The native of Genoa was always regarded as a man of intelligence and character. A mapmaker seaman who was able to find grace in the eyes of his employers as his handling of his duties and their money brought advancement in his fortunes. He was able to marry into a noble Portuguese family; partly due to a widow’s financial situation looking for a marriage requiring a small dowry.
His studies, depending on Marco Polo’s reports, led him to believe that Asia was closer to Europe than most men believed. All men believed that the world was round. The King’s advisors of both Spain and Portugal put stock in Ptolemy’s estimates from the second century more than Columbus’. His numbers were 3550 miles to China compared to 11,766 actual miles. This was the thinking that he needed to overcome when he brought his idea of sailing west to China and Japan. The issue wasn’t possibility, but distance.
Columbus, now a widower with one son, pitched his idea to the King of Portugal and was turned down. He made his way to Spain where he met his mistress who gave him a second son. Why no marriage? He needed a wife of high standing during his negotiations with the crown. Public acceptance of a mistress was afforded to all from the Pope and King down to any man who could afford to keep a mistress.
Columbus’ negotiations lasted 6 years. It was with the final capitulation of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, that Ferdinand and Isabelle listened to Columbus’ proposal in Granada. As a man, he had won them over, his religious sympathies matched those of Isabelle’s, and his confidence and steadfastness were easily appreciated. They gave him a no for the final time and he departed. It was at this point that Luis de Santangel enters the picture. He was a Jewish convert, probably a Marano, and the finance minister of the King. He reasoned with the queen highlighting Columbus’ good qualities, offering to find independent financing and thus Columbus was found ten miles away and brought back to begin his voyage of discovery.
These negotiations took place under the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition. It was Queen Isabelle’s personal confessor, Tomás de Torquemada, who was in charge. The inquisition was aimed at cleansing the church (there was only one before the Reformation) of Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism in outward form only. It reached the family of Santangel, and only the King’s personal intervention spared him. The church got its cleansing with over 2000 souls burned at the stake and thousands upon thousands broken through torture and confinement. Those found guilty found all of their wealth transferred to the crown. The unconverted Jews were not affected by the inquisition. Their turn was coming. The Jews were ordered to leave Spain in 4 months on March 30, 1492. The last day of departure was August 2nd the day before Columbus’ departure to America. On those days the seeds were sown for great wealth and great destruction.
Columbus’ voyages are an incredible testimony to his vision and his skill as a navigator. He only availed himself to a compass and depended upon dead reckoning to make his perfect journey across to the Caribbean and back to Spain. The real battle was with his crew. Would they stay faithful to him to the end? The answer was no. The rebellion eventually came and Columbus convinced them to give him a few more days. The next day they spotted land.
He meets the Indians, he explores and he finds golden trinkets on the Island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic). He sets up a post that will house his men collecting gold, since the Santa Maria was grounded, as he returns to Spain a hero.
There was a mind set that colored all of this activity. A papal bull had already given religious cover to the enslaving of the black populations of Portugal’s discoveries in Africa. That same religious covering would enable Columbus to see the innocent Indians as pliable servants and workers. He was very careful to request only very religious men to come and organize these Indians as well as the priests for their conversion and education. Somewhere along the line the simple “love your neighbor as yourself” had been jettisoned from Catholic thinking as seen by the treatment of Jews, blacks and soon the Indians.
Columbus would return 10 months later with 17 ships and the makings of a new colony. He came to his post to discover that all 40 of his men left behind were dead. How could those timid Indians overcome his men and why? His 40 men had begun to quarrel among themselves over gold and the almost naked women they traded with. Soon bands of Spaniards would terrorize the local villages in search for women and gold. Each man had a small harem of women to himself. One of these bands ran into a tough tribal chief who took them out and then marched upon the outpost with only 10 men in it at that time. They were killed and the rest of the 40 were killed as they wandered the countryside. Columbus saw this as the result of the depravity of his men; those with him saw it differently and wanted to avenge their deaths.
Comparing this first colony of Spanish men to the men and women of the Mayflower is probably not fair, but a moral comparison must be made between the Catholic colonies and the Protestant colonies. The best thing that ever happened to the Catholic Church was the Reformation. The Pope at this time is a Spaniard who entertained many mistresses publicly. His children through these women were given positions of authority in Italy. The most infamous was Cesar Borgia. This is one of the characters written about in “The Prince” by Machiavelli. This was the Pope that Girolamo Savonarola preached against. He was ex-communicated and eventually executed because of Papal pressure.
So an immoral Pope gives religious cover to an immoral Columbus sent by an immoral king and now he seems surprised at the immoral actions of these men. The proof that Columbus laid responsibility upon the Spaniards is seen in how he handled his men on the fourth voyage when they were shipwrecked. He refused to let his men leave the grounded ships to venture to the Indian villages knowing that their behavior would rile up the Indians to take action against them.
After establishing the second colony of Isabela Columbus continued his exploration of Cuba, still thinking it was connected to mainland of China. He returned to the colony to find that his men had acted just as the previous group of men had. They roamed the countryside stealing, raping and exhausting the food supplies of the Indians. The first man in charge of converting the Indians was Fray Buil, he joined his fellow Catalan Pedro Margarit in terrorizing the countryside and when finally brought to heal they commandeered 3 ships and headed back to Spain to blacken Columbus’ name. The first Indian baptized would be in 1496, and not by the original friars sent to undertake the task.
Columbus returning to try and bring some order wasn’t able to stand up against his fellow country men. Yes, some Indians had attacked back after having suffered all of these indignities. Instead of dealing with the Spanish outlaws he took vengeance upon the Indians. He sent a force into the interior and captured 1500 of the leading Indians. In his desperation to prove the profitability of the venture, he was still looking for a gold mine on the island that did not exist; he chose to ship the best back to Spain as slaves despite the King and Queen hinting that they were against this. Thus, Columbus did the unspeakable to a people he had nothing but praise for after his first voyage.
Columbus then totally subdued the Island, meaning the Indians were taught to be submissive to the Spaniards. He built three forts on the interior of the Island. He still needed to make his voyages profitable so he enacted a tribute of gold on the head of every Indian. What the Indians had taken years crafting from the gold dust they obtained from the rivers was now being expected each year. The retribution for failure or resistance began the extermination of the Indians. All this happened because Columbus was not able to make a stand for justice against his men over the Indians. The Indians of Hispaniola would go from a population of around 300,000 in 1492 to 20,00 by 1512, just 20 years later. By 1548 the number was less than 500.
The discontents who had returned to Spain convinced the crown to investigate Columbus’ governorship. Columbus decided to return to Spain to defend himself before the crown. Before departing he locates a better site for the colony at Santo Domingo, one that endures to this day.
He returns to Spain, defends his good name, and after two years he undertakes his third voyage to the New World, still thinking it is the Orient. He goes south to the VerdeIslands, and then southwest and finally due west hitting the island of Trinidad off the coast of South America. He takes the time to explore the South American coast finding Indians with pearls. He stops just short of the pearl fisheries of Margarita, leaving their immense wealth for another to bring into Spain’s treasury. He amazingly navigates to Hispaniola, just missing Santo Domingo.
He returned to a stand off between his brother Bartholomew and Francisco Roldan. Roldan had gathered many discontented to his side. The main problem had always been that these men were not colonists looking for a new life, but adventurers looking for gold, willing to do anything to procure it and then return to Spain. Any attempt to control them or limit their excesses was distained, because they considered the three brothers Columbus to be foreigners. Before dealing with the rebellion he sent a ship back to Spain with a request for an able administrator of justice for the island.
His showdown with Roldan had Columbus not dealing with rebellion in a strong, proper fashion; instead he compromised, hoping for the best, and ended up being humiliated. This compromise with the rebels created the system of exploitation that would accompany all further conquests of land called the encomiendas. Each man was given a large tract of land to work as he saw fit with the Indians on it belonging to him. The Indian chiefs agreed to this enslavement just to end their impossible task of paying the gold tribute. The crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla as chief justice. He arrived to see seven Spaniards hanging on the gallows. His interviews with the many voices of complaint ended with the three brothers; Don Diego, Bartholomew and Christopher in chains headed back to Spain.
Nothing comes of the charges against the three men but the crown is not in a hurry to return the men to Hispaniola. Columbus’ hopes of re-instatement as governor are dashed when Don Diego Nicolas de Ovando is appointed the new governor. Bobadilla is ordered to make a proper accounting of Columbus’ property and Columbus is allowed to send an agent to oversee the collection of what was due him form the trade and gold diggings.
Columbus requests another voyage and after much correspondence; eighteen months later he starts his fourth and final voyage. He is ordered not to visit Santo Domingo, troubling the new governor; but is to search for the straight that would lead him to the Orient and thus return to Spain circling the earth.
He shows up in Santo Domingo, he has his reasons, but is refused entry by a mocking Ovando. Columbus still warns Ovando that a storm is coming, he knows the signs, and not to send the fleet back until the storm passes. Ovando ignores this advice and sends the fleet towards Spain. Columbus finds a place to ride out the storm. The fleet takes sail to Spain. The hurricane wreaks havoc upon the fleet. Over 500 men will die, including Bobadilla. Most of the ships will go down and only one ship will make it back to Spain. It happened to be the most unseaworthy ship of them all. It was the ship chosen to transport Columbus’ belongings and gold back to Spain. What irony.
Columbus, older, arthritic with some bitterness now sets himself to explore the coast from present day Guatemala to Panama. It is still described as one of the most beautiful stretches of sailing in the world. He is looking for the strait that he can go through and still find China. He even encamps at the mouth of the river that would someday become the Panama Canal. A short trip up the river with Indians talking of the ocean on the other side followed by a 12 mile hike and he could have beat Balboa to the punch. But, instead they finally find a real source of gold. They try and leave an outpost, but begin to realize that the Indians are not going to allow this. There is some fighting, much bravery and finally an evacuation of the outpost and a return to Santo Domingo via Cuba.
His ships are eaten up by worms and they are not going to make it. Columbus beaches them on the north shore of Jamaica, not a bad spot to be marooned for a year. They trade with the Indians to survive while some men volunteer to paddle their way to Santo Domingo with some Indians. Against all odds they make it there. The governor would rather have Columbus just die. He sends a small boat to see if they are still alive, they are and the boat returns without any of the stranded men. During this year Columbus has to fight a rebellion and even use his knowledge of the timing of a lunar eclipse to keep the Indians at bay. Finally, Columbus’ men get a ship without the governor’s permission and rescue Columbus and the crew.
Columbus’ lives out the last of his days in Spain in constant correspondence concerning the commissions due him. His son, Don Diego, will rise up in the Spanish government, marry properly and be governor of Hispaniola for a while. His other son, Ferdinand, will write one of the histories of the times. Columbus, living very comfortably from the gold that made it back through the hurricane, will live out his days defending his honor and asking for what he believes is his just due.
At any point during these four voyages, he could have retired with honor and the blessings of the crown to a good life in Spain. That wasn’t Christopher Columbus. He was a man on a mission and he stayed faithful to that mission as long as he could. His joy in life was on the ship feeling it race across the water.
Christopher Columbus sailed on August 3rd, 1492. On that day a new chapter in world history was opened. The mountains of gold and silver that would make their way to Spain would make Spain the most powerful nation in Europe for the next 100 years. The question we ask is which day had a greater impact upon the destiny of Spain; August 3rd or August 2nd, 1492 the day the Jews were expelled from Spain?
The main recipient of the dispelled Jews was the Ottoman Empire. Columbus believed that the riches of the New World would enable Spain to lead the West in a new crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent went on to reach its zenith in power and land. The Spanish fleet lost power to Suleiman as his fleet controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and his pirates constantly raided shipping along the Spanish and Italian coasts.
Another important recipient of the dispelled Jews was The Netherlands. This would be the first nation to give Jews a real freedom to worship. The politics and marriages of royalty in Europe brought The Netherlands under the control of Spain. Spain introduced the Inquisition to The Netherlands. This small nation revolted against the rule of Spain and while Belgium eventually stayed with Spain, Protestant Netherlands continued the battle for 80 years eventually establishing their independence from Spain. Their independence was followed by a flowering of Dutch prosperity.
Even England had received a small colony of dispelled Jews from Spain. This happened despite having earlier dispelled the Jews themselves in 1290. They professed Christianity but they were Maronos, secret Jews. There is the story of Queen Elizabeth entertaining the black eyed beauty Maria Nunez because she had captured the heart of her loyal servant the Earl of Essex. She being a Jew refused to accept, like Moses, the riches of England and Elizabeth allowed her captured vessel to continue on to Amsterdam to marry the Jewish man who always loved her. The Protestant Reformation was transforming England into becoming a most welcoming place for the Jews as well as an arch-enemy of the defender of the Catholic Faith, Spain.
The Spanish Armada was sent from Spain to Gravelines at the northwest corner of modern France. This is the closest spot to England. They were to transport an army from Flanders to invade England. The army was delayed the fleet was attacked and chased from the rendezvous spot and chose to sail around Scotland to return to Spain where storms did more damage to the defeated fleet. Spain would try and send two other armadas against England but both times storms turned them back.
The legacy of New World wealth to Spain compared to the promise of God that “I will curse them that curse you and bless them that bless you” was played out in the centuries following those fateful days of August 2nd and 3rd, 1492.
Update: Here is a great explanation of our Columbus holiday from Walter Russell Meade.