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The Fourth New World Voyage of

Christopher Columbus
Columbus gets Marooned for a Year while Exploring

Portrait of Christopher Columbus (1520) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain image

On May 11, 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on his fourth and final voyage to the
New World. He had four ships and his mission was to explore uncharted areas to the
west of the Caribbean, hopefully finding a passage west to the Orient. Columbus did
explore parts of southern Central America, but his ships, damaged by a hurricane and
termites, fell apart while he was exploring. Columbus and his men were stranded on
Jamaica for about a year before being rescued. They returned to Spain in late 1504.

Christopher Columbus

Magellan

Map Route

Around the World Ship

Expedition Ship
Before the Journey:
Much had happened sinceColumbus daring 1492 voyage of discovery. After that
historic trip, Columbus was sent back to the New World to establish a colony. Although
Columbus was a gifted sailor, he was a terrible administrator, and the colony he founded
on Hispaniola turned against him. After his third trip he was arrested and sent back to

Spain in chains. Although he was quickly freed by the King and Queen, his reputation
was shot. Still, the crown agreed to finance one last voyage of discovery.
Preparations:
With royal backing, Columbus soon found four seaworthy
vessels: Capitana, Gallega,Vizcana and Santiago de Palos. His brothers Diego and
Bartholomew and his son Fernando signed on, as did some veterans of his earlier trips.
Columbus himself was fifty-one and was beginning to become known around court for
being eccentric: he believed that when the Spanish united the world under Christianity
(which they would do quickly with gold and wealth from the New World) that the world
would end. He also tended to dress like a simple barefoot friar, not like the wealthy man
he had become.
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Hispaniola:
Columbus was not welcome on the island of Hispaniola, where too many of the settlers
remembered his cruel and ineffective administration. Nevertheless, he went there after
first visiting Martinique and Puerto Rico. He was hoping to exchange one of his ships
(the Santiago de Palos) for a quicker one. While awaiting an answer, he sent word that a
storm was approaching and that the new governor (Nicols de Ovando) should delay
the fleet heading for Spain.
The Hurricane:
Ovando forced Columbus to anchor his ships in a nearby estuary and ignored his
advice, sending the fleet of 28 ships on to Spain. A tremendous hurricane sank 24 of
them: three returned and only one ironically, the one containing Columbus personal
effects that he wished to send to Spain arrived safely. A few miles away, Columbus
ships were badly battered, but all of them remained afloat.
Across the Caribbean:
Once the hurricane had passed, Columbus small fleet set out to look for a passage
west. The storms continued, and the journey was a living hell. The ships, already
damaged from the hurricane, took more abuse. Eventually, they reached Central
America, anchoring off the coast of Honduras on an island that many believe to
be Guanaja. There they repaired the ships and took on supplies.
Native Encounters:

While exploring Central America, Columbus had an encounter many believe to be the
first with one of the major inland civilizations. Columbus fleet found a trading vessel, a
very long, wide canoe full of goods and traders believed to be Mayan from the Yucatan.
The traders carried copper tools and weapons, swords made of wood and flint, textiles
and a certain beer-like beverage made from fermented corn. Columbus, oddly enough,
decided not to investigate this interesting trading civilization: instead of turning north
when he hit Central America, he headed south.
Central America to Jamaica:
Columbus continued exploring to the south, along the coasts of present-day Nicaragua,
Costa Rica and Panama. He met several native cultures, observing maize being
cultivated on terraces. They also saw stone structures. They traded for food and gold
whenever possible. In early 1503, the ships began to fail. In addition to the battering
they had taken from one hurricane and several major storms, it was discovered that they
were infested with termites. Columbus reluctantly set sail for Santo Domingo and aid,
but his ships only made it as far as Santa Gloria (St. Anns Bay), Jamaica.
A Year on Jamaica:
The ships could go no further. Columbus and his men did what they could, breaking the
ships apart to make shelters and fortifications. They made a peace with the local
natives, who brought them food. Columbus was able to get word to Ovando of his
predicament, but Ovando had neither the resources nor the inclination to help him.
Columbus and his men languished on Jamaica for a year, surviving storms, mutinies
and an uneasy peace with the natives. Columbus, with the help of one of his books,
impressed the natives by correctly predicting an eclipse. Finally, in June of 1504, two
ships finally arrived to pick them up.
Importance of the Fourth Voyage:
Columbus returned to Spain to learn that his beloved Queen Isabel was dying. Without
her support, Columbus would never return to the New World. He was getting on in years
at any rate, and it is a wonder that he survived the disastrous fourth voyage. He died in
1506.
Columbus Fourth Voyage is remarkable primarily for some new exploration, mostly
along the coast of Central America. It is also of interest to historians, who value the
descriptions of the native cultures encountered by Columbus small fleet, particularly
those sections concerning the Mayan traders. Some of those who were along on the
fourth voyage would later go on to greater things, such as Antonio de Alaminos, a cabin

boy who would later rise to pilot and explore much of the western Caribbean. Columbus
son Fernando would later write a biography of his famous father.
The Fourth Voyage was a failure by almost any standard. Many of Columbus men died,
the ships were lost and no passage to the west was ever found. Columbus himself
would never sail again, and died convinced that he had found Asia, even if most of
Europe already accepted the fact that the Americas were an unknown New World. Still,
the fourth voyage showed better than any other Columbus sailing skills, fortitude and
resilience, attributes which allowed him to discover the Americas in the first place.