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Maritime History

Christopher Columbus the Explorer


christopher-columbus-ships

“Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World, was foremost a sailor.”  Being a discoverer of the New World has stirred controversy and debate. It even questions historical accuracy about him. What is correct about Christopher Columbus is that he was an explorer. Exploring was his passion. From a small child to an adult, Christopher Columbus imagined and dreamed of discovering new maritime pathways in vast oceans near where he lived (1).

In the country of Genoa where Christopher was born sometime in 1451, statistical authorities did not keep historical records of exact birth dates, so his is unknown. He was born to Catholic parents who were staunchly religious. He grew up learning the art of sailing on his Dad’s fishing boat. From there he and his brother pursued a career in map charting not just any map but ocean map charting.

As Christopher studied maps day and night, he consulted his Bible, particularly the books and verses of the Old Testament to guide him into new discoveries of oceanic routes. His ultimate goal was to find a more efficient course to the West Indies, which was located in East Asia. Because the continent of Africa created a long diversion, Christopher sensed he could find a shorter route by bypassing Africa altogether. The problem for him was his calculations along with previously traveled passages did not tell him exactly where to begin his journey of discovery. He had a hunch though and became obsessed with finding his route.

Poverty was a way of life for Christopher in his youth. Due to this, he had a hard time getting sponsors to back his quest financially. Families that were wealthy had prestige and were noticed and respected by the Royal family.  Christopher knew a shorter route would buy him wealth and a successful mission would bring prestige he needed to get the recognition for future explorations. After many failed attempts by Christopher to win the favor of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Christopher began to give up on receiving funding for his explorations. In a twist of fate, the Royal family accountant encouraged his superiors to accept Christopher’s offer of a commissioned bonus that he would share with Ferdinand and Isabella. All parties agreed with the proposal and soon Christopher was well on his way in new voyages of exploration.

Along the discovery of a quicker route to the West Indies Jews looked to hop aboard and travel as well in search of new continents to settle. However, Christopher refused to do so but wished them goodwill. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews from the country of Spain previously. Naturally, this created conflict with Christopher and those who backed him financially. Everyone aboard the ship was required to practice religion. Usually a morning prayer and song was conducted by an individual each day.

Once Christopher arrived ashore, he thought he had landed at the West Indies and so when Christopher met the native inhabitants he called them, “Indians.”  Europe quickly caught onto the term to identify similar native inhabitants they could not identify. Christopher wanted to enslave the locals for labor and to convert them to Christianity. He felt God sent these peoples to “aid” Europeans in colonizing new land.  Miscommunications about a bountiful supply of gold and bejeweled decorations further cemented divine justification of colonization. Natives in future explorations of the island brought Christopher Columbus in contact with tobacco. These things he could bring back to show evidence of a successful mission (2).

After sending a letter back to the Spain updating the crown of his missions, Christopher awaited a response to his report. He got it. He also obtained his coveted title (count) which gave him prestige and clout with the Royals. This promotion elevated him from commoner to respected voyager and explorer. It also opened up state funding of another voyage supported by the Royals. Since Christopher was also a trader,  it was natural to him to come up with a plan colonize Hispaniola. Because this would be a major stop along the route to the West Indies, it could impact the trade routes in many economical ways Christopher knew would benefit the Royals as well as himself. Also natural was to hire priests to convert and control natives who might protest the colonization (3).

Christopher brought some residents back to Spain with him to show the Ferdinand and Isabella of the people who inhabited the island. The Royals had the natives baptized, but once they arrived they were introduced to European diseases. When Christopher returned to Hispaniola, some of his crew became exposed to syphilis there. The native people who had grown up there for thousands of years were either immune or could fend off the disease. Europeans had no natural immunity to disease of the New World. Most of the labor population was wiped out shortly after Christopher’s expedition due to intermixing of natives and Europeans (4).

Christopher Columbus did not discover America, but he did discover lands unfamilar to the Spanish crown. His explorations are fascinating to understand in the development of the New World, colonization and how people viewed each other in this curious time.

1.  Samuel Eliot Morison, Christopher Columbus: Mariner (Meridian, 1983), 3. ; http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/10/14/232120128/how-columbus-sailed-into-u-s-history-thanks-to-italians.

2. Morison, 52.

3. Morison, 72.

4. Morison, 86.

 

Francis Drake-The Pirate


Francis Drake
Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake lived and worked during a time when Spain was at war with its bordering nations. He was born sometime in the years between 1540 and 1541(birth records did not exist at this time). Although this lack of record keeping might seem a bit unusual in our time such a record for them was insignificant. Francis hailed from Devonshire, England and was raised by a farmer. On those days, farming could sustain a family but it could not often bring riches alone and it did not bring prestige and respect of the royal family, but success at high seas did. Drake may have dreamed his future of owning and captaining a ship as a young boy. In his spare time, he tagged along with relatives on their ships. Whenever they sailed, the crew learned the art of piracy as they targeted merchant ships traveling the sea trade routes. Francis Drake became famous as a world renown ocean navigator and land explorer but before all that he was a real pirate.

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Slave Trade 1500s

At the completion of his apprenticeship, young Francis commanded his first ship called the Judith. He hired a cousin to assist in the mission to the continent of Africa to participate in the slave trade. After acquiring slaves, they sailed for New Spain with the goal of acquiring funds by selling captives to settlers there. The slave trade was Illegal in Spain at the time and Francis along with some of his crew were soon arrested and held for those crimes. Drake vowed revenge upon the Spanish crown from that point on.

After returning to England, he received a notice from Queen Elizabeth I to take his piracy to a new level. She permitted him to obtain a privateer license. This license enabled him to use his piracy to raid, plunder and steal property that belonged to Spain. It was an unofficial war on King Phillip whom Queen Elizabeth I despised. Soon after Drake embarked upon his fist mission to Nombre De Dios, a stop in Panama for Spanish ships full of silver and gold returning from Peru. Unfortunately, Francis did not acquire much success as the Spaniards battled hard against Drake, his fleet, and ships. To compensate for this instead of high seas piracy Drake and his men raided Spanish settlements and robbed them of their precious metals instead.

For the remainder of Francis Drake’s life, he remained a pirate. Although he is known popularly for his success at being the first to circumvent the globe and as a successful maritime and land explorer he should also be remembered as a pirate and as someone who participated in the slave trade. Piracy at the time was a normal way of life and considered a divine right. Even though today we understand the piracy of the 16th century to be criminal, the expeditions conducted and led by Francis remind us how folks in his time viewed the world and the people around them.

Split Rock Lighthouse


Split Rock Lighthouse

Split Rock lighthouse or the Split Rock Light station as it was historically called, sits upon a huge rock overlooking part of the Great Lakes harbor water transit system. Located along Minnesota’s North shore and constructed between 1909 and 1910, this lighthouse’s sole purpose was to stand guard and protect steel frigates navigating through the dense fog that often hovers just above the water there.

During the industrial age, Two Harbors and Duluth-Superior sat next to a massive iron mountain range. The iron deposits in the mountains played a vital role in enabling America to compete and successfully become a world steel magnate. Unfortunately, the routes that ships transporting the ore faced were rocky bottoms and narrow passage ways and often dangerous to navigate. Weather changes added to the many threats shipmen faced daily  transporting the ore.

In 1905, a devastating storm blew through the harbor corridor, overturning a helpless barge, the Madeira. The storm was so strong and violent it caused it’s tow ship, William Edenborn’s line to snap. Loss of life and the tragic struggle of the crews on both vessels witnessed by onlookers ashore, encouraged the lobbying of Congress for the Split Rock Lighthouse to be built. Support for new, safer measures and laws were needed due to the poor visibility by the ships of the far away shore that made navigation treacherous.

In 1907 funding poured in, granted by congress, for the building of the lighthouse. Support for the funding was provided by documentation of past accidents by the Lake Carrier Association.

This lighthouse has seen many repairs and renovations on its surrounding property but the building itself is a remarkable piece of architecture soundly built. It has withstood the years and retained its pre 1930’s appeal. It is a great piece of living history to visit. The lighthouse and the grounds it sits upon tell the story as it continues to do its duty standing guard over the harbor to this day.

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