Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

A Triumphal Journey


It would be fruitless to discuss the relative merits of Pinzon and Columbus; but the unhappy ending of the former cannot but excite the sympathy of all who have followed their adventures on that great first voyage to the New World. While Captain Martin Alonzo was loyal to his sovereigns in the larger sense, and rendered invaluable services to Columbus, yet he was derelict in his duty to the latter on at least two occasions: when he sailed away from him off the coast of Cuba, and at the ending of the voyage. Having been driven by adverse winds into the Bay of Biscay, far north of his course, he made a landing at Bayonne, and thence sent an account of the discoveries to Isabella and Ferdinand, with a request to be allowed to deliver his report in person. Believing that the Admiral and all with him in his crazy caravel had perished at sea, he anticipated an enthusiastic reception at Palos, where he was so well known, and erstwhile a powerful personage. Finding, therefore, on his arrival there, that Columbus had already reaped the honors of the voyage, and being accused by his conscience of unfaithfulness to his commander, the unfortunate but noble Martin Alonzo landed without display, and quietly sought the shelter of his home in Moguer. This was his first humiliation—to find himself discredited by his towns-people; his second came when, in reply to his request for permission to appear at court, his sovereigns not only forbade him, but reproached him bitterly for his behavior. Then the great-hearted navigator took to his bed, and shortly after died, a victim to base ingratitude and jealousy.

His brother, Vicente Valdez, remained with Columbus, to whom he was loyal from beginning to end; and we should not forget that it was owing to the Pinzon family, notably to Martin Alonzo, that the voyage became an accomplished fact and was carried to a successful conclusion. Columbus himself soon forgot his indebtedness to those stalwart aids, who supported his hands when they would have dropped from weariness, as he forgot, or ignored, his promises of rewards to others. This innate meanness of a man whose deeds should have raised him above the contemplation of petty things, will appear frequently as his career is followed to the end. That very trait of his nature, which had sustained him through all the long years of waiting upon courts and kings, and which carried him to a level with royalty, also prevented him from recognizing the worth or merits of any one except the great Christopher Columbus!

He ignored Captain Pinzon, for it was a most convenient way of cancelling the debt he owed him, and, gathering his collection of New-World products together, set out for Seville, there to await the answer to the communication he had sent the sovereigns, then in the far-distant city of Barcelona. It came as quickly as fast courier could carry it: a royal order for him to appear as soon as possible, for their Majesties were feverishly anxious to hear his story and view the curiosities he had brought from across the sea. Wherever he went, the now great and triumphant Columbus was an object of excessive admiration, not to say veneration, among the very people who had formerly derided him as a visionary foreigner. In Seville, where he had been ridiculed by the very beggars and children on the streets, he was held in vast esteem, and the houses of the nobility flew open before his knock, when previously he might have pleaded vainly at their gates. Nobles and courtiers flocked about him now, and especially cringed before him when at last a letter came from the King and the Queen, commanding his presence at their court. Here is the letter from his royal patrons:

"BARCELONA, March 30, 1493.

"The King and Queen to Don Christopher Columbus, our Admiral of the Ocean, Viceroy and Governor of the islands discovered in the Indies: We have seen your letters, and have derived much pleasure from their contents. We are rejoiced that God has granted so fortunate an issue to your enterprise, which will redound greatly to His service and to the profit of ourselves and our dominions. For these great services we hope to reward you in a manner suitable to your merits; and as it is our wish that the undertaking that has been begun by you be, with the help of God, carried on and accomplished, and as we desire to see you immediately, we request, therefore, that you will use all possible speed in hastening to us, that all necessary preparations may be made without delay. And as the season is early and favorable for your return to the countries you have discovered, we wish you would ascertain whether measures cannot be taken at Seville, or other places, necessary to that end. We request you to write by our courier, who brings you this and who returns immediately, that the whole may be arranged by the time you return thither to us.

"I, the King.

"I, the Queen.

"By order of the King and Queen.


What a wonderful journey that was from Seville to Barcelona, both of them cities destined to be greatly enriched by commerce with the newly discovered country! It extended throughout the entire length of eastern Spain, from near the Atlantic to the northwest Mediterranean, and all the way was like a triumphal procession. The people could not sufficiently express their gratitude to Columbus nor their admiration of the wonders he had brought to their country. Most of all they wondered at the Indians, natives of an unknown land, who had existed, themselves unknown to Europe, until brought to view by the voyage of Columbus and his company. They, as well as the honored Admiral and some of his sailors, were mounted on mules and horses, and, despite the triumphs accorded them on every hand, the long and dusty journey must have been sorely distressing. Six Indians went with Columbus to Barcelona, three having been left at Palos or Seville, too ill to make the journey, and one having died at sea, after baptism. This last, a pious writer of the time suggests, was probably the first of his race to enter heaven—that is, the heaven of the Christians. He soon had company, however, for within a few years thereafter the Spaniards caused the deaths of many thousand Indians in the islands discovered by Columbus.

The strangest procession ever witnessed in Spain arrived at Barcelona about mid-April, and as it approached the city was met by a brilliant cavalcade, the cavaliers of which esteemed it a high honor to form an escort for the great discoverer, friend of their King and Queen. Thus escorted, and followed closely by his captives and men of his crew carrying various products of the new land, such as gold and spices, parrots, and other trophies of the voyage, Columbus was ushered before the sovereigns he had so loyally served and singularly honored. He received with apparent pleasure, yet with modesty, the plaudits of the multitudes; and he bore himself with dignity when arrived at the throne of his sovereigns, who rose to receive him, and commanded that he be seated in their presence, as he bent to kiss their hands. As a suitable culmination of this notable achievement, the King and Queen had ordered their throne of state conspicuously placed in public, beneath a canopy of gold-embroidered brocade, so that all who were entitled to the distinction might witness how they honored their great Admiral. They listened intently to the recital by Columbus of the chief events of his voyage, at the close of which he showed them the gold he had brought, in nuggets and wrought into barbaric ornaments, and then presented the six Indians, who had remained crouching near the throne, in fear and apprehension. When he had finished, both King and Queen were moved to tears, and upon bended knees gave thanks to God for His favors. The choir in the chapel adjoining chanted the noble anthem, "Te Deum Laudamus"—"We Praise Thee, O God," and then the Admiral was shown with ceremony to a suite of royal apartments, where he found awaiting him his son, Diego, from whom he had been so long separated. Father and son, once more reunited, were everywhere received with honor, and when the King rode out on horseback, they might frequently be seen accompanying him and Prince Juan, whom Diego had served as a page. The venerable and majestic appearance of the discoverer impressed all who saw him, and it was especially noted that he bore himself with a gravity and dignity that became him well, receiving the adulation of the people and the attentions of royalty as if convinced they were but his just deserts.



The sovereigns confirmed the rights and dignities assigned him in the "capitulation" of the previous year, and as a token of high favor allowed him to quarter the royal arms, a castle and a lion, together with a group of islands and anchors, upon the shield they gave him. Afterwards was added the motto (which may he seen engraved upon the marble slab covering the remains of Fernando Columbus, in the cathedral of Seville):

"A Castilla y a Leon,

Nuevo Mundo dio Colon."

(To Castile and to Leon,

A New World Columbus gave.)

On the coat of arms, which is preserved to-day, the inscription above the lion, castle, islands, and anchors reads:

"Por Castilla y por Leon,

Nuevo Mundo hallo Colon."

(For Castile and for Leon,

a New World Columbus found.)

It was while in Barcelona that the incident occurred—if at all—relating to the egg, when a mean-spirited courtier asked him, sneeringly, if it might not have been possible for some other man to have discovered the Indies. Asking for an egg, Columbus desired the company present at the banquet to make it stand on end. No one could do so, but he, setting it down forcibly, broke one end and left it standing there erect; thus, without saying a word, rebuking the courtier and illustrating how easy it was for one to do a thing when another had shown the way.

The news of the discovery was slow in getting to foreign parts, and probably Italy was the first country outside of Spain to hear of it, by means of a letter from the historian, Peter Martyr, who wrote from Barcelona, in May, 1493: "A certain Christopher Columbus, a Ligurian, has returned from the antipodes. He had obtained for that purpose three ships from my sovereigns, with much difficulty, because the ideas he expressed were considered extravagant. But he came back and brought specimens of money and precious things, especially gold, which those regions naturally produce."

This may have been the first intimation to the public; but that an official communication had been sent without delay to the Pope, Alexander VI., himself a native of Spain, is very probable, as in May, 1493, he issued his famous "bull" granting the Spanish sovereigns territorial rights and privileges similar to those enjoyed by their royal brother of Portugal. He then, in order to obviate any conflict of authority between the two crowns in their foreign acquisitions, drew on the map an imaginary line from pole to pole, bisecting the ocean one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape de Verde islands. This imaginary line was, in June, 1494, removed two hundred and seventy leagues farther westward, and a perfect understanding existed between the two crowns that all lands discovered by them to the eastward of said line were to belong to Portugal, and all to the westward were to pertain to Spain. The pontiff's ignorance of geography was exceeded only by his generosity, in bestowing upon these two kingdoms the undiscovered regions of the world, over which he had no jurisdiction whatever, and to which he could show no claim. But it answered the purpose of the crowns to appeal to him as to a court of last resort, and, since they thus gained all the unknown world to themselves, they had little cause for complaint; but they respected each other's claims and discoveries. This will account for the possession of the Brazils by Portugal, when, by a most natural partition, they would have fallen into the hands of Spain, together with other portions of South America.

Both Spain and Portugal were now extremely active in pushing forward preparations for expeditions, and there ensued a long period of diplomatic correspondence between the two courts respecting the rights of each. In the end, the artful diplomacy of King Ferdinand prevailed over the less astute King John, and the schemes of the latter were thwarted, while those of the Spanish King went forward without a day's delay. The Spanish sovereigns had accidentally, as it were, and through no merit of their own, become possessed of a new world beyond the ocean. Though they were slow in sending out an expedition of discovery, and though they had contributed hardly more than a moiety of its cost, they now assumed all the prerogatives of sovereignty, and claimed vastly more than they were, by any stretch of authority, entitled to. Once convinced, however, of the magnitude of this discovery of their Admiral, they lost no time in prosecuting its exploitation. As we have seen, they instructed him to make preparations for another voyage, even before they had heard from his lips the story of the first.

While in Seville Columbus prepared memoranda relating to a second voyage, and when in Barcelona he was given authority and means for its accomplishment. A "house of the Indies" was established in Seville, an inland port on the river Guadalquivir, and at its head was placed a subtle churchman, Archdeacon Fonseca. For some reason, but probably on account of his arrogance and unreasonable demands, he became the obstinate enemy of the Admiral, and during his long continuance in an office which controlled the destinies of the colonial dependencies, he never failed to oppose any who ventured their pretensions above his own. He regarded Columbus as an upstart adventurer, who by accident had brought to light a country which had been until then in darkness. When, therefore, the man who less than two years before was a ragged beggar at the foot of the throne, applied for lackeys and footmen, butlers and pages, as if he were, indeed, one born into the purple, he refused to sanction the extravagance. As Columbus was then in the heydey of his career, and had convinced even the cold and unresponsive Ferdinand that he had found for him another kingdom greater in extent than Spain, Fonseca was reprimanded, and from this incident dated his inveterate hostility or aversion. He did not, however, dispute any reasonable requisitions made by Columbus, and preparations for another voyage went on so rapidly (armed as were both Fonseca and the Admiral with authority to impress any mariners they needed, and take by force all the vessels required) that by the early autumn of 1493 a large fleet was ready to sail on a second voyage of discovery.