1493 – Christopher Columbus’ Second Voyage

Only six months after Christopher Columbus returned from his first trip, the Catholic Monarchs sent him on his second. On September 24, 1493, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of New Spain left from the port of Cadiz with seventeen vessels. [That was a huge fleet compared to the three ships England would send to Jamestowne to build her first colony.] Columbus’ fleet carried 1,200 men including farmers, mechanics, carpenters, soldiers, and priests. They also transported domestic animals including horses, sheep, and cattle [which the Mayflower would not]. The expedition planned to build a plantation and trading stage at La Navidad on Española.

In spite of some stormy weather, all seventeen ships arrived to the string of islands known today as the Lesser Antilles after a swift twenty-one day crossing. The islands, named as a group after the mythical Antilla, enclose the Caribbean Sea. The larger islands of the string: Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, will become known as the Greater Antilles. On November 3 they stopped at the island Columbus named Dominica [Sunday]. They then proceeded counter-clockwise to a small island Columbus named Marie-Galante after his new flagship, the Marie-Galante [Gallant Mary]. Between November 4 and November 10, he explored Guadeloupe [named after a statue of the Virgin Mary in Spain, Santa María de Guadalupe de Extremadura].

The Europeans met their first caníbales [cannibals], later referred to as the Caribs, who, according to one passenger, preferred the taste of grown men over women and children. When Columbus’ shore party arrived, three castrated boys fled to them, asking for protection. Somehow using sign language and facial expressions, the boys explained to the Europeans that the tribe that had captured them castrated young boys and employed them as servants while they waited for them to grow up.

On his way to La Navidad – Columbus was in no hurry – he scouted the islands for better locations for his plantation; he thought the position of La Navidad was “unhealthful.” He named the next small cluster the Islands of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins [Virgin Isles]. He touched on today’s Puerto Rico, which he named San Juan Bautista [Saint John the Baptist]. He finally reached La Navidad on November 22. The makeshift settlement had been demolished, the fortification burned, and there was no sign of the men who had been left there.

Columbus dispatched a search party to the nearby Taíno village. They found European garments and other items scattered around, but still no men. Finally a few days later, the search party came across ten or eleven dead bodies in a meadow of overgrown grass. The bodies were “hideously disfigured by decay” and “wearing a fierce expression.” Apparently the men had been dead for several weeks to three months.

The Taíno chief, who spoke “with tears falling upon his breast and likewise all of his men,” blamed the raid on 3000 men of a rival tribe. He said that some of the Spanish had died of disease, and some had been taken captive by the raiders. Some Spanish had gone looking for gold near the rival village and were killed there.

Upon closer investigation, Columbus learned that many of the Spanish had helped themselves to the Indian women. One man took four or five wives. The Indians, “wanting to avenge the insult and erase the shame, … rose up against the Christians in a great mob.”

After ten days trying to sort things out, burying the dead, and digging up La Navidad to see if the settlers had hidden any discovered gold, Columbus’ expedition left and headed toward the Martín Alonso River on the opposite side of Española Island [today’s Haiti]. In spite of its protected harbor, the Admiral did not want to build his settlement there. He chose instead a bluff some three leagues [eight miles] west, even though it lacked a sufficient anchorage for large ships. He would regret that decision upon the arrival of the first hurricane.

The carpenters and engineers began constructing the town while prospectors went in search of gold. The Spanish were a lot luckier than the English would be. They found gold “in more than fifty streams and rivers and outside the rivers on the lands.” Many of the farmers deserted their duties and become prospectors.

On February 2, 1494, twelve of the ships left for Spain under the command of Antonio de Torres. The ships carried hundreds of men but only a small amount of gold and no silk or spices. Hoards of the settlers had come down with the sickness that had probably killed Captain Pinzón. Hoards more were fleeing, hoping to avoid the sickness. The fleet reached Cadiz on March 9. After De Torres unloaded 30,000 pesos worth of gold dust, news spread quickly that would cause a chaotic gold rush to the West Indies.

Columbus stayed with his colony and the remaining five ships. He would not return to Spain for two more years. Meanwhile, traffic shuffled back and forth between New Spain and Old. At some point, a papal legate [ambassador] named Bernard Buyl arrived to La Isabella. Buyl had been associated with King Ferdinand for a long time, as a captain on one of Aragon’s warships, and as King Ferdinand’s secretary. Ferdinand, Isabella, and Pope Alexander had sent Father Buyl to check on Columbus.

By April, the colony was not faring well at all. Settlers were making private deals with the Taíno to obtain gold. The little farming that was done was not successful; European seeds planted in Caribbean soil withered and died. Columbus could not maintain order. He tried beating his men into submission. When that did not work, he ordered their ears cut off. That only made things worse. Chaos turned to anarchy. Columbus captured and enslaved the local Taíno people to carry out the mundane tasks.

In June, Christopher’s brother Bartolomé arrived with a three-ship flotilla.

In August, Ferdinand and Isabella sent Antonio de Torres back to La Isabella with a relief fleet of four vessels. Torres arrived in autumn hoping to return to Spain with his holds packed with riches from the Orient.

That November, the papal legate Bernard Buyl returned to Seville [perhaps on his own vessel]. He delivered a scathing report to the Catholic Monarchs about how Columbus brutalized the natives, how the colony was almost in a state of anarchy, and how the island did not seem to be anywhere near India.

Antonio de Torres returned to Cadiz in February of 1495. But instead of the expected gold, silks, and exotic spices, Torres arrived with 350 Taíno natives packed tightly in his hold. Over 200 had died along the way. Of those who had survived, many were sick. The original 550 men, women, and children had been chosen from 1,600 people that Columbus had captured within the last year.

The Admiral had not sent the slaves to his king and queen. He had sent them to his debtor, the Florentine adventurer Giannotto Berardi. As mentioned, Berardi was in the African slaving business, and Columbus needed to pay for the Santa Maria he had wrecked.

A long time friend of Columbus named Michele da Cuneo, who had been in La Navidad with him, sailed back to Castile with Torres. Columbus had given Cuneo one of the slave women. In a letter Cuneo wrote later, he proudly [and in this author’s opinion disgustingly] described how he raped her when she did not behave. He also wrote that the Taíno men were “not made for work, and they fear greatly the cold and do not live long.”

From Cadiz, Torres shipped the slaves up the Guadalquiver River to Seville to be auctioned off.

When Queen Isabella found out about the auction, she called it off. She had agreed to Pope Alexander when he issued his bull in 1493 to give her and Ferdinand the rights to the lands west of the Atlantic, that she would take Christianity to the Orient. So, even though she had enslaved thousands of Muslims after her conquest in Granada, the Queen of Castile thought differently about the fate of the indigenous people in the place named after her, La Isabella.

Back on Española, Columbus distributed the remaining 1050 Taínos throughout the colony. Among the 400 whom nobody wanted, or had any use for, were one of the Taino chiefs, known as a cacique, and two of his counselors. Columbus was afraid the leaders would cause trouble, so he had them shackled in irons and imprisoned. The Taino men learned that Columbus ordered their execution with bows and arrows. During the night before their execution, they chewed away at each other’s feet until they could slip out of their iron ankle bracelets and hobbled [or perhaps crawled] away to safety in the surrounding forest.

Either unaware or unmindful of Queen Isabella’s position on the enslavement of the Taíno people, Columbus proceeded to torment them on Española and the surrounding islands. Using torture and mutilation, he and Bartolomé forced the natives to labor in the mines and farms. They prohibited spouses from seeing each other, sometimes for eight to ten months, and forced the women to work. Since the women could not suckle their children, they began to die – seven thousand in a three-month period. The population ceased to procreate and would decline from millions to thousands within the next few years.

As part of his program, on March 24, Columbus led 200 foot soldiers and 24 horsemen with muskets, crossbows, spears, swords, and dogs to eliminate the tribe on Española. It would take him ten months.

In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella were fed up with Columbus’ empty promises. They knew Columbus was deceiving them about the “riches of the Indies.” He had told them Española abounded in gold, but all he delivered was the small amount of gold dust the Taínos sifted from the sandy beaches. Columbus had told the monarchs there was pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. But the only product beside slaves his ships sent home was dyewood [probably the wood used to make the red Dragon’s Blood fabric dye].

On April 10 the monarchs issued some new rules for the colonization of the West Indies, the New Permissions. In some respects, the New Permissions overrode Columbus’ patent. To this point in time, Columbus thought he had claimed and become the governor of all the islands he had found – including Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Leeward Islands – as well as the mainland of India, which he insisted was attached to the north end of Cuba. He planned to collect a hefty portion of the profits made by the people who settled those lands.

But the New Permissions restricted Columbus’ jurisdiction to Española. Everything else became free game for any Spanish subject or citizen to claim, as long as they did so in the name of Spain. Under the new rules, conquistadors were free from duties and taxes. They would receive a year’s support from the crown, and were allowed to retain one third of the proceeds and nine-tenths of the goods – i.e. Admiral Columbus did not receive a cut of the profits. The New Permissions stipulated that every proposed expedition, even by Columbus, needed the approval from Spain’s new Secretary of the Indies Project, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca.

It took several weeks for news of the New Permissions to reach La Isabella. Meanwhile, that same April, Bartolomé Columbus in Española was beginning to prepare for a scouting mission. His party planned to sail in two caravels and a small galley(1) he had had built in Española to explore the islands northward. Michele de Cuneo had already reported to the Spanish Monarchs, “We are fairly certain the lord Bartolomé, sailing 500 leagues to the northern regions, will find land, but he will also find bigger storms and worse weather than we encountered. The lord Admiral says that he will find Cathay.”

The Columbus brothers were particularly eager to reach the northern end of Cuba where, they thought, it attached to the mainland. One of the priests who was visiting the settlement had disputed Columbus’ claim to India by saying that Cuba was only an island. The same letter from Cuneo quoted above described the visitor as a “very rich abbot, who was a good astronomer and cosmographer visiting the West Indies for his pleasure, and to see new things.” When the abbot prepared to sail to Spain with his report, Christopher detained him. The Columbus brothers planned to keep the abbot in La Isabella until Bartolomé returned from his investigation. Cuneo wrote that Columbus was afraid that if the abbot told “his majesty the king” that Cuba was “a very big island,” the king would “abandon the enterprise.”

If Bartolomé Columbus had sailed north, he would have run into the continent of North America. He never made that trip. Before his departure, he suddenly found himself without any ships.

A massive hurricane hit La Isabella that June [still 1495]. It was the first hurricane the Spaniards and the Italian brothers had ever experienced. The extreme winds had been named by the Taino’s cousins to the west, the Aztecs, after their god of fury and anger, Huricano. Storm season extended from the beginning of June to the end of November. The worst storms occurred between mid-September and mid-August. The swirling winds tended to build most easily over shallow waters.

La Isabella’s anchorage had no protection. The winds pounding at over a hundred miles an hour and the heavy rain destroyed three of the four ships, leaving only the loyal Niña. Gigantic waves flooded the farm fields with salt water.

News of the horrible storm reached Spain after a new flotilla was already on its way to La Isabella. Juan de Aguado commanded four ships funded by Milanese and Florentine adventurers. They had sent De Aguado to investigate the complaints against Columbus and to find new opportunities for trade and for men like Giannotto Berardi to become richer.

Berardi had invested in Columbus’ first and second expeditions. He became a Spanish naturalized citizen in 1494 as soon as he realized the potential for Spain’s new trade with the Indies. Another Florentine, Francisco de Riberole, who was Berardi’s partner in the annihilation of the Guanche people in the Canary islands, had become a naturalized citizen in 1492.

Berardi must have had an in with Spain’s new Secretary of the Indies Project, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, because Berardi received a contract under the New Permissions on April 9, 1495, the day before Isabella signed the edict. Berardi’s contract provided for three flotillas, each with four ships. One flotilla was scheduled to leave in April, one in June, and one in September. The clever Florentine set it up so that of the four ships, two would stay in the harbor at La Isabella for two weeks to conduct trade [similar to the arrangement the Venetians had with England to stay two weeks in Southampton], while the remaining two ships could explore for more land, gold, and the fabulous markets of Quinsay.

De Aguado’s flotilla arrived in September. Then a second hurricane hit the island in October that wiped out everything except, again, the Niña.

Unaware that the winds were destroying his ships in La Isabella, Giannotto Berardi and his business partner, Amerigo Vespucci, were in Seville planning the next trading flotilla. In spite of Queen Isabella’s ban on slaving in the West Indies, evidence indicates that Berardi wanted to find more slaves. On October 21, 1495, Amerigo Vespucci received from Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, 38,700 maravedi on Berardi’s account for ninety-five slaves from the Indies. [Author Douglas Hunter suggested that those Indians had been among Columbus’ first shipment of slaves who arrived to Cadiz for Berardi on April 12 and were sold before Isabella’s edict.]

But that was not all. On November 5, Fonseca paid Vespucci [again for Berardi], another 500,000 maravedi. Then Berardi’s luck turned sour. Before he could launch any more flotillas, he fell ill. He wrote a new will on December 5. Then he died on December 15.

On the other side of the Ocean Sea, and not knowing he was no longer free to claim any lands he wanted and add them to his empire, Christopher Columbus kept busy exploring and surveying in the Niña while his carpenters constructed a new vessel for him, so he could sail back to Spain. The carpenters used the wood salvaged from De Aguado’s wrecked flotilla. Columbus named his new vessel the India. He headed her for home on March 10, 1496 and arrived in Cadiz on June 11.


  1. The galley was probably a long rowboat with one or two sails, similar to what the English called a shallop.
  2. New England colonists would also name their first construction after their location. In 1607, they built a pinnace named the Virginia.

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