The Last Voyage of Columbus

Being the Epic Tale of the Great Captain's Fourth Expedition, Including Accounts of Swordfight, Mutiny, Shipwreck, Gold, War, Hurricane, and Discovery


By Martin Dugard

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The Year is 1500. Christopher Columbus, stripped of his title Admiral of the Ocean Seas, waits in chains in a Caribbean prison built under his orders, looking out at the colony that he founded, nurtured, and ruled for eight years. Less than a decade after discovering the New World, he has fallen into disgrace, accused by the royal court of being a liar, a secret Jew, and a foreigner who sought to steal the riches of the New World for himself.

The tall, freckled explorer with the aquiline nose, whose flaming red hair long ago turned gray, passes his days in prayer and rumination, trying to ignore the waterfront gallows that are all too visible from his cell. And he plots for one great escape, one last voyage to the ends of the earth, one final chance to prove himself. What follows is one of history’s most epic — and forgotten — adventures. Columbus himself would later claim that his fourth voyage was his greatest. It was without doubt his most treacherous. Of the four ships he led into the unknown, none returned. Columbus would face the worst storms a European explorer had ever encountered. He would battle to survive amid mutiny, war, and a shipwreck that left him stranded on a desert isle for almost a year.

On his tail were his enemies, sent from Europe to track him down. In front of him: the unknown. Martin Dugard’s thrilling account of this final voyage brings Columbus to life as never before-adventurer, businessman, father, lover, tyrant, and hero.



Into Africa

Farther Than Any Man


Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth

For Callie, again



October 1500

Santo Domingo

The sun was rising over Santo Domingo, the city named for his father, as Christopher Columbus woke to yet another morning in prison. It was eight years, almost to the hour, since he had discovered the New World. Armed guards stood outside the thick wooden door. His ankles and wrists had long ago been rubbed raw by iron shackles. Even lying flat on his back, he could feel their heaviness against his flesh and anticipate the manacles' noisy clank as he threw his feet over the edge of the bed.

Columbus was alone in the bare cell. A verdant morning breeze wafted in through the window, on its way from the green mountains of Hispaniola out to the Caribbean's turquoise waters. The fragile gust was yet another reminder that the freedom of wind and open sea—the freedom that had defined his life—beckoned less than a half mile away.

He was forty-nine in an era when most men died before thirty; widowed, crow's feet darting across his temples, the father of one son by marriage and another out of passion. His red hair had gone gray years before. The long freckled face with the aquiline nose, so ruddy at sea, had assumed an alabaster pallor during his confinement. Ailments common to lifelong sailors slowed his movements, blurred his sight, ruined his kidneys: rheumatism from the damp and chill, ophthalmia (inflammation of the eyes) from gazing too long at the sun, hereditary gout made worse by a shipboard diet heavy on wine, garlic, cheese, salted beef, and pickled sardines.

At almost six feet tall, Columbus would always be something of a giant, standing half a head taller than most of his crew. It was the explorer's public stature that had been diminished. Though too proud to admit it (even to himself), Columbus was a far cry from the rascal who had once enchanted a queen and even farther from the swashbuckling hero whose exploits galvanized Europe into seeing the world from an astonishing new perspective. Like a great performer lingering too long on stage, Columbus was beginning to make all who watched him uncomfortable —not that he had much of an audience beyond those four dirty walls.

"The Admiral of the Ocean Sea," as Columbus was formally titled, had not yet been sentenced. Given the impulsive nature of Santo Domingo's judiciary system, it was anyone's guess what might happen next. He had already been deposed as governor and viceroy of Hispaniola, an island he had discovered in 1492 and on whose southern shores Santo Domingo was located. At the very least, the stripping of his other New World titles and claims would also come to pass. At the very worst, he would be hanged. Santo Domingo had two very prominent gallows situated along the muddy banks of the Ozama River. They had been built, ironically enough, on Columbus's orders.

The rangy explorer swung his legs over the side of his small, wood-framed bed. "God is just," he rationalized. "He will in due course make known all that has happened and why." Sinking to his knees, Columbus prayed for redemption.

As he did so the lock turned in his door. It swung open. An emissary of the acting governor stepped inside the cell. Alonso de Vallejo ordered Columbus to pick up his chains and follow him.

A terrified and slightly pathetic Columbus did as he was told.





The New World

Columbus's problems began, ironically, with his greatest success. It was summer when Columbus first sallied forth across the ocean blue—or ocean dark, as Spain's more timid sailors called that vast unknown beyond the Pillars of Hercules. He was a forty-one-year-old Italian vagabond who had seduced the most powerful woman in Europe into paying for his outrageous journey. Spain's hierarchy-obsessed nobility considered him a nothing, a no-account foreigner. Somewhere, Columbus had promised, not so far over the western horizon, lay the wealth to finance Spain's wars of unification and conquest. The voyage could end either in death and disgrace or in a most sublime glory.

Columbus was a cheerful, confident man, prone to the occasional boast. Those traits belied a deep intensity: Columbus's focus was so great while sailing or praying that he was oblivious to events going on around him. Yes, the world was round—of that he had no doubt. But often his world was nothing more than himself. He was sure he would succeed.

Commanding a fleet of three small caravels—the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—he departed Spain a half hour before sunrise on August 3, 1492.

Just three days out, the Pinta's rudder floated loose, the result of sabotage by her fearful owner, who it turned out had been cowed into supporting the journey. The little Niña, spry and lithe but designed for coastal sailing, was coltish on the high seas. The fleet limped into port in the mountainous Canary Islands for an unscheduled, monthlong layover. The Pinta's rudder was refastened. A bowsprit was added to the Niña, and her sail configuration changed from a triangular lateen to square-rigged so she would handle easier with the wind as it came from behind.

Columbus hoisted sail from the Canaries on September 6. Over the thirty-three days that followed, the crews, more accustomed to short Mediterranean trips, pleaded for him to turn back. When he refused, they threatened mutiny. Through it all, Columbus did not deviate from his westerly course. At 10 p.m. on October 11, vesper prayers still fresh on his mind, Columbus spied a light bobbing in the distance. Four hours later a lookout confirmed that it was not a lamp or fire on some distant ship but the white sands of what would be labeled the New World a year later, reflected by a dazzling moon. At dawn Columbus climbed carefully over the side of the swaying Santa Maria, into a waiting longboat. He was rowed ashore, where he claimed the land for the Spanish sovereigns. Before the voyage was over, he would claim several other islands for Spain.

He might as well have been claiming them for himself. Columbus received a royal reward of ten thousand Spanish maravedis (a maravedi being the modern-day equivalent of twelve pennies) for being the first among his crew to sight land. But that was really just the beginning. The Spanish sovereigns had been so desperate to best their Portuguese neighbors (many of whom, thanks to the intimacies of royal lineage, were also their cousins and distant relations) that they practically handed the New World to Columbus. Indeed, a pair of treaties dreamed up a decade earlier and brokered with Ferdinand and Isabella four months prior to his voyage had given the charismatic Genovese explorer an enviable financial stake in his discoveries. The so-called Capitulations of Santa Fe pledged Columbus control over lands "discovered or acquired by his labor and industry," elevated him to the rank of admiral, and named him viceroy and governor-general of all lands in his new domain. Columbus, or a chosen subordinate, would be the sole arbitrator in all disputes between his new lands and Spain, particularly in reference to shipping traffic.

He would also receive one-tenth of all royal profits (including gold, pearls, spices, or gems) from his discoveries; the right to purchase an eighth percentage of a ship sailing to the new lands, in exchange for a further one-eighth profit from any goods said ship procured; and one-third of any profit due him from his new title as Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Spain, after fronting all the money, had effectively entered a partnership with the perseverant Genovese rather than gaining a colony outright. Columbus had lived on the financial bubble his entire life. Now he was about to become rich.

Or so he thought. On his journey back to Europe aboard the Niña in March 1493 (the flagship Santa Maria having foundered off the coast of Hispaniola and the lesser members of its crew sent ashore to build a fort in which to live until a relief ship arrived), a cyclone shredded his sails. The Niña was too crippled to make it all the way to Spain and limped into Lisbon for repairs. Portuguese King João II—João the Perfect, as he was known—had long kept Columbus at a distance. A decade earlier, he had twice turned down Columbus's proposals for a New World voyage. But he now hastily cleared his calendar to receive the explorer. The king was bearded and sloe-eyed, with long delicate fingers that in March 1493 looked girlish. He was revered for his intellect and physical strength but also feared for his ruthlessness. Once, when a brother-in-law threatened his power, João ordered his relative's immediate execution. When another later tried the same thing, João strangled the misguided relation with those deceptively fragile-looking hands.

João congratulated Columbus on his prescience and achievements and regaled him as a conquering hero. A knowledgeable, passionate advocate of nautical exploration, trained in its nuances, João listened with fascination and a growing rage to descriptions of the new lands Columbus was calling the Indies. Little did Columbus know, but he had stumbled into a diplomatic trap.

João's great-uncle Henry the Navigator had begun Portugal's crusade for maritime greatness, but it was João who had built an empire for his tiny nation. João recognized that Portugal lacked a limitless supply of natural resources and would eventually become Europe's poor stepchild if it didn't acquire colonies to provide trade goods. It was João's maritime advisory committee, the Junta dos Matemáticos, that sent Diogo Cão farther south than any Portuguese ship had ever traveled when he was ordered to explore Central Africa in 1482. So after their meeting, as João bade Columbus farewell (over the objections of his advisers, who thought Columbus an insolent braggart and called for his execution), he knew as well as anyone the new shape of the world—and its implications.

Columbus sailed from Lisbon's enclosed harbor, down the Tagus River into the Ocean Sea, then south along the Portuguese coast on his way back to Spain. Meanwhile, before Columbus could so much as breathe a word of his find to Ferdinand and Isabella, João made the outrageous pronouncement that the Indies belonged to Portugal. Spain was trespassing. João's argument was based on the Eighth Article of the 1479 Treaty of Alcaçovas, giving Portugal control of all lands south of the Canary Islands and opposite the African coast. Columbus's bold new discoveries lay six degrees south of the Canaries; they were twenty-six hundred miles due east—a distance greater than the width of Europe—but south, nonetheless.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had both ratified the Treaty of Alcaçovas, yet they howled in protest. Proving that they were João's equal in gamesmanship, the Spanish sovereigns immediately invoked a Crusades-era statute permitting seizure of heathen lands by Christian rulers for the propagation of the Catholic faith. Columbus, being a devout Christian, had accomplished just such a thing, they argued. Then, instead of settling the matter through the give-and-take of traditional diplomacy (a give-and-take that could have cost Spain chunks of the New World), and well aware that Portugal's naval might dwarfed that of Spain (which could allow the Portuguese to simply sail to the New World and take what they wanted), Ferdinand appealed to the one man whose opinion was beyond reproach: the pope.

The visionary, calculating Ferdinand had seen a heady future for himself at a young age, one with power extending far beyond the small provinces whose rule he inherited. Now he foresaw a great Spanish empire, transcending the Iberian Peninsula, extending west to Columbus's New World and east to Italy. In taking his case to Rome, Ferdinand was seeking out a man who might share that same vision—or at the very least, be so corrupt that he might be swayed on the sly.

Pope Alexander VI was the ideal choice. Born Rodrigo Borgia, the sixty-two-year-old pontiff was Spanish by birth and patriarch of the infamously corrupt Borgia clan. Alexander had uttered the Roman Catholic priest's mandatory vow of celibacy at a young age but viewed it as mere formality to procuring fortune and sway. Alexander had fathered seven children out of wedlock. His current mistress was forty years younger than himself. He had not been selected pope in 1492 because of his piety or in the best interests of the Catholic Church but because he had purchased the position. Then, rather than change his hedonistic ways while following in the footsteps of St. Peter, Alexander delighted in orchestrating lavish bacchanals of food and sex within the Vatican palace. At one particular bash servants were ordered to keep track of each man's orgasms; those satyrs displaying the most virility were awarded colorful silk tunics before stumbling back to their homes and wives.

To say that Alexander VI was morally pliable was an understatement. Add a deep affection for his ancestral roots (when Ferdinand and Isabella routed the Moors at Granada, Alexander defamed St. Peter's Cathedral by staging a Spanish bullfight in its still-uncompleted courtyard), and the sovereigns had the perfect ally.

The decision of the pope, per custom, would be final.


The Passage

On May 3, 1493, Alexander handed down his swift verdict. The ocean blue—and the rest of the world, for that matter—was split in two. In a series of papal bulls, Alexander VI drew a line down the globe from North Pole to South. This line of demarcation lay one hundred leagues west of Portugal's Cape Verde Islands colony. With the exception of those nations already governed by a Christian ruler, everything to the east of that invisible boundary—the Canaries, the Azores, the entire African continent, Madagascar, and Saudi Arabia—belonged to Portugal. Everything to the west belonged to the newly unified and ascendant Spain. So far as the world knew, the newly decreed Spanish holdings amounted to nothing more than a gaggle of sandy tropical islands inhabited by seminude natives—discovered, of course, by Columbus. It was testimony of the Spanish sovereigns' great faith in those findings that they would willingly cede so much of the world to a rival nation based on the tantalizing hope of something much greater to be discovered later.

Papal decisions could not be appealed. Nevertheless, the headstrong João immediately disputed Alexander's bulls—not because he was naive enough to believe a corrupt Spanish pope would rule against the Spanish sovereigns, but because João sought a compromise that would bring at least a taste of the New World's booty to Portugal. João had a hunch that a large, unknown continent lay south of Columbus's discoveries, directly opposite Africa—and he was determined to own it. João was betting that the Spanish sovereigns were so enamored of the New World opposite Europe that they would agree to his terms.

He was right. The Treaty of Tordesillas, brokered without the aid of Rome, amended the bulls. The Spanish sovereigns signed on July 2, 1494, and João II on September 5. The treaty required Portugal to formally recognize that Columbus's discoveries belonged to Spain. In return, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to move the line of demarcation farther to the west. João, who was already sending ships east to find the Indies, had got the better of Ferdinand. His manipulations would pay off years later, giving Portugal a foothold in South America and control of Brazil's considerable wealth, in addition to total command of the eastward route to the Orient.

So it was that the growing Spanish dreams of empire lay solely on the broad Italian shoulders of Christopher Columbus and his westward passage to India. Based on the premise that the world was round—an ancient point of view that lay fallow in Europe during the Dark Ages—sailing far enough west brought a traveler to the east. Or in Columbus's way of thinking, India did not just lie east of Spain, it also lay very, very far to the west.

The seeds of Columbus's logic had been sown in Babylon, six centuries before the birth of Christ. A cartographer whose name has been lost by history carved the first known world map on a clay tablet. Of course cultures throughout the world had drawn maps for ages. The Chinese sewed them onto swatches of silk. Islanders of the South Pacific wove plants and shells together to depict their region. Eskimos carved maps on ivory. But each of these maps was regional, displaying the rivers and landmasses vital to a single culture's daily existence. The Babylonian map was a breathtaking cartographical leap forward, but deeply flawed nonetheless. The earth, for example, was shown not round like a ball but circular and flat—a medieval Frisbee, floating on a large, blue ocean.

The idea of a flat earth was widely accepted at the time. One theory even supposed the horizontal sphere rested atop the backs of four elephants, all balanced atop the shell of a mighty tortoise. Both these notions troubled the Greek philosopher Aristotle, for they made no sense. When a ship sailed out to sea, its hull disappeared over the horizon before its sails. A flat earth would mean both hull and sail would diminish from view together. Just as illogically the earth cast a circular shadow on the moon during eclipses. The world, Aristotle concluded, was most obviously round. His theory was soon accepted, and as Greek and Roman cartographers mapped this new worldview, east-west and north-south lines were added, and the terms "latitude" and "longitude" given them.

In the second century AD, Claudius Ptolemy, a scholar at Egypt's Alexandria library, undertook his comprehensive study of the cosmos, Geography. Ptolemy evinced a certain arrogance, fortified by his immense knowledge. He once wrote a tome on mathematics with a lengthy title that he shortened to Almagest—the "Greatest." He was just as zealous about propagating his world knowledge in Geography. Ptolemy ruminated over the text, exhaustively analyzing and rejecting many widely held theories about the earth in his attempts to make the book definitive. The final result was a work of genius that still influences mankind nineteen centuries later. It includes a world map, more than two dozen regional maps, and a comprehensive listing of the earth's known cities by latitude and longitude. His world map was the first to be oriented north and showed a planet of three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Ptolemy's map of the world, however, was also horribly flawed. The Atlantic and Indian oceans were too small. The Pacific was nonexistent. Asia was shown to be far broader than in actuality, covering more than half the world. The coast of China ran south and west until it connected with the African coast, totally enclosing the Indian Ocean. Grievous mistakes all, based on speculation and the deductions of "world" travelers. Ptolemy's map, however, was accepted as fact.

When the Roman Empire fell, the Alexandria library was looted, and its museum destroyed. In AD 391, a mob of Christian agitators, believing all things secular and intellectual to be evil, burned the library's contents. Geography was among the books lost. A copy had been spirited away before the fire, which was a lucky break for later generations, for as Europe settled into the Dark Ages, cartography became a dead science. Ptolemy's work was dismissed as pagan propaganda and then forgotten altogether. Once again it became popular for Europeans to believe that the world was flat. Most maps drawn during this time were speculative, more interested in showing pilgrims the way to Paradise than serving as an accurate outline of land and sea.

Even after the Dark Ages came to an end, the route to Eden remained a fixture of world maps. In keeping with a passage from the book of Genesis—"And the Lord God planted a Garden eastward in Eden"—it was always shown in the east. The seventh-century writings of Isidore of Seville presented these theories as fact. More than seven hundred years later, Sir John Mandeville reinforced the notion. The well-meaning, if self-aggrandizing and misinformed, Englishman's Travels and Voyages was an account of his various journeys, real and imagined. Based on what he had learned, Mandeville gave clues to Eden's earthly location. "Of Paradise can I not speak properly, for I have not been there," he wrote. "This paradise lay near the Orient." Four mighty rivers—the Nile, Ganges, Euphrates, and Tigris—flowed from its center. He spoke of 7,549 islands nearby, populated by savages.

But the cartographic focus on the east wasn't solely because of Eden. In 1271 a seventeen-year-old Venetian named Marco Polo traveled to China via ship and camel. By the time he returned home twenty-four years later, Polo had ample knowledge of a part of the world known to few Europeans. The following year Genoa conquered Venice, and Polo was thrown in prison. There he dictated the story of his travels. Completed in 1298 and copied by hand as it was distributed throughout Europe, The Book of Ser Marco Polo told of a land with such ingenious devices as paper money, coal burned for fuel, and a pony express-style mail service. More important to Columbus, Polo vividly described the topography of Asia.

Meanwhile, Geography was quietly making its presence felt in the non-European world. Throughout the centuries Muslim Arabs had used it to produce their own detailed maps of Africa and the Indian Ocean. In the fourteenth century, just as cartography began a European revival, a Benedictine monk came across a rogue copy of Geography while prowling through a used-book store in Constantinople. He purchased the book and took it back to Europe, where, despite the astonishing amounts of forgotten knowledge on its yellowed pages, it languished for another century. In 1478 it was rediscovered yet again and translated into Latin. Thanks to the birth of the printing press, it was finally disseminated throughout Europe. Polo's writings, which had quietly endured as a travel classic for two centuries, also underwent a surge in popularity as they were printed en masse and widely distributed for the first time.

For mariners like Columbus, who had seen the dawn of maritime maps that showed the European coastline in minute detail, Geography's long lost guide to the planet was a godsend. That its information dovetailed with Polo's accounts gave Geography the gravitas of biblical truth. Also, thanks to his work as a chart maker, Columbus's knowledge of the most modern concepts of the design and construction of maps put him at the forefront of medieval knowledge. He could cite specific references rather than merely speculate. And by his reckoning his voyages across the Atlantic had confirmed his theories. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He considered Cuba to be the Chinese province of Mangi. His impromptu colony of La Navidad was located on the outlying island of Cipangu. Coincidentally, by the time he returned to Spain in 1493, a German navigator and merchant named Martin Behaim had produced a twenty-inch-wide globe showing Ptolemy's ideas. Although mankind had long considered the world round, that was an abstract intellectual ideal on par with concepts like social equality and the Holy Trinity. Behaim's globe allowed thinkers and commoners alike to see the world in tactile, three-dimensional fashion—to wrap their hands as well as their minds around Columbus's theories. The Atlantic was narrower on Behaim's globe than Columbus knew from firsthand experience, but China was exactly where he had thought. Even the northern tip of Cuba angled in the same direction indicated by Behaim and Ptolemy.

The 1492 voyage had convinced Columbus and the sovereigns that his theories were correct. Clearly this New World, based on all existing knowledge of the planet earth, was actually the outer fringes of the Asian continent. The decision was crucial. Ferdinand and Isabella were not as interested in a new world as in the riches of an old world, the Oriental world. The wealth they sought was not just gold and pearls, but something far more precious: pepper.

And pepper was found only in the East.


Good Taste

Spices of all kinds were a medieval fixation, but they had been a part of daily life for millennia. In 2600 BC Egyptians fed spices to slaves building the Cheops pyramid. Wealthy Romans slept on pillows scented with saffron to ward off hangovers. A spice market on Via Piperatica—Pepper Street—was vital to the lifeblood of ancient Rome. It was the Romans who invaded Arabia over the cost of pepper and whose legionnaires—rugged men fond of marching into battle wearing perfume—introduced spices to northern Europe and Britain. In addition to aesthetic qualities, salt, pepper, and other spices concealed the aroma of spoiled food and helped preserve slaughtered meat, sometimes for months. As spices became a functional part of all levels of societies, it was only natural that they also became a powerful economic force.

Spices weren't indigenous to Europe, though. They came from a tropical belt spreading from the monsoon-drenched Asian subcontinent east to the fragrant islands of Malacca, Ceylon, Java, and Sumatra. The journey from there to European palates was long and involved. Arab merchants traveled to India and the "Spice Islands," then filled their dhows with cargoes of pepper, allspice, cinnamon, cassia, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla. Then they sailed west again, riding the trade winds across the Arabian Sea to the Horn of Africa and into the Red Sea, that saber-shaped inlet bordered by northern Africa on one side and the Arabian Peninsula on the other. The cargo was offloaded in Syria, near the isthmus that would someday become the Suez Canal. It was then hauled overland by mule and camel caravans into Egypt. After being loaded aboard a new fleet of ships in Alexandria, the spices were shipped northwest across the Mediterranean to Venice, where wholesalers waited to purchase them for disbursement to the apothecary shops and kitchens of Europe. Thanks to an exclusive arrangement between the Arabs and the merchants of Venice dating to the seventh century, the Venetians were the sole European outlet for India's pepper and spices.


On Sale
Jun 1, 2005
Page Count
304 pages

Martin Dugard

About the Author

Martin Dugard is the New York Times bestselling author of such nonfiction titles as Chasing Lance, The Last Voyage of Columbus, Farther Than Any Man, Knockdown, and Into Africa. He has written for Esquire, Outside, Sports Illustrated, and GQ. Dugard lives in Orange County, California, with his wife and three sons.

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