Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

The Man with a World in his Gift


Porto Santo was a veritable "Fortunate Isle" for Columbus. His residence there, though brief, was one of the brightest, happiest periods of his life, which after that was beset by cares innumerable. There he had come in contact with mariners from adown the coast of Africa; thence (it is a tradition) he made a voyage to the Guinea coast; there he enjoyed converse with his brother-in-law, Pedro Correa, a man versed in all the mysteries of the sea; there he learned of the strange flotsam brought by the waves of ocean to the African islands; there his son Diego was born, in 1475; and there he dwelled, with his lovely wife, in sweet content, environed by the sea.

But he was not one to remain long contented in an obscure part of the world. He had a mission to fulfill, a theory to expound, and this mission and this theory could only be advanced and developed by the great ones of the world. So he went back to Portugal and to troubles many. In pursuance of his design, to collate from every source all known information respecting the existence of a western world, Columbus opened a correspondence with the Florentine geographer and astronomer Paolo Toscanelli, who not only approved his plans, but sent him a map on which the eastern coast of Asia was represented as opposed to the western coasts of Europe and Africa. It had been projected according to the great Ptolemy and the somewhat fanciful descriptions of the famed Venetian Marco Polo, who, combined, were responsible for many errors subsequently entertained by Columbus. We will discuss a little later the mistakes Columbus made on account of this map, merely mentioning that perhaps it was fortunate, on the whole, that by means of it the real distance separating Europe and the east coast of Asia was apparently shortened, as thereby the passage of the intervening ocean was rendered feasible.

Columbus did not remain idle when in Portugal, for he had a living to obtain, and, besides pursuing his chosen profession of map and chart making, he took at least one voyage, when, in 1477, he "navigated one hundred leagues beyond Thule," which is supposed to have been Iceland. When in that region of the world, he may have heard the Scandinavian legends relating to the voyages of the Norsemen to America in the tenth century and previous. The narrative of Leif Erik's voyage to "Vinland," and the settlement formed there, may have come to the knowledge of Columbus, and thus confirmed the impressions he had formed and added to the information he had gathered.

Some writers, in truth, assume that he derived his positive information as to the existence of America almost wholly from the Norse narrative; but in any event, it is certain that the Norsemen, and not Columbus, really "discovered" America. They were the first to visit our shores, it is true, and the honor of the discovery is theirs; but Columbus was the first to open the New World to the influences of European civilization. In the interval between the Norse voyages and those of Columbus, however, such knowledge as had been gained of the continent now called America was lost, or hidden, and as the actual discoverers made no permanent settlement, and left no record for others to follow immediately after, nothing of value resulted from their daring ventures.

Soon after this voyage to Thule, it is believed, Columbus formulated the information he had been so many years in gathering, and, after a fruitless proposition to his native Genoa, craved an audience of King John II. of Portugal. The fortunes of Genoa, the glorious, were then on the decline, and maritime supremacy had passed to sturdy Portugal. Prince Henry, of precious memory, had opened the way by the establishment of his nautical college and the pushing forward of exploration along the coast of Africa, by which Portuguese navigators had attained that supremacy. King John himself had assembled his ablest cosmographers, astronomers, and cartographers, and the most notable result of their conferences was the perfection of the astrolabe, the primitive quadrant, so that mariners were no longer dependent upon landmarks for their voyagings, but could push forward boldly into the open ocean.

Surely, Portugal was the country which should have availed itself of the offer of Columbus, which was to open a way to the Indies by a shorter route than around Africa or through the Mediterranean, the Red, and Arabian seas. But Portugal lost, as she deserved to lose, the honors and emoluments which were to flow from the discovery of the New World, because she used cunning and treachery in her dealings with Columbus. The King was attracted by his scheme—even regarded it favorably—but, as the fitting out of a fleet for a voyage into the unknown waters was a matter of great moment, he referred it to a junta composed of his learned men, who reported adversely.

One, Diego Ortiz, Bishop of Ceuta, seeing that the King was inclined to the enterprise, if it could be found in anywise feasible, craftily suggested that they should obtain the charts by which Columbus intended to sail, and, while keeping him in suspense, despatch a vessel over the course he designed to pursue. This base suggestion was carried out, and a caravel sailed westward into the Atlantic for several days, departing from the Cape de Verdes. A storm coming up, and nothing presenting but the blank expanse of turbulent sea, the master and pilot lost heart and put about for the islands, whence they sent to Lisbon a positive assertion that the project was impossible of accomplishment. Even then King John might have assented to an experimental voyage on a larger scale, but Columbus indignantly broke off negotiations and departed from the country. His experience had prepared him for perfidy in dealing with the Latin peoples; but at the same time he could not condone it in one of elevated rank like the King of Portugal.

His dear wife had died; he had no ties connecting him with Portugal. Taking with him his motherless boy, now nine years of age, he left his adopted country; but whether he went directly to Spain, to Genoa, or to Venice is a matter somewhat in doubt. It is probable, however, that he sought an asylum in the country nearest, which was Spain, after despatching his noble brother Bartholomew on a mission to England, there to place his project before King Henry VII. Thus we see Columbus (as a gifted writer has said) begging his way from court to court, and vainly offering to kings and princes the gift of a world.

We have already given our reasons for assuming that Columbus landed first in Spain at La Rabida, or Huelva. At the latter place, or at Moguer, a town a few miles inland from Huelva and Palos, resided a sister of his deceased wife, Senora Muliar, with whom, probably, little Diego was left while his father pursued his quest for patrons. This assumption does not conflict with the statement that the first definite information respecting Columbus in connection with the nobility of Spain traces him to the house of the rich and powerful Duke of Medina Celli, in the province of Cadiz. The vast estates of this great vassal of the crown lay along the coast of southern Spain, and his host of retainers formed a little army by themselves. He had served the sovereigns and himself most effectually in ridding Andalusia of the Moors, and when, after entertaining Columbus a while as an honored guest, he wrote to Queen Isabella recommending his visitor to her favor, she promptly replied, requesting that he be sent to her.

The court was then at Cordova, and thither went Columbus, bearing a letter from the Duke, in which it was stated that while that noble greatly desired to equip some of his own caravels, and send out an expedition from his port of Santa Maria, near Cadiz, he was deterred, not only by the magnitude of the enterprise, but by the consideration that such a venture pertained only to the sovereign power. Should it be sent, however, he desired to participate in furnishing the armament, and placed his services for that purpose at the Queen's disposal. He closed by recommending Columbus to their Most Gracious Majesties, and bespeaking for him the regard and attention to which he was entitled on account of his magnificent proposals.

The Genoese adventurer was graciously received—not by the sovereigns, but by Alonzo de Quintanilla, the Queen's treasurer, into whose charge he was given while awaiting an audience at court. The time of his arrival was hardly propitious in one sense, though it might have been considered so in another. The combined sovereigns were on the high-road to a conquest which was the sequel, to cumulative victories over the Moors. For nearly seven centuries the Moors, who had invaded Spain from Africa, possessed the greater part of Spain. They had erected mosques and palaces, conquered provinces, founded cities, and their language had become diffused throughout the land. Their invasion had been wide-spread in its conquests; but, after centuries of power in Spain, they were compelled to retire from the land their ancestors had won by the sword. The process of expulsion was slow, but relentlessly went on, until all the towns and cities of Spain outside Andalusia were wrested from the Moors, and the only strongholds then left to them lay in that region called by the Spaniards the "Land of the Most Holy Virgin."

Wave after wave, through decades and centuries, the armies of northern Spain had beaten against the Moorish outposts, coming down from the Asturias and the Pyrenees. When, by the union of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the forces of greater Spain became united and invincible, the Moors were driven to their last strongholds of refuge in the mountains near and along the Mediterranean.

This was the situation at the time Columbus arrived at Cordova, in the year 1485 or 1486. The Spanish armies were gathering for the purpose of delivering that final, crushing blow. Six years were to elapse before it came; but during all that time the Spanish sovereigns relaxed not their vigilance. They and their subjects were intent upon that great achievement solely: the deliverance of their country from the hated aliens from Africa. They had no thought, no time for any other enterprise, hence it was that Columbus waited at court during the greater part of seven years. As the most fascinating occurrences of that final period of warfare took place while he was dancing attendance upon the preoccupied sovereigns, he witnessed most, or all, of them. He saw the Moorish towns and cities fall before the triumphant Spaniards: Antequera, Alhama, Illora, Loxa, Malaga, ill-fated Zahara—until at last, in 1490–1491, only Granada and the Alhambra remained untaken.

King Ferdinand was in the field continually, and even the Queen took an active part in the various sieges, though most of the time she was doing her utmost to keep the armies supplied with troops and munitions from the headquarters at Cordova, which, indeed, was "like a military camp," filled with the bustle and tumult of warlike operations. The King is said to have looked coldly upon the schemes of the obscure "navigator in the threadbare cloak"; but the Queen was far-seeing, and, sanguine of eventual success in their great undertaking, resolved to retain Columbus in Spain until the time should come when he might be of service. After a long period of delay, she ordered a consultation to be held under Fray Fernando de Talavera, prior of the monastery of Prado. From the very first interview with Columbus, he is said to have been bitterly opposed to him and his plans, and it is not strange that he and the learned men he assembled should have made an unfavorable report. This commission met in Cordova, where Columbus was leading an idle, restless existence, supported by the court, but chafing against the chains that held him there, while a world was waiting for him beyond the ocean. He made many friends during this period of enforced leisure, among them a lady belonging to a noble family, Dona Beatrix Enriquez, who the next year became the mother of his second son and biographer, Fernando.

The following winter the court removed to Salamanca, where, through the intercession of the Archbishop of Toledo, Grand Cardinal of Spain, the King finally granted Columbus an interview. This is declared to have been his first presentation to Spanish royalty, despite his long attendance at the court; but he bore himself with dignity, and by his cogent reasoning and fiery enthusiasm almost persuaded the phlegmatic monarch to grant his request. But Ferdinand was cold and calculating, though keen and covetous. If, perchance, he perceived an opportunity to gain a great advantage over Spain's rival, Portugal, by striking directly across the ocean to India, and capturing the vast trade of the Orient, at the same time, he reasoned, the venture would be costly. The country was already impoverished by the prolonged wars with the Moors, whose richest cities vet remained to be taken. With the spoil he hoped to obtain from them he might be able to fit out the fleet desired by Columbus; at all events, the wisest course to pursue was procrastination.

A consultation of wise men cost nothing, meanwhile, and so another was called, this time at the famous old university of Salamanca. It met in the church of the Dominican convent of San Esteban, and, while the first junta was composed mainly of crown councillors and a few geographers, the second contained pious friars and professors from the faculty of the university. The monks and religious men generally of that time in Spain were the conservators of learning, filled the professors' chairs, and directed the mind as well as the conscience of the people. They were learned in the lore of their age, but they were dogmatic, narrow-minded, illiberal, and most of those before whom Columbus appeared, regarding him as an adventurer, were intensely prejudiced against him. "Because he was a foreigner," says the historian Oviedo, "and went but in simple apparel, nor otherwise credited than by the letter of a gray friar, they believed him not, neither gave ear to his words, whereby he was greatly tormented in his imagination."

Columbus believed the world to be a sphere, and while he erred in underestimating the size of it, he was in advance of his age in his general theories respecting the globe, on a portion of which man had dwelled so many thousand years in densest ignorance of what the other half contained. The objections raised by the monks to the advanced theories of Columbus may be summed up in their citations from a revered religious writer: "Is there any one so foolish as to believe that there are antipodes, with their feet opposite to ours; people who walk with their heels upward and their heads hanging down? That there is a part of the world in which all things are topsy-turvy; where the trees grow with their branches downward, and where the hail, rain, and snow fall upward?"

For a man to defend the theory of the earth's rotundity, and base his premise of New-World discovery upon it, was not only the height of absurdity, but was also (in the monks' opinion) heretical, and rendered its advocate liable to correction.