I think I’ve learned enough about Windows Live Writer to use it for all my future messages here. I have also decided to post some of the notes I have made over the years on Latin American, Central Asian, and South Pacific history, rather than keep you waiting until I have composed full-blown history papers on those subjects. I’ll start with one I should have given to you a week or two ago.
Christopher Columbus1 was born in the Italian city of Genoa, in 1451. When he grew up he became a sailor; this was one of the most exciting jobs available, in an age when Europe had just started building ships that could carry large cargoes across the open sea. His first voyage was a commercial expedition to the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, and that was successful enough to convince Columbus that sailing was for him. Then in 1476, he had his first experience with the Atlantic, when he went with five ships heading from Genoa to England. Unfortunately they were attacked by French privateers, six miles off the coast of Portugal. Columbus was on one of the ships sunk in that battle, and he escaped by swimming to shore and holding onto a piece of wreckage from the ship. After he recovered, he joined the great adventure of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese exploration of the African coast. Rising through the ranks, he eventually became captain of one of the ships that discovered the Congo River and Angola, on the 1482 expedition of Diogo Cão.
The ultimate goal of these expeditions was to find a way around Africa to the rich markets of Asia. In 1487 Bartholomew Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, but still was only halfway to the destination. Africa was so big that many observers became skeptical; maybe a ship captain could sail around it, but he would probably never earn a profit doing so.
Now if you believed the world was round2, there was an alternate route. How about sailing directly to the Orient, by going due west across the Atlantic? In 1477, as part of his service for Portugal, Columbus visited Iceland, so he probably heard that the Vikings had discovered habitable lands to the west. Most geographers dismissed a westward voyage as unfeasible, not because they were afraid of falling off the edge of the earth, but because the distance was too great. 5,000 miles of open sea was the most fifteenth-century ships could manage, and the figure involved in sailing from Europe to the eastern coast of Asia was (correctly) thought to be more than 10,000 miles. Nevertheless, Columbus found an expert, Paolo Toscanelli of Florence, who thought that the distance might be as low as 3,000 miles. After doing the calculations himself, he changed the figures a bit, combining the largest estimation of Eurasia’s size with the smallest estimation of the earth’s circumference. That reduced the distance to 2,400 miles, allowing a ship a safety margin in case it had to return without finding anything. Then, unable to afford a ship by himself, he went to the rulers of western Europe to sell his plan.
Columbus succeeded because he was a great salesman, as well as a great sailsman. For more than a decade he traveled between the courts of western Europe. First he went to the king of Portugal3 , who said no to the idea in 1484. King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain were more interested, and they let him live on an allowance from them, but they did not grant him an audience until 1486, and then they said no as well. Next, he sent his proposal back to Portugal, which said no again in 1488; to King Henry VII of England, who said no in 1489; and to King Charles VIII of France, who did not listen at all. In 1490 he started talking with the Spanish court again, but it could not spare any ships until the war against the Moors of Granada ended. Granada fell at the beginning of 1492, so after that victory Queen Isabella finally said yes.
By August Columbus was ready to go.4 The queen had entrusted him with ninety sailors and three tiny ships: the Santa Maria (100 tons), the Pinta (60 tons) and the Niña (50 tons). Of the three, only the Santa Maria had decks; the others were open to the elements (fortunately they had good weather on the journey west). No merchants, missionaries, settlers or soldiers went on the voyage; this would be strictly a scouting expedition. First they sailed to the Canary Islands; then they set forth into the Atlantic on September 6. The trip took five weeks. On the way Columbus kept two ship’s logs; the “official” log showed lower daily mileage figures than the secret log, where Columbus entered his true estimates of the distance covered; this ruse was done to keep the crew morale up.
In early October they saw some migrating birds flying west-southwest. Assuming the birds knew where the nearest land was, Columbus altered his course to follow them. Three days later, at 2 A.M. on October 12, the lookout on the Pinta sighted land. It was one of the outermost islands in the Bahamas, and here the Columbus met his first Americans. Convinced that his theories were right, he decided he was somewhere in Indonesia, and called the natives “Indians,” something Native Americans have been trying to get over since.5
The Indians, who had probably arrived in the Bahamas just a few years earlier, explained to Columbus that there were bigger islands to the south. Armed with this knowledge, he threaded his way through the Bahamas to reach Cuba, and sailed along the northern coast of Cuba to Hispaniola. The latter island contained an estimated 100,000 inhabitants, half the Indian population in the Caribbean at that time, and these friendly natives gladly traded their gold for some glass beads. Then the Santa Maria ran aground on a coral reef, so Columbus built a fort from the flagship’s timbers, left behind twenty-three men to garrison the fort, and finished his exploration of Hispaniola’s north coast. Finally on January 18, 1493, he set sail for home, bringing back various Caribbean goods, parrots, and six Indians. On the way he went through one of the worst storms of the decade (a hurricane?), before returning to a joyous reception at the Spanish court.6
Back in Spain Columbus reported that he had discovered some previously unknown islands in Southeast Asia; surely the great nations Marco Polo wrote about couldn’t be far away. In the meantime, the new discoveries needed colonizing. Accordingly, in the fall of 1493 he led a second expedition west, with seventeen ships full of 1,200 eager volunteers. He picked the perfect course; this time he crossed the open sea in twenty-one days instead of thirty-three. Making landfall in the Lesser Antilles, he proceeded to Hispaniola, only to find his original colony destroyed; while he was away, the natives had gotten tired of constant demands for gold, and killed everyone in the fort. He built a second outpost nearby, named Isabela, and this one proved too strong for the local tribes to eliminate. Indeed, within a couple of years, the Spaniards of Isabela had established their rule over the whole island.7 As for Columbus, he went off to do more exploring. He followed the inhospitable southern coast of Cuba, but not all the way to the island’s western tip, so he decided this was a peninsula of the Asian mainland. Next he explored Jamaica and the southern shore of Hispaniola before returning to Spain. Wherever he went he also found natives, but these Indians were so poor they were scarcely worth robbing. The dream was fading.
This showed in the type of colonists Columbus brought on his third journey west (1498); he had to scrape the prisons of Spain to find enough people willing to go with him. This time he steered a more southerly course than before, going down to the Cape Verde Islands before heading across the ocean. He made landfall at Trinidad, the southernmost Caribbean island, and briefly explored the large landmass next to it. The size of the rivers he saw told him that the uncharted land was big enough to be a continent. Then he made for Hispaniola, for the crown had appointed him governor of the colony.
None of the three Columbus brothers were successful administrators. Spaniards never like serving under a foreigner and the colonists did their best to make a difficult job impossible. Nevertheless, Christopher Columbus was partially responsible for the trouble this caused. When a royal commissioner came in 1500 to investigate complaints, he was so shocked by what he saw that he shipped all three brothers back to Spain in irons. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. The Spanish monarchs issued pardons instead of pressing charges, and hired Christopher Columbus one more time—but only as an explorer, not as a governor.
Columbus’ fourth and last voyage (1502-04) took him through familiar waters until he reached the north shore of Honduras. Here he met–and passed up–the best opportunity of his career; his ships encountered a boatload of Indians in unusually fine dress, with cotton robes and well-crafted jewelry. They were Aztecs, on their way home, but instead of following them to Mexico, Columbus went east, going down the Central American coast as far as Panama. By the time he turned to go back to Spain it was clear to most of the crew that the Caribbean Sea was closed on the west, and this was no short cut to the Orient.
However, it was not clear to the expedition’s commander. He thought the land he had finished surveying was the Malay peninsula, and China was just over the horizon. But most Europeans weren’t listening to him anymore. Instead they now paid attention to another Italian working for Spain, Amerigo Vespucci. At some point after Columbus’ third expedition (1499?), Vespucci had a look at the continent just south of Trinidad, and was the first to realize its significance. This was not an incidental discovery, but the most important one of all. Moreover, this exotic place, with its strange plants and animals, and jungles full of naked cannibals, could not be Asia, or any other known country. To coin a phrase, it was a New World. This convinced a German geographer, Martin Waldseemuller, to name the new continent after him = America. His proposal was quickly accepted.
Waldseemuller’s book, which was published in 1507, contained a map of the world that showed two oceans—not one—between Europe and Asia, with “America” right in the middle. A year earlier, Columbus had died in Valladolid, Spain, so he never saw the book or map; if he had, he would have disapproved of both.8 To the end he remained a cranky man with crazy ideas. His main achievement was that he had changed the world for everybody but himself.9
1 Actually, that wasn’t his birth name. “Christopher Columbus” is what you get when you translate his Latin name, Christophorus Columbus, into English. In fifteenth century Genoa, his name was Christoffa Corombo; in modern Italian, his name is Cristoforo Colombo; in Portuguese, he was Cristóvão Colombo; in Spanish, he became Cristóbal Colón.
2 Contrary to what we were taught in school, by the fifteenth century a lot of people believed the earth was round. Evidence of the earth’s shape was there for anyone who cared to look. Ancient Greek astronomers had pointed out that the earth’s shadow is always round when it passes across the moon during a lunar eclipse, and anyone observing ships leaving a seaport would have noticed that as a ship moves away, the curvature of the earth hides the hull before it hides the mast and sails, giving the impression that the ship is sinking below the horizon. Finally, nearly two centuries before Columbus, when Dante wrote his Purgatorio, he imagined the mountain of Purgatory on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem. This means Dante believed the earth was round, just a few centuries after the time when cartographers drew maps showing the earth as a disk, with Jerusalem in the center, joining the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.
3 King John II of Portugal tried to steal Columbus’ idea by sending forth an expedition without Columbus, in 1483. It deserved to fail, and it did; the crew mutinied, and the captain, lacking the persistence of Columbus, returned before it crossed the Atlantic.
4 Because Europe had not received any news from the Far East in two hundred years, Columbus would have been poorly prepared even if he found what he was looking for. For example, one member of the crew, Luis de Torrez, knew Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Coptic and Armenian. His job was to be the interpreter between Columbus and the Great Khan, who spoke Chinese.
5 The native name for that island was Guanahani, but Columbus called it San Salvador. Historians have traditionally identified this with Watling Island, to the point that it was officially renamed San Salvador in 1926. However, in 1986 a computer analysis was done on the surviving data from Columbus’ records, and the resulting simulation showed that Samana Cay is a better site for the first landfall.
6 The return leg of the voyage followed a more northerly course, going by way of the Azores. Columbus managed to follow the clockwise pattern of the north Atlantic winds and currents almost perfectly, providing optimum sailing conditions whichever way he went. The reader must decide whether he knew exactly what he was doing, or if he was just lucky.
7 However, Isabela was in an unhealthy location, so in 1496 Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher’s brother, moved the colony to Santo Domingo, on the island’s south coast.
8 Columbus was too ill to do much traveling after his fourth voyage, but he did not let even death stop his travels completely. First he was buried at Valladolid, but in 1509 his son Diego had his remains exhumed and reburied at a monastery in Seville. Diego in turn died in 1526, and was buried alongside his father, but Diego’s widow thought that a burial in the lands Columbus discovered would be more appropriate, so a petition from her caused the remains of both father and son to be dug up again in 1542. This time they were buried across the ocean, in a cathedral at Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. There they lay for two and a half centuries, until the French captured Santo Domingo in 1795. Spain now considered the body of Columbus a national treasure, and would not let him fall into the hands of the French, so he was dug up a third time, taken to Cuba, and reburied in Havana.
Or so it was thought. In 1877 an excavation under the Santo Domingo cathedral discovered a lead box containing bone fragments and a bullet, with Columbus’ name on the box. Over in Cuba, the Spanish-American War led to the independence of Cuba, and again the government of Spain did not want to part with what was left of Columbus, so in 1899 they dug up what they buried once more, and shipped it from Havana back to the tomb in Seville.
After that, individuals in both Valladolid and Havana claimed that Columbus had never really been removed from those cities. Because of that, and the lead box in Santo Domingo, nobody could say for sure where Columbus was buried. In 2003 DNA testing was used to settle the matter; DNA samples from the tomb in Seville were compared with known DNA samples from a brother and a son of Columbus (not Diego). Only mitochondrial DNA could be obtained from the Seville samples, and they suggested a closer match with Diego than with Christopher himself. The conclusion was that only Diego had been reburied in Seville. Since then, the authorities in the Dominican Republic have not allowed the Santo Domingo remains to be dug up for examination, so until we hear otherwise, we have to assume that Christopher Columbus is still in Santo Domingo.
9 One of his theories tried to explain why the Caribbean had a hotter climate than Europe. Columbus came to believe that the world was really shaped like a pear, and he had traveled uphill, toward the sun, every time he sailed west.