The Sailor Who Changed History

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Christopher Columbus

As a child you may have memorized the rhyme: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But what we all learned back in the day tells only a fragment of the fascinating and tragic story of Christopher Columbus.

Robert Macomber – historian, master lecturer and renowned author – provided intriguing details about the real Columbus during his presentation to a capacity audience of more than 80 attendees at the first Estero Island Historic Society public meeting of 2020, on Monday, January 13 at St. Raphael’s Church.

Presenter-Robert-Macomber
Presenter Robert Macomber, a perennial favorite of Estero Island Historic Society members and friends

Macomber is best known for his “Honor Series,” popular maritime thrillers that cover the life and career of his protagonist, U.S. naval officer Peter Wake, from the Civil War in Florida to beyond the Spanish-American War in 1898. These novels illuminate significant events in history that have served as the foundation for today’s world. The 15th installment of the Honor Series is due out in October 2020.

Macomber called Columbus “a mapmaker, master seaman and driven character” who, despite his lack of formal education, became fluent in two Spanish languages as well as Portuguese, Latin and Greek, so he could study reports from previous expeditions. “Columbus made four voyages to the western hemisphere,” said Macomber. “In the process he changed the world and changed history.”

Born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, Columbus (known as Colombo in Italy and Colón in Spain) understood the winds, currents and climates of Europe and western Africa, which he learned by sailing as far south as the Cape Verde Islands.

He became fascinated by Marco Polo’s overland travels to Asia (1441 – 65). The spices of India (then known as Mangi), Japan (Sapongo) and China (Cathay) were coveted trade items that could render the bland European diet palatable. Spices in that era, Macomber said, were more precious than gold or silk.

Columbus sought financial backing from both Italian and Portuguese rulers to sail to the East Indies. He calculated that trade winds would push him from the west coast of Africa (then called Guinea) westward to a large land mass called Antillia, south of India. Although sailors of the era knew the earth was round, not flat – as evidenced by a 1492 globe still in existence – their knowledge of the earth’s actual land masses was far off base.

King John II of Portugal rejected Columbus’s requests for support in 1485 and 1488. The king bet his coin on Portugal’s Bartolomeu Días, who from 1487 – 88 sailed southward down the west coast of Africa, around its southern tip (Cape of Good Hope) and into the Indian Ocean. There he encountered Arab sailors, and knew he must be getting closer to India and Asia.

Columbus seemed doomed to forever remain a coastal sailor, until Spanish rulers King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile granted their support in January 1492. They promised Columbus a wealth of benefits if he found rich new lands:

  • Title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea
  • Honorific title of Don (equivalent to the British Sir)
  • 10% of all riches gained
  • Status as Viceroy of all discovered lands, with governing authority and access to great wealth

Columbus’s first voyage launched in September 1492. He received three second-rate ships, relics of the Spanish Inquisition that had carried exiled Jews and Muslims out of Spain. The fleet was anything but fleet: average speed was a paltry four nautical miles per hour. Soldiers, Macomber noted, can easily march at three miles per hour.

The flagship, Santa Maria (which Columbus called La Capitana), was 62 feet long, carrying 40 men and four small cannons. The 50-year-old Pinta, at 56 feet, held 60 men. The Niña was 50 feet long and carried 24 men.

The-sailor-who-changed-history
The sailor who changed history

Lacking volunteers, the sailors were mostly prisoners taken from Spain’s dungeons. Three days into the voyage out of Cádiz, Spain, the Pinta’s rudder broke. The ships spent a month in the Canary Islands for repairs and resupply.

After 30 days crossing the Atlantic, on October 7 the crew spotted flocks of birds flying from north to south. A crew member and Columbus vied to be first to spot land, as that would earn the spotter the vast fortune of $10,000 in gold coins.

Landfall

Early on October 12, the two men saw an island. Columbus claimed the honor and the prize. He named the island  on which they landed (in today’s Bahamas Out Islands) San Salvador. It was called Guanahani by the Taino natives who greeted them ashore.

Columbus thought the many small islands he encountered were the outskirts of Antillia. After exploring the Bahamas and Hispaniola, his fleet arrived at Cuba. They took this large island to be the long-sought Antillia in the East Indies.

Returning eastward, on Christmas Day 1492 the Santa Maria shipwrecked on Hispaniola, near Cap Haitien. There, Columbus set up a colony named La Navidad (Christmas), populated by men his two remaining ships couldn’t carry, and headed home. Upon his return to Spain on March 15, 1493, carrying Taino captives, exotic parrots and a dash of gold, Columbus was greeted as a conquering hero.

For his second voyage westward in September 1493, Columbus was well outfitted with 17 ships and 1200 men (the better to colonize new lands). As he traveled, Columbus gave almost all the Caribbean islands the names they still bear today.

Like many early explorers, Columbus sought gold that was reputed to be abundant in the “new world.” Native people, said Macomber, soon caught on to the invaders’ gold fever. They learned to say: “No gold here. Sail over there – lots of gold!”

Columbus’s return to La Navidad revealed a disaster. Fighting among the colonists, and between them and the normally peaceable Taino natives, had decimated the colony. So Columbus established a new town: La Isabela, on the north coast of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic). It held 1,000 men, 200 huts, a church, a citadel for Columbus and defensive forts to protect from the now angry Taino and the fierce Carib tribe.

Columbus returned to Spain in 1496, then set off on his third westward voyage with his youngest brother Bartolomeo on May 30, 1498. When they landed on Hispaniola on August 19, they found chaos and tragedy at La Isabela. Most had died. The surviving colonists, starving and ill, had battled with the Taino – who, like other natives of the Americas, succumbed to European diseases at an alarming rate. Mutiny ensued.

To restore order, Columbus imposed draconian punishments for any disagreement with authority, showing himself to be something of a sociopath. Perhaps the lack of sizable troves of gold increased his wrath.

In October 1500, Christopher and Bartolomeo Columbus were arrested, charged with murder, chained and thrown into a ship’s bilge for the miserable voyage back to Spain. There, they spent six weeks in a dungeon in Granada, Spain.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama compounded their ignominy by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and then north to India, with its spices and other riches, from 1496 – 98. Next, de Gama sailed west to South America, founding Brazil. The Portuguese dominated this southern route across the Atlantic for the next 400 years.

Stripped of his governorship, titles and much of his wealth, Christopher Columbus had plenty of time to write the second of his two books: The Book of Prophecies, which claimed that a divine hand guided his travels.

Fourth & Final Voyage

Freed from prison by Ferdinand and Isabella, on his fourth and final trip west in May 1502 Columbus again visited Hispaniola and Cuba. In Santo Domingo, his nemesis, the governor, refused to heed warning of a hurricane and sent a fleet of 28 ships off to Spain. While Columbus made his way up an estuary to ride out the storm, the governor lost all but one of his ships in the hurricane.

Columbus reached Central America on his final voyage: today’s Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Macomber recounted the mariner’s clever ploy when threatened with attack by the Caribs. Knowing a lunar eclipse was imminent, Columbus warned the locals he would make the moon disappear. When this came true, the native people called off their attack.

The explorer managed to sail his worm-riddled, hurricane-damaged ships as far as Jamaica before they fell apart. He waited a year for rescue to arrive from Spain, and returned to Spain in November 1504 to find Queen Isabella dying. Columbus claimed to the end that he had reached Cathay (China), perhaps addled by disease and ambition.

Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain on May 20, 1506 at the advanced age (for that day) of 54. His remains are speculated to be either in the Cathedral of Seville or a $70 million mausoleum in Santo Domingo. Or perhaps partial remains are in both locations.

As exceptional historian and presenter Robert Macomber noted, Christopher Columbus, master navigator and early colonizer of the Americas, remained an enigma far beyond his epoch. And he changed the world forever.

 

By Janet Sailian

 

[Sidebar:]

Join the Estero Island Historic Society for the next two public meetings. All are invited, free of charge. Donations are welcomed. Public meetings run from 7 – 8 p.m. at St. Raphael’s Church, 5601 Williams Drive. Punch, water and cookies are served.

Monday, February 10: Dr. Darren Rumbold, Director of Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station at Florida Gulf Coast University, will speak about The Evolution of South Florida’s Water Quality Issues.

Monday, March 9: Co-authors Janet Sailian and Martin G. Le Blanc will present excerpts and information from local resident Le Blanc’s autobiography: Ghost Warrior – the true story of a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret in the Vietnam and Cold War eras.