Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

The End of a Great Career


In opulent, golden Seville, a city enriched by his discoveries, indebted to him for renewed commercial life, Columbus experienced nothing but coldness and neglect. He had hastened thither from San Lucar, as soon as his health permitted after landing, and hoped to find there a haven of refuge from his enemies. But they pursued 'him yet, and even to the grave, giving him no rest until at last he found surcease of trouble in death. His end was approaching—of that he felt assured—and his only thought now was to "place his house in order," to collect the vast sums due him from the Crown, and so arrange affairs that Diego, his son, might sometime receive those honors and privileges which, though solemnly pledged him by his sovereigns, had been persistently denied. Though accounted wealthy by the world at large, and accused by his enemies of withholding vast sums from the Crown, the Admiral was poor. He never, in fact, from the beginning to the end of his life, enjoyed the possession of riches. He entered Spain in poverty, he began his first great voyage in debt for the very caravels that carried him; and now, after fourteen years of unprecedented services to the country, he found himself broken in health and poverty-stricken to the last degree. In a letter he wrote at this time to his son, Diego, he says: "I have received nothing of the revenue due me, but live by borrowing. Little have I profited by twenty years of toil and perils, since at present I do not own a roof in Spain. I have no resort but in an inn, and, for the most times, have not wherewithal to pay my bill."

In his own distress, however, he thought of the mariners who went with him on the last voyage, and who, though they had been nearly three years absent from their homes, had not received their wages. "They have endured infinite toils and perils," he wrote, "and they bring invaluable tidings, for which their Majesties ought to give thanks to God and rejoice"; yet they, too, were neglected, forgotten. Present troubles weighed heavily upon the Admiral; but there was one debt he seems to have forgotten: that to the Pinzons, without whose aid he could not have performed the first voyage from Palos. Martin Alonzo Pinzon was in his grave, to which he had been hastened by the injustice of Columbus, sanctioned by the sovereigns. The Admiral was experiencing the fickleness of royal favor, his cup of bitterness was full and running over; but he could not complain that royalty alone was capable of ingratitude. He writes to his son, at this time, of the services so faithfully rendered him by Diego Mendez, who saved his life when a prisoner at Jamaica, and afterwards labored heroically in his behalf in Hispaniola and Spain. "I trust," he says, "that the truth and diligence of Diego Mendez will be of as much avail as the lies of Porras." This honest creature was with him to the very last, and some have thought that he closed the aged Admiral's eyes when death called him. When on his death-bed, Columbus promised he should be appointed chief alguacil  of Hispaniola, and Diego, his heir, who was standing by, assented; yet, when the son came to power, as viceroy of the island, he evaded that promise, which should have been most sacred, and poor Mendez went to the end of his life unrewarded for an inestimable service.

Yet, whatever his own failings, Columbus could truthfully write: "I have served their Majesties with as much zeal and diligence as if it had been to gain Paradise; and if I have failed in anything, it has been because my knowledge and powers went no further." He had, indeed, served them to the utmost; and it was because his powers could go no further —because he was now decrepit, impotent for harm as well as incapable of rendering greater service—that he was allowed to fall into the abysm of forgetfulness. He had arrived at Seville about the middle of November, 1504. On the 26th of that month, while desperately ill and unable to proceed to court, he lost by death his only influential friend on the throne, Queen Isabella. She died after an illness of several months, and, the tidings of the sad event reaching Columbus as he was penning a letter to his elder son, he added in a postscript: "A memorial for thee, my dear son Diego, of what is at present to be done. The principal thing is to commend affectionately, and with great devotion, the soul of the Queen, our sovereign, to God. Her life was always good and holy; . . . for this reason we may rest assured that she is received into His glory, and beyond the cares of this rough and weary world. The next thing is to watch and labor in all matters for the service of our sovereign the King, and endeavor to alleviate his grief. His Majesty is the head of Christendom. Remember the proverb which says, when the head suffers, all the members suffer. Therefore, all good Christians should pray for his health and long life; and we who are in his employ ought more than others to do this with all study and diligence."

Supremely loyal to the latest breath he drew, Columbus could think no ill of their Majesties, even of Ferdinand, who, after the death of his consort, was less inclined than before to have dealings with the man he and she had created Admiral and Viceroy, but whom he had so signally dishonored. The great discoverer expected little, if anything, from the King, but to the very last he cherished hopes of some comforting message from the Queen. "Ascertain whether the Queen, who is now with God, has said anything concerning me in her testament," he wrote Diego, shortly after the demise of Isabella. But the Queen had said nothing. When she made her last will and testament, her thoughts were of the future, not the past. Promises weigh more with royalty than fulfilment, and the account with Columbus was cancelled in two words: "services rendered!"

Detained at Seville for many months by continued illness, it was not until the early summer of 1505 that Columbus was able to venture forth to present himself at court. He was then too infirm to ride on horseback, and so permission was obtained from the King, allowing him to ride a mule. This is the edict:

"A decree granting to Don Cristobal Colon permission to ride on a mule, saddled and bridled, through any parts of these kingdoms. . . . The King: As I am informed that you, Cristobal Colon, the Admiral, are in poor health, owing to certain diseases which you had, or have, and that you cannot ride on horseback without injury to your health, therefore, conceding this to your advanced age, I, by these presents, grant you license to ride on a mule, saddled and bridled, through whatever parts of these kingdoms or realms you wish and choose, notwithstanding the law which I issued thereto; and I command the citizens of all parts of these kingdoms and realms not to offer you any impediment or allow any to be offered you, under penalty of ten thousand maravedis in behalf of the treasury, upon whoever does the contrary.

"I, the King."

This special concession was as balm to the lacerated feelings of Columbus; and to be addressed as "Don" and "the Admiral "were hopeful signs that the King still respected his titles, as granted by contract. His hopes were dashed, however, when, after infinite toil and pain, he arrived at court, then held in Segovia; for Ferdinand received him coldly, though with courtesy and compliments. Months passed, as months had passed before, in humiliating attendance upon the court, in pressing petitions upon the King, which he was nowise inclined to grant, and requesting restitution which he had concluded it would not be for the interests of the crown to make. He would not consent, even, to the appointment of Diego to the high offices his father was entitled to, though the latter offered to waive all his pecuniary claims against the crown, if it would only sanction his claim to privileges formerly granted by solemn treaties. Many years later, but only after long process of law against the crown, aided by a matrimonial alliance with a lady distantly related to the King, the son obtained a partial restitution, grudgingly yielded by the hard-hearted sovereign.

The despair of Columbus is expressed in a letter to his old friend, Diego de Deza, Archbishop of Seville, who then, as formerly, aided Columbus with his purse, and to whom he wrote: "It appears that his Majesty does not think fit to fulfil that which he, with the Queen (who is now in glory) promised me by word and seal. For me to contend to the contrary would be to contend with the wind. I have done all that I could do. I now leave the rest to God, whom I have ever found propitious to me in my necessities."

If the benignant Isabella were alive, he mournfully reflected, he would not be supplicating vainly for his rights; but he was prone to exaggerate the interest which the late Queen took in him and his schemes during the latter part of her life. Her interest had waned, her estimate of Columbus had changed', and it is doubtful if he could have obtained more from her than from Ferdinand, had she lived to see him then; except that he might have aroused her pity—a sentiment to which the cold nature of the King was a stranger. A fitful flame of hope was awakened in the bosom of Columbus by the return to Spain of Isabella's daughter, known afterwards as Juana Loca, or "Crazy Jane," who, married to young Philip of Austria, had come into succession of her mother's throne of Castile. But she had not wit enough to appreciate the worth of Columbus, nor will enough to do him justice in face of her father's opposition; so the mission of Don Bartholomew, who had been sent to represent his brother and press his claims, came to naught. The Admiral was then too ill to leave his bed, and as both he and the adelantado felt the end was not far off, their leave-taking was most affectionate and impressive. Don Bartholomew, in truth, never saw his elder brother again in life; and with his departure on his fruitless mission, he makes his exit from these pages. He survived the Admiral several years, living to serve his King, and Don Diego, his nephew, with the fidelity that was so conspicuously a part of his noble nature.

The Admiral's flame of life was burning low. The first week of May, 1506, while arranging his affairs, preparatory to departure on that last long journey which we all must take, his reason seemed to totter on its throne. He gave evidence by his writings, at this time, that the cold neglect, the continued denial of justice, by King Ferdinand, and the aspersions of his enemies of lower rank, had engendered a gloom which overspread his mind. The impression forced upon him: that he must depart with his great work unfinished, leaving those he loved to the mercies of those in power who had caused his ruin, depressed him to the verge of insanity; but as the end approached his mind was clarified as by fire. In his last will and testament, which he amended and signed two days before his death, are exhibited those transcendent qualities of his higher self, which raised him above the plane of ordinary life. When they shone forth, in that last awful moment of preparation for eternity, all that was mean and petty in his nature dissolved away, leaving his great soul pure and crystal-clear. Having made his peace with man so far as within him lay the power, and with God so far as human vision could perceive, Columbus was resigned to die. The end came without suffering, on May 20, 1506, when, so far as can be known, he had just completed the allotted span of life.

Ere he expired, he murmured: "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," and, with these words expressive of resignation and trust on his lips, he passed away.

Death of Columbus


The great Admiral's earthly existence had closed in peace, but the unrest that had attended him in life seemed to attach to his remains after death. He had performed many voyages, including eight across the ocean, before his final venture into the "unknown sea of darkness"; but his mortal relics were yet to voyage again. The life of Columbus, as the writer of these lines once observed, shows him to have had a dual nature: at least two towns claim the honor of his birthplace; two nations hold the lustre of his deeds in reverence; two continents unite in laudation of his greatness; after his death two convents in Spain held his remains temporarily in charge, and now two countries lay claim to the absolute possession of his ashes! It was a strange fate that decreed the name of Columbus should live forever, while his last resting-place should be shrouded in obscurity.

The earthly career of Columbus came to a close at Valladolid, in Spain, whither he had gone with the court, still demanding reparation, and still regarded by King Ferdinand as an unwelcome visitor, of whose presence he wished to be rid. When seized with his mortal illness, he was, as usual, lodging at an inn, a wretched abode for one who had done great things. It is still pointed out to visitors in Valladolid, and the room is shown in which he last drew breath. The last rites of Spain's great Admiral were celebrated with pomp and ceremony, in the church of Santa Maria  la Antigua; but in 1513 his body was given sepulture in the Carthusian monastery of Las Cuevas, in Seville, where, thirteen years later, that of his son, Diego, was placed beside it.

In Diego's will, which was drawn in 1523, the desire is expressed that his remains be deposited in the convent-vault of Las Cuevas, in Seville, and also: "I would like taken there the body of Dona Felipe Munoz, my father's legitimate wife, that is now in the monastery of Carmen, in Lisbon; as well as the body of Don Bartolome Colon [his uncle], which is deposited in the monastery of San Francisco, in the city of Santo Domingo." All except the wife were finally gathered in Santo Domingo, in accordance with a petition of Dona Maria de Toledo, the widow of Don Diego, who stated that it was at the expressed desire of the Admiral himself. This, the second removal of the remains of Columbus, was made in or about the year 1540, and at the same time the body of his son was taken thither, both being in charge of Dona Maria, who afterwards resided in Santo Domingo during the remainder of her life.

It is well authenticated that the remains of Columbus were sent to Santo Domingo, the "Cradle of Spain's greatness in the New World"; yet soon after their arrival all trace of them was lost. The archbishop of that city, first established by Don Bartholomew in 1496, wrote, in 1549: "The tomb of Don Cristobal Colon, where are his bones, is much venerated in this cathedral"; and all the biographers are agreed with the historian Herrera, that "from the Cuevas of Seville the bones of Columbus were removed to the city of Santo Domingo, and are in the great chapel of the cathedral." In 1683 the diocesan synod states: "The bones of C. Colon are in a leaden case in the cathedral, . . . according to traditions of the island's old inhabitants."  Thus, in a century and a half, the resting-place of Columbus had become a matter of tradition merely, but no one knew exactly where it was. This is owing to the piratical acts of Sir Francis Drake, who once sacked the city, and of whom the residents were in such terror that they hid themselves, after first destroying all evidence of the Columbus tomb, for fear it might be desecrated.

Another century rolls round, and in the last decade of it we find a Spanish man-of-war transporting to Havana some bits of lead, fragments of bones, and pinches of dust, which, found in a vault beneath the presbytery of the cathedral, were taken for the last vestiges of the great Columbus. As we have seen, tradition, only, pointed to the tomb of Columbus, for there was no monument, no memorial marble, no inscription. It was in the year 1795 that, with vast pomp and display, the "sacred ashes of the Admiral" were transferred to Cuba, in order that (Santo Domingo having been ceded to France) the revered relics should still remain beneath the Spanish flag. The Spanish functionaries sent for the remains, had sounded the stone floor of the cathedral until they found a secret vault, and thence had withdrawn its contents, assuming that there was no other tomb in that sacred spot near the high altar. But there was another. Unknown, undiscovered for eighty years thereafter, it was found in 1877, while some repairs were being made to the cathedral. A narrow vault was opened near the altar, separated from the other, empty, tomb merely by a slab of stone. Within this vault a leaden case was found, within the case some bones, a bullet, and a silver plate, with an inscription, also duplicated on the lid of the casket. In effect, this inscription read: "These are the remains of the Discoverer of America, the first Admiral; Illustrious and renowned man, Christopher Columbus."

Tomb of Columbus


But were they the remains which the Spaniards thought they had removed to Cuba eighty years before? Santo Domingo declares they were, and are, still having them in keeping; but a shout of indignant protest went up from Spain and from Cuba, voiced in the official report made by the historical Academy of Madrid, which says: "The remains of Christopher Columbus are in the cathedral of Havana, in the shadow of that glorious banner of Castile. It is most fit that over his sepulchre waves the same flag that sailed with him from Palos in the Santa Maria. . . . There rest the bones of the First Admiral of the Indies; there is his last abode!"

It were "most fit," decidedly, that the remains of Columbus should rest beneath the banner of Spain, in charge of his adoptive country, even though that banner has since been trailed in the dust, and though that country rendered him only insult and contumely for his inestimable services. But all the evidence goes to prove that the sacred dust of the first Admiral is still in Santo Domingo, in the island where he built the first city, erected the first fort, first shed native blood, and where he himself desired to rest at last. Whether the remains may still be found in Santo Domingo or not, they cannot any longer be claimed by Havana, since the relics carried there in 1795 were taken to Spain in 1898, after the evacuation of that city by the Spaniards. Removed from the niche in the cathedral wall more than a century after they had been placed there by hands long since turned to dust, the precious relics were again received with salutes and ceremony on board a vessel of war, and from Havana taken to Spain, where, in the city of Seville, beneath the pavement of its great cathedral, they were deposited by the side of Ferdinand, second son of the Admiral. The Spaniards claim to possess the "legitimate remains "of their great discoverer, who, they say, after making eight voyages to and from the New World while in life, was taken on two more in death, finally ending at Seville, the city which had known him well in the period of his trials and his triumphs.

But, though it has been conclusively shown that, while these remains were not those of the great Columbus, they may have been those of his son, Diego, who also was interred in the cathedral of Santo Domingo. They should have been left in Havana, since he was the chief colonizer of Cuba; and Santo Domingo should have treasured them, as he was once its viceroy; but truth and sentiment are satisfied now that the two brothers, Diego and Ferdinand, who were devotedly attached to each other when in life, lie side by side beneath the historic marble of Seville cathedral, the inscription on which perpetuates their father's glory: "To Castile and Leon, a New World gave Colon."

At the close of an impassioned appeal to the world for an impartial verdict on this question, a native of Santo Domingo says: "And what did fate reserve for the discoverer of America, in return for so much faith and a life devoted to a realization of the soul's ideal? Sad for humanity to confess, the hatred of the envious, the sorrows of a faithful servant, the crushing weight of insult, shipwreck, disappointment, and, finally, a sad and solitary death, filled to overflowing with the bitterness of one who, after having consecrated his whole life to the cause of humanity, goes down to the grave, seeing that mankind has for him only a Calvary. Nearly three hundred years after the death of the great Admiral, posterity gave evidence of a desire to pay their debt of gratitude, and it was decided to transfer his remains from one Spanish colony to another. But those in charge of the removal made a mistake, and homage was paid to his son, while the great hero remained forgotten in his stone vault in Santo Domingo."

It matters not, of course, where rest the bones of him who in the flesh was named Columbus; who found the way to America; who died without a home, victim of a king's ingratitude. Four hundred years have rolled by since he died, yet his deeds shine with lustre undimmed, his memory is perpetuated in a thousand forms. In the course of our narrative we have seen and noted what those deeds were, and have gathered somewhat, it is assumed, respecting the character of the man and his motives. Lest the writer may have seemed to convey an unfair estimate of Columbus, he presumes to quote, in closing, from two authors of undoubted fairness, and who possess a reputation for erudition and research. "The character of Columbus," says Justin Winsor, "is not difficult to discern. If his mental and moral equipoise had been as true, and his judgment as clear, as his spirit was lofty and impressive, he could have controlled the actions of men as readily as he subjected their imagination to his will, and more than one brilliant opportunity for a record befitting a ruler of men would not have been lost.

"The world always admires constancy and zeal; but when it is fed, not by well-rounded performance, but by self-satisfaction and self-interest, and tarnished by deceit, we lament where we would approve. Columbus's imagination was eager and, unfortunately, ungovernable. It led him to a great discovery (which he was not seeking for); and he was far enough right to make his error more emphatic. He is certainly not alone among the great men of the world's regard who have some of the attributes of the small and the mean."

"The grand object to which he dedicated himself," wrote the talented Prescott (author of Ferdinand and Isabella), "seemed to expand his whole soul, and raised it above the petty shifts and artifices by which great ends are sometimes sought to be compassed. There are some men, in whom rare virtues have been closely allied, if not to positive vice, to degrading weakness. Columbus's character presented no such humiliating incongruity. Whether we contemplate it in its public or private relations, in all its features it wears the same noble aspect. It was in perfect harmony with the grandeur of his plans and their results, more stupendous than those which Heaven has permitted any other mortal to achieve."