The Admiral of the Ocean Sea
A native of the Italian city-state of Genoa, Columbus became a sailor at the age of fourteen. He learned the nautical trade sailing on Genoese merchant vessels and became an accomplished navigator. On a long-distance voyage past Iceland in February 1477, Columbus learned about the strong east-flowing Atlantic currents and believed a journey across the ocean could be made because the currents would be able to bring a ship home. So Columbus formulated a plan to seek the east by going west. He knew such an ambitious undertaking required royal patronage, and in May of 1486 he secured a royal audience with their Catholic Majesties King Fernando and Queen Isabel of Spain, who in time granted everything Columbus needed for the voyage.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus embarked from Spain with ninety men on three ships: the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. After thirty-three days at sea, Columbus’s flotilla spotted land (the Bahamas), which he claimed in the name of the Spanish monarchs.
On this first voyage, Columbus also reached the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. He stayed four months in the New World and arrived home to fanfare on March 15, 1493. Unfortunately, the Santa Maria ran aground on Hispaniola so was forced to leave forty-two men behind, ordered to treat the indigenous people well and especially to respect the women. Unfortunately, as Columbus discovered on his second voyage, that order was not heeded.
Columbus made four voyages to the New World, and each brought its own discoveries and adventures. His second voyage included many crewmen from his first, but also some new faces such as Ponce de León, who later won fame as an explorer himself. On this second voyage, Columbus and his men encountered the fierce tribe of the Caribs, who were cannibals, practiced sodomy, and castrated captured boys from neighboring tribes. Columbus recognized the Caribs’ captives as members of the peaceful tribe he met on his first voyage, so he rescued and returned them to their homes. This voyage included stops in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The third voyage was the most difficult for Columbus, as he was arrested on charges of mismanagement of the Spanish trading enterprise in the New World and sent back to Spain in chains (though later fully exonerated). Columbus’s fourth and final voyage took place in 1502-1504, with his son Fernando among the crew. The crossing of the Atlantic was the fastest ever: sixteen days. The expedition visited Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, and was marooned for a time on Jamaica.
Most of the accounts for the Admiral’s motives of his voyages are mistakenly focused on economic or political reasons. But on the contrary, his primary motive was to acquire gold to finance a crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Mohammedans. The evidence of this ideal was expressed in a letter he wrote on December 1492 to King Fernando and Queen Isabel, encouraging them to “spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.” Also he wanted to evangelize the Faith to the New World by requesting Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) in 1502 to dispatch missionaries to the indigenous peoples of the New World so they could accept Christ. And the final proof of the Admiral’s exploration was done primary for the glory of God was in his will he had bequeathed funds for the missionary efforts in the lands he had discovered.
Another contradiction to the popular myth, Columbus treated the native peoples with great respect and friendship. The Admiral demanded that his men exchange gifts with the natives they encountered and not just take what they wanted by force. He enforced this policy rigorously: on his third voyage in August 1500, he hanged several men who disobeyed him by harming the native people.
The Admiral’s explorations was never intended to enslave the native peoples of New World. In fact, he considered the Indians who worked in the Spanish settlement in Hispaniola as employees of the Crown. In further proof that Columbus did not plan to rely on slave labor, he asked the Crown to send him Spanish miners to mine for gold. Indeed, no doubt influenced by Columbus, the Spanish monarchs in their instructions to Spanish settlers mandated that the Indians be treated “very well and lovingly” and demanded that no harm should come to them.
Columbus passed to his eternal reward on May 20, 1506.