Columbus on Trial

Today’s guest is NYS Supreme Court Justice John Barone (ret.), a scholar on the subject of Christopher Columbus. Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and the 2015 recipient of the Charles A Rapalla Award from the Columbian Lawyers Association. He is also the author of the nonfiction book: A View From the Bronx (still to be released). Today he examines the many inaccuracies regarding Christopher Columbus. It is an honor to have his work published here.(D.B)

“They that go down to the sea in ships, they do business in great waters.” Psalms 107: 23 

by John Barone

Christopher Columbus has always been a controversial figure.  Over the last 30 years, he has become one of the most maligned figures in Western history.  Not to delve too deeply in accusations against the Genovese Sailor a brief examination of the historical record will reveal that these accusations are either gross exaggerations or complete falsehoods.

Benedetto Delisis' 
"Cristoforo Colombo in catene" Palermo 1831-1875 (c) Diana Belchase Columbus in Chains courtesy of Galleria d'Arte Moderna Palermo, Sicily
Benedetto Delisis’ Cristoforo Colombo in catene, 1875 (c) Diana Belchase courtesy of Galleria d’Arte Moderna of Palermo

Europe in 1492

Western Europe in 1492 presented a depressing tableau.  The scientific advances of the late Middle Ages had slowed to a crawl.  The Ottoman Turks had captured the great city of Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine Empire, absorbing Greece and the Balkans.  

European Civilization was fragmented into hostile units.  The Venetians and the Genovese challenged Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean, but Ottoman raids and the full- fledged attacks on Italy and western Mediterranean nations were quite common.  Over the next hundred and fifty years the Ottomans twice besieged Vienna, the greatest city of the Hapsburg Empire.  Christendom was wracked with schism and of course the Protestant Reformation was imminent.  

Severe mistreatment of Christian slaves by the Turks, Jan Luyken, 1684 image by BabiBandung Wikipedia
Severe mistreatment of Christian slaves by the Turks, Jan Luyken, 1684 image by BabiBandung Wikipedia

The Ottoman Empire was guided and would be guided by two great leaders, Mehmet called “The Conqueror”, and Suleiman the Magnificent. 

Meanwhile, the kings of Europe, France, Spain, England (not yet Britain), Portugal, Hungary, Poland, the Russian Empire, the city states of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire seemed to prefer the easy job of plotting and warring against each other.  This seemed preferrable to creating a united front against the Turks.  

The Americas 1492

At the same time, at least three great civilizations had arisen on the American continent:  the Mayans, in the Yucatan and Central America, the Aztecs in Mexico, and the Incas in Peru. The other continents were unaware of the existence of the Americas and vice versa. The Americas were hardly a realm of bucolic tranquility.  Tribal warfare was ubiquitous, slavery was endemic, and terrible human sacrifice was practiced by the Aztecs.   

Genoa and the Young Columbus

At one time, when he was regarded as a great hero, there was considerable dispute concerning Columbus’s origins.  Now that his image is under attack the historic facts are no longer in dispute.  Christopher Columbus was born a Roman Catholic and proud Genovese.  His paternal grandfather, Giovanni Colombo, was a wool weaver from a village about two miles from Genoa.  Giovanni’s son, Domenico, learned his father’s trade and then moved to Genoa.  There in 1445 he married Susanna Fontanarossa.  Their son Christopher was born in 1451.  Christopher had two brothers Diego and Bartolomeo, who would be prominent in his career.

Scenes from Columbus Circle — a great place for New Yorkers to hangout, enjoy the fountains, do a news segment or even propose. (c) Diana Belchase

Columbus received the standard education for a boy from what we would now term the middle class.  However, like most young men of his city at that time, the primary lure would be the sea.  Genoa presents a narrow coastal strip hemmed in by high Ligurian mountains.  Even compared to its great aquatic rival Venice, the opportunity of pursuing a solely land based career was small.  Secure from land attack by the rugged mountains, the Genovese navy came to dominate the Tyrrhenian Sea, just as Venice would dominate the Adriatic.  The Genovese were more powerful in their domain than the Pisans, French, Spanish and Turks.  They created their own empire.  But the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Western Mediterranean turned out to be too narrow a world for the ambitious young Columbus.  

Early Sailing Experience

As a youth, Columbus began to sail to the waters of Liguria to Provence and Corsica.  He took his first extended voyage to the Aegean Sea, in the Eastern Mediterranean, to the Island of Chios.  It was here that Columbus developed his sea sense.  This is a difficult concept for the non-sailor to grasp but every mariner knows what it means.  Hearing, vision, and smell contribute to the sailor’s sense of place and a feeling for the weather.  Contemporary biographers all noted Columbus’s extra ordinary sea sense.  Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning Columbus biography, notes the same thing.  Moreover, as we shall see, each voyage contributed to the depth and breadth of his learning.  He made his first voyage in 1476.  It was a commercial voyage to England under the Genovese flag.  His tiny fleet was attacked by French privateers.  This may have been a mistake since France and Genoa were at peace.  Be that as it may, the result was tragic.  Three Genovese ships and four French vessels were sunk.  Hundreds of men drowned.  Columbus and some other sailors were saved by Portuguese fisherman.

Niña and Pinta replicas at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair in the U.S.) courtesy of Wikipedia image by C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham
Niña and Pinta replicas at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair in the U.S.) courtesy of Wikipedia image by C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham

This is the terrible nature of sea battles. Casualties resulted not only from battle wounds but even more from drownings.  Slavery often waited the survivors.  It is estimated that over one million European slaves toiled in Turkish galleys.  In addition, there were land slaves, military slaves serving in the Janisary Armies, and women in domestic servitude or in the harems. When attempting to judge Columbus’s later actions, we cannot separate him from the time in which he lived.

The world that Columbus knew was rather small.  The Genovese were among the best cartographers in the world but up to the end of the 15th century it was assumed that the Southern Hemisphere south of the Sahara was uninhabitable.  The existence of the Americas was unknown. (We will deal with Leif Erikson’s amazing journey later.) It was assumed that the vast ocean west of Europe was one sea and so large and dangerous that it was impossible to cross.  It was called “the dark sea”.  Based on his pre-American voyages, Columbus came to challenge these theories, but Portuguese mariners were about to disprove at least one of those theories.  In 1487 Bartholomew Diaz sailed south along the African coast and introduced Europeans to the enormous and populous sub-Saharan African lands.  Six years after that voyage Vasco da Gama reached Calicut India.  He, like Diaz, basically hugged the African coast and then sailed across the waters between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.  

Before all this Columbus sailed on a second Genovese voyage to England. This one was successful and the 26-year-old Columbus reached London and then Bristol.  From England Columbus sailed to Ireland and then sailed from Galway to Iceland.

A replica of Columbus' Niña. Morro Bay, California. The sailing ship built in 1991. Image by M. Baird courtesy of Wikipedia
Morro Bay, California. The sailing ship built in 1991 is a replica of Columbus’ Niña. Image by M. Baird courtesy of Wikipedia

This journey was extremely important for the Genovese sailor.  The voyage of Leif Erickson was now forgotten but rumors persisted of Irish monks, and Northmen having sailed into the dark sea.  Columbus began to think that such a voyage was possible.  His next trip made him see a way to accomplish this.

Columbus’s next voyages were to the Canary Islands and then along the West African coast to Guinea.  These journeys made him familiar with the trade winds.  Sailors in the Mediterranean and the European Atlantic only knew variable winds.  The trade winds are different.  They consistently blow in the same direction.  Sailors only knew of the northeast winds along the coast of Africa.  They did not understand the behavior of the trade winds.  Without getting too technical (especially for us non sailors) trade winds are caused by the heating of the atmosphere and the rotation of the earth.  As a result, the trades in the northern hemisphere blow from northeast to southwest whereas in the southern hemisphere they blow from southwest to northeast.

As stated above, long before Columbus, navigators, astronomers, physicists, and philosophers knew the Earth was round. The Portuguese had shown the Europeans, and the Middle Easterners that, contrary to accepted belief, life could exist in the Southern Hemisphere.  The accepted belief at the time was that the Ocean Sea was too wild, wide, and “dark” to be crossed by human craft.  The existence of the vast American continent was, yet, unknown by anyone including Columbus.  But Columbus intuited two things, if the northern trades got its direction blowing off the European and North African land masses then the southern trades would seem to be blowing off another land mass on the other side of the Ocean Sea.  This must be Asia and it probably wasn’t as far off as was hitherto supposed.  Moreover, the rumors he had heard in Ireland and Iceland made it seem that others may have sailed the Ocean Sea.  The last ship to leave Iceland for Greenland left port in 1408 and the route from Greenland to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and possibly to New England was long forgotten.  No one in Europe knew these places existed.

The Grand Idea

Sailing West to Reach the East

Based on the nautical knowledge he had acquired Columbus already held in his mind a revolutionary idea.  He was coming to believe that one could sail the Ocean Sea by 

heading West and then arrive in the East.  He was envisioning the means of doing it.  He believed that he could sail West on the favorable northern trade winds.  Then he could return on the southern trades.  He also thought that this would be a shorter route than the Portuguese voyages down and up the African Coast.  In addition to his sailor’s intuition Columbus came upon scientific backing for his ideas. Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli was a Florentine who studied at the University of Florence and then at the University of Padua with the greatest philosopher of the era, Nicholas of Cusa.  Toscanelli was a medical doctor with great scientific curiosity.  He also studied mathematics, physics, and astronomy.  He applied these disciplines to the study of geography.  He spoke with world travelers, Tartars from the Don, Ethiopians, as well as European traders.

beige analog compass
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks ruined many Italian merchant families, particularly those involved in the spice trade.  Toscanelli wrote a letter to a high Church official in Lisbon.  He proposed a journey across the Ocean Sea to the Far East.  The Portuguese, as we know, at that time were exploring the African Coast to reach the same goal.  They may not have been enthusiastic about someone who was developing a separate idea. Columbus obtained a copy Toscanelli’s letter and may have corresponded with him.  iI is not known. 

Toscanelli posited an earth with a smaller circumference but an even larger Eurasian land mass.  Columbus had conceived a similar picture of the world.  This was not an unwarranted assumption.  As stated, no one in Europe or Asia was then aware of the American continents.  Columbus had heard tales about sailing the Ocean Sea.  He also thought that the existence of the trade winds pointed to a closer land mass to the west of Europe and Africa.  It seemed to him, and with good reason, that these regular winds could not blow over so wide an expanse of water.  They would be broken up along the way.  They would not blow so regularly.  Not knowing the existence of another continent, he believed Asia to be closer. A reasonable assumption.

Proposals for Royal Patronage

Columbus was now prepared to seek royal patronage.  Any candidate for patronage has two immediate pre-requisites, an impressive resume, and some important contacts.  In the course, of his travels Columbus had developed both.  While doing this he was also living his personal life.  He was by now a widower.  By 1485 his wife Felipa Perestrello e Moniz had passed away leaving him with his son Diego, who bore his father’s Spanish name, Colon.  All accounts of Columbus describe him as a rather tall and handsome man.  He had a relationship with a Spanish lady of some minor noble rank, Donna Beatriz de Peraza.  For whatever reason, they never married.  He met a second Beatriz in Cordoba.  They had a child together, Ferdinand.  This Beatriz was a peasant’s daughter. There is no record of any marriage between them.  The Church would have sanctioned a union between the two, but Spanish social mores would have presented obstacles since Columbus was of a higher class.  In any case, Columbus took the necessary steps to legitimize Ferdinand’s birth, a common practice of the time.  He always treated Ferdinand as a member of the family and Ferdinand was his father’s first biographer.  In any case, Columbus and the second Beatriz remained a couple for life.

Columbus was now lobbying the courts of Europe to fund an expedition west across the Ocean Sea to reach the East.  His first approach was to King Joao III of Portugal.  The Portuguese were heavily invested in their expeditions around the coast of Africa.  Columbus’s plans were rejected.

Queen Isabella is depicted giving her jewels to Columbus at the California State Capitol in Sacramento (c) 2016 Diana Belchase

Columbus had an internal conflict in advancing his plan.  Obviously, he wanted to make as strong a case as possible.  At the same time, he feared revealing too much, lest his idea be stolen.  He proceeded by basing his presentation on the available public information.  He referred to Toscanelli’s studies, to the work of the explorer Marco Polo, and to various classical sources.  He did not disclose his own private observations about the trade winds, the rumors he heard in Iceland, or what his own nautical sense revealed to him.  

After being rejected in Portugal he turned to Spain.  There he made two important contacts, Franciscan priests.  Columbus was a devout Catholic.  He like many Italians had a special devotion to the most admired Italian Saint, Francis of Assisi.  He attended mass after every journey and during stops along the way.  At one of his special devotions, he met Father Juan Perez and Father Antonio de Marchena.  Father Marchena, a man of great piety became Columbus’s spiritual advisor.  Father Marchena was also a cosmographer and astronomer.  Through Father Marchena and Father Perez Columbus developed many financial and political contacts.  It was Father Perez who would, later, provide an introduction to the Spanish Royal Court. 

In 1489 Columbus was still in Spain and becoming discouraged.  He had been in Spain since 1486.  His name had been presented before Queen Isabel in May 1486.  The Queen granted him an audience and listened to his proposal.  Like Columbus the Queen was a devout Catholic and was particularly interested in converting the residents of Asia to Christianity.  Nothing happened for five or six years.  At that time Columbus attended various conferences.  He was on royal retainer equivalent to that of a first-class sailor’s pay, small but adequate.  The Queen and her husband King Ferdinand had more immediate problems.  The conquest of Granada was not complete.  Spain was as yet not totally unified.

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle NYC (c) Diana Belchase
The statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle NYC (c) Diana Belchase

Around 1489 Columbus’s brother Bartolomeo went to England.  In 1490 he was in France seeking to gain royal patronage without success.  Meanwhile, Columbus was doing heavy research into Medieval sources to strengthen his case.  In 1490 the royal commission in Seville judged Columbus ‘s plan impossible.  They concluded that the dark sea was simply too large to navigate.  They were correct given the fact that the existence of the Americas was unknown.  Columbus persisted.  In 1491 Father Perez obtained another audience with the Queen.  Columbus appeared before another Royal Commissioner.  His proposal was again rejected as impractical.  

In January 1492 Granada capitulated.  Spain was reunited.  There was still no action on Columbus’s proposed journey.  At that point Isabel changed her mind.  She was always impressed by Columbus’s character, and sincerity.  By papal decree Portugal was in control of the Eastern route to Asia along the African Coast.   The expense of his proposed voyage was not that great.  As the legend says Queen Isabel may have actually offered to raise the money by offering her crown jewels.  It was not necessary.  The expense was small; the potential rewards were great.  The deal was agreed to in principle.  Financing was arranged over a three-month period.  By April 30, 1492 financing was in place.  Columbus was appointed Admiral over all islands and main lands, which he would discover, and Viceroy and Governor General over those same territories.  He was also entitled to a 10% share of all gold, other precious metals, gems, and spices within that territory. 

Outfitting the Expedition

Columbus arrived at the port of Palos de la Frontera on the Andalusian Coast of Spain, where he was to begin his voyage.  As everyone knows he took command of three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  The Nina was Columbus’s favorite ship.  The Pinta was regarded as a smart sailing ship.  It was the Santa Maria, the largest ship, which proved to be the least seaworthy of all the vessels.  Serving under Columbus was Martin Alonso Pinzon.  He captained the Pinta.  Subsequently a rivalry developed between Columbus and the Pinzon Family.   


Anyone who has ever been in the navigation center of a modern ship knows the great number and complexity of instruments to aid in navigation.  Instruments to measure longitude and latitude, depth of the sea, speed of the ship, sea currents, weather, etc.  Columbus had one essential instrument, a mariner’s compass.  Latitude, location north or south could be estimated by observing the positions of the sun.  Longitude, distance east or west, could not be determined by any exact mathematical formulation.  In fact, there would be no exact method of calculating longitude for nearly three hundred years after Columbus’s voyage.

There were two principal ways to tell location at sea, celestial navigation, and dead reckoning.

shallow focus photography of black and silver compasses on top of map
Photo by Alex Andrews on

Celestial navigation could be determined by astronomers in a well-equipped facility, but as a practical matter it was unavailable to a ship’s pilot or navigator in 1492.  Columbus did possess an astrolabe, an ancient device for determining the positioning of the stars, but he did not use it very much.  

So, he relied on dead reckoning.  This meant laying down a compass reading and estimated distances on a chart.  To judge time a form of a half hour glass was used.  These were recorded but it’s not an easy task.  In the first place, there is depending upon one’s location, a variation between true and magnetic north which had to be taken into account constantly.  Secondly, determining the speed of the vessel was in that time a matter of guess work.  Considering what he had to use Columbus was an amazing navigator.  He was on open water travelling east to west.  Unlike his Portuguese contemporaries he was not going north – south hugging the African Coast.  Not only was he able to reach the Americas, but on his return voyages he was able to find the spot in the Indies from which he had departed.  He always knew where he was and how to get to where he was going.

The First Voyage

The most important sea voyage in the history of the world began on August 3, 1492.  The plan was to sail the known route to the Canary Islands, and then using his knowledge of the trade winds, to head out to the open sea.  The expedition left all known land on   September 9, 1492.

The ships were well equipped and were never in danger of running short of provisions, but this was not the main problem.  No one knew how long this journey would take.  By early October the crew became nervous.

Certain unexpected problems were encountered on the voyage on this unknown sea.  The so called “horse latitudes” is the area between the trade winds where there is barely a breeze, often a dead calm for sailing ships.  By sticking to the northern trades, the mini fleet avoided this problem.  Then there was the Sargasso Sea.  This is a relatively calm area north of the West Indies and marked by abundant seaweeds.  This frightened the sailors, but actually did not impede the voyage much.

landscape photograph of body of water
Photo by Kellie Churchman on

The crew was becoming decidedly restless in October.  The voyage was taking longer than anticipated.  On October 9th in a calm wind Martin Pinzon boarded the Santa Maria and demanded that the ship be turned around.  Columbus sighted some birds which he said indicated land was near.  He persisted in pressing on.  The next day the winds freshened but the crew was still fearful and Columbus pleaded for three more days.  A gale blew up and signs of land became more plentiful.  An hour before moonrise on October 11th, Columbus thought he saw a feeble light.  Then a seaman, Pedro Yzquierdo, confirmed that he saw land.  Columbus may have seen nothing on the 11th for the ship was still 35 miles off shore.  But there was no doubt about the October 12th, sighting.   Columbus saw an island in the Bahamas now called San Salvador or Watlings Island, although some historians claim it was a different island.  Columbus went ashore on an armed boat and planted the banners of the expedition and a green cross as well. 

On meeting the Native Americans, he described them as gentle and generous.  They were members of the Taino tribe of the Arawak language groups.  They may have been a warrior group, but they possessed only the simplest weapons.  The land was rich and fertile.  Columbus believed himself to be on an island east of Cathay (China).  Such islands were mentioned by Marco Polo in his famous account of his trip to Cathay.  Also mentioned as indigenous to the area were parrots.  Columbus’s idea was to explore the island, then set off to find the Great Khan, the island of Cipango (Japan), and the fabulously wealthy kingdoms of the East.

It would have been quite extra-ordinary for Columbus to suppose that he was actually off the coast of an entirely different continent.  No scholar of his time had posited or even hinted at a new continent.

The Natives of the Indies

Columbus then set off in search of larger islands of which the natives of San Salvador had spoken.  The sailors and natives seemed to have developed a rudimentary form of communication.  He landed first on Cuba and then on the island of Hispaniola.  The first questions he asked wherever he landed was where there might be gold on the island.  Presumably, he pointed to gold ornaments which the natives wore.  He was also interested in plant life.  He identified corn, tobacco, and a new species of cotton.  He also found the sweet potato.  The true potato, which would cause a massive change in the European diet, was discovered on a later voyager.

Carib family (by John Gabriel Stedman 1818) courtesy Wiki[pedia

The people of the islands were Arawak speakers.  The particular tribe which Columbus met were the Taino.  Columbus also said of them, “they were a gentle people”.  These Taino were sun worshipers.  They were divided into three classes, nobles, commoners, and slaves.  (Yes, slavery existed on the island before Columbus.)  Their rulers were called Caciques (chiefs).  The Caciques exercised complete power, including life and death over their subjects.

The Taino lived in fear of a much more terrifying tribe, the Caribs.  Relatives to the Taino, the Caribs were a war like tribe.  They had mastered the use of the bow and arrow and killed and enslaved the Taino, apparently at will.  They were also reputed cannibals.  The Taino testified to this and subsequent explorers found evidence of what they identified as the grisly remains of cannibal feasts.  Columbus would not encounter the Caribs until his second voyage.

Exploration, Shipwreck, and Return

Columbus found evidence of gold almost immediately but not in the vast quantities that later Spanish Conquistadors would discover.  Columbus was never a Conquistador such as Cortez or Pizzaro were.  We shall see that his desire for gold was real, but it was not the primary motivation for his voyages.

On Christmas Eve 1492 Columbus was exploring the coast of Haiti on the Santa Maria.  He retired for a much-needed rest.  He had been without sleep for two days.  A new helmsman took over.  Unaccountably, he turned the helm over to the ship’s boy, contrary to orders.  The boy allowed the ship to drift over a reef.  Only then did he shout out.  Columbus was first on the deck but too late.  To make matters worse de la Cosa, the ships officer, had not followed Columbus’s orders.  He did not take the appropriate action to right the boat. Instead, he panicked jumped into the ship’s boat and headed for the Nina.  This action doomed the Santa Maria.  The only thing to do was to save the crew and salvage the cargo.  Columbus had to determine what to do now that he had only two ships remaining.  He elected to found a colony in Haiti, La Navidad.  He provisioned it with hardtack and trading goods to barter with the Taino.  He also left considerable arms and ammunition.  Considering the season, he named the colony La Navidad.  His action was correct, but due to the misdeeds of the thirty-nine colonists it led to tragic results.

white and black sunken ship

Columbus established cordial relations with the local Taino Cacique Guarangari.  His people were curious to see the Spaniards.  The natives brought many gifts including gold, jewelry, and excellent cotton.  In exchange the natives received silver bells and other trinkets all of which they found highly desirable.  Having secured friendly relations with the Taino and having established the colony of La Navidad Columbus made plans for departure. 

Return to Spain

Columbus began his return trip to Spain on January 4, 1493.  He sailed on the Nina.  By January 16, he was on the open Atlantic.  Martin Pinzon commanded the Pinta.  Vicissitudes of wind and weather led the two boats to sail separately.  Columbus had reasons to suspect that Pinzon wished to claim the glory for discovery.

Columbus’s plan was to catch the westerly trade winds toward Spain, East North East.  This was a portion of the Atlantic on which no ship had ever sailed before.  He hit a gale in early February.  The vessels were now on slightly different routes.  The Pinta missed the Azores.  The Nina landed at Nossa Senhora dor Anjos (Our Lady of the Angels) on the Portuguese Island of Santa Maria.

The Admiral sent a small landing party to obtain fresh provisions and water.  An officious bureaucrat ordered the men detained.  Exceeding his authority, the functionary, Joao de Castanheira, claimed he had orders from the King of Portugal to arrest Columbus.  The Admiral called the bureaucrat’s bluff.  He demanded the return of his landing party and threatened to bombard the island.  He claimed, accurately, that he was on official business of the Sovereigns of Spain.  He was in fact the Admiral of the Ocean Seas and Viceroy of the Indies.  Castanheira backed down.  Given his limited authority he did not wish to be in the middle of an international incident.  The men were returned.  Ten days were wasted in this confrontation.

"Die Schiffe des Columbus", historisierde Darstellung aus dem späten  Gustav Adolf Closs - Die Stuttgarter Sonntagszeitung Über Land und Meer. Deutsche Illustrirte Zeitung, Ausgabe 49, Jahrgang 1892 courtesy of wikipedia
“Die Schiffe des Columbus”, historisierde Darstellung aus dem späten Gustav Adolf Closs – Die Stuttgarter Sonntagszeitung Über Land und Meer. Deutsche Illustrirte Zeitung, Ausgabe 49, Jahrgang 1892 courtesy of wikipedia

The Nina hit another tempest.  As he was in Portuguese jurisdiction, he proceeded to Lisbon.  Columbus had friends in Portugal.  He was granted and audience with King Joao in Lisbon.  The King partially in fear of offending the Spanish monarchs, received Columbus with honors.  He had met him previously when the now Admiral had offered his services to Portugal.  Despite some contrary advice the King issued some kind words and Columbus was allowed to proceed to Spain.

Pinzon in the Pinta had already reached Spain.  As Columbus feared Pinzon sought the honor of announcing the great discovery.  The Sovereigns, however, snubbed the captain.  They stated that the Admiral should have the honor of making the first announcement.

Columbus was received by the Monarchs in Barcelona with great pomp and festivity.  He had with him several Tainos.  His titles as Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of the Indies were confirmed in a royal ceremony.  This high privilege was extremely important in that era when Kings and Queens were thought to govern by Divine Right.  A major source of interest at the festivities were the Tainos who accompanied Columbus.

Some commentators refer to these Tainos as slaves, but this certainly was not the case.  The Tainos on the return voyage were volunteers.  They bore personal gifts for the Spanish rulers.  They were anxious to see the wonders of the new land from which the tall ships, and sailing men had come.  Columbus had good relations with the Taino Cacique Guarangari.  He would have no desire to damage those relations by enslaving a few Tainos.  There were thirty-nine of his shipmates in Navidad and Columbus would not wish to put their lives at risk.  In addition, Columbus had never been involved and did not want to become involved in the slave trade.

Perhaps the most important indication was that the Tainos were baptized into the Christian faith shortly after arrival.  Church policy at that time stood against enslavement of Christians.  Even more important Queen Isabel was firmly opposed to the enslavement of Christians, and this included these natives of another land.  Part of the rapport she had established with Columbus was based on his agreement with her on this principle.

Slaughter at La Navidad

It was the Spaniards who created the problem.  They were gold seekers obsessed with acquiring a quick fortune.  Columbus returned to the settlement on November 28, 1493.  He saw the tragedy that had befallen the colony.  The thirty-nine colonists were all dead.  The colony was burned.  Most historians now conclude that it was the colonists who started the trouble with the natives and among themselves.  They fought over the relatively small amount of gold that there was on the island.  They fought over the native women.  The unfamiliar continent, the warm humid climate, contributed to the problem.  The Spaniards were not colonists, able and willing to raise their own food.  The repetitive diet of ships’ rations, and what fruits and vegetables they could gather did not help their disposition.  Murders among the Spaniards and mistreatment of the natives became more frequent.  This outraged Guarangari.  It was another Cacique who acted.  Canabo was one of the two Carib Caciques on the island.  He killed the white survivors.  Guarangari did not oppose him.  The retribution was severe but just by Native American and European standards of the times, but as we shall see, its repercussions would be calamitous.

The Second Voyage

Columbus’s return was a world-shaking event.  It took less than seven months to assemble a new much larger fleet, seventeen vessels.  The voyage was tranquil.  Land was sighted on November 3.  The Spaniards did some exploring and had their first contact with the fierce Caribs.  Fortunately, the Carib warriors were absent on a raid so a conflict was avoided.  

Columbus received no clear explanation for the previous slaughter.  Guarangari fearing to offend his friend did not give a full report of the depredations of the Spaniards.  He chose to lay sole blame on Canabo.  Given what he had seen of the Carib village in Cuba, Columbus was quite willing to accept the explanation.  Columbus began to mistrust the natives.  

Columbus founded a new colony, La Isabella on January 2, 1494.  He named his brothers Bartolomeo and Diego as governors of the island and Francisco Roldan as alcalde (mayor) of the settlement.  Roldan turned out to be a disastrous choice.  He was a greedy rebel and a traitor to the Admiral.  La Isabella proved to be a failure but the second colony he founded was a great success.  Founded as Puerto Plata it is now Santo Domingo.  It is the capital of the Dominican Republic and one of the great cities of the Caribbean.

Actual gold mines were found in the vicinity.  The mines were not comparable to the great Spanish mines of the mainland, but they were still productive five hundred years later.

For the balance of the expedition Columbus continued his explorations.  Columbus believed he might be near India.  He explored the southern coast of Cuba.  Given the great length of that island he was hopeful that it might be a peninsula of the mainland.  His continued explorations led him to realize that this was not the case.  He also discovered and explored the island of Jamaica.

person holding compass
Photo by Valentin Antonucci on

The second voyage however was proving to be disastrous  There was a serious health issue for the Europeans.  The land was incredibly fertile, almost always green, but most of the new colonists were not farmers.  They were gold seekers who did not adapt well to doing farm work.  There were farmers among the colonists, but the climate was against them.  The period from June through August was extremely humid and oppressive for the Europeans.  There were twelve hundred people to feed and the constant heat of the tropics wore them out.  There was no seasonal change.  No autumn to refresh them.  Even the sturdy farmers found it difficult to adapt.

The Admiral ordered everyone to work, even the hidalgos (gentry) to build water mills to create water power on the river.  The gentry resisted and the framers had great difficulty working.  The crop yields were poor.  The diet was poor and Europeans fell victim to tropical diseases.  Overtime the Europeans would adapt to the climate but the first few years were difficult.  Hurricanes struck.  The relation between the whites and the natives became exploitative.  This could not be blamed on Columbus.  Although he was the “Admiral”, a title that conferred noble status, he was regarded as a foreigner, an upstart Genovese.

Columbus was a great sea captain used to the absolute command of his ship.  He could handle potential mutinies but he was a poor politician.  The abuse of the natives by the Spaniards grew.

Columbus appointed an able but cruel military commander, Alonso Hojeda, to deal with the situation.  Open warfare broke out.  Columbus accepted the version of events advanced by the hidalgos.  Perhaps the massacre at LaNavidad whatever its cause had shocked him.  Remember that the war had been going on.  He came into a situation already inflamed.  He believed the hidalgos, Guacanagari, did not contradict them.  Columbus was regarded as a Genovese foreigner by the Spaniards.   He wished to show solidarity with them.

Unfortunately, the chief Franciscan missionary sent with Columbus was a very poor one.  He did not, as the famous Bartolomeo de las Casas would later do, take up the plight of the natives.  He sided with the hidalgos and backed them in their self-serving statements.  Father Buil was supposed to supervise the conversion of the Taino.  The first baptism was performed by Father Roman Pane.  Buil, for his part adopted the hard-liner policy of the hidalgos in dealing with the natives.  In the end he proved an ally to the hidalgos and an enemy to Columbus.

Canabo the Cacique who led the attack on La Navidad now fomented a full-fledged war not only against the Spaniards but against his rival, Guacanagari, the ally of Columbus.  Guacanagari remained loyal to the Admiral.  Columbus in turn defended Guacanagari from the vengeful Spaniards.  Hojeda eventually defeated and captured Canabo. 

It was at this point that relations between the natives and the Spaniards took a tragic turn.  The defeated hostiles were treated in the same manner as defeated enemies had been treated for six thousand years.  It was the same manner that prevailed throughout the world.  They were subjected to slavery.  In so doing Columbus was following the common practice of the time.  He was a sailor and sometimes combatant.  Were he to be captured in a sea battle with the Turks his treatment would have been similiar.  As stated, over one-million Europeans were currently slaves in the Ottoman Empire.  Slavery was a normal practice on every continent, in Africa, Western, Central and Eastern Asia, and of course in America.  Even the Taino had slaves.  The Caribs enslaved the Tainos.  The Mayans, Aztecs, and  all the Northern Central and South American Tribes enslaved captives of defeated enemies.

For his part, Columbus was not a slave trader.  He never conducted slave raids.  He had no part in the terrible transatlantic slave trade.  One cannot defend the abhorrent practice of slavery.  We must recognize, however, that we can’t judge the practice of one age by the mores of another.  Were our ancestors to look on the mores of our own age they would find much to horrify them and perhaps rightly so.  This topic will be further dealt with in the summary section. 

On March 10, 1496, Columbus departed for Spain.  The ships were crowded with colonists seeking to return home.  They were disappointed with the Indies.  Thirty Indian captives, followers of Canabo, were also among the passengers.  Canabo died on board.  The Indians were not to be permanent slaves.  The wish of Columbus and his royal patrons was that they would be converted to Christianity and thereafter be trained as servants with the rights of Christians.

His enemies preceded him.  Father Buil and Margarite a disappointed military commander, were spreading mixed truth, half-truths and lies about him.  Columbus was accused of brutality not to the natives but to the colonists.  He was accused of administrative incompetence.  Ironically, his attempts to restrain the savagery of the colonists toward the Taino formed part of the charges laid against him.  The monarchs retained their affection for Columbus and recognized his matchless ability as a navigator.  They remained loyal to him.

The Third Voyage

On his return to Spain, Columbus faced a real choice.  He could have retired to comfortable wealth and a title of minor nobility.  He was beginning to be wracked by arthritis.  It would plague him for the rest of his life.  But for the indomitable sailor this was not a choice.  He had still not accomplished what he had set out to do.  He had not reached India or China or Japan.  After much difficulty he outfitted a third expedition.  He left on May 30, 1498.

In the meantime, the two great Atlantic powers, Spain and Portugal, had negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas which would form the basis for the division of their prospective empires.  The line agreed upon would be about eight hundred and ten miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.  This imaginary line would mean that in the near future Spain would have the right to most of Central and South America with one major exception.  Portugal would have the right to Brazil.  Of course, no one realized this at the time.  No one even knew that there was a vast land mass between Europe and Asia.  The leading cosmographer in the Spanish Court Jaime Ferrer had agreed with Columbus that the lands he discovered were in Asia.   

Another Genovese navigator a friend of Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci also agreed.   However, it would be Vespucci’s voyage to Brazil and then the expedition of Vasco Balboa which would finally overthrow the prevailing opinion in Europe.  At last, it would finally be known that there was a “new world”.  Meanwhile, Columbus was making a third voyage which would once again affirm his magnificent navigational skills.  It would also have terrible consequences for the great navigator.  There was a practical point to this third voyage and as usual Columbus possessed the navigational skills to address this point.  In Portugal an uncorroborated hypothesis had arisen that a great continent lay athwart the equator in the Western Ocean.  If this were so then there might be land east of the demarcation line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas, and that land would lie within the dominion of Portugal.  Vespucci would establish this in the next decade.  Balboa would confirm it a few years later, of course, all of this was unknown at the time. 

The first known map to show the name America was created with input from Amerigo Vespucci The Waldseemuller map was bought from a private collection in France and now resides at the Library of Congress in the USA.
The first known map to show the name America was created with input from Amerigo Vespucci. The Waldseemuller map was bought from a private collection in France and now resides at the Library of Congress in the USA.

Columbus was now debilitated by arthritis, but he pressed on.  This meant sailing south west of the trade winds into the area known as the doldrums, the area of dead calm and variable winds between the northern and southern trades.  The area was hot and still.  It was hard sailing.  On July 31, 1498 he was the first European to land on Trinidad.  He proceeded west.  The next day, he had his first sighting of the American mainland.

This was a key moment for the Admiral.  He saw that a green beautiful and huge river was emptying a vast volume of fresh water into the Caribbean.  This could only mean that he had struck a continental mass.  No island could be the source of such a vast river.  The river was the Orinoco.  The territory was Venezuela.  The continent was South America.  Columbus was very ill.  He had contracted the gout.  His eyes were swollen but on August 14th  he realized that he was off shore of continental mass.  

Months earlier another Genovese navigator, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) had landed in North America.  He was in the service of England.  Still, it was not yet realized that Europeans had reached a completely different continental mass.  Columbus never acknowledged it.  In fairness  it must be said that there was not even a rumor of another continental land formation existing in the world.  Yet Columbus had already dared to sail in the face of accepted belief to voyage west across the Ocean Sea.  It is fair to say that he never acknowledged that he was on a new continent because he did not want to believe it.  He was certain he had reached Asia.

Close up of the Waldseemuller map showing the name America on a map for the very first time.
Close up of the Waldseemuller map showing the name America on a map for the very first time.

While Columbus was exploring the South American coast, a rebellion had broken out in Hispaniola.  When he arrived at Santo Domingo, he found two warring factions.  His brother Bartolomeo led the faction loyal to the Admiral.  The rebels were led by Francisco Roldan.  The dispute involved the governance of the island.  Columbus was anxious to settle the war.  He ceded to the Roldan faction greater authority over the natives.  The result, forced on Columbus, did not bring slavery to the island.  This would have been inconsistent with the goal of Columbus and Queen Isabel to bring Christianity to the natives.  Christians could not reduce other Christians to slavery.

But the results were not much better.  The Spaniards forced the “encomienda” upon the natives.  This was a form of feudal serfdom.  The native could not be sold as property, as they were in Portuguese,  English,  and Dutch Colonies.  They became tied to the land and owed their labor to the Spanish lords.

While the dispute was festering some of the colonists returned to Spain.  They brought their complaint to the royal court.  A Spanish Knight Francisco de Bobadilla was dispatched with authority to settle the matter.  

Columbus was charged with cruelty by the Spaniards.  Bobadilla exercised royal authority in an arbitrary fashion.  Bobadilla sided with the Spaniards and against the natives.  He also decided against Columbus whom he regarded, as a foreigner a Genovese of common origin.

Columbus in Chains. A statue by Delisis at the Palermo Museum of Modern Art (c) Diana Belchase
Columbus in Chains. A statue by Delisis at the Palermo Museum of Modern Art (c) Diana Belchase

The upshot was that he ordered Columbus to be taken in chains to the return ship, La Gordes .  Although Bobadilla permitted the captain of the vessel to unchain Columbus upon departure, Columbus refused.  He stated that he had been put in chains by a royal agent and only the sovereign could release him.  This action was characteristic of the man, stubborn, indominable, a man of medieval principles.   He would not allow himself to be unfettered until he set foot on Spanish soil.

The monarchs were perplexed, but were still fond of their proud but loyal vassal.  They ordered him to be released immediately.  On December 12, 1500, the Queen granted Columbus’ brother a special audience.  She still felt very protective toward the Genovese.  All legal proceedings against him were dismissed.  Bobadilla was immediately recalled to Spain.  However, the monarch would not restore Columbus as governor general of the colonies.  Spain was now at war with the Turks and they were looking for a more tranquil regime in the New World.

The Fourth Voyage

Columbus was once again in a position to retain the goods he had acquired in his first three voyages and retire to a prosperous old age and write his memoirs.  However, the man in question was Christopher Columbus.  His dream was not to reside in comfort in Spain.  His goal was to reach India.  He believed he had reached the eastern edge of Asia.  Now he wanted to complete his quest.  He thought that this would be achieved by finding a strait between what the world agreed was the eastern edge of Cathay and the Indian Ocean, thereby finally reaching the Indies. 

Ironically, the enterprise became more crucial when the Portuguese reached India by sailing east.  Vasco da Gama‘s fleet circumnavigated Africa.  It entered the Indian Ocean and reached the Malabar Coast of India in 1499.  The voyage took  two years. Thinking logically based on existing belief Columbus persuaded the Spanish monarchs that since he had already reached East Asia, he would also be able to arrive at India by a much shorter route and then circumnavigate the globe.

On this voyage Columbus’s son Ferdinand (Hernando) accompanied his father.  Ferdinand would later write his own account of the voyage.  The small feet deported on May 9,1500.  The crossing was the fastest of all the transatlantic trips.   The fleet reached St Lucia in the Lesser Antilles on June 15th.

Due to previous conflicts Columbus was not permitted to land on Hispaniola.  There was a gold fleet preparing to leave Santo Domingo.  The great fleet consisted of thirty-two vessels.  Columbus sent word that his observations led him to believe that a tremendous storm was about to break and that the gold fleet should delay departure.  Columbus as usual was correct.  As a result, Columbus found a protected shelter.  Don Nicolas de Ovando Commander of the gold fleet barred Columbus’s entry to San Domingo.  He ignored Columbus’s advice as to the brewing storm.  He encountered the storm in full.  Only one of the thirty-two ships made it back to Spain and 500 lives were lost.  Unfortunately, de Ovando survived.  He became a great killer of the helpless Taino people.  

As stated, Columbus believed that there was a strait through the large islands between India and China.  He relied on the little that was known about Asiatic trade.  He was mistaken but near the truth.  He had heard something about the Straits of Molucca from Portuguese navigators.  What he did not know, and neither did anyone else, was that the greatest body of water in the world, the Pacific Ocean, lay between where he was and China.  He sailed up and down the waters of Central America seeking the strait.  He reached the coast of Honduras and saw signs of a far more advanced culture than he had yet discovered.  The small fleet encountered a huge canoe.  The people in the canoe were in fact Mayans.  Columbus was tempted to follow them but instead decided to search for the elusive straits.  Had he followed his hunch Columbus would have proceeded to the Yucatan and encountered the great Mayan Civilization.  Instead, he continued coasting along Honduras to Costa Rica.  He persisted in searching for the straits.  

Off Panama, Columbus located a large lagoon leading to a bay (Laguna de Chiriquí).  It had deep salt water passages with abundant sea life.  He believed he had found the straits.  He had not.  There was no passage.  He did find gold, at Vergua, Panama.  He also found another precious commodity, coca.  He decided to found a colony.

By and large Columbus had maintained peaceful relations with the native tribes.  A native chief, Quibias, justly suspicious, objected to any colony in his territory.  He decided to attack and destroy the newcomers.  War broke out.  The Spaniards with their superior weapons prevailed but the attempt to found a colony failed.  

Columbus had made a great discovery of all of Central America.  Nine years later Vasco de Balboa would cross the Isthmus and establish that what Columbus had explored was a new continent, but Columbus, perhaps mercifully, did not live to learn this.   Columbus found something else in his coastal explorations, teredos or wood eating ship’s worms.  When the weather turned to a deadly calm there was no way to escape these pests.  They rendered the ships unseaworthy.  The fleet became marooned.  A canoe bought from the natives had to be sent out to the open sea for rescue.  Another mutiny broke out.  The mutineers became deserters.  The mutineers worsened relations with the natives by plundering at every opportunity.  Columbus maintained better relations with the natives.  From a ship’s book he predicted a solar eclipse and impressed the natives. (“B” movie lovers will recognize that this has becomes a standard plot device in second rate adventure films.)

The unsuccessful mutineers returned to the ships.  Columbus pardoned them.  Fortunately, the canoe expedition had reached Santo Domingo.  A rescue party arrived.  The marooned men reached Santo Domingo on August 13,1504.  Columbus was received politely but it was clear that he had no authority on the island which he had discovered.

Columbus left Santo Domingo and the New World on September 12, 1504 never to return. He arrived in Spain on November 7, 1504.  He was stricken with gout and arthritis, his health broken by the rigor of his life as sailor and explorer.  Queen Isabel died soon after his return.  She had always been loyal to the sailor, believed in his genius and supported his undertakings.  He was received by King Ferdinand on May of 1505 but their relationship was always more distant.  Prematurely old and ill, but ever hopeful, Columbus continued to petition the Royal Court, but he had no further connection at the Court and his public fame had been eclipsed.  He died a year later at times hopeful at other times heartbroken.  The news of his death was not immediately noted.  He died a man of moderate property, reasonably comfortable and surrounded by family.  As befits his religious nature he died on May 20,1506, the Vigil of the Ascension, for him a day of great religious significance. 

The Honorable Justice John Barone, author


A Note on Sources

The books that I relied upon most heavily in writing this monograph are, “Admiral of the Ocean Seas”’ by Samuel Eliot Morison and “Columbus, The Great Adventure”, by         Paolo Emilio Taviani.  Morison’s work won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.  In addition to being a history professor at Harvard, Morison was a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy.  In preparation for the biography Morison duplicated Columbus’s voyages through the West Indies and across the Atlantic in sailing vessels.  Taviani’s work (translated from the Italian) is most insightful in explaining Columbus’s unparalleled navigational skills.  The religious motivation for Columbus’s voyages is dealt with by Stanford University                         Professor Carol Delaney in “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem”.  “Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages” is a compilation of Columbus’s own diary entries and the dispatcher of those who sailed with him.  It also includes the work of contemporary Spanish Royal Historian Gonzales Fernandez de Oviedo and Columbus’s son Fernando (Hernando) Colon.  It is translated and edited by Cambridge Scholar J.M. Cohen.  A more detailed account of Columbus’s disastrous Fourth Voyage is provided in, “The Last Voyage of Columbus” by Martin Dugard.  The terrible story of the treatment of the West Indian natives is detailed by Bartolomeo De Las Casas, in “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”.  De Las Casas was the great defender of the Native Americans.  A friend and admirer of Columbus he delineates in horrifying detail the cruelty of the Spanish Conquistadors.  He shows how Columbus was not responsible for this horror.  For general background  I relied on Morison’s, “The European Discovery of America”.  Another book which I found useful is “Christopher Columbus, the Hero” by an author who writes under the penname of “Rafael”.  This is not a biography or a history.  It is an admitted polemic.  It is useful in dealing with the inaccuracies and half-truths of many of those classified as revisionist historians, such as Howard Zinn, and the uninformed journalists, bloggers and “politically correct” commentators who have waged a disgraceful yet successful campaign against Columbus and the celebration of the national holiday.

Finally, I owe a great depth of gratitude to my wife, Rosemary, who typed the manuscript and helped edit the final draft.   She also put up with a temperamental Sicilian.

John A. Barone

Justice NYS Supreme Court (Ret.)

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