On May 11, 1502, Christopher Columbus
set out on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. He had four ships and his mission was to explore uncharted areas to the west of the Caribbean, hopefully finding a passage west to the Orient. Columbus did explore parts of southern Central America, but his ships, damaged by a hurricane and termites, fell apart while he was exploring. Columbus and his men were stranded on Jamaica for about a year before being rescued. They returned to Spain in late 1504.
Before the Journey:
Much had happened since Columbus’ daring 1492 voyage of discovery
. After that historic trip, Columbus was sent back to the New World to establish a colony. Although Columbus was a gifted sailor, he was a terrible administrator, and the colony he founded on Hispaniola turned against him. After his third trip
, to being supplies back to Hispaniola, he was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. Although he was quickly freed by the King and Queen, his reputation was shot. Still, the crown agreed to finance one last voyage of discovery.
With royal backing, Columbus soon found four seaworthy vessels: Capitana, Gallega, Vizcaína and Santiago de Palos. His brothers Diego and Bartholomew and his son Fernando signed on, as did some veterans of his earlier trips. Columbus himself was fifty-one and was beginning to become known around court for being eccentric: he believed that when the Spanish united the world under Christianity (which they would do quickly with gold and wealth from the New World) that the world would end. He also tended to dress like a simple barefoot friar, not like the wealthy man he had become.
Columbus was not welcome on the island of Hispaniola, where too many of the settlers remembered his cruel and ineffective administration. Nevertheless, he went there after first visiting Martinique
and Puerto Rico
. He was hoping to exchange one of his ships (the Santiago de Palos) for a quicker one. While awaiting an answer, he sent word that a storm was approaching and that the new governor (Nicolás de Ovando) should delay the fleet heading for Spain.
Ovando forced Columbus to anchor his ships in a nearby estuary and ignored his advice, sending the fleet of 28 ships on to Spain. A tremendous hurricane sank 24 of them: three returned and only one – ironically, the one containing Columbus’ personal effects that he wished to send to Spain – arrived safely. A few miles away, Columbus’ ships were badly battered, but all of them remained afloat.
Across the Caribbean:
Once the hurricane had passed, Columbus’ small fleet set out to look for a passage west. The storms continued, and the journey was a living hell. The ships, already damaged from the hurricane, took more abuse. Eventually, they reached Central America, anchoring off the coast of Honduras on an island that many believe to be Guanaja
. There they repaired the ships and took on supplies.
While exploring Central America, Columbus had an encounter many believe to be the first with one of the major inland civilizations. Columbus’ fleet found a trading vessel, a very long, wide canoe full of goods and traders believed to be Mayan from the Yucatan. The traders carried copper tools and weapons, swords made of wood and flint, textiles and a certain beer-like beverage made from fermented corn. Columbus, oddly enough, decided not to investigate this interesting trading civilization: instead of turning north when he hit Central America, he headed south.
Central America to Jamaica:
Columbus continued exploring to the south, along the coasts of present-day Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. He met several native cultures, observing maize being cultivated on terraces. They also saw stone structures. They traded for food and gold whenever possible. In early 1503, the ships began to fail. In addition to the battering they had taken from one hurricane and several major storms, it was discovered that they were infested with termites. Columbus reluctantly set sail for Santo Domingo
and aid, but his ships only made it as far as Santa Gloria (St. Ann’s Bay), Jamaica.
A Year on Jamaica:
The ships could go no further. Columbus and his men did what they could, breaking the ships apart to make shelters and fortifications. They made a peace with the local natives, who brought them food. Columbus was able to get word to Ovando of his predicament, but Ovando had neither the resources nor the inclination to help him. Columbus and his men languished on Jamaica for a year, surviving storms, mutinies and an uneasy peace with the natives. Columbus, with the help of one of his books, impressed the natives by correctly predicting an eclipse
. Finally, in June of 1504, two ships finally arrived to pick them up.
Importance of the Fourth Voyage:
Columbus returned to Spain to learn that his beloved Queen Isabel was dying. Without her support, Columbus would never return to the New World. He was getting on in years at any rate, and it is a wonder that he survived the disastrous fourth voyage. He died in 1506.
Columbus’ Fourth Voyage is remarkable primarily for some new exploration, mostly along the coast of Central America. It is also of interest to historians, who value the descriptions of the native cultures encountered by Columbus’ small fleet, particularly those sections concerning the Mayan traders. Some of those who were along on the fourth voyage would later go on to greater things, such as Antonio de Alaminos, a cabin boy who would later rise to pilot and explore much of the western Caribbean. Columbus’ son Fernando would later write a biography of his famous father.
The Fourth Voyage was a failure by almost any standard. Many of Columbus’ men died, the ships were lost and no passage to the west was ever found. Columbus himself would never sail again, and died convinced that he had found Asia, even if most of Europe already accepted the fact that the Americas were an unknown “New World.” Still, the fourth voyage showed better than any other Columbus’ sailing skills, fortitude and resilience, attributes which allowed him to discover the Americas in the first place.
Source: Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.