In 1492, Columbus sailed west from Spain to find a passage to Asia to bring back spices. On October 12, 1492, Columbus spotted land, which we know now was certainly one of the islands of the Bahamas. He went on to discover Cuba and Hispaniola.
Then Columbus went on two more voyages. On the second, he founded a permanent colony, San Domingo, on Hispaniola. His colony lives on today in the form of the Dominican Republic.
While Columbus is quite possibly the greatest explorer ever, he was not a particularly good governor when he was on shore. Great explorers rarely become good governors. Captain Merriweather Lewis successfully led a company of soldiers across the North American continent, but fumbled as Governor of the Louisiana territory. Captain William Bligh was one of Britain’s greatest seafarers, but was deposed by force as Governor of New South Wales, Australia in the “Rum Rebellion.” Columbus’ own mismanagement led to his imprisonment in San Domingo’s jail. Regardless, Columbus eventually made his way back to Span and successfully petitioned to make a fourth voyage.
The aim of the fourth voyage was for Columbus to find the westward passage to the Strait of Malacca and then return to Spain by rounding Africa. It was a daunting task involving circumnavigating the globe.
In the strictest sense, the voyage was a failure. Columbus did not find an all-water route to Malacca or any other part of the Spice Islands, or even come close to circumnavigating the globe. All of his ships were eventually lost. However, the voyage did illuminate several important truths, including how business competition works, courage, wisdom, the art of leadership, and racial realities.
In terms of cartography, the fourth voyage was successful in that it made much of the Caribbean Sea known to civilization. Columbus also discovered that it was possible to cross Panama by land to the Pacific; he was unable to do it himself, however. One of the crewmen, Antonio de Alamino, went on to discover the Gulf Stream and serve on other Spanish expeditions. Likewise, Columbus’ son Fernando’s later career was enhanced by his participation in the expedition, so one can surmise from this that the other sailors who served on the expedition also did well in life due to their participation.
Part of Columbus’ dilemma was that once he showed the world that it was possible to cross the Atlantic and that there was profit to be made in doing so, it was impossible for him to maintain a monopoly on exploration and trade. Before long, many Spaniards would made the trip for their own benefit. In one’s career, one needs to recognize that everyone is looking to make the big score or the juicy contract. Get a job making six figures, and you will soon discover that all kinds of people want what you have.
The Human Factor: Columbus, His Men, & San Domingo
Columbus started the fourth voyage from Cadiz, Spain with four ships, all caravels. They were the flagship Capitana, Gallega, Vizcaina, and the Santiago de Palos.
The expedition numbered 140 men. Most of his crew were very young, some even teenagers. Thus, most the men on the voyage were unskilled, immature, and inexperienced. Two of the most senior of them, Francisco and Santiago Porras, were representatives of the Spanish Crown and not fully under Columbus’ control. For his part, Columbus was beset with gout, arthritis, and eye troubles. Sometimes he went temporarily blind and was bedridden for days at a time. On top of this, Columbus was very unpopular in San Domingo, which was the main settlement in the West Indies.
Columbus set out from Cadiz on May 11, 1502. Although his fleet’s mission was to circumnavigate the globe, Columbus took an early detour to Arzila, a Portuguese settlement in North Africa. He heard the city was under siege by the Moors and wanted to help out, although the siege was over by the time his fleet arrived. This risky decision was strange considering that the purpose of the voyage was to get to Asia.
Otherwise, the Atlantic crossing went quickly and without incident. Columbus was forbidden from going to San Domingo, but docked there anyway. He was one of a very few Europeans who recognized the signs of an approaching hurricane and wanted to warn the Governor of San Domingo, Nicolás de Ovando, that one was on the way. Unfortunately, Ovando didn’t like Columbus and his warning fell on deaf ears. Thus, Columbus was forced to shelter in an estuary away from San Domingo.
Personal animosity clouded Ovando’s judgement. He lost many ships and men due to the storm. He also refused to provide any help to Columbus’s fleet, so there was no resupply or R&R for the crew. Most crucially, the ships weren’t provided any maintenance.
The hurricane scattered Columbus’ fleet, but they followed a pre-arranged plan and regrouped in a bay. From there, they headed west across the Caribbean, where they discovered the Central American isthmus. Columbus called the area Honduras, meaning “the depths.” The fleet turned southward and followed the coast. There they encountered a Mayan canoe. The Mayans were more advanced than the Indians in Hispaniola and elsewhere in the West Indies. Columbus believed that the more advanced Mayans were a sign that they were getting closer to Asian civilization.
Courage & Wisdom
Eventually, Columbus set up a colony in what is now Panama on the Belén River. It was the source of gold for the Indians, and the Spanish had found gold flakes on the river’s banks. The decision to leave behind part of his company to set up a colony is obviously at odds with his plan of passing through the Strait of Malacca, so it is probable that Columbus recognized that he wouldn’t find a passage to India in the short term, but that creating a gold-mining operation would still make the voyage profitable. His plan was to depart in three of his ships once the colony was operational.
The Indians were friendly until it was clear to them that the Spanish intended to stay. The Central American Indians were considerably better-armed and more warlike than the Taíno Indians in Hispaniola. They attacked just as Columbus was departing.
When Columbus heard gunfire, he returned and evacuated the colonists. The evacuation itself is a story of heroes and cowards, as well as innovation under combat conditions. The Spanish colonists ultimately make good their retreat by building a raft and using it to reach Columbus’ fleet.
The colony on the Belén River had been an unwise mistake. Although Columbus had intelligence that the Indians were planning to attack, it is clear that the Spanish misread the data regarding Indian military capabilities and willingness to be aggressive. I suspect that the decision to colonize was due to groupthink fueled with a hefty helping of gold fever. The Belén River offered immense riches, and since they had had so little Indian trouble before, it was hard for them to imagine that they were in danger.
Meanwhile, the Gallega was damaged by a type of mollusk called a shipworm, that eats wood. Shipworms had bored through the hull and the ship was abandoned at the Belén River. Shipworm damage can be repaired by a technique called careening, where the ship is beached, turned on its side, and patched up. This work requires specialists called caulkers, however, and they’d been killed in the Indian attack. And shortly after the retreat, Columbus had to abandon the Vizcaina due to shipworms as well.
Columbus then decided to take his two remaining ships and make a run for San Domingo. Unfortunately, the shipworms soon also damaged the remaining ships and they started to leak. The sailors manned the pumps round the clock and bailed water out with kettles, but it was clear that the situation was hopeless, so Columbus beached in a bay on the north coast of Jamaica that is today called St. Ann’s Bay.
The Art of Leadership
Once the ships were beached, Columbus moved his command ashore and built a makeshift settlement. His plan for rescue was twofold: wait and hope that a passing ship would spot them, and then acquire an Indian canoe to send a messenger to San Domingo to summon help.
Throughout the voyage, Diego Méndez, a clerk and public notary, had risen to become the voyage’s chief troubleshooter. He’d learned some of the local Indian languages and discovered that the Indians were going to attack the colony on the Belén River. Columbus ordered him and Bartolomeo Fieschi, a fellow Italian, to go for help.
Before they left, however, Méndez argued that a general call for volunteers should be issued. A meeting was indeed held, although nobody except Méndez and Fieschi volunteered. The meeting was important, however, because it meant nobody could complain later that they’d been left out.
Méndez and Fieschi headed to Hispaniola; their journey will be discussed further below. They did indeed reach the Governor of San Domingo, but he was engaged in an Indian war and was still angry with Columbus, so he delayed sending help. In the meantime, the rest of the expedition waited and settled into a routine. They secured all the supplies and tools from the ships and traded with the local Indians for food. But as time wore on, trouble developed.
I’ve come to the conclusion that all leaders must eventually face mutiny and/or some sort of conspiracy against them. Strangely, the US military’s various leadership schools don’t give any advice on how to deal with mutinies. Of course, should mutiny get objectively studied by the ineffective American war machine, they would conclude that sub-Saharans should not be embraced by the Department of Defense given that Africans, as a group, tend to be the most insubordinate and willing to make trouble. There are no studies available on potential mutiny fault lines or other pending signs of trouble, and no advice on how to deal with a mutiny should one start.
Mutinies tend to be caused by several factors, although only one needs to be in play for one to happen. First, there is some sort of racial or ethnic divide. Second, the leader has led the group into some sort of disaster. Third, there are candidates with similar credentials as the leader who can claim that they could do a better job. Finally, there is generalized boredom.
All of these factors were present in Jamaica. Columbus was an Italian, while most of his crew was Spanish. Francisco and Santiago Porras were every bit as connected to the Spanish crown as Columbus, and were serving officers in the expedition. As the days turned into months — six months — the Porras brothers staged a mutiny. Eventually, they took half of the expedition with them.
Mutineers tend to be good at stirring up discontent, but bad at leadership once they have the helm. The Porras brother attempted to take several canoes to Hispaniola using recruited Indians as rowers. Unfortunately, they misjudged the sea, and it was too rough for a crossing. They attempted to lighten the load by throwing supplies overboard. When that failed, they decided to kill the Indians and then throw their bodies overboard. The first Indians were taken by surprise, but the survivors then jumped off and hung onto the sides of the canoes. The Spanish then hacked off the hands with their swords.
The mutineers then returned to Jamaica, hid in the forest, and survived by stealing food from Indian villages. They told the Indians that Columbus would pay for everything hey take, and soon, Columbus was unable to get food for nearly any price. Then he hit upon a bold idea: When reviewing his navigation books, he realized that there was an upcoming lunar eclipse. On the night it was going to happen, he invited the Indian leaders to his camp to hold a Roman Catholic mass. He explained that he was a servant of God and that God was displeased with the Indians for withholding food from him. To prove this, he said he would cause an eclipse.
The ruse worked and the Indians were awestruck by the mass and the eclipse. They brought food to Columbus and his men.
The eclipse ruse was a remarkable event. It demonstrates that Columbus was able to put himself into the minds of the Indians and accurately predict what they would do. In the 2020 racial “awokening,” many woke writers argued that whites are not able to understand non-whites. This is pure projection. Whites understand resentment and anger; it is non-whites who have a difficult time understanding whites.
The crossing to Hispaniola by Méndez and Fieschi illuminates the mental differences between whites and non-whites as well. In Spain, Méndez was a paper pusher, but during the fourth voyage he grasped what was necessary to become a remarkable explorer. He learned the Indian languages, he came to understand and be able to predict the sea conditions, and he could navigate. He also adapted to radical changes in climate — from the Mediterranean to the tropical.
Contrast this with the Indians in his canoe. Even though their tribes had lived in the region for thousands of years, they had little understanding of how to cross the sea from Jamaica to Hispaniola. There was no “ancient tribal wisdom” from the “tribal elders” to tell them to follow the current at a certain time, or to start from a particular rock and keep the Sun in their faces. They were helpless on the voyage.
The trouble started within hours. The Indians drank all their water on the first day and soon became dehydrated. Eventually, one died and was thrown overboard. They reached the Island of Navassa, which is a little more than halfway to Hispaniola from Jamaica. Navassa had no freshwater rivers, but there was rainwater in pools. The group replenished their water supply, but the Indians ended up drinking too much water and some of them died. After cooking some shellfish and resting for several days, the group finally completed the journey.
I’ll argue a bold point here. Whites — and by this I mean Indo-European whites only — have a mentality that can grasp the cosmic order. Non-whites have a more difficult time doing that. The Indians’ problems in the canoes were the result of their inability to understand the interplay of heat, water consumption, activity, and thirst — even in their own native territory. I saw the same sort of helplessness among non-whites when I was in the service. Many only have the dullest understanding of technology. I once had to fire a non-white radar operator with more than 20 years of experience when I discovered that he didn’t really understand the abstract reasoning that underpinned his job.
To emphasize this point I’ll add the following: The Spanish were living alongside Moors and Jews in Iberia at this time, but of the three groups, only the Spanish used technologies such as the caravel, the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press to explore unknown regions thousands of miles from their home. Jews, Moors, and Spaniards were all products of the same climate and soil, but only one of them went across the Atlantic.
Once Méndez and his company reached Hispaniola, they decided not to attempt a return voyage by canoe. They thus had to wait until the Indian war on Hispaniola was over before any aid could be sent to Columbus. Even when help finally was sent, it came in the form merely of wine and salted pork. There was no offer to pick up any of the men. Méndez sent a letter to Columbus explaining that he would charter a ship from San Domingo to rescue the expedition. Columbus then sent peace feelers to the mutineers, but a fight ensued. A few of them were killed, and the leaders were chained up. The low-ranking sailors were pardoned.
After a year of being shipwrecked, Columbus and his men were finally rescued by Méndez aboard two ships that he had chartered. Due to adverse winds, the return voyage from Jamaica to San Domingo took 45 days. Many of the sailors vowed to stay on land afterwards and live out the rest of their days as colonists. Many of their descendants still live on the island. Columbus returned to Spain, his health broken, and he died in 1506.
Ultimately, Cristopher Columbus is a man worth emulating and admiring. The Spanish explorers were all worthy men. Even those small and resentful individuals who disparage them cannot really diminish the light of these European giants.
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