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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

The Story of Columbus Pt 5: Rebellion and Humiliation- The 3rd Voyage (1498-1500)

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

Stuck in Spain (March 1496-May 1498)

Columbus arrived in Spain in March 1496. He was happy to find the King and Queen still had faith in him and didn’t necessarily believe the negative reports. However, Columbus was having a very hard time getting an audience with the King and Queen to discuss his return to the islands. The novelty of the whole discovery and voyage had waned in the public consciousness. Rumors were out that the whole endeavor was over-hyped. Still, the Spanish monarchs felt pressure to take advantage of the new discoveries. Other nations, such as Portugal and England, were aggressively looking into making their own claims in the new world. In particular, Portugal and Spain were working with the pope to come up with a line of demarcation that would decide what discovered territories would belong to Portugal and what would belong to Spain.

So after over a year of delays, the King and Queen decided to authorize a third voyage in which Columbus would explore further south to see what new lands Spain could claim. He then would continue the development of the colony. However, his assignment this time was not the mere establishment of a simple trading post, but a long-term colony. In this new colony, Spaniards would be given territory from the government and act as local lords appointed by the crown to manage the feudal economy and vassals in those territories. This was known as the encomienda system, a system the Spanish had been using previously in their conquests of Muslim territories. However, even with these orders and the plans set for the journey, delays continued to plague the kickoff of this third voyage. With the King and Queen occupied with other matters of state, the funding was delayed. Between his return from the second voyage until his departure on the third, Columbus was stuck in Spain for two full years. He could only imagine what was happening with his younger brother Bartholomew back at the new settlement of Santo Domingo.

The Discovery of South America (Summer 1498)

Columbus departed Spain on his third voyage in May 1498. Soon after leaving, he split his fleet in two. One group was to go directly to the Spanish colony in Haiti, while he took his ships to cross the Atlantic further south into unexplored seas. He hoped that by sailing farther south he could find the elusive Asian mainland. This route and the discoveries made would help the King and Queen better know where they should try and draw the line of demarcation when splitting up these new regions between Spain and Portugal.

Unfortunately, Columbus learned about a problem sailors experience when sailing close to the equator - the doldrums.

For eight days, his ships are stuck in the windless seas and the unrelenting sun. They suffer immensely in the heat. We can only imagine the shouts of excitement as a cool breeze finally came up and the sound of the blue water rushing under their bows again filled their ears. As they pushed farther into unexplored seas Columbus was excited when he heard calls of land ahead. The Island of Trinidad lay in the horizon. The third crossing had been successful and once again Columbus was pressing into lands never before seen by anyone in the old world.

The Exotic Coast of Trinidad

Trinidad sits just off the coast of Venezuela at the northeast end of the South American continent. Columbus had no idea he had just discovered the South American mainland, he thought it was another large island. While exploring the large Gulf of Paria on the North East coast of modern Venezuela, they found natives. To his relief, they were not only friendly but seemed to have an abundance of pearls that Columbus believed could be used in the future to produce a return on his voyages for the King and Queen. Problematically, however, Columbus’ native godson found he could not speak the language of the natives in that area. As was his custom in a new area where they did not speak the language, Columbus took some natives by force to act as interpreters, guides, and diplomats. He brought them aboard and treated them well, giving them gifts and promising to return them unharmed if they cooperated.

In the coming weeks, while pushing on along what is now the North East coast of Venezuela, Columbus noticed massive rivers coming out to the ocean. He realized that such massive rivers could not come from an island. It dawned on him that he had found a continent, an entirely new world. However, he still thought he was very close to China. Trying to make sense of this unexpected find, he postulated that this new continent was to the south and east of Asia (where today we might think New Zealand or the Philippines are located). Due to his biblical understanding of world geography, he began to think he had arrived at the mythical “terrestrial paradise” where the Garden of Eden was located. He marveled at the implications of his discovery. He wanted to explore more but knew that he had to get back to his brother at the colony with the supplies before they went bad. So Columbus turned northeast into the open sea.

Through another incredible act of navigational skill in uncharted waters, Columbus made an almost perfectly direct course to Hispaniola (Modern Haiti/ Dominican Republic) near the new Settlement of Santo Domingo. There he was reunited with his brother Bartholomew who he had not seen in over two years. They had much to discuss.

Returning to Roldan's Rebellion (Fall 1498 to Summer 1499)

During the two years Columbus had been away, a prominent settler named Fransisco. Roldán fomented a full-scale rebellion against Columbus's brother Bartholomew and the others who were loyal to Columbus. He and his band of rebels rejected the authority of the Genoese Columbus brothers and said they were only loyal to the Spanish crown. To complicate matters, the ships that Columbus had sent directly to the island had gotten lost. They arrived on the island about the same time as Columbus, even though Columbus had gone all the way to the South American mainland near what is Venezuela today. When the ships arrived, they made landfall on the northern part of the island. Unfortunately for Columbus, this was the stronghold of Roldán and his rebels. These rebels were able to convince most of the crew on the ships to turn on the Columbus Brothers by promising them women, gold, and freedom from what they considered the oppressive rule of the Columbus Brothers who demanded chastity, obedience, and fair treatment of natives.

Columbus arrived to find an extremely bad situation. This was not a small rebellion. He had legitimate concern about whether or not he was going to be able to hold onto control of the colony as the number of people loyal to him dwindled. Columbus worked for months to try and regain control. His strategy to regain control was simply to rid himself of the unruly rebels by granting them passage to Spain without any charges against them. They also would be allowed to take along any possessions they had acquired including gold and slaves. Emboldened by his appeasement, they pushed the bargain even further. They demanded, not only to go home with all their possessions but also to receive letters of good conduct so that no accusations could ever be made against them in the future. Knowing he likely did not have enough loyalty to him to force a better deal, by late fall, Columbus relented and agreed to Roldan's demands. They began to make preparations for getting the rebels back to Spain.

In addition to negotiating with the rebels, Columbus began to implement the permanent settlement plans the King and Queen had ordered. This encomienda system was not out of the ordinary in the feudal world and had been the standard policy of Spain during its conquest of Muslim territories in the preceding century. The system granted Spanish aristocrats a particular area of land over which they would serve as an under-lords of the monarchs. They would be tasked with managing the vassals and economic output of that region and pay tribute to the crown. Much like other feudal systems, the people who lived on the land were the subjects of the crown. These subjects would be expected to pay tribute to their local overlord who was to provide protection and administer justice. As was customary in feudal systems involving conquered territories, existing local chiefs or leaders would often be recruited to assist the local magistrates and thus retain some level of power and prestige in the new system.

Sadly, this system, regardless of how the monarchs thought it would work, essentially turned the native people on the island into slaves for Spanish exploitation. The natives continued to suffer both from illness and oppression. Meanwhile, Columbus was focused on trying to rid himself of rebels and retain control over the enterprise.

By spring of 1499 and after various delays, the time for the rebels to leave had arrived. The rebels likely sensed that Columbus did not have the ability or will to push back against their demands so they refused to leave. The rebels made excuses by saying that the boats were not seaworthy. They also began to make additional demands and get local tribes to join them by making them false promises of freedom if they joined with Roldán.

By the time the hot rainy summer hit Columbus felt like he was on the verge of losing control. In order to retain it, he was forced to grant essentially everything Roldán wanted. He allowed the rebel leaders to retain their land, slaves, and pay and gave them letters of good conduct to take back to Spain. However, most humiliatingly of all Columbus consented to give Roldán the ability to punish Columbus physically if he broke any of his promises. Roldán essentially became equal to Columbus and thus peace was achieved. Still, many rebels are no longer interested in remaining on the island, and that fall many of the rebels leave the island and take with them 600 of their slaves.

Ojeda's Betrayal (Fall 1499- Summer 1500)

Just as Columbus was finally able to enjoy some level of peace, the young ambitious lieutenant Alonso de Ojeda from his last voyage showed up leading a small group of ships from Spain. He explained that he had too had been down along the South American mainland. It was apparent that he had found out about Columbus's route from the previous year and had convinced the King and Queen to let him conduct an expedition. Columbus felt betrayed. In his written agreement with the King and Queen, only Columbus was supposed to be allowed to authorize voyages of exploration. Columbus now faced the prospect of other people reaching Asia and the Great Khan first and interfering with his plans and vision. Ojeda was bothered by Columbus's reaction but was also convinced that Columbus wouldn't be a leader for very long in the colony. Due to his belief that the Queen was close to dying, Ojeda believed that without her to back him he wouldn't remain governor for long. Ojeda began stirring another rebellion and positioning himself to be the one to take over if Columbus was removed.

Ojeda found followers among many of Roldáns former supporters. Apparently, many of the rebels were upset that Roldán had made peace with the Columbus Brothers and saw Ojeda as the likely person to take over at some point. Ojeda also realized that Roldán was likely going to be standing in his way if he ever wanted to assume total control over the Island. Ojeda finally attempted to kill Roldán but was unsuccessful. Columbus and Roldán decided to set aside their differences and go after Ojeda. By late winter, Ojeda was forced to flee along with many rebels.

With relative stability existing during the spring and summer of 1500, the encomienda system continued to be implemented and gold operations actually started to turn a profit. But it was too late. With the return of so many former rebels to Spain badmouthing the Columbus Brothers, the King and Queen decided to take action.

Bobadilla and Arrest (Fall 1500)

Francisco De Bobadilla

By the late Summer of 1500, the King and Queen decided to send an emissary named Francisco De Bobadilla, with substantial power and authority to investigate and potentially take over the running of the colony. It seemed The King and Queen naively gave Bobadilla the power to take over for Columbus if he felt things were being mismanaged without considering that Bobadilla might take full advantage of this authority for his personal gain.

When Bobadilla arrived in the colony he found two Spaniards on the gallows who had been hung for misdeeds against the natives. Outraged that Spaniards were being punished by a Genoese for alleged crimes against natives, he knew that he had his excuse to take over power from Columbus. He found a willing cadre of disgruntled settlers willing to blame all their troubles on Columbus. They made up all sorts of lies and exaggerations in order to rid themselves of The Columbus Brothers’ strict measures for keeping the Spanish under control. Bobadilla had the testimonies against Columbus written down, knowing this would give him justification in the eyes of the King and Queen to take over the colony from Columbus.

Bobadilla had Columbus put in chains and shipped back to Spain. Upon taking over, he told the colonists to do whatever they wanted and get whatever they could out of the island and the natives because he didn’t think that the colony was going to have the queen's support for much longer.

Columbus is utterly humiliated. The injustice of Bobadilla was clear to many including the captain assigned to take Columbus back to Spain. As soon as they left port he offered to let Columbus take off his chains and come out from below decks for the remaining voyage home but Columbus refused. Columbus wanted to make a point that he would do whatever the king and queen wanted. Ultimately, his arrest was done under their authority. He rode back to Spain in chains that he kept in his home for the rest of his life as a memento of how unfairly he was treated on this voyage.


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