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What Motivated Columbus?


So, let's start off by saying who Columbus was. Historians know that Columbus was born in 1451 in the Italian city of Genoa-- a wealthy seaport on the Ligurian Sea. His father was a small time weaver and was training young Christobo to do the same. But Chris heard many tales of adventure from the sailors and merchants that were constantly coming and going in Genoa. Columbus probably grew up hearing the tales of Marco Polo, another Italian explorer who made a 10,000 miles journey to China back in 1200s. A weaver's life was not for him. One year before he was born and about 1,000 miles away in Lison, Portugal, an event was in the works that would change the course for Christobo, and for the world. The Portuguese had just wrapped up their Reconquista (Spain would take another 42 years) and Prince Henry the Navigator was interested in exploring the oceans and establishing trade with Africa and Asia. 

Getting East by Sailing West


On August 3, 1492, Columbus, along with a crew of 39 sailors and convicts (Columbus had a hard time convincing experienced sailors of his plan to sail into the unknown) set sail across the Atlantic. His plan was simply to use the stars and instruments like the astrolabe to calculate his latitude.

Columbus was reasonably sure that Spain and Japan were on the same latitude so all he had to do was follow that. What Columbus did not know is that the Portuguese were right. Columbus had made a huge calculation error when he measured the circumference of the earth. Columbus believed that Japan was only 2,500 miles away from Spain, a journey of about one month. It's actually 10,000 miles! The reason why we are not reading about the lost voyage of Columbus is because unbeknown to him or anyone else (except for the Native Americans) were two large continents about 4,300 miles away from Spain.

Columbus was seeking a shortcut to trading with the fabulously wealthy kingdoms of Asia so that merchants, and the kings who sponsored them, could keep the profits for bringing back silks, spices, gems, gold, sugar, ivory, incense, you name it. Currently the way to get from point Europe to point Asia is through the Middle East which is now totally controlled by the Ottomans, whom the Europeans hate.

Columbus In the New World


When Columbus landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 he knew he wasn't in Japan but he thought that he was on a remote island very nearby. The Arawak who came out to greet him were totally in shock at the sight of people with pale skin, beards, shiny metal clothing, and not to mention the massive floating ships they rode in on. We don't know for sure what the Arawak thought of these newcomers because they didn't keep written records and in 50 years they would all be wiped out by Spanish diseases and cruelty.

Columbus got lucky. Had he landed on a nearby island he would have encountered the fierce Carib tribe from whom we get the words 'Caribbean' and 'Cannibal.' Like most Native Americans, curiosity of such strange looking people and a culture that prided itself on showing hospitality to strangers drove the Arawaks onto the beach (totally naked, which shocked the Spanish). They came bearing gifts but Columbus was looking for more than beads and parrot feathers. He had made many promises to the Spanish monarchs who paid for all of this. He told them that he would bring back untold amounts of gold and slaves and convert the people of the Indies to Christianity. In his contract Columbus was promised 10% of the cut, governorship of any new lands he found, and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea which would be passed down to his decedents. To achieve this, Columbus had to make good on his promise of gold and slaves.

​"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."

Columbus saw that some of the Arawak wore gold jewelry, which meant that there must be more where that came from. Columbus at first tried to find out where the source of the gold was. They told him they had no gold but traded for it, or gathered bits and pieces from the streams. This was not what Columbus wanted to hear. One of the first things that Columbus wrote about the Arawaks: 

"They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The Spanish tried to kidnap and force the people they mistakenly called Indians to take them to the gold. When huge mines of gold could not be found (they didn't exist) the Spanish got ugly. Columbus couldn't have the gold but he did take back slaves (many of whom died on the voyage back to Spain. Around Christmas, 1492, Columbus left behind a small crew to find out what they could about the source of the gold the Indians refused to tell them about. On the island of Hispaniola (which is today called Haiti and the Dominican Republic) the Spanish set up a base called La Navidad out of the wreckage of the Santa Maria, which had run aground off Cuba.

Voyage to America: Part II

Columbus went back to Spain with a few beads, feathers, exotic birds, and some Arawak hostages. Columbus told tales about the riches he found in the Indies (remember he didn't realize where he was yet).

A new invention in 1451, called the moveable type printing press quickly spread the news of a strange new world filled with naked, friendly Indians. By the time Columbus returned a second time he had become a hero and a legend in both Spain and throughout Europe. Crowds greeted his return at the docks. He told the king about what he found in the islands off the coast of Asia.

"Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful ... the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals..."

The King and Queen were so impressed with Columbus' stories that they gave him 17 more ships with 1,200 crew. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea (or should we call him Admiral Pants on Fire) had just pulled off one of the greatest con jobs in history. He wouldn't get away with it for long.

Even though Columbus found more gold than on his first voyage, this second voyage (1493-1496) would prove to be a disaster. Word was getting out that Columbus and his brother Diego were not good governors; they were not spreading the Christian faith, and they may have stretched the truth about the rivers of gold. The Spanish and Indian relations were a total failure, the settlers were too busy looking for gold than setting up a colony that could feed itself (most stole from the Indians). When Columbus returned to Spain he was arrested and charged with abusing his position as governor and treason for lying to the king. He somehow talked his way out of this and managed to secure not just one but two more expeditions to the New World.

The settlers that came over refused to work and most relied on slave labor. The colony of Hispaniola was in chaos from the fighting. The King stripped Columbus of his title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and for a while he spent a tint in the slammer. What Columbus did achieve was something far more monumental than trading with Asia. He opened up a new chapter in history that brought Europeans to colonize two huge continents, kicked off a 400 year period of the enslavement of Africans, opened up the world to an exchange of new plants and animals (Called the Columbian Exchange) that led to a population explosion. It also opened up the world to new diseases such as small pox for which the Native Americans had no immunity to. Within 50 years of Columbus' voyage, 3 million Native Americans had died and African slaves were being brought over to work the newly established Spanish plantations.

Spanish Take Over 


In 1493, Columbus and his reinforced crew returned to Hispaniola to find Fort Navidad burned and all of the soldiers dead. What happened to the natives "so friendly they could be easily enslaved" part? While Columbus was away being a hero, his crewmen were fighting over gold and Indian women. Finding no gold on Hispaniola, they enslaved the natives and sailed around the Caribbean looking for islands that could make their voyage pay off. Columbus must have been secretly panicking because now he had gotten even more money from Ferdinand and Isabella based on information that wasn't quite true.

The Spanish, with their horses, guns, steel swords, and hunting dogs easily conquered a population a hundred times their own. Men, women, and children were turned into slaves mining for gold or as personal servants. Some islands like Cuba had more gold than others. Here the Indians were given quotas of gold that they had to produce. Those who did not meet their quotas met torture or death. Those who tried to run away were chased down by greyhounds trained to kill. Thousands died by committing suicide with cassava poison.  Stories even tell of mothers who killed their own children to prevent them from being captured by the Spanish. A Spanish priest, brought over to convert the Indians to Christianity, tells us much about what life was like for the indigenous people during the early days of Spanish conquest.

Columbus returns to Spain with trasures and Indian slaves in tow

nueva españa

Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo was built in 1540, making it the oldest Christian Church in the Americas
Junkhead Factoid:
Did Columbus spot a UFO?


Around 10 p.m. on the night of October 11, 1492 Columbus spotted an eery light glowing above the water. The following acount is taken from  "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus":


Christopher Columbus and Pedro Gutierrez while on the deck of the Santa Maira, observed, "a light glimmering at a great distance." It vanished and reappeared several times during the night, moving up and down, "in sudden and passing gleams." It was sighted 4 hours before land was sighted, and taken by Columbus as a sign they would soon come to land.

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