Documents from the Life of Christopher Columbus

by Samuel Eliot Morison

“In fourteen hundred ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

We all know the ditty, but the details of Columbus’ explorations of the New World are less well-known. This book presents all the important documents we have regarding Columbus and his explorations. To appreciate them, you should know lots of historical background; with that context, it becomes a compelling tale of grit and determination.

Columbus had a lot of sailing experience before his famous voyages. He’d been all over the Mediterranean, down the west coast of Africa, and even to Iceland. He’d been shipwrecked off the coast of Africa; this guy had seen it all. The Portuguese had just rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened the door to the fabulously profitable spice trade with the Indies.

A side note:
Indies referred to the islands of southeast Asia from which most spices came (although pepper came from India itself). Columbus’ big idea was a westward route to the Indies, and when he stumbled upon the islands of the Caribbean, he was so sure that he’d succeeded that he insisted upon referring to them as the Indies. The label stuck, but when it was finally proven beyond a doubt that these weren’t the same Indies, they were relabeled the West Indies, while the true Indies were called the East Indies.

Columbus spent years researching everything that was known about the Indies, which wasn’t much. The most reliable information came from Marco Polo’s reports, but most Europeans thought them to be wild exaggerations. The critical number was the circumference of the earth: the greater its value, the longer the westward route would be. The Greek sage Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference to be about 40.000 km; the true value is about 38,000 km, so Eratosthenes got pretty close. But Columbus calculated the circumference to be only 30,000 km, thereby lopping a good 10,000 km off the estimated distance westward from Europe to Asia. He achieved this remarkably small value by cherry-picking his numbers: wherever there was uncertainty in a number, Columbus chose the most extreme value to support his claim.

Columbus also fudged the size of the Eurasian land mass; he claimed that the distance from Spain eastward to Japan was 50% greater than it actually is, pushing Japan much further to the east than it really is. By scrunching all his numbers, Columbus reached the conclusion that Japan was only about 4,000 km west of the Canary Islands; the true value is more like 20,000 km. Columbus’ calculated distance was within range of European sailing ships.

Based on all these calculations, Columbus went to various European courts seeking venture funding for a voyage westward to the Indies. He approached the governments of Portugal, Spain, Genoa, Venice, and England. In each case, the sovereigns prudently forwarded his proposals to scholars, all of whom rejected his calculations. By the way, nobody believed that the earth was flat; Columbus was rejected because his numbers were not credible.

However, he got lucky with Isabella, Queen of Castile. She co-ruled Spain with Ferdinand of Aragon. Ferdinand wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, but Isabella liked it. Together, they had just finished off the last Moslem enclave in Spain and were looking for new horizons. They knew that they couldn’t compete with the Portuguese in the path around Africa. Although Columbus’ plan was a long shot, Isabella was willing to risk the investment. Columbus got his funds.

Off he went. The crew really did grow restive after weeks at sea with no land in sight, but there was never a threat of mutiny. When they stumbled onto San Salvador, Columbus thought that his theories had been vindicated. He stumbled around the northeastern coast of Cuba, then along the northern coast of Hispaniola. There was a problem: no spices. If these were the Indies, where were all the spices? Columbus, ever the salesman, kept a careful log hyping everything he’d discovered, describing the islands as beautiful beyond belief, teeming with game, having excellent agricultural potential, yada, yada, yada. He also traded for every scrap of gold he could get, which wasn’t too difficult. They were able to sell beads and tiny bells to the natives to get their gold at ridiculous prices. But all their gains didn’t add up to much gold.

Lots of things went wrong. He was a great sailor, but not much of an astronomer: he frequently misidentified the North Star and so calculated the wrong latitude: he though that he was a thousand miles north of his true position. He sailed with three ships: the
Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Halfway through the voyage, the captain of the Pinta took off on his own without authorization from Columbus. He eventually got back to Spain before Columbus and tried to steal the credit for discovering the route to the Indies. Fortunately, Isabella waited for Columbus to return.

Meanwhile, back in the West Indies, Columbus was having other problems. He kept kidnapping natives so that they could learn Spanish and become interpreters, but they kept dying or escaping, so he was always kidnapping more natives. The Spanish crews started to grow insolent: he was an Italian, and what do Italians know, anyway? He wouldn’t let them kill, rape, and pillage the natives, which they considered to be their God-given right. They never mutinied, but things were strained. One night, at 3 in the morning, the helmsman decided to take a nap and turned the tiller over to a cabin boy, who promptly ran the Santa Maria into a reef. Columbus did a heroic job of moving the precious cargo of food, water, weapons, and trade stores ashore, but the Santa Maria was a total loss. With the Pinta gone, Columbus was down to a single ship, the tiny Nina. He built a fort, stocked it with most of the provisions, left a goodly number of the crew there to trade with the natives, and sailed home.

Back in Spain, Isabella was pleased at Columbus’ discoveries but worried about his failure to find spices. Columbus remained confident that he had been successful, and asked for more funds to further his explorations. He also cited the importance of resupplying the Spaniards he had left behind – I suspect that he left them there to create another incentive for further funding.

He got his funding for a second voyage and returned, exploring the Caribbean littoral further. He found that his little colony had been wiped out by natives angry at the raping and pillaging that the Spaniards thought only natural. He founded a new colony and returned. At this point, things really went downhill. There were plenty of ambitious and ruthless Spaniards involved, and they fabricated accusations against Columbus, blaming him for everything that went wrong. At one point he was arrested and returned to Spain in chains. Isabella ruled in his favor, but at the same time she made changes in his legal status that robbed him of much of the wealth due him under the terms of their first contract.

Columbus made two more voyages; on his last voyage he was denied entry into the harbor of the new colony. A hurricane came yet they still denied him use of the safety of the harbor. Columbus’ little fleet rode out the hurricane in the open sea, sustaining considerable damage. Later, the toredo worms that eat wood did so much damage to his ships that he was marooned in Jamaica, at that time still uncolonized. He sent two of his lieutenants on a perilous voyage back to Hispaniola in canoes; somehow they both made it. But when they informed the governor of Hispaniola of Columbus’ plight, the governor dragged his feet for months. Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, the natives were growing restless about feeding Columbus’ men and an attack seemed imminent. Believe it or not, Columbus actually pulled off the “do as I say or I will destroy the moon” trick by taking advantage of a prediction of a lunar eclipse. It worked.

Eventually the governor was induced to send a rescue ship, probably because he knew that Columbus’ lieutenant had sailed on to Spain to report on his refusal. Columbus eventually made it back to Spain, where he petitioned for the restoration of some of his rights, privileges, and wealth that had been promised him in his contract with Ferdinand and Isabella. He got nowhere, and died shortly afterward, worn out from the years of hard shipboard living.