1502 – Columbus’ Fourth and Final Voyage

Shackled in irons, Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, arrived in Seville with his brother Bartolomé and son Diogo at the end of the year 1500. If the news had not reached him already, he learned that Vasco da Gama beat him to India by sailing under Africa. Da Gama had returned to Portugal in September of 1499 carrying more riches than Columbus would ever see. Pedro Cabral was still away.

It took Christopher several months to redeem himself with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. At least the monarchs recognized that Francesco de Bobadillo had overstepped his boundaries. The monarchs would let Columbus return, but they would not give him back his governorship.

The three remaining Genoese adventurers who had bankrolled Columbus’ activities in 1498 loaned him another 200,000 maravedi. On May 11, 1502, at the age of fifty-one, suffering from gout, and with failing eye-sight, Columbus departed from Cadiz with four old ships carrying 140 men. Bartolomé returned with him. Diogo stayed in Spain, and Columbus’ younger son, Fernando, sailed in his place. Fernando was thirteen.

After a couple of stops along the African coast, Columbus headed west across the Atlantic. As he neared the Caribbean, he sensed a hurricane festering and wanted to make land before it blew. He reached Santo Domingo on June 29 after a seven-week crossing.

The four ships entered the port just as Francesco de Bobadillo was leaving for Spain with a fleet loaded down with the gold he had collected from Española during the past year. Most of the ships were owned by the Italian adventurers who had sent them to Santo Domingo in 1500. One ship carried Christopher Columbus’ personal share of the profits. Columbus advised Bobadillo to wait until the storm abated, but the outgoing Viceroy refused to heed the warning.

A new viceroy had replaced Bobadillo named Nicolás de Ovando. When De Ovando learned about Columbus’ arrival, he sent his soldiers to stop the Admiral from anchoring. Columbus tried to warn him about the impending hurricane. De Ovando did not take him seriously. Columbus sailed his four ships to a protective estuary a few miles away and waited.

The Italian fleet carrying Bobadillo entered the Mona Passage [the strait that separates today’s Hispañola from Puerto Rico] just as the hurricane hit.

Miraculously, it spared the ship carrying Columbus’ four thousand pieces of gold. The rest of the fleet wrecked and sank, taking Bobadillo, his crew, and all passengers aboard to be “entombed in the bellies of the fishes.” The Italian investors would suffer a huge loss. Columbus, on the other hand, whose four ships had survived relatively unscathed, was finally a wealthy man.

Unwelcome in Santo Domingo, Columbus decided to look for a waterway through the mainland that the natives had told him about. Columbus thought it was the Strait of Malacca. The Strait of Malacca is the narrow channel between today’s Malaysian Peninsula and Sumatra. Columbus may have been confused about longitude, but by now he was very aware of latitude.

The Strait of Malacca was and is the most convenient passageway through which ships can pass from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. You can see from the map above that Panama and the Strait of Malacca are close in latitude, at least by fifteenth century measurement standards.

Muhammad Al-Idrisi showed a wide open passageway in 1154.

Mohammad Al-Idrisi, Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154.(1)

But Henrich Martellus, following Ptolemy’s example, combined Sumatra and Malaysia into one landmass and closed the straight up.

Henricus Martellus Germanus, Florence, World Map, c1489/1490.(2)

Somehow, Columbus knew about it anyway. He knew the approximate latitude where the strait should have been if he were on the east coast of Asia like he thought he was. Columbus probably knew that the Spice Islands were in the vicinity, which would have been a worthy goal. So, no wonder he was excited when the American Indians told him there was a narrow neck of land in Panama, where today’s canal was built between 1903 and 1914. Too bad he did not know he was in the wrong hemisphere.

The Admiral spent the next few weeks exploring the area in Central America that Juan de la Cosa had covered up on his map with an image of St. Christopher. He sailed to Jamaica, then Central America. On July 30, 1502, he arrived at today’s Isla de Pinos off the coast of Honduras. By August 14 he was standing on the mainland of America at Puerto Castilla [near Trujillo, Honduras]. The local natives told him about another ocean a few days hike to the south. For two months, he surveyed the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica looking for the strait to the Indian Ocean, but, of course, never found it. On October 16 he arrived at today’s Almirante Bay in Panama. There was no strait, but the Indians offered fantastic golden objects for trade.

Then on December 5, 1502, Columbus experienced the worst storm of his career. In his journal he wrote, “For nine days I was as one lost, without hope of life. Eyes never beheld the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foam. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter; hence we were forced to keep out in this bloody ocean, seething like a pot on a hot fire. Never did the sky look more terrible; for one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that we all thought that the ship would be blasted. All this time the water never ceased to fall from the sky; I do not say it rained, for it was like another deluge. The men were so worn out that they longed for death to end their dreadful suffering.”

The storm did finally end and on January 9, 1503, Columbus ordered his fleet to anchor at the mouth of the Rio Belén [Bethlehem River] in Panama. Columbus built a garrison where he could take his ships out of the water. Their holds had been riddled by shipworms. He left one of his ships at the garrison. He probably left the other three on a beach by the coast because on April 6, when the local Indians attacked the garrison, they were only able to destroy the one ship. Columbus lost a number of his men in the battle. On April 16, realizing that he could not maintain control of the garrison, he and his remaining men boarded the still leaky three ships and headed for home. But their adventure was far from over.

Columbus reached today’s Cayman Islands and named them Las Tortugas after the sea turtles. As his ships passed by Cuba, they hit another storm. First they lost their remaining shore boat. Then one of the caravels floundered and Columbus had to tie her to his flagship and drag her along. Realizing the ships were too rotten to make it back across the Ocean Sea, and before the ships filled completely with water, he beached them at today’s St. Anne’s Bay in Jamaica. It was June 25.

The Spaniards and the Italian were marooned for a year before Diego Mendez, one of Columbus crew, managed to barter a canoe from one of the local caciques [Indian leaders] and sail it to Española for help. But then Governor Ovando detained him outside the port for seven months, refusing to send a rescue.

Meanwhile, Columbus had a terrible time keeping his men fed on Jamaica. The only source of food was to barter it from the local Indians, but the Indians were tired of dealing with the foreigners. Half of Columbus’ men threatened mutany.

Then one day Columbus wooed the Indians with a magic trick. Using Rabbi Abraham Zacuto’s astrological charts, which predicted a lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504, Columbus told the caciques that if they did not help him, he would banish the moonlight. When the moon darkened, the Indians relented and brought the castaways some food.

Diogo Mendez finally chartered a small caravel in Española and rescued his Admiral and fellow shipmates on June 29. The party arrived in Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquiver on November 7. Columbus had been gone for two years and six months.

Admiral Columbus had brought home his new charts. He had finally reached the mainland of Central America, but he still insisted that his charts reflected the east coast of Asia, not a brand new continent. He died five years later, in 1596, in Valladolid, Spain, at the age of fifty-six.

The explorer’s remains were first buried in Valladolid, then moved to Seville, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Colonial Santo Domingo. When France took control of Haiti in 1795, Columbus’ remains were moved to Havanna, Cuba. In 1898, after the Spanish American War, they were moved back to Seville, where they rest today in the Seville Cathedral.


  1. Al-Idrisi, Mohammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154. {{PD-old}} Public Domain in the USA and Italy, Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/
  2. Henricus Martellus, World Map, Florence, c1489/1490. {{PD-Older than 100 years}} Public domain in Italy and United States. Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

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