Third and Fourth Voyages - Ill-treatement of Columbus - Death

The appearance of Columbus in Spain, his manly and candid defense of his conduct, his glowing exposition of the value of his discoveries, and the best means of prosecuting them, had the effect of silencing his detractors for a time. A third expedition was fitted out at his solicitation. It was not, however, till the beginning of 1498 that all was in readiness. This delay arose partly from the dilatoriness of officials, and partly from the unwillingness of men to engage in an enterprise which did not now appear so captivating as it did at first. To supply the want of voluntary recruits, a measure was adopted, at the suggestion of Columbus, which shows the desperate alternatives to which he was reduced by the great reaction of public sentiment. This was to commute the sentences of criminals condemned to banishment, to the galleys, or to the mines, into transportation to the new settlements, where they were to labor in the public service without pay. This pernicious measure, calculated to poison the population of an infant community at its very source, was a fruitful cause of trouble, and misery and detriment to the colony. It has been frequently adopted by various nations whose superior experience should have taught them better, and has proved the bane of many a rising settlement. It is assuredly as unnatural for a metropolis to cast forth its crimes and its vices upon its colonies, as it would be for a parent willingly to engraft disease upon his children.

On the 80th of May 1498, Columbus set sail on his third voyage, with a squadron of six vessels. Sailing much farther south in this voyage than he had done in the two former, he landed on the coast of Paria, in the South American continent. The circumstances of this third voyage, part of which lay within the tropics, and the appearance of the new coasts to which it conducted him, made a strong impression on the mind of Columbus, which had a natural bent for theorising upon every phenomenon presented to it. Among other theories which he started about this time, was one by which he attempted to explain the variation of the compass, and other extraordinary changes which occurred in passing from the old world to the new. According to this theory, he supposed that the earth, instead of being spherical, as hitherto imagined, was elongated or pear-shaped, with one end bulbous, and the other produced and tapering a theory which, however absurd it may seem, was really a step in advance of the science of the day.

After coasting along the South American continent, acquiring information which he thought all tended to show that he was on the track of the long-desired Indies of Marco Polo, Columbus was obliged, by the shattered condition of his ships, to make for Hispaniola. Here he found all in confusion. Roldan, whom he had appointed chief justice, had rebelled against the authority of the adelantado, and was living in another part of the island as the head of a band of insurgents. Bartholomew had governed the colony vigorously and well; but being a foreigner, and not of high birth, he was unpopular with the Spaniards. It required all Columbus' skill and command of temper to restore the semblance of order. By a seasonable proclamation, offering free pardon to such as should merit it by returning to their duty, he made impression upon some of the malcontents. By engaging to grant such as should desire it the liberty of returning to Spain, he allured all those unfortunate adventurers who, from sickness and disappointment, were disgusted with the country. By promising to reestablish Roldan in his former office, he soothed his pride; and, by complying with most of his demands in behalf of his followers, he satisfied their avarice. Thus gradually, and without bloodshed, but after many negotiations, he dissolved this dangerous combination, which threatened the colony with ruin, and restored the appearance of order, regular government, and tranquillity.

Meanwhile Columbus' enemies were again undermining his popularity in Spain. The accounts which Roldan and others sent home of the arrogance of Columbus and his brothers, received more credit than the admiral's own despatches. Owing also to the cessation of labor in the colony, Columbus was unable to send home so much wealth as the sovereigns expected. Private adventurers were likewise fitting out expeditions of discovery to the new world; and Ferdinand began to be of opinion that it would be more for the interests of the crown to deprive Columbus of his great and exclusive privileges as his viceroy in the new world, and to place the colonial government on a new footing. Isabella alone seemed to befriend the admiral. At length, however, on the arrival of some ships from Hispaniola freighted with natives, whom Columbus had been forced to permit some of the refractory colonists to take with them on their return to Spain, to be sold in the slave market, her queenly soul, abhorring the idea of making wealth by the sale of human beings, took fire, and she indignantly exclaimed, What right has the admiral to give away my vassals?' She no longer opposed Ferdinand's desire to send out a person to examine into the conduct of Columbus, and, if necessary, to order him home. The person chosen as commissioner was Don Francisco de Bovadilla, an officer of the royal household.

On arriving at Hispaniola, Bovadilla reversed the order of his written instructions. He superseded Columbus before investigating into his conduct. Entering the admiral's residence at Isabella, he seized all his furniture, books, and papers; and by his orders Columbus, with his brothers Diego and Bartholomew, were put in irons. What a burlesque on national gratitude was this outrage I The man who had led Europeans to an acquaintance with America, actually put in manacles by a miserable instrument of the Spanish government! Overcome with emotion, Columbus was thus led on board a ship which waited to receive him. In arriving on board, an officer charged with the duty of attending on him and his brothers offered, with considerate humanity, to remove the irons from his prisoners; but the admiral refused, saying that they were put on by the command of their majesties, and should remain till removed by the same authority. These irons Columbus afterwards preserved as relics.

The rumor had no sooner circulated at Cadiz and Seville that Columbus and his brothers had arrived, loaded with chains, and condemned to death, than it gave rise to a burst of public indignation. The excitement was strong and universal; and messengers were immediately despatched to convey the intelligence to Ferdinand and Isabella. The sovereigns were moved by this exhibition of popular feeling, and were offended that their name and authority should have been used to sanction such dishonorable violence. They gave orders for the immediate liberation of the prisoners, and for their being escorted to Granada with the respect and honor they deserved. They annulled, without examination, all the processes against them, and promised an ample punishment for all their wrongs. At his first interview with the sovereigns after his arrival, Columbus was so overcome that he threw himself at their feet, where he remained for some minutes drowned in tears, and unable to speak from the violence of his sobbings.

Columbus, however, was not reappointed to his command in Hispaniola. Bovadilla, it is true, was superseded; but his successor was Don Nicholas de Ovando, a Spanish cavalier. It was represented to Columbus that this appointment was only temporary, and that as soon as the colony was in an orderly condition, he would be reinstated in his privileges. In the meantime, he was to undertake a fourth voyage of discovery. In consequence of the knowledge which he had obtained on his previous voyages as well as from the voyages of the numerous adventurers who followed him of the extent of the American continent, connected with the announcement with which Europe was then ringing, of the final accomplishment of the great feat of the circumnavigation of Africa by Vasco de Gama in 1497, the genius of Columbus had conceived a new project, or rather a modification of his former one. This was the discovery of some strait lying somewhere between Honduras and Paria, in about the situation of what is now known as the Isthmus of Darien, and leading into the Indian Ocean. Having discovered this strait, he would sail through it, coast along the Indies to the shores of Arabia, and either sail up the Red Sea, and travel overland to Spain; or repeat Vasco de Gama's feat the reverse way, and reach Spain after having circumnavigated the world. Such was the gigantic scheme with the thoughts of which the great old man regaled his declining years. We mistake the character of Columbus if we suppose him merely to have been a man of extraordinary courage, coupled with what we usually understand by the term intellect. He had perhaps one of the most daring and fanciful imaginations. He regarded himself as a personage expressly predestined by heaven to discover a new world, and prepare the way for the recovery of the holy sepulchre, and the conversion of the whole world to Christianity. These three events he conceived to be linked to each other by prophecy; and he considered that he was the instrument in God's hands for bringing them all about.

On the 9th of May 1502, Columbus again set sail from Cadiz on a fourth voyage of discovery. During this expedition he touched at some parts of the South American continent, and also at some of the formerly-discovered islands; but he failed in making any important discoveries, in consequence of the bad state of his vessels, which were old, and unfit for sailing. With a squadron reduced to a single vessel he now returned to Spain, where he heard with regret of the death of his patron Isabella. This was a sad blow to his expectations of redress and remuneration. Ferdinand was jealous and ungrateful. He was weary of a man who had conferred so much glory on his kingdom, and unwilling to repay him with the honors and privileges his extraordinary services so richly merited. Columbus, therefore, sank into obscurity, and was reduced to such straitened circumstances, that according to his own account, he had no place to repair to except an inn, and very frequently had not wherewithal to pay his reckoning. Disgusted and mortified by the base conduct of Ferdinand, exhausted with the hardships which he had suffered, and oppressed with infirmities, Columbus closed his life at Valladolid on the 20th of May 1506. He died with a composure of mind suitable to the magnanimity which distinguished his character, and with sentiments of piety becoming that supreme respect for religion which he manifested in every occurrence of his life.

Columbus experienced the fate of most great men little esteemed during his life, but almost deified after his decease. Fedinand, with a meanness which covers his memory with infamy, allowed this great man to pine and die, a victim of injustice and mortification; but no sooner was he dead, than he erected a splendid monument over his remains in one of the churches of Seville. The body of Columbus was not destined, however, to be indebted to Spain for even this posthumous honor; it was afterwards according to the will of the deceased, transferred to St. Domingo, and buried in the cathedral there; but on the cession of that island, to the French, in the year 1795, it was transferred to Havana, in the island of Cuba, where we hope it will rest in peace.

The discoveries of Columbus laid open a knowledge of what are now termed the West India Islands, and a small portion of the South American continent, which this great navigator, till the day of his death, believed to be a part of Asia or India. About ten years after his decease the real character of America and its islands became known to European navigators; and by a casual circumstance one of these adventurers, Amerigo Vespucii, a Florentine, had the honor of conferring the name America upon a division of the globe which ought, in justice, to have been called after the unfortunate COLUMBUS.