1502: With Columbus 500 Years Ago Today

 

Five hundred years ago at this very time of year--October 6-16, 1502--Columbus and his expedition were spending ten days on the coast of Central America in the beautiful Chiriqui Lagoon, toward the western extreme of Panama near its border with Costa Rica. He was five months into his fourth and final voyage, which started in 1502 and ended in 1504. Did he reflect on the fact that it was exactly ten years since his first landing in this new world? Much had happened in the decade since then.

 

While events of his first voyage of discovery are common knowledge among many, the same cannot be said of his three later voyages. Probably the one about which most people know the least is this fourth one. Here we give an account of that part of it that took place in 1502. Columbus himself called it "the high voyage," but it was the most trying of all.

 

 

Not that he hadn't already endured more than his share of severe trials on his earlier three expeditions.

 

On the first and most famous voyage in 1492, he had lost his flagship, wrecked on a reef on Christmas Eve. While he was back in Spain for supplies and more settlers, his original ad hoc settlement at the site of the accident, La Navidad, was wiped out and its inhabitants killed, apparently after their literally atrocious behavior led to hostility among many Indians, which proved lasting.

 

The second, very large, expedition had begun in triumph in September, 1493 (no one in Spain yet knew of the massacre). But it included a number of fortune-seekers too proud to work who proved a source of trouble. The new settlement he founded down the coast to replace La Navidad suffered widespread illness and spoilage of supplies due to the climate and bad location--near a marsh that bred swarms of mosquitoes, with attendant disease.

 

There was also: resentment of the Italian origin of the three Columbus brothers who ran things; discontent, disloyalty, and open rebellion by a number of men, including some highly-placed ones; attempted thievery by officials; seizing of vessels and return to Spain on the part of some, to spread slanderous reports about him; licentiousness, lawlessness, and brutality toward the natives by others, with more consequent hostilities with Indians. Columbus himself suffered recurrent and lengthy illnesses, and then an inquiry into his conduct by a crown representative because of malcontent reports in Spain. Finally, he sailed home in March, 1496 to deal with the charges.

 

When he set out again on May 30, 1498, his third voyage had some bad times early on, and ended worse. He took a much more southerly route than before to explore rumors from the Portuguese of a continent to the south. He had also heard of terra firma to the south from Caribbean Indians. Further, on the Aristotelian idea that lands in the same latitude have similar products, he thought that, since gold had been found in West Africa, it might well be found in the same latitudes in the New World.

 

En route, however, he drifted becalmed a number of days near the equator in mid-July's oppressive heat, food spoiling, water running low, the men exhausted, himself beset by gout. To shorten the route, with a freshening wind he turned more directly west than originally intended.

 

His earlier course would have put him at the mouth of the Amazon; on the new one he still discovered South America, exploring part of the coast of Venezuela near Trinidad before turning northward to Hispaniola. The size and flow of the Orinoco River, which no island could support, convinced him that it had to be a continent, which he later came to believe contained the original Garden of Eden, though still a part of China.

 

At Hispaniola he found a rebellion by his former chief justice, Roldán, and about 70 men. About a quarter of the remaining men had syphilis. Three ships he had sent on a direct route when he took the southerly one had mistakenly landed in the territory of the rebels, who suborned to their cause a good number of those on board. (Some on those ships were ex-jailbirds, released from prison on condition of participation in this enterprise of the crown.) When he finally resolved that rebellion, another broke out under different leadership.

 

More than once he asked that a judicial officer be sent to help him administer things, only to get one who was ill-disposed to him, arrived at the worst possible time, acted in a high-handed manner, and in September 1500 sent him home in chains, along with his brothers, to answer new charges.

 

 

Those charges had been cleared up and were behind him now, as his men relaxed in the beautiful lagoon area these ten days in October, 1502.

 

His first voyage had sought a new route to the Indies. The second had been sent to colonize and exploit the lands he had found. The third had been intended to explore rumors of an unknown continent to the south, and to further develop the settlement in its new location, Santo Domingo.

 

Now the fourth was intended to seek out the riches of the new world for Spain and promote the conversion of the natives and--Columbus's own special purpose--explore the idea of a middle passage to the Indies between the lands that had been explored to the north and the south.

 

But on this fourth voyage, his trials would only get worse!

 

He would suffer terrible weather again and again and again and again; more recurrent illness; loss of men due to desertion, drownings, and disease; the wounding of his brother and death of one of his most loyal captains and a number of men at the hands of Indians and, much later, of each other; ship worms that eventually destroyed all his vessels; unfeeling and cavalier treatment by his own successor, the governor of the Indies, at both ends of his voyage; and a year-long, virtually hopeless, stranding on Jamaica that would see half of his men revolt and bloodshed ensue. A quarter of his men would not return.1 His hopes of finding a passage to India would be dashed.

 

But he would finally find a good source of gold after all. The only trouble would be that it couldn't be exploited!

 

 

All that was ahead of him as he set out on his fourth voyage on May 9, 1502, with four ships and 140 men, over a third of whom were teen-agers, including his thirteen-year-old son, Fernando, whose account is the greatest source of information we have about the voyage. The Admiral had mended fences with the sovereigns, who again financed his voyage, but had expressly forbidden him to go to Santo Domingo until on the way home, because of his prior difficulties there.

 

Nevertheless, when he crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Martinique, instead of going west as planned, he headed northward toward Santo Domingo in hopes of trading one of his four ships, the Santiago (which had proved. in Samuel Eliot Morison's words, "a crank and dull sailer, unsuitable for exploration, though sound enough for a homeward passage in summer"2). He felt he needed better than that for heading into the unknown. There was also another reason. He had personal experience of hurricanes in 1494 and in 1495, his experienced eye now recognized the signs of a coming one, and he sought refuge from it in Santo Domingo's port.

 

The Hispaniola settlement was now under the governorship of Nicolás de Ovando, who had just recently arrived with 32 ships, 2500 men, and 12 friars, with orders to replace Francisco de Bobadilla, who had packed Columbus off to Spain in chains a year and a half before. Ovando refused Columbus permission to land, ignored his warning about the hurricane (it was jeered in Santo Domingo), and sent 28 ships of his fleet, laden with men and gold, off to Spain the next day as scheduled.

 

The home-bound fleet sailed directly into the hurricane and disaster. A handful of ships limped back to port, but nineteen went down with all hands. Over 500 men perished, including Bobadilla and a number of rebels, as well as fleet commander de Torres, formerly Columbus's second-in-command. Also lost was a fortune in gold.

 

Only a single ship made it through the storm to Spain--the very one Columbus's agent had sent his share of the gold on. This time Columbus, who had been proved right, had also been doubly lucky: not only his had his fortune, which turned out to be a considerable one, been saved (though unknown to him at the time), but he had found a sheltered offshore spot west of Santo Domingo and his own ships weathered the storm with little damage, though not without great difficulty.

 

 

After some repairs, he moved on via the Jamaican area and off the Cuban coast (where winds and currents had carried him) across unknown waters to arrive off the coast of Honduras, a transnavigation that has been said to be "no less remarkable" than his first crossing of the Atlantic.3 He was the first European to sight (i.e., discover) Central America, and there he met the most advanced Indian culture he had yet encountered. They were not Mayan, but the area had been a part of the Mayan empire that had fallen just a few years earlier, and they indicated that there were advanced Indians to the west.

 

But Columbus turned east. Since one could at any time count on the prevailing winds to sail westward from Cuba. he decided to beat eastward along the coast in the face of the wind in search of the passage to India. (Besides, one has to have a way to get back home, which was now to his east.)

 

For a grueling 28 days the four ships tacked port and starboard, making very slow progress (averaging 6 miles a day, much slower than walking) against the wind and in terrible weather: "It was one continual rain, thunder, and lightening," he wrote. "Other tempests I have seen, but none that lasted so long or so grim as this. Many old hands whom we looked on as stout fellows lost their courage." Like many of his men, Columbus himself was sick, "and many times lay at death's door....", he recorded.4

 

He was also concerned about his 13-year-old son Ferdinand, who bore up well, he said, and his brother Bartholomew, one of the sickest, on the ill-suited Santiago that he had wanted to trade. The ships sailed only in daytime, anchoring offshore at night to avoid running into unseen reefs or islands. When the wind let up the mosquitoes ate them alive (undoubtedly spreading diseases like malaria). At last they came to and rounded a cape he gratefully named Gracias a Dios, and the vessels could turn south and no longer had to fight the headwinds.

 

 

Sailing down the coast of present-day Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, they made several stops along the way, resting, taking on wood and water, and meeting and trading with Indians, Then on October 5, they found a channel taking them into a large bay, now named Almirante.

 

At last! Columbus had undertaken the voyage with the personal intention of discovering a passage to the west (which he apparently had identified with the Strait of Malacca through which Marco Polo had passed) lying south of China, of which he thought Cuba a part. Transiting it, he could circumnavigate the globe as Magellan's expedition was later to do.

 

Though the goal of discovering such a passage had not been specifically indicated in their majesties' directions for the voyage, it had been implied and understood. Could this now be the entrance to the passage? The Indians said he should keep going to another large body of water which he wishfully took to be the ocean beyond the strait.

 

But it was only the Chiriqui lagoon, not a passage, and further progress west was clearly blocked by mountains. Now, in early October, 1502, Columbus learned two crucial things: (1) that the land before him was an isthmus separating him from an ocean to the west, and (2) that not far away, in the vicinity of the river Veragua (a name also applied to a settlement and the area embracing the river and the settlement), there was gold. Here indeed he had seen the first real gold ornaments, those further north being copper and gold alloy.

 

Regarding the isthmus, he had apparently misunderstood information from Indians up the coast earlier in the voyage about "a narrow place" between the oceans. (Not surprising, because there was no common language in which they could converse.) They had meant "a narrow place" of land, while he was wishfully thinking of "a narrow place" of water--the strait through which he could sail.

 

 

Now regretfully disabused of that notion, he apparently decided to focus on finding a source of gold to give this mission success for his royal sponsors who paid the bill. They had instructed him to give primary attention to finding valuables such as precious stones and metals (gold and silver), pearls, and spices, and this he would now do--but unhappily only on this side of the isthmus he knew he could not cross.

 

The lagoon was a beautiful place, and his men needed the rest, so ten days were spent there, visiting Indian settlements, trading, and taking in what information they could, before continuing onward along the coast, on a long stretch that proved to have no good harbor.

 

In a day's sailing they reached the edge of the Veragua area, where gold was reputed to be. They had to anchor offshore, and stayed several days to contact the Indians, who were in villages away from the coast. The latter were at first more inclined to fight than trade, while Columbus was mainly interested at this time in getting samples of what they had, before continuing on along the coast. They did get three gold disks, the Indians saying they had more where that came from. Just where that was, was what interested Columbus.

 

This is a very inhospitable section of coast, with jungles nurtured by excessive rains. Growth-covered mountains press against the narrow coastal plain, with its rocky bluffs interspersed with sand beaches, but there were no good anchorages. And they were heading east, against the prevailing trade wind again.

 

Another stop was made in the mouth of a river, with more trading for samples of gold ornaments, They passed another five villages, and came to the end of the trading coast which had begun at Almirante Bay. about 160 miles behind them to the west.

 

Columbus wanted to return to Veragua, but the weather intervened and the fulfillment of that desire was postponed for two months. It was the beginning of the rainy season and after he set out a storm arose with winds from the west now instead of the east and so strong that they carried him farther eastward instead, with no power to resist. Thrust before it, he eventually came to a fine port, Portobelo he called it, about 20 miles past what would become the entrance to the Panama Canal.

 

 

There they sheltered from the weather for a week before continuing on November 9 east another 15 or 20 miles, only to have the wind turn and push them the next day part way back to Portobelo to a place among some islets (near the present Nombre de Dios) where they found a lot of corn. They stayed 12 days, attending to ship and cask repairs, then headed east another very difficult 45-50 miles before the wind started driving them back on their course again, when they wearily and regretfully stopped at a small port Columbus found and named Retrete ("closet"). They stayed from November 26 to December 5.

 

Here the ships were adjacent to the bank, and small parties of men took it on themselves to steal ashore, do private trading with Indians under threat of force, and commit outrages raising the natives' hostility and leading Columbus to give a convincing demonstration of power with a ship's ordnance.

 

In the face of the continuing winds from the east, and seeing he could accomplish little with these people. Columbus determined to renew his earlier attempt to head back to Veragua where he had evidence gold was to be had. He set out on December 5 with the wind at his back and sheltered that night in Portobelo again, about 30 miles to the west.

 

But the next day the wind whipped about, and for a terrible month it whipsawed and like a shuttlecock they were batted back and forth between Portobelo and a point somewhat more than 25 miles to its west. The continuing problem was that the current went with the wind at this time of year, and a sailing vessel could not go against either, nor did wind and current allow them to take any shelter. Again, dreadful storms, deluging rains, frightful thunder and lightening. raging seas, everything and everybody constantly soaked, no relief and little rest for the exhausted men, and continual terror--of fire from the lightening, or drowning from the raging seas, or from slamming into rocks or reefs. One ship got separated from the others and remained so for three days.

 

Then came a couple of days of calm, and great schools of sharks. The men killed many for food and sport. On the 17th they were able to anchor in a small port to rest for three days before setting out again, in fair weather. But of course yet another storm soon sprang up, driving them into another port and another three-day stay. Setting forth again, they were blown back into a harbor they had been in before--where they stayed from December 26 to January 3.

 

That harbor was apparently in the vicinity of the present-day entrance to the Canal, near Colón. A careful student of astronomy as well as the weather, the Admiral didn't want to put out again until after the anticipated opposition of Saturn and Mars, which would make the weather worse. It occurred on December 29.

 

Thus ended 1502, with Columbus, now eight months into his voyage, seeing the old year out and the new one in at the very entrance to what would be the man-made substitute for the passage he had so long sought!

 

With fresh supplies of water, corn, and wood, they set out again on the third day of the new year, sailing 60 miles back to the Veragua area and anchoring on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. There being no ports at all in that area, he anchored in the mouth of a river he named Belén (for Bethlehem). It was the beginning of his most significant adventures at the gold-bearing area of Veragua, the name of which is immortalized in the title his descendants bear to this day, Duke of Veragua.

 

 

A new year had begun, and his expedition had entered a new phase--and it and the one following it would be even worse than those that preceded it,

 

Along the Central American coast they had suffered greatly from the weather and from illnesses, but in addition to more of the same, worse things were yet to come in the year and a half before Columbus and what would be left of his men got back "to civilization" (Santo Domingo) again--and that not under his own sail, but after having to be rescued. And, for all the long-suffering efforts of himself, his brother, his son, and his men (including the boys, who, regardless of age, were thrust into manhood on the expedition), he would bring back no significant new treasure other than knowledge. (Even some of that knowledge--like the non-discovery of the passage to the west--was disappointing.) And no opportunity had been found to evangelize the Indians, another purpose stated in the commissioning of the expedition. But as 1502 began, all that was unknown.

 

It's just as well. Columbus the optimist (he was truly a prototypical American in that) was finally back in the gold-area, and there was hope that he might still be able to make the voyage a success in the riches it could discover for the crown.

 

He would take 1503 as it came, with faith and hope, learning its secrets as it unfolded.

 

The man primarily responsible for America's realization of the dream of Columbus of a passage to the western ocean through the Panamanian isthmus was President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, 402 years after Columbus's visit to the site of the Panama Canal, the U.S. concluded a treaty for the land on which to build it, the official transfer taking place on May 4, 1904. The Panama Canal was officially opened to commerce on August 15, 1914.

 

While work on its construction was underway the Columbus Memorial and Fountain were authorized (1907), built, and dedicated (1912). It was President Roosevelt who signed the legislation authorizing it. The man who reportedly originally conceived the idea and was responsible for initiation of the legislation was Joseph Burg, of Potomac Council of the Knights of Columbus in Washington, according to a newspaper report of his death in 1957 at the age of 90. He was invited to the Capitol by President Roosevelt for the signing ceremony on March 4, 1907, and the following byplay was reported:

 

"'Who is this fellow Columbus?' he [T.R.] asked in fun.

 

' I think he is the real father of the American Navy, Mr. President,' replied Mr. Burg.

 

'By George, I believe you are right, Joe,' exclaimed the President, as he placed his name on the bill. 'My name is on this bill,'he added, 'and my heart is in it!'"5

 

Of course, T.R., who had written a naval history of the War of 1812 and later served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, well knew (and as Irishmen like to recall) that the real "Father of the American Navy" was John Barry.

The pen used to sign the legislation was given to Potomac Council, but its whereabouts are now unknown.

 

--Edward M. Sullivan

 

Notes

 

1. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Admiral of the Ocean Sea, vol. 2 (New York: Time, 1962), p. 574, reports 30 loses to drownings, disease, fighting the Indians at Belén, and in the rebellion on Jamaica, as well as four desertions on Hispaniola.

2. Morison, p. 577.

3. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus (New York:Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 105.

4. Quoted by Morison, p. 585.

5. The Catholic Standard, December 20, 1957.

 

 

 

 

 

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