The Fourth Voyage of Columbus


If any of Columbus's voyages deserves to be made into a movie, this is the one.

On May 11, 1502, four old ships and 140 men under Columbus's command put to sea from the port of Cadiz. Among those in the fleet were Columbus's brother Bartholomew, and Columbus's younger son Fernando, then just thirteen years old. At age fifty-one, Columbus was old, sick, and no longer welcome in his old home base of Hispaniola. But the Admiral felt he had one more voyage left in him.

The nominal purpose of the trip was to find a strait linking the Indies (which Columbus still thought to be part of Asia) with the Indian Ocean. This strait was known to exist, since Marco Polo had traversed it on his way back from China. In effect, Columbus was looking for the Strait of Malacca (which is really near Singapore) in Central America.

Columbus arrived at Santo Domingo on June 29, 1502, and requested that he be allowed to enter the harbor to shelter from a storm that he saw coming. He also advised the treasure fleet assembling in the harbor to stay put until the storm had passed. His request was treated with contempt by Nicolas de Ovando, the local governor, who denied Columbus the port and sent the treasure fleet on its way. Columbus found shelter for his ships in a nearby estuary.

When the hurricane hit, the treasure fleet was caught at sea, and twenty ships were sunk. Nine others limped back into Santo Domingo, and only one made it safely to Spain. Columbus's four ships all survived the storm with moderate damage.

Columbus arrived at the coast of Honduras at the end of July, and spent the next two months working down the coast, beset by more storms and headwinds. When they arrived at present-day Panama, they found two important things. First, they learned from the natives that there was another ocean just a few days march to the south. This convinced Columbus that he was near enough the strait that he had proved his point. But more importantly, the natives had many gold objects that the Spaniards traded for. This made the region, which Columbus named Veragua, very valuable.

After coasting east along Panama until the area rich in gold petered out, Columbus tried to return to Veragua but was again beset by storms and contrary winds. Finally, Columbus returned to the mouth of the Rio Belen (western Panama) on January 9, 1503, and made it his headquarters for exploration, building a garrison fort there. As he was preparing to return to Spain, he took three of his ships out of the river, leaving one with the garrison. The next day, April 6, the river lowered so much that the remaining ship was trapped in the river by a sandbar across the river mouth. At this moment, a large force of Indians attacked the garrison.

The Spanish managed to hold off the attack, but lost a number of men and realized that the garrison could not be held for long. Columbus abandoned the ship in the river, and rescued the remaining members of the garrison. The three ships, now badly leaking from shipworm, sailed for home on April 16.

Map of the 
Fourth Voyage

One of the remaining ships had to be abandoned almost immediately because it was no longer seaworthy, and the remaining two crawled slowly upwind in a game effort to make it to Hispaniola. They didn't make it. Off the coast of Cuba, they were hit by yet another storm, the last of the ship's boats was lost, and one of the caravels was so badly damaged that she had to be taken in tow by the flagship. Both ships were leaking very badly now, and water continued to rise in the hold in spite of constant pumping by the crew. Finally, able to keep them afloat no longer, Columbus beached the sinking ships in St. Anne's Bay, Jamaica, on June 25, 1503. Since there was no Spanish colony on Jamaica, they were marooned.

Diego Mendez, one of Columbus's captains, bought a canoe from a local chief and sailed it to Hispaniola. He was promptly detained by governor Ovando outside the city for the next seven months, and was refused use of a caravel to rescue the expedition.

Meanwhile, half of those left on Jamaica staged a mutiny against Columbus, which he eventually put down. When Ovando finally allowed Mendez into Santo Domingo, there were no ships available for the rescue. Finally, Mendez was able to charter a small caravel, which arrived at Jamaica on June 29, 1504, and rescued the expedition. Columbus returned home to Spain on November 7, 1504, his last voyage complete.


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