Christopher Columbus embarked on four voyages to find a direct route from Europe to Asia. On his first trip in 1492, he wrecked the Santa Maria on Hispaniola and left behind a number of crew members in a small settlement. He hurried back in 1493 with a larger expedition to these men (and found them dead) but the possibility of gold had drawn a mix of new settlers who established themselves on Hispaniola. His third voyage in 1498 took him to Trinidad and within reach of the South American continent, and his final voyage in 1502 brought him down to central America and Jamaica before he ultimately gave up. Though he died utterly disillusioned and despondent in his failure, over the course of a decade he had laid the seeds of discovery and domination that would completely alter the course of history in the Caribbean.
As we renegotiate and reevaluate history, Columbus has been the target of significant criticism in expanding the colonial reach of Spain and establishing the forces that decimated the native populations of the Caribbean. To add to this narrative, evidence suggests the discoveries of his third voyage were accidental and drew heavily upon a body of knowledge from Portuguese sailors.
As a young man, Columbus established himself as a sailor in the Mediterranean. In 1476 he was sent on a commercial voyage headed for England that was attacked by marauders off the coast of Portugal. He washed up near Lisbon where he settled and established a chart-making business. He supplemented his income with with sailing contracts from the Italians and Portuguese, and historians believe this period was instrumental in shaping his ventures in the Americas. From the Portuguese he would have had access to a wealth of maritime learnings and tools, including the mariner's compass, the nautical chart based on compass directions and estimated distances, and the sand-glass which made it possible to calculate the distance traveled when a ship was blown off course.
Before he left on his third voyage, he stopped for six days in Madeira. While his original objective for this trip was a return to Hispaniola with perishable supplies for the settlers and then to pursue exploration west of Cuba, this time in Portugal may have changed his course.
Sailing from Madeira, when he reached the Canaries he made a sudden decision to split the mission: he would send three ships to Hispaniola and sail with three ships south across the equator. This appears to be a sudden decision based on the logs:
- This split is not mentioned in any prior planning documents.
- The distribution of perishable goods on his vessels suggests that he intended the entire convoy to sail to the Caribbean. If he was planning to split the mission, he would have loaded the supplies on the larger ships and kept the smaller ships free for exploration. And he specifically notes that smaller ships would have been better suited for exploration. (He had learned this with the loss of the Santa Maria.)
- He specifically says that this was not an exploration expedition and notes that he looks forward to more exploratory ventures.
Despite these things he sailed south from Cape Verde instead of taking the westward course he had employed on his previous trip. His objectives, he said, were to look for islands and continents. He likely was driven by the belief held by King John of Portugal that there was a continent to the south. However he had known of this route since 1493, so the change in the route was likely spurred by additional information. He had to have been relatively confident of his success and the resulting rewards and favors that would fall to him to shift course in this way.
Historians believe that the route Columbus plotted was too perfect to have been left to chance. It was a route that could only have been plotted if he had full knowledge of winds, currents, and hazards of the Central Atlantic. It's the route that the Portuguese would employ during the sixteenth-century to sail from Brazil to India. But more to the point, he gave up on the route and turned west sooner than he had projected, putting him on a course that landed him on Trinidad. If he had been confident of the route, or intended it from the start and properly stocked for it, he would not have had the burden of perishables weighing on him and would have stuck with it.
Columbus landed in Trinidad in July 1493. He had set his course for Dominica, abandoning a southernly course, when his servant climbed into the crow's nest and spied the three mountains of Trinidad. If not for these peaks, he would have passed the land by completely, and so it was somewhat of an accident that he found this island nation. And while he would site the landmass of South America, he actually turned north without ever landing day because his supplies were so low.
There are additional hints of the Portuguese influence on this voyage in the names he gives to the geographic features of the area. There is, for example, a reference to "Tramontana" in his notes, which appears to be a corruption of the Portuguese "tres montanhas" that marked Trinidad. Columbus named the island for the Holy Trinity, under whose auspices he had set out.
He identifies an island 26 leagues away to the northeast from the eastern end of the Gulf of Paria. He names it Belaforma, or beautiful shape. But there is no indication that Columbus came close to this island based on the route he undertood which cast him north. This island is Tobago, and at that distance he would have been hard pressed to see details that support the name.
The Portuguese also held a tradition of naming features after the saint on whose day the discovery was made. Columbus names Sebeta (a potential mistake on St. Isabel) and Margarita on a schedule that breaks with this tradition, suggesting that these names were already established. He also initially named the Gulf of Paria the gulf "de la Ballena" or "the gulf of the Whale." But no records indicate he saw a whale, and the name may have been a carry-over from a previous expedition that saw a stranded whale from the Antarctic by way of the Benguela and Equatorial currents.
History is written by the records that remain. Perhaps Columbus was verifying documented hearsay. But given the risks involved with sea voyages, its more likely that these were honest efforts that pre-existed his landing in Trinidad and subsequent exploration of the area. Whatever the truth, there is considerable evidence to support the influence of other maritime traditions on the expeditions of Columbus. He has come to represent a great deal about this age of exploration, which includes a broad reach people and politics.
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Canny, N. (1992). Remembering Columbus, 1492-1992. Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 44, 1-10. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25550150
Davies, A. (1954). The "Miraculous" Discovery of South America by Columbus. Geographical Review, 44(4), 573-582. doi:10.2307/212161
Wilson, S. (1997). Surviving European Conquest in the Caribbean. Revista De Arqueología Americana, (12), 141-160. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27768388
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