1 A Passage To The Indies

“Caribbean general map” by Kmusser, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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It is not possible to discover a place that is already inhabited. In the words of a particularly funny comedian, ‘If Christopher Columbus can discover a country in which others already live, then I can go outside and “discover” one of your cars.’

This is true with the Caribbean! Its history does not begin with Columbus’s “discovery” voyage. Caribbean history instead begins in a North African port city. On July 25th, 1415, Prince Henry of Portugal (also known as the ‘Navigator’) sailed a fleet of about 200 ships from Lisbon and out into the Atlantic Ocean. With nearly 45,000 soldiers along for the ride and with few aware of their true destination. Of course, there were rumors, however, no concrete facts.

The ships were bound for the North African port city of Ceuta, 150 miles from the coast of Portugal.

The Port City of Ceuta & Portugal

Ceuta was a small, peninsular outpost in North Africa with a fortress and not much else. For soldiers and sailors seeking a chance at wealth and glory the better destination would have been the jeweled city of Granada. However, what Ceuta lacked in beauty it made up for in being a busy trading post known for trading in wheat and gold. Not to mention its key location as part of the gateway into the Mediterranean trade world; a gate known as the ‘Pillars of Hercules’. All this and its marked exit into scary unknown waters Ceuta seemed a strange place to attack for these soldiers.

“Pot of Gold” by Jeremy Schultz, licensed under a creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The soldiers were not brought to Ceuta to fight infidels. They were there for wheat and Gold!

Portugal was a small and mountainous kingdom where food was very difficult to cultivate, which in turn made them dependent on imported goods. The issue with said dependency was the amount of goods imported varied with the political climate or even the climate itself. At times there was more than enough and times in which there was nearly nothing. Attacking and controlling Ceuta would give Portugal a steady source of wheat and then there is the gold. Ceuta was seen as the final destination of all of the gold coming out of the uncharted African interior and all of Europe hungered for more gold.

“Wheat Gold Yellow” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required

Prince Henry of Portugal

No different from those in Europe, Prince Henry also hungered for gold. However, he needed it more than most as the 3rd son out of the 5 still living. As the son of John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster he had been raised in the lap of luxury and could not live any other way. A problem given that he lived in an already tax strapped country and with a people barely making a living; in which the population nearly reached 1 million. The countries currency wasn’t even minted in gold.

What funds were available went to securing the country from the increasingly powerful Castile and with whom a temporary truce had been reached in 1411.

Born on March 4th, 1394, Henry was a devout catholic educated in the English ways of chivalry by his Plantagenet mother and with a touch of hatred for the ‘infidel’ Moors.

The attack on Ceuta was his grandstand against Islam and a chance to ensure his wealthy life. He believed that this attack would help Portugal to have a stake in the Muslim Mediterranean as well as access to a relatively secure source of wheat. Prince Henry also believed that once done, he and the men could continue on to find Prester John and share in his riches.

Prester John being a mythical Christian who was believed to have travelled to Ethiopia and became king with access to gold and soldiers to defeat all of Christendom’s enemies.

Setting Sail 

Prince Henry and his 200 ships set sail in July crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, yet, a fear inducing eclipse of the sun would foreshadow the difficulties ahead. The storm that hit forced the ships to turn back and dock in Algeciras, Andalusia. When news of this about face reached Ceuta’s governor, Salah ben Salah, the panicked preparations for the incoming attack ceased. Salah ben Salah believed that the mariners had had a change of heart and this would be a fatal error in judgement.

In a surprise attack, Prince Henry and his ships, landed in Ceuta on August 21.

The attack would last 13 hours and see the Marinid people of Ceuta utterly defeated. In the sacking and pillaging style reminiscent of Vikings, the victorious Portuguese men ran rampant through the city in search of the infamous stores of gold.

While they did  not find and gold or even any other precious metal they did find other things of great value. They found stocks of valuable spice which in their ignorance and greed was destroyed during the search. They destroyed spice often worth their weight in gold!

These very soldiers were then forced to settle the new colony as none from Portugal wished to do so. There had been no gold found but Prince Henry was far from disheartened.

Maritime Dominance

“Vintage Sailing Vessel Cog Ship” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Prince Henry never did sail past Ceuta, yet, he did play a role in seeing others forward. As a leading ship owner he contributed to Portugal’s growth and maritime dominance of the 1400s. This was, of course, due in part to his victory in Ceuta.

One must understand that sailing then is not what it is now. There were no Carnival Cruise liners instead there were Caravels. Innovative ships designed to ease the burdensome process of sailing which had not been improved for hundreds of years. As these innovations were made many Portuguese sailors began exploring the breaths of the Atlantic Ocean; known then as ‘Ocean Sea’.

Going farther than the previous Mediterranean water boundaries, these men had ditched the Baltic cog ships with its rounded hulls. The cogs had been designed to sail using currents rather than the winds.

“Marine Caravel Boat” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

This change in design, however, had been made by the Chinese long before this and was the reason they landed on the African coast in the 1400s. The Chinese brought with them gunpowder and compasses which were other advances far beyond what Europe could even imagine. China, India and the Islamic world had made these revolutionary scientific discoveries as Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages. However, Islamic frailty and European re-emergence was an amalgamation that would change the power equilibrium of the Mediterranean.

The Dark Ages

“Armenian crusaders” by Narek, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

In the years following 476 A.D., various Germanic peoples conquered the former Roman Empire in the West (including Europe and North Africa), shoving aside ancient Roman traditions in favor of their own. The negative view of the so-called “Dark Ages” became popular largely because most of the written records of the time (including St. Jerome and St. Patrick in the fifth century, Gregory of Tours in the sixth and Bede in the eighth) had a strong Rome-centric bias.

While it’s true that such innovations as Roman concrete were lost, and the literacy rate was not as high in the Early Middle Ages as in ancient Rome, the idea of the so-called “Dark Ages” came from Renaissance scholars like Petrarch, who viewed ancient Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of human achievement. Accordingly, they dismissed the era that followed as a dark and chaotic time in which no great leaders emerged, no scientific accomplishments were made and no great art was produced.

The Church replaced the Roman Empire as the most powerful force in Europe, redefining the relationship between church and state. The growth of monasticism had important implications for later Western values and attitudes.

The dominance of the Church during the Early Middle Ages was a major reason later scholars—specifically those of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries—branded the period as “unenlightened” (otherwise known as dark), believing the clergy repressed intellectual progress in favor of religious piety. The Early Middle Ages, however, were boom times for agriculture.

Great advances were also made in science and math—in the Islamic world. It would only be with The Carolingian Renaissance. This time saw a flowering in the arts, literature, architecture and other cultural realms.

The Caravel & Maps

“T-O Map Sallust” by Real Distan, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

The Caravel could travel faster and required less manpower. This helped sailors overcome the fear that existed around the Ceuta 1415 attack. Cape Bojador was seen as the limit of the world because its surrounding waterways were known for violent currents, dense fog, and difficult winds that would often wreak havoc on ship sails. It was now time to discover and fill in the blank spots on the worlds map. Audacious sailors were now sailing beyond the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ and coming home alive!

With this confidence also came a renaissance within the map-maker world. Early, 8th century, maps are known as T-O maps and they were symbolic in nature rather than cartographic. The maps were circular with a large portion taken up by Asia on top and Africa along with Europe splitting the bottom portion. The T shape came with the separation of Asia and Europe by the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the River Don in Russia.

“[Portolan chart of the Pacific coast from Mexico to northern Chile]” sourced through the Library of Congress, the image is free to use under Public Domain.

The map also served as a manifestation of Christendom and therefore as an object of devotion. With Jerusalem as the center the map depicted spiritual rather than geographical realities. This would change with the emergence of Portolan charts in the 1300s. A combination of actual knowledge of the East brought back by Crusaders and the chartings of sailors, came together to ease understanding of a world beyond the Mediterranean.

Politics & Diplomatic Relations

As previously mentioned, Portugal and Castile have a strenuous relationship. This is then further exacerbated by Castile’s consolidation with Aragon. Port cities throughout Europe were no longer mere outposts but vital trading and military locations. Then there was the ongoing battle with the ‘Infidels’.  Adding to the booming role of commerce in the economic development in Portugal and throughout Europe. This growing economy, however, caused a demand for an already short supply of gold and silver.

Sailor Diogo Cão, around 1482, made landfall beyond Cape Bojador pushing inland to make contact with the Kingdom of Kongo; with trading already taking place along the coast.

A the new era emerged, it was reflected in the languages and dialects of the time. For example, a new word was added to the Portuguese language, by 1472, the verb descobrir (to discover) was being used and later, 1486, the word descobrimento (discovery) was also used.

It soon became the norm for sailors to depart from Lisbon and venture to the various African outposts and northward to areas such as Bristol, Ireland, and Iceland. A journey such as this was said to have been taken by Christopher Columbus in the 1470s.

Christopher Columbus

Understanding Christopher Columbus means looking beyond his sailing record and infamous reputation. To understand Columbus you have to look at his life in the place and time of his birth,  Genoa 1451/1452. One must do this because he is the product of the time and place in which he was raised. Heavily influenced by the views and morals of the virtually contained Ligurian port, Columbus was a ambitious son of a weaver.

Genoa had a thriving economy during the time of the Crusades as the crusading soldiers often struck trade deals with the ports for the trading of goods as well as using the ports from which to launch their ships and or move troops. These deals made the country very wealthy, yet, this wealth did not come without its risks. Muslim and pirate ships often stalked the waters for ships to plunder and issue further exacerbated by the continued infighting among Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Infighting only quelled when times necessitated repelling attacks.

During these times Islam controlled Mediterranean trading. Due to the fact, that Muslim sailors had far more advanced technology then their European counterparts. Then there was the added factor of the fear they induced in the Europeans via sea and land. The Muslim sailors ruthlessness and prowess most certainly preceding them.

Genoa, while not having similar Eastern access as Venice, managed to prosper as well as become a booming hub for the distribution of goods and circulation of currency. Also engendering itself as a notable place for map-makers, shipbuilders and adventurers alike.

One such notable a sailor was Marco Polo; the foundation behind such outlandish stories of decadent travels to the East. Polo being a 13th century Venetian explorer imprisoned in Genoa; a casualty of the naval infighting amongst Genoa and Venice. The tales of his travels circulated long after his capture and it is safe to assume Columbus would have read of Polo’s exploits. Had he not, the cosmopolitan surroundings of Genoa provided fertile grounds for a young and ambitious Columbus.

Columbus was raised in the mountains amongst a highly politicized family often thought to have been part of anti-Aragonese factions. Educated in complex Mediterranean and Iberian politics Columbus would find the background needed for his later endeavor’s.

What was traded?

Not long afore his arrival in Portugal, Columbus was said to have sailed as far as the Aegean island of Chios around 1474/1475. Yet, we must note what was being circulated within these spiderweb routes of trade. More often than not, his contemporary sailors would have traded in oils, sugar, spices, and cloth as well as the more heinous trade of human beings. A trade existing long before the arrival of Europeans and a way of life in the Mediterranean.

The people captured and sold into slavery would have been of Moorish, Germanic, Slavic, Black Sea Tartars, Saracens as well as Jewish in origin. Slaves who were not always men but rather women and not purchase for the purpose of being worked to death. The distinctions to be made of race and skin color begin to emerge as those with a lighter skin complexion often fetched a higher price than their darker brethren. Columbus would have seen Moorish slaves in his native Genoa. Slaves who would have served in the capacity of servant in port cities such as Lisbon or Seville. Those brought to Genoa were heavily restricted and few in number. With the slaves being chained to avoid runaways or required to carry passes in order to move about “freely”. Prime locations soon sprouted throughout European ports for the trading of human cargo by Muslim slave traders of North Africa.

The Black Death

These emerging markets and circulation of the aforementioned goods was, however, temporarily halted with the Black Death pandemic that swept through the Mediterranean and Europe in 1348-1349.

By the time Columbus was born the once booming Genoa was fading into obscurity. To adapt to the changes wrought in the world, Genoa stepped away from trading and began to control the funds used for financing expeditions. Morphing Genoa into the home of the financiers of European royal houses as well as Atlantic expeditions. Trade for merchants had now shifted from the East to places such as Catalan and Portugal. No longer shining as bright, yet, just as important Genoa would leave its mark in history as well as Columbus. The noisy and packed ports, alluring wealth, normalcy of slavery, and the sweet tastes of sugar would follow Columbus as he ventured forth to Lisbon around 1476. A move which would prove quite astute weather cunningly made or by accident.


Taking to the High Seas

Weather by chance or on purpose, Columbus’s arrival in Portugal could not have been made at a better time. As the center of navigational innovation, Portugal, in conjunction with the translation of Polo’s tales, in 1485 into various languages, caused  the adventurous and exploratory fever to once again strike. However, these innovations and advancements did not lessen the possibility of sailing into a place of no return. This was the fate, for example, of Flemish mariner Ferdinand von Olmen who set sail in 1487 never to be heard of again.

In addition to the fears of never returning home were the fears of attacks from Muslim pirates; not to mention capture. Then there was the need to properly outfit and provision a ship with the required ration per sailor of sea-biscuits (½ a kilogram or about 1 pound). One also needed to have fresh water and wine aboard for the duration.  This, of course, was only after one managed to secure the funds or financiers for such an endeavor in the first place.

Columbus, after many unsuccessful trips, would seek the backing of the united crowns of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in Seville in 1485. Initially they paid Columbus no mind as they struggled to retain command of their united kingdoms after the death of the queens half-brother King Henry IV. The pair now held control of nearly the entire Iberian peninsula; Castile, Aragon and Portugal.

La Reconquista

Further complicating matters and frustrating Columbus’s plans was the war of succession of the Castile crown in 1474-1479. Tides soon turned in favor of the royals with final push made in late 1481. They attacked parts of Granada and by the 1492, the firm believers of the need to Christianize the world, made a victorious entry into Granada on January 6th. The Reconquista was followed by a bloody period in which the peninsula was systematically cleared of non-Christians. This was the period in which the ideals of limpieza de sangre or purity of blood began. Those who managed to escape the bloodbath did so by converting or simply by fleeing the region rife with persecution.

Through it all, however, Columbus continued efforts to find financial backers in Portugal, England, as well as France and all of whom refused to take part in his folly. It is after this that he turned to two friars, Juan Pérez and Antonio de Marchena, who held favor with Queen Isabella, for help in convincing the royals. With the Reconquista over and domestic matters settled they now found themselves free to look to the seas. Looking, particularly, to the East for a way to regain the money used in fighting for Granada. The temptation of Eastern gold and spices, the possibility of new people for conversion, and the constant hounding of Columbus soon proved too much and the Queen was intrigued. Despite council to the contrary she gave in to Columbus’s pestering and demands.

Columbus demanded the title of Admiral as well as Viceroy over any lands he “discovered” for them. Columbus also requested 1/10th of any profits made along with a share in the rights to these acquired lands. It was his wish to do better than his weaver father and be able to leave any son of his with a title as well as funds.  However, the ambitious weaver’s son was well aware the ramifications should he fail: humiliation, loss of money, and should it come to it… death.

Setting sail from Palos on the Costa de la Luz, Columbus made a stop at the Canary Island of La Gomera and set off once more on September 6th catching the north-east trade winds. He and his men set off on an uncertain voyage with only one certainty on hand, Columbus’s obsession with reaching the East. The ships would not see land again for over a month, with a land sighting being made by the Pinta on September 25th. This turned out to be a false alarm, yet, the mariners struck true six days later. Bringing a royal banner, the men disembarked and claimed the island of San Salvador (island in the Bahamas) for the Catholic royals.

Columbus, however, believed he had found the Cipango or Japanese island that Polo had described. This left him terribly confused, however, as the island he  had claimed was not in the East but rather in the Caribbean. Not only, nowhere near his intended location but an environment he was ill prepared for.

For Queen and Glory

“Dominican Republic.” sourced through the Library of Congress, the image is free to use under Public Domain.

Once satisfied that the people of San Salvador had nothing to trade nor any gold, Columbus set sail to explore neighboring lands. Venturing off to “discover” and claim Cuba, which he mistakenly believed to be bigger than England and Scotland combined. He then “discovered” the even larger island of Hispaniola; it aboriginal name thought to be Quisqueya and Ayti.

Europeans worked quickly to establish lines of communication and tried to get natives to act as interpreters. This, however, means there is no way of knowing what was truly said or not said as much could have been lost in translation. For example, no true answer could be given to Columbus when he asked ‘Where is the gold?’

Are We There Yet?

Columbus then decided to return to Europe on January 16th, 1493 with what little gold he had found, tropical fruits and vegetables, parrots, as well as some of the natives (Lucayo) they had baptized; as proof of his success.

The return trip home was not an easy one! A series of terrible storms waylaid the returning ships. Damage caused by these storms forced them to stop in the Azores on February 18th for repairs . Things, however, were no better once they departed as the weather forcibly separated the ships.

The Niña, with Columbus aboard, barely returned to the port of Palos after being forced to make another stop in Lisbon along the way. The Pinta was pushed off course and to the north, finally docking in Bayona, Galicia before making the trip to the southern Palos port.

Despite the rough waters on the way home word of the “discoveries” spread far and wide through the rapid spread of Columbus’s letters to the royals. Letters believed to have been translated by Leonardo de Cosco in 1493 for the original Castilian to Latin. The letters reached such popularity that it was reprinted 9 times in that year alone and a German version was also, eventually, published. Columbus’s feats were further preserved by a Florentien priest, Giuliano Dati, who turned the letters into poems; Lettera delle isole nuovamente trovate or Letter from the islands found again.


The meeting of two worlds, that of Europe and the Caribbean, was one made by accident rather than divine intervention. Columbus achieved glory and infamy by stubborn egotism rather than navigational intelligence.

The decades that followed saw the connection of Europe, Africa, the Americas, and the Far East cemented by the wide open seas. Unforgiving seas that would still prove treacherous for those venturing in despite waves of navigational innovations and developments to come. The New World was the missing puzzle piece in which the production of sugar and mass enslavement would flourish in the “discovered” Caribbean.

Yet, as we’ll see there are still the islands of the Atlantic needed to complete the world puzzle.

“Sailboat Ship Sailing” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.
  • Next Topic- Stepping Stones to the New World
  • Week 4: Paper #1 Due


© 2020. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Licensed by Mahalia Méhu under a Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0 International License.


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The Caribbean Since Columbus Copyright © 2020 by Mahalia Mehu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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