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

One last chance
Friday, March 11, 2022 @ 10:26 AM

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.

Like 4


Eileen said:
Sunday, March 13, 2022 @ 9:53 AM

I have really enjoyed this series of articles. My history book was never so entertaining or detailed. Thank you so much for letting me understand the reason Columbus Day means so much to the Spanish.

animate said:
Sunday, March 13, 2022 @ 12:34 PM

Thank you Eileen. i think that I am enjoying this as much as you.

ukarranview said:
Sunday, March 13, 2022 @ 6:38 PM

An excellent Blog which brings to life one of the most significant events in the history of the human race which changed things forever. It illustrates brilliantly that there is so much more to our history than a list of dull dates and, when you learn just what an adventurous and eventful life Columbus had, you can only wonder at how he managed to accomplish as much as he did - particularly when you consider that he had to endure more 'downs' than 'ups' !

animate said:
Wednesday, March 16, 2022 @ 10:07 AM

Thank you ukarranview. I am forced to leave out much of the small stuff because of space and time, but as you say, it was the most significant discovery during written history, and our understanding of the world changed within a period of 25 years. Columbus was betrayed by just about everybody, especially the King and Queen of Spain.

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