Columbus Day: The Rest of the Story

Today is October 10, 2011

Cristoforo Colombo

Mythology inevitably takes root and flourishes around the life stories of all of history’s “great people.” That is certainly the case with Cristoforo Colombo of Genoa, Italy, whose voyages of discovery and entrepreneurship we celebrate in many parts of the United States today.

All of us who attended grade school during the latter half of the 20th Century are familiar with the life and legend of the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as historian Samuel Eliot Morison calls him. I would like to mark this occasion by telling you a few things about the man and his patrons that you may not know, and which might give you another perspective on history, that most fascinating of subjects.

  • He was the son and grandson of weavers who had lived in the Genoese Republic for at least three generations. Ruddy-complexioned and with red hair, he was not an Italian in the modern sense. The people of Genova La Superba held themselves apart from and superior to other Italians.  In his writings, Colombo charged his heirs to “always work for the honor, welfare, and increase for the city of Genoa,” and to always maintain a family house there.
  • He learned seamanship on Portuguese vessels, and might have gotten the backing of King Joao of that country had Bartolomeu Dias not returned in triumph from his Africa voyage in 1488. Columbus was in Lisbon to pitch the king the day Dias returned. Discovery of that sea route to the Indies caused King Joao to lose interest in financing a Western exploration.
  • Queen Isabella of Spain first met with him in 1486 and kept him waiting six years for financing. Exactly why, we’re not sure. She was an effective ruler in a number of ways, especially in fiscal matters. She inherited enormous debt when she assumed power and got it paid off. It may have been that she didn’t have the money to spare in 1486. But she gave him a small retainer to keep him around and not take his project to some other monarch.
  • Isabella la Catolica was totally intolerant of other religions. She employed the infamous Tomas de Torquemada as her confessor and first Inquisitor General. She did her best to drive out from Spain, or to convert to Christianity, Jews and Moors (not Moops).
  • Even though she was anti-Jewish, Isabella employed a Jew named  Luis de Santangel as keeper of the privy purse. Santangel was the one who made the convincing argument that the expense of financing the voyage, less than what it would take to entertain a visiting sovereign at her court, would be worth it if the result was the conversion of people of Asia to Christianity.
  • That the queen sold her royal jewels to finance the first voyage is myth. That option was apparently on the table but Santangel arranged for borrowings from other public accounts instead; he also invested some of his own money.  And Columbus didn’t get paid anything until he returned to Spain. It was a good investment by Santangel.
  • The best, and favorite, of Columbus’ three ships was the Nina.Its real name was the Santa Clara, but the former was its nickname because it belonged to the Nino family of Palos.  The Nina went on three of his four voyages. It and the Pinta were caravels; Portuguese navigators favored such ships for their seaworthiness.
  • The Santa Maria, larger than the other two and the flagship of the fleet, was not a caravel but a nao, a ship less suited for long voyages.
  • The New World was first sighted at 2:00 a.m. on October 12, 1492 by Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Pinta. The Pinta let the flagship, Santa Maria, catch up to them. Columbus gave the captain of the Pinta a bonus of 5,000 maravedis.
  • The Santa Maria drifted onto a coral reef during the night of December 24. The crew disobeyed orders to row out with a stern anchor that would keep the ship steady; rather, they rowed to the Nina, which refused to take them on. During that delay the Santa Maria carried further onto the reef and suffered irreparable hull damage from the rocks.
  • Columbus took that wreck on Christmas day as God’s sign that he should build a fortified settlement there. He called in La Navidad and left 21 sailors there, with instructions to convert the natives. He had no shortage of volunteers, because the men had thought they had reached the Indies and that there would be gold aplenty. They met a bad end at the hands of a local chieftain after roaming around seeking gold and women; all the Spaniards were hunted down and slaughtered.
  • He returned to Spain in triumph, and would have been better off – materially, anyway – if he’d taken his payment and retired. But he made three more voyages. Ponce de Leon was one of 1,000 “gentlemen volunteers” on his second trip. Ten ships went on that voyage.  They discovered Puerto Rico, then called Bourinquen in honor of St. John the Baptist. DeLeon liked that island, came back and conquered it some years later and became royal governor.
  • The second voyage was one of discovery, with about 20 new islands mapped out. But Columbus decided to attempt to subjugate the local population of Hispaniola, and he took 30 of the natives, Tainos, back to Spain as slaves.  Columbus and his brothers Diego and Bartholomew were terrible colonial administrators and could not wield authority properly. They mismanaged the trading post of Isabela to such an extent, neglecting to pay their people, that emissaries sent back to King Ferdinand persuaded him to take action on their behalf.
  • On the third voyage, Columbus discovered mainland South America. But the royal commissioner of Hispaniola, Francisco de Bobadilla, seized him and his brothers Diego and Bartholomew and sent them back to Spain in chains to be tried by the royal court. The king and queen fired the Columbus boys from their jobs in colonial government but allowed him to make a fourth voyage.
  • The fourth one was called the “High Voyage.” Columbus explored the coast of Central America down as far as southern Panama. The fleet ran aground and the crews were marooned on Jamaica for a year and had to send a canoe to Hispaniola to ask for a rescue ship.
  •  The natives there were accommodating but stopped trading Columbus and his men food for trinkets. He pulled his “eclipse trick” on them and scared them into giving food again; knowing that a full moon eclipse would be occurring, he told them that the gods were angry at them and would show their wrath that night. The terrified natives caved and the food shortage ended.
  • They were finally rescued, and Columbus returned to Spain, where he had a comfortable if not lavish retirement. He went to his death not realizing what he had actually discovered; he believed he had reached a province of China in addition to the many islands.
  • That’s today’s history lesson.  I hope you enjoyed it. Columbus had many faults and failings, but his skill as a navigator was unsurpassed. His “Enterprise of the Indies,” the idea that the East could be reached by sailing West, was his idea alone. He had the will and the perseverance to see that idea through, even though he made it less than halfway to where he thought he’d been.

With that, I wish you a very pleasant Columbus Day.

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