A string of islands, between Florida and Venezuela, encloses the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The tightly clustered group at the southern end of this chain provides an easy sequence of stepping stones to the three largest islands – Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba.
From the second millennium BC humans make their way along this chain from south America. The first to do so are a group of hunter-gatherers known to archaeologists as the Ciboney.
In the early centuries of the Christian era more sophisticated tribes of neolithic farmers, the Arawak, move gradually north through the islands pushing the Ciboney ahead of them. From about AD 1000 a third group, the Caribs, begin to exert the same pressure on the Arawak.
The Caribs, more primitive and ferocious than the Arawak, expand their territory by ruthless warfare. When they defeat their Arawak neighbours, it is their custom to marry the women and eat the men. The Arawak know these people as canibas, their own version of the word Caribs.
The Spaniards, the next group to arrive in the islands, are alarmed and fascinated by the man-eating canibas. News of them spreads rapidly in Europe, resulting in a new word – cannibal.
When Columbus reaches the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, in 1492, these northern islands are occupied by the Arawak with only a few pockets of Ciponey surviving. The smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles, in the south, are by now largely Carib.
San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola: AD 1492-1493
Columbus and the Pinzón brothers step ashore on 12 October 1492 on an island in the Bahamas. They plant in the ground the royal banner of Spain, claiming the place for Ferdinand and Isabella. They name it San Salvador, after Jesus the Saviour. (It is not known which island they landed on, though one in the Bahamas now bears the name San Salvador.)
These are not the first Europeans to reach the American continent, but they are the first to record their achievement. Columbus believes that he has reached the East Indies. Greeted by friendly inhabitants of San Salvador, he therefore describes them as Indians – an inaccurate name which has remained attached to the aboriginal peoples of the whole American continent. By the same token this region becomes known to Europe as the West Indies.
A few days later the explorers sail on. They pass many more islands, giving each a new Spanish name, until they reach during November the most important landfall of their expedition – the large island of Cuba, which Columbus convinces himself to be Cipango. This is a place of marvels described by Marco Polo at the eastern extremity of Asia, usually now assumed to be Japan.
Beyond Cuba the next significant landfall is another large island which Columbus names after Spain itself – Española, or Hispaniola. On its shores the Santa Maria runs aground and is wrecked. Columbus decides to leave here a small colony of some forty men, with food and ammunition for a year, while he sails back to Spain with news of his achievement.
Returning with Vicente Yañez Pinzón in the NiÑa, Columbus reaches Palos on March 15 (amazingly the Pinta arrives in Palos later on that same day, after losing contact with the NiÑa a month earlier in an Atlantic storm). Columbus makes his way to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in Barcelona, where he is received with every honour. He presents the monarchs with a few captured natives of the Bahamas and some gold treasure.
This is the high point of Columbus’s career. Three more voyages to America lie ahead of him, and great achievements. But from now on misfortune, often deriving from his own inadequacy as a colonial administrator, increasingly blights his endeavours.
The three last voyages: AD 1493-1504
Columbus sails west again five months after his audience with Ferdinand and Isabella. This time the expedition is on a much larger scale, with the intention of establishing colonies. Seventeen ships, carrying between them almost 1500 people, leave Cadiz. Their first landfalls yield new discoveries – Guadalupe and Puerto Rico – but on arrival in Hispaniola they find that the garrison left there earlier in the year has been massacred by the natives.
News of this disaster, reaching Spain, raises the first doubt about Columbus’s judgement. It will not be the last, as discontent grows among the Spanish colonists in the New World.
Columbus returns to Spain in 1496 to confront his critics at the court, which he does with some success. He is able to sail west again in 1498, on a third voyage, with his position of authority confirmed. But further troubles lead to the arrival in 1500 of a governor sent out by Ferdinand and Isabella with authority over Columbus. On Columbus’s refusal to accept the situation, the governor arrests him and has him sent back to Spain in chains.
The king and queen receive him with sympathy. They continue to reward him for his achievements, but they will not allow him to return to the valuable colonies which he has discovered for them. They agree, instead, to a new expedition in which he will search for a further sea passage westwards.
The explorer departs on his fourth and final voyage in May 1502. It is an almost unmitigated disaster. But somehow he limps home, yet again, to reach Spain in November 1504. Since 1492 he has spent half his time in the New World which he so passionately believed in before he found his way to it.
Even more significantly, he has made the Atlantic crossing seem just an arduous journey rather than a terrifying step into the unknown. Other navigators, sailing for other monarchs, are fishing now in his waters. It is a measure of this change that Columbus himself crosses the Atlantic successfully no fewer than eight times. In a few short years the New World has become linked to Europe in what is unmistakably a new era.