1492-1506: Columbus' travels bring him to a world no European had ever seen

The history of the Caribbean as we know it truly begins with Columbus and his travels to the islands. In search of a westward route to Asia, he never let go of the idea that he could find a path to the riches of the east.

It took Columbus a long time to secure any kind of royal backing for his journey. Fortunately, Columbus had a friend in the Spanish court named Luis de Santangel who persuaded the Queen to send Columbus on his famous quest. As part of the terms of his contract, the Crown would grant Columbus any lands that he discovered, along with hereditary nobility of them. Furthermore, he would be given the title of admiral and be made viceroy of the mainlands and islands that he reached, and be given a tenth of the profits from the land. This was an unusually gracious contract.

Setting Sail

In August of 1492, with enough supplies for one year of travel, Columbus set out for the Indies in his three famous ships, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. While the Niña and Pinta were staffed with experienced sailors and crews, Columbus' own ship, the Santa Maria, was crewed by men released from jail for the journey, as no willing volunteers could be found for the trip.

Columbus estimated the distance of his trip at 2500, but the actual distance was closer to 7500 miles. The ships did not lose sight of land for a month, but the crew began talking about turning back in the second month of the journey. Just a few days later they found land.

Columbus' First Journey

August 3 Left Palos' Harbour, Spain
September 3 Sailed through the Canary Islands
September 9 Lost sight of land
October 6 Flock of birds sighted
October 10 Columbus' men begin talk of turning back.
October 11 Columbus sees light to the west after dark.
October 12 Pinta sailor sees land in the middle of the night. Pinta fires a cannon to signal the sighting. They wait until daylight to land and come to San Salvador in The Bahamas at dawn.
October 13 to 22 Columbus explores the Bahamian archipelago.
October 23 They leave The Bahamas without finding gold. They head toward Cuba, which Columbus believes is Japan.
October 28 to December 5 Columbus explores Cuba's north coast.
December 6 to January 15 Columbus explores Hispaniola's northern coast.
December 20 The Santa Maria is grounded on a reef. Here Columbus sets up a village called Navidad (for Christmas) and leaves the men his other ships cannot carry, about 40 in all.
March 15 The ships reach Spain.

Within the Bahamas Columbus picked up six Lucayans, hoping to use them as translators by teaching them Spanish. He couldn't let go of the idea that he had reached the East Indies, and believed that words like "Cibao" (a region of Hispaniola) and "Cuba" (the island), were ways of saying "Cipango," Marco Polo's name for Japan. Columbus returned to Spain with the Lucayans and some gold nuggets.


Upon his return to Spain, Columbus received a warm welcome. The Queen was so delighted by Columbus' findings that she decided to colonize the islands. Columbus spent the rest of his life traveling between Europe and the new colonies in this New World.

In 1493 Columbus was sent back to the Caribbean followed by ships laden with supplies and settlers. The 17 ships carried livestock such as horses, sheep, cows, and pigs, as well as staple plants including wheat, barley, grapes, orange, lemon, melon, sugarcane, and vegetables. During this visit, Columbus stayed on Hispaniola for nearly a year and a half.

Columbus found Navidad empty when he returned from Spain. The local chief blamed the massacre of Columbus' men on a nearby chief who was fed up with their mistreatment. Columbus founded the city of Isabella, in honor of the Spanish Queen, and left his brother in control. Historians do not agree whether this brother was Diego or Bartholomew. Either way, the brother's lack of control resulted in a number of settlers committing torture and rape, and otherwise causing problems with the Taínos.

During this trip Columbus visited Dominica and Jamaica and passed through the Lesser Antilles, naming them Santa Maria de Guadeloupe, Santa Maria de Montserrate, Santa Maria la Antigua, Santa Maria ls Redonda, Santa Cruz, and San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico). He spent six months sailing along the southern coasts of Jamaica and Cuba.

Columbus chose to move the colony city on Hispaniola from Isabella to Santo Domingo on the southeast coast, a much better location for settlement of the island. He left his brother Bartholomew in charge of creating this new city. Santo Domingo became the most important Spanish city in the region, and its importance lasted for 50 years - until Havana in Cuba became part of new trade routes. That same year, 1496, Columbus again returned to Spain. Many early colonists sent word back to Queen Isabella about the Columbus brothers' mis-management of the colonies, but she did not remove them from power at that time.

A Third Voyage

In 1498 Columbus again left Spain for the New World, but his arrival was less than pleasant. Under Bartholomew's poor management, revolt had begun again in Santo Domingo, and Francisco Roldan set up his own administration in the southwest of the island.

Rather than farm their own land, Roldan and the other rogue Spanish settlers chose to squat on the existing communities of Indians and live off of their labor. Christopher Columbus' solution to this problem was to distribute communities to the Spanish in a system of semi-slavery the Spanish called repartimiento or encomienda.

By the following year Isabella removed the Columbus men from power. She sent Francisco de Bobadilla as the "royal governor and judge of all the islands and mainlands of the Indies." Upon his arrival in 1500 he had both Christopher and Bartholomew arrested and sent back to Spain.

Meanwhile, others set out to explore the region and see what they can find. In fact, Alonso de Ojeda found the islands of Bonaire and Curaçao, and possibly Aruba as well, in the year 1499. Still, what really attracted the Spanish to the region was Columbus' claim of incredible deposits of gold on Hispaniola.

Creating an Empire

In 1502 Bobadilla sailed for Spain, but never made it across the Atlantic. His ship sank, carrying with it his records and all of the gold being sent to Spain for the year. Nicolas de Ovando was sent to take control of Hispaniola. With him he brought food and more settlers, including the first European women and children.

This same year Columbus set off on his fourth and final trip to the Caribbean. Along the way he stopped on the island of Martinique. By his return the following year, his ships were so worm-eaten that he knew he couldn't make the Atlantic crossing. He headed for Hispaniola, but his ships were blown off-course to Jamaica and sunk in St. Ann's Bay, where Columbus was stranded for a year.

On Jamaica, while waiting for rescue to be sent from Hispaniola, some of Columbus' men mutinied; they tried to sail for Hispaniola but never made it. When they returned, Columbus arrested the leaders and pardoned the rest, having learned that a ship was on its way to pick them up. By 1504 he had begun his return to Spain, but this trip would be his last across the Atlantic. He became ill on Jamaica and never returned to his former health,dying in 1506.

Meanwhile, Ovando developed more than 15 settlements on Hispaniola. But in 1502 there were only about 300 residents on the island. Ovando's leadership led to bloodshed when he allowed the massacre of the Taíno caciques (chiefs) by Diego Velázquez de Cuélar.

Claiming the World

While Spain was colonizing the West Indies, Portugal was also claiming territory. To confirm their claims, these two devoutly Catholic nations turned to the Pope. He divided the world between these two countries between east and west in 1493. This gave Spain control of almost all of the Americas, and left Portugal with much of Asia.

While Spain and Portugal agreed to this arrangement, England, France, and the Netherlands felt that they ought to have a share of the New World. England's King Henry VII sent John Cabot out to explore the world in 1496, obviously ignoring any claims to land undiscovered by Spain in the New World. Francis I of France made famous statements supporting Henry VII's actions.

Both Queen Isabella and Columbus, the leaders of this period of discovery and exploration, died in the early 1500s. But the exploration and colonization of the Caribbean continued to grow in importance.

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