Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Discovery of America (Continued)

The preparations for Columbus's departure were carried on in the port of Palos, on the coast of Andalusia. From that port he set sail on the 3rd of August, 1492, in a hundred-ton boat; two other similar cockleshells made up his entire fleet. He followed the known route to the Canary Islands, then steered westwards into the unknown waters of the Atlantic.

From the outset his sailors were troubled by fears. Terror even goaded them into mutiny; they wanted Columbus to put back, and the dauntless navigator had great difficulty in persuading them to help him in his quest a little longer. Fortunately, land was sighted before fear could again lead the sailors into open rebellion. The joyous discovery was made early on the morning of the 12th of October, and within a few hours from the time when the good news rang through the ships Columbus was setting foot on the shores of the New World. He had reached one of the islands in the group now known as the "Bahamas." He found himself in a well-watered wilderness of tropical jungle, which was inhabited by tawny-skinned people. The natives seemed to be very poor; nevertheless, they were wearing thin plates of gold as ornaments. In a dumb-show conversation Columbus learnt that the precious metal was obtained from somewhere to the south; whereupon he sailed away to look for the treasure land. His next discovery was Cuba, but as gold did not seem to be very abundant there he resumed his voyage, and so came to Hayti. As that island showed numerous signs of being able to yield considerable wealth, Columbus erected a fort thereon and garrisoned it with members of his crew. Then he set sail for Europe.

Sailboats of Columbus


When Columbus arrived back at Lisbon the King of Portugal gave him a great reception. But it was in Spain, naturally, that he was greeted as a hero for whom no praise could be too high, no reward too great. There was no need for him now to beg for a ship in which to go exploring. On the contrary, Spain begged him to take command of a second expedition to the West, and the moment he agreed preparations for his departure were commenced.

Columbus started from Cadiz on a second expedition on the 25th of September, 1493, taking with him some Spanish settlers for Hayti. During this voyage he discovered a number of islands in the Caribbean Sea, several of which are now included in the British West Indies.

During his third voyage, begun on the 3oth of May, 1498, Columbus landed on the island of Trinidad. Upon leaving there he again steered an experimental course, which brought him to the near neighbouring mainland.

England, however, and one of his own countrymen had forestalled him in the discovery of the American Continent. For in 1497 John Cabot, a seaman of Genoese birth, and his son Sebastian sailed from Bristol with an English crew to seek an Atlantic route to the East. They held a patent for Western discovery from Henry VII., sailed under the British flag, and were authorized, as the King's officers, to set up the British colours on any new land they might find. This expedition was England's first attempt at exploration, and it resulted in the discovery of Newfoundland on the 24th of June, 1497. But the discovery by Columbus of the South American mainland, following on his discovery of the neighbouring islands, enabled Spain to become very powerful in the New World, and to derive vast wealth therefrom, long before England followed up the Cabots discovery. It was not until the days of Drake that England again turned her attention to America.

Later on we shall be talking about Drake, and many other explorers and buccaneers who performed daring deeds in the West. Meanwhile, I want you to remember that, although we are talking about the newly discovered lands under their well-known name of "America," for many years they were believed to be western extensions of Asia. Columbus died with the conviction that Cuba was part of the Asiatic mainland.

Columbus first set foot on the American continent in the region now known as Venezuela. But shortly after this triumph he returned to Spain—as a prisoner in chains. His fame had aroused much jealousy; the adventurers who had joined in his expeditions were discontented because they had not found gold lying about in big nuggets; by cruelty the colonists in Hayti had driven the peaceful natives into making war on them, and Columbus had been saddled with the blame. When the King of Spain sent a Governor out to Hayti with orders to arrest its discoverer the moment he again touched at that island, many people rejoiced in the belief that they had accomplished the downfall of the now much hated Columbus. But the great explorer managed to clear his character, and once more he became a popular hero.

Columbus undertook a fourth voyage in the interests of Spain. Upon this occasion he sighted land in the neighbourhood of Nicaragua, Central America. On the 14th of September, 1502, he doubled Cape Gracias a Dios, and went on shore to explore a region to which he gave the name of Cerabora. From the natives there he learnt that gold was to be found in abundance in Veragua, a district away to the east. This news made him hasten to put to sea again. He sailed along the coast of the country now called Costa Rica, and came to the Chiriqui Lagoon. Somewhere in the vicinity of that lagoon Columbus first set foot on the Isthmus of Panama, on the 2nd of November, 1502.

Whilst reconnoitring off the Panamian coast Columbus was driven by a storm to seek shelter at a small island; as the spot where he found anchorage had an abundance of fruits, fish and game he called it Puerto de Bastimento—a place of supplies. A few days later he was once more cruising in the open sea, but he had not travelled many knots before another fierce gale forced him to put in to the mainland. To the haven he then had the good luck to find he gave the very appropriate name of Retrete. From Retrete he sailed westward to the mouth of a river which the Indians called Quiebra; that river, to which Columbus gave the name of Belen, now forms part of the boundary between the provinces of Colon and Veragua. At the mouth of the Belen he turned back, and sailed eastwards as far as the islands of the Mulatto Archipelago, in the Gulf of San Blas, stopping on the way at the spot which is now the site of Portobello. After making several journeys backwards and forwards along the coast of Panama he returned to Spain, in 1504. Illness had brought him to the verge of a breakdown, and his enemies had again got the ear of the King, who was only too ready to find any excuse for not paying the reward he had promised to Columbus. The great explorer was too ill to fight for his rights. He died in seclusion on the loth of May, 1506. His enemies had even triumphed to the extent of associating the country he had found with the name of Amerigo Vespucci, who only followed where Columbus led. But after his death his friends proved more powerful than his foes. "Columbus gave a new world to Spain" was engraved on his monument, and was the motto of his descendants.

Columbus believed that he had reached India. Herein lies the explanation of the name "West Indian Islands." And for the same reason all the aborigines of America are commonly called "Indians."