Chapter II. His Plans for Discovery.


It has been supposed that when Columbus left Lisbon he was oppressed by debts. At a subsequent period, when King John wanted to recall him, he offered to protect him against any creditors. But on the other hand, it is thought that at this time he visited Genoa, and made some provision for the comfort of his father, who was now an old man. Christopher Columbus, himself, according to the usual opinion regarding his birth, was now almost fifty years old.

It is probable that at this time he urged on his countrymen, the Genoese, the importance of his great plan; and tried to interest them to make the great endeavor, for the purpose of reaching the Indies by a western route. As it proved, the discovery of the route by the Cape of Good Hope was, commercially, a great injury to Genoa and the other maritime cities of Italy. Before this time, the eastern trade of Europe came by the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, and the Italian cities. Columbus's offer to Genoa was therefore one which, if her statesmen could have foreseen the future, they would have considered eagerly.

But Genoa was greatly depressed at this period. In her wars with the Turks she had been, on the whole, not successful. She had lost Caffa, her station in the Crimea, and her possessions in the Archipelago were threatened. The government did not accept Columbus's proposals, and he was obliged to return with them to Spain. He went first to distinguished noblemen, in the South of Spain, who were of liberal and adventurous disposition. One was the Duke of Medina Celi, and one the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Each of these grandees entertained him at their courts, and heard his proposals.

The Duke of Medina Celi was so much interested in them, that at one time he proposed to give Columbus the direction of four vessels which he had in the harbor of Cadiz. But, of a sudden, he changed his mind. The enterprise was so vast, he said, that it should be under the direction of the crown. And, without losing confidence in it, he gave to Columbus an introduction to the king and queen, in which he cordially recommended him to their patronage.

This king and queen were King Ferdinand of Aragon, and Queen Isabella of Castile. The marriage of these two had united Spain. Their affection for each other made the union real, and the energy, courage and wisdom of both made their reign successful and glorious. Of all its glories the greatest, as it has proved, was connected with the life and discoveries of the sailor who was now to approach them. He had been disloyally treated by Portugal, he had been dismissed by Genoa. He had not succeeded with the great dukes. Now he was to press his adventure upon a king and queen who were engaged in a difficult war with the Moors, who still held a considerable part of the peninsula of Spain.

The king and queen were residing at Cordova, a rich and beautiful city, which they had taken from the Moors. Under their rule Cordova had been the most important seat of learning in Europe. Here Columbus tarried at the house of Alonso de Quintinilla, who became an ardent convert to his theory, and introduced him to important friends. By their agency, arrangements were made, in which Columbus should present his views to the king. The time was not such as he could have wished. All Cordova was alive with the preparation for a great campaign against the enemy. But King Ferdinand made arrangements to hear Columbus; it does not appear that, at the first hearing, Isabella was present at the interview. But Ferdinand, although in the midst of his military cares, was intereste in the proposals made by Columbus. He liked the man. He was pleased by the modesty and dignity with which he brought forward his proposals. Columbus spoke, as he tells us, as one specially appointed by God Himself to carry out this discovery. The king did not, however, at once adopt the scheme, but gave out that a council of men of learning should be called together to consider it.

Columbus himself says that he entered the service of the sovereigns January 26, 1486. The council to which he was referred was held in the university city of Salamanca, in that year. It gave to him a full opportunity to explain his theory. It consisted of a fair representation of the learning of the time. But most of the men who met had formed their opinions on the subjects involved, and were too old to change them. A part of them were priests of the church, in the habit of looking to sacred Scripture as their only authority, when the pope had given no instruction in detail. Of these some took literally expressions in the Old Testament, which they supposed to be fatal to the plans of Columbus. Such was the phrase in the 104th Psalm, that God stretches out the heavens like a curtain. The expression in the book of Hebrews, that the heavens are extended as a tent, was also quoted, in the same view.

Quotations from the early Fathers of the church were more fatal to the new plan than those from the Scripture.

On the other hand there were men who cordially supported Columbus's wishes, and there were more when the congress parted than when it met. Its sessions occupied a considerable part of the summer, but it was not for years that it rendered any decision.

The king, queen and court, meanwhile, were occupied in war with the Moors. Columbus was once and again summoned to attend the court, and more than once money was advanced to him to enable him to do so. Once he began new negotiations with King John, and from him he received a letter inviting him to return to Portugal. He received a similar letter from King Henry VII of England inviting him to his court. Nothing was determined on in Spain. To this day, the people of that country are thought to have a habit of postponement to tomorrow of that which perplexes them. In 1489, according to Ortiz de Zuniga, Columbus fought in battle in the king's army.

When, however, in the winter of 1490, it was announced that the army was to take the field again, never to leave its camp till Grenada had fallen, Columbus felt that he must make one last endeavor. He insisted that he must have an answer regarding his plans of discovery. The confessor of the queen, Fernando da Talavera, was commanded to obtain the definite answer of the men of learning. Alas! it was fatal to Columbus's hopes. They said that it was not right that great princes should undertake such enterprises on grounds as weak as those which he relied upon.

The sovereigns themselves, however, were more favorable; so was a minority of the council of Salamanca. And the confessor was instructed to tell him that their expenses in the war forbade them from sending him out as a discoverer, but that, when that was well over, they had hopes that they might commission him. This was the end of five years of solicitation, in which he had put his trust in princes. Columbus regarded the answer, as well he might, as only a courtly measure of refusal. And he retired in disgust from the court at Seville.

He determined to lay his plans before the King of France. He was traveling with this purpose, with his son, Diego, now a boy of ten or twelve years of age, when he arrived at night at the hospitable convent of Saint Mary of Rabida, which has been made celebrated by that incident. It is about three miles south of what was then the seaport of Palos, one of the active ports of commercial Spain. The convent stands on level ground high above the sea; but a steep road runs down to the shore of the ocean. Some of its windows and corridors look out upon the ocean on the west and south, and the inmates still show the room in which Columbus used to write, and the inkstand which served his purposes while he lived there. It is maintained as a monument of history by the Spanish government.

At the door of this convent he asked for bread and water for his boy. The prior of the convent was named Juan Perez de Marchena. He was attracted by the appearance of Columbus, still more by his conversation, and invited him to remain as their guest.

When he learned that his new friend was about to offer to France the advantages of a discovery so great as that proposed, he begged him to make one effort more at home. He sent for some friends, Fernandos, a physician at Palos, and for the brothers Pinzon, who now appear for the first time in a story where their part is distinguished. Together they all persuaded Columbus to send one messenger more to wait upon their sovereigns. The man sent was Rodriguez, a pilot of Lepe, who found access to the queen because Juan Perez, the prior, had formerly been her confessor. She had confidence in him, as she had, indeed, in Columbus. And in fourteen days the friendly pilot came back from Santa Fe with a kind letter from the queen to her friend, bidding him return at once to court. Perez de Marchena saddled his mule at once and before midnight was on his way to see his royal mistress.

Santa Fe was half camp, half city. It had been built in what is called the Vega, the great fruitful plain which extends for many miles to the westward of Grenada. The court and army were here as they pressed their attack on that city. Perez de Marchena had ready access to Queen Isabella, and pressed his suit well. He was supported by one of her favorites, the Marquesa de Moya. In reply to their solicitations, she asked that Columbus should return to her, and ordered that twenty thousand maravedis should be sent to him for his traveling expenses.

This sum was immediately sent by Perez to his friend. Columbus bought a mule, exchanged his worn clothes for better ones, and started, as he was bidden, for the camp.

He arrived there just after the great victory, by which the king and queen had obtained their wish--had taken the noble city of Grenada and ended Moorish rule in Spain. King, queen, court and army were preparing to enter the Alhambra in triumph. Whoever tries to imagine the scene, in which the great procession entered through the gates, so long sealed, or of the moment when the royal banner of Spain was first flying out upon the Tower of the Vela, must remember that Columbus, elate, at last, with hopes for his own great discovery, saw the triumph and joined in the display.

But his success was not immediate, even now. Fernando de Talavera, who had had the direction of the wise council of Salamanca, was now Archbishop of Grenada, whose see had been conferred on him after the victory. He was not the friend of Columbus. And when, at what seemed the final interview with king and queen, he heard Columbus claim the right to one-tenth of all the profits of the enterprise, he protested against such lavish recompense of an adventurer. He was now the confessor of Isabella, as Juan Perez, the friendly prior, had been before. Columbus, however, was proud and firm. He would not yield to the terms prepared by the archbishop. He preferred to break off the negotiation, and again retired from court. He determined, as he had before, to lay his plans before the King of France.

Spain would have lost the honor and the reward of the great discovery, as Portugal and Genoa had lost them, but for Luis de St. Angel, and the queen herself. St. Angel had been the friend of Columbus. He was an important officer, the treasurer of the church revenues of Aragon. He now insisted upon an audience from the queen. It would seem that Ferdinand, though King of Aragon, was not present. St. Angel spoke eloquently. The friendly Marchioness of Moya spoke eagerly and persuasively. Isabella was at last fired with zeal. Columbus should go, and the enterprise should be hers.

It is here that the incident belongs, represented in the statue by Mr. Mead, and that of Miss Hosmer. The sum required for the discovery of a world was only three thousand crowns. Two vessels were all that Columbus asked for, with the pay of their crews. But where were three thousand crowns? The treasury was empty, and the king was now averse to any action. It was at this moment that Isabella said, "The enterprise is mine, for the Crown of Castile. I pledge my jewels for the funds."

The funds were in fact advanced by St. Angel, from the ecclesiastical revenues under his control. They were repaid from the gold brought in the first voyage. But, always afterward, Isabella regarded the Indies as a Castilian possession. The most important officers in its administration, indeed most of the emigrants, were always from Castile.

Columbus, meanwhile, was on his way back to Palos, on his mule, alone. But at a bridge, still pointed out, a royal courier overtook him, bidding him return. The spot has been made the scene of more than one picture, which represents the crisis, in which the despair of one moment changed to the glad hope which was to lead to certainty.

He returned to Isabella for the last time, before that great return in which he came as a conqueror, to display to her the riches of the New World. The king yielded a slow and doubtful assent. Isabella took the enterprise in her own hands. She and Columbus agreed at once, and articles were drawn up which gave him the place of admiral for life on all lands he might discover; gave him one-tenth of all pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices and other merchandise to be obtained in his admiralty, and gave him the right to nominate three candidates from whom the governor of each province should be selected by the crown. He was to be the judge of all disputes arising from such traffic as was proposed; and he was to have one-eighth part of the profit, and bear one-eighth part of the cost of it.

With this glad news he returned at once to Palos. The Pinzons, who had been such loyal friends, were to take part in the enterprise. He carried with him a royal order, commanding the people of Palos to fit out two caravels within ten days, and to place them and their crews at the disposal of Columbus. The third vessel proposed was to be fitted out by him and his friends. The crews were to be paid four months' wages in advance, and Columbus was to have full command, to do what he chose, if he did not interfere with the Portuguese discoveries.

On the 23rd of May, Columbus went to the church of San Giorgio in Palos, with his friend, the prior of St. Mary's convent, and other important people, and the royal order was read with great solemnity:

But it excited at first only indignation or dismay. The expedition was most unpopular. Sailors refused to enlist, and the authorities, who had already offended the crown, so that they had to furnish these vessels, as it were, as a fine, refused to do what they were bidden. Other orders from Court were necessary. But it seems to have been the courage and determination of the Pinzons which carried the preparations through. After weeks had been lost, Martin Alonso Pinzon and his brothers said they would go in person on the expedition. They were well-known merchants and seamen, and were much respected. Sailors were impressed, by the royal authority, and the needful stores were taken in the same way. It seems now strange that so much difficulty should have surrounded an expedition in itself so small. But the plan met then all the superstition, terror and other prejudice of the time.

All that Columbus asked or needed was three small vessels and their stores and crews. The largest ships engaged were little larger than the large yachts, whose races every summer delight the people of America. The Gallega and the Pinta were the two largest. They were called caravels, a name then given to the smallest three-masted vessels. Columbus once uses it for a vessel of forty tons; but it generally applied in Portuguese or Spanish use to a vessel, ranging one hundred and twenty to one hundred and forty Spanish "toneles." This word represents a capacity about one-tenth larger than that expressed by our English "ton."

The reader should remember that most of the commerce of the time was the coasting commerce of the Mediterranean, and that it was not well that the ships should draw much water. The fleet of Columbus, as it sailed, consisted of the Gallega (the Galician), of which he changed the name to the Santa Maria, and of the Pinta and the Nina. Of these the first two were of a tonnage which we should rate as about one hundred and thirty tons. The Nina was much smaller, not more than fifty tons. One writer says that they were all without full decks, that is, that such decks as they had did not extend from stem to stern. But the other authorities speak as if the Nina only was an open vessel, and the two larger were decked. Columbus himself took command of the Santa Maria, Martin Alonso Pinzon of the Pinta, and his brothers, Francis Martin and Vicente Yanez, of the Nina. The whole company in all three ships numbered one hundred and twenty men.

Mr. Harrisse shows that the expense to the crown amounted to 1,140,000 maravedis. This, as he counts it, is about sixty-four thousand dollars of our money. To this Columbus was to add one-eighth of the cost. His friends, the Pinzons, seem to have advanced this, and to have been afterwards repaid. Las Casas and Herrera both say that the sum thus added was much more than one-eighth of the cost and amounted to half a million maravedis.