North American Exploration - Vol. 1

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

4 / Early Spanish Exploration: The Caribbean, Central America, and the Gulf of Mexico

ROBERT S. WEDDLE

Columbus in 1492 opened the door to a labyrinthine new world, any one of whose myriad passages would disclose previously unknown vistas. He could not begin to fathom its complexities. In three succeeding voyages, 1493-1504, he established on Hispaniola a permanent base for the continuing discovery; he also discovered the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, as well as the mainland of Central and South America. Yet his discoveries were limited by natural phenomena he did not understand. The Caribbean Current, coursing westward along Cuba's southern shore toward the Yucatán Channel, figured in his decision on the second voyage to turn back from the Ensenada de Cortés rather than risk, with short provisions and tattered rigging, a difficult or impossible return against the stream. Thus, he failed to recognize that Cuba was an island and not an Asian peninsula. The current also influenced his decision, after reaching Honduras on the fourth voyage, to turn east instead of west. He thus failed to discover the Yucatán Peninsula and the impressive Mayan ruins along its Caribbean coast. Instead, he ran the isthmian shore in a fruitless search for a strait to the Indian Ocean so that he might sail home to Spain by going around the world.1

It was the third voyage, reaching the Paria Peninsula of Venezuela, that shifted the focus of Spanish interest from Cuba and Jamaica south across the Caribbean Sea. The Admiral's reports of friendly natives wearing pearl necklaces and ornaments of alloyed copper and gold stirred the sanguine souls of would-be usurpers. This eager bunch, mindless of the injustice being done to Columbus by his imprisonment and the Crown's breach of contract, suffered no compunction over pirating his maps and reports so as to exploit this otro mundo ("other world") while its discoverer languished in jail. Indeed, each extension of the discovery had seemed to emphasize that

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