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Christopher Columbus's voyages of discovery were part of
a much broader pattern of European commercial and financial
expansion during the fifteenth century. In the span of less
than four decades, European countries revolutionized sea
travel. Led by tiny Portugal, fifteenth-century European
mariners adapted from the Arabs a small sturdy ship known
as the caravel capable of sailing against the wind. They
also refined such navigational aids as the astrolabe and
quadrants, allowing sailors to accurately chart their latitude,
while mapmakers and geographers greatly improved the quality
of maps. In just a decade, from 1488 to 1498, European sailors
mastered the winds and currents of the south Atlantic, making
it possible for the first time to sail from Western Europe
to West Africa and into the Indian Ocean.
With financial support from German and Italian
bankers and merchants, Portugal was able to exploit these
discoveries and create a system of long-distance trade and
commerce based on sugar and slavery. As early as 1420, the
Portuguese began to settle islands off the West African
coast. In Madeira, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and other
islands, the Portuguese introduced sugar cane. Beginning
in 1443, Portugal established a string of trading posts
along the West African coast, which soon became major sources
of slave labor for the Iberian Peninsula and especially
for the Atlantic island sugar plantations.
Christopher Columbus was very familiar with
this network of Atlantic trade. Born in Genoa in 1451, the
son of an Italian wool weaver, Columbus was pushed by his
father into trade. In 1476 he settled in a Genoese trading
community in Portugal. There, he met his wife, whose father
was the Portuguese governor of an island off Africa's Atlantic
coast. For ten years Columbus lived in Madeira and made
voyages to the Azores, the Canary Islands, and western Africa.
Forty-one years old at the time he made his first voyage
of discovery, Columbus was obsessed with the idea of finding
a new route to the Far East, which would provide him with
enough wealth to pay for the liberation of the Holy Land
from Islamic rule. Personally familiar with slavery and
sugar production when he arrived in the Caribbean, he quickly
saw the opportunity to extract riches from this new land.
As the following extracts from his journal
reveal, within days of his arrival in the New World, Columbus
regarded the Indian population as a potential labor source.
As he and other Europeans would soon discover, the Indians,
especially the Caribs, were not as timid or as easily dominated
as Columbus originally thought.
Sunday, 14th of October
people are very simple as regards the use of arms, as your Highnesses
will see from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring
home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses
should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept
as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can
all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them....
16th of December
Highnesses may believe that this island (Hispaniola), and all
the others, are as much yours as Castile. Here there is only
wanting a settlement and the order to the people to do what
is required. For I, with the force I have under me, which is
not large, could march over all these islands without opposition.
I have seen only three sailors land, without wishing to do harm,
and a multitude of Indians fled before them. They have no arms,
and are without warlike instincts; they all go naked, and are
so timid that a thousand would not stand before three of our
men. So that they are good to be ordered about, to work and
sow, and do all that may be necessary, and to build towns, and
they should be taught to go about clothed and to adopt our customs.
of the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1493,"
in E.G. Bourne, The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503
(New York, 1906), 114, 145-146, 182