Caribbean Beat Magazine

Quixote With a Cutlass: Re-examining Christopher Columbus

Stephen Knox, Marina Salandy-Brown and Cristina Fagg examines the record of the man whose arrival in the Caribbean five centuries ago holds the world's attention in October

  • Cristóbal Colón returns in triumph to Barcelona after his first voyage
  • The fateful moment: Cristóbal Colón lands on Guanahani, which he renamed San Salvador, October 12, 1492
  • Cristóbal Colón, a portrait by R. Puiggari in De Lorques’ biography
  • Colón's three caravels head into the unknown. Photograph by Mary Evans Picture Library
  • Colón's three caravels head into the unknown. Photograph by Mary Evans Picture Library
  • Columbus's ornate tomb has been moved, stone by stone, from the cathedral in Santo Domingo to the Memorial Lighthouse
  • The Cathedral of Santa Maria in Santo Domingo (1540); in front of it is-of course- a statue of Columbus.  Photograph by Christine Fagg
  • The Alhambra Palace outside Granada, built between 1238 and 1538 (and much altered afterwards), is one of the glories of Spain's Islamic past. But by 1492 Spain was on a crusade to reassert the Catholic faith, not only at home but in the new world. Photograph by Spanish National Tourism
  • The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra Palace. Photograph by the Spanish National Tourist Office

Blinking in the early morning sunlight, the High Admiral of the Ocean Sea splashes ashore and surveys the New World he has found. It is a small island, fertile, well-wooded, with pools and a lagoon, and inhabited by people out of mediaeval storybooks. Even Don Cristóbal Colón has to admit that it isn’t Cipangu, the big island in the middle of his mostly mythical sea-chart; it doesn’t look like the fabulous kingdom of Cathay or the empire of the Great Khan. But it is certainly somewhere, and can be cited as evidence of success to his royal patrons back in Castile.

Even today, nobody knows for sure where Colón stood on that Friday morning in October 1492. He called it San Salvador, but whether it was Watling Island or Samana Cay or somewhere else in the Bahamas or the Turks and Caicos Islands will never be certain. Colón spent the remaining 14 years of his life convincing himself that he had found an Atlantic route to India, a delusion that lives on to this day in the term West Indies and the name Indians for the new world’s original people. Even if there was a vast unknown continent blocking the way to Asia, it must he “Indias Occidentales.”

Colón’s three little caravels had sighted land at two o’clock that morning, October 12, five weeks after leaving the Canaries and ten weeks after sailing from the Castilian port of Palos (Cadiz had been crammed with Jews trying to escape the August deadline: conversion or death). It was not before time: the crew were mutinous, terrified of never finding a wind to take them home. They had seriously considered pushing Colón overboard as he lurched about the deck trying to take sightings with his new-fangled quadrant or leaning over the side looking for land, for the people with whom he would trade gold for the bells, glasses and beads he had insisted on carrying. There had been panic as the ships churned through the weed of the Sargasso Sea; a series of phoney landfalls and a feud between Colón and one of his captains had shaken morale.

Even Colón was worried. Since early September he had been falsifying the ship’s log to persuade his crew they had not gone as far as they feared. In early October he had altered course west-south-west, thus robbing Florida of the dubious distinction of being his first landfall in the Indies and heading straight for the Caribbean instead.

For Colón, that first contact was a glorious vindication of his mission. He explored three nearby islands, saw his first gold (surely the currency of the Great Khan!), reached the northern coast of Cuba which he maintained was a promontory of China, and sailed westwards to Haiti which he christened Española. Here there were more encouraging signs of gold and a more advanced Indian culture. He lost his flagship, the Santa Maria, on the rocks of the north coast, but used the wreckage to build his first garrison, Puerto Navidad, and charged it to search diligently for gold.

By the time he set sail for Spain on January 16, 1493, Colón was well pleased with himself. He had not found Cipangu or Cathay, but he had found islands, large and beautiful, and gold, some of which he took away with him. He had found a new race of people, and took some home to parade before Ferdinand and Isabella. He had found chili and cinnamon, pineapple and tobacco, had seen hammocks and canoes.

But all this had given the already mystical Colón a severe dose of culture shock. He was now ready to believe anything: tales of fierce cannibals, islands full of Amazon women and bald men. His mind was strained to snapping with new information to fit into his world-view: new lands, new people, new language new vegetation, new cultures. He felt isolated, suspicious of his crew, ready to pounce on treachery. On the way home, his tow ships were battered by storms for three days and Colón, already seeing himself as the suffering servant of the divine will, started hearing a celestial voice whispering in his ear private words of consolation.

Having discovered India in the Caribbean, Colón arrived home in Portugal instead of Spain on March 4, 1493, and it took him some days to disentangle himself from Portuguese suspicions before he could parade his gold and his Indians before the courtiers of Castile, basking in royal admiration.

Cristóbal Colón, known to the English-speaking world as Christopher Columbus, had been born Cristoforo Colombo in the Italian port of Genoa around 1451. He was a weaver’s son, a self-educated man with a huge mass of random knowledge, always ready to leap to bizarre conclusions and to fit fresh evidence around his beliefs.

By the time he won a commission from the crown of Castile to find India and the lands of the Great Khan by sailing west across the Ocean Sea, he was 41 and an experienced seaman and navigator. He had probably visited England and Ireland, had sailed north to Iceland and the Arctic Circle and south almost as far as the equator; he knew the Azores and Madeira, the Canaries and the Gulf of Guinea. His wife was from the remote Atlantic island of Porto Santo.

Colón had developed obsessive theories about the nature of the world which his generation was so busy exploring. It had long been envisaged as three continents – Europe, Africa and Asia – ranged around the Mediterranean Sea. But Portuguese sailors had explored the African coast to its southernmost point and were about to push around its tip and open up a sea route to India, previously accessible only overland. Colón had encountered in Ireland “flat-faced” castaways who must surely have come from Cathay across the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was called.

His idea was to trump everyone by finding a western route to India. He had plundered all the available literature: Ptolemy, Pliny, Plutarch, Marco Polo, Pope Pius II, Pierre d’Ailly whose Imago Mundi declared that the sea between Spain and India was “of no great width” and could be crossed “in a few days”. He figured the distance to India (about 6,000 nautical miles) was only 2,400, well within the range of ships of his day.

He also had an urgent sense of divine mission. According to the Image Mundi, in 1492 there were only 155 days left before the Apocalypse; Colón saw King Ferdinand as the new David, and his Enterprise of the Indies was part of a grand plan to build the new Zion and liberate the holy places of Jerusalem. Already the year seemed to be an annus mirabilis: the final collapse of Islam in Spain, the expulsion of the Jews. The prophecies were being fulfilled – by himself, Cristoforo, the Christ – bearer.

Throughout his travels, Colón interpreted events as signs and portents: re-naming islands was a form of baptism. He would make his crew swear that Cuba was China on pain of having their tongues torn out; buffeted by storms, he would make them draw lots to undertake a pilgrimage in the event of survival, and would himself draw the straw three times out of four – odds of 11,000 to one.

For years, Colón lobbied Portugal, France, England and Spain for a commission to open up this new route to the west and fulfil his destiny. Finally, in early 1492, his pestering won through. He was a tireless man, tall and loquacious and pale-eyed, charismatic and utterly obsessed. Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to gamble on a quick return – the treasury was depleted by the long battle to de-Islamicise Spain and re-unite its kingdoms. They named him Don Cristóbal, High Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as well as viceroy and, governor of anything he found, with far-ranging hereditary powers. A Castilian consortium put up the money. The aptly named Colón was on his way.

Had Cristóbal Colón stuck to navigation, his stock would stand a good deal higher in today’s Caribbean. Like the legendary Don Quixote – who was to erupt into Spanish literature 113 years later – Colón set off on his quest in August 1492 with his head full of endearing delusions. But a great power had placed a cutlass in the hands of this Quixote, had armed him and funded him, placed him in charge of strange new lands, and ordered him to tame their people and send their wealth back to his masters. This was a dreamer let loose against more than windmills. The clash between two cultures which Colón symbolised could end in nothing but blood and horror.

Colón made three more voyages across the Ocean Sea. To start with, trading on his initial successes, he was handsomely equipped: in September 1493 he set off again with 17 ships, 1,300 men and 20 cavalry, with orders to colonise as well as explore. But by May 1502, he had only four weary caravels for his last voyage, and they ended up marooned and fallen apart a beach in Jamaica; all the dreams were coming unstuck.

Dr Eric Williams put his finger on Colón’s real achievement, which had nothing to do with the comical “discovery” which made Caribbean people part of India. “He was able over a decade to come and go between Europe and the Caribbean as if he was travelling up and down the Mediterranean,” Williams wrote.

Colón quickly discovered the fastest route to the Caribbean, a path used for the next four centuries, and could set of from the Canaries knowing more or less where he would end up. He could find his beloved Española from almost any direction. It was Colón who finally unravelled the secrets of the Atlantic wind system and began to understand magnetic variation. He deduced the continental nature of Central and South America, provided Europe with its first concept of the Caribbean, and located The Bahamas, Cuba, Española, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles as far south as Dominica, Trinidad, and the Venezuelan and Honduran coastlines.

And all this was done with the rudimentary concepts of the late 15th century. On the first voyage, the ship’s boys regularly turned over the sand-filled hour-glasses to keep track of time, when they remembered; Colón would estimate the ship’s speed by watching its wake or passing weed, and could thus calculate distance. He sensed direction from the sun and at night from the Pole Star. He was constantly puzzling how to make more accurate latitude readings and how to time the solar day. Struggling to make sense of the data on his third voyage, he concluded that he must be sailing uphill; but his deduction that the earth could not be a perfect sphere was correct.

A century ago, when the Americas celebrated the 400th anniversary of Colón’s landing, there were few doubts. Antonín Dvorák conducted the première of his New World Symphony in the new Carnegie Hall in New York; the crossroads at Seventh Avenue and Broadway was christened Columbus Circle and received a statue of Colón.

This time it’s different. Colón is now controversial. Do the descendants of the original Caribbean people really have anything to celebrate! Should Colón’s voyages be seen, not as a glorious adventure, but as an invasion that brought corruption and pestilence to a pristine world! Was the terrible clash of cultures with its bloody outcome really cause for rejoicing?

So, inevitably, comes the reassessment.

Of course Colón did not “discover” America, as generations of Caribbean school-children were erroneously taught. At least 15,000 years earlier, perhaps as much as 60,000, the real “discoverers” had crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska and had started the peopling of the Americas. No European in 1492 could “discover” a continent that had been inhabited for so long, which he thought was India, and which in any case had been visited many times before by other old-world travellers. The Vikings had reached North America from Scandinavia and Iceland five hundred years earlier, African sailors probably long before that there may have been Phoenicians, Romans, Chinese, Irish, Poles, Portuguese, English or Welsh arrivals. As Oscar Wilde noted at the last centenary celebration, “Of course, America had often been discovered before, but it had always been hushed up.”

And the real “discovery” of America has only been completed in living memory. The coasts of South America were not systematically explored until the 1540s; parts of the North American coast remained unknown until Amundsen explored it in 1903-06; and the last parts of South America were only aerially mapped in the 1970s.

Much more serious is the fallout from Colón’s career as a colonial administrator.

Colón had a deeply ambivalent attitude to the Caribbean people he found. He saw them as innocents waiting to be led tenderly into the protection of God and the Catholic Church, as savages needing to be taught the virtue of hard work and prompt payment of taxes, and as expendable labour, human fodder for the goldmines. When they failed to take kindly to Spanish direction, he saw them as enemies to be crushed. He had no grasp of the authenticity of an alien culture: the Indians were supposed to abandon their culture and embrace new European beliefs as self-evidently; true.

The pattern was set by the little garrison left at La Navidad on Colón’s first voyage, which quickly alienated the Caribbean population by its womanising, foraging, field-snatching and general excesses. When Colón returned in late 1493, it had been wiped out. And so things went on. The Caribbean people resisted evangelisation, forced labour and taxation; the Spaniards-finding gold scarcer and harder to mine than they had expected, short of supplies, deprived of women, vulnerable to the climate, and with superior technology – treated them as trash. Colón, a hopelessly incompetent colonial administrator, quickly exhausted his reserves of patience and intelligence, and resorted to brutality: the killing parties, the hunting dogs, the hangings.

Colón’s treatment of the “Indians” cannot begin to stand scrutiny by the standards of 20th-century human rights. It did not even meet the standards of his own time. His editor and disciple Las Casas railed against Spanish inhumanity to the Indians; Colón was twice the subject of judicial investigations, and at the end of his third voyage was shipped home in chains. Castile wanted a Spanish-populated trading settlement using peacefully converted Indian labour without enslavement, but Colón’s Española quickly turned into an ugly, slave-owning rebellious and diseased colony held down by force. Instead of being treated “well and lovingly”, the Indians were to provide work, food, gold and sex on demand.

Logically, Colón cannot be held personally responsible for the tragedies that followed: the genocide of the Caribbean’s original settlers, the bloody colonial wars, slavery and indentureship, vast forced movements of population, the distortion of Caribbean economies which plagues the region to this day. But it was under his leadership that the pattern was set.

Even before Colón set out on his last disastrous voyage in 1502, Vasco da Gama had established the eastern sea route to India, the Portuguese had discovered Brazil (which Colón narrowly missed on his third voyage), and John Cabot had crossed the North Atlantic; there was no further use for a western route to India. Amerigo Vespucci would give his name to America, and generations would laugh at Colón for maintaining to his dying day that he had been to Asia, within ten days of the Ganges, had visited King Solomon’s Mines and found the Earthly Paradise.

Colón was devastated by his last voyage. He had struggled down the Mosquito Coast battling against malaria, foul weather, worm-eaten timbers and despair, comforted only by his celestial voices; he had to play castaway in Jamaica for a full year before he was picked up and taken back to Española. He arrived back in Spain in November1504, his hair white, his health broken, barely able to walk. Within three weeks Queen Isabella was dead, and Colón followed her in May 1506.

He was almost as well travelled in death as in life: he was buried in Valladolid, but his bones were moved to Seville, then to Española, then to Cuba, and back to Seville as late as 1898, by which time nobody could be sure which bones were really his. Perhaps they are still there in Española.

Colón was a tremendous documenter of his own exploits, a great producer of promotional literature designed to impress himself and his patrons. What survives of his writing has been copied, edited, changed and re-angled by his great admirer, the preacher Bartolomé de las Casas. Any search for the solid, historical Cristóbal Colón soon leads into the quicksands.

This gives his modern biographers and interpreters, defenders and detractors, a field day. Colón can be painted as a ruthless conquistador, an embodiment of bourgeois capitalism, a fanatical evangelist, a mystic seer, a great discoverer, a rapacious coloniser. Perhaps he was a bit of all these.

But from a Caribbean point of view, Colón looks now like a hugely incompetent colonial administrator and a poor friend; he had an inexhaustible talent for self-delusion; he was greedy for recognition, honour and wealth. He was brave, arrogant, eccentric, curious, impossible to live with. The fate (if the Caribbean’s first people was sealed by the Spanish voyages which began with Colón, and much spilt blood must he laid at his door. Even at sea there were men in his generation whose achievements were greater.

But as a navigator who made Atlantic and Caribbean crossings a matter of routine, insatiably curious about the nature of the earth, a man who swung the centre of gravity of the known world westwards where it has remained for five centuries, Colón was a giant. Five hundred years later, if he is to have a place in the history books, it is for that, not for his mistaken “discoveries” or his bizarre geography.

– Stephan Knox



– Marina Salandy-Brown

Spain in 1492 was throwing off eight centuries of Islamic rule. Columbus was a side-show.

Columbus’s voyage coincided with the end of Muslim rule in Spain and the expulsion of its Jews. After eight long centuries, the Reconquista was finally concluded when the last Islamic stronghold, Granada, fell to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in January 1492. Had that struggle continued, there would have been no resources to invest in Columbus’s search for a shorter route to the Indies, and history would have had a very different tale to tell.

Spain had been invaded by the Islamic Berbers from North Africa in 711 AD; they had quickly imposed their rule everywhere except the mountainous north. Spaniards generally did not flee from the Muslim advance; they stayed put, and their new rulers allowed Christians and Jews, the “people of the Book”, to live unmolested provided they kept the peace and paid their non-Muslim taxes.

During the Islamic centuries, the Christians pushed south in their reconquest, taking advantage of intermittent periods of weak Muslim rule, and by 1085 they controlled nearly half the country. In the south, however, the Muslims or Moors were firmly entrenched and cities like Córdoba and Granada produced brilliant civilisations. Tenth-century Córdoba was called “the Athens of the West”. Many of Spain’s most beautiful and memorable buildings, like the Alhambra in Granada, the graceful Giralda Tower and Alcázar in Córdoba, the Aljaferiá Palace in Aragón are examples of the very finest in Islamic architecture. As the reconquest slowly progressed, the Muslims who came under Christian rule before 1492, many of whom were skilled builders and craftsmen, built magnificent churches for their new masters. Muslim music, dance, fashion and cuisine were already part of the national culture. Flamenco music and dance, which are regarded as authentically Spanish, came from the Islamic south.

The linguistic influence of the Muslims was enormous. There are thousands of Arabic place-names in Spanish, including Madrid and Guadalquivir (from wadi al-kabir, big valley in Arabic). Many Spanish words reveal the skills and expertise of the Arabs in farming, gardening and irrigation. Many new plants and fruits were brought to Spain by the North Africans, and from there spread through Europe: rice, aubergine, spinach, sugar, lemon and orange were all originally Arabic words.

Although nowadays the idea of Jewish-Muslim and Christian-Muslim conflict is depressingly familiar, in Spain between 711 and 1492 there was a high degree of tolerance and convivencia. The Jews were renowned craftsmen, doctors, bankers, businessmen and artists, and often achieved important positions in the Muslim administration. In semi- reconquered Spain the king called himself “monarch of three religions”.

But 1492 ended this period in Spanish history.

Concerned only with spreading Catholicism, the king and queen unleashed terror upon Jews and then upon Muslims. The Inquisition was established by Papal bull in 1478; its secret procedures, denunciations, torture, denial of any right of defence, the sharing of confiscated property between the Inquisition, the Crown and the accusers–all this struck terror into Jews and Muslims. The inquisitor general, Torquemada, finally persuaded the Crown in 1492 to expel all Jews who refused baptism. Jews were given four months to convert or to flee. The Muslims survived until 1499 when they too were forced to convert or flee.

So the brutal conversion of indigenous Americans and the violent quest for gold in the New World was matched by, and sprang from, a crusade of persecution, repression and banishment against the alien and the infidel at home.



– Christine Fagg

Five hundred years ago, Columbus established the first colony in the New World on the northern coast of Hispaniola. He had tried in 1492 to establish a settlement at La Navidad, on Haiti’s north coast, but it was quickly wiped out. In 1494 he tried again, at La Isabela.

La Isabela is the gem of Columbus archaeology. It lies on a desolate cliff on the Dominican Republic‘s north coast, 24 kilometres from the nearest town, along rough, pot-holed roads. There is no electricity or water, and the local people ride horses to get around. If you lose your way, as I did, and ask for directions from villagers, they express ignorance. It is said that they fear that the “curse of Columbus” will strike anybody who tries to find out about his past. I laughed at the time. But on returning with my host to his home near Puerto Plata that evening, we found that both his young, healthy dogs were dead.

Extensive excavations have been going on at La Isabela, directed by the Venezuelan archaeologist Prof. José Cruxent, and Dr Deagan, Curator of Anthropology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, with the help of students.

Eighty-one-year-old Cruxent has lived in a simple wooden hut at La Isabela for five years. “I was brought up in Catalonia,” he told me, “and as a boy I read many accounts of famous European explorers. Columbus’s expeditions caught my imagination.” He raised his voice and bloodshot eyes heaven- wards. “You could say this is my dream. At night I often wake up and find my head is full of machinations. I can hear the shouts of the men who were here at the time, and see them running around.

What can the ordinary visitor see in this strange place, swept by Atlantic gales and scorched by burning sun! The settlement, built by Columbus as a fortress for himself and 1,200 men beside the River Bajabonico, still has parts of the stone wall that once encircled it. Low stone walls outline Columbus’s house, and excavations show it was built of cut stones and hard-packed earth coated with thick lime plaster.

There are similar remains of other houses, a vast storeroom, a hospital, a church, and a cemetery where many Spanish bodies have been recovered. Over a million artefacts have been found, some from a smaller, nearby settlement; one of them resembles the rim of a chamber pot. This raises the riveting question: was it the Discoverer’s own!

La Isabela was a disaster right from the start. Scores of settlers died of diseases and others pillaged the villages, inciting the Taino Indians to revolt. Storms raged, a fire ravaged the first buildings, and–worst of all—the anticipated gold did not materialise. Within five years, the settlement was abandoned, and a new site was being developed on the banks of the River Ozama in the south of the island, where the present capital stands.

The Columbus Memorial Lighthouse will be a more visible attraction this October. It consists of gigantic slabs of white concrete in the shape of a cross, 122 feet high and half a mile long. On special occasions, banks of vertical lights, powered by solar panels, will project a huge cross into the sky; a revolving beacon shines 80 miles out to sea as a symbol “for those who attempt to guide nations wisely”.

Inside the Memorial is Columbus’s flamboyant, white marble tomb, transported from the capital’s 16th-century cathedral. It is embellished with bronze reliefs depicting his discoveries and carved inscriptions relating to his life.