When Columbus Found Pearls

When Columbus Found Pearls

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Six years later, he found pearls. That, in a nutshell, was the spark that launched the New World exploration and sent ships scouring the globe for treasures to claim in the name of Crown and Catholicism.

Turned away by King John II of Portugal, Christopher Columbus took his wild notions to the Spanish court of finding Asia via a westward route. Recently bolstered by the unification of Castile and Aragon, Spain looked toward expansion as a way to curb the power of its rival neighbor Portugal, who maintained strong footholds in Africa and the Indian Ocean.

While her best advisors pronounced the idea impractical, Queen Isabella granted and underwrote this voyage to the “West Indies.” Columbus promised great riches and prestige, and he did not under deliver. On August 4, 1498 – his third voyage – Columbus took his first step onto mainland South America. Local peoples were cautiously receptive, but were eager to trade their strands of pearls for brass, bells and trinkets brought from Europe.

In fact, the waters off modern-day Venezuela were teaming with pearl-laden oysters. Columbus’ crew began hawking anything they could lay their hands on for the impressively large and seemingly abundant native pearls. Columbus wrote, “We are in the richest country of the world. Let us give thanks to the Lord.” Pearl fever had begun.

Over the next 50 years, nearly 13 tons of lustrous pearls were culled from the New World and deposited into the royal coffers of Europe. Kings and queens could not get enough of the gems and declared it illegal for anyone but nobility to wear a pearl. The grand portraits of monarchs, hanging in galleries the world over, are dripping in pearls from the Americas.

This “Land of Pearls” as the Western Hemisphere became known was plundered for the gems. Within a century, the oysters had been wiped nearly to extinction and the local peoples, who had been ignobly forced into pearl diving, turned with resentment on the Spanish Crown. A pearling industry of this scale in the Caribbean has never been restored. Columbus opened up the world, but it came at a price both lustrous and tarnished.