now Jamaica. There ships would go no further, so they took whatever they could salvage from them  to make shelter just off the beach.

Without any supplies, Columbus and his men were at the mercy of the natives. Fortunately for the expedition, the natives once again believed the Spaniards were Gods from the sea so they brought food to them daily.

After months of staring offshore for a rescue ship that would never come, it was decided that one of Columbus’ most trusted men would paddle a canoe 100 miles east toward the island of Hispaniola to arrange for their rescue. The Spaniard took two native guides with him, one of which died on the way. The trip was expected to take 3 days, however, 4 days passed and still no sign of Hispaniola.

On the 5th day, they sighted land and went ashore to ask the Governor to send a ship for Columbus. Once again the Governor refused to aid Columbus.

Months passed on the island of Jamaica. About half of Columbus’ crew on the island rebelled against him and set off on their own toward the center of the island. There they destroyed any good will the Spaniards had with the natives by stealing and raping the women.

Soon, the natives took their transgressions out on Columbus himself and stopped bringing food to their camp.

Months passed with no sign of rescue and the two camps of explorers grew weaker and weaker.

However, Columbus figured out through his star charts and lunar records that a lunar eclipse would occur within days. He went to the natives and told them that their God was angry with them for not providing food and that within two days, he would show his anger.

Luckily for Columbus and his crew, he was right on target and as the lunar eclipsed occurred, the natives came into their camp carrying basket after basket of food.

More time passed and still no sign of rescue.

The group of Spaniards that had struck out on their own finally came back to camp to takeover and a fight ensued. They were out of gunpowder by this time, so it was pure hand-to-hand and sword fighting. Columbus’ group was able to subdue the mutineers and their lives were spared.

Several more weeks passed when one of the survivors spotted a ship off shore. The Governor of Hispaniola had sent a ship, however, only the Captain came ashore, not for a rescue, but to tell them there would be no rescue. He left them all stranded on the beach. That is how deep the animosity between the Governor and Columbus ran.

The irony of the great navigator being marooned for months on a deserted island should not be lost on anyone. By this time, he was in poor health and was no longer in charge of the day to day activities of the camp.

Finally, after many more weeks, and at the near breaking point, another ship was sighted off the coast. This time it was their salvation, a ship sent by their fellow Spaniard that had paddled all the way to Hispaniola.

The beaten explorers were taken to Hispaniola and Columbus was finally allowed to enter the island to secure passage back to Spain.

How did Christopher Columbus Die?

The last voyage of Columbus back to Spain turned into a humiliating affair. Having no ship of his own, he had to pay for his passage on another ship.

Columbus lived out his final days in Spain in severe pain, ravished by gout and arthritis, at times losing his eye sight. By this time, he was a broken man feeling that he had not gotten the credit or wealth he deserved for his exploration.

His name was also ruined and perhaps the last humiliation, the new world was eventually named after Amerigo Vespucci, a relatively unknown Italian navigator and cartographer. Columbus’ name all but disappeared from the history books for several centuries before finally experiencing a revival in the 1700s by historians as so often happens.

Villain or Great Explorer?

I suppose it depends on your perspective. How about a little of both?

There is no denying the man was driven and a skilled navigator, but as often happens in life’s pursuits, we lose perspective, isolated by the bubbles we live inside, always assuming we are in the right. And for that reason, I do not judge Columbus as harshly as some. While his cruelty as a ruler cannot be excused by today’s standards, I cannot know what it was like to live in the wilderness with survival a daily struggle as these explorers endured.

For that reason, he deserves his place in history for both the good he accomplished, and the horrors of disease and slavery he intentionally and inadvertently set loose in the new world. History is a dirty thing. There are many sides to every story and there are few if any flawless players.

Christopher Columbus: Adventurer of Faith and Courage (Sowers)
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