Story of Columbus - G. M. Imlach

The Fourth Voyage

A Spanish noble, Ovando, was sent out to Hayti as Governor, with orders to dismiss Bobadilla, and to claim from him all the property stolen from Columbus. He was commanded to make as much haste as possible, because it was certain that Bobadilla was ruling the island very badly, and that the Indians were suffering ill-treatment from the colonists, who used them as if they were cattle. Columbus asked to be sent out himself, but he was told that Ovando must first have time to get the island under control, and that then he would again be made Governor.

Therefore he gave his mind to the new adventure. He had noticed, while he was out in Paria, that a great current of water passed along to the west. Now he knew that this current must find some outlet for itself, and there was no such passage among the West Indian Islands which he had explored; so he fancied there must be some strait north of Paria through which the water escaped. For, because he thought Cuba was part of the mainland, he did not imagine that the water might find its way to the west of that island, as it does in the mighty Gulf Stream. And Columbus believed that, if there were such a strait, he might surely bring a ship through it, and, sailing on, come perhaps to new countries, perhaps to India, perhaps right round the world to Spain.

Queen Isabella listened to him favourably, for she always trusted in the justness of his reasoning; and four small ships were given to him. Bartholomew Columbus tried to persuade his brother that he was not young and strong enough to go on another dangerous voyage, but insisted on going with him when his words proved useless. Fernando, Columbus' second son, now a boy of thirteen, also accompanied his father.

This expedition sailed on the 9th of May 1502, and was unfortunate from the first. One of the ships sailed so badly that the others had continually to stop and wait for it, and the Admiral determined to call at San Domingo, and try to obtain a better vessel. But Ovando sent a boat out to say that he, as Governor of Hayti, commanded the fleet to leave at once. Columbus dispatched a messenger to warn him that a storm was approaching, and to ask if he might take shelter in the harbour. This request was refused.

He then got his ships under the lee of an island, where, with bare poles, they bore the force of the winds bravely. A terrible hurricane came up, and lasted for several days, but, though injured, the little fleet was not destroyed. On the other hand, the vessels in which Bobadilla and Roldan were returning to Spain put boldly out to sea, and in a day or two all went to the bottom but one small ship, which was carrying some treasure belonging to Columbus. Thus the Admiral's enemies perished; and people were not slow to say that God had shown His care for His true servant, while He allowed his wicked foes to drown. Columbus himself declared: "I am satisfied it was the hand of God, for had they arrived in Spain, they would never have been punished as their crimes deserved, but favoured and rewarded."

He waited a few days in a desert part of Hayti while his ships were thoroughly repaired after the storm, and then he steered for Cuba, and thence to the south-west. He soon came in sight of a pleasant island covered with pines, behind which lay the main coast. On the way he met a great canoe filled with Indians, who told him they had come from the north, from a country rich in gold, and inhabited by many thousands of people. This was the kingdom of Mexico, and if he had sailed there he would have come to a land richer than any he had imagined—the land of gold itself. But, unfortunately, he thought only of the strait he was seeking, and was resolved to turn southwards to find it.

Now South America was not at this time quite an unknown land. Not only had Columbus visited Paria, but many other men had obtained copies of his maps, or employed his seamen to guide them, and had sailed up the coast from Brazil as far as the Isthmus of Darien collecting treasure. However, none of them had come farther north, and that part of Central America which Columbus had reached was still unexplored.

As the ships sailed towards the south another terrible storm arose which lasted for six weeks. "My ships lay exposed, with sails torn, and anchors, rigging, cables, boats, and a great quantity of provisions lost," Columbus said in a letter. "My people were very weak and humbled in spirit, many of them promising to lead a religious life, and all making vows and promising to perform pilgrimages. The distress of my son who was with me grieved me to the soul, and the more when I considered his tender age, for he was but thirteen years old, and he enduring so much toil for so long a time. Our Lord, however, gave him strength even to enable him to encourage the rest, and he worked as if he had been eighty years at sea. I myself had fallen sick, and was many times at the point of death, but from a little cabin that I had caused to be constructed on the deck I directed our course. My brother was in the ship that was in the worst condition and the most exposed to danger; and my grief on this account was the greater that I brought him with me against his will."

At last the little squadron was able to reach a harbour where fresh water and provisions were obtained, and the ships overhauled. Friendly Indians spoke to Columbus of the gold of Veragua, a country not far away, but he went on in search of the western passage till he came to the Isthmus of Darien. The coast from this point to Paria had been explored by other adventurers; there was no use therefore in sailing farther. The strait did not exist; and another of his hopes had failed him.

He decided to return to Veragua to collect what gold he might, before sailing for Spain. The winds continued to rage, the ships' bottoms were bored through and through by the sea-worm, the sailors were out of health, the biscuit was bad.

However, the ships reached Veragua and anchored at the mouth of a river; the Indians were approached and presents sent to the chief Quibian. Two expeditions led inland reported that there was abundance of gold. Columbus' brain was on fire with new plans: here he would build a fort and make a settlement; here should a new colony arise which would restore the glory he had lost in Hayti. Preparations were made apace, and the Admiral decided to return to Spain for provisions and colonists, while his brother remained in charge at Veragua.

But the Indians, who were a bold and hardy race, and had from the first disliked the presence of the white strangers, resolved to make a quick end of the settlement. They gathered round Quibian in hundreds, and proposed to take the Spaniards by surprise in a night attack.

Their sullen manners were noticed by Diego Mendez, a valiant Spaniard, who resolved to ascertain the reason of their behaviour. With one companion he went in search of Quibian's village, and though he met many bands of armed Indians he was allowed to pass when he said that he was a surgeon who had come to cure a wound in Quibian's foot. He came to the royal hut, where he was less civilly treated; one of Quibian's sons rushed out angrily and threatened him with death.

Diego contrived to soothe him by showing him a looking-glass, and asking if he would not like his hair cut and arranged in the Spanish fashion. This was then done by the other Spaniard, who had some skill in the barber's art, and the vain savage allowed his enemies to depart. They reported all they had seen to the Admiral, who immediately sent seventy men to seize Quibian. The chief and his family were overpowered without the knowledge of their army, and they were led to the shore and put into a boat. As they were being rowed out, Quibian with a desperate effort freed himself from his cords, pushed into the bottom of the boat the Spaniard who was acting as his guard, and swam to the shore. There he gathered his tribesmen together and attacked the settlement fiercely.

Although Columbus was ready to sail, he had been delayed by the tides, and the savages were able to surprise a boat which he was sending to the settlement, and to kill all the crew but one man who escaped to tell the tale to Bartholomew. They then drove the defenders of the fort from its unfinished walls, and forced them to take refuge on the beach, where they made a rampart of casks and planks. Meanwhile the Admiral expected the return of the boat. He had only one other, and he dared not risk losing it, but as he became more and more anxious, a bold Spaniard volunteered to swim to land and find out what was happening.

He succeeded in doing this, and in bringing back news of the grave plight of the settlers. There was nothing for it but to take them on board, and so they were carried across, a few at a time, in the boat and in two native canoes.

All chance of establishing a colony at Veragua was at an end; the men were crowded into the two ships that remained seaworthy, and Columbus attempted to return from the most disappointing of his voyages. How exhausted he was in mind and body can be seen from his own account. "I toiled up to the highest part of the ship and with a quivering voice and fast falling tears I called upon your Highnesses' war-captains, from each point of the compass, to come to my succour; but there was no reply."

The ships reached Cuba, but were too much battered to beat up against the east wind, and Columbus headed for Jamaica. By constant use of the pumps, and even of pots and kettles, he managed to keep them above the water till they came to a sandy shore, where he ran them aground side by side, lashed them firmly together, and built huts on the decks for his men. Diego Mendez induced the natives to bring a daily supply of fresh provisions, and the sailors were fairly comfortable for the time, though they had no means of escape from the island.

After all had rested and recovered from their hardships, the Admiral sent for Diego Mendez and spoke to him as follows: "My son, not one of those whom I have here with me has any idea of the great danger in which we stand, except myself and you; for we are but few in number and these wild Indians are numerous and very fickle; and whenever they take it into their heads to come and burn us in our two ships, which we have made into straw-thatched cabins, they may easily do so by setting fire to them on the land side, and so destroy us all. The arrangement which you have made with them for the supply of food, to which they agreed with such goodwill, may soon prove disagreeable to them, and it would not be surprising if on the morrow they were not to bring us anything at all."

He then asked Diego whether he would be willing to attempt the voyage to Hayti in one of the small open canoes they could obtain from the Indians. The Spaniard hesitated. He said that he would willingly enough risk his life to bring help, but that his companions already were grumbling that the Admiral trusted him too much, and he did not wish to provoke their jealousy further. So Columbus called the men together, warned them of their danger, showed them that a message must be sent to Hayti before help could come, and asked for volunteers to undertake the enterprise. All hung back; no one would meet almost certain death. Then Diego Mendez stepped forward. "My lord," he said, "I have but one life, and I am willing to hazard it in your service and for the welfare of all those who are here with us." The Admiral arose and embraced him, kissing his cheek, and the sailors, astonished at his bravery, could only murmur words of encouragement. One of them even agreed to accompany him.

They set out bravely in two small canoes with some Indian rowers. If they gained any port in Hayti it was agreed that Diego Mendez should proceed with Columbus' letters to Spain, while his companion should return to Jamaica with provisions. Before they had gone far along the coast of that island they were stopped by some natives, but they escaped from their captors and paddled on their way undiscouraged. The weather was very hot, and on the second day the Indians became exhausted by fatigue and thirst, for their water jars were soon emptied. They lay groaning at the bottom of the boat, while the white men put up a small sail and made a little progress. One of the natives had died, and others seemed near death, when they perceived a tiny rocky island. Here they found some rain-water and a few shellfish, and thus refreshed, reached Hayti.

As soon as Diego Mendez had landed, his companion should have returned to Columbus with news of the safe arrival, but the Indians refused to tempt the seas again, and he must needs wait until some larger vessel could be procured. Diego hastened to seek Ovando, not doubting that such a ship would be immediately forthcoming. He found the governor in one of the more remote districts of the island, where he was engaged in a cruel attack on the natives. Ovando received the messenger coldly, and hardly concealed his pleasure at hearing of Columbus' misfortunes. He secretly hoped that the great founder of the colony would soon perish if he were left without ships and provisions in a distant island, and that thus he would retain the government in his own hands. Accordingly he made no attempt to help Diego, whom he put off with a few cold promises.

Therefore Columbus was left in doubt as to the fate of the canoes. The sailors became discontented, declaring that Diego Mendez was certainly drowned, and that there was no chance of rescue. They refused to obey Columbus' wise orders for exercise and care of their health. He was too infirm and miserable to control them. Finally they mutinied, and marched to another part of Jamaica, leaving only the invalids and a few faithful friends with their leader. New disasters followed. The mutineers plundered the Indians, who learned to hate all the white men, and no longer brought them food. The Spaniards on the ships were almost starving when Columbus thought of a daring and brilliant plan of bringing the savages to his feet.

He had ascertained from the calendar that there would be an eclipse of the moon one night during the next month. He therefore told the Indians that they had offended the white men's god by refusing to bring supplies, and as a punishment first the moon and then the sun would be taken from heaven, so that there would be no light left on earth. The chiefs refused to believe his words, but, when the night of the eclipse came, and a shadow appeared on the edge of the moon, they were terribly frightened, and begged him to entreat his god to pardon them. He would not consent at first, but waited until the point of total eclipse was reached and the moon was utterly darkened. Then he agreed to do his best, and they saw the shadow move slowly away, and the moon shine out once more. Such an awful threat was not to be disregarded, and henceforward the Indians were his willing servants.

When eight months had gone, a sail was seen in the distance. Ovando had sent a small ship, hoping to learn that all were dead, and to be able to report their sad end to Spain. As it was evident that the Spaniards were still alive, a boat was lowered, a man proceeded to the Admiral's ship with a piece of bacon, a cask of wine, and a letter, and without a word returned to the strange vessel, which immediately set sail. Columbus took the letter in trembling hands, and read that Ovando was sorry for his misfortunes, but was unable to offer him any help. Distressed as he was by this cruel note, Columbus at least was now aware that his followers had reached Hayti, and he was confident that Diego Mendez would not desert him. In this hope he met new attacks from the hungry mutineers. In this hope he bore up against the reproachful looks of the loyal Spaniards on the ships. And at last the expected help came.

In June 1504, a whole year after they had been wrecked on the shores of Jamaica, two ships arrived to carry away the survivors of the expedition. Henceforward their course was easy. Even Ovando could not refuse to receive the Admiral at San Domingo and to aid his passage to Spain.

And so it happened that in November 1504 Christopher Columbus returned to his adopted country for the last time.