The Story of Columbus Pt 6: The Great Seafaring Adventure- The 4rd Voyage (1502-1504)
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
Free Again and a New Mission (winter 1501 - Spring 1502)
Columbus arrived in Spain in chains like a common criminal at the end of his 3rd voyage. People were shocked to see Columbus brought so low. Less than a decade earlier, he was paraded around Spain as a hero of exploration. Luckily, as soon as he got his chance to speak to the King and Queen they realized that a major mistake had been made. They believed Columbus when he explained what had really happened during his 3rd voyage. He was immediately set free and promised restoration. However, the King and Queen likely were still very concerned about how poorly things went with him running the colony. It seems as though they decided to remove him from political affairs and focus him on what he was best at - exploration. So a new governor named Nicolas De Ovando was commissioned to replace Bobadilla in the colony. Ovando was to focus on the colonization efforts, while Columbus was to focus on additional exploration.
Columbus was glad to be free of his chains but was concerned about the crown giving him back all his authority and privileges. It seems clear that Ferdinand and Isabella we’re in a bit of a predicament. They likely originally thought that Columbus might find some small islands (like the Canaries) and set up a trading post with Asia. In return, he would be entitled to some portion of the proceeds. However, the crown was now realizing they had stumbled onto an entirely new continent. The potential was massive and giving such a significant share of this resources to Columbus likely did not seem reasonable to Ferdinand as it would have turned him and his heirs into significant geopolitical players. So while, they did restore many of Columbus’ privileges, full restoration was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, perhaps to placate Columbus, they decided to send him out on another voyage. On one hand, this would restore Columbus sense of dignity and honor, but more importantly it would help the King and Queen explore even farther to the west. The hope was that he would find the Asian mainland and perhaps go even father and become the first man to circumnavigate the globe!
Columbus jumped at this renewed chance to bring about his vision and restore his honor. With renewed eagerness, Columbus began hand selecting a crew for a fourth Voyage. He even included his son Ferdinand who had just turned 12 and was finally old enough to go with his father. Columbus felt rejuvenated at this chance to get back out to sea doing what he loved most with his brother, son and many trusted associates. It proved to be the biggest nautical adventure of all his voyages.
Return and karma via hurricane (Spring and Summer 1502)
With four ships and 140 men Columbus set sail in May 1502. His goal was to go as far west as possible to find China and, if he felt it was possible, to make an attempt at circumnavigation. With his usual ease, he made another smooth crossing but arrived in the Caribbean during hurricane season. Columbus had an uncanny acuity for predicting the weather based on ocean conditions. When he arrived in the Caribbean he could sense that something was not right. Columbus felt that a big storm was coming. He had been ordered to stay away from the colony on Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic) due to his many enemies there but the threat from the weather, problems with one of his ships and his need to send back letters to Spain caused him to head for the colony’s port at Santo Domingo.
When Columbus arrived the newly appointed governor Ovando refused to allow Columbus to stay in the port. Governor Ovando likely felt Columbus was a threat to his power. Columbus also found out that Ovando was sending back 20 ships to Spain. Onboard were Columbus’ former enemies Roldán and Bobadilla. Columbus warned them all about the coming storm and told them not to leave. Arrogantly, they laughed him off and mocked him as a crazy old mystic and set sail.
Columbus knew he couldn’t delay any longer and began looking for a protected bay. Upon finding one, he order his ships to drop every anchor they could and to hold on for the storm. Meanwhile, the 20 ships who just days earlier had mocked Columbus’ warnings became concerned as dark clouds grew on the horizon.
Concern turned to terror as the storm hit. But it was too late, all 20 ships were torn apart by the hurricane’s wind and waves and all aboard drowned. This massive loss of life, ships and gold is, to this day, one of Spain’s largest maritime disasters.
Columbus ships in the protected bay were barely holding on as the wind pounded the ships. The anchors were being pushed to their limits under the pressure. Eventually all but 1 were torn from their anchorages and pushed out to sea during the night. One can only imagine the horror of trying to keep the ships afloat that night. Columbus thought all the ships but his own were lost when morning came and the storm calmed. However, to his amazement and delight he saw a set of sails on the horizon, and then another.
The other two ships who were swept out to sea that night (including the ship holding his brother) survived the storm. Miraculously, none of the ships had been lost.
Westward and around the world? (Summer and Fall 1502)
After some much needed rest and repair in the beautiful tropical calm following the storm, Columbus small fleet set out to sea once more heading west. As they pressed on into unexplored waters they eventually reached the Central American mainland on the North East coast of modern Honduras. Soon, they saw natives that seemed more advanced. Columbus was excited by this as he felt more advanced civilization, meant he was closer to Asia and his goal. However, what he did not realize was that he and his crew had stumbled upon some of the last remnants of the Mayan culture. They had a mixture of hostile and friendly interactions with various native groups as they continued to move south along the Central American coast.
Unfortunately, it was late summer which is the rainy season in the Caribbean, so the ships were constantly battling terrible weather, storms and miserable conditions. Weeks and weeks of miserable conditions persisted as they pressed farther and father southwest along the Central American coast looking for signs of Chinese civilization or a passage that would allow them to sail around Asia and back to Spain. During this time Columbus and his fleet arrived in a bay and find peaceful natives. However, Columbus was shocked when the natives offered him and his men 2 young girls (8 and 14 years old) as a sexual gift. Not wanting to upset the natives, Columbus took the girls on board, clothed them, gave them gifts and fed them and promptly returned them back to the natives who were pleased and surprised at this act of gentleness.
Up a creek in Panama (Winter and spring 1503)
As Columbus and his crew pressed further south they arrived in the regions of modern day Panama and began to find more gold. Weather was still a problem and the ships were beginning to take a beating and have significant issues with leakage. Columbus began to realize he was running out of time. So upon losing hope in the prospects of going farther west and finding an area they called Veragua with a particularly promising outlook for gold, Columbus decided to set up a gold mining outpost and return to Spain.
Unable to find a protected bay, Columbus found a large river mouth and sailed into its narrow entrance to a suitable protected anchorage on the river. However, after getting into the river mouth, he realized that they had sailed in on a day when the rains had created a deep channel because the next day they found that the ships were trapped inside.
The water level had dropped so that the exit was too shallow for the ships. While certainly concerned, Columbus and his men knew that eventually with a good rain storm they would be able to get the boats out. In the meantime they went about creating a permanent settlement they called Belen that would act as their base of operations for collecting gold from that region.
The local natives were initially friendly toward Columbus crew. But this changed when they realized that the Spaniards were not just temporary visitors but intent on setting up a permanent settlement on their land. The natives began to plot an attack to drive out the Spaniards. Columbus and his men got word of the plot. In response, they devised a plan to capture the chief and his family and hold them hostage to deter the attack and negotiate. Columbus men trick the chief into believing they were coming with some medicine to help treat an arrow wound that he was still suffering from. Once inside they pulled their weapons and took the chief and his household hostage. However, while en route back to the ships the cunning chief was able to convince one of the guards to loosen up his restraints and he was able to escape. Immediately, he gathered his warriors and attacked. Still, Columbus and his men were prepared and they fought off the attackers.
Feeling the natives had been beaten back and would not be much more trouble, Columbus made preparation to take two of his remaining three ships back to Spain. The plan was to leave his brother Bartholomew and one ship behind at the new settlement. To Columbus delight it began to rain heavily about this time and the channel cleared enough for them to get the three ships out. They sailed out and dropped anchor while final preparations were made. On one of these ships were the remaining members of the kings household who were still being held as a bargaining chip if the king decided to attack again. One night they attempted an escape. Some did escape but tragically those who did not were found the next morning dead. They had committed suicide by hanging themselves using ropes that were below decks.
So with 3 ships at anchor and one remaining in the river mouth, the natives again attacked. This time they caught the Spaniards unprepared. They killed several who were in a lifeboat on the river. The Spaniards suddenly realized they were not going to be able to fend off the Natives. They tried desperately to get the 4th ship out to the others but could not due to the lower water level in the river. They decided to abandon the ship and the settlement and narrowly escaped to the remaining 3 ships at anchor with the angry natives clamoring on the shore as they made their retreat.
Columbus and his men wanted to get back to Spain but the ships were leaking very badly. A particular type of tropical worm infestation was eating holes in the wood of the ships. In addition, the man with the skill set for fixing and patching holes in the ships had been killed in the attack by the natives. The holes on one of the ships was so bad that shortly after escaping the river mouth they had to abandon it. They were down to only 2 crowded ships left and even those were in bad shape. Columbus knew that getting back to Spain with his ships leaking so badly was not going to be possible. He decided to try and go almost 1000 miles back to the colony on Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic) in order to either fix the ships he had or get new ones, but they could not even make it there. Instead, in desperation, Columbus was forced to run the ships aground on the island of Jamaica in order to keep them from sinking. Columbus and his crew of 116 were marooned.
Marooned in Jamaica (summer 1503 - summer 1504)
Columbus and his ships ran aground at Saint Ann’s Bay on Northern Jamaica. Their first order of business was to make the grounded ships into makeshift forts and shelter. Columbus was worried about keeping order in such a desperate situation and worried about the 116 men going out and causing problems with the natives. This time they would not be able to escape by sea if the natives overwhelmed them. Thus, Columbus gave strict orders to keep his men on the grounded ships as much as possible, which they fiercely resented.
Columbus knew they had to try and get someone to the Spanish colony. The problem was that the nearest Spaniards were on the island of Hispaniola which was 125 miles across the ocean from Jamaica and even after landing it would be almost another 300 miles to the town of Santo Domingo. Columbus was able to barter with the friendly local natives for a native canoe. But he needed to find someone he could trust to make an attempt at getting help. Luckily, Columbus had developed a friendship and trust in a crew-mate named Diego Mendez. He had proven himself loyal and brave on multiple occasions during the voyage, especially during the attacks they had recently fled. Columbus tasked him to take a companion and some natives in the canoe to make the dangerous attempt at crossing 125 miles of open ocean to get to the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti/Dominican Republic) and then to make the long jungle infested overland crossing to Santo Domingo in order to get help.
Diego accepted the challenge and soon after bid farewell as his small crew set off in their canoe. As the canoe disappeared over the horizon Columbus and the marooned crew prayed for his success. Their lives were in his hands.
Meanwhile as Columbus and his men waited and waited over months, some began to lose faith that any rescue is coming. A group of mutineers felt Columbus was not doing enough to get them off the Island. They rebelled against Columbus and stole native canoes. They were not going to wait any longer but were going to take it upon themselves to get off the island. However these men were poor seamen and ultimately failed to make the crossing after multiple attempts. Realizing they were not going to be able to make it themselves they went back to Columbus and asked for forgiveness which Columbus granted.
Eventually, after many months, they were running low on food. Without much left to trade with the natives Columbus was desperate. He did not want to see his son, brother and men starve to death so he devised a plan to get the natives to bring them more food. Columbus had a book that charted astronomic patterns so he knew the exact day that an eclipse was coming. Columbus called all the natives together to tell them that the Gods were not pleased. He told them that unless they brought food on a regular basis to their Spanish visitors the Gods would be angry and as a sign of their anger the moon would go dark. Many natives laughed but then at nearly that very moment the moon began to change colors and turn black.
The natives panicked and begged Columbus for forgiveness. He said that he would restore the moon if they would promise to bring regular offerings of food. The natives agreed and as the eclipse ended and the moonlight returned the natives gave thanks. From then forward Columbus and his crew had no problem getting food from the natives.
After almost a year of waiting hope was beginning to be lost. Then without warning sails appeared on the horizon. They all rejoiced thinking that Diego had been successful, but they were to be sorely disappointed. It was actually someone sent by Governor Ovando. Ovando had got word of Columbus plight and sent a ship to merely check on Columbus condition, not to rescue them. Ovando wanted Columbus to die as this would solidify his title as Governor for any challenge by Columbus. One can only imagine how terrible it was for Columbus and his men when the ship did not rescue them but instead merely expressed sympathy and said they did not have room for them. Almost as an insult, they gave them a single cask of wine and then sailed on. While Columbus pretended otherwise it was now clear that Columbus and his men were not going to be getting any help from Ovando. Columbus and his men were quickly becoming disillusioned that rescue would ever come.
Rescue and return (Fall 1504)
What Columbus did not realize was what had happened to Diego Mendez. Remarkably, Mendez had successfully made the 125 mile open ocean crossing in the canoe and landed on the South west end of Hispaniola (in modern Haiti). Soon after landing he got word from natives of Spaniards nearby. He must have been overjoyed to find fellow Spaniards and they took him to Governor Ovando. After hearing his story Ovando detained Mendez for seven months. This likely was based on the hope was that this would be enough time for Columbus and his men to starve to death on Jamaica and thus remove any threat of Columbus taking over as governor. Still, in even after being detained, Mendez did not give up. Once he was able to find some ships that were not directly under the control of Ovando, he was able to charter two of them with one taking him back to Spain while the other was sent to rescue Columbus and his men.
However, things back on Jamaica were looking bleak after they realized that Ovando was not going to help them. A new group of men under the Porras brothers decided to lead a mutiny against Columbus and his brother because they felt they were not doing enough to help them escape from the island. After a full-blown bloody fight in which several people are killed the rebels surrender. Columbus, knowing the desperation of these men, pardons all of them except for the ring leaders. Peace was restored and soon after the sails of the ship send by Diego Mendez appear over the horizon. They finally were rescued after almost exactly one year stuck on the Island.
After being rescued from Jamaica, Columbus and his men stop in the colony at Santo Domingo (modern Dominican Republic). Governor Ovando pretends to be happy to see Columbus, but in an act of spite, uses his authority to forgive the ring leaders of the mutiny. Still, grateful to be alive Columbus and most of his crew decide that they want to head back to Spain as soon as possible. Columbus especially wants to get back to report to the King and Queen about his new discoveries along the east coast of Central America.
Failing health and last days (1505 - May 1506)
When Columbus returned back to Spain after his fourth voyage, a hard life at sea was beginning to finally catch up to him and take a toll on his health. He was old and beaten up and to make matters worse the queen was on her deathbed. Once the queen passed away Columbus realized that the person who facilitated his work and vision was gone and so too was any chance at future exploration.
Realizing that he didn’t really have a chance at more exploration, Columbus turned his attention to trying to at least salvage the money and titles offered to his family and his men. The last years of his life had him writing frequent letters to the King and others asking for his men to be paid properly according to the agreements he originally made with the crown. Several of the men from his last voyage were penniless and living on his charity. Columbus was by no means poor, but he certainly was not getting what had been promised to him. As his health began to finally fail he began to focus his efforts on ensuring that his sons would be taken care of. Luckily, his son Diego had found a high position in the royal court and he eventually used that in later life to become the governor of Hispaniola.
Columbus passed away on May 20th 1506. His final words were the same as those of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit”.