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by William H. Benson

October 13, 2011

     Christopher Columbus completed four voyages to the Western Hemisphere. It was a tribute to his single-minded focus, his daring, his exemplary seamanship skills, his persuasive ability, and a dose of luck that he completed each of the four.

     After each return to Spain, he would report to the royal couple, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, approach their throne, and tell them what he had seen and done. They believed Columbus. They stared in dumbfounded amazement at the Indians that he brought back, and at the cages that held exotic birds and parrots. Each time they would choose to finance another larger and more grandiose voyage.

     For his first voyage, he departed the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa on September 8, 1492, and gave the order for the course, “West, nothing to the north, nothing to the south.”And so his three ships held a westerly course of 28 degrees north latitude. The primitive maps of his day indicated that Japan was at the same latitude as the Canary Islands, and Columbus believed if he followed a direct westerly course, he would arrive at the Japanese Islands, and eventually see China.

     He was obsessed with getting to the Orient, for he was convinced that once there he would find mountains of gold and gems waiting for him to take back to Spain.

     Instead of Japan though, he and his men came upon a small island, one of those in the Bahamas, due east of the tip of Florida, on October 12, and instead of finding gold, everywhere that Christopher and his fellow Spaniards sailed in the Bahamas, they encountered only naked Indians. Cuba, they found, had no gold, but on the larger island of Hispaniola, he saw some evidence of it.

     He departed Hispaniola on January 15, 1493, and struck land at Portugal’s coast on March 3.

     On November 1, 1493, he sailed west on his second voyage commanding a flotilla of seventeen ships that the royal couple had provided him. In the Caribbean, he discovered the Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica, and established a Spanish colony at Santo Domingo on Hispaniola.

     However, problems overwhelmed him and his colony. Gold, he learned, was difficult to mine. The Indians were resentful of Columbus’ and his sailors’ very presence. They did not want to continue to feed these bearded white men, and certainly they did not want to dig gold for them. The Spaniards themselves were uncooperative with Columbus. They rebelled and would not work in the fields to provide food for themselves.

     He could not understand why so many people turned on him, and why they would lie to the King and Queen about him. Columbus returned to Spain in June of 1646.

     He should have quit then, but he was so obsessed with finding the treasures of the Indies, that he went on two more voyages. The third was to the south, to the coast of South America, to Venezuela and to the mouth of the Orinoco River, and the fourth was to the west, to Central America, to the modern states of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia. On none of these two voyages did he find any evidence that he was near Japan, China, India, or the Malaysian island.

    During his third trip, Ferdinand and Isabella heard of Columbus’ exploitation of the natives and of his dictatorial manners toward the Spanish settlers on Hispaniola. The royal couple listened and sent Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate, and upon his arrival, he promptly arrested Columbus, put him in chains, and ordered him returned to Spain. Christopher departed Santo Domingo in early October 1500, and when given a chance to have his chains removed, Columbus replied, “I have been placed in chains by order of the sovereigns, and I shall wear them until the sovereigns themselves order them removed.”

     Ferdinand and Isabella listened to Columbus’ side of the story and concluded that when on board a sailing vessel, he was an excellent mariner, but once on land, he was not a good administrator. Because of that, the royal couple agreed to finance his fourth voyage, but if he would only explore.

     After that final voyage, Christopher Columbus’ body was a wreck. He suffered from gout. Malaria he had caught in the New World drained him of all energy. Most painful was the rheumatoid arthritis he endured during the final years of his life. Just to move hurt him. Some scholars believe that because he had consumed river water on his voyages, he may have contracted shigellosis, a disease caused by a bacteria in the American tropics. If untreated it leads to Reiter’s syndrome, in which the victim feels that parts of the body are swollen and inflamed, symptoms that Columbus complained of.


     He died on May 20, 1506, at the age of fifty-five. Up to the end, he was demanding that King Ferdinand pay him all that the crown had promised him and give him all the honors to which he was entitled. He received some, but not nearly all that he wanted. He died not fully understanding that his four voyages were to a new hemisphere, and that he had discovered two new continents: North and South America.