Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren

Christopher Columbus


One day in the autumn of 1486 a stranger knocked at the gate of a convent called "La Rabida," not far from the little Spanish seaport of Palos. He held by the hand a little boy, and when the monk who opened the door asked what was wanted he answered, "My child and I are tired and hungry. Will you give us a morsel of bread, and let us rest here awhile?"

They were invited to enter, and food was set before them. During the meal the stranger began to talk about the Western Ocean and what must be on the other side of it. "Most men," he said, "think that beyond the Azores there is nothing but a sea of darkness; but I believe that beyond those islands there is another and a larger land."

The prior of the convent, and the physician of Palos who happened to be present, were greatly interested in what their visitor had to say, and asked him to tell them his name and something of his history.

"I am called Christopher Columbus," he said.

"I was born in Genoa, and there my boyhood was spent. I loved when a child to watch the sailors haul up the anchor and let loose the sails when a ship began her voyage. My play was to learn the names of the ropes and find out what each was for.

"My father sent me to the University of Pavia; and there I learned about the stars that guide the seaman on his way. I also learned to draw maps and charts. While drawing those maps I used to wonder whether there was not some land beyond the Canaries and the Azores.

"At fifteen I became a sailor. I went on voyages to England and Ireland, to Greece and elsewhere. On one of my voyages our ship was wrecked on the rocky coast of Portugal, but I got to land by the help of a plank. I stayed awhile in Portugal, and there I married the daughter of a sea captain who was the governor of Porto Santo, one of the Madeira Islands.

"I afterwards visited Porto Santo, and there I met many men whose lives were spent in sailing the sea. They told me some wonderful tales. One said that a Portuguese pilot named Martin Vicente had picked up at sea, twelve hundred miles west of Portugal, a piece of strange wood that had been carved by the hand of man. My brother-in-law said that he had seen at Porto Santo great pieces of jointed canes; and that a friend had told him about two human bodies which had been washed up at Flores, 'very broad-faced' and not at all like Christians.

"All these things made me believe more firmly in the idea of a land to the westward; and at length I determined to find that land.

"But I was poor. I could not buy a ship nor pay a crew. I went to my native Genoa, where the masts in the harbor rise as close as the trees in a wood. I explained my plans to the rich merchants there, and begged them to help me. But my countrymen were afraid to send any vessel of theirs beyond the Azores. They thought that west of those islands, there was nothing but the 'Sea of Darkness.'

"I went to Lisbon and asked the Portuguese king for help. Again I was disappointed; but I was not discouraged.

"I then came to Spain, and at last the good Queen Isabella heard my story. A council of learned men was called to consider my plan. They said it was wild, and advised her Majesty to give me no aid.

"Thus, I am again disappointed. The little money that I had is spent, and I am a beggar. It seems as if the world is against me. Yet I am sure that there is a land beyond the sea."

Columbus and Isabel


The prior, the physician, and the monks who had gathered about Columbus were much interested. Father Perez, one of the monks, had been confessor to Queen Isabella, and he wrote a letter to her begging that she would see Columbus again. She consented, and Columbus went from the convent to the palace to see her.

The queen again refused his request, and Columbus set out for France hoping that the king of that country might help him. But one of the officers of Isabella's court persuaded her to change her mind, and a messenger was sent to bring Columbus back into the royal presence.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were in camp at Santa Fe near Granada, which they had but lately captured from the floors; and there they signed an agreement to supply Columbus with two ships, and to pay the crews.

It was easy for the sovereigns to promise crews and to pay them; but it was very hard to find men who were willing to sail on such a voyage. Even the criminals who were promised pardon if they would go, refused. To sail into the "Sea of Darkness" seemed certain death to them.

At last, however, all difficulties were overcome. Two wealthy gentlemen added a third ship to the two supplied by the king and queen; and the wonderful voyage began. The Santa Maria  with a crew of fifty men was commanded by Columbus himself; the Pinta  with thirty men was in charge of Martin Pinzon; and the Nina  or "Baby" with twenty-four men was commanded by Martin's brother, Vicente Pinzon.

At eight o'clock on the morning of August 3, 1492, the sails were hoisted, and the little expedition left the harbor of Palos.

On the third day out, the Pinta  lost her rudder. Fortunately they were then not far from the Canary Islands. They therefore steered for Teneriffe where they had the vessel repaired.

When they had sailed about six weeks they were astonished to find that the magnetic needle varied from its usual direction. Soon after observing this, they reached a part of the ocean where a great field of seaweed lay all around them. This was what is called the "Sargasso Sea," and the ships of Columbus were the first that ever sailed across it.

They observed another strange thing. The wind in this part of the ocean blew steadily, night and day, to the westward. It was the northeast trade wind, which was unknown to sailors along the coast and in the inland seas.



They had excellent weather; but the men began to be fearful lest they could never beat back against the trade wind; and it was hard to keep them in good spirits.

Happily, soon afterward, they saw some birds, and that made them sure that land was not far off. Then the Pinta  fished up a fragment of sugar cane and a log of wood; and the Nina  sighted a green branch covered with dog-rose flowers.

At ten o'clock one night, Columbus saw a light ahead; and the next morning they landed on one of the Bahama Islands. Which island this was we are not quite sure; but it was probably the one which the natives called Guanahani. Columbus named it San Salvador.

Columbus and Isabel


When Columbus stepped from his boat he carried with him the royal banner of Spain. Kneeling upon the shore with his companions, he kissed the ground, gave thanks to God, and took possession of the land in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The expedition afterwards discovered the islands of Cuba, Haiti and others of the West India group.

On the shore of Haiti the Santa Maria  went aground and became a wreck. With the two remaining vessels, Columbus soon afterwards set sail for Spain, and on the 15th of March, 1493, he dropped anchor in the port of Palos.

Ferdinand and Isabella were then at Barcelona, and they received him with great honor. He showed them curious plants and gayly-colored parrots, and, more interesting than these, nine natives whom he had brought from the newly-discovered islands.

There was now no doubt that Columbus was right, and that the "Sea of Darkness" beyond the Azores was only a dream.

It was determined that Columbus should make another expedition. In six months seventeen vessels and fifteen hundred men were ready to sail, and the second great voyage was begun. It was on this voyage that Jamaica, Porto Rico, and several smaller islands were discovered.

Most of the fifteen hundred men, however, went with Columbus, not in the hope of discovering new lands, but for the purpose of colonizing the island of Haiti. Columbus had learned on his first voyage that on that island there were deposits of gold; so now a mining town was founded in the gold region of Haiti, and the work of digging was begun. But the Spaniards were not fond of work. They therefore made slaves of the natives and forced them to dig in the mines; and a large quantity of gold was secured.

Some of the greedy colonists thought of another and easier way of making money. They captured a number of the natives and sent them to Spain to be sold as slaves; and, strange to say, Columbus permitted this.

When Queen Isabella heard of it she was very angry with Columbus, and asked him who had given him the right to make slaves of her subjects. She commanded that every one of the Indians should be made free and sent home.

This enslaving of the Indians was the beginning of the downfall of Columbus. Isabella never afterwards felt toward him as she had before.

However, when he returned to Spain he related a pitiful tale about the sufferings of the colonists in Haiti; and the queen furnished him with supplies for them, and provided a fleet of six vessels with which he set sail on May 30, 1498.

On this third voyage a new land was discovered. One day, three hill-tops were seen rising out of the sea, and soon the ships approached a large island. Columbus called it, from its three peaks, Trinidad, and the island is still known by that name.

From Trinidad they sailed to the southwest until they approached another shore. Columbus had now discovered the southern grand division of the New World, but he did not know this. He supposed that the land was only another island.



He was anxious to get back to the colony on the island of Haiti, and so, sailing now to the northward, the ships in due time reached their harbor.

In Haiti there were men plotting against Columbus. Some of the colonists who had not found so much gold as they had hoped for, returned to Spain and complained to the king that Columbus was managing the colony badly.

Ferdinand and Isabella partly believed what they said. As Columbus had done one wrong thing when he made slaves of the Indians, the king and queen thought he might do wrong in other things.

Accordingly, they sent to Haiti a man named Bobadilla (bo ba deel' yd) to take charge of the colony; and Bobadilla on his arrival, accused Columbus of cruelty and injustice, and sent him to Spain in chains. The captain of the vessel in which he sailed wished to remove these fetters, but Columbus would not allow him to do so. He wore them to the end of the voyage, and kept them as relics ever afterwards.

As soon as the vessel reached Spain, Columbus wrote a letter to the king and queen telling them what he had done, and what had been done to him. When Isabella read it, she is said to have shed tears. His fetters were at once removed; and Ferdinand and Isabella refused to listen to the charges which Bobadilla had made against him.

Columbus never so much as imagined that he had discovered a new continent. He supposed that Cuba, Jamaica, and the other islands which he visited were some of what are called the "Indies", or islands near India. For a long time everybody else supposed so too; and hence it is that Cuba and the neighboring islands have always been called the West Indies.

About this time, the Pope divided between Spain and Portugal all the newly-discovered lands, and all that might afterwards be discovered. The dividing line was a meridian passing three hundred leagues west of the Azores. Spain's share was all that lay west of this meridian, and Portugal's all that lay east of it.

Spain was jealous of Portugal, and anxious to secure a part of that kingdom's share. Columbus suggested a way to do this. He assured Ferdinand and Isabella that by sailing still farther to the westward, beyond the West Indies, it would be possible to reach some of the islands which might be claimed by Portugal; and of course he was correct in this view.

He asked the sovereigns for a fleet with which to make the attempt; and in 1502, with four ships and a hundred and fifty men, he set sail from Cadiz. On the voyage he landed at Jamaica and other islands; but although he was absent more than two years, he accomplished nothing of importance.

He returned to Spain in 1504, and died two years later.

His body was buried at Valladolid (val ya do leed'), but was afterwards carried across the ocean and interred in the cathedral of Santo Domingo on the island of Haiti. When that island was ceded by the Spaniards to France, the remains of the great navigator were removed to Havana; and there they rested until after the war between the United States and Spain, when they were taken back to Spain.