III. THE WATERS OF BITTERNESS

Columbus was welcomed by King and Queen at Barcelona, lived six months at the court, and received the title Almirante del Mar Oceano—“Admiral of the Ocean Sea”—by which was meant the Atlantic west of the Azores. He was made governor of the New World, or, as he described himself, “Vice-King and General Governor of the Islands and Terra Firma of Asia and India.”12 As John II was rumored to be fitting out a fleet to cross the Atlantic, Ferdinand appealed to Alexander VI to define the rights of Spain in the “Ocean Sea.” The Spanish Pope, in a series of bulls (1493), allotted to Spain all non-Christian lands west, and to Portugal all those east, of an imaginary line drawn north and south 270 miles west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. The Portuguese refused to accept this line of demarcation, and war was imminent when the rival governments, by the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), agreed that the line should run along a meridian of longitude 250 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands for discoveries before that date, but 370 leagues west for later discoveries. (The eastern corner of Brazil lies east of this second line.) The papal bulls termed the new terrain “Indies”; scholars like Pietro Martire d’ Anghiera accepted Columbus’s notion that he had reached Asia; and this delusion persisted till Magellan circumnavigated the globe.

Hoping for gold, Ferdinand and Isabella provided Columbus with a new fleet of seventeen vessels, equipped with 1,200 seamen, animals to start flocks and herds in the “Indies,” and five ecclesiastics to shrive the Spaniards and convert the “Indians.” The second voyage sailed from Seville on September 25, 1493. Thirty-nine days later (as against seventy days for the first voyage), the watch sighted an island which Columbus, because the day was Sunday, named Dominica. No landing was made there; the Admiral scented bigger prey. He passed through the westernmost group of the Lesser Antilles, and was so impressed by their number that he named them Once Mil Virgenes—“Eleven Thousand Virgins”; they are still the Virgin Islands. Sailing on, he discovered Puerto Rico; he dallied there briefly, then hurried on to see what had happened to the Spanish settlement that he had left in Haiti ten months before. Hardly a man remained of it. The Europeans had roamed the island robbing the natives of gold and women; they had established a tropical paradise with five women to each man; they had quarreled and murdered one another, and nearly all the rest had been killed by the outraged Indians.

The fleet sailed eastward along the Haitian coast. On January 2, 1494, the Admiral landed men and cargo to found a new settlement, which he called Isabella. After supervising the construction of a town and the repair of his ships, he left to explore Cuba. Unable to circumnavigate it, he concluded that it was the mainland of Asia, perhaps the Malay Peninsula. He thought of rounding it and circling the globe, but his ships were not equipped for it. He turned back toward Haiti (October 29, 1494), wondering how his new settlement had fared. He was shocked to find that it had behaved like its predecessor; that the Soaniards had raped native women, stolen native stores of food, and kidnaped native boys to serve as slaves; and that the natives had killed many Spaniards in revenge. The missionaries had made little attempt to Christianize the Indians. One friar had joined a group of malcontents who had sailed back to Spain to give the sovereigns a discouraging report of Haiti’s reputed resources. Columbus himself now became a slave dealer. He sent out expeditions to capture 1,500 natives; 400 of these he gave to the settlers, 500 he dispatched to Spain. Two hundred of these died on the voyage; the survivors were sold at Seville, but died in a few years, unable to adjust themselves to the colder climate, or perhaps to the savagery of civilization.

Leaving orders with his brother Bartolomé to transfer the settlement from Isabella to a better site at Santo Domingo (now Ciudad Trujillo), Columbus sailed for Spain (March 10, 1496), and reached Cádiz after an unhappy voyage of ninety-three days. He presented his sovereigns with Indians and gold nuggets; it was not much, but it modified the doubts that had formed at court about the wisdom of pouring more money into the Atlantic. The Admiral was uncomfortable on land; the salt of the sea was in his blood; he begged for at least eight ships for another trial of fortune. The sovereigns consented; and in May 1498, Columbus sailed again.

This third voyage moved southwest to the tenth meridian of latitude, then followed this due west. On July 31 the crew sighted the great island which the pious commander named Trinidad; and on August 31 he saw the mainland of South America, perhaps a year before, perhaps a year after, Vespucci. After exploring the Gulf of Paria he sailed northwest, and reached Santo Domingo August 31. This third settlement had survived, but one of every four of the five hundred Spaniards that he had left there in 1496 was suffering from syphilis, and the settlers had divided into two hostile groups that were now on the verge of war. To appease the discontent, Columbus allowed each man to appropriate a large tract of land, and to enslave the natives dwelling on it; this became the rule in the Spanish settlements. Worn now with hardships, disappointments, arthritis, and a disease of the eyes, Columbus almost broke down under these problems. His mind clouded occasionally, he became irritable, querulous, dictatorial, avaricious, and ruthless in his punishments; so at least many of the Spaniards claimed, and they fretted under an Italian’s rule. He recognized that the problems of managing the settlement were alien to his training and temperament. In October 1499, he sent two caravels to Spain with a request that Ferdinand and Isabella should appoint a royal commissioner to help him govern the island.

The sovereigns took him at his word, and appointed Francisco de Bobadilla; but, going beyond the Admiral’s request, they gave their commissioner full authority, even over Columbus. Bobadilla reached Santo Domingo while Columbus was away, and heard many complaints of the manner in which Cristoforo and his brothers Bartolomé and Diego had ruled what was now called Hispaniola. When Columbus returned, Bobadilla had him cast into jail, with manacles on his arms and fetters on his feet. After a further inquest the commissioner sent the three brothers, in chains, to Spain (October 1, 1500). Arriving at Cádiz, Columbus wrote a pitiful letter to friends at court:

It is now seventeen years since I came to serve these princes with the Enterprise of the Indies. They made me pass eight of them in discussion, and at the end rejected it as a thing of jest. Nonetheless I persisted therein.... . Over there 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.... . The accusation was brought out of malice on the basis of charges made by civilians who had revolted and wished to take possession of the land.....

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 honor and my property without cause, wherein is neither justice nor mercy.13

Ferdinand was busy dividing the Kingdom of Naples with Louis XII; six weeks went by before he ordered Columbus and his brothers released, and summoned them to court. King and Queen received them in the Alhambra, consoled them, and restored them to affluence, but not to their former authority in the New World. By the Capitulations or agreement that they had signed in 1492, the sovereigns were bound to leave Columbus full authority in the lands he had discovered, but they felt that he was no longer fit to exercise it. They named Don Nicolás de Ovando as new governor of the Indies; however, they allowed the Admiral to collect all his property rights at Santo Domingo, and all that was hitherto due him of the gold diggings and trade. Columbus lived the rest of his life a rich man.

But he was not content. He importuned the King and Queen for one more fleet; and though they were not yet clear that the “Enterprise of the Indies” would bring them a net gain, they felt that they owed him another trial. On May 9, 1502, from Cádiz, Columbus began his fourth voyage, with four ships and 140 men, including his brother Bartolomé and his son Fernando. On June 15 he sighted Martinique. On June 29, feeling a storm in the air and in his joints, he anchored off a sheltered spot of the Haitian shore near Santo Domingo. A fleet of thirty ships was in the main harbor, about to sail for Spain. Columbus sent word to the governor that a hurricane was brewing, and advised him to detain the vessels for a while. Ovando rejected the warnings and dispatched the fleet. The hurricane arrived; the Admiral’s ships survived it with minor damage; of the governor’s fleet all vessels but one were wrecked; 500 lives were lost, including Bobadilla’s; and a rich cargo of gold was surrendered to the sea.

Columbus now began, unsuspectingly, the most arduous and tragic months in his troubled career. Continuing westward, he reached Honduras, and explored the coast of Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the hope of finding a strait that would let him circumnavigate the earth. On December 5, 1502, a tempest of wind and rain arose, whose mad force is vividly described in Columbus’s journal:

For nine days I was as one lost, without any hope of life. Eyes never beheld the sea so high, angry, and 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 forth 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 ships 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.14

To add to the terror of wind, water, lightning, and rocky reefs near by, a waterspout—a spray-spreading “twister” in the sea—appeared, perilously close to the ships, and shooting water “up to the clouds.” Columbus took out his Bible, and read from it how Christ had stilled the storm at Capernaum; then he exorcized the waterspout by tracing with his sword a cross in the sky, whereupon, we are told, the tower of water collapsed. After twelve awful days the fury passed, and the fleet rested in a harbor near the present eastern end of the Panama Canal. There Columbus and his men celebrated sadly the Christmas of 1502 and the New Year’s Day of 1503, not knowing that the Pacific was only forty miles away.

Further misfortunes came. Thirteen sailors, rowing the flagship’s boat up a river to find fresh water, were attacked by Indians; all but one of the Spaniards were killed, and the boat was lost. Two vessels had to be abandoned as too worm-eaten to be seaworthy; the other two leaked so badly that the pumps had to be worked night and day. Finally the worms proved stronger than the men, and these surviving ships had to be beached on a shore of Jamaica (June 25, 1503). There the hapless crew remained a year and five days, depending for food on the precarious friendship of the natives, who themselves had little to spare. Diego Mendez, whose calm courage in all this adversity kept Columbus from complete despair, volunteered to lead six Christians and ten Indians in a dugout canoe 455 miles—eighty of them out of sight of land—to Santo Domingo to solicit aid. On that venture their water ran out, and several Indians died. Mendez reached his goal, but Ovando would not or could not spare a vessel till May 1504, to go to the Admiral’s relief. By February the Jamaica Indians had reduced their gifts of food to the stranded crew to the point where the Spaniards began to starve. Columbus had with him Regiomontanus’s Ephemerides, which calculated a lunar eclipse for February 29. He called in the native chiefs, and warned them that God, in His anger at their letting his men starve, was about to blot out the moon. They scoffed, but when the eclipse began they hurriedly brought food to the ships. Columbus reassured them, saying that he had prayed to God to restore the moon, and had promised Him that the Indians would properly feed the Christians thereafter. The moon reappeared.

Four more months passed before help came; even then the ship that Ovando sent leaked so badly that it was barely able to return to Santo Domingo. Columbus, with his brother and son, sailed in a stouter vessel to Spain, arriving November 7 after a long and stormy voyage. The King and Queen were disappointed that he had not found more gold, or a strait to the Indian Ocean; and neither Ferdinand nor Isabella, who was dying, had time to receive the white-haired sailor finally home from the sea. His “tenths” from Haiti were still paid to him; he suffered from arthritis, but not from poverty. When at last Ferdinand consented to see him Columbus, older than his fifty-eight years, could hardly bear the long journey to the court at Segovia. He demanded all the titles, rights, and revenues promised him in 1492. The King demurred, and offered him a rich estate in Castile; Columbus refused. He followed the court to Salamanca and Valladolid; and there, broken in body and heart, he died, May 20, 1506. No man had ever so remade the map of the earth.

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