Christopher Columbus

Columbus, CHRISTOPHER (Cristoforo Colombo), discoverer of America; born in or near Genoa about 1435. At the age of ten years he was placed in the University of Pavia, where he was instructed in the sciences which pertain to navigation. In 1450 he entered the marine service of Genoa, and remained in it twenty years. His brother BARTHOLOMEW was then in Lisbon, engaged in constructing maps and charts, and making an occasional voyage at sea. Thither Christopher went in 1470. Prince Henry of Portugal was then engaged in explorations of the west coast of Africa, seeking for a passage to India south of that continent. The merchants of western Europe were then debarred from participation in the rich commerce of the East by way of the Mediterranean Sea by their powerful and jealous rivals, the Italians, and this fact stimulated explorations for the circumnavigation of Africa. Prince Henry had persisted in his efforts in the face of opposition of priests and learned professors, and had already, by actual discovery by his navigators, exploded the erroneous belief that the equator was impassable because of the extreme heat of the air and water. Columbus hoped to find employment in the prince’s service, but Henry died soon after the Genoese arrived in Lisbon.

In the chapel of the Convent of All Saints at Lisbon, Columbus became acquainted with Felipa, daughter of Palestrello, an Italian cavalier, then dead, who had been one of the most trusted of Prince Henry’s navigators. Mutual love led to marriage. The bride’s mother placed in the hands of Columbus the papers of her husband, which opened to his mind a new field of contemplation and ambition.

King John Betrays Columbus

The desire for making explorations in the western waters was powerfully stimulated by stories of vegetable productions, timber handsomely carved, and the bodies of two men with dusky skins, which had been washed ashore at the Azores from some unknown land in the west. These had actually been seen by Pedro Correo, a brother of the wife of Columbus. These things confirmed Columbus in his belief that the earth was a sphere, and that Asia might be reached by sailing westward from Europe. He laid plans for explorations, and, in 1474, communicated them to the learned Florentine cosmographer, Paul Toscanelli, who gave him an encouraging answer, and sent him a map constructed partly from Ptolemy’s and partly from descriptions of Farthe India by Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler who told of Cathay (China) and Zipango (Japan) in the twelfth century. In 1477, Columbus sailed northwest from Portugal beyond Iceland to lat. 73°, when pack-ice turned him back; and it is believed that he went southward as far as the coast of Guinea. Unable to fit out a vessel for himself, it is stated that he first applied for aid, but in vain, to the Genoese. With like ill-success he applied to King John of Portugal, who favored his suit, but priests and professors interposed controlling objections. The King, however sent a caravel ostensibly with provisions for the Cape Verde Islands, but with secret instructions to the commander to pursue a course westward indicated by Columbus. The fears of the mariners caused them to turn back from the threatenings of the turbulent Atlantic.

Columbus Petitions Spain for Help

Disgusted with this pitiful trick, reduced to poverty, and having lost his wife, he determined to leave Portugal and ask aid from elsewhere. With his son Diego, he left Lisbon for Spain secretly in 1484, while his brother Bartholomew prepared to go to England to ask aid for the projected enterprise from Henry VII. Genoa again declined to help him; so also did Venice; and he applied to the powerful and wealthy Spanish dukes of Medina-Sidoniaand Medina-Celi. They declined, but the latter recommended the project to Queen Isabella, then with her Court at Cordova, who requested the navigator to be sent to her. In that city he became attached to Donna Beatrice Enriques, by whom he had a son, Ferdinand, born in 1487, who became the biographer of his father. It was an inauspicious moment for Columbus to lay his projects before the Spanish monarchs, for their courts were moving from place to place, in troublous times, surrounded by the din and pageantry of war. But at Salamanca he was introduced to King Ferdinand by Mendoza, Archbishop of Toledo and Grand Cardinal of Spain.

Columbus Before Isabella and Ferdinand

A council of astronomers and cosmographers was assembled at Salamanca to consider the project. They decided that the scheme was visionary, unscriptural, and irreligious, and the navigator was in danger of arraignment before the tribunal of the Inquisition. For seven years longer the patient navigator waited, while the Spanish monarchs were engaged with the Moors in Granada, during which time Columbus served in the army as a volunteer. Meanwhile the King of Portugal had invited him (1488) to return, and Henry VII. had also invited him by letter to come to the Court of England, giving him encouraging promises of aid. But Ferdinand and Isabella treated him kindly, and he remained in Spain until 1491, when he set out to lay his projects before Charles VIII. of France.

On his way, at the close of a beautiful October day, he stopped at the gate of the Franciscan monastery of Santa Maria de Rabida, near the port of Palos, in An dalusia, and asked for refreshment for his boy, Diego. The prior of the convent, Juan Perez de Marchena, became interested in the conversation of the stranger, and he invited him to remain as his guest. To him Columbus unfolded his plans. Alonzo Pinzon and other eminent navigators at Palos, with scientific men, were invited to the convent to confer with Columbus, and Pinzon offered to furnish and command a ship for explorations. Marchena, who had been Queen Isabella’s confessor, wrote to her, asking an interview with her for Columbus. It was granted. Marchena rode to the camp of the monarchs at Santa Fe, when the Queen sent a little more than $200 to Columbus to enable him to appear decently at Court. He explained his project to the sovereigns. He had already, by the operations of a poetic temperament, regarded himself as a preordained gospel-bearer to the heathen of unknown lands. His name implied it—” Christ-bearer “—and hearing that the Sultan of Egypt intended to destroy the sepulchre of Jesus, he recorded a vow that he would devote the proceeds of his explorations to the rescue of that holy place from destruction. He urged his suit with eloquence, but the Queen’s confessor opposed the demands of Columbus, and he left Granada—just conquered from the Moors—for France.

Queen Isabella Commits her Crown Jewels to Support Columbus Expedition

A more enlightened civil officer at Court remonstrated, and the Queen sent for him to return. Ferdinand said their wars had so exhausted the treasury that money could not be spared for the enterprise. The Queen declared that she would pledge her crown jewels, if necessary, to supply the money, and would undertake the enterprise for her own crown of Castile. An agreement was signed by their Majesties and Columbus at Santa Fe, April 17, 1492, by which he and his heirs should forever have the office of admiral over all lands he might discover, with honors equal to those of Grand Admiral of Castile; that he should be viceroy and governor-general over the same; that he should receive one-tenth of all mineral and other products that might be obtained; that he and his lieutenants should be the sole judges in all disputes that might arise between his jurisdiction and Spain, and that he might advance one-eighth in any venture, and receive a corresponding share of the profits. He was also authorized to enjoy the title of Don, or noble.

Columbus Departs on his First Expedition to the New World

The monarchs fitted out two small vessels—caravels, or undecked ships—and one larger vessel. Leaving Diego as page to Prince Juan, the heir apparent, Columbus sailed from Palos in the decked vessel Santa Maria, with Martin Alonzo Pinzon as commander of the Pinta, and his brother, Vincent Yanez Pinzon, as commander of the Nina. They left the port with a complement of officers and crews on Friday morning, Aug. 3, 1492, and after a voyage marked by tempests—the crew in mortal fear most of the time, and at last mutinous—some indications of land were discovered late in the night of October 11. Many times they had been deceived by presages of land, and what they thought were actual discoveries of it. The crown had offered a little more than $100 to the man who should first discover land, and to this Columbus added the prize of a silken doublet. All eyes were continually on the alert. At ten o’clock on the night of the 11th, Columbus was on his deck, eagerly watching for signs of land, when he discovered a light on the verge of the horizon.

Columbus Landing in the New World

Early the next morning, Rodrigo Tricena, a sailor of the Pinta, first saw land; but the award was given to Columbus, who saw the light on the land. At dawn a wooded shore lay before them; and, after a perilous voyage of seventy-one days, the commander, with the banner of the expedition in his hand, leading his followers, landed, as they supposed, on the shores of Farther India. Columbus, clad in scarlet and gold, first touched the beach. A group of naked natives, with skins of a copper hue, watched their movements with awe, and regarded the strangers as gods. Believing he was in India, Columbus called the inhabitants “Indians.” Columbus took possession of the land in time name of the crown of Castile. He soon discovered it to be an island—one of the Bahamas—which he named San Salvador. Sailing southward, he discovered Cuba, Haiti, and other islands, and these were denominated the West Indies. He called Haiti Hispaniola, or Little Spain. On its northern shores the Santa Maria was wrecked. With her timbers he built a fort, and leaving thirty-nine men there to defend it and the interests of Castile, he sailed in the Nina for Spain in January, 1493, taking with him several natives of both sexes. On the voyage he encountered a fearful tempest, but he arrived safely in the Tagus early in March, where the King of Portugal kindly received him. On the 15th he reached Palos, and hastened to the Court at Barcelona, with his natives, specimens of precious metals, beautiful birds, and other products of the newly found regions.

Columbus Before Isabella and Ferdinand

There he was received with great lionors; all his dignities were reaffirmed, and on September 25, 1493, he sailed from Cadiz with a fleet of seventeen ships and 1,500 men. Most of these were merely adventurers, and by quarrels and mutinies gave the admiral a great deal of trouble. After discovering the Windward Islands, Jamaica and Porto Rico, founding a colony on Hispaniola, and leaving his brother Bartholomew lieutenant-governor of the island, he returned to Spain, reaching Cadiz, July 11, 1494. Jealousy had promulgated many slanders concerning him; these were all swept away in his presence. The nobles were jealous of him, and used every means in their power to thwart his grand purposes and to bring him into disrepute. He calmly met their opposition by reason, and often confused them by simple illustrations. He had already, by his success, silenced the clamor of the ignorant and superstitious priesthood about the  “unscriptural” and “irreligious” character of his proposition, and finally, on May 30, 1498, Columbus sailed from San Lucar de Barrameda, with six ships, on his third voyage of discovery.

Columbus Discovers South America

He took a more southerly course, and discovered the continent of South America, on August 1, at the mouth of the river Orinoco, which he supposed to be one of the rivers flowing out of Eden. Having discovered several islands and the coast of Para, he finally went to Hispaniola to recruit his enfeebled health. The colony was in great disorder, and his efforts to restore order caused him to be made the victim of jealousy and malice. He was misrepresented at the Spanish Court, and Francisco de Bobadilla was sent from Spain to inquire into the matter. He was ambitious and unscrupulous, and he sent Columbus and his brother to Spain in chains, usurping the government of the island. The commander of the ship that conveyed him across the sea offered to liberate him while on board. ” No,” he proudly replied, “the chains have been put on by command of their Majesties, and I will wear them until they shall order them to be taken off. I will preserve them afterwards as relies and memorials of the reward of my services.”

Columbus Dies in Poverty and Disgrace

The monarchs and the people of Spain were indignant at this treatment of the great discoverer. He was released and Bobadilla was recalled, but, through the influence of the jealous Spanish nobles, Nicolas Ovando was appointed by the King governor of Hispaniola, instead of Columbus. The great Admiral was neglected for a while, when the earnest Queen Isabella caused an expedition to be fitted out for him, and on May 9, 1502, he sailed from Cadiz, with a small fleet, mostly caravels. He was not allowed to refit at his own colony of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, and he sailed to the western verge of the Gulf of Mexico in search of a passage through what he always believed to be Zipango (Japan) to Cathay, or China. After great sufferings, he returned to Spain in November, 1504, old and infirm, to find the good Queen dead, and to experience the bitterness of neglect from Ferdinand, her husband. His claims were rejected by the ungrateful monarch, and he lived in poverty and obscurity in Valladolid until May 20, 1506, when he died. In a touching letter to a friend just before his death he wrote, “I have no place to repair to except an inn, and am often with nothing to pay for my sustenance.” For seven years his remains lay unnoticed in a convent at Valladolid, when the ashamed Ferdinand had them removed to a monastery in Seville, and erected a monument to his memory on which were inscribed the words, “A Castilla y a Leon Nuevo Mundo Dio Colon “—” To Castile and Leon Columbus gave a New World.” He died in the belief that the continent he had discovered was Asia. His remains were conveyed, in 1536, to Santo Domingo, where they were deposited in the cathedral, and there they yet remain, despite a comparatively recent declaration by the Spanish government that his remains had been transferred to the cathedral in Havana. A noble monument to his memory has been erected in the city of Genoa, Italy.