Columbus in the Garden of Eden

While on his third voyage, Columbus thought he’d reached the Garden of Eden; instead, he was soon to find himself in irons being shipped back in disgrace to Spain.

The year was 1498 and Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain were as gold-hungry as ever. Another commission to seek out the ever-elusive trade route to India and beyond was offered to Columbus, though this time it would be on a smaller, more budget-conscious scale than his two earlier voyages.

Upon his return to Spain following the first voyage in 1492, Columbus was the celebrated darling of the Spanish court. There is little doubt, however, that when the king and queen received Columbus, their affection and eye-bulging was more for the sake of the gold Columbus held in his hands than for the explorer himself. One can visualize the king and queen taking turns embracing the gold which happened to be attached to the overwhelmed Columbus and that, realizing at last that they were also hugging the explorer, one of them must have said, “Ah! Columbus? Are you here as well? When did you arrive?”

It was after Columbus’ second voyage that Isabella and Ferdinand had begun to lose faith in Columbus’ abilities. They and other investors had not made a return on their investment in the expedition, and trading posts in the Far East had not been established, let alone reached.

Nevertheless, a third voyage, with six ships and manned by stout hearts, set out for the New World on May 30, 1498. Besides the largely obvious goals of finding a trade route to the East, accumulating as much gold as possible and converting to Christianity whatever unenlightened heathens were on hand (in fact, few were converted and many were enslaved), there was, at least in the mind of Christopher Columbus, the desired mission of finding the Garden of Eden. Columbus was at this time fervently religious and, when his traveling days were over, he would become even more deeply orthodox, apocalyptic and, some would say, deranged in his religious views.

In his treatise The Book of Prophecies, which was influenced by the writings of earlier theologians, Columbus offers some insight into his views on the Garden of Eden and the second coming of Christ. In order for the return of Christ to come about, certain requirements would have to be met –namely, that Christianity must take root throughout the world; the holy lands and in particular Jerusalem, the birth place of Christ, must be wrested from the Muslims; a “last emperor of the world” must be established (Isabella and Ferdinand would seem, at least to Columbus, to meet this requirement); and, finally, the Garden of Eden would have to be found.

It is no wonder, then, that when Columbus first reached the craggy north-eastern shores of Venezuela (which he named “Isla Santa,” in the belief it was an island) on August 1, 1498, and looked upon the lush, verdant, paradise-like landscape before him, his initial impression was that he was looking at the Garden of Eden. In addition, the crags here in Venezuela fit with the Medieval notion that the Garden of Eden would have to have been at a high enough altitude to have escaped the Biblical floods that swept the Earth.

The rest of Christopher Columbus’ trip, however, wasn’t nearly so idyllic and paradisiacal. A week later he stopped off at the island of Hispaniola, where he’d left a colony of men on the previous voyage under the rule of his two brothers, Bartholomew and Diego Columbus. Upon his arrival, Christopher Columbus found the inhabitants in a hot, bothered and rebellious mood, their dreams of an abundance of gold for all having been unrealized. Not a particularly adept administrator, Columbus’ presence seemed to have the effect of making things even worse, and his attempt to restore some semblance of order through punishment hangings did not sit well with much of the island’s population.

It was at about this time that the Spanish chief justice, Francisco de Bobadilla, arrived on the island from Spain empowered by a royal commission to investigate the complaints. De Bobadilla sized up the situation and concluded that Columbus was in the wrong, with the result that Columbus and his two brothers were clapped in irons and shipped back to Spain, arriving in Cádiz in October of 1500.

How Columbus managed to get out of this tight spot and go on to lead a fourth voyage of discovery is a story best left for another day.

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