Columbus' Hardships

1502-1506: Columbus' Historic Hardships in a Year Spent on Jamaica

Columbus' fourth and final voyage led him back to Jamaica. In fact, his return to Europe was delayed more than a year due to unfortunate circumstances. The hardships that Columbus and his crew endured caused many to die.

Not-So-Triumphant Return

While working his way back to Europe from the South American coast, Columbus found that his ships, the Capitana and Santiago, would not hold out, and tried to make for land on Hispaniola. A storm off the Cuban coast led him to Jamaica, and he returned to Discovery Bay on June 23, 1503. As history would have it, he was forced around to St. Ann's when he found fresh water. The ships sank there, stranding him and his crew on the island. Columbus' son, Ferdinand, and brother, Bartholomew, were also stranded on the island.

The Spanish were forced to build their own shelter on the shore. Columbus did have some luck in his voyage: St. Ann's Bay was easily protected from both land and sea attacks, had access to two fresh water streams, and was not far from the Arawak village of Maima. The Arawaks supplied Columbus with provisions, usually in exchange for glass beads and other small goods. In turn, Columbus made gifts of unusual items to the caciques, which helped to keep trade relations friendly.

Columbus and his crew could not stay on the island forever, and the only way to leave was to gain help from the island of Hispaniola. Not many crew members wanted to make the dangerous journey to Hispaniola via dugout canoe. In the end, a crew including Diego Méndez, a loyal follower of Columbus, and the first to offer his services, Bartolomé Fieschi, made the dangerous trip safely.


Columbus did not hear from this expedition for another year, and during this time the reluctant settlers grew ill, became discontent, and even turned mutinous. The Arawaks also grew tired of supplying the Spanish with food. Columbus wrote that the Arawaks ate much less than the Spanish. In one day a Spanish settler might eat what would last an Arawak more than a week. Trinkets and trade were also no longer sufficient enticements for the Indians.

Mutiny on the Island

Though certainly not all of the stranded men rebelled, the trouble caused by those who did was far-reaching and long lasting. Brothers Diego and Francisco Porras claimed that Columbus intended to keep them on the island for good, and stole 10 canoes purchased by Columbus as well as all of the provisions on hand. They went eastward, hoping to make a crossing to Hispaniola.

Along the way they robbed and mistreated many Arawaks and sent them to Columbus for payment. This undid much of the work Columbus had done to create positive relations with the islanders and may have done much to affect the history of the island. Storms caused the rebels trouble, and, in an attempt to lighten their load, they tossed their Arawak paddlers overboard, cutting off the hands of any who tried to cling to the canoes.

They never reached Hispaniola, but instead returned to St. Ann's Bay. While they had been gone, Columbus' situation had improved and signs from the party sent to Hispaniola gave the stranded crew good news. Columbus sent the rebels an offer of pardon, as well as a slice of salt pork, but they refused.

Bartholomew met the Porras and their followers at Maima and made another offer of peace, which was also refused. Instead, the Porras brothers and their men tried to attack Bartholomew, but they were defeated. The rebels who surrendered were pardoned, but the Porras brothers were kept in custody.

Finding Food

After the mutineers left the camp, Columbus had to deal with other troubles. Food was growing scarce, and the Arawaks were unwilling to continue supplying food to the starving Spanish. Columbus used his knowledge of astronomy to help alleviate this situation.

He called together the Arawaks, and told them that god was unhappy that they had stopped supplying the Spanish with food, and told them that he was planning to turn the moon into blood. The tribesmen didn't believe him at first. But the lunar eclipse occurred as predicted, and they asked Columbus to plead their forgiveness to god. Through this trickery Columbus ensured that his men would not starve, and his food supply never slackened afterward.

Help Arrives

While the rescuers reached Hispaniola without problem, the Governor of the island, Don Nicolás de Ovando, disliked Columbus, and did not help Méndez and the other rescuers put together a rescue ship. In fact, he sent a small ship to St. Ann's Bay to report back to them on their position, but with instructions not to bring back Columbus or any of his men. The men of this ship left behind only a slab of salt pork and a small supply of wine.

Although the help that Ovando provided was slim, it was proof that Columbus' envoy had reached Hispaniola, and gave Columbus and his men reason to hope for help soon. In fact, the arrival of the ship that was meant not to help Columbus did help to stave off a second revolt.

Though Méndez received no help on Hispaniola, he was able to charter a small ship from a Spanish fleet that had arrived to the island. In June of 1504 he finally returned to Jamaica, and by the end of the month Columbus and his crew had set sail for Hispaniola once more. They left Hispaniola in September of that year, and Columbus never returned to the Caribbean or Jamaica again. He died in 1506.

Columbus' his son picked up where his father had left off in his historic journeys to the New World. Diego Columbus quickly became important in Jamaica's development.


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