Columbus: The Four Voyages

When Laurence Bergreen decided to write a book on Christopher Columbus’s four voyages, the comment he most often heard from his friends was, “You mean he made four voyages?  What happened on the others?  Where did he go?  Do the other voyages matter?”  Bergreen would reply, he remembers, “that I thought the other voyages mattered greatly, that they were at least as important as the first, which, in context, set the stage for the later ones, each more adventurous and tragic than those preceding it.”

The result of his labors is Columbus: The Four Voyages, an account simultaneously of the navigational feats of each voyage, what Columbus and his men encountered in the New World, and the long-term effects these European conquerors would have on it.  For Columbus’s voyages were both exploratory and imperial.  The lands he “discovered” (for of course that term has come under attack as an example of European solipsism) he also claimed for himself and the Spanish Crown, though he had little idea where they actually were: to the end of his life he persisted in believing that Cuba, Hispaniola (now comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the other islands he had come upon in the “Indies” were somewhere off the coast of China, potential stops on a trade route to the realm of the Great Khan whom Marco Polo had written about more than two centuries earlier.

The most famous voyage, and the one least tainted by the navigator’s rapacity, was the first: after touching land (the celebrated “first contact”), probably on the Bahamian island now called San Salvador, he and his three ships continued along the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola before their return to Spain.  This was the valiant “Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria” expedition celebrated in elementary school classrooms all over our nation.  In these early days the driven explorer, for all his gold lust and his growing religious messianism, could still appreciate the region’s otherworldly beauty.  The fish there, he noted in his diary, were “so unlike ours that it is marvelous; they have some like dories, of the brightest colors in the world, blue, yellow, red, and of all colors, and others painted in a thousand ways; and the colors are so bright, that there is no man would not marvel and would not take great delight in seeing them; also there are whales.”  The flora appeared to him just as remarkable.  “During this time I walked among some trees which were the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen, viewing as much verdure in so great development as in the month of May in Andalusia, and all the trees were as different from ours as day from night.”  This was pre-contact America, an ecosystem that had developed independently from that of Eurasia since the breakup of Pangaea some 125 million years earlier.  The so-called Columbian Exchange, initiated in 1492, would change that forever, “bursting the evolutionary bubbles of previously independent continents” and transforming the global environment forever.

The people of the islands—the peaceable Tainos and the more aggressive Caribs—he had already dubbed “Indians,” and from the beginning the explorer saw them more as sources of labor and potential Christian converts than as members of a culture worthy of consideration in its own right. “Conditioned by medieval assumptions,” Bergreen writes, “his intellect and imagination labored to interpret these astonishing sights according to categories that he understood.”  Though a gifted navigator and an avid reader of chronicles and histories, Columbus was not a brilliant thinker, and as he aged and the hardships of his voyages took their mental and physical toll on him he became ever more convinced that he was acting as God’s instrument in a mystical Reconquista, a western extension of Ferdinand and Isabella’s triumphant expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.  

The degeneration of his mission from a religiously inspired crusade to save souls and win Catholic converts to a naked grab for slaves and gold can be traced through the course of the four voyages.  On the second, 1493-96, the newly named “Viceroy and Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the Indies” and the sailors who manned his seventeen-ship fleet explored in greater depth the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the smaller islands to the east.  Queen Isabella had given express instructions for the Indians to “be carefully taught the principles of our Holy Faith,” but she stressed that the conquerors should “treat the Indians very well and lovingly and abstain from doing them any injury.”  Columbus’s feelings about the indigenous people he encountered, however, were complex and ambivalent: “[W]ithin the span of a few days he was capable of regarding the Indians as political allies, trading partners, converts, slaves, or deadly enemies.  In the pages of his journal they appeared as wise or primitive, indolent or resourceful, according to his judgments and whims.”  On the island of Hispaniola, he imposed a crippling tribute system that quickly depleted the island’s gold supplies, destroyed its economy and enslaved its population.  The result was the horrific mass suicide of some fifty thousand Indians.  “They plunged off cliffs, the poisoned themselves with roots, and they starved themselves to death.”  And this was only the beginning.  Between 1494 and 1496 it is estimated that at least a third of the island’s population died; half a century later only 500 Indians remained, pathetic relics of the hundreds of thousands that had lived on the island when Columbus first arrived.

Still, the Admiral was authorized by his sovereigns to make a third voyage.  This time he touched the South American mainland for the first time, landing in what is now Venezuela, at the mouth of the Orinoco River.  But he was unwilling to accept the evidence that he had arrived at a previously unknown continent; he was more perplexed than ever.  As Bergreen observes, “He was equipped to confirm cherished myths, not explode them.”  Neither was he equipped to administer colonies, as Bartolomé de las Casas’s writings reveal only too clearly:  in Hispaniola, the chronicler was to complain, Columbus’s unscrupulous band of Spaniards “traveled from village to village and from place to place, eating at their discretion, taking the Indian men that they wanted for their service and the Indian women who looked good to them.”  Columbus, Las Casas wrote, “would have done great things and produced inestimable benefit in this land if he had realized that these people did not owe anything to him or to any other person in the world just because they had been discovered.”

Tales of Columbus’s brutal misrule got back to Spain, and the monarchs sent over a “special investigator,” Francisco Bobadilla, who immediately usurped both the Admiral’s gold and his authority and sent him back to Europe in chains, disgraced.  By sobbing, groveling, and extravagant penitence the explorer managed to get back into the monarchs’ good graces and even exacted from them the promise of a fourth voyage, generally called the High Voyage (1502-4), on which his thirteen-year old son, Ferdinand, accompanied him; Ferdinand’s Historie Concerning the Life and Deeds of the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus, written as an effort to vindicate his father for posterity, was an important source for Bergreen, who points out that it “can also be read as an indictment of the Spanish colonial enterprise in all its cruelty and absurdity.”  The expedition explored the coast of Central America, where for the first time Columbus and his men encountered a highly civilized native people, the Maya.  Subjected to a mutiny of the crew, shipwrecked on Jamaica for a year, Columbus finally returned to Spain a prematurely aged man at 53, delusional, paranoiac, and crippled by rheumatoid arthritis.  He died two years later.  “His morality remained absolutely fixed,” says Bergreen.  “It could be said that over the course of his four voyages, he had discovered everything, but learned nothing.”

Bergreen’s detailed descriptions of the four voyages are well executed and compelling, but the story of human contact between Spaniards and Indians is depressingly familiar.  With its origins in genocide, greed, and messianism, is it any wonder American history has been so troubled?  And cannot some of our problems still be traced to this history?  Reading Bergreen’s narrative, it is impossible not to compare our modern single-minded pursuit of oil, regardless of consequences, with the Spaniards’ equally single-minded and destructive pursuit of gold.  Even when they eventually found the quantities they sought, in the mines of Peru, it did them no good in the long run, for dependence on the boatloads of gold from the New World led to inflation and eventually crippled the Spanish economy.  Columbus’s vanity and delusions—he believed himself to be “an instrument of divine revelation”—even find an echo in our own brutal imposition of “democracy” at gunpoint, and our arrogant conviction that we are, in Ronald Reagan’s words, “the last best hope of man on earth.”  Bergreen concludes his book with a short chapter on Columbus’s historical legacy; I wish it had been longer, and more speculative.  For that legacy is still playing itself out.