DURING JOHN CABOT’S time in Seville in late 1494 and in the months immediately following his dismissal from the bridge project, Christopher Columbus’s Indies scheme experienced rapid and dramatic changes. The Andalusian push-out into the Atlantic realm was stuttering, lurching, regrouping, and becoming more restrictive even as it widened its opportunities within Spain.
When Antonio de Torres arrived at La Isabella with a relief flotilla in the autumn of 1494, Cabot was supposed to be building the fixed bridge to Triana in order to accommodate the boom in trade that was to pour in from the Indies. Torres expected to return to Spain with the panoply of valuable Oriental goods Columbus had been promising. Only there weren’t any. Columbus compounded his administrative and financial failings by sending home instead a cargo capable of shocking a queen who made no objection to enslaving the men, women, and children of Muslim Málaga.
Columbus had already assured Fernando and Isabel that the Indies offered “as many slaves as they may order to be shipped, and who will be from among the idolaters” in his letter published in April 1493. In February 1495, he made good on that promise, regardless of the fact that his monarchs had never taken him up on the offer. Columbus gathered at La Isabella 1,600 captive Arawaks, men and women; the 550 finest specimens were chosen to send back to Seville with Antonio de Torres, to be sold not to enrich the crown but to address Columbus’s personal debt from the first voyage to the slaver Berardi for the charter of the lost Santa María. Of the remaining captives, the colonists were told they could help themselves to however many they wanted. When this second culling was completed, 400 were left for whom no one had any use. Among them were women so terrified that they dropped their nursing infants on the ground and fled, so far into the forest that the Spanish considered they would never be captured again.
At least one of the Taino elite had seen this terrible day coming, to judge by the Relación of the Anchorite friar, Ramón Pané, who had traveled to Española in 1494 on Columbus’s arrangement to gather more about the beliefs of the people of Española. Having learned the Arawak language, Pané heard how a fasting cacique once had been visited by their supreme being, Yocahu. The god “announced to the cacique that those who succeeded to his power would enjoy it only a short time because there would come to his country a people wearing clothes who would conquer and kill the Indians, and that they would die from hunger.” The Arawaks initially thought Yocahu had been referring to the Caribs, but later, “reflecting that the cannibals only robbed and then went away, they decided he must have meant some other people. That is why they now believe that the idol prophesied the coming of the Admiral and the people who came with him.”
Among the 400 Arawaks left unclaimed in the culling were a cacique and two of his senior men. Columbus decided that the best thing to do with them was to have them executed with arrows the next day, and so they were shackled in preparation. In the night, the three men gnawed at each other’s feet until they could cast off their iron restraints, and they followed the mothers who had abandoned their children into the forest enclosing La Isabella on every side except the squat bluff that overlooked the sea.
Returning with the cargo of slaves was Columbus’s childhood friend, Michele da Cuneo, to whom Columbus had earlier made a gift of a young woman. “I laid my hands on a gorgeous Cannibal woman who the lord admiral granted me,” Cuneo recounted in a letter to Geralamo Annari, a Savonese noble, after his return. “When I had her in my quarters, naked, as is their custom, I felt a craving to sport with her. When I tried to satisfy my craving, she, wanting none of it, gave me such a treatment with her nails that at that point I wished I had never started. At this, to tell you how it all ended, I got hold of a rope and thrashed her so thoroughly that she raised unheard-of cries that you would never believe. Finally we were of such accord that, in the act, I can tell you, she seemed to have been trained in a school of harlots.”
The ships in Torres’s flotilla were battered and delayed by storms, and food ran short. “By the time we had reached Spanish waters,” Cuneo wrote, “approximately 200 of the Indians had died—I believe it was because they were unaccustomed to the air which is colder than theirs—and we cast them into the sea. The first land we sighted was Cape Spartel [in Morocco], and very soon after we reached Cadíz, where we unloaded all of the slaves, half of whom were sick. For your information, they are not men made for work, and they fear greatly the cold and do not live long.”
When the Indies administrator Fonseca put the miserable survivors up for sale in Seville’s slave market in April, Isabel halted the auction. The queen considered the Indigenous peoples, the one certain if odious export item Columbus had identified in the Indies, to be her subjects. Rather inconveniently, the bulls of 1493 that granted Fernando and Isabel the exclusive right to Columbus’s discoveries were predicated on the notion of Spain carrying Christianity to the idolaters, not on carrying the idolaters home as a bulk commodity.
The appearance of the Torres flotilla with its dying captives hardly could have improved Columbus’s standing. But as the court received news of the arrival of the four vessels only on April 12, the flotilla had not returned in time to have influenced the monarchs’ decision, issued two days earlier, to introduce sweeping changes to the Indies enterprise. The gross spectacle of the aborted auction and news of how the Arawaks had come to be captured nevertheless would have reaffirmed convictions that Columbus should not retain absolute oversight of all Indies activities beyond Seville. Columbus would attempt to adjust his human harvesting accordingly, categorizing captives alternately as prisoners of war and as subhuman cannibals, but Isabel’s prohibition on his planned Indies slave trade remained firm.
In the new permissions for the Indies, issued at Madrid on April 10, 1495, Fernando and Isabel avowed how Columbus, “our admiral of the Ocean Sea, has reported to us that we should issue a writ stipulating the following terms.” On the contrary, Columbus was unhappy to learn of their unilateral initiative, and would protest it on his return to Spain in 1496.
Granted, in a letter to Fernando and Isabel believed to date to 1494, Columbus had sketched out fresh proposals for organizing settlement on Española, although most of the letter was concerned overwhelmingly with gold, especially how any gold found should be shared among settlers, the crown, and the colony’s governor, namely himself. He wanted 1 percent to be set aside to support the local church; the division of the rest he thought should be left to him to decide, although he suggested that the finders and the crown should share in it equally.
Instead, Fernando and Isabella had crafted a sweeping new policy of their own on settlement, trade, and gold. So long as Spaniards traveled to and from Cadíz, they could acquire land and settle in Española without being on the royal payroll (as La Isabella was initially organized); they would be free from duties and taxes, and receive one year’s support from the crown. They could keep one-third of any gold they found—not half, as Columbus had suggested—and nine-tenths of any merchandise or goods they acquired, with the remaining tenth going to the crown. There was no mention of a cut for the church, or for Columbus.
For Columbus and would-be explorers alike, the most noteworthy part of the new regulations was the provision that “any of our subjects or citizens who wish to do so can go to discover new islands and continents in the vicinity of the Indies and to trade on those already discovered and any others except the island of La Española.” Columbus actually had recommended that exploration be liberalized in his letter: “In regard to the discovery of new countries, I think permission should be granted to all that wish to go, and more liberality used in the matter of the fifth [the 20 percent share on commerce due to the crown], making the tax easier, in some fair way, in order that many may be disposed to go on voyages.” Although Fernando and Isabel did reduce the “fifth” to a tenth, the new regulations reserved only Española for Columbus where trade was concerned.
Columbus was still the Admiral of the Ocean Sea in the region of the Indies (to exactly what that entitled him and his heirs would be of considerable legal dispute) and the viceroy and governor of Española. The new regulations also still reserved for Columbus the right to send one ship out of eight bound for the Indies, and all voyages (and voyagers) had to be approved by Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca in Seville. But unless Columbus could assert exclusive authority under his admiralty, the new rules appeared to extinguish his exclusive trading rights to Cuba—which he insisted was mainland Asia—as well as Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the string of Leeward Islands discovered on the second voyage stretching from Dominica north and west through the Virgin Islands and on to Puerto Rico. Those islands were home to the people he portrayed as irredeemable cannibals and hoped could be profitably enslaved. In fact, he began calling this chain the Cannibal Islands rather than the East Indies.
The catch in the new royal permissions was that to take advantage of the fresh opportunities of exploration and trade, one had to be a Spanish “subject” or “citizen.” A subject was a resident who had been born in Spain but did not swear an oath of loyalty to the monarchs because of their religious affiliations. Native-born Spaniards were citizens of their particular communities within the kingdoms of Fernando and Isabel.
A foreigner could become a naturalized citizen by meeting one of ten different requirements; among them were marriage to a citizen and a ten-year residency. Columbus never did become a citizen, remaining a Genoese until his death, but he clung to his Indies entitlements through his precious capitulations. Cabot for his part had not resided anywhere in Spain long enough to become naturalized and was already married to Mattea. In addition, his Venetian citizenship not only granted him its rights beyond the cluster of prosperous islands forming the republic’s Signoria; it required him to identify himself as a Venetian when abroad and be subject to the administration of a consul should there be an organized expatriate community.
In any event, by the time the new Indies permissions were introduced in April 1495, Cabot was long gone from Spain. Had he not fled Seville in late 1494—even had he not given the city’s powerful leaders cause to banish him—these permissions would have defeated any aspiration he had to pursue explorations of his own in the Spanish realm.
The new regulations affirmed a recent and unrelenting trend in Fernando and Isabel’s dominion, of favoring citizens who were also loyal to their Catholic faith. Jews had been forcibly converted or deported in 1492; in 1499, the rights granted to Muslims under the surrender of Granada would be revoked and, in 1501, they would be subjected to compulsory conversion as well. Italian merchants in Andalusia, particularly the Genoese in Seville, had begun securing Spanish citizenship in record numbers. Although the Genoese had enjoyed self-governing privileges in Seville since 1251, these businessmen were drawing themselves closer to Spanish power and the privileges and opportunities that could come their way. Among them was Francesco de Riveroli, who was naturalized in 1492 as Francisco de Riberol and would become one of Columbus’s key financiers. Riberol’s partner in the Canaries conquest, the Florentine Gianotto Berardi, was naturalized (as Juanotto Berardi) in 1494. Berardi of course was already a Columbus financier from the first voyage and had secured the provisioning contract from the crown for the second one.
Money thrived on opportunity, and if fresh ones could not be found, then they needed to be created. Evidently the recently naturalized Italian financiers of Spanish expansionism—which included not only Columbus’s Indies initiative but the conquest of the Canaries and the war for Granada, which had been underwritten with the aid of the Spinola family branch in Cordóba—had made known their desire to have the Indies made more available to exploitation.
The plan to exploit the new regulations was in place before the regulations themselves officially existed. The recently naturalized Berardi was awarded a flotilla contract under the revised terms on April 9, 1495, the day before the terms themselves were proclaimed. Berardi agreed to send three flotillas of four ships each, in April, June, and September. Two ships were to remain in Española for fifteen days, facilitating trade, while the other two would be free to explore.
These flotillas seem to have been Berardi’s idea, as Fernando and Isabel wrote Fonseca the same day the contract was awarded, informing the head of the Indies enterprise in Seville that Berardi had offered to mount them and that he was to be paid 600,000 maravedis. Although Berardi’s arrangement was generally in accord with what Columbus himself had proposed to Fernando and Isabel, it’s not known if Columbus was aware of it, or if he approved. As Columbus had made no profits from the first two voyages from which to retire his debt to Berardi, the Florentine can hardly be blamed if his proposal to mount three separate flotillas helped initiate the new regulations that would so alienate Columbus.
Yet Fernando and Isabel’s hopes to revive the Indies enterprise with the liberalized regulations of April 10, 1495, were, to say the least, not met. No ships under Berardi’s contract to mount three flotillas for trade and exploration even sailed in 1495.
JEROME MÜNZER WAS JUST RETURNING to Nürnberg when the new Spanish regulations for the Indies went into effect in April 1495. Columbus was still in the Indies; he had embarked on a scorched-earth campaign against Española’s rebellious Arawaks on March 24 with a force of two hundred foot soldiers, twenty-four horsemen, twenty dogs, and an arsenal that included muskets, crossbows, spears, and swords. Laying waste to native populations who dared resist his authority, and enslaving those who survived, kept him busy for about ten months. Española was now indistinguishable from Tenerife in the Canaries, where Alonso de Lugo was in the midst of his latest campaign to subjugate the indigenous Guanches with backing from the same small circle of Italian merchants in Seville who were allied with Columbus. La Palma had fallen in May 1493, shortly after Columbus made his celebrated appearance at court in Barcelona and began planning the second voyage. The partners in the conquest, Gianotto Berardi, Alonso de Lugo, and Francisco de Riberol, then turned down the 700,000 maravedi reward promised by the crown in exchange for the right to subjugate Tenerife, the largest island in the archipelago.
When Michele da Cuneo learned of the new liberalized regulations for the Indies on his return to Spain in April 1495, he considered them a sign that Fernando “does not think much” of the lands Columbus had discovered to date, as he explained in his letter to Annari. Cuneo reported that Bartolomé Columbus, who had been named by his brother adelanto, or lieutenant, of the lands already discovered, was supposed to be making a new voyage of his own from Española. “The Adelanto is planning to depart with two caravels and a small galley, built in Hispaniola, to go exploring during the entire month of April.” Given the king’s evident lack of enthusiasm for what Columbus had already discovered, Cuneo advised, “If [Bartolomé] does not find more than what we found in those parts . . . I fear it will be necessary to abandon them.”
Bartolomé, who had not participated in the first or second voyage, had arrived at Española with a three-ship relief flotilla in June 1494. He now was slated to overcome his brother’s aversion to higher latitudes and strike out toward the north—far to the north.
“We are fairly certain that the lord Bartolomé sailing 500 leagues to the northern regions will find land,” Cuneo continued, “but he will also find bigger storms and worse weather than we encountered. The lord admiral [Christopher Columbus] says that he will find Cathay.”
Cuneo allowed that this optimism was disputed by the same learned abbot of Lucena who in 1494 rejected Columbus’s claim that Cuba wasn’t an island and was prevented by Columbus from returning to Spain to share his opinions with Fernando. Cuneo advised that Columbus planned to detain the cleric in Española until Bartolomé had returned from his voyage and reported on what he had discovered.
Why, now, was Columbus determined to have his brother sail so far to the north? Had news of the northern voyage scheme of Münzer and Behaim, proposed to João II in the latter half of 1493, reached Española with Bartolomé, who had left Spain in May 1494? Or had the Torres flotilla that arrived in the autumn of 1494 carried word? However the plan came about, in the spring of 1495, Christopher Columbus intended to send Bartolomé directly from Española into distant northern latitudes, to see if Cathay lay in that direction.
Bartolomé never made that voyage. So much of the New World’s history would have changed if he had. And any further opportunity to sail north soon evaporated, as Columbus paid dearly for having so obstinately chosen not to site the Castilian colony at the River of Martín Alonso.
That June, La Isabella was scoured by the first of two hurricanes. Spaniards had never before experienced a hurricane, and the folly of La Isabella was devastatingly exposed. All but one of four ships, the redoubtable Niña, was destroyed when caught in the exposed anchorage in the first storm. The second storm, in October, entirely demolished a four-ship relief flotilla that had arrived in September under Juan de Aguado, who was charged with investigating complaints regarding Columbus’s administration. Columbus as a result had no means of conducting further explorations and would have to cobble together a ship called the India from the available wreckage to get back to Spain in 1496.
The June storm also produced a surge that flooded with saltwater the farmers’ fields, which were already struggling to grow European crops in a Caribbean environment. The disaster multiplied the festering problems of La Isabella, damping whatever mercantile enthusiasm might have arisen from the April 1495 proclamation. Isabel’s halting of the slave auction in Seville hadn’t helped matters: Humans comprised the only crop that seemed to grow readily and could be harvested. But another reason for the waning enthusiasm was the widespread consensus among learned Europeans that Columbus’s discoveries were nowhere near the actual Indies. Italian financiers would gladly put their capital to work in a venture that promised to deliver results in reaching Cathay by a different westward route.
ISABEL’S DECISION TO STOP the Seville sale of slaves who had arrived from Española on April 12, 1495, was surely a factor in the failure of any of the three contracted Berardi flotillas to sail as scheduled, as Berardi’s main business was the slave trade. The “explorations” his ships planned to make surely would have been little more than hunting expeditions for fresh human chattel. A separate fleet, carrying the investigator Juan de Aguado, had instead sailed, only to be obliterated by the October hurricane.
Despite the ban on slave trading, on October 21, 1495, Berardi’s associate Amerigo Vespucci received from Fonseca 38,700 maravedis on Berardi’s account for ninety-five slaves from the Indies, who presumably were among those who had arrived on April 12 and must have been sold before the queen’s edict put an end to the auctions. That cash influx seemed to do the motivational trick for Berardi, who finally began preparing the first contracted flotilla in November. Another 10,000 maravedis were turned over by Fonseca to Vespucci for Berardi on November 5, and 500,000 maravedis were given directly to Berardi on December 4. But preparations were disrupted when Berardi fell ill. His health declined so rapidly that he wrote a new will on December 5 and died on December 15.
Vespucci promptly assumed responsibility for the long-promised flotilla to the Indies. When the ships at last departed under Jorge de Sosa, the venture continued to be spectacularly star-crossed. One of the ships got into some sort of trouble while still in the Guadalquivir, and the fleet had scarcely left Sanlúcar de Barrameda on February 3, 1496, when a storm hurled it back, scattering wrecks from Rota, to the north, to the island of Tarifa at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, to the south. So ended Fernando and Isabel’s initiative of April 1495 to expand beyond Columbus the exploration efforts in the Indies.
The Canaries rather than Columbus’s Indies became the focal point of Spanish expansionism out of Andalusia backed by Italian merchants. Berardi’s place as an investment partner in the Canaries conquest was assumed by Francisco de Riberol’s brother, Cosme, who had also been naturalized at Seville in 1492. The Guanches had very nearly triumphed, massacring four-fifths of Alonso de Lugo’s army in the Acentejo ravine in 1494, forcing him to retreat to La Palma and regroup for a second invasion of Tenerife. Lugo completed the difficult and bloody Tenerife conquest in 1496, selling captives indiscriminately into slavery in an effort to settle his personal debts, just as Columbus had attempted with Arawak prisoners in 1495.
The Riberols, Spinolas, and other Genoese families in Andalusia became major landowners in the Canaries, dominating 90 percent of the sugar production and trade as they built a prosperous slave plantation economy. On the other side of the Ocean Sea, the Columbus venture teetered unhappily between a logistical miscalculation that invited yet another change in strategy and management and an absolute folly that should be abandoned altogether . . . or used as a negotiating chip in international diplomacy.