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: 78074

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Columbus in Seville till May, 1505.

Letters to his son.

From San Lucar, Columbus, a sick man in search of quiet and rest, was conveyed to Seville. Unhappily, there was neither repose nor peace of mind in store for him. He remained in that city till May, 1505, broken in spirits and almost helpless of limb. Fortunately, we can trace his varying mental moods during these few months in a series of letters, most of which are addressed by him to his son Diego, then closely attached to the Court. These writings have fortunately come down to us, and they constitute the only series of Columbus's letters which we have, showing the habits of his mind consecutively for a confined period, so that we get a close watch upon his thoughts. They are the wails of a neglected soul, and the cries of one whose hope is cruelly deferred. They have in their entirety a good deal of that haphazard jerkiness tiresome to read, and not easily made evident in abstract. They are, however, not so deficient in mental equipoise as, for instance, the letter sent from Jamaica. This is perhaps owing to the one absorbing burden of them, his hope of recovering possession of his suspended authority.

1504. November 21.

He writes on November 21, 1504, a fortnight after his landing at San Lucar, telling his son how he has engaged his old friend, the Dominican Deza, now the Bishop of Palencia, to intercede with the sovereigns, that justice may be done to him with respect to his income, the payment of which Ovando had all along, as he contends, obstructed at Espa?ola. He tries to argue that if their Highnesses but knew it, they would, in ordering restitution to him, increase their own share. He hopes they have no doubt that his zeal for their interests has been quite as much as he could manifest if he had paradise to gain, and hopes they will remember, respecting any errors he may have committed, that the Lord of all judges such things by the intention rather than by the outcome. He seems to have a suspicion that Porras, now at liberty and about the Court, might be insidiously at work to his old commander's disadvantage, and he represents that neither Porras nor his brother had been suitable persons for their offices, and that what had been done respecting them would be approved on inquiry. "Their revolt," he says, "surprised me, considering all that I had done for them, as much as the sun would have alarmed me if it had shot shadows instead of light." He complains of Ovando's taking the prisoners, who had been companions of Porras, from his hands, and that, made free, they had even dared to present themselves at Court. "I have written," he adds, "to their Highnesses about it, and I have told them that it can't be possible that they would tolerate such an offense." He says further that he has written to the royal treasurer, begging him to come to no decision of the representations of such detractors until the other side could be heard, and he adds that he has sent to the treasurer a copy of the oath which the mutineers sent in after Porras had been taken. "Recall to all these people," he writes to his son, "my infirmities, and the recompense due to me for my services."

Diego was naturally, from his residence at Court, a convenient medium to bring all Columbus's wishes to the notice of those about the sovereigns. The Admiral writes to Diego again that he hopes their Highnesses will see to the paying of his men who had come home. "They are poor, and have been gone three years," he says. "They bring home evidences of the greatest of expectations in the new gold fields of Veragua;" and then he advises his son to bring this fact to the attention of all who are concerned, and to urge the colonizing of the new country as the best way to profit from its gold mines. For a while he harbored the hope that he might at once go on to the Court, and a litter which had served in the obsequies of Cardinal Mendoza was put at his disposal; but this plan was soon given up.

1504. November 28.

A week later, having in the interim received a letter of the 15th, from Diego, Columbus writes again, under date of November 28. In this epistle he speaks of the severity of his disease, which keeps him in Seville, from which, however, he hopes to depart the coming week, and of his disappointment that the sovereigns had not replied to his inquiries. He sends his love to Diego Mendez, hoping that his friend's zeal and love of truth will enable him to overcome the deceits and intrigues of Porras.

1504. November 26. Queen Isabella dies.

Isabella's character.

Columbus was not at this time aware that the impending death of the Queen had something to do with the delays in his own affairs at Court. Two days (November 26) before the Admiral wrote this note, Isabella had died, worn out by her labors, and depressed by the afflictions which she had experienced in her domestic circle. She was an unlovely woman at the best, an obstructor of Christian charity, but in her wiles she had allured Columbus to a belief in her countenance of him. The conventional estimate of her character, which is enforced in the rather cloying descriptions of Prescott, is such as her flatterers drew in her own times; but the revelations of historical research hardly confirm it. It was with her much as with Columbus,-she was too largely a creature of her own age to be solely judged by the criteria of all ages, as lofty characters can be.

The loss of her influence on the king removed, as it proved, even the chance of a flattering delusiveness in the hopes of Columbus. As the compiler of the Historie expresses it, "Columbus had always enjoyed her favor and protection, while the King had always been indifferent, or rather inimical." She had indeed, during the Admiral's absence on his last voyage, manifested some new appreciation of his services, which cost her little, however, when she made his eldest son one of her bodyguard and naturalized his brother Diego, to fit him for ecclesiastical preferment.

1504. December 1.

On December 1, ignorant of the sad occurrences at Court, Columbus writes again, chiding Diego that he had not in his dutifulness written to his poor father. "You ought to know," he says, "that I have no pleasure now but in a letter from you." Columbus by this time had become, by the constant arrival of couriers, aware of the anxiety at Court over the Queen's health, and he prays that the Holy Trinity will restore her to health, to the end that all that has been begun may be happily finished. He reiterates what he had previously written about the increasing severity of his malady, his inability to travel, his want of money, and how he had used all he could get in Espa?ola to bring home his poor companions. He commends anew to Diego his brother Ferdinand, and speaks of this younger son's character as beyond his years. "Ten brothers would not be too many for you," he adds; "in good as in bad fortune, I have never found better friends than my brothers."

Nothing troubles him more than the delays in hearing from Court. A rumor had reached him that it was intended to send some bishops to the Indies, and that the Bishop of Palencia was charged with the matter. He begs Diego to say to the bishop that it was worth while, in the interests of all, to confer with the Admiral first. In explaining why he does not write to Diego Mendez, he says that he is obliged to write by night, since by day his hands are weak and painful. He adds that the vessel which put back to Santo Domingo had arrived, bringing the papers in Porras's case, the result of the inquest which had been taken at Jamaica, so that he could now be able to present an indictment to the Council of the Indies. His indignation is aroused at the mention of it. "What can be so foul and brutal! If their Highnesses pass it by, who is going again to lead men upon their service!"

1504. December 3.

Two days later (December 3), he writes again to Diego about the neglect which he is experiencing from him and from others at Court. "Everybody except myself is receiving letters," he says. He incloses a memoir expressing what he thought it was necessary to do in the present conjunction of his affairs. This document opens with calling upon Diego zealously to pray to God for the soul of the Queen. "One must believe she is now clothed with a sainted glory, no longer regretting the bitterness and weariness of this life." The King, he adds, "deserves all our sympathy and devotion." He then informs Diego that he has directed his brother, his uncle, and Carvajal to add all their importunities to his son's, and to the written prayers which he himself has sent, that consideration should be given to the affairs of the Indies. Nothing, he says, can be more urgent than to remedy the abuses there. In all this he curiously takes on the tone of his own accusers a few years before. He represents that pecuniary returns from Espa?ola are delayed; that the governor is detested by all; that a suitable person sent there could restore harmony in less than three months; and that other fortresses, which are much needed, should be built, "all of which I can do in his Highness's service," he exclaims, "and any other, not having my personal interests at stake, could not do it so well!" Then he repeats how, immediately after his arrival at San Lucar, he had written to the King a very long letter, advising action in the matter, to which no reply had been returned.

1503. January 20. The Casa de Contratacion established.

It was during Columbus's absence on this last voyage that, by an ordinance made at Alcalá, January 20, 1503, the famous Casa de Contratacion was established, with authority over the affairs of the Indies, having the power to grant licenses, to dispatch fleets, to dispose of the results of trade or exploration, and to exercise certain judicial prerogatives. This council was to consist of a treasurer, a factor, and a comptroller, to whom two persons learned in the law were given as advisers. Alexander VI. had already, by a bull of November 16, 1501, authorized the payment to the constituted Spanish officials of all the tithes of the colonies, which went a long way in giving Spain ecclesiastical supremacy in the Indies, in addition to her political control.

It was to this council that Columbus refers, when he says he had told the gentlemen of the Contratacion that they ought to abide by the verbal and written orders which the King had given, and that, above all, they should watch lest people should sail to the Indies without permission. He reminded them of the sorry character of the people already in the New World, and of the way in which treasure was stored there without protection.

1504. December 13.

Ten days later (December 13), he writes again to Diego, recurring to his bitter memories of Ovando, charging him with diverting the revenues, and with bearing himself so haughtily that no one dared remonstrate. "Everybody says that I have as much as 11,000 or 12,000 castellanos in Espa?ola, and I have not received a quarter. Since I came away he must have received 5,000." He then urges Diego to sue the King for a mandatory letter to be sent to Ovando, forcing immediate payment. "Carvajal knows very well that this ought to be done. Show him this letter," he adds. Then referring to his denied rights, and to the best way to make the King sensible of his earlier promises, he next advises Diego to lessen his expenses; to treat his uncle with the respect which is due to him; and to bear himself towards his younger brother as an older brother should. "You have no other brother," he says; "and thank God this one is all you could desire. He was born with a good nature." Then he reverts to the Queen's death. "People tell me," he writes, "that on her death-bed she expressed a wish that my possession of the Indies should be restored to me."

1504. December 21.

A week later (December 21), he once more bewails the way in which he is left without tidings. He recounts the exertions he had made to send money to his advocates at Court, and tells Diego how he must somehow continue to get on as best he can till their Highnesses are content to give them back their power. He repeats that to bring his companions home from Santo Domingo he had spent twelve hundred castellanos, and that he had represented to the King the royal indebtedness for this, but it produced no reimbursement. He asks Diego to find out if the Queen, "now with God, no doubt," had spoken of him in her will; and perhaps the Bishop of Palencia, "who was the cause of their Majesties' acquiring the Indies, and of my returning to the Court when I had departed," or the chamberlain of the King could find this out. Columbus may have lived to learn that the only item of the Queen's will in which he could possibly have been in mind was the one in which she showed that she was aroused to the enormities which Columbus had imposed on the Indians, and which had come to such results that, as Las Casas says, it had been endeavored to keep the knowledge of it from the Queen's ears. She earnestly enjoined upon her successors a change of attitude towards the poor Indians.

Columbus writes to the Pope.

Columbus further says that the Pope had complained that no account of his voyage had been sent to Rome, and that accordingly he had prepared one, and he desired Diego to read it, and to let the King and the bishop also peruse it before it was forwarded to Rome. It is possible that the Adelantado was dispatched with the letter. The canonizers say that the mission to Rome had also a secret purpose, which was to counteract the schemes of Fonseca to create bishoprics in Espa?ola, and that the advice of Columbus in the end prevailed over the "cunning of diplomacy."

1505. February 23. Columbus allowed to ride a mule.

There had been some time before, owing to the difficulty which had been experienced in mounting the royal cavalry, an order promulgated forbidding the use of mules in travel, since it was thought that the preference for this animal had brought about the deterioration and scarcity of horses. It was to this injunction that Columbus now referred when he asked Diego to get a dispensation from the King to allow him to enjoy the easier seat of a mule when he should venture on his journey towards the Court, which, with this help, he hoped to be able to begin within a few weeks. Such an order was in due time issued on February 23, 1505.

1504. December 29.

On December 29, Columbus wrote again. The letter was full of the same pitiful suspense. He had received no letters. He could but repeat the old story of the letters of credit which he had sent and which had not been acknowledged. No one of his people had been paid, he said, neither the faithful nor the mutineers. "They are all poor. They are going to Court," he adds, "to press their claims. Aid them in it." He excepts, however, from the kind interest of his friends two fellows who had been with him on his last voyage, one Camacho and Master Bernal, the latter the physician of the flagship. Bernal was the instigator of the revolt of Porras, he says, "and I pardoned him at the prayer of my brother."

Columbus and the Bank of St. George.

It will be remembered that, previous to starting on his last voyage, Columbus had written to the Bank of St. George in Genoa, proposing a gift of a tenth of his income for the benefit of his native town. The letter was long in reaching its destination, but a reply was duly sent through his son Diego. It never reached Columbus, and this apparent spurning of his gift by Genoa caused not a small part of his present disgust with the world.

1504. December 27.

On December 27, 1504, he wrote to Nicolo Oderigo, reminding him of the letter, and complaining that while he had expected to be met on his return by some confidential agent of the bank, he had not even had a letter in response. "It was uncourteous in these gentlemen of St. George not to have favored me with an answer." The intention was, in fact, far from being unappreciated, and at a later day the promise became so far magnified as to be regarded as an actual gift, in which the Genoese were not without pride. The purpose never, however, had a fulfillment.

1505. January 4.

On January 4, 1505, the Admiral wrote to his friend Father Gorricio, telling him that Diego Mendez had arrived from the Court, and asking the friar to encase in wax the documentary privileges of the Admiral which had been intrusted to him, and to send them to him. "My disease grows better day by day," he adds.

1505. January 18.

On January 18, 1505, he again wrote. The epistle was in some small degree cheery. He had heard at last from Diego. "Zamora the courier has arrived, and I have looked with great delight upon thy letter, thy uncle's, thy brother's, and Carvajal's." Diego Mendez, he says, sets out in three or four days with an order for payment. He refers with some playfulness, even, to Fonseca, who had just been raised to the bishopric of Placentia, and had not yet returned from Flanders to take possession of the seat. "If the Bishop of Placentia has arrived, or when he comes, tell him how much pleased I am at his elevation; and that when I come to Court I shall depend on lodging with his Grace, whether he wishes it or not, that we may renew our old fraternal bonds." His biographers have been in some little uncertainty whether he really meant here Fonseca or his old friend Deza, who had just left that bishopric vacant for the higher post of Archbishop of Seville. A strict application of dates makes the reference to Fonseca. One may imagine, however, that Columbus was not accurately informed. It is indeed hard to understand the pleasantry, if Fonseca was the bitter enemy of Columbus that he is pictured by Irving.

Some ships from Espa?ola had put into the Tagus. "They have not arrived here from Lisbon," he adds. "They bring much gold, but none for me."

Conference with Vespucius.

Vespucius's account of his voyage.

We next find Columbus in close communion with a contemporary with whose fame his own is sadly conjoined. Some account of the events of the voyage which Vespucius had made along the coast of South America with Coelho, from which he had returned to Lisbon in September, 1502, has been given on an earlier page. Those events and his descriptions had already brought the name of Vespucius cius into prominence throughout Europe, but hardly before he had started on another voyage in the spring or early summer of 1503, just at the time when Columbus was endeavoring to work his way from the Veragua coast to Espa?ola. The authorities are not quite agreed whether it was on May 10, 1503, or a month later, on June 10, that the little Portuguese fleet in which Vespucius sailed left the Tagus, to find a way, if possible, to the Moluccas somewhere along the same great coast. This expedition had started under the command of Coelho, but meeting with mishaps, by which the fleet was separated, Vespucius, with his own vessel, joined later by another with which he fell in, proceeded to Bahia, where a factory for storing Brazil-wood was erected; thence, after a stay there, they sailed for Lisbon, arriving there after an absence of seventy-seven days, on June 18, 1504. It was later, on September 4, that Vespucius wrote, or rather dated, that account of his voyage which was to work such marvels, as we shall see, in the reputation of himself and of Columbus. There is no reason to suppose that Columbus ever knew of this letter of September 4, so subversive as it turned out of his just fame; nor, judging from the account of their interview which Columbus records, is there any reason to suppose that Vespucius himself had any conception of the work which that fateful letter was already accomplishing, and to which reference will be made later.

1505. February 5.

On February 5, 1505, Columbus wrote to Diego: "Within two days I have talked with Americus Vespucius, who will bear this to you, and who is summoned to Court on matters of navigation. He has always manifested a disposition to be friendly to me. Fortune has not always favored him, and in this he is not different from many others. His ventures have not always been as successful as he would wish. He left me full of the kindliest purposes towards me, and will do anything for me which is in his power. I hardly knew what to tell him would be helpful in him to do for me, because I did not know what purpose there was in calling him to Court. Find out what he can do, and he will do it; only let it be so managed that he will not be suspected of rendering me aid. I have told him all that it is possible to tell him as to my own affairs, including what I have done and what recompense I have had. Show this letter to the Adelantado, so that he may advise how Vespucius can be made serviceable to us."

1505. April 24. Vespucius naturalized.

We soon after this find Vespucius installed as an agent of the Spanish government, naturalized on April 24 as a Castilian, and occupied at the seaports in superintending the fitting out of ships for the Indies, with an annual salary of thirty thousand maravedis. We can find no trace of any assistance that he afforded the cause of Columbus.

Columbus's effects sold.

Meanwhile events were taking place which Columbus might well perhaps have arrested, could he have got the royal ear. An order had been sent in February to Espa?ola to sell the effects of Columbus, and in April other property of the Admiral had been seized to satisfy his creditors.

1505. May. Columbus goes to Segovia.

August 25. Attests his will.

Columbus and Ferdinand.

In May, 1505, Columbus, with the friendly care of his brother Bartholomew, set out on his journey to Segovia, where the Court then was. This is the statement of Las Casas, but Harrisse can find no evidence of his being near the Court till August, when, on the 25th, he attested, as will appear, his will before a notary. The change bringing him into the presence of his royal master only made his mortification more poignant. His personal suit to the King was quite as ineffective as his letters had been. The sovereign was outwardly beneficent, and inwardly uncompliant. The Admiral's recitals respecting his last voyage, both of promised wealth and of saddened toil, made little impression. Las Casas suspects that the insinuations of Porras had preoccupied the royal mind. To rid himself of the importunities of Columbus, the King proposed an arbiter, and readily consented to the choice which Columbus made of his old friend Deza, now Archbishop of Seville; but Columbus was too immovably fixed upon his own rights to consent that more than the question of revenue should be considered by such an arbiter. His recorded privileges and the pledged word of the sovereign were not matters to be reconsidered. Such was not, however, the opinion of the King. He evaded the point in his talk with bland countenance, and did nothing in his acts beyond referring the question anew to a body of counselors convened to determine the fulfillment of the Queen's will. They did nothing quite as easily as the King. Las Casas tells us that the King was only restrained by motives of outward decency from a public rejection of all the binding obligations towards the Admiral into which he had entered jointly with the Queen.

1505. August 25. His will.

Columbus pleads for his son.

Rejects offers of estates.

Columbus found in all this nothing to comfort a sick and desponding man, and sank in despair upon his couch. He roused enough to have a will drafted August 25, which confirmed a testament made in 1502, before starting on his last voyage. His disease renewed its attacks. An old wound had reopened. From a bed of pain he began again his written appeals. He now gave up all hopes for himself, but he pleaded for his son, that upon him the honors which he himself had so laboriously won should be bestowed. Diego at the same time, in seconding the petition, promised, if the reinstatement took place, that he would count those among his counselors whom the royal will should designate. Nothing of protest or appeal came opportunely to the determined King. "The more he was petitioned," says Las Casas, "the more bland he was in avoiding any conclusion." He hoped by exhausting the patience of the Admiral to induce him to accept some estates in Castile in lieu of such powers in the Indies. Columbus rejected all such intimations with indignation. He would have nothing but his bonded rights. "I have done all that I can do," he said in a pitiful, despairing letter to Deza. "I must leave the issue to God. He has always sustained me in extremities."

"It argued," says Prescott, in commenting on this, "less knowledge of character than the King usually showed, that he should have thought the man who had broken off all negotiations on the threshold of a dubious enterprise, rather than abate one tittle of his demands, would consent to such abatement, when the success of that enterprise was so gloriously established."

Columbus at Salamanca.

Mendez and Columbus.

The Admiral was, during this part of his suit, apparently at Salamanca, for Mendez speaks of him as being there confined to his bed with the gout, while he himself was doing all he could to press his master's claims to have Diego recognized in his rights. In return for this service, Mendez asked to be appointed principal Alguazil of Espa?ola for life, and he says the Admiral acknowledged that such an appointment was but a trifling remuneration for his great services, but the requital never came.

Columbus unable to leave Valladolid to greet Philip and Juana.

There broke a glimmer of hope. The death of the Queen had left the throne of Castile to her daughter Juana, the wife of Philip of Austria, and they had arrived from Flanders to be installed in their inheritance. Columbus, who had followed the Court from Segovia to Salamanca, thence to Valladolid, was now unable to move further in his decrepitude, and sent the Adelantado to propitiate the daughter of Isabella, with the trust that something of her mother's sympathy might be vouchsafed to his entreaties. Bartholomew never saw his brother again, and was not privileged to communicate to him the gracious hopes which the benignity of his reception raised.

Negroes sent to Espa?ola.

A year had passed since the Admiral had come to the neighborhood of the Court, wherever it was, and nothing had been accomplished in respect to his personal interests. Indeed, little touching the Indies at all seems to have been done. There had been trial made of sending negro slaves to Espa?ola as indicating that the native bondage needed reinforcement; but Ovando had reported that the experiment was a failure, since the negroes only mixed with the Indians and taught them bad habits. Ferdinando cared little for this, and at Segovia, September 15, 1505, he notified Ovando that he should send some more negroes. Whether Columbus was aware of this change in the methods of extracting gold from the soil we cannot find.

1506. May 4. Codicil to his will.

As soon as Bartholomew had started on his mission the malady of Columbus increased. He became conscious that the time had come to make his final dispositions. It was on May 4, 1506, according to the common story, that he signed a codicil to his will on a blank page in a breviary which had been given to him, as he says, by Alexander VI., and which had "comforted him in his battles, his captivities, and his misfortunes." This document has been accepted by some of the commentators as genuine; Harrisse and others are convinced of its apocryphal character. It was not found till 1779. It is a strange document, if authentic.

Thought to be spurious.

Itholds that such dignities as were his under the Spanish Crown, acknowledged or not, were his of right to alienate from the Spanish throne. It was, if anything, a mere act of bravado, as if to flout at the authority which could dare deprive him of his possessions. He provides for the descent of his honors in the male line, and that failing, he bequeaths them to the republic of Genoa! It was a gauge of hostile demands on Spain which no one but a madman would imagine that Genoa would accept if she could. He bestowed on his native city, in the same reckless way, the means to erect a hospital, and designated that such resources should come from his Italian estates, whatever they were. Certainly the easiest way to dispose of the paper is to consider it a fraud. If such, it was devised by some one who entered into the spirit of the Admiral's madness, and made the most of rumors that had been afloat respecting Columbus's purposes to benefit Genoa at the expense of Spain.

1506. May 19. Ratified his will.

About a fortnight later (May 19), he ratified an undoubted will, which had been drafted by his own hand the year before at Segovia, and executed it with the customary formalities. Its testamentary provisions were not unnatural. He made Diego his heir, and his entailed property was, in default of heirs to Diego, to pass to his illegitimate son Ferdinand, and from him, in like default, to his own brother, the Adelantado, and his male descendants; and all such failing, to the female lines in a similar succession. He enjoined upon his representatives, of whatever generation, to serve the Spanish King with fidelity. Upon Diego, and upon later heads of the family, he imposed the duty of relieving all distressed relatives and others in poverty. He imposed on his lawful son the appointment of some one of his lineage to live constantly in Genoa, to maintain the family dignity. He directed him to grant due allowances to his brother and uncle; and when the estates yielded the means, to erect a chapel in the Vega of Espa?ola, where masses might be said daily for the repose of the souls of himself and of his nearest relatives. He made the furthering of the crusade to recover the Holy Sepulchre equally contingent upon the increase of his income. He also directed Diego to provide for the maintenance of Donna Beatrix Enriquez, the mother of Ferdinand, as "a person to whom I am under great obligations," and "let this be done for the discharge of my conscience, for it weighs heavy on my soul,-the reasons for which I am not here permitted to give;" and this was a behest that Diego, in his own will, acknowledges his failure to observe during the last years of the lady's life. Then, in a codicil, Columbus enumerates sundry little bequests to other persons to whom he was indebted, and whose kindness he wished to remember. He was honest enough to add that his bequests were imaginary unless his rights were acknowledged. "Hitherto I neither have had, nor have I now, any positive income." He failed to express any wish respecting the spot of his interment. The documents were committed at once to a notary, from whose archives a copy was obtained in 1524 by his son Diego, and this copy exists to-day among the family papers in the hands of the Duke of Veragua.

1506. May 20. Columbus dies.

This making of a will was almost his last act. On the next day he partook of the sacrament, and uttering, "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit," he gasped his last. It was on the 20th of May, 1506,-by some circumstances we might rather say May 21,-in the city of Valladolid, that this singular, hopeful, despondent, melancholy life came to its end. He died at the house No. 7 Calle de Colon, which is still shown to travelers.


[From Ruge's Geschichte des Zeitalters der Entdeckungen.]

His death unnoticed.

There was a small circle of relatives and friends who mourned. The tale of his departure came like a sough of wind to a few others, who had seen no way to alleviate a misery that merited their sympathy. The King could have but found it a relief from the indiscretion of his early promises. The world at large thought no more of the mournful procession which bore that wayworn body to the grave than it did of any poor creature journeying on his bier to the potter's field.

It is hard to conceive how the fame of a man over whose acts in 1493 learned men cried for joy, and by whose deeds the adventurous spirit had been stirred in every seaport of western Europe, should have so completely passed into oblivion that a professed chronicler like Peter Martyr, busy tattler as he was, should take no notice of his illness and death. There have come down to us five long letters full of news and gossip, which Martyr wrote from Valladolid at this very time, with not a word in them of the man he had so often commemorated. Fracanzio da Montalboddo, publishing in 1507 some correction of his early voyages, had not heard of Columbus's death; nor had Madrignano in dating his Latin rendering of the same book in 1508. It was not till twenty-seven days after the death-bed scene that the briefest notice was made in passing, in an official document of the town, to the effect that "the said Admiral is dead!"

His burial.

His coffin carried to Seville.

It is not even certain where the body was first placed, though it is usually affirmed to have been deposited in the Franciscan convent in Valladolid. Nor is there any evidence to support another equally prevalent story that King Ferdinand had ordered the removal of the remains to Seville seven years later, when a monument was built bearing the often-quoted distich,-



it being pretty evident that such an inscription was never thought of till Castellanos suggested it in his Elegias in 1588. If Diego's will in 1509 can be interpreted on this matter, it seems pretty sure that within three years (1509) after the death of Columbus, instead of seven, his coffin had been conveyed to Seville and placed inside the convent of Las Cuevas, in the vault of the Carthusians, where the bodies of his son Diego and brother Bartholomew were in due time to rest beside his own. Here the remains were undisturbed till 1536, when the records of the convent affirm that they were given up for transportation, though the royal order is given as of June 2, 1537. From that date till 1549 there is room for conjecture as to their abiding-place.

1541. Removed to Santo Domingo.

Remains removed to Havana.

It was during this interval that his family were seeking to carry out what was supposed to be the wish of the Admiral to rest finally in the island of Espa?ola. From 1537 to 1540 the government are known to have issued three different orders respecting the removal of the remains, and it is conjectured the transference was actually made in 1541, shortly after the completion of the cathedral at Santo Domingo. If any record was made at the time to designate the spot of the re?ntombment in that edifice, it is not now known, and it was not till 1676 that somebody placed an entry in its records that the burial had been made on the right of the altar. A few years later (1683), the recollections of aged people are quoted to substantiate such a statement. We find no other notice till a century afterwards, when, on the occasion of some repairs, a stone vault, supposed in the traditions to be that which held the remains, was found on "the gospel side" of the chancel, while another on "the epistle side" was thought to contain the remains of Bartholomew Columbus. This was the suspected situation of the graves when the treaty of Basle, in 1795, gave the Santo Domingo end of the island to France, and the Spanish authorities, acting in concert with the Duke of Veragua, as the representative of the family of Columbus, determined on the removal of the remains to Havana. It is a question which has been raised since 1877 whether the body of Columbus was the one then removed, and over which so much parade was made during the transportation and reinterment in Cuba. There has been a controversy on the point, in which the Bishop of Santo Domingo and his adherents have claimed that the remains of Columbus are still in their charge, while it was those of his son Diego which had been removed. The Academy of History at Madrid have denied this, and in a long report to the Spanish government have asserted that there was no mistake in the transfer, and that the additional casket found was that of Christopher Colon, the grandson.


Question of the identity of his remains.

It was represented, moreover, that those features of the inscription on the lately found leaden box which seemed to indicate it as the casket of the first Admiral of the Indies had been fraudulently added or altered. The question has probably been thrown into the category of doubt, though the case as presented in favor of Santo Domingo has some recognizably weak points, which the advocates of the other side have made the most of, and to the satisfaction perhaps of the more careful inquirers. The controversial literature on the subject is considerable. The repairs of 1877 in the Santo Domingo cathedral revealed the empty vault from which the transported body had been taken; but they showed also the occupied vault of the grandson Luis, and another in which was a leaden case which bore the inscriptions which are in dispute.

Alleged burial of his chains with him.

It is the statement of the Historie that Columbus preserved the chains in which he had come home from his third voyage, and that he had them buried with him, or intended to do so. The story is often repeated, but it has no other authority than the somewhat dubious one of that book; and it finds no confirmation in Las Casas, Peter Martyr, Bernaldez, or Oviedo.

Humboldt says that he made futile inquiry of those who had assisted in the reinterment at Havana, if there were any trace of these fetters or of oxide of iron in the coffin. In the accounts of the recent discovery of remains at Santo Domingo, it is said that there was equally no trace of fetters in the casket.

* * *

The age of Columbus.

The age of Columbus is almost without a parallel, presenting perhaps the most striking appearances since the star shone upon Bethlehem. It saw Martin Luther burn the Pope's bull, and assert a new kind of independence. It added Erasmus to the broadeners of life. Ancient art was revivified in the discovery of its most significant remains. Modern art stood confessed in Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Titian, Raphael, Holbein, and Dürer. Copernicus found in the skies a wonderful development without great telescopic help. The route of the Portuguese by the African cape and the voyage of Columbus opened new worlds to thought and commerce. They made the earth seem to man, north and south, east and west, as man never before had imagined it. It looked as if mercantile endeavor was to be cons

trained by no bounds. Articles of trade were multiplied amazingly. Every movement was not only new and broad, but it was rapid beyond conception. It was more like the remodeling of Japan, which we have seen in our day, than anything that had been earlier known.


The long sway of the Moors was disintegrating. The Arab domination in science and seamanship was yielding to the Western genius. The Turks had in the boyhood (1453) of Columbus consummated their last great triumph in the capture of Constantinople, thus placing a barrier to Christian commerce with the East. This conquest drove out the learned Christians of the East, who had drunk of the Arab erudition, and they fled with their stores of learning to the western lands, coming back to the heirs of the Romans with the spirit which Rome in the past had sent to the East.

But what Christian Europe was losing in the East Portugal and Prince Henry were gaining for her in the great and forbidding western waste of waters and along its African shores. As the hot tide of Mahometan invasion rolled over the Bosphorus, the burning equatorial zone was pierced from the north along the coasts of the Black Continent.

Italian discoverers.

His growing belief in the western passage.

Italy, seeing her maritime power drop away as the naval supremacy of the Atlantic seaboard rose, was forced to send her experienced navigators to the oceanic ports, to maintain the supremacy of her name and genius in Cadamosto, Columbus, Vespucius, Cabot, and Verrazano. Those cosmographical views which had come down the ages, at times obscured, then for a while patent, and of which the traces had lurked in the minds of learned men by an almost continuous sequence for many centuries, at last possessed by inheritance the mind of Columbus. By reading, by conference with others, by noting phenomena, and by reasoning, in the light of all these, upon the problem of a western passage to India, obvious as it was if once the sphericity of the earth be acknowledged, he gradually grew to be confident in himself and trustful in his agency with others. He was far from being alone in his beliefs, nor was his age anything more than a reflection of long periods of like belief.

Deficiencies of character.

There was simply needed a man with courage and constancy in his convictions, so that the theory could be demonstrated. This age produced him. Enthusiasm and the contagion of palpable though shadowy truths gave Columbus, after much tribulation, the countenance in high quarters that enabled him to reach success, deceptive though it was. It would have been well for his memory if he had died when his master work was done. With his great aim certified by its results, though they were far from being what he thought, he was unfortunately left in the end to be laid bare on trial, a common mortal after all, the creature of buffeting circumstances, and a weakling in every element of command. His imagination had availed him in his upward course when a serene habit in his waiting days could obscure his defects. Later, the problems he encountered were those that required an eye to command, with tact to persuade and skill to coerce, and he had none of them.

Roger Bacon and Columbus.

Pierre d'Ailly's Imago Mundi.

The man who becomes the conspicuous developer of any great world-movement is usually the embodiment of the ripened aspirations of his time. Such was Columbus. It is the forerunner, the man who has little countenance in his age, who points the way for some hazardous after-soul to pursue. Such was Roger Bacon, the English Franciscan. It was Bacon's lot to direct into proper channels the new surging of the experimental sciences which was induced by the revived study of Aristotle, and was carrying dismay into the strongholds of Platonism. Standing out from the background of Arab regenerating learning, the name of Roger Bacon, linked often with that of Albertus Magnus, stood for the best knowledge and insight of the thirteenth century. Bacon it was who gave that tendency to thought which, seized by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly, and incorporated by him in his Imago Mundi (1410), became the link between Bacon and Columbus. Humboldt has indeed expressed his belief that this encyclop?dic Survey of the World exercised a more important influence upon the discovery of America than even the prompting which Columbus got from his correspondence with Toscanelli. How well Columbus pored over the pages of the Imago Mundi we know from the annotations of his own copy, which is still preserved in the Biblioteca Colombina. It seems likely that Columbus got directly from this book most that he knew of those passages in Aristotle, Strabo, and Seneca which speak of the Asiatic shores as lying opposite to Hispania. There is some evidence that this book was his companion even on his voyages, and Humboldt points out how he translates a passage from it, word for word, when in 1498 he embodied it in a letter which he wrote to his sovereigns from Espa?ola.

His acquaintance with the elder writers.

If we take the pains, as Humboldt did, to examine the writings of Columbus, to ascertain the sources which he cited, we find what appears to be a broad acquaintance with books. It is to be remembered, however, that the Admiral quoted usually at second hand, and that he got his acquaintance with classic authors, at least, mainly through this Imago Mundi of Pierre d'Ailly. Humboldt, in making his list of Columbus's authors, omits the references to the Scriptures and to the Church fathers, "in whom," as he says, "Columbus was singularly versed," and then gives the following catalogue:-

Aristotle; Julius C?sar; Strabo; Seneca; Pliny; Ptolemy; Solinus; Julius Capitolinus; Alfrazano; Avenruyz; Rabbi Samuel de Israel; Isidore, Bishop of Seville; the Venerable Bede; Strabus, Abbé of Reichenau; Duns Scotus; Fran?ois Mayronis; Abbé Joachim de Calabre; Sacrobosco, being in fact the English mathematician Holywood; Nicholas de Lyra, the Norman Franciscan; King Alfonso the Wise, and his Moorish scribes; Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly; Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris; Pope Pius II., otherwise known as ?neas Sylvius Piccolomini; Regiomontanus, as the Latinized name of Johann Müller of K?nigsberg is given, though Columbus does not really name him; Paolo Toscanelli, the Florentine physician; and Nicolas de Conti, of whom he had heard through Toscanelli, perhaps.

Humboldt can find no evidence that Columbus had read the travels of Marco Polo, and does not discover why Navarrete holds that he had, though Polo's stories must have permeated much that Columbus read; nor does he understand why Irving says that Columbus took Marco Polo's book on his first voyage.

Columbus and Toscanelli.

We see often in the world's history a simultaneousness in the regeneration of thought. Here and there a seer works on in ignorance of some obscure brother elsewhere. Rumor and circulating manuscripts bring them into sympathy. They grow by the correlation. It is just this correspondence that confronts us in Columbus and Toscanelli, and it is not quite, but almost, perceptible that this wise Florentine doctor was the first, despite Humboldt's theory, to plant in the mind of Columbus his aspirations for the truths of geography. It is meet that Columbus should not be mentioned without the accompanying name of Toscanelli. It was the Genoese's different fortune that he could attempt as a seaman a practical demonstration of his fellow Italian's views.

Many a twin movement of the world's groping spirit thus seeks the light. Progress naturally pushes on parallel lines. Commerce thrusts her intercourse to remotest regions, while the Church yearns for new souls to convert, and peers longingly into the dim spaces that skirt the world's geography. Navigators improve their methods, and learned men in the arts supply them with exacter instruments. The widespread manifestations of all this new life at last crystallize, and Gama and Columbus appear, the reflex of every development.

Opportuneness of his discoveries.

Thus the discovery of Columbus came in the ripeness of time. No one of the anterior accidents, suggesting a western land, granting that there was some measure of fact in all of them, had come to a world prepared to think on their developments. Vinland was practically forgotten, wherever it may have been. The tales of Fousang had never a listener in Europe. Madoc was as unknown as Elidacthon. While the new Indies were not in their turn to be forgotten, their discoverer was to bury himself in a world of conjecture. The superlatives of Columbus soon spent their influence. The pioneer was lost sight of in the new currents of thought which he had started. Not of least interest among them was the cognizance of new races of men, and new revelations in the animal and physical kingdoms, while the question of their origins pressed very soon on the theological and scientific sense of the age.

* * *

Not above his age.

Claims for palliation.

No man craves more than Columbus to be judged with all the palliations demanded of a difference of his own age and ours. No child of any age ever did less to improve his contemporaries, and few ever did more to prepare the way for such improvements. The age created him and the age left him. There is no more conspicuous example in history of a man showing the path and losing it.

It is by no means sure, with all our boast of benevolent progress, that atrocities not much short of those which we ascribe to Columbus and his compeers may not at any time disgrace the coming as they have blackened the past years of the nineteenth century. This fact gives us the right to judge the infirmities of man in any age from the high vantage-ground of the best emotions of all the centuries. In the application of such perennial justice Columbus must inevitably suffer. The degradation of the times ceases to be an excuse when the man to be judged stands on the pinnacle of the ages. The biographer cannot forget, indeed, that Columbus is a portrait set in the surroundings of his times; but it is equally his duty at the same time to judge the paths which he trod by the scale of an eternal nobleness.

Test of his character.

Not a creator of ideas.

The very domination of this man in the history of two hemispheres warrants us in estimating him by an austere sense of occasions lost and of opportunities embraced. The really great man is superior to his age, and anticipates its future; not as a sudden apparition, but as the embodiment of a long growth of ideas of which he is the inheritor and the capable exemplar. Humboldt makes this personal domination of two kinds. The one comes from the direct influence of character; the other from the creation of an idea, which, freed from personality, works its controlling mission by changing the face of things. It is of this last description that Humboldt makes the domination of Columbus. It is extremely doubtful if any instance can be found of a great idea changing the world's history, which has been created by any single man. None such was created by Columbus. There are always forerunners whose agency is postponed because the times are not propitious. A masterful thought has often a long pedigree, starting from a remote antiquity, but it will be dormant till it is environed by the circumstances suited to fructify it. This was just the destiny of the intuition which began with Aristotle and came down to Columbus. To make his first voyage partook of foolhardiness, as many a looker-on reasonably declared. It was none the less foolhardy when it was done. If he had reached the opulent and powerful kings of the Orient, his little cockboats and their brave souls might have fared hard for their intrusion. His blunder in geography very likely saved him from annihilation.

* * *

His character differently drawn.



The character of Columbus has been variously drawn, almost always with a violent projection of the limner's own personality. We find Prescott contending that "whatever the defects of Columbus's mental constitution, the finger of the historian will find it difficult to point to a single blemish in his moral character." It is certainly difficult to point to a more flagrant disregard of truth than when we find Prescott further saying, "Whether we contemplate his character in its public or private relations, in all its features it wears the same noble aspects. It was in perfect harmony with the grandeur of his plans, and with results more stupendous than those which Heaven has permitted any other mortal to achieve." It is very striking to find Prescott, after thus speaking of his private as well as public character, and forgetting the remorse of Columbus for the social wrongs he had committed, append in a footnote to this very passage a reference to his "illegitimate" son. It seems to mark an obdurate purpose to disguise the truth. This is also nowhere more patent than in the palliating hero-worship of Irving, with his constant effort to save a world's exemplar for the world's admiration, and more for the world's sake than for Columbus's.

Irving at one time berates the biographer who lets "pernicious erudition" destroy a world's exemplar; and at another time he does not know that he is criticising himself when he says that "he who paints a great man merely in great and heroic traits, though he may produce a fine picture, will never present a faithful portrait." The commendation which he bestows upon Herrera is for precisely what militates against the highest aims of history, since he praises that Spanish historian's disregard of judicial fairness.

In the being which Irving makes stand for the historic Columbus, his skill in softened expression induced Humboldt to suppose that Irving's avoidance of exaggeration gave a force to his eulogy, but there was little need to exaggerate merits, if defects were blurred.


The learned German adds, in the opening of the third volume of his Examen Critique, his own sense of the impressiveness of Columbus. That impressiveness stands confessed; but it is like a gyrating storm that knows no law but the vagrancy of destruction.

One need not look long to discover the secret of Humboldt's estimate of Columbus. Without having that grasp of the picturesque which appeals so effectively to the popular mind in the letters of Vespucius, the Admiral was certainly not destitute of keen observation of nature, but unfortunately this quality was not infrequently prostituted to ignoble purposes. To a student of Humboldt's proclivities, these traits of observation touched closely his sympathy. He speaks in his Cosmos of the development of this exact scrutiny in manifold directions, notwithstanding Columbus's previous ignorance of natural history, and tells us that this capacity for noting natural phenomena arose from his contact with such. It would have been better for the fame of Columbus if he had kept this scientific survey in its purity. It was simply, for instance, a vitiated desire to astound that made him mingle theological and physical theories about the land of Paradise. Such jugglery was promptly weighed in Spain and Italy by Peter Martyr and others as the wild, disjointed effusions of an overwrought mind, and "the reflex of a false erudition," as Humboldt expresses it. It was palpably by another effort, of a like kind, that he seized upon the views of the fathers of the Church that the earthly Paradise lay in the extreme Orient, and he was quite as audacious when he exacted the oath on the Cuban coast, to make it appear by it that he had really reached the outermost parts of Asia.

Observations of nature.

Humboldt seeks to explain this errant habit by calling it "the sudden movement of his ardent and passionate soul; the disarrangement of ideas which were the effect of an incoherent method and of the extreme rapidity of his reading; while all was increased by his misfortunes and religious mysticism." Such an explanation hardly relieves the subject of it from blunter imputations. This urgency for some responsive wonderment at every experience appears constantly in the journal of Columbus's first voyage, as, for instance, when he makes every harbor exceed in beauty the last he had seen. This was the commonplace exaggeration which in our day is confined to the calls of speculating land companies. The fact was that Humboldt transferred to his hero something of the superlative love of nature that he himself had experienced in the same regions; but there was all the difference between him and Columbus that there is between a genuine love of nature and a commercial use of it. Whenever Columbus could divert his mind from a purpose to make the Indies a paying investment, we find some signs of an insight that shows either observation of his own or the garnering of it from others, as, for example, when he remarks on the decrease of rain in the Canaries and the Azores which followed upon the felling of trees, and when he conjectures that the elongated shape of the islands of the Antilles on the lines of the parallels was due to the strength of the equatorial current.

Roselly de Lorgues and his school.


Since Irving, Prescott, and Humboldt did their work, there has sprung up the unreasoning and ecstatic French school under the lead of Roselly de Lorgues, who seek to ascribe to Columbus all the virtues of a saint. "Columbus had no defect of character and no worldly quality," they say. The antiquarian and searching spirit of Harrisse, and of those writers who have mainly been led into the closest study of the events of the life of Columbus, has not done so much to mould opinion as regards the estimate in which the Admiral should be held as to eliminate confusing statements and put in order corroborating facts. The reaction from the laudation of the canonizers has not produced any writer of consideration to array such derogatory estimates as effectually as a plain recital of established facts would do it. Hubert Bancroft, in the incidental mention which he makes of Columbus, has touched his character not inaptly, and with a consistent recognition of its infirmities. Even Prescott, who verges constantly on the ecstatic elements of the adulatory biographer, is forced to entertain at times "a suspicion of a temporary alienation of mind," and in regard to the letter which Columbus wrote from Jamaica to the sovereigns, is obliged to recognize "sober narrative and sound reasoning strangely blended with crazy dreams and doleful lamentations."

Aaron Goodrich.

"Vagaries like these," he adds, "which came occasionally like clouds over his soul to shut out the light of reason, cannot fail to fill the mind of the reader, as they doubtless did those of the sovereigns, with mingled sentiments of wonder and compassion." An unstinted denunciatory purpose, much weakened by an inconsiderate rush of disdain, characterizes an American writer, Aaron Goodrich, in his Life of the so-called Christopher Columbus (New York, 1875); but the critic's temper is too peevish and his opinions are too unreservedly biased to make his results of any value.


The mental hallucinations of Columbus, so patent in his last years, were not beyond recognition at a much earlier age, and those who would get the true import of his character must trace these sorrowful manifestations to their beginnings, and distinguish accurately between Columbus when his purpose was lofty and unselfish and himself again when he became mercenary and erratic. So much does the verdict of history lodge occasionally more in the narrator of events than in the character of them that, in Humboldt's balancing of the baser with the nobler symptoms of Columbus's nature, he does not find even the most degraded of his actions other than powerful in will, and sometimes, at least, clear in intelligence. There were certainly curiously transparent, but transient gleams of wisdom to the last. Humboldt further says that the faith of Columbus soothed his dreary and weary adversities by the charm of ascetic reveries. So a handsome euphuism tries to save his fame from harsher epithets.

It was a faith, says the same delineator, which justified at need, under the pretext of a religious object, the employment of deceit and the excess of a despotic power; a tenderer form, doubtless, of the vulgar expression that the end sanctifies the means. It is not, however, within the practice of the better historical criticism of our day to let such elegant wariness beguile the reader's mind. If the different, not to say more advanced, condition of the critical mind is to be of avail to a new age through the advantage gained from all the ages, it is in precisely this emancipation from the trammels of traditionary bondage that the historian asserts his own, and dispels the glamour of a conventionalized hero-worship.

Dr. J. G. Shea.

Dr. Shea, our most distinguished Catholic scholar, who has dealt with the character of Columbus, says: "He accomplished less than some adventurers with poor equipped vessels. He seems to have succeeded in attaching but few men to him who adhered loyally to his cause. Those under him were constantly rebellious and mutinous; those over him found him impracticable. To array all these as enemies, inspired by a satanic hostility to a great servant of God, is to ask too much for our belief;" and yet this is precisely what Irving by constant modifications, and De Lorgues in a monstrous degree, feel themselves justified in doing.

The French canonizers.

There is nothing in Columbus's career that these French canonizers do not find convertible to their purpose, whether it be his wild vow to raise 4,000 horse and 50,000 foot in seven years, wherewith to snatch the Holy Sepulchre from the infidel, or the most commonplace of his canting ejaculations. That Columbus was a devout Catholic, according to the Catholicism of his epoch, does not admit of question, but when tried by any test that finds the perennial in holy acts, Columbus fails to bear the examination. He had nothing of the generous and noble spirit of a conjoint lover of man and of God, as the higher spirits of all times have developed it. There was no all-loving Deity in his conception. His Lord was one in whose name it was convenient to practice enormities. He shared this subterfuge with Isabella and the rest. We need to think on what Las Casas could be among his contemporaries, if we hesitate to apply the conceptions of an everlasting humanity.

Converts and slaves.

The mines which Columbus went to seek were hard to find. The people he went to save to Christ were easy to exterminate. He mourned bitterly that his own efforts were ill requited. He had no pity for the misery of others, except they be his dependents and co-sharers of his purposes. He found a policy worth commemorating in slitting the noses and tearing off the ears of a naked heathen. He vindicates his excess by impressing upon the world that a man setting out to conquer the Indies must not be judged by the amenities of life which belong to a quiet rule in established countries. Yet, with a chance to establish a humane life among peoples ready to be moulded to good purposes, he sought from the very first to organize among them the inherited evils of "established countries." He talked a great deal about making converts of the poor souls, while the very first sight which he had of them prompted him to consign them to the slave-mart, just as if the first step to Christianize was the step which unmans.

The first vicar apostolic sent to teach the faith in Santo Domingo returned to Spain, no longer able to remain, powerless, in sight of the cruelties practiced by Columbus. Isabella prevented the selling of the natives as slaves in Spain, when Columbus had dispatched thither five shiploads. Las Casas tells us that in 1494-96 Columbus was generally hated in Espa?ola for his odiousness and injustice, and that the Admiral's policy with the natives killed a third of them in those two years. The Franciscans, when they arrived at the island, found the colonists exuberant that they had been relieved of the rule which Columbus had instituted; and the Benedictines and Dominicans added their testimony to the same effect.

He urges enslaving the natives from the first.

The very first words, as has been said, that he used, in conveying to expectant Europe the wonders of his discovery, suggested a scheme of enslaving the strange people. He had already made the voyage that of a kidnapper, by entrapping nine of the unsuspecting natives.

On his second voyage he sent home a vessel-load of slaves, on the pretense of converting them, but his sovereigns intimated to him that it would cost less to convert them in their own homes. Then he thought of the righteous alternative of sending some to Spain to be sold to buy provisions to support those who would convert others in their homes. The monarchs were perhaps dazed at this sophistry; and Columbus again sent home four vessels laden with reeking cargoes of flesh. When he returned to Spain, in 1496, to circumvent his enemies, he once more sought in his turn, and by his reasoning, to cheat the devil of heathen souls by sending other cargoes. At last the line was drawn. It was not to save their souls, but to punish them for daring to war against the Spaniards, that they should be made to endure such horrors.

It is to Columbus, also, that we trace the beginning of that monstrous guilt which Spanish law sanctioned under the name of repartimientos, and by which to every colonist, and even to the vilest, absolute power was given over as many natives as his means and rank entitled him to hold. Las Casas tells us that Ferdinand could hardly have had a conception of the enormities of the system. If so, it was because he winked out of sight the testimony of observers, while he listened to the tales prompted of greed, rapine, and cruelty. The value of the system to force heathen out of hell, and at the same time to replenish his treasury, was the side of it presented to Ferdinand's mind by such as had access to his person. In 1501, we find the Dominicans entering their protest, and by this Ferdinand was moved to take the counsel of men learned in the law and in what passed in those days for Christian ethics. This court of appeal approved these necessary efforts, as was claimed, to increase those who were new to the faith, and to reward those who supported it.

Peter Martyr expressed the comforting sentiments of the age: "National right and that of the Church concede personal liberty to man. State policy, however, demurs. Custom repels the idea. Long experience shows that slavery is necessary to prevent those returning to their idolatry and error whom the Church has once gained." All professed servants of the Church, with a few exceptions like Las Casas, ranged themselves with Columbus on the side of such specious thoughts; and Las Casas, in recognizing this fact, asks what we could expect of an old sailor and fighter like Columbus, when the wisest and most respectable of the priesthood backed him in his views. It was indeed the misery of Columbus to miss the opportunity of being wiser than his fellows, the occasion always sought by a commanding spirit, and it was offered to him almost as to no other.

Progress of slavery in the West Indies.

There was no restraining the evil. The cupidity of the colonists overcame all obstacles. The Queen was beguiled into giving equivocal instructions to Ovando, who succeeded to Bobadilla, and out of them by interpretation grew an increase of the monstrous evil. In 1503, every atrocity had reached a legal recognition. Labor was forced; the slaves were carried whither the colonists willed; and for eight months at least in every year, families were at pleasure disrupted without mercy. One feels some satisfaction in seeing Columbus himself at last, in a letter to Diego, December 1, 1504, shudder at the atrocities of Ovando. When one sees the utter annihilation of the whole race of the Antilles, a thing clearly assured at the date of the death of Columbus, one wishes that that dismal death-bed in Valladolid could have had its gloom illumined by a consciousness that the hand which lifted the banner of Spain and of Christ at San Salvador had done something to stay the misery which cupidity and perverted piety had put in course. When a man seeks to find and parades reasons for committing a crime, it is to stifle his conscience. Columbus passed years in doing it.


The Franciscans.

Back of Isabella in this spasmodic interest in the Indians was the celebrated Archbishop of Granada, Fernando de Talavera, whom we have earlier known as the prior of Prado. He had been since 1478 the confessor of the Queen, and when the time came for sending missionaries to the Antilles it was natural that they were of the order of St. Jerome, of which Talavera was himself a member. Columbus, through a policy which induced him to make as apparent as possible his mingling of interests with the Church, had before this adopted the garb of the Franciscans, and this order was the second in time to be seen in Espa?ola in 1502. They were the least tolerant of the leading orders, and had already shown a disposition to harass the Indians, and were known to treat haughtily the Queen's intercessions for the poor souls. It was not till after the death of Columbus that the Dominicans, coming in 1510, reinforced the kindly spirit of the priests of St. Jerome. Still later they too abandoned their humanity.

* * *

Columbus's mercenary impulses.

His praise of gold.

The downfall of Columbus began when he wrested from the reluctant monarchs what he called his privileges, and when he insisted upon riches as the accompaniment of such state and consequence as those privileges might entail. The terms were granted, so far as the King was concerned, simply to put a stop to importunities, for he never anticipated being called upon to confirm them. The insistency of Columbus in this respect is in strange contrast to the satisfaction which the captains of Prince Henry, Da Gama and the rest, were content to find in the unpolluted triumphs of science. The mercenary Columbus was forced to the utterance of Solomon: "I looked upon the labor that I had labored to do, and behold all was vanity and vexation of spirit." The Preacher never had a better example. Columbus was wont to say that gold gave the soul its flight to paradise. Perhaps he referred to the masses which could be bought, or to the alms which could propitiate Heaven. He might better have remembered the words of warning given to Baruch: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. For, saith the Lord, thy life will I give unto them for a prey in all places whither thou goest." And a prey in all places he became.

Humboldt seeks to palliate this cupidity by making him the conscious inheritor of the pecuniary chances which every free son of Genoa expected to find within his grasp by commercial enterprise. Such prominence was sought because it carried with it power and influence in the republic.

If Columbus had found riches in the New World as easily as he anticipated, it is possible that such affluence would have moulded his character in other ways for good or for evil. He soon found himself confronting a difficult task, to satisfy with insufficient means a craving which his exaggerations had established. This led him to spare no device, at whatever sacrifice of the natives, to produce the coveted gold, and it was an ingenious mockery that induced him to deck his captives with golden chains and parade them through the Spanish towns.

Nicolas de Conti.

The world's disgust.

After Da Gama had opened the route to Cathay by the Cape of Good Hope, and Columbus had, as he supposed, touched the eastern confines of the same country, the wonderful stories of Asiatic glories told by Nicolas de Conti were translated, by order of King Emanuel (in 1500), into Portuguese. It is no wonder that the interest in the development of 1492 soon waned when the world began to compare the descriptions of the region beyond the Ganges, as made known by Marco Polo, and so recently by Conti, and the apparent confirmation of them established by the Portuguese, with the meagre resources which Columbus had associated with the same country, in all that he could say about the Antilles or bring from them. An adventurous voyage across the Sea of Darkness begat little satisfaction, if all there was to show for it consisted of men with tails or a single eye, or races of Amazons and cannibals.

Columbus's lack of generosity.

When we view the character of Columbus in its influence upon the minds of men, we find some strange anomalies. Before his passion was tainted with the ambition of wealth and its consequence, and while he was urging the acceptance of his views for their own sake, it is very evident that he impressed others in a way that never happened after he had secured his privileges. It is after this turning-point of his life that we begin to see his falsities and indiscretions, or at least to find record of them. The incident of the moving light in the night before his first landfall is a striking instance of his daring disregard of all the qualities that help a commander in his dominance over his men. It needs little discrimination to discern the utter deceitfulness of that pretense. A noble desire to win the loftiest honors of the discovery did not satisfy a mean, insatiable greed. He blunted every sentiment of generosity when he deprived a poor sailor of his pecuniary reward. That there was no actual light to be seen is apparent from the distance that the discoverers sailed before they saw land, since if the light had been ahead they would not have gone on, and if it had been abeam they would not have left it. The evidence is that of himself and a thrall, and he kept it secret at the time. The author of the Historie sees the difficulty, and attempts to vaporize the whole story by saying that the light was spiritual, and not physical. Navarrete passes it by as a thing necessary, for the fame of Columbus, to be ignored.

His enforced oath at Cuba.

A second instance of Columbus's luckless impotence, at a time when an honorable man would have relied upon his character, was the attempt to make it appear that he had reached the coast of Asia by imposing an oath on his men to that effect, in penalty of having their tongues wrenched out if they recanted. One can hardly conceive a more debasing exercise of power.

His ambition of territorial power.

His insistence upon territorial power was the serious mistake of his life. He thought, in making an agreement with his sovereigns to become a viceroy, that he was securing an honor; he was in truth pledging his happiness and beggaring his life. He sought to attain that which the fates had unfitted him for, and the Spanish monarchs, in an evil day, which was in due time their regret, submitted to his hallucinated dictation. No man ever evinced less capacity for ruling a colony.

His professed inspiration.

The most sorrowful of all the phases of Columbus's character is that hapless collapse, when he abandoned all faith in the natural world, and his premonitions of it, and threw himself headlong into the vortex of what he called inspiration.

Everything in his scientific argument had been logical. It produced the reliance which comes of wisdom. It was a manly show of an incisive reason. If he had rested here his claims for honor, he would have ranked with the great seers of the universe, with Copernicus and the rest. His successful suit with the Spanish sovereigns turned his head, and his degradation began when he debased a noble purpose to the level of mercenary claims. He relied, during his first voyage, more on chicanery in controlling his crew than upon the dignity of his aim and the natural command inherent in a lofty spirit. This deceit was the beginning of his decadence, which ended in a sad self-aggrandizement, when he felt himself no longer an instrument of intuition to probe the secrets of the earth, but a possessor of miraculous inspiration. The man who had been self-contained became a thrall to a fevered hallucination.

The earnest mental study which had sustained his inquisitive spirit through long years of dealings with the great physical problems of the earth was forgotten. He hopelessly began to accredit to Divinity the measure of his own fallibility. "God made me," he says, "the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse by St. John, after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah, and He showed me the spot where to find it." He no longer thought it the views of Aristotle which guided him. The Greek might be pardoned for his ignorance of the intervening America. It was mere sacrilege to impute such ignorance to the Divine wisdom.

Lost his friends.

There is no excuse but the plea of insanity. He naturally lost his friends with losing his manly devotion to a cause. I do not find the beginning of this surrender of his manhood earlier than in the will which he signed February 22, 1498, when he credits the Holy Trinity with having inspired him with the idea that one could go to the Indies by passing westward.

In his letter to the nurse of Don Juan, he says that the prophecy of Isaiah in the Apocalypse had found its interpreter in him, the messenger to disclose a new part of the world. "Human reason," he wrote in the Proficias, "mathematics, and maps have served me in no wise. What I have accomplished is simply the fulfillment of the prophecy of David."

His pitiable death.

We have seen a pitiable man meet a pitiable death. Hardly a name in profane history is more august than his. Hardly another character in the world's record has made so little of its opportunities. His discovery was a blunder; his blunder was a new world; the New World is his monument! Its discoverer might have been its father; he proved to be its despoiler. He might have given its young days such a benignity as the world likes to associate with a maker; he left it a legacy of devastation and crime. He might have been an unselfish promoter of geographical science; he proved a rabid seeker for gold and a viceroyalty. He might have won converts to the fold of Christ by the kindness of his spirit; he gained the execrations of the good angels. He might, like Las Casas, have rebuked the fiendishness of his contemporaries; he set them an example of perverted belief. The triumph of Barcelona led down to the ignominy of Valladolid, with every step in the degradation palpable and resultant.

* * *

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

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top