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Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 58766

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Columbus leaves the Court.

Columbus, a disheartened wanderer, with his back turned on the Spanish Court, his mule plodding the road to Cordoba, offered a sad picture to the few adherents whom he had left behind. They had grown to have his grasp of confidence, but lacked his spirit to clothe an experimental service with all the certainties of an accomplished fact.

The Queen relents.

The sight of the departing theorist abandoning the country, and going to seek countenance at rival courts, stirred the Spanish pride. He and his friends had, in mutual counsels, pictured the realms of the Indies made tributary to the Spanish fame. It was this conception of a chance so near fruition, and now vanishing, that moved Luis de Santangel and Alonso de Quintanilla to determine on one last effort. They immediately sought the Queen. In an audience the two advocates presented the case anew, appealing to the royal ambition, to the opportunity of spreading her holy religion, to the occasions of replenishing her treasure-chests, emptied by the war, and to every other impulse, whether of pride or patriotism. The trivial cost and risk were contrasted with the glowing possibilities. They repeated the offer of Columbus to share an eighth of the expense. They pictured her caravels, fitted out at a cost of not more than 3,000,000 crowns, bearing the banner of Spain to these regions of opulence. The vision, once fixed in the royal eye, spread under their warmth of description, into succeeding glimpses of increasing splendor. Finally the warmth and glory of an almost realized expectancy filled the Queen's cabinet.

The conquest was made. The royal companion, the Marchioness of Moya, saw and encouraged the kindling enthusiasm of Isabella; but a shade came over the Queen's face. The others knew it was the thought of Ferdinand's aloofness. The warrior of Aragon, with new conquests to regulate, with a treasury drained almost to the last penny, would have little heart for an undertaking in which his enthusiasm, if existing at all, had always been dull as compared with hers. She solved the difficulty in a flash. The voyage shall be the venture of Castile alone, and it shall be undertaken.

Columbus brought back.

Orders were at once given for a messenger to overtake Columbus. A horseman came up with him at the bridge of Pinòs, two leagues from Granada. There was a moment's hesitancy, as thoughts of cruelly protracted and suspended feelings in the past came over him. His decision, however, was not stayed. He turned his mule, and journeyed back to the city. Columbus was sought once more, and in a way to give him the vantage which his imperious demands could easily use.

The interview with the Queen which followed removed all doubt of his complete ascendency. Ferdinand in turn yielded to the persuasions of his chamberlain, Juan Cabrero, and to the supplications of Isabella; but he succumbed without faith, if the story which is told of him in relation to the demand for similar concessions made twenty years later by Ponce de Leon is to be believed. "Ah," said Ferdinand, to the discoverer of Florida, "it is one thing to give a stretch of power when no one anticipates the exercise of it; but we have learned something since then; you will succeed, and it is another thing to give such power to you." This story goes a great way to explain the later efforts of the Crown to counteract the power which was, in the flush of excitement, unwittingly given to the new Admiral.

The Queen's jewels.

The ensuing days were devoted to the arrangement of details. The usual story, derived from the Historie, is that the Queen offered to pawn her jewels, as her treasury of Castile could hardly furnish the small sum required; but Harrisse is led to believe that the exigencies of the war had already required this sacrifice of the Queen, though the documentary evidence is wanting. Santangel, however, interposed. As treasurer of the ecclesiastical revenues in Aragon, he was able to show that while Isabella was foremost in promoting the enterprise, Ferdinand could join her in a loan from these coffers; and so it was that the necessary funds were, in reality, paid in the end from the revenues of Aragon. This is the common story, enlarged by later writers upon the narrative in Las Casas; but Harrisse finds no warrant for it, and judges the advance of funds to have been by Santangel from his private revenues, and in the interests of Castile only. And this seems to be proved by the invariable exclusion of Ferdinand's subjects from participating in the advantages of trade in the new lands, unless an exception was made for some signal service. This rule, indeed, prevailed, even after Ferdinand began to reign alone.

Aims of the expedition.

End of the world approaching.

There is something quite as amusing as edifying in the ostensible purposes of all this endeavor. To tap the resources of the luxuriant East might be gratifying, but it was holy to conceive that the energies of the undertaking were going to fill the treasury out of which a new crusade for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre could be sustained. The pearls and spices of the Orient, the gold and precious jewels of its mines, might conduce to the gorgeous and luxurious display of the throne, but there was a noble condescension in giving Columbus a gracious letter to the Great Khan, and in hoping to seduce his subjects to the sway of a religion that allowed to the heathen no rights but conversion. There was at least a century and a half of such holy endeavors left for the ministrants of the church, as was believed, since the seven thousand years of the earth's duration was within one hundred and fifty-five years of its close, as the calculations of King Alonso showed. Columbus had been further drawn to these conclusions from his study of that conglomerating cardinal, Pierre d'Ailly, whose works, in a full edition, had been at this time only a few months in the book stalls. Humboldt has gone into an examination of the data to show that Columbus's calculation was singularly inexact; but the labor of verification seems hardly necessary, except as a curious study of absurdities. Columbus's career has too many such to detain us on any one.

1492. April 17. Agreement with Columbus.

On April 17, 1492, the King and Queen signed at Santa Fé and delivered to Columbus a passport to all persons in unknown parts, commending the Admiral to their friendship. This paper is preserved in Barcelona. On the same day the monarchs agreed to the conditions of a document which was drawn by the royal secretary, Juan de Coloma, and is preserved among the papers of the Duke of Veragua. It was printed from that copy by Navarrete, and is again printed by Bergenroth as found at Barcelona. As formulated in English by Irving, its purport is as follows:-

1. That Columbus should have for himself during his life, and for his heirs and successors forever, the office of Admiral in all the lands and continents which he might discover or acquire in the ocean, with similar honors and prerogatives to those enjoyed by the high admiral of Castile in his district.

2. That he should be viceroy and governor-general over all the said lands and continents, with the privilege of nominating three candidates for the government of each island or province, one of whom should be selected by the sovereigns.

3. That he should be entitled to reserve for himself one tenth of all pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and all other articles of merchandises, in whatever manner found, bought, bartered, or gained within his admiralty, the costs being first deducted.

4. That he or his lieutenant should be the sole judge in all causes or disputes arising out of traffic between those countries and Spain, provided the high admiral of Castile had similar jurisdiction in his district.

5. That he might then and at all after times contribute an eighth part of the expense in fitting out vessels to sail on this enterprise, and receive an eighth part of the profits.

1492. April 30. Colummbus allowed to use the prefix Don.

These capitulations were followed on the 30th of April by a commission which the sovereigns signed at Granada, in which it was further granted that the Admiral and his heirs should use the prefix Don.

Arranges his domestic affairs.

It is supposed he now gave some heed to his domestic concerns. We know nothing, however, of any provision for the lonely Beatrix, but it is said that he placed his boy Ferdinand, then but four years of age, at school in Cordoba near his mother. He left his lawful son, Diego, well provided for through an appointment by the Queen, on May 8, which made him page to Prince Juan, the heir apparent.

1492. May. Reaches Palos.

Columbus himself tells us that he then left Granada on the 12th of May, 1492, and went direct to Palos; stopping, however, on the way at Rabida, to exchange congratulations with its friar, Juan Perez, if indeed he did not lodge at the convent during his stay in the seaport.

Palos described.

Palos to-day consists of a double street of lowly, whitened houses, in a depression among the hills. The guides point out the ruins of a larger house, which was the home of the Pinzons. The Moorish mosque, converted into St. George's church in Columbus's day, still stands on the hill, just outside the village, with an image of St. George and the dragon over its high altar, just as Columbus saw it, while above the church are existing ruins of an old Moorish castle.

Ships fitted out.

The story which Las Casas has told of the fitting out of the vessels does not agree in some leading particulars with that which Navarrete holds to be more safely drawn from the documents which he has published. The fact seems to be that two of the vessels of Columbus were not constructed by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, and later bought by the Queen, as Las Casas says; but, it happening that the town of Palos, in consequence of some offense to the royal dignity, had been mulcted in the service of two armed caravels for twelve months, the opportunity was now taken by royal order, dated April 30, 1492, of assigning this service of crews and vessels to Columbus's fateful expedition.

The Pinzons aid him.

The royal command had also provided that Columbus might add a third vessel, which he did with the aid, it is supposed, of the Pinzons, though there is no documentary proof to show whence he acquired the necessary means. Las Casas and Herrera, however, favor the supposition, and it is of course sustained in the evidence adduced in the famous trial which was intended to magnify the service of the Pinzons. It was also directed that the seamen of the little fleet should receive the usual wages of those serving in armed vessels, and be paid four months in advance. All maritime towns were enjoined to furnish supplies at a reasonable price. All criminal processes against anybody engaged for the voyage were to be suspended, and this suspension was to last for two months after the return.

1492. May 23. Demands two ships of Palos.

1492. June 20. Vessels and crews impressed.

The Pinzons.

It was on the 23d of May that, accompanied by Juan Perez, Columbus met the people of Palos assembled in the church of St. George, while a notary read the royal commands laid upon the town. It took a little time for the simple people to divine the full extent of such an order,-its consignment of fellow-creatures to the dreaded evils of the great unknown ocean. The reluctance to enter upon the undertaking proved so great, except among a few prisoners taken from the jails, that it became necessary to report the obstacle to the Court, when a new peremptory order was issued on June 20 to impress the vessels and crews. Juan de Pe?alosa, an officer of the royal household, appeared in Palos to enforce this demand. Even such imperative measures availed little, and it was not till Martin Alonso Pinzon came forward, and either by an agreement to divide with Columbus the profits, or through some other understanding,-for the testimony on the point is doubtful, and Las Casas disbelieves any such division of profits,-exerted his influence, in which he was aided by his brother, also a navigator, Vicente Ya?ez Pinzon. There is a story traceable to a son of the elder Pinzon, who testified in the Columbus lawsuit that Martin Alonso had at one time become convinced of the existence of western lands from some documents and charts which he had seen at Rome. The story, like that of his companionship with Cousin, already referred to, has in it, however, many elements of suspicion.

This help of the Pinzons proved opportune and did much to save the cause, for it had up to this time seemed impossible to get vessels or crews. The standing of these navigators as men and their promise to embark personally put a new complexion on the undertaking, and within a month the armament was made up. Harrisse has examined the evidence in the matter to see if there is any proof that the Pinzons contributed more than their personal influence, but there is no apparent ground for believing they did, unless they stood behind Columbus in his share of the expenses, which are computed at 500,000 maravedis, while those of the Queen, arranged through Santangel, are reckoned at 1,140,000 of that money. The fleet consisted, as Peter Martyr tells us, of two open caravels, "Nina" and "Pinta"-the latter, with its crew, being pressed into the service,-decked only at the extremities, where high prows and poops gave quarters for the crews and their officers. A large-decked vessel of the register known as a carack, and renamed by Columbus the "Santa Maria," which proved "a dull sailer and unfit for discovery," was taken by Columbus as his flagship. There is some confusion in the testimony relating to the name of this ship. The Historie alone calls her by this name. Las Casas simply styles her "The Captain." One of the pilots speaks of her as the "Mari Galante." Her owner was one Juan de la Cosa, apparently not the same person as the navigator and cosmographer later to be met, and he had command of her, while Pero Alonso Nino and Sancho Ruis served as pilots.

Character of the ships.

Captain G. V. Fox has made an estimate of her dimensions from her reputed tonnage by the scale of that time, and thinks she was sixty-three feet over all in length, fifty-one feet along her keel, twenty feet beam, and ten and a half in depth.

The crews.

The two Pinzons were assigned to the command of the other caravels,-Martin Alonso to the "Pinta," the larger of the two, with a third brother of his as pilot, and Vicente Ya?ez to the "Nina." Many obstacles and the natural repugnances of sailors to embark in so hazardous a service still delayed the preparations, but by the beginning of August the arrangements were complete, and a hundred and twenty persons, as Peter Martyr and Oviedo tell us, but perhaps the Historie and Las Casas are more correct in saying ninety in all, were ready to be committed to what many of them felt were most desperate fortunes. Duro has of late published in his Colón y Pinzon what purports to be a list of their names. It shows in Tallerte de Lajes a native of England who has been thought to be one named in his vernacular Arthur Lake; and Guillemio Ires, called of Galway, has sometimes been fancied to have borne in his own land the name perhaps of Rice, Herries, or Harris. There was no lack of the formal assignments usual in such important undertakings. There was a notary to record the proceedings and a historian to array the story; an interpreter to be prepared with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, and Armenian, in the hopes that one of these tongues might serve in intercourse with the great Asiatic potentates, and a metallurgist to pronounce upon precious ores. They were not without a physician and a surgeon. It does not appear if their hazards should require the last solemn rites that there was any priest to shrive them; but Columbus determined to start with all the solemnity that a confession and the communion could impart, and this service was performed by Juan Perez, both for him and for his entire company.

Sailing directions from the Crown.

The directions of the Crown also provided that Columbus should avoid the Guinea coast and all other possessions of the Portuguese, which seems to be little more than a striking manifestation of a certain kind of incredulity respecting what Columbus, after all, meant by sailing west. Indeed, there was necessarily more or less vagueness in everybody's mind as to what a western passage would reveal, or how far a westerly course might of necessity be swung one way or the other.

Islands first to be sought.

The Historie tells us distinctly that Columbus hoped to find some intermediate land before reaching India, to be used, as the modern phrase goes, as a sort of base of operations. This hope rested on the belief, then common, that there was more land than sea on the earth, and consequently that no wide stretch of ocean could exist without interlying lands.

There was, moreover, no confidence that such things as floating islands might not be encountered. Pliny and Seneca had described them, and Columbus was inclined to believe that St. Brandan and the Seven Cities, and such isles as the dwellers at the Azores had claimed to see in the offing, might be of this character.

There seems, in fact, to be ground for believing that Columbus thought his course to the Asiatic shores could hardly fail to bring him in view of other regions or islands lying in the western ocean. Mu?oz holds that "the glory of such discoveries inflamed him still more, perhaps, than his chief design."

Asiatic archipelago.

That a vast archipelago would, be the first land encountered was not without confident believers. The Catalan map of 1374 had shown such islands in vast numbers, amounting to 7,548 in all; Marco Polo had made them 12,700, or was thought to do so; and Behaim was yet to cite the latter on his globe.

Behaim's globe.

It was, indeed, at this very season that Behaim, having returned from Lisbon to his home in Nuremberg, had imparted to the burghers of that inland town those great cosmographical conceptions, which he was accustomed to hear discussed in the Atlantic seaports. Such views were exemplified in a large globe which Behaim had spent the summer in constructing in Nuremberg. It was made of pasteboard cov ered with parchment, and is twenty-one inches in diameter.


Note. The curved sides of these cuts divide the Globe in the mid Atlantic.]


[Taken from Ernest Mayer's Die Hilfsmittel der Schiffahrtkunde (Wein, 1879).]


[Left side.]



[Right side.]


Laon globe.

It shows the equator, the tropics, the polar circle, in a latitudinal way; but the first meridian, passing through Madeira, is the only one of the longitudinal sectors which it represents. Behaim had in this work the help of Holtzschner, and the globe has come down to our day, preserved in the town hall at Nuremberg, one of the sights and honors of that city. It shares the credit, however, with another, called the Laon globe, as the only well-authenticated geographical spheres which date back of the discovery of America. This Laon globe is much smaller, being only six inches in diameter; and though it is dated 1493, it is thought to have been made a few years earlier,-as D'Avezac thinks, in 1486.


Clements K. Markham, in a recent edition of Robert Hues' Tractatus de Globis, cites Nordenski?ld as considering Behaim's globe, without comparison, the most important geographical document since the atlas of Ptolemy, in A. D. 150. "He points out that it is the first which unreservedly adopts the existence of antipodes; the first which clearly shows that there is a passage from Europe to India; the first which attempts to deal with the discoveries of Marco Polo. It is an exact representation of geographical knowledge immediately previous to the first voyage of Columbus."

The Behaim globe has become familiar by many published drawings.

Toscanelli's map.

It has been claimed that Columbus probably took with him, on his voyage, the map which he had received from Toscanelli, with its delineation of the interjacent and island-studded ocean, which washed alike the shores of Europe and Asia, and that it was the subject of study by him and Pinzon at a time when Columbus refers in his journal to the use they made of a chart.

That Toscanelli's map long survived the voyage is known, and Las Casas used it. Humboldt has not the same confidence which Sprengel had, that at this time it crossed the sea in the "Santa Maria;" and he is inclined rather to suppose that the details of Toscanelli's chart, added to all others which Columbus had gathered from the maps of Bianco and Benincasa-for it is not possible he could have seen the work of Behaim, unless indeed, in fragmentary preconceptions-must have served him better as laid down on a chart of his own drafting. There is good reason to suppose that, more than once, with the skill which he is known to have possessed, he must have made such charts, to enforce and demonstrate his belief, which, though in the main like that of Toscanelli, were in matters of distance quite different.

* * *

1492, August 3, Columbus sails.

So, everything being ready, on the third of August, 1492, a half hour before sunrise, he unmoored his little fleet in the stream and, spreading his sails, the vessels passed out of the little river roadstead of Palos, gazed after, perhaps, in the increasing light, as the little crafts reached the ocean, by the friar of Rabida, from its distant promontory of rock.


(From Medina's Arte de Navegar, 1545.)

On Friday.

The day was Friday, and the advocates of Columbus's canonization have not failed to see a purpose in its choice, as the day of our Redemption, and as that of the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre by Geoffrey de Bouillon, and of the rendition of Granada, with the fall of the Moslem power in Spain. We must resort to the books of such advocates, if we would enliven the picture with a multitude of rites and devotional feelings that they gather in the meshes of the story of the departure. They supply to the embarkation a variety of detail that their holy purposes readily imagine, and place Columbus at last on his poop, with the standard of the Cross, the image of the Saviour nailed to the holy wood, waving in the early breezes that heralded the day. The embellishments may be pleasing, but they are not of the strictest authenticity.

SHIP, 1486.

Keeps a journal.

In order that his performance of an embassy to the princes of the East might be duly chronicled, Columbus determined, as his journal says, to keep an account of the voyage by the west, "by which course," he says, "unto the present time, we do not know, for certain, that any one has passed." It was his purpose to write down, as he proceeded, everything he saw and all that he did, and to make a chart of his discoveries, and to show the directions of his track.


[From Bethencourt's Canarian, London, 1872.]

The "Pinta" disabled.

Nothing occurred during those early August days to mar his run to the Canaries, except the apprehension which he felt that an accident, happening to the rudder of the "Pinta,"-a steering gear now for some time in use, in place of the old lateral paddles,-was a trick of two men, her owners, Gomez Rascon and Christopher Quintero, to impede a voyage in which they had no heart. The Admiral knew the disposition of these men well enough not to be surprised at the mishap, but he tried to feel secure in the prompt energy of Pinzon, who commanded the "Pinta."

Reaches the Canaries.

As he passed (August 24-25, 1492) the peak of Teneriffe, it was the time of an eruption, of which he makes bare mention in his journal. It is to the corresponding passages of the Historie, that we owe the somewhat sensational stories of the terrors of the sailors, some of whom certainly must long have been accustomed to like displays in the volcanoes of the Mediterranean.

1492. September 6, leaves Gomera.

At the Gran Canaria the "Nina" was left to have her lateen sails changed to square ones; and the "Pinta," it being found impossible to find a better vessel to take her place, was also left to be overhauled for her leaks, and to have her rudder again repaired, while Columbus visited Gomera, another of the islands. The fleet was reunited at Gomera on September 2. Here he fell in with some residents of Ferro, the westernmost of the group, who repeated the old stories of land occasionally seen from its heights, lying towards the setting sun. Having taking on board wood, water, and provisions, Columbus finally sailed from Gomera on the morning of Thursday, September 6. He seems to have soon spoken a vessel from Ferro, and from this he learned that three Portuguese caravels were lying in wait for him in the neighborhood of that island, with a purpose as he thought of visiting in some way upon him, for having gone over to the interests of Spain, the indignation of the Portuguese king. He escaped encountering them.

Sunday, September 9, 1492.

Falsifies his reckoning.

Up to Sunday, September 9, they had experienced so much calm weather, that their progress had been slow. This tediousness soon raised an apprehension in the mind of Columbus that the voyage might prove too long for the constancy of his men. He accordingly determined to falsify his reckoning. This deceit was a large confession of his own timidity in dealing with his crew, and it marked the beginning of a long struggle with deceived and mutinous subordinates, which forms so large a part of the record of his subsequent career.


[Taken from the map in Blanchero's La Tavola di Bronzo (Geneva, 1857).]


The result of Monday's sail, which he knew to be sixty leagues, he noted as forty-eight, so that the distance from home might appear less than it was. He continued to practice this deceit.

His dead reckoning.

The distances given by Columbus are those of dead reckoning beyond any question. Lieutenant Murdock, of the United States navy, who has commented on this voyage, makes his league the equivalent of three modern nautical miles, and his mile about three quarters of our present estimate for that distance. Navarrete says that Columbus reckoned in Italian miles, which are a quarter less than a Spanish mile. The Admiral had expected to make land after sailing about seven hundred leagues from Ferro; and in ordering his vessels in case of separation to proceed westward, he warned them when they sailed that distance to come to the wind at night, and only to proceed by day.

The log as at present understood in navigation had not yet been devised. Columbus depended in judging of his speed on the eye alone, basing his calculations on the passage of objects or bubbles past the ship, while the running out of his hour glasses afforded the multiple for long distances.

1492. September 13.

Reaches point of no variation of the needle.

Knowledge of the magnet.

On Thursday, the 13th of September, he notes that the ships were encountering adverse currents. He was now three degrees west of Flores, and the needle of the compass pointed as it had never been observed before, directly to the true north. His observation of this fact marks a significant point in the history of navigation. The polarity of the magnet, an ancient possession of the Chinese, had been known perhaps for three hundred years, when this new spirit of discovery awoke in the fifteenth century. The Indian Ocean and its traditions were to impart, perhaps through the Arabs, perhaps through the returning Crusaders, a knowledge of the magnet to the dwellers on the shores of the Mediterranean, and to the hardier mariners who pushed beyond the Pillars of Hercules, so that the new route to that same Indian Ocean was made possible in the fifteenth century. The way was prepared for it gradually. The Catalans from the port of Barcelona pushed out into the great Sea of Darkness under the direction of their needles, as early at least as the twelfth century. The pilots of Genoa and Venice, the hardy Majorcans and the adventurous Moors, were followers of almost equal temerity.


[From the United States Coast Survey Report, 1880, No. 84.]

Variation of the needle.

A knowledge of the variation of the needle came more slowly to be known to the mariners of the Mediterranean. It had been observed by Peregrini as early as 1269, but that knowledge of it which rendered it greatly serviceable in voyages does not seem to be plainly indicated in

any of the charts of these transition centuries, till we find it laid down on the maps of Andrea Bianco in 1436.


[From Hirth's Bilderbuch, vol. iii.]

It was no new thing then when Columbus, as he sailed westward, marked the variation, proceeding from the northeast more and more westerly; but it was a revelation when he came to a position where the magnetic north and the north star stood in conjunction, as they did on this 13th of September, 1492.

Columbus's misconception of the line of no variation.

Sebastian Cabot's observations of its help in determining longitude.

As he still moved westerly the magnetic line was found to move farther and farther away from the pole as it had before the 13th approached it. To an observer of Columbus's quick perceptions, there was a ready guess to possess his mind. This inference was that this line of no variation was a meridian line, and that divergences from it east and west might have a regularity which would be found to furnish a method of ascertaining longitude far easier and surer than tables or water clocks. We know that four years later he tried to sail his ship on observations of this kind. The same idea seems to have occurred to Sebastian Cabot, when a little afterwards he approached and passed in a higher latitude, what he supposed to be the meridian of no variation. Humboldt is inclined to believe that the possibility of such a method of ascertaining longitude was that uncommunicable secret, which Sebastian Cabot many years later hinted at on his death-bed.

The claim was made near a century later by Livio Sanuto in his Geographia, published at Venice, in 1588, that Sebastian Cabot had been the first to observe this variation, and had explained it to Edward VI., and that he had on a chart placed the line of no variation at a point one hundred and ten miles west of the island of Flores in the Azores.

Various views.

These observations of Columbus and Cabot were not wholly accepted during the sixteenth century. Robert Hues, in 1592, a hundred years later, tells us that Medina, the Spanish grand pilot, was not disinclined to believe that mariners saw more in it than really existed and that they found it a convenient way to excuse their own blunders. Nonius was credited with saying that it simply meant that worn-out magnets were used, which had lost their power to point correctly to the pole. Others had contended that it was through insufficient application of the loadstone to the iron that it was so devious in its work.


[From R. Mercator's Atlas of 1595.]

Better understood.

What was thought possible by the early navigators possessed the minds of all seamen in varying experiments for two centuries and a half. Though not reaching such satisfactory results as were hoped for, the expectation did not prove so chimerical as was sometimes imagined when it was discovered that the lines of variation were neither parallel, nor straight, nor constant. The line of no variation which Columbus found near the Azores has moved westward with erratic inclinations, until to-day it is not far from a straight line from Carolina to Guiana. Science, beginning with its crude efforts at the hands of Alonzo de Santa Cruz, in 1530, has so mapped the surface of the globe with observations of its multifarious freaks of variation, and the changes are so slow, that a magnetic chart is not a bad guide to-day for ascertaining the longitude in any latitude for a few years neighboring to the date of its records. So science has come round in some measure to the dreams of Columbus and Cabot.

* * *

Columbus remarks on changes of temperature and aberrations of stars.

But this was not the only development which came from this ominous day in the mid Atlantic in that September of 1492. The fancy of Columbus was easily excited, and notions of a change of climate, and even aberrations of the stars were easily imagined by him amid the strange phenomena of that untracked waste.

While Columbus was suspecting that the north star was somewhat willfully shifting from the magnetic pole, now to a distance of 5° and then of 10°, the calculations of modern astronomers have gauged the polar distance existing in 1492 at 3° 28′, as against the 1° 20′ of to-day. The confusion of Columbus was very like his confounding an old world with a new, inasmuch as he supposed it was the pole star and not the needle which was shifting.

Imagines a protuberance on the earth.

He argued from what he saw, or thought he saw, that the line of no variation marked the beginning of a protuberance of the earth, up which he ascended as he sailed westerly, and that this was the reason of the cooler weather which he experienced. He never got over some notions of this kind, and believed he found confirmation of them in his later voyages.

The magnetic pole.

Even as early as the reign of Edward III. of England, Nicholas of Lynn, a voyager to the northern seas, is thought to have definitely fixed the magnetic pole in the Arctic regions, transmitting his views to Cnoyen, the master of the later Mercator, in respect to the four circumpolar islands, which in the sixteenth century made so constant a surrounding of the northern pole.

1492. September 14.

September 15.

September 16.

Sargasso Sea.

The next day (September 14), after these magnetic observations, a water wagtail was seen from the "Nina,"-a bird which Columbus thought unaccustomed to fly over twenty-five leagues from land, and the ships were now, according to their reckoning, not far from two hundred leagues from the Canaries. On Saturday, they saw a distant bolt of fire fall into the sea. On Sunday, they had a drizzling rain, followed by pleasant weather, which reminded Columbus of the nightingales, gladdening the climate of Andalusia in April. They found around the ships much green floatage of weeds, which led them to think some islands must be near. Navarrete thinks there was some truth in this, inasmuch as the charts of the early part of this century represent breakers as having been seen in 1802, near the spot where Columbus can be computed to have been at this time. Columbus was in fact within that extensive prairie of floating seaweed which is known as the Sargasso Sea, whose principal longitudinal axis is found in modern times to lie along the parallel of 41° 30′, and the best calculations which can be made from the rather uncertain data of Columbus's journal seem to point to about the same position.

There is nothing in all these accounts, as we have them abridged by Las Casas, to indicate any great surprise, and certainly nothing of the overwhelming fear which, the Historie tells us, the sailors experienced when they found their ships among these floating masses of weeds, raising apprehension of a perpetual entanglement in their swashing folds.

1492. September 17.

September 18.

The next day (September 17) the currents became favorable, and the weeds still floated about them. The variation of the needle now became so great that the seamen were dismayed, as the journal says, and the observation being repeated Columbus practiced another deceit and made it appear that there had been really no variation, but only a shifting of the polar star! The weeds were now judged to be river weeds, and a live crab was found among them,-a sure sign of near land, as Columbus believed, or affected to believe. They killed a tunny and saw others. They again observed a water wagtail, "which does not sleep at sea." Each ship pushed on for the advance, for it was thought the goal was near. The next day the "Pinta" shot ahead and saw great flocks of birds towards the west. Columbus conceived that the sea was growing fresher. Heavy clouds hung on the northern horizon, a sure sign of land, it was supposed.

1492. September 19.

On the next day two pelicans came on board, and Columbus records that these birds are not accustomed to go twenty leagues from land. So he sounded with a line of two hundred fathoms to be sure he was not approaching land; but no bottom was found. A drizzling rain also betokened land, which they could not stop to find, but would search for on their return, as the journal says. The pilots now compared their reckonings. Columbus said they were 400 leagues, while the "Pinta's" record showed 420, and the "Nina's" 440.

1492. September 20.

September 22. Changes his course.

Head wind.

September 25.

On September 20, other pelicans came on board; and the ships were again among the weeds. Columbus was determined to ascertain if these indicated shoal water and sounded, but could not reach bottom. The men caught a bird with feet like a gull; but they were convinced it was a river bird. Then singing land-birds, as was fancied, hovered about as it darkened, but they disappeared before morning. Then a pelican was observed flying to the southwest, and as "these birds sleep on shore, and go to sea in the morning," the men encouraged themselves with the belief that they could not be far from land. The next day a whale could but be another indication of land; and the weeds covered the sea all about. On Saturday, they steered west by northwest, and got clear of the weeds. This change of course so far to the north, which had begun on the previous day, was occasioned by a head wind, and Columbus says that he welcomed it, because it had the effect of convincing the sailors that westerly winds to return by were not impossible. On Sunday (September 23), they found the wind still varying; but they made more westering than before,-weeds, crabs, and birds still about them. Now there was smooth water, which again depressed the seamen; then the sea arose, mysteriously, for there was no wind to cause it. They still kept their course westerly and continued it till the night of September 25.

Appearances of land.

Again changes his course.

September 26.

1492. September 27.

September 30.

October 1.

October 3.

October 6.

October 7.

Shifts his course to follow some birds.

Columbus at this time conferred with Pinzon, as to a chart which they carried, which showed some islands, near where they now supposed the ships to be. That they had not seen land, they believed was either due to currents which had carried them too far north, or else their reckoning was not correct. At sunset Pinzon hailed the Admiral, and said he saw land, claiming the reward. The two crews were confident that such was the case, and under the lead of their commanders they all kneeled and repeated the Gloria in Excelsis. The land appeared to lie southwest, and everybody saw the apparition. Columbus changed the fleet's course to reach it; and as the vessels went on, in the smooth sea, the men had the heart, under their expectation, to bathe in its amber glories. On Wednesday, they were undeceived, and found that the clouds had played them a trick. On the 27th their course lay more directly west. So they went on, and still remarked upon all the birds they saw and weed-drift which they pierced. Some of the fowl they thought to be such as were common at the Cape de Verde Islands, and were not supposed to go far to sea. On the 30th September, they still observed the needles of their compasses to vary, but the journal records that it was the pole star which moved, and not the needle. On October 1, Columbus says they were 707 leagues from Ferro; but he had made his crew believe they were only 584. As they went on, little new for the next few days is recorded in the journal; but on October 3, they thought they saw among the weeds something like fruits. By the 6th, Pinzon began to urge a southwesterly course, in order to find the islands, which the signs seemed to indicate in that direction. Still the Admiral would not swerve from his purpose, and kept his course westerly. On Sunday, the "Nina" fired a bombard and hoisted a flag as a signal that she saw land, but it proved a delusion. Observing towards evening a flock of birds flying to the southwest, the Admiral yielded to Pinzon's belief, and shifted his course to follow the birds. He records as a further reason for it that it was by following the flight of birds that the Portuguese had been so successful in discovering islands in other seas.


Columbus now found himself two hundred miles and more farther than the three thousand miles west of Spain, where he supposed Cipango to lie, and he was 25-1/2° north of the equator, according to his astrolabe. The true distance of Cipango or Japan was sixty-eight hundred miles still farther, or beyond both North America and the Pacific. How much beyond that island, in its supposed geographical position, Columbus expected to find the Asiatic main we can only conjecture from the restorations which modern scholars have made of Toscanelli's map, which makes the island about 10° east of Asia, and from Behaim's globe, which makes it 20°. It should be borne in mind that the knowledge of its position came from Marco Polo, and he does not distinctly say how far it was from the Asiatic coast. In a general way, as to these distances from Spain to China, Toscanelli and Behaim agreed, and there is no reason to believe that the views of Columbus were in any noteworthy degree different.

Relations of Pinzon to the change of course.

In the trial, years afterwards, when the Fiscal contested the rights of Diego Colon, it was put in evidence by one Vallejo, a seaman, that Pinzon was induced to urge the direction to be changed to the southwest, because he had in the preceding evening observed a flight of parrots in that direction, which could have only been seeking land. It was the main purpose of the evidence in this part of the trial to show that Pinzon had all along forced Columbus forward against his will.

How pregnant this change of course in the vessels of Columbus was has not escaped the observation of Humboldt and many others. A day or two further on his westerly way, and the Gulf Stream would, perhaps, insensibly have borne the little fleet up the Atlantic coast of the future United States, so that the banner of Castile might have been planted at Carolina.

October 7.

October 8-10.

On the 7th of October, Columbus was pretty nearly in latitude 25° 50',-that of one of the Bahama Islands. Just where he was by longitude there is much more doubt, probably between 65° and 66°. On the next day the land birds flying along the course of the ships seemed to confirm their hopes. On the 10th the journal records that the men began to lose patience; but the Admiral reassured them by reminding them of the profits in store for them, and of the folly of seeking to return, when they had already gone so far.

Story of a mutiny.

It is possible that, in this entry, Columbus conceals the story which later came out in the recital of Oviedo, with more detail than in the Historie and Las Casas, that the rebellion of his crew was threatening enough to oblige him to promise to turn back if land was not discovered in three days. Most commentators, however, are inclined to think that this story of a mutinous revolt was merely engrafted from hearsay or other source by Oviedo upon the more genuine recital, and that the conspiracy to throw the Admiral into the sea has no substantial basis in contemporary report. Irving, who has a dramatic tendency throughout his whole account of the voyage to heighten his recital with touches of the imagination, nevertheless allows this, and thinks that Oviedo was misled by listening to a pilot, who was a personal enemy of the Admiral.

The elucidations of the voyage which were drawn out in the famous suit of Diego with the Crown in 1513 and 1515, afford no ground for any belief in this story of the mutiny and the concession of Columbus to it.

It is not, however, difficult to conceive the recurrent fears of his men and the incessant anxiety of Columbus to quiet them. From what Peter Martyr tells us,-and he may have got it directly from Columbus's lips,-the task was not an easy one to preserve subordination and to instill confidence. He represents that Columbus was forced to resort in turn to argument, persuasion, and enticements, and to picture the misfortunes of the royal displeasure.

1492. October 11.

The next day, notwithstanding a heavier sea than they had before encountered, certain signs sufficed to lift them out of their despondency. These were floating logs, or pieces of wood, one of them apparently carved by hand, bits of cane, a green rush, a stalk of rose berries, and other drifting tokens.

1492. October 11. Steer west.

Columbus sees a light.

Their southwesterly course had now brought them down to about the twenty-fourth parallel, when after sunset on the 11th they shifted their course to due west, while the crew of the Admiral's ship united, with more fervor than usual, in the Salve Regina. At about ten o'clock Columbus, peering into the night, thought he saw-if we may believe him-a moving light, and pointing out the direction to Pero Gutierrez, this companion saw it too; but another, Rodrigo Sanchez, situated apparently on another part of the vessel, was not able to see it. It was not brought to the attention of any others. The Admiral says that the light seemed to be moving up and down, and he claimed to have got other glimpses of its glimmer at a later moment. He ordered the Salve to be chanted, and directed a vigilant watch to be set on the forecastle. To sharpen their vision he promised a silken jacket, beside the income of ten thousand maravedis which the King and Queen had offered to the fortunate man who should first descry the coveted land.

This light has been the occasion of much comment, and nothing will ever, it is likely, be settled about it, further than that the Admiral, with an inconsiderate rivalry of a common sailor who later saw the actual land, and with an ungenerous assurance ill-befitting a commander, pocketed a reward which belonged to another. If Oviedo, with his prejudices, is to be believed, Columbus was not even the first who claimed to have seen this dubious light. There is a common story that the poor sailor, who was defrauded, later turned Mohammedan, and went to live among that juster people. There is a sort of retributive justice in the fact that the pension of the Crown was made a charge upon the shambles of Seville, and thence Columbus received it till he died.

Whether the light is to be considered a reality or a fiction will depend much on the theory each may hold regarding the position of the landfall. When Columbus claimed to have discovered it, he was twelve or fourteen leagues away from the island where, four hours later, land was indubitably found. Was the light on a canoe? Was it on some small, outlying island, as has been suggested? Was it a torch carried from hut to hut, as Herrera avers? Was it on either of the other vessels? Was it on the low island on which, the next morning, he landed? There was no elevation on that island sufficient to show even a strong light at a distance of ten leagues. Was it a fancy or a a deceit? No one can say. It is very difficult for Navarrete, and even for Irving, to rest satisfied with what, after all, may have been only an illusion of a fevered mind, making a record of the incident in the excitement of a wonderful hour, when his intelligence was not as circumspect as it might have been.

THE LANDFALL OF COLUMBUS, 1492. [After Ruge.].

1492, October 12, land discovered.


Four hours after the light was seen, at two o'clock in the morning, when the moon, near its third quarter, was in the east, the "Pinta" keeping ahead, one of her sailors, Rodrigo de Triana, descried the land, two leagues away, and a gun communicated the joyful intelligence to the other ships. The fleet took in sail, and each vessel, under backed sheets, was pointed to the wind. Thus they waited for daybreak. It was a proud moment of painful suspense for Columbus; and brimming hopes, perhaps fears of disappointment, must have accompanied that hour of wavering enchantment. It was Friday, October 12, of the old chronology, and the little fleet had been thirty-three days on its way from the Canaries, and we must add ten days more, to complete the period since they left Palos. The land before them was seen, as the day dawned, to be a small island, "called in the Indian tongue" Guanahani. Some naked natives were descried. The Admiral and the commanders of the other vessels prepared to land. Columbus took the royal standard and the others each a banner of the green cross, which bore the initials of the sovereign with a cross between, a crown surmounting every letter. Thus, with the emblems of their power, and accompanied by Rodrigo de Escoveda and Rodrigo Sanchez and some seamen, the boat rowed to the shore. They immediately took formal possession of the land, and the notary recorded it.





[From Major's Select Letters of Columbus, 2d Edition.]



[From Major's Select Letters of Columbus, 2d Edition.]

Columbus lands and utters a prayer.

The words of the prayer usually given as uttered by Columbus on taking possession of San Salvador, when he named the island, cannot be traced farther back than a collection of Tablas Chronologicas, got together at Valencia in 1689, by a Jesuit father, Claudio Clemente. Harrisse finds no authority for the statement of the French canonizers that Columbus established a form of prayer which was long in vogue, for such occupations of new lands.

Las Casas, from whom we have the best account of the ceremonies of the landing, does not mention it; but we find pictured in his pages the grave impressiveness of the hour; the form of Columbus, with a crimson robe over his armor, central and grand; and the humbleness of his followers in their contrition for the hours of their faint-heartedness.

The island described.

Columbus now enters in his journal his impressions of the island and its inhabitants. He says of the land that it bore green trees, was watered by many streams, and produced divers fruits. In another place he speaks of the island as flat, without lofty eminence, surrounded by reefs, with a lake in the interior.

The courses and distances of his sailing both before and on leaving the island, as well as this description, are the best means we have of identifying the spot of this portentous landfall. The early maps may help in a subsidiary way, but with little precision.

Identification of the landfall.

There is just enough uncertainty and contradiction respecting the data and arguments applied in the solution of this question, to render it probable that men will never quite agree which of the Bahamas it was upon which these startled and exultant Europeans first stepped. Though Las Casas reports the journal of Columbus unabridged for a period after the landfall, he unfortunately condenses it for some time previous. There is apparently no chance of finding geographical conditions that in every respect will agree with this record of Columbus, and we must content ourselves with what offers the fewest disagreements. An obvious method, if we could depend on Columbus's dead reckoning, would be to see for what island the actual distance from the Canaries would be nearest to his computed run; but currents and errors of the eye necessarily throw this sort of computation out of the question, and Capt. G. A. Fox, who has tried it, finds that Cat Island is three hundred and seventeen, the Grand Turk six hundred and twenty-four nautical miles, and the other supposable points at intermediate distances out of the way as compared with his computation of the distance run by Columbus, three thousand four hundred and fifty-eight of such miles.

The Bahamas.

San Salvador, or Cat Island.

Other islands.

Methods of identification.

Acklin Island.

The reader will remember the Bahama group as a range of islands, islets, and rocks, said to be some three thousand in number, running southeast from a point part way up the Florida coast, and approaching at the other end the coast of Hispaniola. In the latitude of the lower point of Florida, and five degrees east of it, is the island of San Salvador or Cat Island, which is the most northerly of those claimed to have been the landfall of Columbus. Proceeding down the group, we encounter Watling's, Samana, Acklin (with the Plana Cays), Mariguana, and the Grand Turk,-all of which have their advocates. The three methods of identification which have been followed are, first, by plotting the outward track; second, by plotting the track between the landfall and Cuba, both forward and backward; third, by applying the descriptions, particularly Columbus's, of the island first seen. In this last test, Harrisse prefers to apply the description of Las Casas, which is borrowed in part from that of the Historie, and he reconciles Columbus's apparent discrepancy when he says in one place that the island was "pretty large," and in another "small," by supposing that he may have applied these opposite terms, the lesser to the Plana Cays, as first seen, and the other to the Crooked Group, or Acklin Island, lying just westerly, on which he may have landed. Harrisse is the only one who makes this identification; and he finds some confirmation in later maps, which show thereabout an island, Triango or Triangulo, a name said by Las Casas to have been applied to Guanahani at a later day. There is no known map earlier than 1540 bearing this alternative name of Triango.

San Salvador.

San Salvador seems to have been the island selected by the earliest of modern inquirers, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it has had the support of Irving and Humboldt in later times. Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie of the United States navy worked out the problem for Irving. It is much larger than any of the other islands, and could hardly have been called by Columbus in any alternative way a "small" island, while it does not answer Columbus's description of being level, having on it an eminence of four hundred feet, and no interior lagoon, as his Guanahani demands. The French canonizers stand by the old traditions, and find it meet to say that "the English Protestants not finding the name San Salvador fine enough have substituted for it that of Cat, and in their hydrographical atlases the Island of the Holy Saviour is nobly called Cat Island."

Watling's Island.

The weight of modern testimony seems to favor Watling's island, and it so far answers to Columbus's description that about one third of its interior is water, corresponding to his "large lagoon." Mu?oz first suggested it in 1793; but the arguments in its favor were first spread out by Captain Becher of the royal navy in 1856, and he seems to have induced Oscar Peschel in 1858 to adopt the same views in his history of the range of modern discovery. Major, the map custodian of the British Museum, who had previously followed Navarrete in favoring the Grand Turk, again addressed himself to the problem in 1870, and fell into line with the adherents of Watling's. No other considerable advocacy of this island, if we except the testimony of Gerard Stein in 1883, in a book on voyages of discovery, appeared till Lieut. J. B. Murdoch, an officer of the American navy, made a very careful examination of the subject in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute in 1884, which is accepted by Charles A. Schott in the Bulletin of the United States Coast Survey. Murdoch was the first to plot in a backward way the track between Guanahani and Cuba, and he finds more points of resemblance in Columbus's description with Watling's than with any other. The latest adherent is the eminent geographer, Clements R. Markham, in the bulletin of the Italian Geographical Society in 1889. Perhaps no cartographical argument has been so effective as that of Major in comparing modern charts with the map of Herrera, in which the latter lays Guanahani down.


Grand Turk Island.

An elaborate attempt to identify Samana as the landfall was made by the late Capt. Gustavus Vasa Fox, in an appendix to the Report of the United States Coast Survey for 1880. Varnhagen, in 1864, selected Mariguana, and defended his choice in a paper. This island fails to satisfy the physical conditions in being without interior water. Such a qualification, however, belongs to the Grand Turk Island, which was advocated first by Navarrete in 1826, whose views have since been supported by George Gibbs, and for a while by Major.

It is rather curious to note that Caleb Cushing, who undertook to examine this question in the North American Review, under the guidance of Navarrete's theory, tried the same backward method which has been later applied to the problem, but with quite different results from those reached by more recent investigators. He says, "By setting out from Nipe [which is the point where Columbus struck Cuba] and proceeding in a retrograde direction along his course, we may surely trace his path, and shall be convinced that Guanahani is no other than Turk's Island."

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