The Life of Christopher Columbus by Edward Everett Hale
TWO SAD YEARS--ISABELLA'S DEATH--COLUMBUS AT SEVILLE --HIS ILLNESS--LETTERS TO THE KING--JOURNEYS TO SEGOVIA, SALAMANCA, AND VALLADOLID--HIS SUIT THERE--PHILIP AND JUANA--COLUMBUS EXECUTES HIS WILL--DIES--HIS BURIAL AND THE REMOVAL OF HIS BODY--HIS PORTRAITS--HIS CHARACTER.
Columbus had been absent from Spain two years and six months. He returned broken in health, and the remaining two years of his life are only the sad history of his effort to relieve his name from dishonor and to leave to his sons a fair opportunity to carry forward his work in the world.
Isabella, alas, died on the twenty-sixth day of November, only a short time after his arrival. Ferdinand, at the least, was cold and hard toward him, and Ferdinand was now engaged in many affairs other than those of discovery. He was satisfied that Columbus did not know how to bring gold home from the colonies, and the promises of the last voyage, that they should strike the East, had not been fulfilled.
Isabella had testified her kindly memory of Columbus, even while he was in exile at Jamaica, by making him one of the body-guard of her oldest son, an honorary appointment which carried with it a handsome annual salary. After the return to Spain of Diego Mendez, the loyal friend who had cared for his interests so well in San Domingo, she had raised him to noble rank.
It is clear, therefore, that among her last thoughts came in the wish to do justice to him whom she had served so well. She had well done her duty which had been given her to do. She had never forgotten the new world to which it was her good fortune to send the discoverer, and in her death that discoverer lost his best friend.
On his arrival in Seville, where one might say he had a right to rest himself and do nothing else, Columbus engaged at once in efforts to see that the seamen who had accompanied him in this last adventure should be properly paid. Many of these men had been disloyal to him and unfaithful to their sovereign, but Columbus, with his own magnanimity, represented eagerly at court that they had endured great peril, that they brought great news, and that the king ought to repay them all that they had earned.
He says, in a letter to his son written at this period, "I have not a roof over my head in Castile. I have no place to eat nor to sleep excepting a tavern, and there I am often too poor to pay my scot." This passage has been quoted as if he were living as a beggar at this time, and the world has been asked to believe that a man who had a tenth of the revenue of the Indies due to him in some fashion, was actually living from hand to mouth from day to day. But this is a mere absurdity of exaggeration.
Undoubtedly, he was frequently pressed for ready money. He says to his son, in another letter, "I only live by borrowing." Still he had good credit with the Genoese bankers established in Andalusia. In writing to his son he begs him to economize, but at the same time he acknowledges the receipt of bills of exchange and considerable sums of money.
In the month of December, there is a single transaction in Hispaniola which amounts to five thousand dollars of our money. We must not, therefore, take literally his statement that he was too poor to pay for a night's lodging. On the other hand, it is observed in the correspondence that, on the fifteenth of April, 1505, the king ordered that everything which belonged to Columbus on account of his ten per cent should be carried to the royal treasury as a security for certain debts contracted by the Admiral.
The king had also given an order to the royal agent in Hispaniola that everything which he owned there should be sold. All these details have been carefully brought together by Mr. Harrisse, who says truly that we cannot understand the last order.
When at last the official proceedings relating to the affairs in Jamaica arrived in Europe, Columbus made an effort to go to court. A litter was provided for him, and all the preparations for his journey made. But he was obliged once more by his weakness to give up this plan, and he could only write letters pressing his claim. Of such letters the misfortune is, that the longer they are, and the more of the detail they give, the less likely are they to be read. Columbus could only write at night; in the daytime he could not use his hands.
He took care to show Ferdinand that his interests had not been properly attended to in the islands. He said that Ovando had been careless as to the king's service, and he was not unwilling to let it be understood that his own administration had been based on a more intelligent policy than that of either of the men who followed him.
But he was now an old man. He was unable to go to court in person. He had not succeeded in that which he had sailed for--a strait opening to the Southern Sea. He had discovered new gold mines on the continent, but he had brought home but little treasure. His answers from the court seemed to him formal and unsatisfactory. At court, the stories of the Porras brothers were told on the one side, while Diego Mendez and Carvajal represented Columbus.
In this period of the fading life of Columbus, we have eleven letters addressed by him to his son. These show that he was in Seville as late as February, 1505. From the authority of Las Casas, we know that he left that part of Spain to go to Segovia in the next May, and from that place he followed the court to Salamanca and Valladolid, although he was so weak and ill.
He was received, as he had always been, with professions of kindness; but nothing followed important enough to show that there was anything genuine in this cordiality. After a few days Columbus begged that some action might be taken to indemnify him for his losses, and to confirm the promises which had been made to him before. The king replied that he was willing to refer all points which had been discussed between them to an arbitration. Columbus assented, and proposed the Archbishop Diego de Deza as an arbiter.
The reader must remember that it was he who had assisted Columbus in early days when the inquiry was made at Salamanca. The king assented to the arbitration, but proposed that it should include questions which Columbus would not consider as doubtful. One of these was his restoration to his office of viceroy.
Now on the subject of his dignities Columbus was tenacious. He regarded everything else as unimportant in comparison. He would not admit that there was any question that he was the viceroy of the Indies, and all this discussion ended in the postponement of all consideration of his claims till, after his death, it was too late for them to be considered.
All the documents, when read with the interest which we take in his character and fortunes, are indeed pathetic; but they did not seem so to the king, if indeed they ever met his eye.
In despair of obtaining justice for himself, Columbus asked that his son Diego might be sent to Hispaniola in his place. The king would promise nothing, but seems to have attempted to make Columbus exchange the privileges which he enjoyed by the royal promise for a seignory in a little town in the kingdom of Leon, which is named not improperly "The Counts' Carrion."
It is interesting to see that one of the persons whom he employed, in pressing his claim at the court and in the management of his affairs, was Vespucci, the Florentine merchant, who in early life had been known as Alberigo, but had now taken the name of Americo.
The king was still engaged in the affairs of the islands. He appointed bishops to take charge of the churches in the colonies, but Columbus was not so much as consulted as to the persons who should be sent. When Philip arrived from Flanders, with his wife Juana, who was the heir of Isabella's fortunes and crown, Columbus wished to pay his court to them, but was too weak to do so in person.
There is a manly letter, written with dignity and pathos, in which he presses his claims upon them. He commissioned his brother, the Adelantado, to take this letter, and with it he went to wait upon the young couple. They received him most cordially, and gave flattering hopes that they would attend favorably to the suit. But this was too late for Columbus himself. Immediately after he had sent his brother away, his illness increased in violence.
The time for petitions and for answers to petitions had come to an end. His health failed steadily, and in the month of May he knew that he was approaching his death. The king and the court had gone to Villafranca de Valcacar.
On the nineteenth of May Columbus executed his will, which had been prepared at Segovia a year before. In this will he directs his son and his successors, acting as administrators, always to maintain "in the city of Genoa, some person of our line, who shall have a house and a wife in that place, who shall receive a sufficient income to live honorably, as being one of our relatives, having foot and root in the said city, as a native; since he will be able to receive from this city aid in favor of the things of his service; because from that city I came forth and in that city I was born." This clause became the subject of much litigation as the century went on.
Another clause which was much contested was his direction to his son Diego to take care of Beatriz Enriquez, the mother of Fernando. Diego is instructed to provide for her an honorable subsistence "as being a person to whom I have great obligation. What I do in this matter is to relieve my conscience, for this weighs much upon my mind. The reason of this cannot be written here."
The history of the litigation which followed upon this will and upon other documents which bear upon the fortunes of Columbus is curious, but scarcely interesting. The present representative of Columbus is Don Cristobal Colon de la Cerda, Duke of Veragua and of La Vega, a grandee of Spain of the first class, Marquis of Jamaica, Admiral and Seneschal Major of the Indies, who lives at Madrid.
Two days after the authentication of the will he died, on the twenty first of May, 1506, which was the day of Ascension. His last words were those of his Saviour, expressed in the language of the Latin Testament, "In manus tuas, Pater, commendo spiritum meum,"--"Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." The absence of the court from Valladolid took with it, perhaps, the historians and annalists. For this or for some other reason, there is no mention whatever of Columbus's funeral in any of the documents of the time.
The body was laid in the convent of San Francisco at Valladolid. Such at least is the supposition of Navarrete, who has collected the original documents relating to Columbus. He supposes that the funeral services were conducted in the church of the parish of Santa Maria de la Antigua. From the church of Saint Francis, not many months after, the body was removed to Seville. A new chapel had lately been built there, called Santa Maria de las Cuevas. In this chapel was the body of Columbus entombed. In a curious discussion of the subject, which has occupied much more space than it is worth, it is supposed that this was in the year 1513, but Mr. Harrisse has proved that this date is not accurate.
For at least twenty-eight years, the body was permitted to remain under the vaults of this chapel. Then a petition was sent to Charles V, for leave to carry the coffin and the body to San Domingo, that it might be buried in the larger chapel of the cathedral of that city. To this the emperor consented, in a decree signed June 2, 1537. It is not known how soon the removal to San Domingo was really made, but it took place before many years.
Mr. Harrisse quotes from a manuscript authority to show, that when William Penn besieged the city of San Domingo in 1655, all the bodies buried under the cathedral were withdrawn from view, lest the heretics should profane them, and that "the old Admiral's" body was treated like the rest.
Mr. Harrisse calls to mind the fact that the earthquake of the nineteenth of May, 1673, demolished the cathedral in part, and the tombs which it contained. He says, "the ruin of the colony, the climate, weather, and carelessness all contributed to the loss from sight and the forgetfulness of the bones of Columbus, mingled with the dust of his descendants"; and Mr. Harrisse does not believe that any vestige of them was ever found afterwards, in San Domingo or anywhere else. This remark, from the person who has given such large attention to the subject, is interesting. For it is generally stated and believed that the bones were afterwards removed to Havana in the island of Cuba. The opinion of Mr. Harrisse, as it has been quoted, is entitled to very great respect and authority.
A very curious question has arisen in later times as to the actual place where the remains now are. On this question there is great discussion among historians, and many reports, official and unofficial, have been published with regard to it.
In the year 1867, the proposal was made to the Holy Father at
Rome, that Columbus should receive the honors known in the Roman
Catholic Church as the honors of beatification. In 1877, De
Lorgues, the enthusiastic biographer of Columbus, represents that
the inquiry had gone so far that these honors had been determined
on. One who reads his book would be led to suppose that Columbus
had already been recognized as on the way to be made a saint of
the Church. But, in truth, though some such inquiry was set on
foot, he never received the formal honors of beatification.
We have one account by a contemporary of the appearance of Columbus.[*] We are told that he was a robust man, quite tall, of florid complexion, with a long face."
[*] In the first Decade of Peter Martyr.
In the next generation, Oviedo says Columbus was "of good aspect, and above the middle stature. His limbs were strong, his eyes quick, and all the parts of his body well proportioned. His hair was decidedly reddish, and the complexion of his face quite florid and marked with spots of red."
Bishop Las Casas knew the admiral personally, and describes him in these terms: "He was above the middle stature, his face was long and striking, his nose was aquiline, his eyes clear blue, his complexion light, tending towards a distinct florid expression, his beard and hair blonde in his youth, but they were blanched at an early age by care.
Las Casas says in another place, he was rude in bearing, and careless as to his language. He was, however, gracious when he chose to be, but he was angry when he was annoyed."
Mr. Harrisse, who has collected these particulars from the different writers, says that this physical type may be frequently met now in the city and neighborhood of Genoa. He adds, "as for the portraits, whether painted, engraved, or in sculpture, which appear in collections, in private places, or as prints, there is not one which is authentic. They are all purely imaginary."
For the purpose of the illustration of this volume, we have used that which is best known, and for many reasons most interesting. It is preserved in the city of Florence, but neither the name of the artist nor the date of the picture is known. It is generally spoken of as the "Florentine portrait." The engraving follows an excellent copy, made by the order of Thomas Jefferson, and now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. We are indebted to the government of this society for permission to use it.[*]
[*] The whole subject of the portraits of Columbus is carefully discussed in a learned paper presented to the Wisconsin Historical Society by Dr. James Davie Butler, and published in the Collections of that Society, Vol. IX, pp. 79-96.
A picture ascribed to Titian, and engraved and circulated by the geographer, Jomard, resembles closely the portraits of Philip III. The costume is one which Columbus never wore.
In his youth Columbus was affiliated with a religious
brotherhood, that of Saint Catherine, in Genoa. In after times,
on many occasions when it would have been supposed that he would
be richly clothed, he appeared in a grave dress which recalled
the recollections of the frock of the religious order of Saint
Francis. According to Diego Columbus, he died, "dressed in the
frock of this order, to which he had always been attached."
The reader who has carefully followed the fortunes of the great discoverer understands from the history the character of the man. He would not have succeeded in his long suit at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, had he not been a person of single purpose and iron will.
From the moment when he was in command of the first expedition, that expedition went prosperously to its great success, in precisely the way which he had foreseen and determined. True, he did not discover Asia, as he had hoped, but this was because America was in the way. He showed in that voyage all the attributes of a great discoverer; he deserved the honors which were paid to him on his return.
As has been said, however, this does not mean that he was a great organizer of cities, or that he was the right person to put in charge of a newly founded colony. It has happened more than once in the history of nations that a great general, who can conquer armies and can obtain peace, has not succeeded in establishing a colony or in governing a city.
On the other hand, it is fair to say that Columbus never had a chance to show what he would have been in the direction of his colonies had they been really left in his charge. This is true, that his heart was always on discovery; all the time that he spent in the wretched detail of the arrangement of a new-built town was time which really seemed to him wasted.
The great problem was always before him, how he should connect his discoveries with the knowledge which Europe had before of the coast of Asia. Always it seemed to him that the dominions of the Great Khan were within his reach. Always he was eager for that happy moment when he should find himself in personal communication with that great monarch, who had been so long the monarch of the East--who, as he thought, would prove to be the monarch of the West.
Columbus died with the idea that he had come close to Asia. Even a generation after his death, the companions of Cortes gave to the peninsula of California that name because it was the name given in romance to the farthest island of the eastern Indies.
Columbus met with many reverses, and died, one might almost say, a broken-hearted man. But history has been just to him, and has placed him in the foremost rank of the men who have set the world forward. And, outside of the technical study of history, those who like to trace the laws on which human progress advances have been proud and glad to see that here is a noble example of the triumph of faith.
The life of Columbus is an illustration constantly brought forward of the success which God gives to those who, having conceived of a great idea, bravely determine to carry it through.
His singleness of purpose, his unselfishness, his determination to succeed, have been cited for four centuries, and will be cited for centuries more, among the noblest illustrations which history has given, of success wrought out by the courage of one man.