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Columbus’ Voyages and Legacy

  • Nicole Plummer-Rognmo Institute of Caribbean Studies & Reggae Studies Unit University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica

After the Reconquista to oust the Moors from Spain ended with the capitulation of Granada in 1492, the monarchs of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand, sponsored the Italian Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Caribbean. Involved in the war to reclaim Spain from her Muslim conquerors for centuries, the coffers of Spain were now empty, men who had made a lifetime and living of fighting, now had nothing to do and priests, friars and monks no longer had non-believers to convert after victory. The aims of his voyage were multifaceted. In addition, the trade routes to the east from which Europeans would gain perfume, spices and gold were under the control of Muslims and were expensive because they were heavily taxed. It was no wonder then that Isabella and Ferdinand were intrigued by Columbus' proposal to visit and trade with the East by going west. Should this work, the Spanish were assured of wealth and control of this trade which would allow them to bypass the Muslim intermediaries. Ascribing to the view that the world was round, Columbus believed that that by going west, he would be able to trade directly with the east. Not only were the Spanish seeking new sources of wealth with the Reconquista ended, but they were also seeking new people to convert and new conquests to engage their fighting men, called conquistadors. 

In all of this, European travellers like Columbus profited from the Renaissance and the Maritime Revolution which advanced knowledge of the geography of the world and navigation. The Portuguese were viewed as Atlantic pioneers for taking the lead in improving maritime technology and improving knowledge of the winds, currents and oceans as well as astronomy. Instrumental to this was Prince Henry the Navigator. The Maritime Revolution witnessed the making of more advanced maps which were quickly disseminated with the creation of the new printing press by the mid-fifteenth century. The Maritime Revolution ushered in the astrolabe, an updated compass and the quadrant in addition to improvements in shipbuilding. Much of these inventions were encouraged by Prince Henry the Navigator at his school in Sagres. Shipbuilders constructed the caravel which required a smaller crew and could carry more cargo and possessed triangular movable sails which could be more easily manoeuvred than the previous square sails. With these changes, ships could go on more distant voyages without constantly stopping to refill at port. With clearly defined goals and the technology to make long distance travel and navigation possible, Columbus and his crew in the Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria, after attaining the financial support and blessing of the Spanish monarch and merchants, departed for the Atlantic and the Americas in September 1492. 

After midnight, October 12, 1492 the crew of the Pinta, Nina and the Santa Maria encountered Guanahani (renamed San Salvador by Columbus) in the Bahamas in which the Lucayans, a subset of the Taino cultural group, resided. In the morning, Columbus and fellow sailors realised that they had not arrived at a spice island. However, they had to make do with the natives they encountered, who they believed could be converted to Christianity which would please the Spanish monarchy. Believing he was in the East, Columbus took on board several of the Lucayans to show him to the Spice Islands. After departing San Salvador, Columbus was directed to Hispaniola where Columbus and fellow sailors spent several months searching for gold. Setting up the first Spanish settlement in the Americas by leaving behind over thirty men, at La Navidad, Columbus ended his first voyage and returned to Spain in the Nina and the Pinta. Before arriving at Hispaniola, Columbus passed through Cuba. The result of his first voyage was largely unimpressive and certainly did not provide the profits that the investors expected. His cargo included several Tainos, small portions of gold, hammocks, cotton, parrots, an alligator and tobacco leaves.

Despite his limited success, Columbus was convinced and managed to convince many others that he had discovered the East. The Spanish monarchy endorsed the establishment of settlements and so Columbus was allowed to return to the 'Indies' in September 1493 with almost twenty ships carrying over a thousand men, including farmers, masons, carpenters and cartographers, with the purpose of establishing a colony. On this voyage, Columbus continued his exploration of Hispaniola and passed through the Lesser Antilles, continuing into the Greater Antilles, arriving in Puerto Rico and later Cuba and Jamaica. On this voyage, Columbus encountered the ruins and some of the bodies of the settlers left behind on their first voyage. In retaliation, he imposed a stringent tribute system on the native Tainos. Though he was out of favour with the queen, his third voyage commenced in May 1498 when Columbus again departed for the New World. On this voyage, Columbus visited Trinidad and Hispaniola whereupon he recommenced his duties as governor. So poorly did he perform that in 1500 he was arrested and sent back to Spain by Francisco de Bobadilla who was given license to act on the behalf of the queen. In 1502, Columbus made up with Queen Isabella and left Cadiz to return to the Caribbean. Though warned to stay away from Hispaniola, Columbus arrived there and was turned away. Thereupon, he travelled to and explored the Central American coastline. His last stop on this voyage was Jamaica where he and the remainder of his crew stayed for a year when his unfit ships sank near St. Ann's Bay. June 29th 1504 Columbus received assistance from the governor of Hispaniola and returned to Spain in November. By 1506 Columbus died, still believing he had discovered the East.

Today, Columbus is remembered less for 'discovering' the Americas and more for linking the Old and the New World in an unequal and exploitative relationship, in which one set would come to dominate the other politically, culturally and economically. This led to the decimation of the indigenous people who were exposed to diseases such as smallpox, influenza and measles. Abused and overworked by Spanish settlers, many of the indigenous people resisted and many died. The legacy of Columbus was also an exchange between the Old World and the New, termed the Columbian Exchange. This exchange saw both fauna – horses, pigs and cattle – and flora: wheat, sugar and grapes introduced to the Americas while items such as potatoes and tobacco became popular in Europe over time. The meeting of the Americas and Europe ensured that both would never be the same again.




Catégorie : Waves of Colonization

Pour citer l'article : Plummer, N. (2013). "Columbus’ Voyages and Legacy" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/columbus-voyages-and-legacy.html.

Références

Beckles, H. & Shepherd, V. (Eds.). (2000). Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Beckles, H. & Shepherd, V. (2004). Liberties Lost: Caribbean Indigenous Societies and Slave Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jemmott, J. (2010). Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and mainland conquest in Mexico and Peru up to 1550. In J. Jemmott, A. Josephs & K. Monteith (Eds.). The Caribbean, the Atlantic World and Global Transformation: Lectures in Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations in History (pp. 21-40). Mona: Social History Project, Dept. of History and Archaeology.

Sued-Badillo, J. (Ed.). (2003).UNESCO General History of the Caribbean, Volume 1: Autochthonous Societies. London: Palgrave MacMillan.