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A blog the history of Spain for ex-pats and others.

Spain’s connection with Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee.
Friday, June 3, 2022

Having just watched the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, I remembered something that I read some time ago. There have been many ties and conflicts between British kings and queens and the royalty of Spain over the centuries, but this is a very incorruptible and noble one.  

Antonio de Ulloa was born in Seville, Spain in January 1716. His father, Bernardo de Ulloa, was noted for his writings on economics, and his brother, Fernando, would become an engineer and the chief of works of the Canal de Castilla, a 207 km. long canal that runs through Burgos, Palencia and Valladolid. His family were outstanding and highly respected both in an aristocratic and intellectual context.

In 1729, thirteen-year-old Antonio embarked on the galleon San Luis in Cádiz, bound for the port of Cartagena de Indias in present-day Colombia. The young man was impressed by the seafaring life, and upon his return in 1733, he enrolled in the Real Compañía de Guardias Marinas (the Spanish Naval Academy) at the age of 17.

Longer voyages made it essential that ocean-going sailing ships needed to be able to accurately navigate a course on what was clearly a sphere. Straight lines were not straight, but curved in three dimensions, and drawing accurate flat charts a nightmare for cartographers.

There was an on-going battle of theories at the time: Descartes’ model, in which the earth was like a rugby ball with the poles further from the centre than the equator, and the Newtonian model, with the earth flattened at the poles. Newton published his Principia in which he calculated that the earth was an oblate spheroid with a flattening at the poles equal to 1/230th of the diameter at the equator.

To settle the argument, in 1735, the French Academy of Sciences organised two scientific expeditions. One to Quito, in present-day Ecuador, to measure the length of a degree of meridian arc at the equator. The other, to Lapland in the Arctic Circle, to measure a degree of arc there. They had already measured a degree of latitude in France, and now they needed to do the same in different parts of the globe and compare the three.

 Antonio de Ulloa

Ulloa, and another young naval officer, Jorge Juan de Santacilia, were appointed by the Spanish Crown to accompany the French Geodesic Mission to Quito. This was by no means an easy posting. To make the observations the scientists would have to cut their way through dense jungle and climb mountains from whose peaks they would take the measurements. It did not help when the first leader chosen for the expedition spent a large part of the money allocated for provisions on a diamond for his wife.

 Jorge Juan de Santacilia

The expedition soon became bogged down in a plethora of problems. The first and most frequent problem was money, or rather the lack of it. Nobody had anticipated the problems of transport in the area they needed to cover, or the merciless corruption that existed within the Spanish government of Ecuador, who were supposed to give every assistance to the expedition. Another problem was the time it took to painstakingly set up the complicated instruments used to make the measurements. The members of the team argued frequently, but they managed to make the required observations, only to find that after two years work they had taken erroneous star sightings when setting up the equipment and the measurements were invalid. It took six month’s work to re-calibrate the instruments and re-take the measurements.

Things went from bad to worse in 1737 when Charles Marie de La Condamine, the leader of the French funded expedition complained bitterly to the president of the Real Audiencia de Quito, Joseph de Araujo y Río. As fellow Spaniards, Ulloa and Juan had been acting as go-betweens for the French, but Araujo ordered their arrest and announced his intention to have them murdered. The two men took refuge in a church, before escaping through the cordon of Araujo's men. They made their way to the coast and obtained passage on a Spanish boat going to Lima, Peru, where they gained the protection of the Viceroy of Peru, the Marquis of Villagarcía. Ulloa and Juan’s adventures were not over yet. Whilst they were in Lima waiting for a ship to return to Spain, war broke out between the Spanish and the British, and as officers in the Spanish navy, they were obliged to defend Peru.

The origins of the war, now known as The War of Jenkins' Ear, took place seven years earlier in 1731 when a Spanish patrol boat, La Isabela, part of La guarda costa, stopped and boarded the British brig Rebecca off the coast of Cuba. The Spanish captain, Juan de León Fandiño, accused the captain of the British ship, Robert Jenkins, of smuggling sugar. In an attempt to obtain more information about the illegal trade of the British, Fandiño tortured Jenkins and cut off one of his ears. Fandiño told Jenkins, "Go, and tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same." Seven years later, in March 1738, Jenkins was ordered to testify before Parliament, presumably to repeat his story before a committee of the House of Commons. As proof of the incident, he brought his severed ear. This incident, when considered alongside other cases of "Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects", was considered an insult to Britain's honour and a clear and just cause for war. The war began in earnest in 1739 when the Royal Navy under Admiral Vernon sailed for the West Indies. On 22 October, British ships attacked La Guaira and Puerto Cabello, principal ports of the Province of Venezuela and Britain formally declared war on 23 October 1739.

The war was pretty much over by 1742, but was officially ended in 1748. Meanwhile, the conflict had hardly touched Ulloa and Juan. Though they had taken part in some very minor skirmishes, they had been allowed a free hand to do pretty much as they liked. Ulloa and Juan travelled extensively around Peru making many astronomic, natural, and social observations from 1736 to 1744. Meanwhile, the final results of French Geodesic Mission were published by La Condamine in 1745. These, combined with the measurements of meridian arc in Lapland near the Arctic Circle that had been published in 1738 by Pierre Louis Maupertuis decisively vindicated the predictions first made by Isaac Newton.

Now free to return home to Spain, Ulloa and Jorge Juan packed their samples and volumes of notes and prepared to sail in 1745. They decided to return on separate ships to minimize the danger of losing all their work if one ship was lost. Unfortunately the ship that Ulloa was travelling on was captured by the Royal Navy, and he was taken to England as a prisoner of war. Ulloa’s work had not gone unnoticed and he was visited and befriended in prison by other scientists. When he explained his work over the last ten years, Martin Folkes, the President of the Royal Society, stepped in and obtained his release. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in December 1746 and given permission to return to Spain.

In 1749, Ulloa published his Relación histórica del viaje a la América Meridional containing a full, accurate, and clear description of the greater part of South America geographically, and of its inhabitants and natural history. It was translated into English and published in 1758 as A Voyage to South America. Both Ulloa and Juan had been disturbed by the endemic corruption of the civil authorities and the Catholic clergy in their ruthless exploitation of the Native American population. They jointly wrote a secret letter to their political patron, the Marquess of Ensenada, but it remained unseen until 1826 when it was published in London by an Englishman named David Barry.

Ulloa continued his rise as an international scientist as his reputation grew. He still worked with Jorge Juan, and together the two friends established the first metallurgical laboratory in Spain along with the first museum of natural history and the astronomical observatory of Cádiz. In 1751, Ulloa was elected as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He returned to Peru in 1758 as governor of Huancavelica and manager of the mercury mines in the region. He fought against the deep-rooted corruption in the local administration before finally asking to be relieved of his post in 1764.

In 1756 the Seven Years War erupted with Spain and France trying to deny Great Britain dominance in world affairs and trade. This was a global war, which the Prussians and Austrians took advantage of and joined the fighting hoping for territorial expansion on land. Old disputes in Europe surfaced and loyalties changed frequently. Spain tried to invade Portugal who was aided by the British. Much of the naval fighting took place in the Caribbean and the Royal Navy took Havana for Britain and, half a world away, Manila in the Philippines. Finally, in 1763, the French were defeated and secretly signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau to cede to its ally Spain its remaining territories in North America.

The Spanish Crown appointed Ulloa as the first governor of Spanish Louisiana in March 1766 and shortly after arriving, fifty year-old Ulloa married Francisca Melchora Rosa Ramírez de Laredo y Encalada, daughter of the Count of San Javier y Casa Laredo; Ulloa had joined the nobility of Lima. Govenor of Louisianna turned out to be a very short appointment and one which must have alarmed his new wife. The French Creole colonists refused to recognise Spanish rule and riots broke out in New Orleans and the old French Superior Council voted that Ulloa and his wife should be given three days to leave.

This setback did not dampen Ulloa’s spirit, and he Returned to Spain where he and Francisca had six children. He was made Viceroyalty of New Spain (now Mexico) and supervised the construction of a military shipyard in the Atlantic port of Veracruz. Finally, in 1779, Ulloa was promoted to teniente general de la Armada (vice-admiral) and participated in the Siege of Gibraltar. The failure of the Spanish navy to prevent the British relieving Gibraltar led to charges of dereliction of duty against Ulloa and two captains under his command. Ulloa was later aquitted.

Antonio de Ulloa died in 1795 at the age of 79, and you might say that he had a platinum anniversary on his seventy-plus years of age. But that is not the link. When Antonio was roaming in the mountains of Peru he watched the gold panning operations in the Chocó region of what is now Colombia. He spotted shiny slivers of an unknown metal which he found in the sand of the rivers. He collected samples and made notes on the properties of the metal. It seemed to be immune to corrosion. He called the metal platina (little silver), and when he brought the samples back to Europe it was identified as a new element which was named Platinum. Ulloa is now credited as the discoverer of the noble element of Platinum.


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The bitter end
Friday, April 8, 2022

When Columbus’ ships beached themselves in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on 25 June 1503 his crews were tired and disillusioned. Columbus had been suffering from ill health ever since the return voyage on the first expedition. During the height of a storm he had suffered an attack of what he thought was gout. During subsequent voyages he suffered further bouts coupled with fevers, bleeding from the eyes and temporary blindness. Add to this the problem that his crews were not the most congenial of companions to be marooned with.

He still had friends, and the man who had been assigned to Columbus as personal secretary, Diego Méndez de Segura, together with Bartolomé Flisco, a Spanish crewman, took one of the large native canoes and six natives and set out to across the 150km. wide Jamaica Channel to reach Hispaniola. It’s not clear whether they finished the last Santo Domingo by land or sea, but the result was that the governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres was indifferent to their pleas for help. Cáceres was deeply jealous of Columbus and he prevaricated with preparations to rescue him. Weeks turned into months, and the rescue preparations had not progressed despite the constant pleading of Segura. 

On Jamaica, the 250 men with Columbus were dependant on the natives for food and water and Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew, struggled to keep the crewman in line. They kept order for seven months, but the natives were uneasy with these strangers who kept promising that they were going to leave soon, and they became restless and threatening.  This is where Columbus’ self-education paid dividends. His celestial navigation was not too good, but he had with him an Ephemeris compiled by the German astronomer Regiomontanus, which gave dates, times and positions of celestial events. One of these events was a lunar eclipse, which was due to happen on the night of 29 Feb 1504. Columbus called a meeting with the chief of the local tribe and told him that if they did not continue helping them he would extinguish the light of the full moon. He had picked his time carefully, and when the chief scoffed at his threat Columbus told him to call his tribe together to watch the moon with him that night. Of course, Columbus knew the exact hour that the eclipse would begin, and he made a show of calling to the heavens to strike out the moon. The natives were impressed when the moon dimmed, and Columbus made them promise never to doubt his word again or go against him. Then, with a wave of his hand and some arcane words the moon gradually returned to full brightness.

Controlling the mutiny in his crews was not so easily accomplished. The ringleaders were the Porras brothers, who were planning to overthrow Columbus and take control of the ships. Eleven months after they had become stranded on Jamaica open rebellion broke out, and Bartholomew Columbus had to defend his brother in a swordfight with Francisco de Porras. Bartholomew eventually got the better of Porras and spared his life, but unless help came soon there would be blood spilled. Finally, on June 29, a caravel sent by Diego Mendez arrived from Santo Domingo to take the crews back to Hispaniola. Even then, the bad luck that had dogged Columbus on his final voyage had not run its course. The wind became strong from the south-east and the ship made little or no headway. The journey to Hispaniola took 45 days and of those 110 sailors who landed in Santo Domingo, only 72 wanted to continue home to España. Columbus and his son Fernando paid their own passage and arrived at Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 7 November 1504, and from there they made their way to Seville where they settled. Columbus was by now suffering from frequent bouts of fevers and illness that left him bedridden for weeks.

The previous year, Juan de la Cosa had arrived from the Caribbean to find that his Mappa Mundi had been taken to Portugal some three years earlier by Vespucci and had never been seen since. His map had been for the benefit of all mariners, and it was they who provided new information to update it with. De la Cosaa was furious that somebody would take the map and the information it contained for their own private gain; that it was no less a thief than the King of Portugal did not matter. He set off in pursuit of his property and arrived in Lisbon in 1503, but as soon as the authorities knew that he was making inquiries, he was promptly arrested and imprisoned. A series of letters followed between the crown of España and Portugal, and Vespucci finally agreed to return the map. It was a pointless exercise; the map was hopelessly out of date by now and had been copied, updated and distributed to Portuguese mariners. De la Cosa’s Mappa Mundi was returned to the office of Rodríguez de Fonseca, where all trace of it was lost until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was discovered in a Paris junk shop by Baron Charles-Athanase Walckenaer. It was only identified as an important historical document in 1832 by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. The map was purchased by the Spanish government in 1853 and is now in the Naval Museum in Madrid. Juan de la Cosa sailed with Ojeda again in 1509 to take possession of the coasts of modern Colombia, but he and his men were surrounded by natives and all were killed.

Queen Isabel had died in 1504, and the monarchy was in turmoil. Isabel’s oldest daughter, Joanna, was now next in line to be Queen of Castile, but Archduke Phillip, her husband, who would have become King Phillip I, died in 1506. Ferdinand proclaimed himself Governor and Administrator of Castile. He declared Joanna insane, and continued to rule as regent until his death in 1516.

Undaunted, Columbus continued to pursue his case for the unpaid royalties which had been promised in the contract that he signed (The Capitulations of Santa Fe) with Isabel and Ferdinand.  The contract stated that he be paid “one tenth of all the riches and trade goods yielded by the new lands.” The crown argued that since he had been removed as governor of Hispaniola, he was no longer entitled to claim them. The royal court moved to Segovia, 500 km. from Seville, and Columbus was obliged to make the arduous journey there by mule to continue his case. Ferdinand married Germaine of Foix in Valladolid in March 1506, and they set up a new court there. Columbus, now 56 years-old, doggedly followed them to Valladolid to continue petitioning the crown for his entitlements. But the voyages, and his betrayal by the crown of España, had taken their toll on his health, and he died in Valladolid on May 20 1506.

During his later years he had written two books with the assistance of his son Diego and his friend the Carthusian monk Gaspar Gorricio.  The first was the Book of Privileges published in 1502 detailing the promises and contracts that the crown had made with him when they granted him funding for the first voyage. The second was The Book of Prophecies (1505) which quoted passages from the bible as prophecies of his voyages of exploration. His heirs continued to sue the crown after his death in a long series of legal disputes known as the pleitos colombinos (Columbian lawsuits).

These two publications are Columbus’ testimony of his betrayal. They represent his bitter recriminations against the established hierarchy of the nascent country of Spain, where the privileged aristocracy and the church ruled. But the church was about to suffer a schism that would rock it to its foundations. In 1517 Martin Luther hammered to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg his “ninety-five theses of discontent” with the Catholic Church. (Posting notices in this way was the recognised way of inviting discussion.) Sixteen years later in 1533, Queen Isabel’s youngest daughter, Catherine, would fail to provide King Henry VIII with a male heir, and when the pope refused to give him a divorce, Henry declared himself head of the protestant Church of England.

At some point during this period, to avoid further tension between España and Portugal, and with absolute arrogance and consummate ignorance of the native inhabitants of rest of the world, the Tordesillas line was carried on through the poles to divide the planet in half; one half owned by España, and the other half owned by Portugal.

Neither the Portuguese or Spanish explorers had found any signs of a superior civilisation anywhere they landed. (Except for the initial landings in the Indies, which was as near to an ideal society as humanity has ever produced.)  Iron, steel, gunpowder and oceangoing ships were unknown in the new world. Given the history of the Mediterranean civilisations, subjugation and near extermination of the native population was inevitable. The brutality of the conquest of the Americas and the following importation of slaves from Africa is one of the darkest periods in world history. But I am not going to go there.

When I started these blogs at the beginning of Covid lockdown it was because I had become very interested in Spanish history during the eight years that I lived there. I wrote two fictional books set in medieval Spain and published them. I have also been (and still am) painting aviation art, amongst other subjects. Nearly all of the blogs have been about wars. For Spain, the Roman occupation and Numantine Wars were followed by the Islamic invasion and reconquest. Later on came the French invasion and Spanish Civil War.

Spanish soil is steeped in the blood of a thousand generations of people who fought to defend it against invaders. But the history of Europe is 10,000 years of nearly constant warfare, and just when we thought that two World Wars would have put an end to it, we now have the horror of the Ukraine. I believed that it was only by looking at the past that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future, but I see that I am wrong. Malicious, sick, psychotic people exist at all levels of society and it is only by standing up to them that the world can improve.

Spring is here, and the Covid plague has seemingly passed. I am going to stop blogging for a while and visit some of the places that I have been blogging about. I have enjoyed writing these blogs and it has been very educational for me. I would like to thank the editor at Eye on Spain for his support, and the 71,000 people who have been reading them over this period. I am not going away, but I will post less frequently than I have been doing.  Thank you for your support.

Alan Pearson. 

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Thursday, March 24, 2022

When Queen Isabel agreed to fund Columbus’ first voyage, she spread the financial risk by asking a group of Seville-based traders to jointly invest in the voyage. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici was one of the very rich Florentine traders who employed trading agents in Seville, and Tomasso Capponi was one of these agents. Four years before Columbus was granted the money for his first voyage, di Pierfrancesco had become dissatisfied with the work of Capponi and he asked one of his Florence-based employees to go to Seville and assess candidates for his replacement. Based on his employee’s recommendations, Pierfrancesco sacked Capponi and replaced him with a Seville-based merchant named Gianotto Berardi.  Beradi was perfect for the job; he already ran his own business in African slavery and ship chandlery, and was easily capable of managing the Medici's trade in Seville. The 41 year-old Medici employee who did the dirty on Cappioni was called Amerigo Vespucci.

Americo Vespucci: Painting: Christifano de'll Artisimo.

Vespucci moved to Seville sometime before 1492 and was working closely with Beradi in his business dealings, and when the queen asked for investors for Columbus’ first voyage, Berardi chipped in with half a million maravedis.  When Columbus returned triumphant, the queen awarded Beradi the lucrative contract to provision Columbus's larger second fleet. In 1495, Berardi signed a contract with the crown to send 12 resupply ships to Hispaniola, and things were looking good for both Beradi and Vespucci. Unfortunately, Beradi died unexpectedly in December 1495 before he could complete the contract, leaving debts of 140,000 maravedis. But all was not gloom. Vespucci had met and married a Sevillian lady called Maria Cerezo, who was allegedly the daughter of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba the “Grand Captain” hero of the reconquest and capture of Granada. With this marriage, he improved his social standing in Seville by several pay-grades.

However, that’s not what put Vespucci on the map.

Realising that Columbus was out of his depth as governor of the Indies, and certainly under-qualified to be the governor of the huge continent that was growing in magnitude with each new exploration expedition, Isabel once more hedged her bets. She charged Rodríguez de Fonseca with creating an office of colonial administration from as early as 1493. From the very first meeting, Fonseca disliked Columbus, who he felt was assuming too much of the authority which should belong to the crown. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that perhaps Fonseca would wish to take some of that authority from Columbus and have it for himself as an agent of the crown.

When Columbus got into difficulties in 1499, it was Fonseca who advised Isabel that he be removed as governor of the Indies. That same year, Fonseca began to organize a series of voyages commanded by such captains as Diego de Lepe and Rodrigo de Bastidas. All these captains had sailed with Columbus and knew the seas around the Indies. Alonso de Ojeda had returned to España from Hispaniola in 1496 disillusioned with the disjointed rule of Columbus and his mistreatment of the natives. It was no doubt his outspoken criticism of Columbus that caught Fonseca’s attention and influenced him to make Ojeda commander of the next voyage of exploration to be undertaken by the crown. Isabel and Ferdinand decided not to notify Columbus that they were sending rival explorers into what he had been promised would be his exclusive trading domain.

Ojeda had taken part in Columbus’ second voyage, and it was Ojeda who Columbus charged with finding Caonabo, the cacique who had destroyed Fort Navidad and killed all the men he had left behind on the first voyage. Ojeda presented Caonabo with a set of polished brass manacles and convinced him that they were a symbol of royalty in his own country. The moment the chief put on the manacles, Ojeda had him dragged away for punishment. In 1495, the first native rebellion took place at a river crossing where a fort had been built. The ten-man garrison were killed and the fort destroyed and Columbus ordered Ojeda to lead a 500 man force and secure the area. Fifteen hundred natives were captured and distributed to the settlers as slaves, with 600 of them shipped back to España to be sold in slave markets.

Alonso de Ojeda.

Ojeda’s flotilla of four ships set sail in 1499 with Juan de la Cosa as chief navigator and cartographer. Vespucci was on one of the ships, but his role is not recorded and the only reference to him is from much later when Ojeda remembered that "Morigo Vespuche" was one of his pilots. Their brief was to explore the coast line as far as they could with emphasis on locating the source of pearls that Columbus had reported finding. They made landfall in what is now French Guiana and the flotilla split up; Ojeda led two of the ships north, whilst the other two headed south carrying Vespucci. There are no official records of the southern voyage other than those later written by Vespucci himself, and according to him, they passed the mouth of the Amazon and were amazed to find that the ocean was still freshwater 25 miles out into the Atlantic. The two ships continued south for another 40 leagues (150miles) until they encountered a strong northerly current and could make no headway. They retraced their course northwards again and possibly made contact with the other two ships. The flotilla entered Lake Maracaibo on 24 August 1499, and the captains decided to end the exploration voyage here.

The whole voyage had been a financial failure. Except for a few pearls, a little gold and a few slaves, they had nothing to show to their backers. Santo Domingo was just a couple of days sailing due north from where they were, and so they left the mainland behind and headed for Hispaniola. They docked on 5 September, and as soon as the crews went ashore they ran into trouble. Those settlers faithful to Columbus realised that these men were trying to infringe on their hard-won trading privileges with the crown. Fighting broke out immediately and many of Ojeda’s men were killed.

With their tails between their legs, Ojeda’s crews returned to their ships and hastily left Hispaniola behind. They made a brief slave raid in the Bahamas, capturing 232 natives, and then returned to España. To add further to their chagrin, Pedro Alonso Niño, another one of Fonseca’s favourites, had docked just before them with a cargo of pearls from the Gulf of Paria and a contract with the crown of España to give 20% of their cargo to Castile, leaving them with a handsome profit. From then on, Pedro was known as Peralonso Niño.

 Pedro Alonso Niño.

However, Vespucci the salesman had his toe in the door, and was about to snatch victory from disaster. Upon his return to Puerto Santa Maria, Juan de la Cosa began updating the Mappa Mundi.  He didn’t make the alterations himself, he had a team of cartographers who did that for him, and he was truthful in that he acknowledged each country’s separate claims. He added the discoveries of John Cabot, Vicente Pinzon, and Pedro Álvares Cabral by putting their national flags on the map.

Because of his seamanship and encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indies Juan de la Cosa was becoming an essential inclusion in every expedition to the Caribbean, and in October 1500 he sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas and Vasco Núñez de Balboa on another voyage to the Indies. Amerigo Vespucci visited de la Cosa's office in 1500, probably to report data on coasts he had explored, and it is likely that when de la Cosa sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas he left Vespucci in charge of the map updates.

Vespucci was still custodian of the updated Mappa Mundi when he received a letter from the Manuel I, King of Portugal, on an urgent matter that required his personal attendance at the royal court. He was cordially invited to bring along the Mappa Mundi, which Vespucci did. Once within the royal palace, he was offered the post of pilot on a Portuguese expedition to be led by Gonçalo Coelho to ascertain how much of the new continent was east of the Tordesillas line. Meanwhile, somewhere out of sight, the Mappa Mundi was being copied.

The expedition left Lisbon in May 1501, and they sailed to Cape Verde to take on provisions. It was here by pure chance that they met Cabral on his return voyage from India. Coelho’s fleet set out across the Atlantic and landed on August 17, 1501, near to a town now called Recife. They continued south following the coast, and on January 1, 1502, they anchored in a bay at the mouth of a small river which, because of the date, they called Rio de Janeiro. Their mission complete, they set out across the Atlantic again on February 13, 1502.

The log of the voyage was kept by Vespucci, and he was no navigator. His measured distances are hopelessly wrong and his astronomical observations woefully confusing and inaccurate. (To be fair, the instruments used were not that accurate, and they required competence in mathematics and astronomy that a trader would be unlikely to possess.) They arrived in back in Portugal sometime in the summer of 1502, and this is when the facts start to become muddled. What is known for sure is that Vespucci published his first booklet on his voyages to the Nova Mundi. The book was full of wonderful descriptions of the new lands and their people. It was extremely popular and was widely read throughout Europe. He followed it up in 1505 with another book along the same lines, which also sold well throughout Europe.

As Vespucci’s fame spread, inconsistencies began to appear in the record. Florentine official Piero Soderini received a letter supposedly from Vespucci in 1504 which he published the following year. It describes an expedition that left Spain on 10 May 1497, and returned on 15 October 1498 after exploring the mainland.  These dates would show that Vespucci discovered the continent of America before Columbus. The letter is the only known reference to the voyage, and some of the historians, including a contemporary, Bartolomé de las Casas, believed it to be a fake. The navigational information in the letter is highly suspect. It states that the voyagers left Honduras and went northwest for 870 leagues; this would have put them on the other side of Mexico in the Pacific Ocean. The Soderini letter is one of two attributed to Vespucci that was edited and widely circulated during his lifetime. The publication of the letter prompted cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to recognize Vespucci's accomplishments in 1507 by applying the Latinized form "America" for the first time to a map showing the New World. Other cartographers followed suit, and by 1532 the name America was permanently affixed to the newly discovered continents.

The Waldseemüller map.

Vespucci returned to Seville sometime before 1505 and King Ferdinand welcomed him with open arms. In April 1505, he was declared a citizen of Castile and León. In 1508, (The year after Columbus died.) he was appointed to the newly created position of piloto mayor (master navigator) of España for the Casa de Contratación, which was overseen by Rodríguez de Fonseca, Columbus’ arch enemy. The salary for this post was 50,000 maravedis a year with an extra 25,000 for expenses. Vespucci was responsible for ensuring that ships’ pilots were adequately trained and licensed before sailing to the New World. He was also charged with compiling a "model map" based on input from pilots who were obligated to share what they learned after each voyage.

On the death of Queen Isabel in 1504, King Ferdinand allowed Fonseca almost unlimited scope in administering the overseas colonies. Rodríguez de Fonseca was successively named Bishop of Badajoz (1495), of Córdoba (1499), of Palencia (1504), and, finally, of Burgos (1514), one of Castile’s wealthiest dioceses. In 1519, he was also named Archbishop of Rossano in the Kingdom of Naples. In 1513, King Ferdinand asked the pope to create a new title for Fonseca; Patriarch of the West Indies, a position that would grant Fonseca a cardinal’s red hat. The pope declined; there was opposition within the church. A Dominican bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas, known as the Protector of the Indians, denounced Fonseca for his indifference to the cruelties that Spanish settlers inflicted on the native populations. When challenged over the slaughter of 7,000 children in Cuba, Fonseca was reported to have snapped, "And how does that concern me?" He was never made to answer for his indifference to the suffering in the Indies.  

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Columbus, the real hero of this story, has been marooned since 1503 at St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica.




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One last chance
Friday, March 11, 2022

Columbus and his brothers were thrown into prison upon their arrival in Cádiz. There they remained for six weeks before a busy King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel deigned to give them audience on 12 December 1500 in the Alhambra palace in Granada. Whilst he had been incarcerated in Cádiz he had written a bitter letter to a friend.

“I have placed under their sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe, and more than 1,700 islands... In seven years I, by the divine will, made that conquest. At a time when I was entitled to expect rewards and retirement, I was incontinently arrested and sent home loaded with chains…”

He wore a short sleeved shirt when he stood before the royals, so that they could see the raw scars left by the chains and made an impassioned plea for their mercy.  Real tears ran down his face as he admitted his faults and mistakes.

“I beg your graces, with the zeal of faithful Christians in whom their Highnesses have confidence, to read all my papers, and to consider how I, who came from so far to serve these princes... now at the end of my days have been despoiled of my honour and my property without cause, wherein is neither justice nor mercy.”

The king and queen took pity on the brothers, and they were released. Isabel was furious that Bobadilla had also exceeded his authority, and ordered his return. He would be replaced by another avaricious nobleman, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres. The power-plays and the stakes were too high now for Columbus to be a player. However, he kept his title of Admiral and Viceroy and Bobadilla was ordered to return Columbus’ possessions.

The royal couple knew full-well about the attempts to sabotage Columbus’ meteoric rise on the world stage. When Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the renegade ship, the Pinta, who had deserted Columbus on the first voyage, landed at Galicia in Spain, he had actually arrived before Columbus, who had been delayed by the King of Portugal in the Azores and later in Lisbon. Hoping to claim all the credit and relate his version of the voyage before Columbus could malign him, Pinzón dispatched a letter to the royals requesting a private audience with them. It was rejected, and he was ordered not to come to Barcelona except in the company of Columbus. A shamed Pinzon docked in Palos just hours after Columbus arrived. He died there shortly after, suffering from illness caused by the hardships of the voyage. Columbus never reported the mutiny of Juan de la Cosa when the Santa Maria had run aground under very strange circumstances. This would normally a hanging offence, and de la Cosa was to be involved in even more scandal and subterfuge.

When Columbus was provisioning his fleet in Seville for the second voyage in June 1493 he had to commandeer his ships from whatever was available in local ports at the time, and he soon had leased 17 ships “large and small” from their owners. As before, their crews became paid sailors in the queen’s navy regardless of their status before.

This does not mean to say that they were press ganged into the enterprise. There were plenty of volunteers, some of whom were willing to serve without pay. Columbus chose 1500 men for various duties. Some were to be armed as soldiers and others would become settlers in the new lands. The queen issued them with new arms and armour, which they promptly sold in Seville and replaced with old and rusty weapons. Similarly, the fine cavalry horses supplied by Isabel were exchanged for old nags at a large profit. After hearing stories of docile unarmed natives the crew had decided there would be no battles like the ones they fought during the reconquest.  The wholesale fiddling of the queen’s funding continued with the provisions loaded onto the ships. Short measure in filling the barrels, leaky barrels, salted beef that was near to going off. Food to be cooked on the journey that was ticked off on the manifest but was entirely missing. One of the officials that Columbus was to take with him alerted Queen Isabel who sent officers to arrest the culprits and ensure that the ships were properly provisioned. They waded into the contractors who were now only too happy to produce the correct supplies. 

But as Governor, Columbus had overstepped a line in trustworthiness in his dealings with the natives and settlers. Isabel had wanted the natives to be converted to Christianity. She was bitter when greed and slavery had replaced that wish. Columbus now had to use all his powers of persuasion to redeem his reputation. His only justification for another expedition was his belief that there was an undiscovered passage to China beyond the islands that he had already discovered. Undoubtedly, it was his eagerness to face the perils of exploration once again and his atonement for his previous mistakes that convinced them to fund him again. What may have prompted them to trust him were the alarming gains made by Portugal with the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Cabral. Valuable time had been lost in squabbling over a small group of islands when, as was becoming obvious, a huge continent was there to be claimed. 

On 11 May 1502, Columbus sailed on his fourth and last voyage with four ships carrying 147 men and strict orders from the king and queen not to stop at Hispaniola, but only to search for a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. He was accompanied on his flagship, the Capitana, by his 13-year old son, Ferdinand, and his stepbrother, Bartolomeo. The other ships were named the GallegaVizcaína, and Santiago de Palos. For some unexplained reason, they sailed first to Arzila on the Moroccan coast to rescue Portuguese soldiers who Columbus heard were besieged by the Moors. When they arrived the siege had been lifted and so they sailed on to the Canary Islands. They made good time crossing the Atlantic, and made landfall at Carbet on the island of Martinique on June 15. It took them another two weeks to island-hop north to the one island that he had been forbidden to land on. He arrived at the port of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, on June 29 and was immediately refused entry despite having urgent need of repairs to one of his ships and the threat of an approaching storm. Unable to take shelter in the port, his tiny fleet moved a few kilometres along the coast to the west and anchored in the mouth of the Haina River.

Governor Bobadilla had received the letter from Queen Isabel ordering to return Columbus’ seized assets and return to España, but when he was given the news of Columbus’ arrival he panicked, and he and many of his crooked entourage loaded their belongings onto ships and prepared to sail. Despite the approaching hurricane and a warning from Columbus, a convoy of 30 ships left Santo Domingo and sailed into the teeth of the storm. All the gold that Bobadilla had confiscated when he arrested Columbus (an estimated US$10 million) was loaded onto the least seaworthy ship of the fleet, the Aguya. They didn’t get far before the storm scattered them like windblown leaves. Some were driven back to Santo Domingo, where even the harbour was no protection, and they sank in full view of the quay. Bobadilla’s ship is believed to have reached the eastern end of Hispaniola where it sank with all hands. Something like 20 ships were lost when they entered the Atlantic and met the full force of the hurricane.  Around 500 people drowned, and if you believe in avenging angels, then the fact that they were all Columbus’ enemies and accusers will give you some satisfaction; I am sure that it did Columbus. However, one of the ships that did manage to dock safely in Santo Domingo disgorged Juan de la Cosa. He had narrowly survived the storm, but whilst Columbus was in the area, he lay low. Columbus’ guardian angels were still watching over him, because by what can only be described as a miracle, the only ship that made it back to España was the Aguya, carrying all Columbus’ gold. Even then, many of his enemies at court accused him of summoning supernatural powers to bring the storm that punished his accusers. (Hurricane is a Taíno word.)  

Map of 4th voyage Credit to Keith Pickering.

When the hurricane had passed, Columbus regrouped his little fleet and sailed northwest stopping briefly at Jamaica and Cuba to top up his provisions and drinking water. The ships then turned west and on July 30, 1502, they landed Guanja, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. It was on August 14 that they finally landed on the mainland at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo, Honduras. For the next two months he searched the coast for the passage that would let him into what he thought would be the China Sea. They arrived in Almirante Bay, Panama, on 16 October having found no such passage, and Columbus was finally beginning to realise that this was an entirely new unknown continent. (He was, in fact, just 60km away from the Pacific Ocean.) On his voyage down the coasts of modern-day Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, Columbus had seen no signs of other Europeans, but had been introduced to cacao (the cocoa bean) and had seen a large canoe which he described “was as long as a galley”.

Once again he was promised “gold without limit” by the Ngobe natives, and in mid-November, he prepared to sail on another wild-goose chase to a province called Ciguare, which they told him “lie just nine days’ journey by land to the west”, or some 200 miles from his location in Veragua. He had set off on this journey, when on December 5 he encountered a storm more severe than any that he had ever encountered. He writes:

“For nine days I was as one lost, without hope of life. Eyes never beheld the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foam. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter; hence we were forced to keep out in this bloody ocean, seething like a pot on a hot fire. Never did the sky look more terrible; for one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that we all thought that the ship would be blasted. All this time the water never ceased to fall from the sky; I do not say it rained, for it was like another deluge. The men were so worn out that they longed for death to end their dreadful suffering.”

He abandoned the search for gold after the storm, and after a few weeks of exploration he established a garrison in in January 1503 at the mouth of the Belén River, close to Panama. Things went from bad to worse when the local tribe leader, El Quibían, refused to allow them to explore up the river Belén. The chief was captured, but escaped and returned with an army and attacked the ships causing o much damage that one had to be abandoned.  The remainder of the fleet of set course for Hispaniola on April 16, but ran into another storm which damaged all of the ships, and his exhausted and rebellious captains and crews were forced to beach them in in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on 25 June.

 Diego Méndez de Segura, who had been assigned as personal secretary to Columbus, and a Spanish shipmate called Bartolomé Flisco, along with six natives, took a native canoe and paddled to Hispaniola (A distance of nearly a thousand kilometres.) to bring help.  The new governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, was jealous of Columbus’ renewed status and prevaricated with rescue efforts. Columbus and the 230 men of his crews would remain marooned on Jamaica for six months. (Other sources give a year.) Meanwhile, events on the Iberian Peninsula were gathering pace.

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Begging for mercy
Friday, February 25, 2022

Whilst Columbus had been away discovering the South American mainland, the unrest had grown in Hispaniola, and the lobbying against the Columbus brothers in the court of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand caused them to reconsider his status and the promises that they had made him when he was asking for funding. In October 1499, Columbus had sent a letter to the queen asking her to send him somebody to help him govern. Clearly, from the reports coming from the colony, something was going wrong. Isabel asked one of her closest advisors and friends, Francisco de Bobadilla, if he would go to Hispaniola to discover what was happening in her new colony. He arrived in Santo Domingo in August 1500 whilst two of the Columbus brothers were away.

Bobadilla was a member of the Order of Calatrava, a position high in the hierarchy of the nobility of España. Columbus and his brothers were not even Spanish, and were rank outsiders as far as nobility was concerned. Columbus may have been an excellent explorer, but the game had changed, and the big players were moving in. Bobadilla immediately began to investigate the accusations of brutality and corruption. Seven Spaniards had already been hung, with another five awaiting execution. Bobadilla’s instructions from the queen were to ascertain:

 “Which persons were the ones who rose up against the admiral and our justice and for what cause and reason, and what damage they have done.  Detain those whom you find guilty and confiscate their goods.”

He used force to stop the executions and confiscated Columbus’ possessions, including all the papers that he would need to prove his innocence.  He suspended the much-abused tribute system and in October 1500 summoned the Admiral to face the charges made against him. Columbus was ordered to relinquish all control of the colonies, but was allowed to keep his personal wealth. Columbus’ son, Ferdinand, recorded that Bobadilla:

“Took testimony from their open enemies, the rebels, and even showing open favor,” and auctioned off some of his father's possessions “for one third of their value.”

The charges against Columbus were many and grievous. He was accused of preventing the priests from baptising the natives, (One of Isabel’s conditions for his funding was the conversion of the natives to Christianity.)  Allegedly, he captured a tribe of 300 natives to be sold into slavery and told all the Christians who employed natives to give him half of them to sell as slaves. There were lists of accusations of brutality to Spanish settlers and overly severe punishments for minor crimes. The worst of the charges was that he had allowed 50 men to starve to death in La Isabela when he had imposed severe rationing of food whilst in actual fact there was an abundance of supplies. Columbus was put in chains at his own request, and he and his brothers were sent back to España to stand trial in the royal court.

In the eight years since Columbus’ first voyage, Isabel had changed the way España was run. After overturning the 700 year rule of the Moors and forcing them out of the country, she had given the Jews an ultimatum; convert to Christianity or leave. The alternative was torture and death. She established a rudimentary police force throughout her kingdoms which was more paramilitary than law enforcement. This was to curb the lawlessness that had replaced the structured society of the Moors as they were driven out of España. During the reconquest, the makings of a dedicated military service governed by the Church had begun to form. The Templars, Knights Hospitaller and the Order of Calatrava were distinct and powerful entities with their own hierarchy of command. Isabel and Ferdinand ruled their kingdoms, but the Catholic Church ruled them, and every other Christian country in Europe. Isabel’s confessor was Archbishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, and it was he who was given the job of replacing Columbus’ haphazard rule with something more controllable, or rather, controlled more by the church. Fonseca was instrumental in forming España’s colonial policy. It was he who established the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) in1503. As well as keeping track of which ships were trading with the Indies, and what their cargoes were, the Casa de Contratación controlled immigration. Prospective settlers were vetted to make sure that they were of old Christian heritage and had no Jewish or Muslim tornadizos in their family history. Finally, the church had control of the financial and judicial control of trade with the Indies.

As Columbus was being ferried across the Atlantic in chains, another explorer was setting off in the opposite direction at the head of a fleet of 13 ships. In 1488 when Columbus had been touting his insane idea all over Europe, he had been rebuffed by King John II of Portugal. Isabel had a bankrupt and fractured country after centuries of reconquest, but King John was less controlled by the church and only had a balance of payments problem. Since he came to power in 1481, John had been looking for ways to increase trade with the orient. He was eager to break into the highly profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia, which was conducted chiefly by land. At the time, this was virtually monopolized by the Republic of Venice, who operated overland routes via Levantine and Egyptian ports, through the Red Sea across to the spice markets of India. He set a new objective for his captains: to find a sea route to Asia by sailing around the African continent.

In October, 1486, King John commissioned Bartolomeu Dias to lead an expedition in search of a trade route around the southern tip of Africa. Dias was provided with two caravels of about 50 tons each and a square-rigged supply ship captained by his brother Diogo. He recruited some of the leading pilots of the day, including Pêro de Alenquer and João de Santiago. Sometime in February 1487 they rounded the tip of Africa and noted that they were sailing north in a new ocean. The crew and officers made it clear that they had achieved their objective and should now return home. On the return trip, they once again passed the southernmost point of Africa. Dias named it the Cape of Storms (Cabo das Tormentas), but the story is that King John II later renamed it the Cape of Good Hope (Cabo da Boa Esperança) because it symbolized the opening of a sea route from west to east. This was a significant event that went pretty much unrewarded. King John was preoccupied; he had lost a son in a war in Morocco, and his health was failing. A decade went by before Portugal mounted any more expeditions.

This was not the first time that Dias had sailed down the coast of Africa. His family had a maritime background, and one of his ancestors, Dinis Dias e Fernandes, explored the African coast in the 1440s and discovered the Cape Verde islands in 1444.

Dias had been part of an expedition, led by Diogo de Azambuja, to construct a fortress and trading post called São Jorge da Mina in the Gulf of Guinea. There is also evidence that he may have joined Diogo Cão's first expedition down the African coast to the Congo River in 1482. Diogo Cão had made two voyages to try to reach the southern end of the continent of Africa, but had failed both times. Knowing all this, King John had turned away Columbus with his ridiculous idea that he could sail west to China. He didn’t need this idiot. He already had the trade route to China that he wanted.

By the time that Columbus had returned from his third voyage in 1499, Portugal had a new king. Manuel I was the grandson of King Edward, the father of king of John II. He and his advisors were determined to follow the same ambitious plans of exploration the John had started.  It was obvious now that Columbus had stumbled on a new continent that had hitherto been unknown. When the pope moved the line of the old Treaty of Tordesillas to its new position in 1494, King John was happy knowing that he had the whole of Africa to trade with and the possibility of a trade route with the orient via the Cape of Good Hope. But the new discoveries to the west of the line were becoming very alarming. It seemed that España was entitled to claim a huge undiscovered continent whilst Portugal was shut out.

 King John had never been one for waiting for events to overrun him. As early as 1487, he had dispatched two spies, Pero da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva, overland via Egypt and East Africa and India, to scout the details of the spice markets and trade routes. If he could get to India by sea, he knew where to establish his trading centres.

Vasco da Gama leaving Portugal.   Biblioteca National de Portugal.

Whilst Columbus was in the Caribbean on his second voyage, King John equipped a fleet under the command of Vasco da Gama. They sailed in 1497 and rounded the Cape of Good Hope without problems to finally land at Calicut in India in May 1498. Portugal now had unopposed access to the source of the spices that had made the Republic of Venice the richest city-state in the Mediterranean. When the seasonal winds and currents in the southern hemisphere were charted and understood, convoys of trading ships were to make regular annual trips to India and back. In 1524 da Gama was appointed Governor of India, with the title of Viceroy, and was ultimately ennobled as Count of Vidigueira in 1519.

Vasco da Gama

With this success under his belt, Manuel I turned his attention to the west again. Vasco da Gama had reported seeing signs of land to the west when his fleet sailed down the mid-Atlantic.  He commissioned Pedro Álvares Cabral, a 32 year-old nobleman who was a military commander and navigator to lead an expedition and Bartolomeu Dias was asked advise on the type of ship that he would need for the new long-distance trade routes that were opening up.  In 1500, the fleet of 13 ships sailed into the Atlantic, and whether on purpose or driven by storm, they landed on what turned out to be the coast of modern-day Brazil. Cabral was not that good a celestial navigator, and with the instruments of the day it was hard to tell where the Tordesillas line fell, which meant that nobody else could conclusively prove him wrong. As it turned out, he was well within the region that the pope had allowed Portugal to claim. Cabral did not hesitate; he promptly claimed this new continent for Portugal and sent one of his ships back to take the king the news. He re-provisioned his ships and continued with the rest of the fleet to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail to India.

Cabral and his ships became the first mariners to touch four continents in one voyage. They sailed from Europe to South America, then to Africa and India. His voyage was not without peril. Several ships were lost in a storm in the Sothern Atlantic, and when he reached Calicut in India, Arab traders had mounted an attack on Portuguese assets on the coast. Cabral attacked the Arab fleet and burned and looted their port in retaliation.  The Portuguese trading empire would eventually stretch from the Americas to the Far East, and its navigators and captains would be envied and feared throughout the world.    

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From acclaim to accusation
Friday, February 11, 2022

After news of the first two voyages of Christopher Columbus had become widespread, every maritime nation throughout Europe scrambled for a slice of the action. They would chiefly be funded, sometimes with an unlimited budget, by King John II, and his successor Manuel I of Portugal, Henry VII of England and Isabel and Ferdinand of España. The widespread publication of his letters describing the islands that he had discovered galvanised maritime adventurers across Europe, and exploration was to become the game of the century.

When Columbus set sail on his second voyage in 1493, Juan de la Cosa accompanied him, but again, he is barely mentioned. (The log for the second voyage has never been found.) However, he appears in official records when he claims compensation for the loss of his ship, the Santa Maria. In a letter to de la Cosa, the king and queen give him praise and recompense for his ship.

“Salutations and thanks to you Juan de la Cosa … you have given us good service and we hope that you will help us from now on. In our service at our mandate you sailed as captain of a nao of yours … during which the lands and islands of the Indies were discovered, you lost your nao … In payment and satisfaction we hereby give you license and faculty to take from the city of Jerez de la Frontera, or from any other city or town or province of Andalusia, two hundred cahises of wheat to be loaded and carried from Andalusia to our province of Guipúzcoa, and to our county and the lordship of Vizcaya, and not elsewhere.”

This indicates that Juan de la Cosa was a trader as well as an explorer and cartographer. It also hints that he owned at least one other ship.  In any case, the letter arrived too late; he had already set off with Columbus on his second voyage when it arrived, but even though he had been side-lined in the Columbus logs, he was fast becoming a significant player in the exploration of the New World.

When the third voyage sailed, it would be documented by Bartolomé de Las Casas, and its objective was to prove or disprove a claim made by King John II of Portugal, who had proposed that there was a much larger mainland to the south-west of the islands that Columbus had discovered. The king’s theory was based on reports that “canoes had been found which set out from the coast of West Africa (Cape Verde Islands) and sailed to the west with merchandise.” The travellers’ tales that had been dismissed as fables by previous mariners were now being examined more closely. Columbus left with six ships from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 30 May 1498, but his search for a mainland had already been anticipated by another native of Genoa.

A replica of the Matthew in Bristol, England. Photo: Chris McKenna.

In May 1497 John Cabot had set off from Bristol with a crew of 18 in a boat named Matthew which was little larger than a fishing smack. Cabot had been born in Genoa, but had settled in England and had made several voyages out into the Atlantic searching for islands to use as staging posts to extend his exploration further west. When the news came of Columbus’ first voyage and discovery, he provisioned his ship and sailed due west from England. On June 24 he landed at what he thought was an island off north-east Asia, but was almost certainly Cape Bretton Island, at the entrance to the St. Lawrence Seaway, gateway to the great lakes of North America. On his return to England in August 1497 King Henry VII awarded him a pension of £20 and a prize of £10.

Whilst Cabot was away, a Portuguese navigator had sailed from Iceland to Greenland, which he supposed to be the extreme north-east of Asia.  Cabot learned of this, and now infused with confidence after his success, decided to try this more northerly route. With the backing of the king, he set sail with two ships whose combined crews amounted to 300 sailors. They sailed in May 1498 (more or less the same time that Columbus sailed.)reaching Greenland in June and continued north until icebergs and a mutinous crew made Cabot turn south. He sailed offshore of Baffin Island, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England on his way south. Cabot found no signs of an Asian civilisation, and watching his dwindling supplies, decided to return to England. He reported his finds to the king when he arrived in the autumn, but Cabot died shortly after his return. King Henry, however, realised the significance of the discovery, and later claimed the whole of North America as an English possession.

All of these mariners were sailing into the unknown. The birthplace of sailing, the Mediterranean Sea, can generate fierce storms, but they pale into insignificance in comparison to the North-Atlantic. Columbus had discovered dozens of islands in the Atlantic, but that was all they were; islands. Cabot had discovered a mainland, but he had no idea how big it was. For his third voyage, Columbus now had a mission to find out if there was a bigger landmass further south-west.

Three of Columbus’ six ships were taking much-needed supplies to La Isabela on Hispaniola, and they sailed directly there. The remainder of Columbus’ fleet sailed to Porto Santo first and then to Madeira, where he spent time comparing notes with the Portuguese captain João Gonçalves da Camara. Finally, they sailed to the Cape Verde islands via the Canaries and took on supplies before setting out across the Atlantic.

Despite seeking all the advice that he could gather on the southern Atlantic, his fleet ran straight into one of its perils. On the 13 July his ships became becalmed in the doldrums. They were not far from the equator, and the sun beat down on the hapless ships, making working on deck during the day impossible. More dangerous, the above water timbers dried out and shrank, loosening joints and leaving gaps in the planking. Barrels of provisions suffered the same fate, and the contents of ones that were open began to putrefy. The dehydration of the crew meant that the consumption of precious fresh water accelerated to critical levels. Mercifully, an easterly wind finally arrived to push them out of the inferno.

On July 31 they sighted the island of Trinidad and sailed to its most south-western point, where they met with natives in canoes who had come from the west. The fleet sailed west and on 1 August arrived at the delta of the Orinoco River. Columbus realised that the delta was sure proof of a huge river system further west; he had found the southern continent. They entered a tidal race now called the serpent’s mouth into the Gulf of Paria, a bay enclosed by Trinidad to the east and South America to the west, and on the following day they landed on the west coast of Trinidad where they met stiff resistance from the natives and were forced to return to their ships to escape the attack. This was not the end of his trials, because early in the morning of August 4, the fleet narrowly missed another disaster when a tsunami swept into the bay and almost capsized the flagship.

For seven years Columbus had been the acclaimed discoverer of the Indies. He had been at the centre of a social, political and maritime revolution. He had suffered betrayals and hostility from his crews and challenges to his authority. In all of his voyages of discovery he had led from the front, through storms at sea and political intrigues at home, he had carried the flag of España, and it was this flag that was planted at the northern end of the bay on the Paria Peninsula to claim South America for España.

But Columbus did not go ashore. During the previous month he had been suffering from insomnia. It may have been caused by the constant stress of command and the ever present danger. His eyes had become bloodshot and he had difficulty seeing. The other captains planted the flag, erected a cross and read the speeches. Sometime later he went ashore in his official capacity to claim the find, but his health was now uncertain. At least the natives here were friendlier and gave him food, and he topped up his barrels with fresh water.

They returned to Hispaniola to find that there was a full scale rebellion going on amongst the Spanish settlers who had been promised rich farmlands and gold. Some of them had taken passages on returning supply ships and were now lobbying the king and queen, claiming that they had been misled and that Columbus was guilty of gross mismanagement. He hung some of his crew for disobedience and faced criticism from the church, which was disappointed that none of the natives had been converted to Christianity. In fact, Columbus was making quite a lot of money shipping them back to Spain and selling them as slaves. Finally cornered, Columbus had to agree to humiliating terms and he was removed as governor. He was arrested and put in manacles for transportation back to España where he would face the charges against him. When they ordered his crew to fasten the iron bands around his wrists they refused. None of the other captains or their crews would shackle him, and it was left to his ship’s cook who very reluctantly put him in chains. Even then, it was only because of Columbus’ insistence that the cook did what nobody else was prepared to do.

The exploitation of the natives continued unabated, and so did the exploration of the oceans. The next three years saw an explosion of voyages as the seagoing countries of Europe mounted expedition after expedition and the map makers struggled to keep track of the discoveries. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel of España had the lion’s share of the discoveries, but England and Portugal were about to claim some of the new lands and the huge profits that they would bring.

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From paradise to hell
Friday, January 28, 2022

Columbus was hailed as a hero when he arrived in Spain after his voyage. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel were holding court in Barcelona, and he immediately sent them a now famous letter in which he described his discoveries. He began by insisting that he had reached Asia, and gave the location of Hispaniola as being “off the coast of China.” He continued with “Its mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful ... the harbours are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold”. He rounded off his description with, “Hispaniola is a miracle. ... There are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals”. This letter was reproduced in many languages and distributed to an eager audience across Europe, who focused on the repeated references to the abundance of gold.

He left Seville and followed his letter, taking his retinue across Spain by land to Barcelona. This was a repeat performance of the one he had given to the King of Portugal, and he presented the same captured Taíno natives from Cuba that he had shown King Alfonso.

Columbus before the Queen. Painting by Emanuel Leutze.

Meanwhile, the other half of the expedition had stepped out of the shadows created by the much-changed and edited version of the biography of Columbus that we are left with. Juan de la Cosa returned to Puerto Santa Maria near Cádiz and updated the Mappa Mundi, the world chart. The extreme western end of old chart ended at the Azores, but de la Cosa added a new section, and began drawing in the newly discovered islands. This new chart was freely available to every mariner who cared to visit his office, and there were plenty of visitors.

Mappa Mundi. Wikipidia. Red outline of old world drawn by author.

The old Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up in 1492 by Pope Alexander VI to prevent unnecessary strife between España and Portugal. He had placed an arbitrary line down the centre of the Atlantic with everything west of that line belonging to Spain, and before Columbus’ discovery, the Portuguese were very pleased with the arrangement; there was nothing west of that line but open ocean. But when Columbus returned and dropped anchor in Lisbon, the King of Portugal interrogated him before he could report to Isabel and Ferdinand. He realised that the treaty robbed him of all the new discoveries, and began lobbying the pope to change the rules. As a second line of defence, he accused Columbus of faking his voyage and said that he had, in fact, sailed south to Africa to claim discoveries there. This was a clear violation of the treaty. Juan de la Cosa’s map was proof that this was a lie.

The pope, realising that Columbus’ discovery was to change the balance of power throughout Europe in España’s favour, issued four bulls which dictated how the new lands were to be divided and colonised. (Three of these bulls are now collectively known as the Bulls of Donation.) The old Inter caetera, treaty issued 4 May 1493was annulled, and the new edict moved the line 370 leagues (930 sea miles) west of the Cape Verde islands. This became known as The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, and was ratified during the next decade by Pope Julius II.

New line of division

Isabel and Ferdinand wasted no time in capitalising on their investment. They immediately organised a second expedition, once more to be led by The Admiral of the Ocean. This time they sent two naos (like the Santa Maria) and 15 caravels, one of which was the Niña from the first voyage. Their instructions to Columbus were explicit: he was to encourage friendly relations with the natives with a view to converting them to the Catholic faith. The fleet left the harbour at Cádiz on 25 September 1493 and arrived 36 days later on November 3rd at a group of small islands now known as the Lesser Antilles. They spent the next ten days island-hopping to the north where he saw and named the Virgin Islands, but it was on Santa Cruz that things became serious. During his previous expedition Columbus had been warned by the natives about the Caribs, who were said to be cannibals. He had dismissed this as a tale, but near to Santa Cruz they encountered a canoe containing several Carib men and some captives. The Caribs immediately began firing arrows at them and Columbus returned fire, killing all but two, one of whom he ordered beheaded and the other thrown overboard. Two of the captives had been castrated by the Caribs and the others were women who were kept as sex slaves. They determined that all were to be later eaten. Their next port of call was at present day Puerto Rico, where they rescued a group of 20 women and children who being used as sex slaves, their menfolk having already been killed and eaten.

The second voyage of Columbus. Map: Keith Pickering.

Columbus was now worried about the fate of the men he had left behind at La Navidad, and as they drew near the fort he fired lombards and lit flares hoping for a response.  On the morning of 28th November they found the burned out ruins of the fort and the bodies of the men who had elected to stay there. The local chief, Caonabo, had killed them all after two or three of the Spaniards had formed a gang and had gone searching for gold, taking and raping two or three women each and killing several natives.

The small fleet moved on and fought adverse winds for the next 25 days before finally landing on the north coast of Hispaniola and establishing the settlement of La Isabela. From here they explored the region looking for gold and established a small outpost in the interior.

He sailed around to the south side of Cuba, still convinced that this was a part of China, and discovered Jamaica before returning to La Isabela. Columbus’ dream of peacefully converting the natives to Christianity was evaporating before his eyes. After centuries of war defeating the Moors, the lust for gold, looting and power was inbred in the Spaniards who made up the second voyage. The killings at La Navidad and the discovery of cannibalism provided a perfect excuse for the horrors that were to come. Within the crews of Columbus’ new fleet were some battle hardened troops from the Islamic campaign and the following war with Portugal and España. One of these was Alonso de Ojeda who was described by those who knew him as "Always the first to draw blood wherever there was a war or quarrel." He was a trusted agent for Isabel and would go on after Columbus to become an explorer himself and lead several expeditions of conquest.

It’s probable that he knew of Ojeda’s reputation when Columbus sent him to the village of Ciabo where the natives were being used to mine gold. Ojeda immediately arrested several natives and accused them of theft. After cutting off the ears of one of them he set the rest to Columbus in chains. Columbus ordered them all to be beheaded. The die was cast for the enslavement of the natives of the Caribbean.  During his reign, Columbus was responsible for the disfigurement dismemberment and execution of Spanish and Taíno alike for minor crimes.

Sometime early in 1494 Columbus appointed one of his military officers, named Margarit, as his second in command with instructions to implement Isabel’s wish to convert the Taíno to the Catholic faith. Margarit was authorised by Columbus to cut off ears and noses if the natives were caught stealing, but his lieutenant exceeded his orders and began beating and raping the natives. During the next two years, none of the Taíno were baptised to the Christian faith and Columbus’ brother, Diego, berated Margarit for his failings. Insulted by the accusations, Margarit sailed back to España with three caravels and Fray Buil, who was supposed to perform the baptisms that Isabel had wanted. In late 1494 they arrived in España and immediately sought audience with the king and queen. They complained to the court that the Columbus brothers were incompetent and corrupt. Meanwhile, Margarit's soldiers who had remained in the islands continued a brutal oppression of the natives, and seemingly, Columbus and his brother were complicit in some of these atrocities. But there was another evil in the blood of the Spanish that nobody suspected, and a corresponding evil in the blood of the Taíno and Caribs which was equally foul. 

When the Old World met the New World in 1492, it was not the first time that two biospheres had collided. When the Ice Age was in retreat some 18,000 years earlier, human hunter-gatherers had migrated across the land-bridge of Berengia between Asia and America and expanded south to reach South America some 3,000 years later. The consequences of the influx of people who had immunity to a number of Old World diseases into the, until-then, isolated American fauna was catastrophic. Mastodons and horses in the northern continent and giant sloths on the southern continent all disappeared at the same time that the humans arrived. One theory is that the animals were hunted to extinction, but the other theory is that they were killed by diseases carried by the humans.

Before the end of 1494 two-thirds of the Spanish settlers had died of diseases that their immune systems had never encountered before. Things were equally as bad for the natives. They were exposed to Swine Flu, which hundreds of generations of Europeans had become immune to, but which debilitated the natives so much that they were too ill to work the fields or hunt.  Many died of starvation in their beds because their relatives were too weak to care for them. By 1526 the Taíno population of Hispaniola had fallen from an estimated 1492 figure of 500,000 down to 500; but that was not the half of it.

The first recorded case of syphilis in Europe was in 1493, but by 1526 when King Charles VIII of España invaded Naples, his army had been riddled by the Great Pox which was to claim 5 million dead throughout Europe. Though it’s hard to say definitely, Columbus’ voyages are thought to have brought syphilis to Europe.

Things were going from bad to worse for the Taíno. According to a written explanation by Columbus’ son Ferdinand, Columbus had installed a tribute system whereby each native older than 14 years was to deliver “a large hawks’ bell” of gold dust or 25 lbs of cotton. For this they received a brass disc to wear around their necks. Natives who did not have a disc were to receive a light punishment. The light punishment was at the request of Queen Isabel, who had suggested the idea. However, the Spaniards took it upon themselves to cut off the hands of those who had no disc. This was a death sentence for the Indians and many fled or committed suicide.

Many natives rebelled against their Spanish overlords and were captured, and in Febrary 1495 Columbus shipped around 500 natives to España to be sold as slaves, 40% of whom died en-route.  Within that same year, Florentine merchant Gianotto Berardi, with the blessing of the crown, assembled a fleet of ships and sailed to Hispaniola where in October he loaded them with alleged prisoners and cannibals and returned to sell them into slavery in Europe. For his enterprise he received nearly 40,000 maravedí.

Within three short and eventful years the paradise that Columbus had discovered had been turned into a hell on earth. But as we know, much worse was to come.

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A Zen Garden for Christmas
Friday, December 24, 2021


In my pueblo there is always building work going on somewhere. People are always changing and improving their houses, so I was not surprised to see a pile of sand at the bottom of my neighbour’s garden with a shovel stuck in it. A dead giveaway that building work was going on. What did surprise me was the person standing next to the shovel. Many things go together well: cheese and wine, bacon and eggs, fish and chips. Others clash: red and green, oil and water, Loveless and a shovel.

The pueblo had many, shall we say, exotic characters. Very few were Spanish; they had all been normalised very early in their lives by the very conservative natives. The Brits, however, had no obvious constraints to their behaviour. In this respect, Loveless and Geordie were a couple who stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Nobody knew what their relationship was, but like Batman and Robin, even though they were accepted by most, you knew something was not just quite right.  

I mentioned that Loveless was standing in close proximity to the shovel, but his body language was screaming that it was nothing to do with him. When he saw me he stepped away from the heap of sand as though it was a pile of warm elephant droppings. Just then, Geordie’s voice screeched from the other side of the garden wall.

“Hurry up and fetch some more cement.” Lovelace’s face dropped. I put on a big smile.

“Hi Loveless, how are things going?” I enquired.

The expression on Lovelace’s face took on a new depth of despair. Imagine one of Napoleon's captains retreating from the gates of Moscow in midwinter. The frozen bodies of his fallen troops piled at the side of the road with Russian snipers and artillery adding to their terrible misery. If you had cheerfully asked the captain, how things were going, the expression that you would have seen would not have been too far from the one Loveless was wearing.

“OK,” he said, with a voice like dropped lead.

Just then, Geordie came through the garden gate with a face like thunder.

“I said mix some more,” he snarled.

“Hi Geordie,” I said.

“What do you want?” he hissed.

“Just passing,” I explained. “What are you up to?”

Geordie drew himself up to his full height so that he could look down his nose at me and haughtily explained.

“I have been commissioned to create a Zen Garden by Pauline.”

I have to confess I was taken aback by this revelation. In Andalusia there is a distinct rarity of Zen Gardens. Meditation and spiritual development are not high on the agenda of the average Andaluz farmer. Knowing Pauline well, I began to have a shadow of doubt about validity of this Zen Garden. It’s usually not a good idea to probe too much into Geordie’s world. It can quickly become very confusing. However I could not resist this particular probe.

“What exactly is a Zen Garden,” I asked.

“It is a secluded space where the inter-dimensional forces of the universe are channelled and controlled. The benign power that flows through everything is focused by the structure of a Zen Garden, bringing good luck and health to the people who inhabit the house. You must arrange certain stones with their relative power-vortices so that the flow of positive energy is pure. You have to say the correct prayers and incantations with each phase of the construction. I have studied the subject exhaustively and have been trained by masters of the art.” he explained.

“Wow! Very impressive,” I answered. “Where did you train to be a Zen Master? I always thought that you were from South Shields.”

“He downloaded it from the internet,” blurted Loveless. “That’s where he gets all his stuff from. He pays 10€ a month for them to send him this crap.”

“Mix some more cement!” Geordie barked, giving Loveless a scathing glare.

“May I take a look?” I probed a little deeper.

“Of course,” Geordie was warming to his new role as teacher of oriental wisdom and bringer of enlightenment. “This first wall is a step down to the rest of the garden. It will be on two levels symbolizing the Yin and Yang of the universe, where each positive force is balanced by a negative force, thus bringing equilibrium to all things.”

We stood at the side of a narrow trench which he had excavated with a gardeners trowel. Geordie had been patting in cement with his hands as a foundation.

“Why not use wooden shutters and just pour concrete in? That’s what everybody else does,” I ventured. Geordie looked at me as though I had just farted.

“Because you would violate the energy field generated by my hands and prayers,” he coldly informed me.

“I see,” I lied.

I decided that I had probed enough for one day and suggested that I would call in from time to time and see how the work progressed. I made my excuses, left the garden of eternal bliss, and stepped into the real world. As I passed I called hasta luago to Loveless, but he did not look up from his mixing. On the way to the shops I was wondering if Zen Gardens had gargoyles, because Loveless’ face would have been a perfect model for one.

Three days later I walked past the bottom of Pauline’s garden and looked over the wall. Pauline and Geordie were bending over the wall dividing Yin from Yang and talking seriously. I foolishly called out.

“How’s the Zen Garden coming along?”

Both heads snapped up and looked at me with very strange, strained expressions. Realizing that I may have put my foot in it I smiled and made an excuse.

“Must go and catch the shops before they close. Byee.”

I returned by the same route a half hour later and cheekily peeped over the wall to see what had happened. As I did so, I saw Pauline alone. She had seen my head pop up and she waved me into the garden.

“What’s all this about a Zen garden?” she demanded.

“Well, Geordie said you had commissioned him to build a Zen garden,” I explained.

“Zen bloody garden my arse! I told him to build a wall so I could have two levels of reasonably flat garden. Just look at this,” she snarled.

I followed her into the garden of tranquillity fearing that the some of the inter-dimensional forces might not be quite in balance. I was not wrong.

“Look what he has done. So far I have paid that idiot 300€ for this.”

The wall was a roughly vertical pile of bricks, which began at the steps and meandered across the garden like a drunk’s footsteps. It followed the contours of the ground beneath it exactly, showing no need for any form of horizontal linearity or vertical order. Before it got to the far wall, it fell over and lay comatose on its side having given up all hope of being a wall, and was content to sleep it off till another day. I felt sorry for Pauline having to pay for this disaster.

“I will come along in the morning and straighten it out Pauline,” I said. “It won’t take long.”

The next morning I brought a few tools and began scraping cement off the bricks. In actual fact there had been no need to rush because there was not enough cement in the sand for it to be called mortar; it would never have set anyway. That was when Geordie arrived with Loveless.

I slipped out of the garden to mix some real cement whilst a conversation developed within the Zen Garden between Pauline and Geordie. Moments later I returned with a full bucket, and as I laid anew the cleaned bricks from Geordie’s attempt at bricklaying, I listened to the conversation.

“You must understand that this work is labour intensive and the hours I spend are for your ultimate benefit,” Geordie said. “I can’t rush in case I make a mistake and waste your time and money.”

“I would hate to see one of your mistakes if this is an example of you getting it right. The whole bloody wall is a mistake. Hiring you was a mistake,” Pauline’s voice was becoming more strident. “Look at it. It’s just a pile of rubbish that I have paid 300€ for!” Geordie had walled himself into a corner, and for a moment, his eyes showed his panic, but then his true nature asserted itself.  

“The wall was not like this when I left it yesterday … there must have been an earthquake in the night!”

For a few seconds there was a silence you could cut with a trowel. I spread my feet in anticipation of the aftershock, and watched its rapid approach on Pauline’s face.

“You idiot! Do you think I am going to believe that!” she pointed at me. “Do as he says and don’t open your mouth again.”

I unravelled my line-band and pinned it to one end of the wall with a heavy stone. I did the same to the other end, but only after moment of thought. I already had the hand patted prayer laden foundations, but they were aligned to universal forces, whereas my line-band only showed the shortest distance between two points. Finding a mean was difficult because there was no obvious general direction. In the end I chose the line of least work. The wall would not be at right angles to the rest of the garden, but it would be straight. Whilst I was doing this Pauline had seen my use of the line-band and asked Geordie why he had not used one.

“Oh I have one.” Geordie glibly answered, unaware that he had just put his foot on a mine.

“Well why the bloody hell didn’t you use it!” Pauline shouted at the top of her voice. Geordie recognised defeat and was silent. At this point, I revealed my other secret weapon; a spirit level. Pauline fell on Geordie like a ton of bricks.

“Why didn’t you use a level?” she snapped. “In three day’s work I have never seen you use a level.”

“Yes I did,” blurted Geordie. “I used my bottle of water!”

“How can you use a bottle of water as a level?” Pauline barked. My ears came up too. This was a new one on me.

“The bottle of water has a bubble in it. Lay it on the wall on its side and you have a level.” Pauline gasped at this revelation. I did too.

“Then why is your wall not level? Pauline asked quietly.”

“Well it was a warm day, so we drank all the water in the bottle,” Loveless explained before Geordie could invent an answer.

Pauline was speechless with anger. She turned and stormed into the house.

“Maybe you should have taken more notice of the spirit level than the spirit guide Geordie.” I added. “Why don’t you help Loveless mix some cement.”

I had to turn away. Laughing out loud would not have helped the situation. Geordie strutted down the path, and left the garden of tranquillity.

I had the feeling that in future years Pauline would be far from tranquil in her garden when she thought of how much she had paid for this little wall. After a couple of hours, I had restored some semblance of linearity to the wall and was filling in the hollows where its original course had followed a power vortex instead of a piece of string. Pauline had by now calmed down. She came and looked at the new wall.

“I can cement render it tomorrow if you wish.” I told Pauline.

“No thank you. I am going to get a Spanish builder to finish everything off. But thanks for helping me.” Geordie’s face dropped.  

“I can finish the work now,” he offered.

Pauline walked up to Geordie and stood inches from his face.

“In two hours he has done correctly what took you three days to do wrong. Get out of my garden and don’t ever set foot in it again,” she hissed.

I gathered up my tools whilst Geordie told Loveless to pick up his. We left the Zen Garden and went our separate ways. Call me evil, but I could not resist calling over my shoulder to the master of unseen forces and his acolyte.

“See you later Geordie, and watch out for earthquakes on the way home pet.”

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The Journey home
Friday, December 17, 2021

By the 31st of December Columbus had decided that he should load provisions and water aboard the Niña. He was still receiving promises of more gold from the Cacique, and he would have liked to explore more down the coast to find the source of the metal, but he wrote that he was wary of another accident that could make the Niña incapable of the return journey. He had met cordially with several native Caciques and had received gold as gifts, and he urged the men who were to remain behind at fort Navidad to obtain as much gold as they could for their return from Spain. It was during one of these meetings that a native from further along the coast to the east reported having seen the Pinta. This news added another dimension to Columbus' worries.  There were now two expeditions; the one that he led, and the one led by Pinzón.

In order to give the natives a show of force, he took the king and some of his advisors out in the Niña and fired one of the lombards at the hull of the Santa Maria. They were suitably impressed when the ball went straight through the ship and a good way beyond. He writes that he hoped that the natives would see that his men were friends and would defend them in case of attack from a nearby tribe called the Caribs, who the natives feared.

He began to organise the provisions for those who were to remain.  Most were volunteers. Along this coast Columbus’ small flotilla had seen nothing but good nature and friendship from the natives. He left Diego de Arana, a native of Cordoba and Pedro Gutierrez, "repostero de estrado" of the King and Rodrigo de Escovedo, a native of Segovia. He gave them all the powers which he had received from the sovereigns in Castile. The officials supplied by Isabel, the escribano and alguacil also elected to stay. He left them seeds for sowing and a ship's carpenter and calker, a good gunner “who knows a great deal about engines” and a cooper and a physician and a tailor, and all, he says, are seamen.  He left them biscuit sufficient for a year and wine and much artillery and the ship's boat in order that they, as they were most of them sailors, could go to discover the mine of gold when they should see that the time was favourable.

Columbus left 39 men behind at La Villa de Navidad on the 22nd January 1493.  He had no alternative to leaving good crewman behind whilst he was obliged to sail with people that he did not trust.

He first had to navigate seas to the east of Española (Haiti) which were full of reefs and sandbanks, and Columbus carefully picked his way through them. He sent a sailor to climb the rigging around the main mast and watch the sea ahead for dangers. It was in the afternoon of the 6th that the lookout called that he had seen the Pinta ahead. With nowhere safe to anchor, the two ships returned to the coast at a place they had called Monte Christi.

When they finally met Martin Alonso Pinzon, the captain of the Pinta, he was full of apologies saying that he was forced by circumstances beyond his control to leave the other ships behind. The natives on his ship had led him on a wild-goose-chase from island to island looking for gold. Columbus wrote that he believed none of it, and another account says:

“(they) had not obeyed and did not obey his commands, but rather had done and said many unmerited things in opposition to him, and as Martin Alonso had left him from November 21st to January 6th without cause or reason but from disobedience: and all this the Admiral had suffered in silence, in order to finish his voyage successfully” The account continues, “he decided to return with the greatest possible haste and not stop longer.”

On the 9th, whilst they were anchored in the mouth of a river at Monte Christi, Columbus ordered the ships to sail upriver to fill the water butts on both ships with fresh water for the voyage home. While they were filling the water butts, his sailors were amazed to see that the sand of the river was full of grains of gold. When they brought the barrels aboard they found that the gaps between the staves and the hoops were full of gold dust. He had found the source of the gold just 20 leagues from La Villa de Navidad, but the crews both ships now knew where it was, and the stakes in this great gamble had just got higher. Columbus writes:

 “That he would not take the said sand which contained so much gold, since their Highnesses had it all in their possession and at the door of their village of La Navidad; but that he wished to come at full speed to bring them the news, and to rid himself of the bad company which he had, and that he had always said they were a disobedient people.”

Around 12th January, they left the coast behind and struck out across the Atlantic. The two ships stayed in formation for four weeks making poor headway, but on 13th February ran into a storm. For three hours the two ships tried to hold their easterly course, but finally they had to turn and run west before the force of the gale. During the night, the ships became separated and the Niña spent the rest of the next day going west. The Niña was not handling well in the storm because the ballast of the ship was wrong, and Columbus ordered the crew to fill the empty drinking-water and provision barrels in the hold with sea water to try and stabilise the ship.

At the height of the storm Columbus called the crew to prayer and he ordered as many dried peas as there were crewmen to be brought from the provisions. He marked one with a knife and put them all in a hat. They drew lots four times and he made the crew vow that if they survived the voyage whoever picked the marked peas would make the pilgrimages to four different shrines in Spain and that the first land they would all go in procession in their shirts to pray under the invocation of Our Lady. In secret, he wrote a declaraion about all that he had discovered and wrapped it in a wax cloth with a letter asking whoever found it to return it to the King and Queen of España so that: “The Sovereigns might have information about his voyage.” He ordered that a barrel be brought to his cabin and he sealed the parcel within and threw it overboard.

On the morning of the 15th February the skies brightened from the west and they saw an island on the horizon. It took them all day to reach it, but they could find no harbour and so they dropped anchor on the lee side of the island.  In the night the anchor was torn away, and the Niña had to beat about to hold position. The following morning they dropped a second anchor and sent the small boat ashore where his sailors learned it was the island of Santa Maria, one of the islands of the Azores. That evening, Juan de Castaneda, the governor of the island, sent men to the beach with fowls and fresh bread. Castaneda apologised for not coming himself, but that in the morning he would bring more refreshments. In thanks for their deliverance from the storm, Columbus allowed half the crew to go ashore and fulfil the vows they made. They asked the islanders there to send a priest to say mass for them in a small hermitage further along the coast.

Columbus had forgotten that the King of Portugal had put a price on his head before the voyage, but now they had returned safely after discovering a New World, there was a bigger price offered for their capture and the safe delivery of the knowledge they carried in their heads; and the Azores were Portuguese territory.

Whilst the crew prayed they were surrounded by armed villagers. Columbus waited for them to return, then fearing the worst, he sailed around the coast to where he could see the hermitage. The governor of the island was there with armed soldiers and he was rowed out to the Niña in the small boat. Columbus tried to entice them aboard, but the governor was too wily to be captured. Even with half of them held on the island, the Niña still had had sufficient crew to continue her return voyage to Spain. He held up the letters from Isabel and Ferdinand and promised retribution against Portugal from España unless his men were returned. The governor yelled that he did not recognise the kingdom of España; he was duty bound to follow the orders of the King of Portugal.

Columbus realised that he was wasting his time, and since the wind was against him he ordered that running repairs be made to the ship which was taking on water. He had already lost one anchor and was not about to lose any more either to sabotage or storm. The weather was worsening and he set sail for the nearby island of San Miguel, but the seas became so rough that he was forced to return to Santa Maria.  On the 22nd they anchored in the lee of the island and a messenger asked if Columbus would allow two priests and an escribano (notary) aboard to examine his papers of authority. They were allowed aboard and given every respect as they studied the letters signed by Isabel and Ferdinand. Finally, after conferring in whispers, they told Columbus that his men would be returned. Columbus had successfully called the governor's bluff, and his men rowed out to take their place on the Niña once more.

Picture; Alan Pearson,

On Sunday 24th February the wind eased and came around to a direction which would take the Niña back to Spain.  Columbus immediately put on all sail and left the Azores behind. All went well for three days before what could have been a tornado battered the tiny ship and split her sails. By March 4th the storm still had not abated, but the dawn brought the sight of land and many of his sailors recognised the Rock of Cintra to the north of the port of Lisbon. At the mouth of the river Tagus was the small village of Cascaes, and the villagers had watched the Niña’s approach through the storm and had gone to the church and prayed for the safe return of this tiny vessel. Their prayers were answered, and Columbus docked his ship at Rastelo within the bay of Lisbon, where he learned that 25 ships had been lost in the storm, and many more had been tied-up in Lisbon waiting for the storm to pass. There was no news at all of the Pinta.

But the storm was not over for Columbus. He was still in hostile Portugal, and the flagship of the Portuguese navy was also tied up in Rastelo waiting for the storm to pass. Columbus noted that; “She was better furnished with artillery and arms than any ship he ever saw.” On March 5th her captain and financial patron, Bartholomew Diaz, sent an armed party to the Niña to demand that Columbus come to his ship and give an account of himself. Columbus wisely refused. The reply came back that he could send the master of the Niña in his stead. Columbus again refused. No member of his crew would leave his ship to be held hostage.

Realising that he was on a knife edge, where any aggression would result in a war with España, Diaz asked to see the letters of free passage given by Isabel and Ferdinand. Columbus agreed, and after reading the letters he sent his captain, Alvaro Dama, who arrived, “In great state with kettle-drums and trumpets and pipes” and put himself and his crew at the disposal of the admiral. All of Lisbon had heard of the discovery and wanted to see Columbus and the natives of the Indies, and for the next three days they were inundated with visitors and dignitaries. He was invited to visit the King of Portugal who was at the valley of Paraiso, nine leagues from Lisbon and he was entertained and recieved “many honours and favours”.

Finally, at 8 o'clock on March 13th Columbus raised the anchors and set sail to return to España. Two days later at sunrise he was off the sandbar at Saltes, Huelva, and when the tide turned at mid-day, he sailed upriver and tied up the Niña at the same dock that she had left on August 3rd  the year before.

Pinzón and the Pinta had missed the Azores and arrived at the port of Bayona in northern Spain. After a stop to repair the damaged ship, the Pinta limped into Palos just hours after the Niña. Pinzón had expected to be proclaimed a hero, but the honour had already been given to Columbus. Pinzón died a few days later.



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The Christmas day disaster.
Friday, December 10, 2021

By the 25th according to his log, Columbus had not slept for 48 hours. The coast here was full of sandbanks or rocks, and to approach the shore was dangerous. This is where there is some controversy over what is recorded in the log. The Captain of the Santa Maria was Juan de la Cosa, but throughout the exploration of the islands and accounts of meeting the natives, Juan de la Cosa is never mentioned. As captain, de la Cosa would not have to stand watches, he had capable crewman who understood the complexities of sailing his boat. There was a hierarchy of trusted and proven friends which had been built up over a number of years. It was essential that a seagoing ship should have men who could be trusted to sail the ship safely whilst others slept. So why was Columbus having to stay awake?

Both ships were in a bay that Columbus had explored the previous Sunday from the rowing boat that was stored on deck and used to go ashore. There was an open passage that extended from deep water to the beach, but bounded on both sides by sandbanks and reefs. There was no wind, and the sea state was described as in a "porringer”, (bowl) or calm. According to what was written in the log, at eleven o’clock in the evening the admiral went to his bunk to sleep, leaving a sailor at the helm. The rest of the crew also were sleeping when the sailor on watch handed the helm to the cabin boy and went to his own bunk.

Let me show you what the helm of the Santa Maria looked like.

This is not the wheel with handles and ropes that turned the rudder in bigger ships. The rudder of the Santa Maria probably weighed well over a hundred kilos and was operated by a ten foot tiller.  It was operated from two decks below the stern forecastle, where the captain had an unrestricted view of the ship and its surroundings. Between the two decks was the captain’s cabin. To steer the ship required at least two people, one on the stern forecastle who could see where they were going, and the other, two decks below to push the rudder in the required direction. To imagine that a ten-year-old boy could control the ship alone, even in a dead calm, is folly. But at night, when there are no lookouts, is criminal. Something was badly wrong. Where was the chain of command? Where were the leading officers who had spent years at sea and knew the rules and risks.

The poor cabin boy raises the alarm as the ship gently runs aground on a sandbank. In the near distance is the sound of breaking waves on a reef or shore. Columbus feels the change in the motion of the ship and immediately wakes from his sleep and runs up to the forecastle to take command. Columbus’ log then says that the master of the watch came out, and Columbus orders him to launch the rowing boat and take an anchor and cast it at a distance from the stern of the Maria. The anchor line would then be put around the capstan and the crew could wind the Maria off the sandbank.

Who “the master of the watch” was is not clear, but it has to be Juan de la Cosa.

Columbus does not mention him by name in his logs, but other later accounts say that a blazing row developed on what to do next. De la Cosa would be pretty upset that his ship had been allowed to run aground, but seemingly he insists that they must abandon ship and go to the Niña, which was “half a league to windward”. Columbus accuses him of treason and desertion in the face of danger, serious charges for which others have received the death penalty. Judging by the language in the log you would expect some sort of court martial or attempted court martial at home afterward, but no such thing is recorded, and Juan de la Cosa is never mentioned by name.  Nevertheless, the boat is launched, but the men in the boat led by the “master” rowed to the Niña.

The captain of the Niña rightly refused to allow them aboard and ordered them to return to the Maria. All this must have taken a couple of hours, meanwhile the tide was falling, and the pressure on the Maria’s hull was focused on one point, and the hull timbers were bending. If the caulking between the hull planks gave way, the sea would flood in. Columbus ordered that the mast be cut down and all excess weight be thrown overboard to lighten the ship and re-float her.  There was no terrible storm, just the inexorable retreat of the ocean, and finally, the hull planks gave way between the ribs, and the sea filled the hold of the Santa Maria. Columbus could not save his flagship; it was too far from the shore for the crew to swim, and so they were ferried to the Niña in the rowing boat. The Niña spent the rest of the night using whatever wind there was to stay away from shallow water. At dawn, the small boat set out for the shore with Diego de Arana, of Cordoba, Alguacil of the fleet, and Pedro Gutierrez, "repostero" of the Royal House, to find the Cacique who had invited Columbus to bring his ships to his harbour the previous Saturday.

When the Spanish dignitaries explained what had happened to the Cacique he wept. Within an hour he had organised the people of the village to take “many large canoes” and help Columbus unload the Maria and salvage whatever they could. In his log Columbus says that they unloaded the Maria with great assiduity and ensured that whatever was unloaded and carried to the shore was done so without pilfering. The Cacique set aside several houses in which to store any valuables and placed guards around them at night. The whole village was openly distraught at the plight of the Spanish. Columbus is moved enough to write in the notes that he intends to show Queen Isabel and King Fernando that:

“They are an affectionate people and free from avarice and agreeable in everything, and I certify to your Highnesses that in all the world I do not believe there is a better people or a better country: they love their neighbours as themselves and they have the softest and gentlest speech in the world and are always laughing. They go naked, men and women, as their mothers gave them birth. But your Highnesses may believe that they have very good customs among themselves and the King maintains a most wonderful state, and everything takes place in such an appropriate and well-ordered manner that it is a pleasure to see it all.”

Natives began to arrive in their canoes from further up the coast bringing gold, which they were more than willing to trade for hawk’s bells. The Cacique invited Columbus to eat with him, and he writes that he was very impressed with the king’s table manners and cleanliness, and that after eating they rubbed their hands with certain leaves to clean them. Columbus gave the king a shirt and gloves which impressed him so much that he wore them continuously, and after the meal Columbus gave a display of a Turkish bow and arrow that he had ordered brought form the Niña. The natives had no knowledge of the weapon, and were impressed with the iron arrowhead. Columbus was quick to note that they had never seen iron or copper before, and the steel of their swords was a source of constant amazement. 

Painting: Alan Pearson.

It was obvious to all that they could not all go back to Spain on the Niña, and Columbus ordered that the Maria be cut up to build a stockade near the native village where he can store the weapons and cannons so that they don’t fall into the hands of the natives. Half the crew of the Santa Maria dismembered their ship and floated all the timber to the beach. They left the hull where it was, but everything else was brought ashore where the other half of the crew were building the stockade which Columbus named Fort Navidad. He writes: “And it is quite true that many of the people who are here have begged me that I would give them permission to remain. Now I have ordered a tower and fortress constructed and all in a very good manner and a large cellar.”

But in in his private log, Columbus bleakly writes:

“Had it not been for the treachery of the Master and of the people, who were all or most of them from his country, in not wishing to cast the anchor at the stern to draw the ship off as the Admiral ordered them to do, that the ship would have been saved.” He continues, “And the taking of such a ship he says was due to the people of Palos, who did not fulfil what the King and Queen had promised him, that is that he should he given ships suitable for that journey, and they did not do it.”

He discharges his culpability in the loss of the Santa Maria with the words “of all there was in the ship not a leather strap was lost, nor a board nor a nail, because the ship remained as sound as when she started except that she was chopped and split some in order to take out the butts and all the merchandise.”

But the real problem was still there in the form of a crew that constantly disobeyed his orders, and a little later in his diary he fumes: “I will not suffer the deeds of evil-disposed persons, with little worth, who, without respect for him to whom they owe their positions, presume to set up their own wills with little ceremony.”

Much of the cargo that he wanted to take back to Castile had been loaded onto the Niña, and now he had to choose who was to be left behind. The only blessing that Columbus could count on was the generosity of the natives in helping him deal with the loss of his flagship. They had promised to “cover him in gold” before his departure.

But gold is the colour of greed and treachery. Facing him now was the very frightening prospect of crossing the Atlantic with a mutinous crew who knew where the New World and its gold was, could speak its language and did not need this jumped-up “Admiral of the Ocean” to take all the glory.

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