The Second Voyage (1493-1496)
After a brief trip back to Spain following his first voyage, Columbus set sail back to what he believed to be islands off the coast of Asia with a fleet of 17 ships.
On this journey back the Spanish were loaded down with more men, equipment, and dogs (Mastiffs used by the Spanish against their enemies) which highlights their intentions for more colonization on this second and longest voyage.
They took a more southern route this time around and claimed a few more islands by force and with the use of the Mastiffs on their way back to La Navidad. Upon arriving back at the fort it was found that all of the settlers had been massacred by the local tribe of Taino.
While it may be easy to view the massacre from the Euro-centric viewpoint and wonder “why would the Taino murder all those people?” It is worth considering the way the Spanish settlers had taken the land by force, kidnapped a minimum of 7 people, and potentially done much worse in the months between Columbus’ voyages.
Columbus and his men set up a new, and more fortified, settlement and named it La Isabela after the queen, which is modern-day Puerto Plata. Not long after, in February of 1494, one of Columbus’ men sailed back to Spain with 12 of the ships loaded down with gold, parrots, spices, and a lot of indigenous captives.
Most of the captives did not survive the trip. a transatlantic voyage was hard in the best conditions, adding malnourishment and disease to that led to most of the captives dying.
It is also worth noting here that many sources show that queen Isabela was not on board with the capture and enslavement of “Indians.” She viewed them as future Christians and members of the Spanish Empire. Her protests to slavery would not stop slavery though, it just meant they stopped trying to send slaves home to her.
Most of the rest of the second voyage is Columbus conquering Hispaniola, the island that contained the settlement of La Isabela. He used the Mastiffs and calvary he brought with him to take over the island, devastating the Taino population.
During this time, the Spanish began implementing a new system of labor known as encomienda. It was a cruel system that, for brevity sake, was essentially slavery. I do recommend reading my full post about the system though because there is a lot to learn about it.
So with mining operations underway, many more islands conquered and claimed, and a bustling fort at La Isabela, Columbus departed back to Spain in 1496 leaving his brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, in charge of La Isabela in his absence.
The Third Voyage (1498-1500)
It was on this third voyage to what Columbus still believed to be Asia that he finally reached the mainland. His primary purpose on this trip was to finally find a way through “The Indies” to reach Cathay, and while he failed at that, he did manage to land in various places in South America.
There is more of the usual during this period. Claiming the land for the crown, naming it in honor of Spain’s sovereignty, and then moving on in his continued pursuit of Cathay.
The noteworthy bit of this voyage is what happened back at La Isabela under the supervision of the Columbus brothers.
Remarkably, Diego and Bartholomew managed to be hated by both the natives and the other settlers. At this point, the encomienda system was in full swing, so the natives were justifiably upset over their poor treatment, enslavement, and the continued destruction of their land. The settlers were upset because the Columbus brothers were apparently wildly incompetent as leaders. They were overseeing the entire island of Hispaniola at this point and were seemingly causing massive losses in money and production, as well as being cruel when exacting punishments.
When Christopher Columbus returned to Hispaniola toward the end of this voyage, he found an uprising against his brothers led by the governor of the La Isabela. He set about ending this rebellion with a series of hangings, but the damage was done. Even as Columbus was hanging rebellious settlers, the Spanish Chief Justice was already on his way to investigate the claims of tyranny.
The Columbus brothers were arrested and shipped back to Spain as prisoners and governorship over the colonies was stripped from the brothers.
The Fourth Voyage (1502-1504)
After his handcuffed return trip to Spain, Columbus convinced the king and queen to acquit him of charges and he was able to be given one more shot at sailing west. This time though, as nothing more than an explorer. He was still without title and the king and queen seemed to have much less faith in him on this trip.
His fourth voyage would turn out to be his most disastrous yet, and while he would find himself landing in a lot of places in Central America, the entire trip would be plagued with bad luck and bad weather.
He was denied port at Hispaniola by the new governor, whether out of spite or caution I honestly don’t know. Then, during his travels, he would eventually be set upon by bad weather many times, gradually losing ships and men in the process until he only had two ships left.
The two remaining ships were in bad shape, so it was no surprise that they ended up shipwrecked on what is now Jamaica for a year. From June 1503 to June 1504.
In a stroke of cruel genius Columbus used astrological charts to correctly predict an eclipse and used that to terrify the local tribe into providing him and his remaining men with food and shelter until rescue came.
He sailed home in 1504 to find his biggest cheerleader, Queen Isabella, was dying. He never made another voyage, and died two years later in 1506 still believing and insisting that he had found Cathay.
The Legacy of Columbus
With Columbus being such a hotly debated figure in recent years, I think a bit of context regarding his legacy in US history is needed.
First and foremost, the idea of Christopher Columbus as an American icon and heroic figure is relatively new. Up until 1828 there is little evidence to suggest that people in the United States knew about Columbus or cared about his contribution to “discovering America.”
He became known when Washington Irving published his 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The book gave a fantastical view of Columbus as a brave sailor who ventured into the New World and discovered America. The book became really popular and President Benjamin Harrison ended up declaring a national holiday in honor of him in 1892, the 400th anniversary of the first voyage.
So Columbus Day and the celebration of Columbus has only actually been around for about 130 years, which is not much in the grand scheme of things.
Why this matters
I know this was a long post, so if you’re still here, thank you. I wanted to give Columbus a lot of time because he is such a controversial figure and I wanted to try to understand him and his legacy. So where did we land, why does this matter?
It matters because Columbus is the earliest example of the “mythologization” of American history. Over time historical figures become simplified and popularized versions of themselves and we often forget that they were real, complex, and often flawed human beings. They either become heroic paragons of all that is good or villainous embodiments of evil.
Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer and competent sailor who managed to do a lot of really impressive things in the world of navigation. He made four voyages across the Atlantic at a time when that was a pretty novel concept. He “discovered” a lot of places and gave them names that are still in place today.
Christopher Columbus was also a poor leader who mismanaged the colonies to the point of rebellion. He was a cruel conqueror who took advantage of, kidnapped, and facilitated the murder of countless indigenous people. He paved the way for a vile system like encomienda to thrive in the New World. He and his men ravaged the populations of several native tribes and nations.
All of those things can be true at the same time. Honestly, from all my research it seems like the men who came after Columbus were more cruel and violent than he ever was, but he is the catalyst for all of that. He set the precedent for others to follow and expand upon.
This matters because Columbus is just the first chronological example of history being complicated. We don’t get firsthand accounts or letters from the people Columbus and his men conquered, because history will always be written by the victor. So our duty is to try our best to view the history we know from both sides and understand what these monolithic figures and events would be like for actual normal people like us.