The Quest for Spices, Gold, Converts, and Glory
“TIERRA! Tierra!” (Land! Land!) This jubilant cry shattered the silence of the night watch on October 12, 1492. A sailor on the Pinta had sighted the faint silhouette of an island. The interminable voyage had finally been crowned with success for the ships Santa María, Pinta, and Niña.
At first light, Columbus, his two captains, and other officials waded ashore. They gave thanks to God and took possession of the island in the name of Spain’s monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
Columbus’ dream had been realized. He now looked forward to discovering gold (the gold nose-rings of the natives did not pass unnoticed) and returning to Spain in triumph. The western route to India was his, he thought, and the frustration of the past eight years could be forgotten.
The Dream Takes Shape
At the close of the 15th century, two commodities were in great demand in Europe: gold and spices. Gold was needed to buy luxury goods from the Orient, and spices from the East made monotonous meals palatable during the long winter months. European traders wanted direct access to lands where such merchandise could be obtained.
The Portuguese merchants and navigators were busy establishing a monopoly on trade with Africa, and they eventually found a route to the East via Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. Meanwhile, the thoughts of the Italian navigator Columbus turned west. He believed that the shortest route to India and its coveted spices was across the Atlantic.
For eight weary years, Columbus shuttled from one royal court to another before finally obtaining the backing of Spain’s king and queen. In the end his unwavering conviction won out over doubting sovereigns and reluctant sailors. The doubters had their reasons. Columbus’ project was not without its flaws, and he audaciously insisted that he be appointed “Grand Admiral of the Ocean” and perpetual governor of all lands he might discover.
But the main objections centered on his calculations. By this time most scholars did not dispute that the earth was round. The question was, What stretch of ocean separated Europe and Asia? Columbus reckoned that Cipango, or Japan—which he had read about in the account of Marco Polo’s journey to China—lay some 5,000 miles [8,000 km] west of Lisbon, Portugal. He thus placed Japan in what is now the Caribbean.a
Largely because of Columbus’ overly optimistic estimate of the distance separating Europe and the Far East, royal commissions in both Spain and Portugal dismissed his venture as ill-advised. The possibility that there might be a large continent between Europe and Asia apparently occurred to no one.
But Columbus, supported by friends in the Spanish court, persisted, and events worked out in his favor. Queen Isabella of Castile, a fervent Catholic, was enticed by the possibility of converting the East to the Catholic faith. When Granada fell to the Catholic sovereigns in the spring of 1492, Catholicism became the religion of all Spain. The time seemed ripe to risk some money on a venture that might pay large dividends, both religiously and economically. Columbus got the royal consent and the cash that he needed.
The Voyage Into the Unknown
A small fleet of three ships was quickly fitted out, and with a total complement of some 90 men, Columbus left Spain on August 3, 1492.b After restocking in the Canary Islands, on September 6 the ships headed westward en route to “India.”
The voyage was a trialsome one for Columbus. Hopes were raised and then dashed by winds fair and foul. Despite promising sightings of seabirds, the western horizon remained stubbornly empty. Columbus constantly had to stiffen the resolve of his sailors with promises of land and riches. When they were, according to Columbus’ “personal calculation,” some 2,000 miles [3,200 km] out into the Atlantic, he gave the ship’s pilot the figure of 1,752 miles [2,819 km]. Then he wrote in the ship’s log: “I did not reveal this figure [2,121 miles] [3,413 km] to the men because they would become frightened, finding themselves so far from home.” (The Log of Christopher Columbus, translated by Robert H. Fuson) On many occasions it was only his unflagging determination that kept the ships from turning back.
As the days dragged by, the sailors became more and more restless. “My decision has not pleased the men, for they continue to murmur and complain,” wrote Columbus. “Despite their grumblings I held fast to the west.” By October 10, after more than a month at sea, complaints were increasing on all three ships. The sailors were only appeased by Columbus’ promise to return the way they had come if land was not reached within three days. The following day, however, when they hauled aboard a green branch with flowers still on it, faith in their admiral returned. And when dawn broke the next day (October 12), the sea-weary mariners feasted their eyes on a lush tropical island. Their epoch-making voyage had reached its goal!
Discovery and Disappointment
The Bahamas were idyllic. The naked natives, wrote Columbus, were “well-built people, with handsome bodies and very fine faces.” But after two weeks of savoring the tropical fruits and exchanging goods with the friendly inhabitants, Columbus moved on. He was searching for gold, mainland Asia, converts, and spices.
A few days later, Columbus reached Cuba. “I have never seen anything so beautiful,” he remarked when he disembarked on the island. Earlier he had written in his log: “I am now certain that Cuba is the Indian name for Cipango [Japan].” Thus, he dispatched two representatives to contact the khan (the ruler). The two Spaniards found neither gold nor Japanese, although they did bring back reports of a peculiar habit among the natives, that of smoking tobacco. Columbus was undeterred. “Beyond doubt there is a very great amount of gold in this country,” he reassured himself.
The odyssey continued, this time toward the east. He discovered a large mountainous island near Cuba that he named La Isla Española (Hispaniola). And at last the Spaniards found a fair quantity of gold. But a few days later, disaster struck. His flagship Santa María went aground on a sandbank and could not be refloated. The natives willingly helped the crew to salvage everything possible. “They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the softest and gentlest voices in the world and are always smiling,” said Columbus.
Columbus decided to establish a small settlement on Hispaniola. Earlier, he had ominously observed in his log: “These people are very unskilled in arms. . . . With 50 men you could subject everyone and make them do what you wished.” He also envisioned a religious colonization: “I have great hope in Our Lord that Your Highnesses will convert all of them to Christianity and they will all belong to you.” Once the settlement was organized in a place he called La Villa de la Navidad (The Town of the Nativity), Columbus decided that he and the rest of his men should make haste to Spain with news of their great discovery.
The Spanish court was euphoric when the news of Columbus’ discovery finally reached them. He was showered with honors and urged to organize a second expedition as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Spanish diplomats moved quickly to secure from the Spanish pope, Alexander VI, the right to colonize all lands Columbus had discovered.
The second expedition, in 1493, was an ambitious one. An armada of 17 ships carried over 1,200 colonists, including priests, farmers, and soldiers—but no women. The intention was to colonize the new lands, convert the natives to Catholicism, and, of course, any gold or spices that might be discovered would be more than welcome. Columbus also intended to continue his search for the sea passage to India.
Although more islands were discovered, including Puerto Rico and Jamaica, frustration mounted. La Navidad, the original colony in Hispaniola, had been decimated by bitter feuding among the Spaniards themselves, and then it was almost wiped out by the islanders, incensed at the greed and immorality of the colonizers. Columbus chose a better site for a large, new colony and then continued his search for the route to India.
After failing to circumnavigate Cuba, he decided it must be mainland Asia—perhaps Malaya. As stated in The Conquest of Paradise, Columbus “decided that the entire crew should declare under oath that the coast they had been sailing along . . . was not that of an island at all but in fact ‘the mainland of the commencement of the Indies.’” Upon returning to Hispaniola, Columbus found that the new colonists had behaved little better than the previous ones, having raped the women and enslaved the boys. Columbus himself compounded the animosity of the natives by rounding up 1,500 of them, of which 500 were shipped to Spain as slaves; they all died within a few years.
Two more voyages to the West Indies did little to improve Columbus’ fortunes. Gold, spices, and the passage to India all eluded him. However, the Catholic Church did get its converts, one way or the other. Columbus’ administrative abilities were well below his gifts as a navigator, and failing health made him autocratic and even ruthless to those who displeased him. The Spanish sovereigns were obliged to replace him with a more capable governor. He had conquered the oceans but floundered when he went ashore.
Soon after completing his fourth voyage, he died at the age of 54, a wealthy but bitter man, still insisting that he had discovered the sea route to Asia. It would be left to posterity to confer upon him the lasting glory that he had so dearly yearned for all his life.
But the routes he charted had paved the way for the discovery and colonization of the entire North American continent. The world had changed dramatically. Would it be for the better?
a This error was the result of two serious miscalculations. He believed that the Asian landmass stretched much farther east than it does. And he also unwittingly reduced the circumference of the earth by 25 percent.
b It has been calculated that the Santa María had a crew of 40, the Pinta 26, and the Niña 24.
[Map/Picture on page 6]
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COLUMBUS’ VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY