“There arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk.”
Many times, when we think about Columbus, we think about his first voyage. We think that he simply came and left, but there is more…there were other adventures. Ferdinand, Columbus’ second son, accompanied his father and his older half brother on his last voyage. He would later write his father’s biography entitled “The life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus” where he told the account of the fourth voyage, which was largely regarded as a failure in his book. He wrote of two hurricanes, being shipwrecked and marooned, but also of discovery.
Columbus felt as if though he did not get the recognition and wealth that he believed he should have received after completing the first three journeys in the Caribbean. In 1502, the Central American coast was mostly undocumented, unexplored and Columbus strongly believed that there was a passageway through to the orient, which was what sparked his fourth and final journey to the Caribbean. He had left Portugal and, because of his previous voyages, made it in record time to Hispaniola, present day Haiti and Dominican Republic. Upon his arrival, the weather turned for the worst, as he had sailed into a hurricane. They were unscathed but they had lost one of the ships and they proceded and set sail to find the passageway to the Pacific.
They had made it to a small island that he named Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. This is as close as Christopher Columbus came to Belize. It was here where he had the first encounter with the Maya. Ferdinand describes this encounter to some detail in his book: “There arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions; it had a palm-leaf awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers aboard, but they offered no resistance when our boats drew up to them.”
They commandeered this giant canoe, which Ferdinand compared to as being as long as a galley that was around 60 feet at the smallest. He mentions that Christopher took the costliest and handsomest things of the cargo, but fails to mention what these were exactly. He does elaborate on the other items like textile and sleeveless shirts that were dyed and had several embroidered designs. In baskets they stored the gains and roots. The grains were maize, as that was the main food source of the Maya. The roots can be a wide variety of plants, but were likely the root of the Macal plant that is edible and grows in abundance along the river banks in Belize. There was also wine made from the same grains that tasted like English beer. He describes baskets filled with a type of almond. We know today that this was actually the cacao seed pod that is the basis for chocolate. He does observe that these indigenous people treasured these almonds. “I noticed that when they were brought aboard with the other goods, and some fell to the floor, all the Indians squatted down to pick them up as if they had lost something of great value.” A few tools and other items were also found onboard; a sword, but made of wood, and at its edge, obsidian blades that cut like steel, as well as hatchets and hawk’s bells that were made of high quality copper.
Christopher Columbus acknowledges that the canoe came from the direction of the west, but instead of exploring that area, he decided to make land fall south in modern-day Trujillo, Honduras. There they encountered more natives and, at first, they were very welcoming. After the natives realized that the crew was only there to take their food and other products, the natives rebelled and Columbus and his crew abandoned the area by heading east. The expedition was considered a great failure as Columbus never found a passageway through to the orient. They sailed along the coastline of Central America and after going through another hurricane and their ships badly damaged by termites, the ships could go no further and Columbus made his way to Jamaica, where they were stranded. It was not until late 1504 that he finally returned to Spain.
In 2004 Heather McKillop, PHD, while surveying in Payne’s Creek National Park in Southern Belize, found an ancient Maya paddle embedded in the mangrove peat below the sea floor. The paddle is four feet seven inches long and dates between 660 and 880 A.D. It is made out of Manilkara zapota, mainly known as Sapodilla. In 2008, McKillop found fragments of a canoe in the same Payne’s Creek area, also preserved in the mangrove peat. The Maya of Payne’s Creek produced sea salt from brine. They were successful in producing salt in large quantities, more than they would be able to consume, so they would trade it with the inland Maya. They would use it to preserve fish meat and other sea products, allowing them to transport these over longer distances without spoiling. The ancient maya merchants traveled over great distances for trade. The evidence is clear that they traded in the highlands of Guatemala and in the far reaches with the Toltecs in Mexico. They used the Belizean rivers to get to the coast and to the islands where they traded with the maya living there. Even after the collapse of the ancient civilization in the central lowlands, a large group of Maya stayed in southern Belize and those people continued living and trading. The Maya navigated the sea and traded with other Maya people living along the Honduras coastline and they are who Columbus encountered on that day. I ask myself, how would have Belize’s history changed if Columbus had turned to the west?