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Columbus, Christopher,

west spain haiti expedition

Cristoforo Colombo ( Ital ), Cristóbal Colón ( Span ) (1451–1506) Italian explorer: first nameable discoverer of the New World.

The eldest of the five children of a weaver, Columbus probably first entered his father’s trade, but before 1470 he went to sea and for some years voyaged and traded for various employers based in Genoa, his birthplace. His work took him to England in 1477, and probably to West Africa in 1482, and about this time he began to seek financial support for a major Atlantic expedition. Classical writers had accepted that the Earth was spherical, and so it followed that China and Japan (known through the Polo family’s descriptions) could be reached by sailing west. In accepting this idea, Columbus made two major errors. Firstly, he believed the Asian landmass to extend more to the east than is actually the case. Also he estimated the Earth’s radius at only three-quarters of its true value. As a result, he believed Japan to be located in roughly the position where the West Indies are placed. Aside from these miscalculations, Columbus was a very competent navigator and he and one of his brothers had a business as chart-makers.

For some years Columbus failed to obtain support for a transatlantic expedition but in March 1492 the catholic monarchs of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand, approved his voyage and awarded him the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the governorship of any new land he might discover. Two wealthy ship’s outfitters prepared his flagship Santa Maria at their own expense and in August 1492 he sailed in her from Palos near Huelva in southern Spain, with the Pinta and Niña also under his command, a total of about 100 men and a letter from the Spanish sovereigns to the ‘grand khan of China’.

The fleet went south to the Canary Islands and then due west, making landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492 after a 5-week voyage from the Canaries. Columbus’s difficulties had included maintaining the confidence of his crews and solving his navigational problems; these arose in part from the deviation of the magnetic compass from true north, which he may have been the first to observe.

From the Bahamas Columbus sailed to Cuba, which he thought was Japan, and believed he could soon reach China: then west to Haiti, where he began a settlement and traded with the native population. The Santa Maria was lost, a party was left in Haiti to study its inhabitants and their produce and Columbus sailed for Spain in January 1493 still convinced he had been in Asia. He was back in Palos in March to an enthusiastic welcome, bringing from the West Indies new plants and animals, a little gold and six natives.

Returning to Haiti in September with a much enhanced expedition, he found his settlement destroyed and the men killed, but he sailed on to discover Jamaica before returning to Spain in 1495, leaving his brother Bartolomeo in charge of a restored colony in Haiti. He found that his prestige in Spain had fallen, largely because the commercial profits on the first voyage was less than extravagant hopes had foreseen, so that his third expedition, in 1498, was on a reduced scale in men and ships. Nevertheless, it led to his discovery of Trinidad and, notably, of the South American mainland, the coast of Venezuela. In 1500 a newly appointed royal govenor visited him, was critical of affairs in the colony and sent Columbus back to Spain in irons. Tensions had arisen, in part because the ‘gentleman adventurers’ who had accompanied Columbus not only traded but, unlike him, took gold and girls by force. They resented the fact that Columbus and his brothers were not Spanish, and they accorded no rights to the natives because the latter were not Christians. Indiscipline had reached the point where some Spaniards had been hanged, and the new governor viewed the whole situation as highly unsatisfactory.

Fortunately the Spanish sovereigns repudiated Columbus’s disgrace, restored him to favour and supported his fourth and last great voyage in 1502, during which he explored the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in search of a passage to Asia, which he still believed to be nearby. Much hardship and difficulty arose and this objective was inevitably not attained; but the coast of Central America was extensively explored, until hostile natives and disease forced Columbus to take refuge in Jamaica, with his ships in a poor state and their crews mutinous. In 1504 he returned to Spain dispirited and ill, still ignorant of the real nature of his discoveries. He died in 1506 at Valladolid and his remains, after several removals and confusions, were interred at Seville in 1902 in a mausoleum, honoured for something he had not meant to do and never knew he had done.

An authentic portrait of him probably does not exist, but he is known to have been tall and red-haired. In personality he was eccentric, impetuous, highly religious and driven by social ambition and the pursuit of gold. His explorations fall within a period of great discoveries: in 1487 Diaz had rounded the Cape of Good Hope; in the 1490s Columbus explored the West Indies, Central America and parts of South America; in 1498 da Gama reached India; and by 1521 Magellan had crossed the Pacific and circumnavigated the Earth. In only 35 years all the previously unknown oceans were crossed, and the existence of the continents was proved except for Australia and Antarctica, with Portugese seamen, inspired by Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ taking leading parts.

Columbus’s credentials as a scientist are modest, but he remains without a peer as a mariner and as discoverer and explorer of new islands and, unknowingly, of a New World which he was the first to link with the Old.

Coman, Katharine (1857–1915) - Economic History [next] [back] Coltrane, John (William Jr.)

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