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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

The Story of Columbus Pt 4: Settlement Failure- The 2nd Voyage (1494-1496)

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

Getting back and finding Chaos (Fall/Winter 1494-95)

Columbus arrived in terrible shape after his six month expedition along the southern Cuban coast. He had nearly died during his return journey. To make matters worse, while he was gone, Margarit had been out for most of the past six months with the 400 soldiers under his command stealing and abusing the Natives of the region. He turned Columbus' orders to explore the islands into a license for him and his men to go plundering for their own personal benefit. Columbus’ brother Diego and the others left in charge rebuked Margarit. They told him to follow the orders given by Columbus to treat the Natives fairly. Margarit did not take the rebuff well and joined with a group of other dissenters to form a mutiny. The mutineers commandeered three ships and headed back to Spain shortly before Columbus had gotten back. Columbus was left to pick up the pieces. He returned, not only in health so terrible he was barely functional, but also with the Natives and the Spaniards nearing revolt. The entire enterprise was on the verge of total collapse. That is, until Columbus' younger brother Bartholomew stepped in.

Shortly before Columbus got back in September, his younger brother Bartholomew arrived. Bartholomew was likely Columbus’ closest friend. He was a true believer in Columbus’ vision and had been out seeking funding from other kingdoms when Columbus set sail on his first voyage. Bartholomew had now caught up with Columbus on his second voyage. He found the chaos at the settlement when he arrived. After a happy but concerning reunion with his now famous but terribly ill older brother, he stepped in to help clean up the chaos that had broken out while Columbus had been away exploring souther Cuba. Bartholomew was essentially the de facto governor through the fall and winter of 1494-95 as Columbus slowly regained his health. He was given the governing title "El Adelantado". Unlike Columbus who was known for his kindness and patience, Bartholomew had the temperament of a stern school principle and began to enforce strict measures on both Spaniards and Natives to restore order. Neither side liked the imposition.

Complaints about the state of things on the island must have reached the king and queen that summer. In the fall of 1494 they sent a letter requesting Columbus return if possible to give an accounting of what was going on. However, with his poor health, chaos in the settlement and no gold to show for it all he declined the request feeling more pressure than ever to demonstrate to the king and queen that they had not wasted their money. The stress of producing a financial return for the king and queen became a major source of additional stress to Columbus.

Illness was another major problem for both the Spanish and the Natives, but the fate of the Natives was far worse. A pandemic had broken out among the Natives due to the new illnesses brought by the Europeans and they began dying in large numbers. In addition, with food supplies from Spain running low, the desperate Spaniards would pillage native villages for food. The situation in the settlement (in what today is the Northern region of the Dominican Republic) in the Fall and Winter of 1494-95 was awful. As Columbus slowly came back to health from the brink of death, chaos seemed to be the order of the day with things finally reaching a fever pitch in the Spring of 1495.

War and Slaves. (Spring 1495)

By February 1495, the pressure to produce a return had gotten to Columbus and so he devised a plan to send back captured Caribs and other Natives who had fought against the Spanish. He thought the king and queen would be pleased to see these people brought back to Spain and civilized though slavery. He naively imagined they would abandon their ways once in Spain as they were taught Christianity and be made free citizens through baptism and more importantly would save their souls from hell. He also decided to send back his brother Diego and a few others loyal to him who he believed could downplay the reports the king and queen were getting from dissenters who were coming back to Spain. He sent back almost 500 native prisoners of war as slaves and almost half died in transit (likely from illnesses to which they had no immunity). The king and queen were deeply troubled when they found out that so many Natives died in transit and didn’t want more slaves sent. (For more details on Columbus involvement in the enslavement of Natives click here). However, the number of Natives who were fighting back against the Spanish and thus subjecated by force was about to reach a high point.

By March many local chiefs had had enough with the Spanish running amok in their territory. Several Chiefs lead by Caonabo banded together in an alliance against the Spaniards. Ever since the Spanish arrived there was a faction of Natives who would kill Spaniards when they had the chance but now these groups ranks had swelled. The Spanish had become very unpopular among the Natives due to Margarit's crimes and abuses from roaming settlers. However, the feeling was not universal. Gaucanagri was probably more aware than any of the other native chiefs that the Spanish were vastly more powerful than the Natives in this emerging new world order and decided to ally himself with Columbus. He must have realized that by doing so he could also advance his own position over his native rivals and had trust in Columbus' good intentions due to his personal friendship. Gaucanagri was likely the only native chief who had significant personal association with Columbus at that time.

By the end of March, the alliance of native tribes against the Spanish had such sufficient numbers that they formed a huge band of warriors (perhaps thousands) intent on completely exterminating the Spaniards from the Islands as they had done with the 40 left behind on Columbus' first voyage. Columbus assembled a rag tag army to go out and meet them consisting his native allies and a couple hundred spaniards who were suffering from poor health and lack of food. Columbus knew the army he faced was headed by the chief who had killed the men on his first voyage, including his relatives. But the fact remained that they were significantly outnumbered. Columbus was not overly confident in their victory. Still, the Spaniards had been fighting Muslim armies for centuries and were skilled warriors with superior technology including primitive muskets.

They surprised the native band of warriors on the battle field by flanking them with horses and setting loose large war dogs after them. The Spanish horsemen in armor were nearly immune from the weak native wooden spears. This inability to harm the men on horseback and the sound and smell of muskets and the sight of terrible dogs and horses (animals they had never seen before) caused the Natives to panic and soon they broke ranks and began fleeing. As the large native band of warriors routed, many were killed and more captured. However, Caonabo, the leader of the native army, had escaped.

Columbus felt the victory over the larger force was a miracle and evidence that God was on his side. He soon got word that Caonabo had fled into the mountains and so he sent the young zealous officer, Alonso De Ojeda, (now 29) to take a small band of the best Spanish soldiers to find and capture Caonabo. Ojeda eventually found Caonabo and told the fugitive chief that he had come to negotiate a peace. He asked the chief to come with him back to Columbus to discuss the terms of peace. The Chief agreed but only if he could bring his guards. Ojeda consented. On their way back, Ojeda set a trap with his men. He convinced Caonabo to put on handcuffs by saying they were a fashion accessory of kings in Spain. They were fascinated by the metal cuffs Caonabo put on them. This was the signal. As soon as Ojeda secured the cuffs, the Spanish men fought off Caonabo’s guards and Ojeda threw Caonabo on the back of his horse. Ojeda quickly rode back to Columbus with the Chief as his prisoner.

Interestingly, though not outside of his character, Columbus did not have the chief executed even when Caonabo confessed to killing the men Columbus left behind at the end of his first voyage. Columbus decided that such an important Chief should be sent back to Spain and that his fate should be decided there by Spanish authorities. Columbus even described Caonabo as “...knowledgeable, sharp-witted and courageous” and in genuine fascination engaged the chief in multiple discussions surrounding the nature of native beliefs about the afterlife.

Peace and Subjugation. (Summer 1495)

The battle with the Natives broke any spirit of rebellion they had. It also solidified the Spanish as the new authority over the entire region. The tribes who rebelled were defeated in battle and the most rebellious were now prisoners to be sent back to Spain as slaves. It was clear all had to accept Spanish rule. With this new territory fully under control, Columbus decided to focus on making it profitable for the crown. So he instituted a typical feudal age taxation system in which a tribute was to be paid quarterly by the vassals of the crown or face punishment. Columbus thought gold was far more abundant than it actually was. Columbus did not realize that the gold worn by Natives were likely family heirlooms that took years or generations to acquire. This, combined with his own ignorance and false beliefs about abundant gold of Asia, made him think it reasonable to require Natives to produce about a tablespoon of gold dust every 3 months. It was a fatal miscalculation.

The Natives, under fear of penalty from their new rulers, began to dedicate themselves to finding gold. They did so in such fervor that they neglected important things like tending to crops. The Natives who were supposed to be new vassals brought into the Spanish feudal realm were essentially reduced to slavery that summer after being defeated in battle and now having such an extreme taxation burden on them. To make matters worse sickness from the Spaniards was spreading and decimating Native villages. The Natives were desperate. Many fled to the mountains, others tragically committed suicide.

Likely around the time the first tribute was due in late summer, Columbus realized that almost none of the Natives were able to actually produce the gold he required. Realizing his miscalculation but still overestimating the abundance of gold, he cut the total gold required as tribute in half and said if they could not make a tribute in gold, a large quantity of spun cotton would be a sufficient alternative tribute payment. While this was a more manageable (though still unfair) burden on the Natives, the damage was largely already done. With the spreading of disease and disarray caused by the tribute, the native harvest was very poor and by fall, a famine was added to the already desperate plight of the Natives. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Columbus Faces Failure (Fall 1495)

During summer and fall of 1495, Columbus was largely busy with his own issues while his terrible policies wreaked havoc in the background among the Natives. He originally intended to go back to Spain in the summer of 1495. But a hurricane struck and sunk many of the ships, leaving the remaining ships in need of repairs. Columbus also was becoming more and more worried about his reputation back in Spain. With so little gold delivered back the king and queen and so many dissenters having gone back, he worried his patrons were very close to withdrawing their support. His whole dream and vision would be done for. His fears were all but confirmed when an official of the crown named Juan Aguado arrived in fall of 1495 to conduct a formal investigation on how things were going in the settlement on behalf of the king and queen.

The timing could not have been worse. The famine that had struck the Natives had also caused the available food for the Spanish to run low as they relied on food from Natives as well. Hunger was a major problem and only caused further disapproval of the Columbus brothers. Aguado found plenty of people willing to complain about the Columbus brothers. Columbus knew he had to go back as soon as possible to try and salvage his patronage. Still, it was clear with so many Natives having abandoned the area, starvation breaking out, and very little gold being produced that the settlement of Isabella was failing. So before leaving, Columbus and his brother scouted out a new location on the southern end of the island which eventually was named Santo Domingo, a name retained to this day of the capital of the Dominican Republic. Bartholomew was tasked with establishing this new settlement while Columbus was away. With Isabella abandoned, Santo Domingo became the new center of Spanish settlement on the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) after Columbus departed in March of 1496.

A Miserable Return Voyage. (Spring 1496)

Due to the lack of resources and the need for significant repairs to the ships Columbus was not able to head back to Spain until Spring of 1496. By the time Columbus had left, the first settlement at Isabella was being abandoned, starvation was a major problem and very little gold had been acquired. As a result, the ships were packed with Spaniards wanting to go home. Also onboard were 30 Natives including Caonabo who Columbus had developed an interesting level of respect for.

The trip back was slow and difficult. Near the end, starvation had broken out. Columbus son explained what happened.

“They were so near starvation that some of them wished to imitate the Caribs and eat the Indians they had aboard. Others, in order to economize the little food they had, were in favour of throwing the Indians overboard, which they would have done if the Admiral (Columbus) had not taken strict measures to prevent them. For he considered them as their kindred and fellow-Christians and held that they should be no worse treated than anyone else.”

Finally, just as supplies had all but ran out, the three ships spotted land. They had made it home.


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