Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

The Third Voyage of Discovery


This was the voyage on which Columbus first found pearls, first saw troops of monkeys disporting in the tropical forests, and caught a glimpse of the continent he had so long and vainly sought. Sailing from the port of San Lucar, at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, with six vessels manned by his motley crews, he boldly plunged into the unknown ocean to the south of his previous ventures, intending to pass under the equinoctial line. When, however, after nearly two months' voyaging, he encountered a torrid region of calms, the heated atmosphere of which caused the pitch in the seams of his ships to melt, the meats to spoil, and the wine and water casks to burst, he changed his course to a point more northerly and westerly. He left Spain on May 3oth, and on July 31st, when but one cask of water remained to each vessel, land was sighted by a sailor at the masthead of the flag-ship. Three peaks appeared in the distance, which a nearer approach revealed as one huge mountain mass with triple summit. The land to which they appertained Columbus called La Trinidad, or the Trinity, having previously resolved to name his next discovery after the holy Triad. It proved to be an island, which he approached from the southeast and entered a great body of water beyond (the Bay of Paria) through a strait which he called the Boca del Sierpe, or the Serpent's Mouth, because of the angry waters which beset him there. Coasting its western shores, he was astonished at the verdure of its vast forests, containing immense trees that came down to the very water's edge; for he had previously reasoned out a theory that, being so near the equator (only ten degrees north of it), he should find the vegetation scant and parched from the heat, with little water or moisture. He had also thought to find the inhabitants of this country resembling the negroes of Africa, with coal-black skins and woolly hair; whereas the people who came out to his vessels in their canoes were much like the Caribs in the islands to the north, though, if anything, more comely.

Here are his reasonings and conclusions, quaintly set forth by Peter Martyr, his contemporary: "The earth (as Columbus saith) is not round, after the form of a ball or an apple, as others think, but rather like a pear as it hangeth on the tree; and that Paria is that region which possesseth the super-eminent or highest part thereof, the nearest unto heaven. Insomuch that he earnestly contendeth the earthly paradise to be situate in the top of those three hills which the watchman saw from the top-castle of the ship; and that the outrageous streams of fresh waters, which did so violently issue out of said Gulph, and strive so with the salt water, fall headlong from the summits of said mountains."

The historiographer was wrong, however, in attributing to Columbus the last conclusion: that the waters which caused him such inconvenience came from the mountains of Trinidad; for, on the contrary, he reasoned that they proved the existence of a vast continent, possessing, as they did, such great volume as to influence the currents of the Caribbean Sea. In the abstract, he argued correctly as to the existence of the continent; but when at last he saw the peninsula of Paria, with its beautiful shores and fair harbors, he did not suspect that he had it actually in view. Even as he insisted on making a continent of insular Cuba, so he mistook this coast of a continent for part of an island. However, on he sailed, delighted beyond measure at the things he saw: the monkey bands in the forests of Trinidad, the shapely Indians of Paria, and the oysters growing on trees along the shore.

Recalling what Pliny had written respecting the formation of pearls from drops of dew, he inferred that these oysters, which he saw suspended from the mangroves, hung there with their mouths wide open, ready to receive the night dews that were to be transmuted into precious pearls. Any visitor to Trinidad and the Bay of Paria may see oysters growing there now, in the same manner, attached to twigs and roots of mangroves; but to find the veritable oyster that produces the pearl, one must follow after Columbus to the islands he next visited on the Caribbean coast of Paria. He reached them only by sailing through the turbulent waters of that strait between Paria and Trinidad, caused by the outflow of the great Orinoco's current, and which he named the Boca del Drago, or Mouth of the Dragon. Columbus was singularly happy in his choice of names for the natural objects he saw, and those he applied to the two straits still survive. Through the roaring waters of the Dragon's Mouth the little craft passed safely, though in imminent peril from the rocks and shoals, and emerged into the tranquil sea which laves the northern coast of Paria.

As he bore away westward, he saw in the distance the outlines of Tobago, which has since become famous as the scene of Robinson Crusoe's adventures; but he kept on until, on August 15th, he sighted and discovered the islands of Cubagua and Margarita, subsequently so famous for the pearls their seas afford. If some one could only have whispered to Columbus a hint of the riches those waters contained, he might have made that third voyage the most prosperous of all; but, though he saw Indians fishing for pearls, and obtained some of great size from them in exchange for shards of painted plates, he did not fully realize what he was leaving behind for others. He might have obtained, in a few weeks, pearls enough to satisfy even the greed and rapacity of King Ferdinand, and thus have purchased exemption from the persecutions that followed. But at that time the Admiral was suffering from gout and an affection of the eyes which nearly blinded him; his ships were leaky and his crews inclined to be mutinous; so he bore up across the Caribbean Sea for Hispaniola, and lost the one opportunity which fate threw in his way for the accumulation of treasure from the sea.

In the months following he sent home to Spain an account of his discoveries, with charts of his route and specimens of pearls, by which means, through the treachery of Fonseca and the baseness of his sovereigns, other adventurers quickly became informed of this vast treasure-trove beneath the sea. One of his former companions (none other than the brave and rash Ojeda, the same who had captured Caonabo), a favorite of Fonseca, was enabled to fit out an expedition which followed the route of Columbus in 1499. With him was another adventurer then unknown, but who subsequently achieved distinction by his narrative of the voyage, and through having his name bestowed upon the country discovered by Columbus—Americus Vespucius!

He and Ojeda sailed from Spain just a year after Columbus left on his third voyage; and though it has been denied by some geographers that our country was called after the Florentine, but derived its name from an aboriginal word, America-pan, applied to a settlement in Paria peninsula, yet it is certain that Vespucius (or Vespucci) was there within a year of his great rival's visit. Sailing beyond the Pearl Islands, after greatly enriching themselves, these purloiners from the fame and wealth of Columbus discovered Curacao, and gave the name to the north coast of South America which it still bears, of Venezuela, or Little Venice, from the dwellings of Indians found by them above the surface of Lake Maracaibo. Their voyage ended in June, 1500, when they returned to Cadiz, only a few months previous to the arrival in that same port of the Admiral himself, wearing the manacles placed upon his limbs by the usurper Bovadilla.

We have already narrated some of the circumstances by which the fetters were forged to which allusion is made in the preceding paragraph. When Columbus reached Hispaniola and landed at the port of Santo Domingo (which had been founded in 1496 by Don Bartholomew, acting under his orders), he was worn with watching, nearly blind, suffering from the gout, and exceedingly despondent. He was refreshed by the meeting with sturdy Don Bartholomew, and one of his first proceedings, after arrival, was to issue a proclamation confirming the title of adelantado, which he had bestowed upon his brother, and heartily approving his course with reference to the rebels. These were now in full possession of Xaragua, and were shortly reinforced by the very vagabonds and criminals brought over by Columbus as his crews. Thus quickly these foul birds revenged themselves upon the author of their banishment. They joined with Roldan and his ruffians, and between them they completed the ruin of the island, which the lust and cruelty of Spaniards had begun.

The condition of the Indians was heart-breaking; but Columbus, lost to a sense of their wrongs, in view of the appalling misery among the Spaniards themselves, still continued to urge their enslavement as the only hope of the colonists. In treating with the rebels, even after vainly endeavoring to subdue them by force, he consented to their taking with them to Spain a large number of Indians as servants and slaves, some of whom were sold in Seville. Queen Isabella is said to have been greatly incensed at this usurpation of her authority in the matter of allowing rebels against the government to return with human chattels, and gave orders that restitution should be made to the unfortunate natives; but these orders were not obeyed. It was the policy of the crafty Ferdinand to allow her to issue such orders as a sop to her conscience; but her "righteous indignation" rarely carried her to the excess of sacrificing any pecuniary interest of the crown. The King and the Admiral had a perfect understanding on this point, whatever may have been the disfavor in which the latter was held by the former



To the end of his career, Christopher Columbus continued his recommendations to the crown that the Indians be enslaved for the profit of the sovereigns and salvation of the colonies, and the vessels returning to Spain were nearly always full of miserable wretches who had been torn from their homes at his behest. They were generally stigmatized as "cannibals," "insurgents," or "rebels"; but sometimes Columbus made no pretence that they were sent to be sold into slavery for any other reason than the real one—namely, profit to himself and his sovereigns.

Finding Roldan too strongly intrenched in the mountains of Xaragua to be easily dislodged, he negotiated a peace with the rebel, by which, on the principle of "set a thief to catch a thief," he converted him into an ally, for the purpose of hunting down other malcontents less formidable than the exalcalde, who was now invested with his former dignities. It was Don Bartholomew's plan to hunt down the rebels and hang or shoot them wherever found; and, indeed, he was accused of taking with him on his forays both a hangman and a priest, for the saving of time and the benefit of their souls. But, though he did not sanction his brother's schemes, either as to the treatment of the Indians or the pacification of the rebels, he was too loyal to offer protest.

The defection of Roldan from his own party, caused some complications, some of them amusing, others tragical. Of the former kind was his expedition for the purpose of defeating the aims of Alonzo de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, who, after picking up pearls in the route indicated by Columbus, must needs sail over to his own island of Hispaniola for the capturing of slaves and cutting of dye-woods. As one now high in favor with the Admiral, Roldan was sent with a force to drive them away. They had landed in his favorite province of Xaragua, and he was highly indignant at their illegal acts—as became an upholder of the government, against which, not long before, he himself was in rebellion. He finally prevailed, somewhat by force, but mainly by argument, during which Ojeda let drop that the Admiral was in very bad odor at court, insomuch that his successor was already determined upon by the sovereigns, and perhaps it might not be well for Roldan to appear too zealous in his behalf!

This information, coming to him from Fonseca's favorite, and probably indicating the sentiment at court, caused the former rebel, Roldan, to reflect. He did not, however, relax his severity against those whom he hated, or who came between him and his lusts. Among the latter was a young man named Hernando de Guevara, who had been banished to Xaragua on account of some misdemeanor at the capital, and who, being a cousin of Adrian de Moxia, one of Roldan's old comrades, was very well received by the reformed rebel. When, however, Guevara saw and became enamoured of Anacaona's beautiful daughter, Higuenamota, and (though he came of a noble family) offered her honorable marriage, Roldan's friendship was suddenly turned to hate. He also had been smitten by the lovely maiden's charms, but was too base to conceive of legal alliance with an Indian, even though a princess, daughter of a queen. He immediately separated the lovers and banished young Guevara to another province; but the latter returned to the house of his intended bride and there concealed himself, with the object, it was alleged, of taking Roldan's life. This intention was not proved, but Guevara and seven of his companions, or accomplices, were arrested and confined in prison. When his cousin, Adrian de Moxia, heard of it, he organized a party of horsemen, fully armed, and set out to rescue his kinsman from the hands of his former leader in rebellion. And when Columbus heard that not only Roldan's life was threatened by them, but also his own, he gathered a little band of well-armed men and fell suddenly upon the conspirators, whom he captured and took to Fort Conception. Though he had been lenient with the archrebel, Roldan, he seemed to feel that in this instance mercy would be misplaced and misunderstood. He resolved to make an example of Moxia, and ordered him to be hanged from the battlement of the fortress.

It is not clear that Moxia was engaged in anything more culpable than an attempted rescue of a kinsman who had offended Roldan and Columbus by offering to marry an Indian maiden whom he loved. Yet for this "offence" he was condemned to death without trial, and his nephew sent to Santo Domingo, where he was only saved from being hanged by the arrival of one having authority to supersede Columbus in the government of the island. It is related by the great apologist of Columbus, Mr. Irving, that while in the midst of his confession to a priest, who had been called for the purpose, Moxia was swung off from the battlement by order of Columbus, who was filled with "mingled indignation and scorn" because he sought to protract the interview in the hope that a rescue might be attempted. The historian seeks to palliate the murder of this man by calling him a "dastard wretch," guilty of falsehood and treachery; but nothing is submitted in proof that he was worse than Roldan, or even Columbus himself, who, while he may not have meditated the murder of his superiors, yet had sanctioned the massacre of helpless natives, and condemned thousands to hopeless slavery. With the aid of Roldan, Columbus and the adelantado pursued the "conspirators" relentlessly, hanging some and sending others to jail, at one time having seventeen imprisoned in a common dungeon, whence they were to be taken only for execution.