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The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus

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The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus

Portrait of Christopher Columbus (1520) by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Public Domain image

Columbus’ First Voyage:

Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage in March, 1493, having discovered the New World...although he didn’t know it. He still believed that he had found some uncharted islands near Japan or China, and that further exploration was needed. His first voyage had been a bit of a fiasco, as he had lost one of the three ships entrusted to him and he did not bring back much in the way of gold or other valuable items. He did, however, have a handful of bedraggled natives he had taken on the island of Hispaniola, and he was able to convince the Spanish crown to finance a second voyage of discovery and colonization.

Preparations for the Second Voyage:

The second voyage was to be a large scale colonization and exploration project. Columbus was given 17 ships and over 1,000 men. Included on this voyage, for the first time, were European domesticated animals such as pigs, horses and cattle. Columbus’ orders were to expand the settlement on Hispaniola, convert the natives to Christianity, establish a trading post and continue his explorations in search of China or Japan. The fleet set sail on October 13th, 1493 and made excellent time, first sighting land on November 3rd.

Dominica, Guadalupe and the Antilles:

The island first sighted was named Dominica by Columbus, a name it retains to this day. Columbus and some of his men visited the island, but it was inhabited by fierce Caribs and they did not stay very long. Moving on, they discovered and explored a number of small islands, including Guadalupe, Montserrat, Redondo, Antigua and several others in the Leeward Islands and Lesser Antilles chains. He also visited Puerto Rico before making his way back to Hispaniola.

Hispaniola and the Fate of La Navidad:

Columbus had wrecked one of his three ships the year before during his first voyage. He had been forced to leave 39 of his men behind on Hispaniola, in a small settlement named La Navidad. Upon returning to the island, Columbus discovered that the men he had left had angered the native population by raping local women. The natives had attacked the settlement, slaughtering the Europeans to the last man. Columbus, consulting his native chieftain ally Guacanagarí, laid the blame on Caonabo, a rival chief. Columbus and his men attacked, routing Caonabo and taking many of his people as slaves.

Isabella:

Columbus founded the town of Isabella on the northern coast of Hispaniola, and spent the next five months or so getting the settlement established and exploring the island. Building a town in a steamy land with inadequate provisions is hard work, and many of the men sickened and died. It reached the point where a group of settlers, led by Bernal de Pisa, attempted to capture and make off with several ships and go back to Spain: Columbus learned of the revolt and punished the plotters. The settlement of Isabella remained but never thrived: it was abandoned in 1496 in favor of a new site, now Santo Domingo.

Cuba and Jamaica:

Columbus left the settlement of Isabella in the hands of his brother Diego in April, setting out to explore the region further. He reached Cuba (which he had discovered on his first voyage) on April 30 and explored it for several days before moving onto Jamaica on May 5. He spent the next few weeks exploring the treacherous shoals around Cuba and searching in vain for the mainland. Discouraged, he returned to Isabella on August 20, 1494.

Columbus as Governor:

Columbus had been appointed governor and Viceroy of the new lands by the Spanish crown, and for the next year and a half, he attempted to do his job. Unfortunately, Columbus was a good ship’s captain but a lousy administrator, and those colonists that still survived grew to hate him. The gold they had been promised never materialized and Columbus kept most of what little wealth was found for himself. Supplies began running out, and in March of 1496 Columbus returned to Spain to ask for more resources to keep the struggling colony alive.

The Slavery Issue:

Columbus brought back many native slaves with him, most of who came from the Carib culture, fierce cannibals who fought any and all European attempts to conquer them. Columbus, who had once again promised gold and trade routes, did not want to return to Spain empty-handed. Queen Isabella, appalled, decreed that the New World natives were subjects of the Spanish crown and therefore could not be enslaved, although the practice continued. Most of Columbus’ slaves were freed and ordered returned to the New World.

People of Note in Columbus’ Second Voyage:

  • Ramón Pané was a Catalan priest who lived among the Taíno people for about four years, and produced a short but very important ethnographic history of their culture.
  • Francisco de Las Casas was an adventurer whose son Bartolomé was destined to become very important in the fight for native rights.
  • Diego Velázquez was a conquistador who later became governor of Cuba.
  • Juan de la Cosa was an explorer and cartographer who produced several important early maps of the Americas.
  • Juan Ponce de León would become governor of Puerto Rico but was most famous for his journey to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth.

Historical Importance of the Second Voyage:

Columbus’ second voyage marked the start of colonialism in the New World, the social importance of which cannot be overstated. By establishing a permanent foothold, Spain took the first steps towards their mighty empire of the centuries that followed, an empire that was built with New World gold and silver.

When Columbus brought back slaves to Spain, he also caused the question of slavery in the New World to be aired openly, and Queen Isabella decided that her new subjects could not be enslaved. Although the conquest and colonization of the New World turned out to be devastating for the New World natives, one can only guess how much worse it might have been had Isabella allowed slavery in her new lands.

Many of those who sailed with Columbus on his second voyage went on to play very important roles in the history of the New World. These first colonists had a great amount of influence and power over the course of the next few decades of history in their part of the world.

Sources:

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.

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