MECHANICSVILLE, Va.—For all our breast-beating about our history, Americans know surprisingly little about Christopher Columbus beyond a couple of lines from Ramon Montaigne’s poem about sailing the ocean blue and that (in the United States, at least) the second Monday in October is a holiday (for some) that carries his name. They also “know” he discovered America, which, of course, he didn’t—nor was he the first (modern) European to set foot on its shores.
That is not to say his legacy is insignificant. Far from it.
Columbus, by his rediscovery of the “new” world later called the Americas, ignited the biggest mass-migration in history, the biggest land grab in history, and the biggest genocide in history. His discovery sired the growth of European colonial empires, fueled the Age of Discovery, and force us to significantly redraw our maps of the world.
And most of that time, Columbus thought he was somewhere off the coast of Asia.
Christopher Columbus (in Italian, Cristoforo Colombo; in Spanish, Cristóbal Colón) was an opportunist, like many Europeans of his day. He sought to use his seafaring skills to acquire wealth, and spent much of his life seeking a patron to grubstake his ambitions.
Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa sometime in October 1451. While the Crusades had long ended in Muslim victory in the Holy Land, they were still being waged elsewhere. In the east, the Byzantine Empire was on the verge of annihilation at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who had already seized territory in the Balkans and were poised to expand further into southeastern Europe. In the west, the Reconquista—an effort launched in 722 to oust the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula—was just a few decades away from ending in a complete Christian victory.
Europeans such as Columbus often looked to the East as a way to gain wealth. But the traditional land route between Europe and East Asia—the Silk Road—was getting too expensive and dangerous. And it was all beyond European control. Likewise, the traditional sea route through the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean was troublesome. Europeans sought an easier path.
The Portuguese, taking advantage of the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator; a revolutionary ship design, the caravel; and building upon the results of their exploration of the coast and adjacent interior of West Africa, eventually found a potential pathway. In 1588, Bartholomeu Dias pioneered a route south along Africa’s Atlantic coast, around Cape Agulhas (the true southernmost point of the African continent) and northeast into the Indian Ocean.
While the Portuguese looked east, Columbus persuaded the Spanish Court to look west.
What was he thinking?
In some of the fairy tales I heard when I was growing up, Columbus was a navigational genius that many—including the Portuguese court—failed to recognize. They all believed the Earth was flat and if you went far enough west, you would sail off the edge of the planet.
Of course, usually what sounds great in fairy tales does not sound so great in real life. (Imagine being Rapunzel and having to take care of all that hair?) Most educated people knew that the Earth was roughly spherical in shape. They had known that since the time of Ptolemy more than 1,000 years before Columbus was born.
Those who doubted Columbus and his ideas did so for good reason.
First, Columbus underestimated the size of the Earth. Columbus was in a minority of folks who failed to accept Eratosthenes’s calculation of the circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes, a third-century scholar of Greek descent who lived in what is now Libya, used geometry to derive a reasonably close estimate of the Earth’s circumference. Depending on the version of the “stade” Eratosthenes used as a measurement unit, his 250,000 stades could range from 40,000 kilometers to 52,000 kilometers, but most likely falls near the center of that range (46,000 kilometers). The actual circumference of the Earth at the Equator is 40,000 kilometers.
Columbus thought the circumference of the Earth was closer to 30,000 kilometers—far smaller than the lower-bound estimate of Eratosthenes’s figure as well as of the actual value. Columbus was clearly dead wrong. If it weren’t for the unknown (to the residents of the Old World) continents blocking his path to Asia, dead is how he and his crew would have ended up before actually getting to Asia. Some of those he approached for backing of his initial expedition, such as the Portuguese, figured just that—all they ultimately would be paying for was three hulks manned by skeletons and drifting the oceans for an eternity.
Here’s where the Spanish come in. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, fresh off their victory over the Moors, learned something that many of our twenty-first century “patriots” have a hard time grasping—that wars are expensive. They needed to rebuild coffers depleted as a result of their success in pushing the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus persuaded the king and queen—Isabella in particular—that his expedition would foster an era of trade that would make them all rich.
Columbus, in particular, sought wealth that would enrich his family for generations:
… I should go to the said parts of India, and for this [King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella] made great concessions to me, and ennobled me, so that henceforward I should be called Don, and should be Chief Admiral of the Ocean Sea, perpetual Viceroy and Governor of all the islands and continents that I should discover and gain, and that I might hereafter discover and gain in the Ocean Sea, and that my eldest son should succeed, and so on from generation to generation forever (Columbus 1906, 90).
Columbus set out from the port of Saltes on Friday, August 3, 1492, with three ships—the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María—bound for the Canary Islands to take on provisions and water for the main ocean crossing. Along the way he had to contend with a damaged rudder and leaky hull on the Pinta and Portuguese caravels apparently looking to prevent his escape to the open Atlantic Ocean. Despite the headaches, he got away from the port of Gomera on September 6.
For more than a month, the three ships of Columbus’ flotilla crossed the North Atlantic Ocean, much of the time working around the Sargasso Sea. The long crossing for sailors not used to going so long without the sight of land caused dissension among some of Columbus’s officers and crew. (Personally, I know that stretch of water, and I understand how people unprepared for it can get to feeling restive.) Columbus placated his potentially mutinous company long enough to keep moving west until Rodrigo de Triana, a lookout on the Pinta, sighted land about 2 a.m. on Friday, October 12. Arguably the most consequential encounter in human history took place after sunrise.
The vessels were hove to, waiting for daylight; and on Friday they arrived at a small island of the Lucayos, called, in the language of the Indians, Guanahani. Presently they saw naked people. The Admiral went on shore in the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzon, and Vicente Yañez, his brother, who was captain of the Niña. The Admiral took the royal standard, and the captains went with two banners of the green cross, which the Admiral took in all the ships as a sign, with an F and a Y and a crown over each letter, one on one side of the cross and the other on the other. Having landed, they saw trees very green, and much water, and fruits of diverse kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains, and to the others who leaped on shore, and to Rodrigo Escovedo, secretary of the whole fleet, and to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, and said that they should bear faithful testimony that he, in presence of all, had taken, as he now took, possession of the said island for the King and for the Queen his Lords, making the declarations that are required, as is now largely set forth in the testimonies which were then made in writing.
Presently many inhabitants of the island assembled. What follows is the actual words of the Admiral in his book of the first navigation and discovery of the Indies. “I,” he says, “that we might form great friendship, for I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see. … They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak (112-113).
With what was arguably a silly ceremony, Columbus claimed two continents for a people that had no idea the continents existed, nor that had any concern for any prior claim the actual residents of those continents might have had for the land. Instead, Columbus was more concerned with how cheaply he could swindle the residents out of their property with “things of little value.”
Columbus did not seem oblivious to the natural wonders that he saw in this New World. Here he describes what is now known as Long Island in the Bahamas:
During that time I walked among the trees, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, beholding as much verdure as in the month of May in Andalusia. The trees are as unlike ours as night from day, as are the fruits, the herbs, the stones, and everything. It is true that some of the trees bear some resemblance to those in Castile, but most of them are very different, and some were so unlike that no one could compare them to anything in Castile (121).
Here, he describes some of the wonders of Cuba:
He says that he found trees and fruits of very marvellous taste; and adds that they must have cows or other cattle, for he saw skulls which were like those of cows. The songs of the birds and the chirping of crickets throughout the night lulled everyone to rest, while the air was soft and healthy, and the nights neither hot nor cold (132-133).
Nevertheless, appreciation of his “discoveries” did not seem to be high on Columbus’s priority list. There was a religion to promote, or, more accurately, to exploit in the name of baser concerns:
… your Highnesses should resolve to make them Christians, for I believe that, if the work was begun, in a little time a multitude of nations would be converted to our faith, with the acquisition of great lordships, peoples, and riches for Spain. Without doubt, there is in these lands a vast quantity of gold, and the Indians I have on board do not speak without reason when they say that in these islands there are places where they dig out gold, and wear it on their necks, ears, arms, and legs, the rings being very large. There are also precious stones, pearls, and an infinity of spices (144).
Columbus departed what is now known as the Bay of Samana in the Dominican Republic on January 16, 1493, to begin his return voyage to Europe. They reached the vicinity of the Azores on February 5, but because of navigational challenges and storms, did not make landfall until February 18 at the island of Santa Maria. After some misadventures—particularly at the hands of the Portuguese governor as well as from more storms—Columbus and his company arrived off Lisbon, Portugal, on Sunday, March 3. This time, he was received more hospitably.
His voyage ended when he crossed the bar at Saltes on March 15.
Portions of the Journal are what one might expect as a pure record of the voyage. For example, this entry from September 8, 1492:
At the third hour of Saturday night, it began to blow from the N.E., and the Admiral shaped a course to the west. He took in much sea over the bows, which retarded progress, ad 9 leagues were made in that day and night (94).
Many passages are like that. The large stretches of the Atlantic Ocean between the Old World and New receive little detailed narrative except when Columbus’s ships encountered storms or interesting oceanographic or biological phenomena, such as what they encountered when they sailed through what is now called the Sargasso Sea, such as is described in the entry on September 17:
They proceeded on their west course, and made over 50 leagues in the day and night, but the Admiral only counted 47. They were aided by the current. They saw much very fine grass and herbs from rocks, which came from the west. They, therefore, considered that they were near land. … At dawn, on that Monday, they saw much more weed appearing, like herbs from rivers, in which they found a live crab, which the Admiral kept (97).
The weed encountered was the Sargassum weed (Sargassum natans or S. fluitans), for which the Sargasso Sea is named. The crab was most likely the Sargassum crab (Planes minutus), which inhabits the floating patches of weeds. Unfortunately, there were few if any actual naturalists on Columbus’s first voyage, so that the descriptions of the life, landscapes, and seascapes encountered are often quite vague.
The Journal is better when describing items relevant to navigators. Here is his description of the bay of Nuestra Señora, near the eastern tip of Cuba:
Finally he reached the sea of Nuestra Señora, where there are many islands, and entered a port near the mouth of the opening to the islands. … On nearing the land he sent in the boat to sound, finding a good sandy bottom in 6 to 20 fathoms. He entered the haven, pointing the ship’s head S.W. and then west, the flat island bearing north. This, with another island near it, forms a harbor which would hold all the ships of Spain safe from all winds. This entrance to the S.W. side is passed by steering S.S.W., the outlet being to the est very deep and wide. Thus a vessel can pass amidst these islands, and he who approaches from the north, with a knowledge of them, can pass along the coast. These islands are at the foot of a great mountain-chain running east and west, which is longer and higher than any others on the coast, where there are many. A reef of rocks outside runs parallel with the said mountains, like a bench, extending to the entrance. On the side of the flat island, and also to the S.E., there is another small reef, but between them there is great width and depth. Within the port, near the S.E. side of the entrance, they saw a large and very fine river, with more volume than any they had yet met with, and fresh water could be taken from it as far as the sea. At the entrance there is a bar, but within it is very deep, 19 fathoms. The bangs are lined with palms and many other trees (153-154).
The Journal can be descriptive of the appearance and culture of the native residents of the islands Columbus encountered, but the descriptions were rarely of anything more than a superficial nature:
As soon as dawn broke many of these people came to the beach, all youths, as I have said, ad all of good stature, a very handsome people. Their hair is not curly but loose and coarse, like horse hair. In all the forehead is broad, more so than in any other people I have hitherto seen. Their eyes are very beautiful and not small, and themselves far from black, but the color of the Canarians. … Their legs are very straight, all in one line, and no belly, but very well formed. They came to the ship in small canoes, made out of the trunk of a tree like a long boat, and all of one piece, and wonderfully worked, considering the country. They are large, some of them holding 40 to 45 men, others smaller, and some only large enough to hold one man. They are propelled with a paddle like a baker’s shovel, and go at a marvellous rate. If the canoe capsizes, they all promptly begin to swim, and to bale it out with the calabashes that they take with them (112).
Columbus was inclined to not take the natives seriously in terms of their ability to resist Spanish occupation, such as in his discussion of the desirability of a garrison on the island of what he called Española (Hispaniola):
I believe that with the force I have with me I could subjugate the whole island, which I believe to be larger than Portugal, and the population double. But they are naked and without arms, and hopelessly timid. Still, it is advisable to build this tower, being so far from your Highnesses. The people may thus know the skill of the subjects of your Highnesses, and what they can do; and will obey them with love and fear (204).
Columbus tarried long enough to learn the natives were far from “hopelessly timid,” as when some attacked his men on January 13, 1493.:
As soon as they came to the boat the crew landed, and began to buy the bows and arrows and other arms, in accordance with an order of the Admiral. Having sold two bows, they did not want to give more, but began to attack the Spaniards, and to take hold of them. They were running back to pick up their bow and arrows where they had laid them aside, and took cords in their hands to bind the boat’s crew. Seeing them rushing down and being prepared—for the Admiral always warned them to be on their guard—the Spaniards attacked the Indians, and gave one a slash with a knife in the buttocks and another in the breast with an arrow. Seeing that they could gain little, although the Christians were only seven and they numbered over fifty, they fled, so that none were left, throwing bows and arrows away. The Christians would have killed many, if the pilot, who was in command, had not prevented them. The Spaniards presently returned to the caravel with the boat. The Admiral regretted the affair for one reason, and was pleased for another. They would have fear of the Christians, and they were in no doubt an ill-conditioned people, probably Caribs, who eat men. But the Admiral felt alarm lest they do some harm to the 39 men left in the fortress and town of Navidad, in the event of their coming here in their boat. Even if they are not Caribs, they are a neighboring people, with similar habits, and fearless, unlike the other inhabitants of the island, who are timid, and without arms (224).
A consistent thread throughout the Journal is an appalling self-righteousness and total disregard for anyone other than Columbus himself. Columbus seems an inconsistent leader: a man who can lead three ships and their company toward a destination largely unknown, yet who inspires mutinous acts against him; a man capable of great feats of seamanship, yet a somewhat questionable navigator who frequently misreckoned his position; and a man who expresses concern about at least the spiritual welfare of the natives he encounters in the “New” World, yet one ready to exploit—sometimes to the death—those same natives to satisfy his and compatriots’ base greed for worldly goods and comfort.
As a historical document, the Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus is important and worthy of study. But it is hardly a work for explorers and scholars to emulate in the twenty-first century, rife as it is with unchecked and unexamined prejudice on the part of the writer towards the peoples and lands he examines in his wanderings.
Columbus, Christopher. 1906. “Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus.” Translated by Clements Markham. In The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The Voyages of the Northmen. Edited by Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne. Original Narratives of Early American History, 87-258. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity
- Letter of Dr. Chanca on the Second Voyage of Columbus