Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

The Last and Most Disastrous Voyage


"Columbus has returned in chains. He is in custody of the alcalde of Cadiz."

This was the surprising message received by Isabella and Ferdinand at their court in the Alhambra of Granada. It flashed over the country. All Spain was aghast, and the increasing murmurs of the people roused the sovereigns to make, if possible, reparation for their offences. They sent at once an order for his release, and a letter filled with expressions of grief and gratitude. Two thousand ducats were forwarded for his expenses, and he was requested to appear before them without delay. By this action they removed the doubts which, since his arrest and during all the voyage, had hung darkly over the mind of the man they had so deeply wronged. He had borne with silent scorn the taunts of the rabble, the gibes of his enemies; but when he appeared before the royal pair "the Queen burst into tears, and Columbus fell sobbing at her feet. She took his hand and led him to a seat," wrote the historian Oviedo, who was a witness of this pathetic scene, "and when he was able to control his emotions he recited at length, and with great eloquence, the wrongs and humiliations he had suffered in her service."

Ample restitution was promised; but there is no record that the Admiral ever received anything more substantial than mere sympathy. He was not restored to his viceroy-ship, and it was nearly fifteen months before he could obtain permission to make another voyage. Even then he was denied the privilege of an asylum at Santo Domingo where, in accordance with his contracts with the sovereigns, he was to be perpetual ruler. The testimony of the historians of that time, however, acquits Isabella of ingratitude or indifference, as she was overruled by the Council of the Indies, under the malevolent Fonseca, and by King Ferdinand.

After months of wearisome waiting, during which he was fed with promises that were never realized, the bitter truth came home to Columbus: that the King and Queen no longer considered him essential to the success of their schemes for discovery and colonization. Other captains, trained under the eye of the Admiral himself, were now offering to carry out those schemes for discovery without cost to the crown; other courtiers, with high and noble connections, were clamoring for governmental positions, which Columbus and his brothers had shown their incapacity to fill. By his original contract with the crown, Columbus was to receive a tithe of all receipts from the New World, as well as other emoluments and honors. These charges upon the voyages and discoveries of others seemed superfluous to the avaricious Ferdinand, and they were actually very burdensome. Hence he did not intend to resume them, and, now that his Admiral and Viceroy had been deprived of office (though he was told it was only temporarily), he was to be kept out forever. The crafty King assured the victim of his avarice and duplicity that he would be reinstated after an interval of two or three years, during which, in order to allow the turmoil in the island to subside, some other person of exalted character should be intrusted with the government in place of the discredited Bovadilla.

The man selected for this purpose was one Nicolas de Ovando, who, though in high standing at court, was wholly untried and unknown. He sailed in February, 1502, with a fleet of thirty vessels, the largest in number and tonnage that had been sent to the West Indies, and with the most distinguished company and magnificent equipment. Nearly three months later a beggarly squadron of four small caravels crept forth from Cadiz, in the wake of Ovando's splendid convoy, the combined tonnage of which was only twice that of his largest ship. Only nine years before, Columbus had sailed from this same port of Cadiz, with three times as many vessels and ten times as many men; but he did not repine, for, though he had endured great ignominy at the hands of his sovereigns, he was at last on the salt sea again in quest of the Indies, which he had sought ten years before. The utterly unknown Ovando was furnished a fleet of stately ships and a retinue of hidalgos. He was safe-guarded at every point, and was to reap the honors of a discovery planned and achieved by Columbus; while the great Admiral of world-wide fame was despatched by his ungrateful sovereigns with a fleet of crazy caravels, every one of which was unseaworthy at the start. Had it really been their intention to reward their new favorite, Ovando, with the wealth of Columbus as well as his honors, and deprive the latter of an existence they had already made most miserable, they could not have taken surer means for accomplishing their ends.

When Christopher Columbus first appeared in Spain he was in the prime of life, sound in health and vigorous of frame; but in the ten years that had elapsed since his first voyage, the hardships and exposures he had undergone in the service of his adoptive sovereigns, and the mental anguish they had caused him, had reduced the once stalwart mariner to a wreck of his former self. He was no longer young, it is true, for sixty-six years had passed over his head; but his sufferings, of body and mind, had prematurely aged him. That he at last suspected his royal patrons of insincerity, if not of base duplicity, is instanced by the means he took to secure the record of his achievements to posterity. Just before sailing on this last voyage, he caused copies to be made and legally authenticated of all contracts with the crown, all his journals and numerous letters describing the lands he had found, and these he sent out of Spain in care of a trusted friend, with instructions to deposit them in some safe place in Genoa. Bitterly he realized, at last, that he had nothing to hope for from the crown of Spain; proudly he resolved never to ask another favor of the royal ingrates to whom he had given a world and received in exchange contumely and rebuffs. In a letter written a year later he says: "I was thirty-eight years old when I came into your Highnesses' service, and now I have not a hair upon me that is not gray; my body is infirm, and all that was left to me, as well as to my brother, has been taken away and sold, even to the frock that I wore—to my great dishonor."

He had nobly done what he could for the sovereigns and the country of his adoption, to the neglect of his own affairs; they had rewarded him as we have seen; but he sailed on this last long voyage with a mind serene, with ambition unabated. He was going forth to make one final effort to find that hitherto elusive strait, or passage, to the Indies; infirm of mind and body, but animated with high hopes for success. Since he had opened the way, Ojeda and Vespucius (as we have seen) had coasted the northern shores of South America; Vicente Yanez Pinzon had discovered the Brazils; Vasco de Gama, in the service of Portugal, had sailed around Africa, and Sebastian Cabot, for England, had explored our Atlantic coast from Labrador to Florida. Still, despite their discoveries, not one of them had found the shorter route to India, in pursuit of which we now find Columbus, after ten years of eventful voyagings, in his old age as hopeful as in youth.

Not one of those wretched caravels ever returned to Spain, for two years later their remains were left on the coast of Jamaica; but never was so disastrous a voyage begun under more propitious promises as to the elements. Departing from Morocco, after rendering assistance to the governor of a Portuguese seaport, the Admiral steered straight for the Caribbees, where he arrived, "without shifting a sail," at the island of Martinique, about June 15th. Thence he coasted the inner curve of the Caribbees until he came to Puerto Rico, from which he departed for the south coast of Santo Domingo. Now, he had been expressly forbidden to touch at this island, on account of the animosities his presence might arouse; but, as one of his miserable vessels was even worse than the rest, and difficult to navigate, he desired to exchange it for some one of the many in possession of Ovando. This was ostensibly his excuse for sailing into the harbor whence he had departed in chains less than two years before; but he could not have arrived at a less propitious time, for it was at that moment filled with his enemies. Ovando had arrived three months previously, had taken the reins of government, and now the usurper, Bovadilla, was about to embark. He was taking back to Spain with him many of the idle and discontented colonists of Hispaniola, and also a vast amount of gold obtained by his grinding oppression of the Indians. Among this treasure was a mass of virgin gold so large that the miners who found it once used it as a table, off which they ate a roasted pig, boasting at the time that never a king or queen had anything of the kind so massive or so rare.

The vessels were crowded with criminals, mostly Roldanites, who, regarding Columbus as the author of their woes, hooted and reviled him heartily, when, on the refusal of hard-hearted Ovando to allow him to land, he predicted the near approach of a hurricane, and begged him to detain the fleet until after it was over. The weather prophet of those days was equally an object of derision as in these, and quite as likely to be in error; but it happened that the Admiral made a shrewd guess at the right moment, and his prediction came true. He bore the insults of the rabble crews with lofty scorn, and also the murmurings of his own men on account of their being denied a shelter which others were afforded; but the event he predicted came to pass, two days later, and their repinings were turned to thanksgivings. A terrible hurricane smote the island and adjoining seas, and the greater portion of Bovadilla's fleet was swallowed by the waves. The Admiral's warning was disregarded, and the ships had sailed just far enough to receive the full force of the tempest. Down to the bottom of the sea went ships and sailors, carrying with them all the chief passengers, including Bovadilla, Roldan, and many others who had rejoiced at the discomfiture of Columbus. All the vast treasure was also lost, and it probably remains within those sunken hulks to-day, off the southeast end of the island, near the islet Saona. One vessel only was enabled to hold on its voyage to Spain, where it safely arrived with property of the Admiral amounting to four thousand pieces of gold. When this circumstance was brought to the notice of the superstitious Spaniards, they ascribed the dread event to the magic arts of Columbus, who desired to overwhelm his enemies in a terrible catastrophe; but he and his friends were prone to regard it as a condign punishment by the Almighty of the guilty wretches who had persecuted him. Neither party, however, took account of the innocent who had also perished, among whom was the unfortunate cacique of the Royal Vega, Guarionex.

Forlorn and unseaworthy as was the little squadron commanded by Columbus, it escaped the fury of the hurricane intact, except that the vessel captained by Don Bartholomew lost a long-boat, and all those rotten caravels were strained and shattered. Refused admission into the Ozama, Columbus had sought shelter in a wild harbor named by him Port Hermosa, from which, after the vessels had been repaired and their crews refreshed, he sailed westerly towards the coast of Honduras, where he first sighted land and went ashore at or near the present town of Truxillo. It is worthy of note that while he was on shore a great canoe arrived from a distant voyage to the northward and westward. It was manned by Indians, more intelligent and alert than any the Admiral had seen before, who wore cotton garments, and possessed utensils of copper, clay, and carved wood of superior workmanship. The canoe was laden with cacao beans, which they told him they had obtained in a country to the northward that contained cities of stone and a people wonderfully civilized. This was the great peninsula of Yucatan, which was not discovered by white men until fifteen years later, but which, had Columbus taken the advice of those Indians on the coast of Honduras and sailed in its direction, might have led him to Mexico and beyond. It was reserved for Hernando Cortes, nearly twenty years later, to conquer the Mexicans; but he came near being anticipated by Columbus. Instead, however, of taking the advice of these Indians, he turned to the eastward, and coasted the shore-line of that vast country since known as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Isthmus of Panama. He sought a western passage that should enable him to sail around the world, and, groping along the coast, for forty days beset by terrible tempests almost without cessation, he sailed tierra a tierra, or from point to point, entering unknown rivers, exploring gulfs and bays, all the time beating up against the trade-winds, which blew fiercely, as if to turn him from the rich country beyond. The entire coast country was inhospitable, but it was not desolate, for Indians swarmed on every headland, disputed his landing at every harbor and river-mouth, until he and his crews were entirely worn out by continual watching and fighting. "Exposure and disappointment had shattered the constitution of the once hardy seaman, and his strength was fast failing. His old enemy, the gout, had attacked him again, and the miasmatic shores filled him with fever. There was, indeed, little left of him but his indomitable will. He had a bunk built in the bows of his little vessel, where he could rest his weary bones and still guide the fleet. And thus he explored the entire coast of the isthmus, from Yucatan to Darien, finding an unbroken line of continent, in defiance of all his theories, in contradiction to his reasoning, and an impassable barrier to the ambition he had cherished for more than thirty years."

After a month of beating against the winds, the crazy craft at last arrived, with opening seams and tattered sails, at the northeastern extremity of Honduras, which Columbus, in gratitude for a change of course and easier sailing, named Cape Gracias a Dios, or Thanks to God. It is on the map to-day; and please remember, when you see it, that it stands for the heart-felt ejaculation of Columbus, at his sudden relief from incessant watching, labor, and perilous navigation. Now, with full sails and fair winds, the toil worn navigators swept southward along the great "Mosquito Coast," where the natives crowded to the shores with arms and hands full of gold and cotton, endeavoring to lurk the Spaniards to land, but in vain. For perhaps the first time in his career, Columbus turned his back upon offers of the precious metal in exchange for worthless trifles. This is strange, for in a letter written after that voyage was over, while he was a prisoner in a sea-environed hulk, he says: "Gold is the most precious of all commodities. Gold constitutes treasure; and he who possesses it has all he needs in this world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory and restoring them to the enjoyments of paradise."

Then why did he not tarry, and reap the golden harvest spread forth as he coasted the Mosquito shores? Because he was in pursuit of that hoped-for strait through the continent that should conduct him to the spicy isles and populous shores of farther India. He never found it, and, though he went south as far as the isthmus of Panama at its narrowest point, no good angel whispered to him of that "great South Sea "discovered by Balboa eleven years later. Thus, as we have seen, he came most tantalizingly near to the discovery of Mexico, on the one hand, and of the Pacific on the other. If only that strait had existed, and he could have sailed through it to the other ocean, in advance of Balboa, of Magellan, of Cortes, and of Pizarro! But no, Columbus had reaped rewards enough for one man's share of world-discovery. That great first voyage was sufficient to satisfy an ordinary man; but Columbus was not content; continually he was crying out to others, "The world is mine, invade it at your peril!"

He abandoned the search for the strait, at last, after he had reached a spacious harbor which he named Puerto Bello—the Beautiful Port. After the conquest of Peru, a city was founded here, to which gold and silver in vast quantities was brought across the isthmus and shipped in galleons to Spain; but the finder of this port had then been many years gathered to his fathers. Ten leagues beyond Puerto Bello he yielded to the importunities of his men and turned about to revisit Costa Rica, the Rich Coast country, where they had seen gold in immense masses—in nuggets, flakes, and grains. They obtained at one place nineteen great platters of gold, and saw a wall of stone and lime, which indicated a more advanced state of civilization than then existed. They came to a region occupied by savages, who offered them gold in virgin masses and golden gods from the graves of their ancestors; but Columbus would not trade, believing them bewitched, for the very day he turned about the winds turned also, blowing "great guns" for nine successive days, and contrary all the time.

The waves were bright with phosphorescent flames, amid which swam great sharks seeking for prey; and in the midst of the storm a vast waterspout swept down upon the caravels, almost engulfing them in its trailing funnel. Finally, abandoning the search for the strait, Columbus attempted a settlement at Puerto Bello, but, after losing several men by disease and the Indians' poisoned arrows, he was compelled to depart. On January 6, 1503, he regained and anchored in a river of Veragua, which he called Belen, or Bethlehem. Here he determined to start a settlement; but there was a big. obstacle in the way in the person of Cacique Quibian, chief of a tribe of naked Indians, who was equally determined no settlement should be founded in territory which had belonged to him and his ancestors from immemorial time. The Admiral did not think it necessary to consult the wishes of Cacique Quibian, even though he owned the lands bordering the river, but, as he had heard there was much gold in an adjoining province, he sent the adelantado to treat with him. The adelantado was royally received by the cacique, whose subjects fished a great stone out of the river as a sort of throne for him to sit on; but he would not give him permission to exploit the golden province. As it was evidently very rich, the natives all wearing great plates of gold obtained from it, both the adelantado and the Admiral concluded to exploit it anyway, with or without permission of Quibian. In truth, as the settlement progressed, the chief became quite aggressive and gathered a great army of his warriors, with intent, doubtless, of falling upon the Spaniards and putting an end to their operations. So Don Bartholomew proposed effecting his capture, if possible, before he could do so, and, taking a small force of soldiers, hid them in the forest surrounding the hill on which the chief's hut was built. He then advanced with an Indian interpreter, and, engaging the chief in conversation, suddenly seized him by the arm. The chief resisted, but the adelantado's grip was like iron, and his soldiers coming up at a prearranged signal, Quibian and all his family were captured, to the number of fifty persons. They were placed in boats to be taken aboard ship; but night had arrived by that time, and, as it was very dark and stormy, the wary chief managed to escape, plunged overboard, and swam to land.

Meanwhile, Don Bartholomew had remained ashore, where he secured the spoils, consisting of bracelets, anklets, coronets, and massive plates of gold, to the value of several hundred crowns. It did not benefit him, however, to have captured the cacique, who was now at large in the forest, where he gathered his warriors together and suddenly descended upon the incipient settlement. A shower of javelins through the roof of his palm-thatched dwelling was the first intimation the adelantado had of danger; but he sallied forth armed with a lance, and, assisted by some of his men, put the savages to flight. He might not have done so had he not been aided by a fierce blood-hound, which sought them out in the darkness and tore them limb from limb; and, as it was, one Spaniard was killed and he himself received a javelin wound in the breast. A boatload of Spaniards engaged in exploring the river were not so fortunate, for of eleven soldiers and sailors only one escaped, by diving to the bottom of the river and swimming to the bank. While all these untoward things were happening in the settlement, Columbus, with three ships, had remained outside the bar awaiting a fair wind for Spain, whence he was to send back other ships with supplies and reinforcements. He knew nothing of what had transpired, and was about to set sail, when the mangled corpses that came drifting down the stream, with flights of carrion-crows hovering over them, awakened his suspicions. The sea was running high, and no boat could live in it, so one of the pilots, gallant Pedro Ledesma, of Seville, stripped himself, and, after a hard battle with the waves, succeeded in swimming ashore, where he found the survivors barricaded behind casks and chests, and completely surrounded by savages. The caravel which had been assigned the settlers was riding at anchor within the bar, but the water of the river had fallen and it could not be gotten out. Neither could Columbus get to them, so, while the adelantado and a few soldiers kept the savages off with their weapons, the others made a raft by lashing two canoes together, using spars from the dismantled caravel, and on this they succeeded in escaping to the vessels outside. They were received as if from the grave, and so alarmed was Columbus at this narrow escape of his brother and friends from massacre, that he determined to leave this land of disappointments and sail at once for Hispaniola.

The gloom aboard ship was made intense, shortly before sailing, by several of the Indian captives hanging themselves, after an attempt to escape. They were confined in the hold of the Admiral's ship, beneath a hatch which was chained down, and upon which slept a guard. Bracing their backs beneath the hatch, some of the warriors suddenly flung it and the guards into the air and gained the deck, but were recaptured .and again confined in the hold. The next morning all were found dead, having hanged and strangled themselves with ropes. Their corpses were cast into the sea; and it was with the horror of this occurrence upon him that Columbus retraced his course to the islands.