Born near the Mediterranean port of Genoa. Wanted to find a commercially viable Atlantic route to Asia, and in 1492 won the support of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, for this “enterprise of the Indies.” Series of four voyages between 1492 and 1504 provided a brief period of wonder followed by disaster and disappointment. Taino Indians of Hispaniola were the first to find trouble with the settlers Columbus left behind. When Columbus returned to see the progress of the new settlers there were none left. He tried to begin a second settlement here but it fell into such disarray that he was forced to return to Spain to clear his name of charges set against him by other Europeans in the West Indies. On his third voyage he found South America. When he returned again to Hispaniola, he found Spanish settlers there who were against Columbus. He felt he could only solve this problem by allowing the Spaniards to enslave the Tainos while he himself was sent back to Spain in chains to answer to more charges. His last voyage, in order to clear his name, resulted in a long period of suffering in Panama and shipwreck in Jamaica and a mental breakdown. He was eventually rescued and returned to Europe where he died. The West Indies remained disorderly and bloody. A letter sent by Columbus to Luis de Santangel, a royal official and early supporter of his venture, provides a more authentic account and served as the basis for the first printed description of America, issued in 1493 in Spain and widely translated and reprinted across Europe.
The Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians of the mainland: remarkable for their hospitality and their sharing. Columbus wrote in his journal:
“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”
The information Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold which was more powerful than land since it could buy anything. For finding gold, Spain promised Columbus a ten percent cut of the profits, governorship of the new found lands and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He was headed to Asia but never would have made it – he thought the world was smaller. The first one to sight land was to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life. The first man to sight land was named Rodrigo, but Columbus claimed he saw land first and took the prize.
When the Santa Maria ran aground in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic), Columbus used the wood to build a fort, the first military base in the Western Hemisphere. He left thirty-nine crew members there. As the weather turned cold on the route back to Spain the Indian prisoners began to die.
Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction. Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report, he was given more ships and men for his next expedition; (17 ships and 1,200+ men). Their aim was clear: slaves and gold. As word of their intentions spread, Columbus’s gang found more and more empty villages. When he returned to his first military outpost he found all his men dead. The Indians killed them because the men roamed the island taking women and children for labor and as sex slaves.
Because the expedition could find no gold in Haiti they sent as many Indian slaves back as possible. There was a problem with many of the Indians dying in route or during their captivity; the pressure was intense for Columbus to send back something of value. All slaves on the island over the age of 14 were commanded to find a certain amount of gold every three months. They would get a copper ring for every three month allotment of gold. If a slave was found without a copper ring they would cut the Indian’s hands off and allow them to bleed to death. There was not enough gold to find so most slaves fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed. The Arawaks could not fight the Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords and horses. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. When no more gold came in, the Indians were herded into large labor estates called encomiendas. By 1650 all of the Indians of the island had died.
from Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage
[At sea, February 15, 1493]
I found many islands in the Indies and have taken possession of them in your name. I was met with no opposition and so began naming the islands. I found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance. I took some of the Indians who told me this space was only an island, but it was fertile and limitless with harbors, rivers, highlands, sierras, mountains, trees, flowers, fruit, birds, palms, plants, honey, metals and cultivatable lands.
from Select Documents Illustrating the Four Voyages of Columbus (1930-33)
Letter of Discovery (1493)
Sir, you will be pleased at my great victory. In thirty-three days, I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies. I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me. I named many islands along the way. I saw no habitation along the coast, so I sent a couple men inland. They found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance. I understood sufficiently from other Indians, whom I had already taken, that this land was nothing but an island. I named this island Espanola [Haiti] which, along with the others, is very fertile to a limitless degree. Many harbors, rivers, sierras and very lofty mountains. This island is filled with thousands of different kinds of trees; some of them were flowering, some bearing fruit. There are birds of a thousand kinds. They have cultivatable lands, honey, a diversity of fruits, mines of metals and a population without number. Espanola is a marvel. The land is rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of every kind and for building towns and villages. Great harbors, good waters, the majority of which contain gold. Many spices. All go naked. They have no iron or steel or weapons. They are very marvellously timorous. They have no other arms than weapons made of canes. As soon as they have seen my men approaching they have fled, even a father not waiting for his son. Where I have been and been able to have speech, I have given to them of all that I had, such as cloth and many other things, without receiving anything for it; they are incurably timid.
The people are so guileless and so generous with all they possess. They never refuse anything which they possess, if it be asked of them. They invite anyone to share what they have and display love. Some of my men began to trade things of no value for things of immense value. It seemed wrong, so I told them to stop. These people may eventually become Christians. They strive to aid us and to give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us. They all believe that power and good are in the heavens, and they are very firmly convinced that I, with these ships and men, came from the heavens. They are of a very acute intelligence and are men who navigate all those seas.
And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island which I found, I took by force some of them, in order that they might learn and give me information of that which there is in those parts, and so it was that they soon understood us, and we them, either by speech or signs, and they have been very serviceable. I still take them with me, and they are always assured that I come from Heaven, for all the intercourse which they have had with me and they were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others went running from house to house and to the neighboring towns, with loud cries of, ‘Come! Come to see the people from Heaven!’ So all, men and women alike, when their minds were set at rest concerning us, came, so that not one, great or small, remained behind, and all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with extraordinary affection. In all the island, they have very many canoes which they use for getting quickly from island to island.
In all these islands, I saw no great diversity in the appearance of the people or in their manners and language. On the contrary, they all understand one another, which is a very curious thing, on account of which I hope that their highnesses will determine upon their conversion to our holy faith, towards which they are very inclined. In this Espanola there are mines of gold. There will be great trade and gain. I have taken possession of a large town and in it I have made a fort. I have left in it sufficient men with arms, artillery and provisions for more than a year. We’ve made great friendship with the king of that land who treats me like a brother. The island is without danger for their persons, if they know how to govern themselves.
In all these islands, it seems to me that all men are content with one woman, and to their chief or king they give as many as twenty. It appears to me that the women work more than the men. In that which one had, all took a share, especially of eatable things. The whole population is very well-formed with flowing hair. They eat meats with many and extremely hot spices. We heard reports of cannibals from another island. In another, larger than Espanola, the people have no hair and gold incalculable. I bring Indians from there as evidence. Their highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they may need, if their highnesses will render me very slight assistance. We can get spices and cotton, mastic and aloe wood, slaves, rhubarb and cinnamon. I should have done much more, if the ships had served me, as reason demanded.
He writes that, due to weather, he had to take shelter for a couple of weeks in Portugal, which he calls “Lisbon.” This made Spain suspicious, as Portugal was an enemy of Spain.
From Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella Regarding the Fourth Voyage
[Jamaica, July 7, 1503]
Paria was the mainland region of what is now Venezuela. Columbus, who had first landed in South America in 1498, argued that the terrestrial paradise lay nearby. It seems that everyone here is an expert at destruction. I pray your highnesses before I went to discover these islands and Terra Firma, that you would leave them to me to govern in your royal name. You gave me wide power over this and over all that I might further discover. Now all, down to the very tailors, seek permission to make discoveries. It can be believed that they go forth to plunder, and it is granted to them to do so, so that they greatly prejudice my honor and do very great damage to the enterprise. After I, by the divine will, had placed them under your royal and exalted lordship, and was on the point of securing a very great revenue, suddenly, while I was waiting for ships to come to your high presence with victory and with great news of gold, being very secure and joyful, I was made a prisoner and with my two brothers and was thrown into a ship, laden with fetters, stripped to the skin, very ill-treated, and without being tried or condemned. Please side with me and back me up. I pray Your Highnesses to pardon me. I am so ruined as I have said.