The Second Voyage of Columbus

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After the success of Columbus's first voyage, he had little trouble convincing the Spanish Sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabela, to follow up immediately with a second voyage. Unlike the exploratory first voyage, the second voyage was a massive colonization effort, comprising seventeen ships and over a thousand men. The second voyage brought European livestock (horses, sheep, and cattle) to America for the first time.

Although Columbus kept a log of his second voyage, only very small fragments survive. Most of what we know comes from indirect references or from accounts of others on the voyage.

The fleet left Hierro in the Canary Islands on October 13, 1493. Hoping to make a landfall at Hispaniola (where Columbus had left 40 men the previous January), the fleet kept a constant course of west-southwest from Hierro and sighted Dominica in the West Indies at dawn on Sunday, November 3. The transatlantic passage of only 21 days was remarkably fast, covering 850 leagues according to Columbus's reckoning (or somewhat less according to others).

Map of the 
Second Voyage

Shortly after sighting Dominica, another island to the north came into view; this must have been Guadeloupe, although some on the voyage later misattributed it as Maria Galante. This order of sighting shows that the fleet must have been very near to 16 north latitude, 60 west longitude at dawn on November 3. A little farther north, and Guadeloupe would have been sighted first; a little farther south, and Martinique would have been sighted second; a little farther west, and all these islands would have been seen simultaneously.

The actual rhumbline course (rhumbline: a course of constant bearing between two points) between Hierro and this point is 252 true. Since the fleet was sailing WSW (258.8 magnetic), we know that the average magnetic variation during the voyage was about 7 west.

During the next two weeks, the fleet moved north from Dominica, discovering the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico before arriving at Hispaniola on November 22.

Returning to his fortress at Navidad on November 28, Columbus found that the fort had been burned and that the men he had left there on the first voyage were dead. According to the account of Guacanagari, the local chief who had befriended Columbus on the first voyage, the men at Navidad had fallen to arguing among themselves over women and gold. Some of the men had abandonded the fort in the intervening months, and some of the rest had raided an inland tribe and kidnapped their women. The men of that tribe retaliated by destroying Navidad and killing the few remaining Spaniards.

Columbus then sailed eastward along the coast of Hispaniola, looking for a place to found a new colony. On December 8, he anchored at a good spot and founded a new town he named La Isabela, after the Spanish queen. The next several months were spent in establishing the colony and exploring the interior of Hispaniola.

On April 24, 1494, Columbus set sail from Isabela with three ships, in an effort to find the mainland of China, which he was still convinced must be nearby. He reached Cuba on April 30 and cruised along its southern coast. But soon he learned of an island to the south that was rumored to be rich with gold. Columbus left Cuba on May 3rd, and anchored at Jamaica two days later. But the reception he recieved from the Indians was mostly hostile, and since he had still not found the mainland, he left Jamaica on May 13, returning to Cuba the following day.

But the Admiral quickly found that the southern coast of Cuba is dotted with shoals and small islands, making exploration treacherous. Making slow progress in difficult conditions, Columbus press westward for several weeks until finally giving up the quest on June 13. But not wanting to admit that his search for the mainland was a failure, Columbus ordered each man in his crews to sign a document and swear that Cuba was so large that it really must be the mainland.

The voyage back to Hispaniola was even worse, since they now had to rethread the shoals and islands they had come through before, and now they had a headwind to work against. After four weeks, tired of the incessant headwinds, Columbus again turned south for Jamaica and confirmed that it was indeed an island. Columbus finally returned to Hispaniola on August 20, 1494, and proceeded eastward along the unknown southern coast. But by the end of September, Columbus was seriously ill. His crew abandoned further explorations and returned to the colony at La Isabela.

Over the next eighteen months Columbus worked, mostly without success, at his job of colonial governor. His relations with the Spanish colonists were poor. Columbus took his title of Viceroy -- titular King -- seriously, and governed with an arrogance that the colonists did not appreciate. Many of these colonists were younger sons of the Spanish nobility who were trying to carve out their own fiefdoms in the New World, and they viewed Columbus as a foreigner and an impediment to their plans. The large amounts of gold they had been promised turned out to be more of a trickle, and Columbus, acting under royal decree, appropriated a large fraction of that for himself. Further, La Isabela turned out to have been a bad location, in a swampy area with few resources and a poor harbor.

Meanwhile, relations with many of the Indian tribes had soured too, and war soon broke out between the Spaniards and some of the tribes. But the Spanish had a huge technological edge, and the warfare was grossly one-sided. Many Indians were killed, and even more were captured and forced to work at the thankless job of finding gold.

As supplies brought from Spain dwindled, Columbus decided to return to Spain to ask for more help in establishing the colony. He set sail from Isabela on March 10, 1496, with two ships. They sighted the coast of Portugal on June 8, his second voyage complete.

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