Reconnaissance: Columbus’s Voyages

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Reconnaissance: Columbuss Voyages


First Voyage. Christopher Columbus left Spain for his epochal journey on 3 August 1492 with only a tiny fleet of three shipsthe small caravels Niña and Pinta and the larger carrack Santa Maria. Together the three vessels carried a total of only ninety men, including Columbus himself. Putting to good use the knowledge of Atlantic wind patterns that he had learned from Portuguese sailors, Columbus chose to begin his journey west by first sailing south to the Canary Islands, where he could pick up the northeast trade winds that would carry him westward across the ocean. On 6 September Columbuss fleet left the Canaries, venturing into the unknown waters of the west. Based upon his own speculations Columbus expected to reach Asia within a few weeks at most if he maintained a steady westerly course. He was, of course, mistaken. A month after their departure from the Canaries, Columbuss ships still had not encountered land, and his crew began to grow restless. At least twice during the early days of October, Columbus faced near mutinies among crew members who insisted that he turn the fleet around and return to Spain. Each time Columbus firmly asserted that Asia must be nearby and that the expedition should continue westward for just a few more days. Finally, on 12 October the three ships and their relieved captain made landfall on a small island in the Bahamas, an island that Columbus believed until his death to have been located near the Asian mainland. The crew celebrated, and Columbus himself went ashore with a landing party to claim the land in the name of the Spanish crown.

Initial Encounters. As Columbus and his men quickly discovered, the island upon which they had landed was not uninhabited. Unfortunately there is no firsthand record of what the natives of this island thought of their strange visitors. Believing that he was near India, Columbus called the natives Indians, and he described them as generally timid on first contact but later quite friendly and eager to trade with the crew. Yet Columbus and his men found themselves somewhat confused by the fact that the culture of these islanders bore little resemblance to the wealthy and bustling ports of Asia about which they had read in Marco Polos travel accounts. Even across the almost insurmountable language barrier that separated the islanders from the Europeans, the natives managed to communicate to Columbus that many other lands lay nearby. The mariner thought that these must house the great Asian civilizations of which Marco Polo had spoken. The Spanish ships then spent the next few months continuing their search, wandering through the Bahamas and other islands of the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola. Nowhere, however, did they find the sorts of wealthy and populous cities that they had expected to find in Asia.

Homeward. On the coast of Hispaniola on Christmas Eve 1492, disaster struck the expedition. Columbuss flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground and was wrecked. Unable to carry his entire crew on the two remaining small caravels, Columbus was forced to leave thirty-nine men behind on Hispaniola in a makeshift fort that became the first European settlement in the Americas since the Vikings short-lived colony on Newfoundland some five centuries earlier. Columbus gave the settlement the name La Navidad (Spanish for Christmas) in honor of the day on which it was established. After a difficult return journey plagued by navigational mishaps, Columbus and his two ships finally returned to Spain in March 1493. He brought with him not only the startling news of having found many islands that he believed to be near the Asian mainland but he brought also, probably against their will, some natives of those islands. Word of Columbuss voyage spread quickly across Europe, and others would soon follow his path across the Atlantic.

Later Voyages. Columbus subsequently made three more voyages to the Caribbean region, one in 14931496, another in 14981500, and the last in 15021504. In 1493 Columbus returned to the site of La Navidad only to find that the men he had left there a year earlier had mysteriously disappeared. Local natives reported that after Columbuss departure the settlers had quarreled among themselves and aroused the hostility of nearby native groups by forcibly seizing gold and supplies from villages. As a result all the Spaniards had been killed. After the disappearance of La Navidad, however, the Spaniards over the next two decades began to establish more-lasting settlements on the Caribbean islands, first on Hispaniola and later on Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Spaniards then enslaved much of the local populations on these islands and put them to work mining for gold.

Death. By the time Columbus died in 1506 other Europeans had already begun to speculate that the lands he had discovered were in fact not parts of or islands near the Asian landmass but rather a New World previously unknown to Europe. Despite the fact that none of his voyages revealed anything akin to medieval travelers descriptions of the legendary civilizations of Asia, Columbus himself remained steadfast in his conviction that he had led Europe to Asia by sailing west. He also continued to assert that his journeys had been missions assigned to him by God in order to prepare the world for the rapidly approaching end of time. In the final years of his life Columbus even published a book in which he cited biblical references that he believed prophesied his voyages and their role as precursors to the apocalypse.


Pauline Moffit Watts, Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbuss Enterprise of the Indies, American Historical Review, 90 (1985): 73102.


In addition to plant and animal species a variety of diseases were highly significant aspects of the Columbian Exchange. To the Americas, for instance, the Europeans brought smallpox, a malady native only to the Old World and against which the people of the Americas had no immunity. In the centuries following Christopher Columbuss first voyage in 1492, native populations throughout the Caribbean region as well as North and South American mainlands succumbed by the millions to the deadly disease.

From the Americas, Europeans did not bring back to the Old World anything as wantonly destructive as smallpox. They did, however, bring back syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease native to the Americas and previously unknown in the Old World. It appears that the disease may have been first introduced into Europe by the returning crews of Columbuss early voyages themselves since the earliest reported outbreaks of syphilis in Spain and Italy date to the mid 1490s. From there the disease spread quickly, bringing chronic pain, suffering, and death to hundreds of thousands of victims throughout sixteenth-century Europe.

European doctors at the time had no idea how to cure syphilis. The most-common treatments of the disease in sixteenth-century Europe were not only ineffective but also extremely painful. One common treatment included, for instance, the rubbing of the bodily sores caused by syphilis with mercury. Baffled by the disease, many European physicians and their patients began also to experiment with treatments that involved the use of the wood of a New World tree known as guayacum, a plant native to the Caribbean island of Haiti. Despite the fact that the results of such treatment were scarcely more effective than mercury and certainly did not constitute a cure, Europe continued to import shiploads of Haitian guayacum throughout the sixteenth century.

Source: J. S. Cummins, Pox and Paranoia in Renaissance Europe, History Today, 38 (August 1988): 2835.

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Reconnaissance: Columbus’s Voyages

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