The Fourth Voyage of Christopher Columbus

The mission of the fourth voyage of Columbus was to find the straights of Malacca, which were thought to be in the vicinity (in reality still half a world away). After the fiasco of the third voyage, and his arrest, Columbus was kept on a tight leash for his fourth voyage. He was not allowed to visit the colony of Hispañola where he had ostensibly been made permanent and hereditary governor after his triumphant first voyage.

Fourth Voyage of Columbus

Columbus was not allowed to trade, only to make discoveries. He was sent with a royal commissioner who was to oversee all of his activities. This was quite a come-down for the once Great Admiral of the Ocean Sea who had been granted wide latitude and power earlier in his career. Yet this was all for the best. He was at heart an explorer, not an administrator. When he had tried to govern a colony he had been hated and reviled. He had fought with the Indians as well as his own people. When he had explored, he had found much, earned the respect of the native peoples, and the steadfastness of much of his crew, who respected his undoubted ability to navigate and make snap, crucial decisions at sea.

He left Cadiz, Spain on 11 May 1502 prepared to finally reach his goal of Japan, China, and India. He brought a two-year supply of food and other provisions. He brought letters from the King and Queen of Spain to the potentates of the lands he was to enter. He even had Arabic speakers on board to aid in communications with the great Kahn. (It was thought that if Cathay traded with the Arabs, they must have someone about who could speak the language.)

There were four ships on this voyage, all caravels. Columbus had along the Capitano, Vizcaino, Santiago de Palos, and El Gallego. In company with Columbus were his brother Bartolome Colón, and his younger and illegitimate son, Fernando. The fourth voyage ran into trouble early on. When the fleet got close to Hispañola they found that one of the ships had suffered heavy damage in transit. In spite of orders from the King and Queen to stay out of the colony, the Admiral decided to try to buy a new caravel in Santo Domingo. The colonists would not allow him the shelter of their port even after a major storm hit. Columbus and his ships were forced to ride out the storm at sea.

Yet this was a storm of storms. It lasted, on and off, for 88 days. The ships were badly damaged. Many stores and supplies were lost. The storm pushed them along the southern coast of Cuba. From here Columbus sailed south-west to find Central America. He made his way down the coast to a place where the natives made gold objects. This discovery peaked the interest of the expedition commander, but the tiny fleet continued down around present day Panama. The natives informed Columbus that there was another ocean across this peninsula.

In January of 1503 the expedition found the Rio Belen at about the place where Panama connects to South America. At this point a fort was built and one of the ships left behind. However, the natives attacked the fort. Although the Spaniards successfully resisted the attack, it was realized that the position was untenable. A ship which had gotten caught in the river was abandoned. It was now decided that the three remaining ships should set sail for Spain on April 16 1503 because they had been so eaten away by shipworms.

Another ship had to be abandoned soon thereafter. The other ships were also in terrible shape. In spite of the negative reception they knew would meet them, they decided to make for Hispañola. Fate had more adversity in store. Off the coast of Cuba the two ships were hit by another fierce storm. Both began to leak faster than the constantly manned pumps could pump. Finally, near Jamaica the ships sank and the crew was marooned.

One of the ship captains, Diego Mendez, procured a canoe from the Indians and with a few men rowed to Santo Domingo. However, Governor Ovedo would not allow the captain into the city for seven months. When Mendez was finally allowed to enter the city, it was several months more before he could charter a caravel. This he took back to Jamaica on June 29 1504, over a year after the last two ships had been beached on the shores of that island. Meanwhile, some of the crew which had remained behind had rebelled and had had to be suppressed by Columbus and those loyal to him.

Disheartened, Columbus sailed again arriving back in Spain on 7 November 1504.

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