HomeFeatureMoney and the pursuit of wealth: Part 36...Columbus’ looting journeys

Money and the pursuit of wealth: Part 36…Columbus’ looting journeys

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BY the time the Portuguese were solidifying their grip on Indian Ocean commerce, Christopher Columbus had sailed for the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and QueenIsabella, and discovered the Americas.  

Queen Isabella of Spain.
King Ferdinand.

As the new century began, farsighted Europeans might have concluded that the focus of trade might be moving from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.  

Mariners had not only found a new all-water route to the riches of China and India, but opened a continent whose southern reaches had been unknown to Europeans. 

The region soon proved to be rich in gold and a source for slaves. 

After spending more than a dozen years trying to convince one of Europe’s monarchs, including King John II of Portugal, to bankroll his plan to reach the Indies by sailing west, Columbus finally found a backer in Isabella of Spain. 

Columbus was not a romantic adventurer, but like those mariners who sailed under the Portuguese flag, he was interested in wealth.

He wanted to discover the new route, but he wanted to become rich as well.

“Gold is treasure,” he wrote, “and he who possesses it does whatever he wishes in this life, and succeeds in helping souls into paradise.” 

In 1485, Columbus had an audience with the Count of Medina Celi, who was willing to provide ships and was prepared to go on the voyage for expenses and nothing more. 

The Count had second thoughts, however, and suggested that Isabella was the person to see for so ambitious an undertaking.

In 1491, when he presented himself at court, Columbus had reason to believe he might be successful in obtaining backing. 

The Spanish crusade to rid Spain of the Moors and Jews was nearing its conclusion and Isabella’s attention could turn elsewhere.

Knowing this, Columbus asked for the title of admiral and 10 percent of the profits from the trade. Also, he was to be permitted to invest one-eighth of the funds needed to initiate commerce and to receive a like share of the profits.

At first, Columbus was rejected, but then one of the Queen’s counsellors, Louis de Santagel, keeper of the privy purse, noted that this was a small price to pay for the discovery of a new route to India and China. 

Isabella was convinced of the merits of such an expedition and even offered to pawn her jewels to raise the needed amount, but Santagel raised the funds from investors. 

Ultimately, Isabella invested in aquarter of the shares of the enterprise; the rest came from courtiers, businessmen, bankers and friends of Columbus in Spain. 

The Santa Hermandad, Spain’s secret police, also had shares in the enterprise.

That Columbus sought wealth in the lands he came upon was manifest. 

He hoped for trade, to be sure, but more than anything else, he wanted gold. 

As did many in this period, Columbus believed that gold was to be found in places that were hot and silver in those that were cold. 

The search for the metal began immediately. 

The journal entry of October 13 said: “I was bent on finding out if there was gold and saw that some (natives) wore a bit of it suspended from a hole pierced in the nose, and by signs I learned that going to the south and making a turnabout the island to the south there was a king who had large jars of it and possessed a lot.”

Columbus turned southwards and two days later, came across other natives who wore gold as bracelets, nose rings and breastplates. 

More mentions of gold followed. 

The journal records just about all the gold he saw and learned about. 

Eventually, Columbus discovered some gold, and more was found in subsequent journeys.

Columbus located more items, which he brought back to Spain. 

He also took back some curiosities. 

In the first journal entry, upon finding land on October 12 1492, is recorded a chance encounter with a sole ‘Indian’ who was travelling by open boat from the island of Santa Maria to Femandina. 

He had food and water and “…some dry leaves which must be a thing very much appreciated among them, because they already brought me some of them as a present at San Salvador.” Columbus later noted that the natives of Hispaniola smoked a plant, “…the perfume of which was fragrant and grateful”.

Thus, Europe was introduced to tobacco, one of the first of the New World items that played a role in what was later called the ‘Columbian exchange’, which included Columbus’s introduction of citrus fruits to the West Indies, thus completing their transference from the Orient.

The Spaniards set about legalising their claims. 

Madrid entered into negotiations with Lisbon and Rome. 

In May, the Pope granted Spain possession of all lands to the south and west not held by other Christians on Christmas Day, 1492. 

Two years later, Lisbon accepted a modified version of the papal contract. 

In the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain agreed that Portugal would have all lands 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands while Madrid would control the rest. 

In effect, Spain was granted much of the Americas. 

Portugal received part of Brazil and eventually the vice royalty of Brazil would comprise more than a third of South America, plus all of Africa. 

At the time, Lisbon seemed to have received the better part of the bargain. 

In 1513, the Portuguese were in the Moluccas, south of the Philippines. 

Thus, the Portuguese overseas empire covered more than half the globe.

Columbus launched his second expedition in 1493 with an armada of 17 ships. 

These were not fighting ships like the ones the Portuguese sent to Asia. 

Instead, they carried a cargo of 1 200 people who were to settle the lands, plant crops and, most importantly, mine for gold and silver. 

He hoped the colonies would be self-supporting in food stuffs and send mineral wealth back to Spain.  

However, the settlements were failures.  

Undeterred, Columbus embarked on a third voyage in 1498 that took him to South America. 

He was challenged by Francisco de Bobadilla, who gained control of the expedition, captured Columbus and sent him and his two brothers back to Spain in chains, charging them with misconduct. 

A fourth expedition was mounted in 1502, but was deemed a failure.

Worn out and ill, Columbus returned from that last journey in 1504.

 Isabella had just died and so lost his great protector but he was a wealthy man, with more to come. 

In 1506, he received a chest with what today would be approximately a quarter of a million dollars in gold.  

But Columbus felt cheated. He had expected 10 percent of the wealth, but he only received 10 percent of Isabella’s quarter share, which came to two percent. 

A fallen hero, Columbus died in 1506, still believing he had discovered the outer reaches of the Orient.

Following on Columbus’s discoveries, the Spaniards took the lead in the race to the west, while Portuguese mariners concentrated on Africa and Asia. 

The Spaniards searched both coasts of North and South America and sent exploring parties into the interiors. 

The Portuguese also explored the New World, sending Amerigo Vespucci, who had previously sailed for Spain, to search for wealth.

Others would come after.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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