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After his famous 1492 voyage of discovery, Christopher Columbus was commissioned to return a second time, which he did with a large-scale colonization effort which departed from Spain in 1493. Although the second journey had many problems, it was considered successful because a settlement was founded: it would eventually become Santo Domingo, capital of the present-day Dominican Republic. Columbus served as governor during his stay in the islands. The settlement needed supplies, however, so Columbus returned to Spain in 1496.
Preparations for the Third Voyage
Columbus reported to the crown upon his return from the New World. He was dismayed to learn that his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella, would not allow the taking of slaves in the newly discovered lands. As he had found little gold or precious commodities for which to trade, he had been counting on selling native slaves to make his voyages lucrative. The King and Queen of Spain allowed Columbus to organize a third trip to the New World with the goal of resupplying the colonists and continuing the search for a new trade route to the Orient.
The Fleet Splits
Upon departure from Spain in May of 1498, Columbus split his fleet of six ships: three would make for Hispaniola immediately to bring desperately needed supplies, while the other three would aim for points south of the already explored Caribbean to search for more land and perhaps even the route to the Orient that Columbus still believed to be there. Columbus himself captained the latter ships, being at heart an explorer and not a governor.
Doldrums and Trinidad
Columbus' bad luck on the third voyage began almost immediately. After making slow progress from Spain, his fleet hit the doldrums, which is a calm, hot stretch of ocean with little or no wind. Columbus and his men spent several days battling heat and thirst with no wind to propel their ships. After a while, the wind returned and they were able to continue. Columbus veered to the north, because the ships were low on water and he wanted to resupply in the familiar Caribbean. On July 31, they sighted an island, which Columbus named Trinidad. They were able to resupply there and continue exploring.
Sighting South America
For the first two weeks of August 1498, Columbus and his small fleet explored the Gulf of Paria, which separates Trinidad from mainland South America. In the process of this exploration, they discovered the Island of Margarita as well as several smaller islands. They also discovered the mouth of the Orinoco River. Such a mighty freshwater river could only be found on a continent, not an island, and the increasingly religious Columbus concluded that he had found the site of the Garden of Eden. Columbus fell ill around this time and ordered the fleet to head to Hispaniola, which they reached on August 19.
Back in Hispaniola
In the roughly two years since Columbus had been gone, the settlement on Hispaniola had seen some rough times. Supplies and tempers were short and the vast wealth that Columbus had promised settlers while arranging the second voyage had failed to appear. Columbus had been a poor governor during his brief tenure (1494-1496) and the colonists were not happy to see him. The settlers complained bitterly, and Columbus had to hang a few of them in order to stabilize the situation. Realizing that he needed help governing the unruly and hungry settlers, Columbus sent to Spain for assistance. It was also here where Antonio de Montesinos is remembered to have given an impassioned and impactful sermon.
Francisco de Bobadilla
Responding to rumors of strife and poor governance on the part of Columbus and his brothers, the Spanish crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla to Hispaniola in 1500. Bobadilla was a nobleman and a knight of the Calatrava order, and he was given broad powers by the Spanish crown, superseding those of Colombus. The crown needed to rein in the unpredictable Colombus and his brothers, who in addition to being tyrannical governors were also suspected of improperly gathering wealth. In 2005, a document was found in the Spanish archives: it contains first-hand accounts of the abuses of Columbus and his brothers.
Bobadilla arrived in August 1500, with 500 men and a handful of native slaves that Columbus had brought to Spain on a previous voyage: they were to be freed by royal decree. Bobadilla found the situation as bad as he had heard. Columbus and Bobadilla clashed: because there was little love for Columbus among the settlers, Bobadilla was able to clap him and his brothers in chains and throw them in a dungeon. In October 1500, the three Columbus brothers were sent back to Spain, still in shackles. From getting stuck in the doldrums to being shipped back to Spain as a prisoner, Columbus' Third Voyage was a fiasco.
Aftermath and Importance
Back in Spain, Columbus was able to talk his way out of trouble: he and his brothers were freed after spending only a few weeks in prison.
After the first voyage, Columbus had been granted a series of important titles and concessions. He was appointed Governor and Viceroy of the newly discovered lands and was given the title of Admiral, which would pass to his heirs. By 1500, the Spanish crown was beginning to regret this decision, as Columbus had proven to be a very poor governor and the lands he had discovered had the potential to be extremely lucrative. If the terms of his original contract were honored, the Columbus family would eventually siphon off a great deal of wealth from the crown.
Although he was freed from prison and most of his lands and wealth were restored, this incident gave the crown the excuse they needed to strip Columbus of some of the costly concessions that they had originally agreed to. Gone were the positions of Governor and Viceroy and the profits were reduced as well. Columbus' children later fought for the privileges conceded to Columbus with mixed success, and legal wrangling between the Spanish crown and the Columbus family over these rights would continue for some time. Columbus' son Diego would eventually serve for a time as Governor of Hispaniola due to the terms of these agreements.
The disaster that was the third voyage essentially brought to a close the Columbus Era in the New World. While other explorers, such as Amerigo Vespucci, believed that Columbus had found previously unknown lands, he stubbornly held to the claim that he had found the eastern edge of Asia and that he would soon find the markets of India, China, and Japan. Although many at court believed Columbus to be mad, he was able to put together a fourth voyage, which if anything was a bigger disaster than the third one.
The fall of Columbus and his family in the New World created a power vacuum, and the King and Queen of Spain quickly filled it with Nicolás de Ovando, a Spanish nobleman who was appointed governor. Ovando was a cruel but effective governor who ruthlessly wiped out native settlements and continued the exploration of the New World, setting the stage for the Age of Conquest.
Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962
Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.