Muslim Turks conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453.
William Lawson Grant, Professor of Colonial History at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, wrote in the introduction to “Voyages and Explorations” (Toronto, The Courier Press, Limited, 1911, A.S. Barnes Company): “The history of Western Civilization begins in a conflict with the Orient, a conflict of which it may be the end is not yet. But the routes between East and West have been trodden by the caravans of trade more often even than by the feet of armies. The treasures of the East were long brought overland to Alexandria, or Constantinople, or the cities of the Levant, and thence distributed to Europe by the galleys of Genoa or of Venice. But when the Turk placed himself astride the Bosporus, and made Egypt his feudatory, new routes had to be found. In the search for these were made the three greatest voyages in history, those of Columbus, of Vasco da Gama, and greatest of all of Magellan. In his search for the riches of Cipangu, Columbus stumbled upon America. The great Genoese lived and died under the illusion that he had reached the outmost verge of Asia.”
When Muslim Turks cut off the land routes to India and China, Europeans began to look for a sea route. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama successfully sailed around South Africa to India.
But six years earlier, another explorer proposed a sea route. Beginning in 1492, Christopher Columbus took four voyages to the New World:
- 1st voyage, he discovored land, 1492-93;
- 2nd voyage, he encountered a hurricane, malaria and cannibals, 1493-1496;
- 3rd voyage, he faced rebellion and arrest, 1498-1500;
- 4th voyage, he was shipwrecked on Jamaica for a year, after surviving another hurricane and exploring Panama, 1502-1504.
On his first voyage (1492-1493), Columbus used knowledge of the “trade winds” to make the longest voyage ever out of the sight of land. Thinking he had made it to India, he referred to the inhabitants as “Indians.” These were peaceful Arawak natives. Columbus thought that Cuba was the tip of China and that Hispaniola (Dominican Republican/Haiti) was Japan. Returning to Europe, Columbus’ ship, Santa Maria, hit a reef and wrecked. He left 39 sailors in a make-shift fort named La Navidad.
On his second voyage (1493-1496), Columbus was frustratingly saddled with 17 ships and 1,500 mostly get-rich-quick Spaniards. This was the doings of the jealous Spanish Bishop Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, who was continually undermining Columbus at the royal court, as he thought the Spanish Monarchs should never have given so much authority to a “non-Spaniard.” Now, rather than focusing on finding India and China, Columbus was tasked with managing hundreds of ambitious settlers.
Looking for a location for settlement, Columbus explored Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Arriving at La Navidad, they were shocked to find that all the sailors Columbus had left the previous year were all killed.
The Spanish settlers felt Columbus misrepresented the new world “paradise,” especially after they encountered a hurricane and malaria. Instead of paradise, Spaniards were shocked to discover that there were Carib natives, who emasculated, sodomized and cannibalized the peaceful Arawak natives.
Spanish settlers grew impatient at having to obey Columbus, who was, after all, not even Spanish, but rather an Italian from the city of Genoa. Columbus unfortunately yielded to the demands of greedy settlers and let them set up European-style feudal plantations, called “mayorazgos,” which set a precedent for generations of mistreatment of native populations.
Columbus left his brothers Diego and Bartholomew in charge of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, and sailed back to Spain.
On his third voyage (1498-1500), Columbus barely made it across the southern Atlantic, encountering the windless “doldrums.” When the winds finally picked up, Columbus named the first land he saw after the Trinity – “Trinidad.” Columbus became the first European to set foot on South America, planting the Spanish flag at the Paria Peninsula of present-day Venezuela, Aug. 1, 1498. He explored the beautiful Orinoco River, thinking it was the outer regions of the Garden of Eden.
When Columbus arrived back at his settlement of Santo Domingo, he found that the greedy Spanish settlers had rebelled against his brothers. In despair, Columbus sent a plea for help to the king. The plea was intercepted by Bishop Fonseca, who convinced the king that, instead of sending help, he should replace Columbus as governor.
The king sent replacement governor Bobadillo in 1500. Bobadillo arrested Columbus and his brothers, and sent them back to Spain in chains. Columbus wrote to a friend and confidante of the Queen, Dona Juana de Torres: “I undertook a new voyage to the New … World which hitherto had been hidden. … They judge me there as a governor who had gone to Sicily or to a city or town under a regular government. … I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies.”
After a two-year delay, Columbus was permitted to sail on his fourth voyage, May 12, 1502, from Cadiz, Spain. He was forbidden to visit his settlement of Santo Domingo, but upon reaching the Caribbean, Columbus became alarmed by a hurricane brewing. Weighing the risk, he entered the harbor of Santo Domingo to warn them of the approaching danger a-nd to seek shelter for his ships.
The replacement governor, Bobadillo, was preparing to set sail for Spain with a 31-ship convoy of ships filled with gold, heading directly into the hurricane. The warning of Columbus was spurned, as he had become a persona-non-grata. Ordered to leave the harbor, Columbus sailed as fast as he could to seek shelter on the other side of the island.
The hurricane destroyed Santo Domingo. On that fateful day, July 11, 1502, nearly all of the ships headed to Spain sank, including the one carrying Bobadillo. One ship that survived, the Aguja, was the slowest and had not cleared the island mangroves when the hurricane hit. When it reached Spain, to everyone’s amazement, it was found to be carrying Columbus’ portion of the gold, per his agreement with the Monarchs.
The providential circumstances surrounding this incident vindicated Columbus’ reputation, though he did not find out about it for over a year, as he was blown around the Caribbean.
Describing the violent weather, Columbus recorded: “The tempest arose and wearied me so that I knew not where to turn, my old wound opened up, and for 9 days I was lost without hope of life; eyes never beheld the sea so angry and covered with foam. …”
Columbus continued: “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. The people were so worn out that they longed for death.”
After a day and a half of continuous lightning, Columbus’ 15-year-old son, Ferdinand, recorded that on Dec. 13, 1502, a waterspout passed between the ships: “… the which had they not dissolved by reciting the Gospel according to St. John, it would have swamped whatever it struck … for it draws water up to the clouds in a column thicker than a waterbutt, twisting it about like a whirlwind.”
Columbus’ biographer, Samuel Eliot Morrison described Admiral Columbus: “It was the Admiral who exorcised the waterspout. From his Bible he read of that famous tempest off Capernaum, concluding, ‘Fear not, it is I!’ Then clasping the Bible in his left hand, with drawn sword he traced a cross in the sky and a circle around his whole fleet.”
Columbus briefly landed in Panama, but was too ill and too suspicious of the natives to cross to the Pacific side. After being attacked by Indians, with his ships worm-eaten and taking on water, Columbus barely made it to the island of Jamaica where he was shipwrecked for a year. Natives at first accommodated them, but the situation deteriorated, and they began to threaten them. Columbus correctly predicted a lunar eclipse which convinced the natives to respect him.
Columbus’ captain, Diego Méndez de Segura, set off from Jamaica with several natives to cross 450 miles of open sea to reach Hispaniola (Haiti). Finally being rescued, Columbus returned to Spain on Nov. 7, 1504.
Three weeks later, Columbus’ chief patron, Queen Isabella, died. Columbus died a year and a half later at the age of 55.
Though tragically unsuccessful as a governor, Columbus was nevertheless one of the most renowned explorers in the world who changed the course of history.
While shipwrecked and in pain, July 7, 1503, Columbus wrote his “Lettera Rarissima,” not knowing if anyone would read it: “The Indians were many and united and attacked. … I was outside very much alone, on this rude coast, with a high fever and very fatigued. There was no hope of escape. In this state, I climbed painfully to the highest part of the ship and cried out for help with a fearful voice …
At length, groaning with exhaustion, I fell asleep, and heard a compassionate voice saying, ‘O fool, and slow to believe and serve thy God, the God of every man! … From thy birth He hath ever held thee in special charge. … Of those barriers of the Ocean sea, which were closed with such mighty chains, He hath given thee the keys. … Turn thou to Him and acknowledge thy faults; His mercy is infinite; thine old age shall not hinder thee from performing mighty deeds. … Whatever He promises He fulfills with interest; that is His way.”
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