The Fourth Voyage of Christopher Columbus

The Famous Explorer's Final Voyage to the New World

Christopher Columbus
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On May 11, 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on his fourth and final voyage to the New World with a fleet of four ships. His mission was to explore uncharted areas to the west of the Caribbean in hopes of finding a passage to the Orient. While Columbus did explore parts of southern Central America, his ships disintegrated during the voyage, leaving Columbus and his men stranded for nearly a year.

Before the Journey

Much had happened since Columbus’ daring 1492 voyage of discovery. After that historic trip, Columbus was sent back to the New World to establish a colony. While a gifted sailor, Columbus was a terrible administrator, and the colony he founded on Hispaniola turned against him. After his third trip, ​Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. Although he was quickly freed by the king and queen, his reputation was in shambles.

At 51, Columbus was increasingly being viewed as an eccentric by the members of the royal court, perhaps due to his belief that when Spain united the world under Christianity (which they would quickly accomplish with gold and wealth from the New World) that the world would end. He also tended to dress like a simple barefoot friar, rather than the wealthy man he had become.

Even so, the crown agreed to finance one last voyage of discovery. With royal backing, Columbus soon found four seaworthy vessels: the Capitana, Gallega, Vizcaína, and Santiago de Palos. His brothers, Diego and Bartholomew, and his son Fernando signed on as crew, as did some veterans of his earlier voyages.

Hispaniola & the Hurricane

Columbus was not welcome when he returned to the island of Hispaniola. Too many settlers remembered his cruel and ineffective administration. Nevertheless, after first visiting Martinique and Puerto Rico, he made Hispaniola his destination because had hopes of being able to swap the Santiago de Palos for a quicker ship while there. As he awaited an answer, Columbus realized a storm was approaching and sent word to the current governor, Nicolás de Ovando, that he should consider delaying the fleet that was set to depart for Spain.

Governor Ovando, resenting the interference, forced Columbus to anchor his ships in a nearby estuary. Ignoring the explorer's advice, he sent the fleet of 28 ships to Spain. A tremendous hurricane sank 24 of them: three returned and only one (Ironically, the one containing Columbus’ personal effects that he'd wished to send to Spain) arrived safely. Columbus’ own ships, all badly battered, nevertheless remained afloat.

Across the Caribbean

After the hurricane passed, Columbus’ small fleet set out in search of a passage west, however, the storms did not abate and the journey became a living hell. The ships, already damaged by the forces of the hurricane, suffered substantially more abuse. Eventually, Columbus and his ships reached Central America, anchoring off the coast of Honduras on an island that many believe to be Guanaja, where they made what repairs they could and took on supplies.

Native Encounters

While exploring Central America, Columbus had an encounter many consider to be the first with one of the major inland civilizations. Columbus’ fleet came in contact with a trading vessel, a very long, wide canoe full of goods and traders believed to be Mayan from the Yucatan. The traders carried copper tools and weapons, swords made of wood and flint, textiles, and a beerlike beverage made from fermented corn. Columbus, oddly enough, decided not to investigate the interesting trading civilization, and instead of turning north when he reached Central America, he went south.

Central America to Jamaica

Columbus continued exploring to the south along the coasts of present-day Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. While there, Columbus and his crew traded for food and gold whenever possible. They encountered several native cultures and observed stone structures as well as maize being cultivated on terraces.

By early 1503, the structure of the ships began to fail. In addition to the storm damage the vessels had endured, it was discovered they were also infested with termites. Columbus reluctantly set sail for Santo Domingo looking for aid—but the ships only made it as far as Santa Gloria (St. Ann’s Bay), Jamaica before they were incapacitated.

A Year on Jamaica

Columbus and his men did what they could, breaking the ships apart to make shelters and fortifications. They formed a relationship with the local natives who brought them food. Columbus was able to get word to Ovando of his predicament, but Ovando had neither the resources nor the inclination to help. Columbus and his men languished on Jamaica for a year, surviving storms, mutinies, and an uneasy peace with the natives. (With the help of one of his books, Columbus was able to impress the natives by correctly predicting an eclipse.)

In June 1504, two ships finally arrived to retrieve Columbus and his crew. Columbus returned to Spain only to learn that his beloved Queen Isabella was dying. Without her support, he would never again return to the New World.

Importance of the Fourth Voyage

Columbus’ final voyage is remarkable primarily for new exploration, mostly along the coast of Central America. It's also of interest to historians, who value the descriptions of the native cultures encountered by Columbus’ small fleet, particularly those sections concerning the Mayan traders. Some of the fourth voyage crew would go on to greater things: Cabin boy Antonio de Alaminos eventually piloted and explored much of the western Caribbean. Columbus’ son Fernando wrote a biography of his famous father.

Still, for the most part, the fourth voyage was a failure by almost any standard. Many of Columbus’ men died, his ships were lost, and no passage to the west was ever found. Columbus never sailed again and when he died in 1506, he was convinced that he'd found Asia—even if most of Europe already accepted the fact that the Americas were an unknown “New World." That said, the fourth voyage showcased more profoundly than any other Columbus’ sailing skills, his fortitude, and his resilience—the very attributes that allowed him to journey to the Americas in the first place.

Source:

  • Thomas, Hugh. "Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan." Random House. New York. 2005.