MoboReader > Literature > Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery


Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 40573

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Columbus, writing to the Spanish sovereigns from Espa?ola, said, in reference to the lifelong opposition which he had encountered:-

Opponents of Columbus.

"May it please the Lord to forgive those who have calumniated and still calumniate this excellent enterprise of mine, and oppose and have opposed its advancement, without considering how much glory and greatness will accrue from it to your Highnesses throughout all the world. They cannot state anything in disparagement of it except its expense, and that I have not immediately sent back the ships loaded with gold."

Charges against Columbus.

Was this an honest statement? Columbus knew perfectly well that there had been much else than disappointment at the scant pecuniary returns. He knew that there was a widespread dissatisfaction at his personal mismanagement of the colony; at his alleged arrogance and cupidity as a foreigner; at his nepotism; at his inordinate exaltation of promise, and at his errant faith that brooked no dispute. He knew also that his enthusiasm had captivated the Queen, and that as long as she could be held captive he could appeal to her not in vain. If there had been any honesty in the Queen's professions in respect to the selling of slaves, he knew that he had outraged them. Even when he was writing this letter, it came over him that there was a fearful hazard for him both in the persistency of this denunciation of others against him and in the heedless arrogance of such perverseness on his own part.

"I know," he says, "that water dropping on a stone will at length make a hole." We shall see before long that foreboding cavity.

Columbus and Roldan.


Anacaona's daughter.

Adrian do Moxica.

The defection of Roldan turned so completely into servility is but one of the strange contrasts of the wonderful course of vicissitudes in the life of Columbus. There presently came a new trial for him and for Roldan. A young well-born Spaniard, Fernando de Guevara, had appeared in Espa?ola recently, and by his dissolute life he had created such scandals in Santo Domingo that Columbus had ordered him to leave the island. He had been sent to Xaragua to embark in one of Ojeda's ships; but that adventurer had left the coast when the outlaw reached the port. While waiting another opportunity to embark, Guevara was kept in that part of the island under Roldan's eye. This implied no such restraint as to deny him access to the society of Anacaona, with whose daughter, Higuamota, who seems to have inherited something of her mother's commanding beauty and mental qualities, he fell in love, and found his passion requited. He sought companionship also with one of the lieutenants of Roldan, who had been a leader in his late revolt, Adrian de Moxica, then living not far away, who had for him the additional attachment of kinship, for the two were cousins. Las Casas tells us that Roldan had himself a passion for the young Indian beauty, and it may have been for this as well as for his desire to obey the Admiral that he commanded the young cavalier to go to a more distant province. The ardent lover had sought to prepare his way for a speedy marriage by trying to procure a priest to baptize the maiden. This caused more urgent commands from Roldan, which were ostentatiously obeyed, only to be eluded by a clandestine return, when he was screened with some associates in the house of Anacaona. This queenly woman seems to have favored his suit with her daughter. He was once more ordered away, when he began to bear himself defiantly, but soon changed his method to suppliancy. Roldan was appeased by this. Guevara, however, only made it the cloak for revenge, and with some of his friends formed a plot to kill Roldan. This leaked out, and the youth and his accomplices were arrested and sent to Santo Domingo. This action aroused Roldan's old confederate, Moxica, and, indignant at the way in which the renegade rebel had dared to turn upon his former associates, Moxica resolved upon revenge.

Moxica's plot.

Moxica taken.

To carry it out he started on a tour through the country where the late mutineers were settled, and readily engaged their sympathies. Among those who joined in his plot was Pedro Riquelme, whom Roldan had made assistant alcalde. The old spirit of revolt was rampant. The confederates were ready for any excess, either upon Roldan or upon the Admiral. Columbus was at Conception in the midst of the aroused district, when a deserter from the plotters informed him of their plan. With a small party the Admiral at once sped in the night to the unguarded quarters of the leaders, and Moxica and several of his chief advisers were suddenly captured and carried to the fort. The execution of the ringleader was at once ordered. Impatient at the way in which the condemned man dallied in his confessions to a priest, Columbus ordered him pushed headlong from the battlements. The French canonists screen Columbus for this act by making Roldan the perpetrator of it. The other confederates were ironed in confinement at Conception, except Riquelme, who was taken later and conveyed to Santo Domingo.

The revolt was thus summarily crushed. Those who had escaped fled to Xaragua, whither the Adelantado and Roldan pursued them without mercy.

* * *

Columbus and his colony.

Columbus had perhaps never got his colony under better control than existed after this vigorous exhibition of his authority. Such a show of prompt and audacious energy was needed to restore the moral supremacy which his recusancy under the threats of Roldan had lost. The fair weather was not to last long.

1500. August 23. Bobadilla arrives.

Early in the morning of August 23, 1500, two caravels were descried off the harbor of Santo Domingo. The Admiral's brother Diego was in authority, Columbus being still at Conception, and Bartholomew absent with Roldan. Diego sent out a canoe to learn the purpose of the visitors. It returned, and brought word that a commissioner was come to inquire into the late rebellion of Roldan. Diego's messengers had at the same time informed the newcomer of the most recent defection of Moxica, and that there were still other executions to take place, particularly those of Riquelme and Guevara, who were confined in the town. As the ships entered the river, the gibbets on either bank, with their dangling Spaniards, showed the commissioner that there were other troublous times to inquire into than those named in his warrant. While the commissioner remained on board his ship, receiving the court of those who early sought to propitiate him, and while he was getting his first information of the condition of the island, mainly from those who had something to gain by the excess of their denunciations, it is necessary to go back a little in time, and ascertain who this important personage was, and what was the mission on which he had been sent.



Growth of the royal dissatisfaction with Columbus.

The arrangements for sending him had been made slowly. They were even outlined when Ojeda had started on his voyage, for he had, in his interviews with Roldan, blindly indicated that some astonishment of this sort was in store. Evidently Fonseca had not allowed Ojeda to depart without some intimations.

Charges against Columbus.

Notwithstanding Columbus professed to believe that nothing but the lack of pecuniary return for the great outlays of his expeditions could be alleged against them, he was well aware, and he had constantly acted as if well aware, of the great array of accusations which had been made against him in Spain, with a principal purpose of undermining the indulgent regard of the Queen for him. He had known it with sorrow during his last visit to Spain, and had found, as we have seen, that he could not secure men to accompany him and put themselves under his control unless he unshackled criminals in the jails. He little thought that such utter disregard of the morals and self-respect of those whom he had settled in the New World would, by a sort of retributive justice, open the way, however unjustly, to put the displaced gyves on himself, amid the exultant feelings of these same criminals. Such reiterated criminations were like the water-drops that wear the stone, and he had, as we have noted, felt the certainty of direful results.

His exaggerations of the wealth of the Indies.

Columbus deceives the Crown.

Columbus's sons hooted at in the Alhambra.

How much the disappointment at the lack of gold had to do with increasing the force of these charges, it is not difficult to imagine. Columbus was certainly not responsible for that; but he was responsible for the inordinate growth of the belief in the profuse wealth of the new-found Indies. His constantly repeated stories of the wonderful richness of the region had done their work. His professions of a purpose to enrich the world with noble benefactions, and to spend his treasure on the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre, were the vain boastings of a man who thought thereby to enroll his name among the benefactors of the Church. He did not perceive that the populace would wonder whence these resources were to come, unless it was by defrauding the Crown of its share, and by amassing gold while they could not get any. There is something ludicrous in the excuse which he later gave for concealing from the sovereigns his accumulation of pearls. He felt it sufficient to say that he thought he would wait till he could make as good a show of gold! There were some things that even fifteenth-century Christians held to be more sacred than wresting Jerusalem from the Moslem, and these were money in hand when they had earned it, and food to eat when their misfortunes had beggared their lives. It was not an uncalled-for strain on their loyalty to the Crown, when the notion prevailed that the sovereigns and their favorite were gathering riches out of their despair. There was little to be wondered at, in the crowd of these hungry and debilitated victims, wandering about the courts of the Alhambra, under the royal windows, and clamoring for their pay. There was nothing to be surprised at in the hootings that followed the Admiral's sons, pages of the Queen, if they passed within sight of these embittered throngs.

Ferdinand's confessed blunder.

It was quite evident that Ferdinand, who had never warmed to the Admiral's enthusiasm, had long been conscious that in the exclusive and extended powers which had been given to Columbus a serious administrative blunder had been made. He said as much at a later day to Ponce de Leon.

The Queen had been faithful, but the recurrent charges had given of late a wrench to her constancy. Was it not certain that something must be wrong, or these accusations would not go on increasing? Had not the great discoverer fulfilled his mission when he unveiled a new world? Was it quite sure that the ability to govern it went along with the genius to find it? These were the questions which Isabella began to put to herself.

Isabella begins to doubt.

Columbus to be superseded.

Witnesses against Columbus.

She was not a person to hesitate at anything, when conviction came. She had shown this in the treatment of the Jews, of the Moors, and of other heretics. The conviction that Columbus was not equal to his trust was now coming to her. The news of the serious outbreak of Roldan's conspiracy brought the matter to a test, and in the spring of 1499 the purpose to send out some one with almost unlimited powers for any emergency was decided upon. Still the details were not worked out, and there were occurrences in the internal and external affairs of Spain that required the prior attention of the sovereigns. Very likely the news of Columbus's success in finding a new source of wealth in the pearls of Paria may have had something to do with the delay. When the ships which carried to Spain a crowd of Roldan's followers arrived, the question took a fresh interest. Columbus's friends, Ballester and Barrantes, now found their testimony could make little headway against the crowd of embittered witnesses on the other side. Isabella, besides, was forced to see in the slaves that Columbus had sent by the same ships something of an obstinate opposition to her own wishes. Las Casas tells us that so great was the Queen's displeasure that it was only the remembrance of Columbus's services that saved him from prompt disgrace. To be sure, the slaves had been sent in part by virtue of the capitulation which Columbus had made with the rebels, but should the Viceroy of the Indies be forced to such capitulations? Had he kept the colony in a condition worthy of her queenly patronage, when it could be reported to her that the daughters of caciques were found among these natives bearing their hybrid babes? "What authority had my viceroy to give my vassals to such ends?" she asked.

Columbus and the slave trade.

Bobadilla appointed commissioner.

There were two things in recent letters of Columbus which damaged his cause just at this juncture. One was his petition for a new lease of the slave trade. This Isabella answered by ordering all slaves which he had sent home to be sought out and returned. Her agents found a few. The other was the request of Columbus for a judge to examine the dispute between himself and Roldan. This Ferdinand answered by appointing the commissioner whose arrival at Santo Domingo we have chronicled. He was Francisco de Bobadilla, an officer of the royal household.

Before disclosing what Bobadilla did in Santo Domingo, it is best to try to find out what he was expected to do.

His character.

There is no person connected with the career of Columbus-hardly excepting Fonseca-more generally defamed than this man, who was, nevertheless, if we may believe Oviedo, a very honest and a very religious man. The historians of Columbus need to mete out to Bobadilla what very few have done, the same measure of palliation which they are more willing to bestow on Columbus. With this parallel justice, it may be that he will not bear with discredit a comparison with Columbus himself, in all that makes a man's actions excusable under provocation and responsibility. An indecency of haste may come from an excess of zeal quite as well as from an unbridled virulence.

It may be in some ways a question if the conditions this man was sent to correct were the result of the weakness or inadaptability of Columbus, or merely the outcome of circumstances, enough beyond his control to allow of excuses. There is, however, no question that the Spanish government had duties to perform towards itself and its subjects which made it properly disinclined to jeopardize the interests which accompany such duties.

Bobadilla's powers.

Bobadilla was, to be sure, invested with dangerous powers, but not with more dangerous ones than Columbus himself had possessed. When two such personations of unbridled authority come in antagonism, the possessor of the greater authority is sure to confirm himself by commensurate exactions upon the other. Bobadilla's commission was an implied warrant to that end. He might have been more prudent of his own state, and should have remembered that a trust of the nature of that with which he was invested was sure to be made accountable to those who imparted to him the power, and perhaps at a time when they chose to abandon their own instructions. He ought to have known that such an abandonment comes very easy to all governments in emergencies. He might have been more considerate of the man whom Spain had so recently flattered. He should not have forgotten, if almost everybody else had, that the Admiral had given a new world to Spain.

Columbus and the criminals.

He should not have been unmindful, if almost every one else was, that this new world was a delusion now, but might dissolve into a beatific vision. But all this was rather more than human nature was capable of in an age like that. It is to be said of Bobadilla that when he summoned Columbus to Santo Domingo and prejudged him guilty, he had shown no more disregard of a rival power, which he was sent to regulate, than Columbus had manifested for a deluded colony, when he selfishly infected it with the poison of the prisons. It must not, indeed, be forgotten that the strongest support of the new envoy came from the very elements of vice which Columbus had implanted in the island. He grew to understand this, and later he was forced to give a condemnation of his own act when he urged the sending of such as are honorably known, "that the country may be peopled with honest men."

Bobadilla's character.

Did he exceed his powers?

Las Casas tells us of Bobadilla that his probity and disinterestedness were such that no one could attack them. If it be left for posterity to decide between the word of Las Casas and Columbus, in estimates of virtue and honesty, there is no question of the result. When Bobadilla was selected to be sent to Espa?ola, there was every reason to choose the most upright of persons. There was every reason, also, to instruct him with a care that should consider every probable attendant circumstance. After this was done, the discretion of the man was to determine all. We can read in the records the formal instructions; but there were beside, as is expressly stated, verbal directions which can only be surmised. Bobadilla was accused of exceeding the wishes of the Queen. Are we sure that he did? It is no sign of it that the monarchs subsequently found it politic to disclaim the act of their agent. Such a desertion of a subordinate was not unusual in those times, nor indeed would it be now.

If Isabella, "for the love of Christ and the Virgin Mary," could depopulate towns, as she said she did, by the ravages of the inquisition, and fill her coffers by the attendant sequestrations, it is not difficult to conceive that, with a similar and convenient conviction of duty, she would give no narrow range to her vindictiveness and religious zeal when she came to deal with an Admiral whom she had created, and who was not very deferential to her wishes.

Bobadilla's powers.

A synopsis of the powers confided to Bobadilla in writing needs to be presented. They begin with a letter of March 21, 1499, referring to reports of the Roldan insurrection, and directing him, if on inquiry he finds any persons culpable, to arrest them and sequestrate their effects, and to call upon the Admiral for assistance in carrying out these orders. Two months later, May 21, a circular letter was framed and addressed to the magistrates of the islands, which seems to have been intended to accredit Bobadilla to them, if the Admiral should be no longer in command. This order gave notice to these magistrates of the full powers which had been given to Bobadilla in civil and criminal jurisdiction. Another order of the same date, addressed to the "Admiral of the ocean sea," orders him to surrender all royal property, whether forts, arms, or otherwise, into Bobadilla's hands,-evidently intended to have an accompanying effect with the other. Of a date five days later another letter addressed to the Admiral reads to this effect:-

"We have directed Francisco de Bobadilla, the bearer of this, to tell you for us of certain things to be mentioned by him. We ask you to give faith and credence to what he says, and to obey him. May 26, 1499."

His verbal orders.

1500. July. Bobadilla leaves Spain.

This is an explicit avowal on the sovereigns' part of having given verbal orders. In addition to these instructions, a royal order required the commissioner to ascertain what was due from the Crown for unpaid salaries, and to compel the Admiral to join in liquidating such obligations so far as he was bound for them, "that there may be no more complaints." If one may believe Columbus's own statements as made in his subsequent letter to the nurse of Prince Juan, it had been neglect, and not inability, on his part which had allowed these arrears to accrue. Bobadilla was also furnished with blanks signed by the sovereigns, to be used to further their pu

rposes in any way and at his discretion. With these extraordinary documents, and possessed of such verbal and confidential directions as we may imagine rather than prove, Bobadilla had sailed in July, 1500, more than a year after the letters were dated. His two caravels brought back to Espa?ola a number of natives, who were in charge of some Franciscan friars.

Bobadilla lands at Santo Domingo.

We left Bobadilla on board his ship, receiving court from all who desired thus early to get his ear. It was not till the next day that he landed, attended by a guard of twenty-five men, when he proceeded to the church to mass.

His demands.

This over, the crowd gathered before the church. Bobadilla ordered a herald to read his original commission of March 21, 1499, and then he demanded of the acting governor, Diego, who was present, that Guevara, Riquelme, and the other prisoners should be delivered to him, together with all the evidence in their cases, and that the accusers and magistrates should appear before him. Diego referred him to the Admiral as alone having power in such matters, and asked for a copy of the document just read to send to Columbus. This Bobadilla declined to give, and retired, intimating, however, that there were reserved powers which he had, before which even the Admiral must bow.

The peremptoriness of this movement was, it would seem, uncalled for, and there could have been little misfortune in waiting the coming of the Admiral, compared with the natural results of such sudden overturning of established authority in the absence of the holder of it. Urgency may not, nevertheless, have been without its claims. It was desirable to stay the intended executions; and we know not what exaggerations had already filled the ears of Bobadilla. At this time there would seem to have been the occasion to deliver the letter to Columbus which had commanded his obedience to the verbal instructions of the sovereigns; and such a delivery might have turned the current of these hurrying events, for Columbus had shown, in the case of Agueda, that he was graciously inclined to authority. Instead of this, however, Bobadilla, the next day, again appeared at mass, and caused his other commissions to be read, which in effect made him supersede the Admiral. This superiority Diego and his councilors still unadvisedly declined to recognize. The other mandates were read in succession; and the gradual rise to power, which the documents seemed to imply, as the progress of the investigations demanded support, was thus reached at a bound. This is the view of the case which has been taken by Columbus's biographers, as naturally drawn from the succession of the powers which were given to Bobadilla. It is merely an inference, and we know not the directions for their proclamations, which had been verbally imparted to Bobadilla. It is this uncertainty which surrounds the case with doubt. It is apparent that the reading of these papers had begun to impress the rabble, if not those in authority. That order which commanded the payment of arrears of salaries had a very gratifying effect on those who had suffered from delays. Nothing, however, moved the representatives of the Viceroy, who would not believe that anything could surpass his long-conceded authority.

Bobadilla assaults the fort.

There is nothing strange in the excitement of an officer who finds his undoubted supremacy thus obstinately spurned, and we must trace to such excitement the somewhat overstrained conduct which made a show of carrying by assault the fortress in which Guevara and the other prisoners were confined. Miguel Diaz, who commanded the fort,-the same who had disclosed the Hayna mines,-when summoned to surrender had referred Bobadilla to the Admiral from whom his orders came, and asked for copies of the letters patent and orders, for more considerate attention. It was hardly to be expected that Bobadilla was to be beguiled by any such device, when he had a force of armed men at his back, aided by his crew and the aroused rabble, and when there was nothing before him but a weak citadel with few defenders. There was nothing to withstand the somewhat ridiculous shock of the assault but a few frail bars, and no need of the scaling ladders which were ostentatiously set up. Diaz and one companion, with sword in hand, stood passively representing the outraged dignity of command. Bobadilla was victorious, and the manacled Guevara and the rest passed over to new and less stringent keepers.

Bobadilla in full possession.

Bobadilla was now in possession of every channel of authority. He domiciled himself in the house of Columbus, took possession of all his effects, including his papers, making no distinction between public and private ones, and used what money he could find to pay the debts of the Admiral as they were presented to him. This proceeding was well calculated to increase his popularity, and it was still more enhanced when he proclaimed liberty to all to gather gold for twenty years, with only the payment of one seventh instead of a third to the Crown.

Columbus hears of Bobadilla.

Columbus and the Franciscans.

Let us turn to Columbus himself. The reports which reached him at Fort Conception did not at first convey to him an adequate notion of what he was to encounter. He associated the proceedings with such unwarranted acts as Ojeda's and Pinzon's in coming with their ships within his prescribed dominion. The greater audacity, however, alarmed him, and the threats which Bobadilla had made of sending him to Spain in irons, and the known success of his usurpation within the town, were little calculated to make Columbus confident in the temporary character of the outburst. He moved his quarters to Bonao to be nearer the confusion, and here he met an officer bearing to him a copy of the letters under which the government had been assumed by Bobadilla. Still the one addressed to Columbus, commanding him to acquiesce, was held back. It showed palpably that Bobadilla conceived he had passed beyond the judicial aim of his commission. Columbus, on his part, was loath to reach that conclusion, and tried to gain time. He wrote to Bobadilla an exculpating and temporizing letter, saying that he was about to leave for Spain, when everything would pass regularly into Bobadilla's control. He sent other letters, calculated to create delays, to the Franciscans who had come with him. He had himself affiliated with that order, and perhaps thought his influence might not be unheeded. He got no replies, and perhaps never knew what the spirit of these friars was. They evidently reflected the kind of testimony which Bobadilla had been accumulating. We find somewhat later, in a report of one of them, Nicholas Glassberger,-who speaks of the 1,500 natives whom they had made haste to baptize in Santo Domingo,-some of the cruel insinuations which were rife, when he speaks of "a certain admiral, captain, and chief, who had ill treated these natives, taking their goods and wives, and capturing their virgin daughters, and had been sent to Spain in chains."

Bobadilla sends the sovereigns' letter to Columbus.

Columbus as yet could hardly have looked forward to any such indignity as manacles on his limbs. Nor did he probably suspect that Bobadilla was using the signed blanks, entrusted to him by the sovereigns, to engage the interests of Roldan and other deputies of the Viceroy scattered through the island. Columbus, in these uncertainties, caused it to be known that he considered his perpetual powers still unrevoked, if indeed they were revocable at all. This state of his mind was rudely jarred by receiving a little later, at the hands of Francisco Velasquez, the deputy treasurer, and of Juan de Trasierra, one of the Franciscans, the letter addressed to him by the sovereigns, commanding him to respect what Bobadilla should tell him. Here was tangible authority; and when it was accompanied by a summons from Bobadilla to appear before him, he hesitated no longer, and, with the little state befitting his disgrace, proceeded at once to Santo Domingo.

Columbus approaches Santo Domingo.

1500. August 23. Columbus is imprisoned in chains.

The Admiral's brother Diego had already been confined in irons on one of the caravels; and Bobadilla, affecting to believe, as Irving holds, that Columbus would not come in any compliant mood, made a bustle of armed preparation. There was, however, no such intention on Columbus's part, nor had been, since the royal mandate of implicit obedience had been received. He came as quietly as the circumstances would permit, and when the new governor heard he was within his grasp, his orders to seize him and throw him into prison were promptly executed (August 23, 1500). In the southeastern part of the town, the tower still stands, with little signs of decay, which then received the dejected Admiral, and from its summit all approaching vessels are signaled to-day. Las Casas tells us of the shameless and graceless cook, one of Columbus's own household, who riveted the fetters. "I knew the fellow," says that historian, "and I think his name was Espinosa."

While the Adelantado was at large with an armed force, Bobadilla was not altogether secure in his triumph. He demanded of Columbus to write to his brother and counsel him to come in and surrender. This Columbus did, assuring the Adelantado of their safety in trusting to the later justice of the Crown. Bartholomew obeyed, as the best authorities say, though Peter Martyr mentions a rumor that he came in no accommodating spirit, and was captured while in advance of his force. It is certain he also was placed in irons, and confined on one of the caravels. It was Bobadilla's purpose to keep the leaders apart, so there could be no concert of action, and even to prevent their seeing any one who could inform them of the progress of the inquest, which was at once begun.

Charges against Columbus.

It seems evident that Bobadilla, either of his own impulse or in accordance with secret instructions, was acting with a secrecy and precipitancy which would have been justifiable in the presence of armed sedition, but was uncalled for with no organized opposition to embarrass him. Columbus at a later day tells us that he was denied ample clothing, even, and was otherwise ill treated. He says, too, he had no statement of charges given to him. It is a later story, started by Charlevoix, that such accusations were presented to him in writing, and met by him in the same method.

The trial was certainly a remarkable procedure, except we consider it simply an ex parte process for indictment only, as indeed it really was. Irving lays stress on the reversal by Bobadilla of the natural order of his acts, amounting, in fact, to prejudging a person he was sent to examine. He also thinks that the governor was hurried to his conclusions in order to make up a show of necessity for his precipitate action. It has something of that look. "The rebels he had been sent to judge became, by this singular perversion of rule," says Irving, "necessary and cherished evidences to criminate those against whom they had rebelled." This is the mistake of the apologists for Columbus. Bobadilla seems to have been sent to judge between two parties, and not to assume that only one was culpable. Even Irving suspects the true conditions. He allows that Bobadilla would not have dared to go to this length, had he not felt assured that "certain things," as the mandate to Columbus expressed it, would not be displeasing to the king.

The charges against the Admiral had been stock ones for years, and we have encountered them more than once in the progress of this narrative. They are rehearsed at length in the documents given by Navarrete, and are repeated and summarized by Peter Martyr. It is perhaps true that there was some novelty in the asseveration that Columbus's recent refusal to have some Indians baptized was simply because it deprived him of selling them as slaves. This accusation, considering Columbus's relations to the slave trade which he had created, is as little to be wondered at as any.

Columbus and slavery.

Las Casas tells us how indignant Isabella had been with his presumptuous way of dealing with what she called her subjects; and by a royal order of June 20, 1500, she had ordered, as we have seen, the return in Bobadilla's fleet of nineteen of the slaves who had been sold. There was no better way of commending Bobadilla's action to the Queen, apparently, than by making the most of Columbus's unfortunate relations to the slave trade.

As the accusations were piled up, Bobadilla saw the inquest leading, in his mind, to but one conclusion, the unnatural character of the Viceroy and his unfitness for command,-a phrase not far from the truth, but hardly requiring the extraordinary proceedings which had brought the governor to a recognition of it. There is little question that the public sentiment of the colony, so far at least as it dare manifest itself, commended the governor. Columbus in his dungeon might not see this with his own eyes, but if the reports are true, his ears carried it to his spirit, for howls and taunts against him came from beyond the walls, as the expression of the hordes which felt relieved by his fate. Columbus himself confessed that Bobadilla had "succeeded to the full" in making him hated of the people. All this was matter to brood upon in his loneliness. He magnified slight hints. He more than suspected he was doomed to a violent fate. When Alonso de Villejo, who was to conduct him to Spain, in charge of the returning ships, came to the dungeon, Columbus saw for the first time some recognition of his unfortunate condition. Las Casas, in recounting the interview, says that Villejo was "an hidalgo of honorable character and my particular friend," and he doubtless got his account of what took place from that important participant.

"Villejo," said the prisoner, "whither do you take me?"

"To embark on the ship, your excellency."

"To embark, Villejo? Is that the truth?"

"It is true," said the captain.

For the first time the poor Admiral felt that he yet might see Spain and her sovereigns.

1500. October. Columbus sent to Spain.

His chains.

The caravels set sail in October, 1500, and soon passed out of earshot of the hootings that were sent after the miserable prisoners. The new keepers of Columbus were not of the same sort as those who cast such farewell taunts. If the Historie is to be believed, Bobadilla had ordered the chains to be kept on throughout the voyage, since, as the writer of that book grimly suggests, Columbus might at any time swim back, if not secured. Villejo was kind. So was the master of the caravel, Andreas Martin. They suggested that they could remove the manacles during the voyage; but the Admiral, with that cherished constancy which persons feel, not always wisely, in such predicaments, thinking to magnify martyrdom, refused. "No," he said; "my sovereigns ordered me to submit, and Bobadilla has chained me. I will wear these irons until by royal order they are removed, and I shall keep them as relics and memorials of my services."

* * *

Degradation of Columbus.

His letter to the nurse of Prince Juan analyzed.

Charges against Columbus.

The relations of Columbus and Bobadilla bring before us the most startling of the many combinations of events in the history of a career which is sadder, perhaps, notwithstanding its glory, than any other mortal presents in profane history. The degradation of such a man appeals more forcibly to human sympathy than almost any other event in the record of humanity. That sympathy has obscured the import of his degradation, and that mournful explanation of the events, which, either on his voyage or shortly after his return, Columbus wrote and sent to the nurse of Prince Juan, has long worked upon the sensibilities of a world tender for his misfortunes. We cannot indeed read this letter without compassion, nor can we read it dispassionately without perceiving that the feelings of the man who wrote it had been despoiled of a judicial temper by his errors as well as by his miseries. His statements of the case are wholly one-sided. He never sees what it pains him to see. He forgets everything that an enemy would remember. He finds it difficult to tell the truth, and trusts to iterated professions to be taken for truths. He claims to have no conception why he was imprisoned, when he knew perfectly well, as he says himself, that he had endeavored to create an opposition to constituted authority "by verbal and written declarations;" and he reiterates this statement after he had bowed to royal commands that were as explicit as his own treatment of them had been recalcitrant. Indeed, he puts himself in the rather ridiculous posture of answering a long series of charges, of which at the same time he professes to be ignorant.

In the course of this letter, Columbus set up a claim that he had been seriously misjudged in trying to measure his accountability by the laws that govern established governments rather than by those which grant indulgences to the conqueror of a numerous and warlike nation. The position is curiously inconsistent with his professed intentions, as the sole ruler of a colony, to be just in the eyes of God and men. The Crown had given him its authority to establish precisely what he claims had not been established, a government of laws kindly disposed to protect both Spaniard and native, and yet he did not understand why his doings were called in question. He had boasted repeatedly how far from warlike and dangerous the natives were, so that a score of Spaniards could put seven thousand to rout, as he was eager to report in one case. The chief of the accusations against him did not pertain to his malfeasance in regard to the natives, but towards the Spaniards themselves, and it was begging the question to consider his companions a conquered nation. If there were no established government as respects them, he would be the last to admit it; and if it were proved against him, there was no one so responsible for the absence of it as himself. Again he says: "I ought to be judged by cavaliers who have gained victories themselves,-by gentlemen, and not by lawyers." The fact was that the case had been judged by hidalgoes without number, and to his disgrace, and it was taken from them to give him the protection of the law, such as it was; and, as he himself acknowledges, there is in the Indies "neither civil right nor judgment seat." As he was the source of all the bulwarks of life and liberty in these same Indies, he thus acknowledges the deficiencies of his own protective agencies. There is something childishly immature in the proposition which he advances that he should be judged by persons in his own pay.


It is of course necessary to allow the writer of this letter all the palliation that a man in his distressed and disordered condition might claim. Columbus had in fact been perceptibly drifting into a state of delusion and aberration of mind ever since the sustaining power of a great cause had been lifted from him. From the moment when he turned his mule back at the instance of Isabella's message, the lofty purpose had degenerated to a besetting cupidity, in which he made even the Divinity a constant abettor. In this same letter he tells of a vision of the previous Christmas, when the Lord confronted him miraculously, and reminded him of his vow to amass treasure enough in seven years to undertake his crusade to Jerusalem. This visible Godhead then comforted him with the assurance that his divine power would see that it came to pass. "The seven years you were to await have not yet passed. Trust in me and all will be right." It is easy to point to numerous such instances in Columbus's career, and the canonizers do not neglect to do so, as evincing the sublime confidence of the devoted servant of the Lord; but one can hardly put out of mind the concomitants of all such confidence. The most that we can allow is the unaccountableness of a much-vexed conscience.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top