Who was Christopher Columbus?

Just at the evening twilight of a beautiful day in October, 1485, a man about fifty years of age (tall, well-formed, and muscular; long visaged; a face of fair complexion, a little freckled and usually ruddy, but now pale and careworn in expression; an aquiline nose, rather high cheek bones, eyes a light-gray; his hair thin and silvery, and his whole demeanor elevated and dignified), might have been seen standing at the gate of the Franciscan Convent near Palos, in Spain, asking for a little bread and water for his pale-faced, motherless child, whom he was leading by the hand. It was CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, then in extreme poverty, making his way, with his boy Diego, on foot for the Spanish Court. While he lay sick near Belem, a mysterious voice had said to him in a dream: "God will cause thy name to be wonderfully resounded through the earth, and will give thee the keys of the gates of the ocean which are closed with strong chains." It was a prophecy of the imagination--a sequence of intense thought and weary study on the subject. To the mind of Columbus it had all the reality of a revelation from God.

Columbus was the son of a wool-comber in Genoa, where he was born about the year 1435. Like other boys with busy fancies in that maritime city, he showed a fondness for the sea at an early age, and his father, though straitened in means, sent him, for a short time, to the University of Pavia to study the sciences which might fit him to be a navigator. It was an age of rapid intellectual development. Learning was leaving the monasteries to take up its abode with the laity. Geographical discoveries had created an intense longing for geographical knowledge, and the writings of Pliny, Strabo and others, which the newly-discovered art of printing soon multiplied, were read with avidity.

Columbus became a passionate disciple of geographical teachers. He made his first voyage when he was only fourteen years of age. As his practical knowledge deepened with experience, and wonderful tales of mariners concerning mysterious lands seen in the far-off Atlantic fell upon his ears, his soul burned with an intense desire to penetrate the unknown waste of waters. There was then a popular tradition that there was a very large island in the Atlantic called Antilla, mentioned by Aristotle, which Carthagenian mariners had visited. There was also a tradition of another island, on which St. Brandon, a Scotch priest, landed in the sixth century, and found magnificent cities. Still another spoke of the Island of Seven Cities, on which seven Spanish bishops, who fled from Spain with an immense number of followers, on the invasion of the Moors, had settled and founded seven grand cities. Even the learned geographer, Martin Behm, whom the King of Portugal employed, placed these islands on a globe which he constructed as being contiguous to the eastern coast of Asia. And with the revival of letters, came from Greece the story of Atlantis, which Plato had learned from the Egyptians and told to his countrymen--a story which gave an account of an immense island in the Atlantic, in early times, larger than Asia and Africa together, full of inhabitants, great cities and mighty kingdoms, which, by tremendous earthquakes, had been shaken from their foundations and swallowed by the sea. These traditions, the stories of the people of the Canary Islands concerning land frequently seen westward of them (a mirage?) and scores of other marvelous tales, fired the imagination of Columbus, and he conceived the grand design of attempting the discovery of unknown lands in the West.

Finding very little encouragement in his native city, and Prince Henry of Portugal being then engaged in his explorations of the western coast of Africa, Columbus went to Lisbon. He arrived there about the year 1470, when he was in the prime of his young manhood. There he was a strict attendant at religious services in the chapel of the Convent of All Saints. In that convent several ladies of rank boarded or resided. Among these was Dona Felipa, daughter of Bartolomeo de Perestrello, an Italian cavalier then lately dead, who had been one of Prince Henry's most noted navigators. He had discovered, colonized and governed the island of Porto Santo, one of the Madeiras. Columbus and Dona Felipa became acquainted. The acquaintance ripened into love and resulted in marriage.

Columbus and his bride resided with her mother in Porto Santo. Madame Perestrello placed in the hands of her son-in-law the maps, charts, journals and memoranda of her late husband. They opened new fields for the contemplation of the navigator, and inspired him with an irrepressible desire for attempting discoveries in the West. These desires were stimulated by facts that were given him by Pedro Correo, an eminent navigator, who had married a sister of the wife of Columbus. He told him of timber handsomely carved, and of immense canes such as it was said grew in India, that had been found floating on the sea, from the westward; also of the bodies of two men which had been cast ashore on one of the islands of the Azores by a westerly gale, whose faces were large and their skins a copper color. These things confirmed Columbus in a budding belief that he might reach India by sailing westward, and he formed plans accordingly. These he communicated to the eminent Toscanelli, of Florence, who wrote to him an encouraging letter, and sent him a map projected partly by Ptolemy and partly from descriptions of Marco Polo, a Venetian, who made an overland journey to China late in the thirteenth century, and was in the public employment of the Great Khan or Emperor of Tartary. With this map before him Columbus studied the narrative of Polo, and was impressed with the belief that by sailing westward he would find the rich country of Cathay described by that traveller (now known to be China) and the great island of Zipangi, supposed to be Japan. These were the subjects of his dreams, whilst cruising among the islands in American waters, many years after-ward.

Columbus made voyages in the service of the Portuguese; and in 1477 he sailed to Iceland and beyond. There he doubtless heard the traditions concerning the voyages of the sons of Eric the Red, or listened to rehearsals of the sagas in which they were recorded. On his return he was filled with zeal for undertaking western discoveries. But comparative poverty was his portion. He was not able to fit out a ship, so he appealed to the King of Portugal for assistance. That monarch was too much engrossed in a war with Spain to listen to him. He waited patiently until his successor, the young John the Second, ascended the throne. John was endowed with the spirit of his great uncle, Prince Henry, and listened to Columbus gladly. The scheme of the navigator was referred to a junta composed of two eminent cosmographers or describers of the universe, and a learned bishop. They decided that his project was extravagant and visionary.

The king was not satisfied. He called a council of learned men, who also decided against the project. Still the king was not satisfied; when the bishop (who was his confessor) proposed to him a mean stratagem. It was that he should get from Columbus his plans, charts, proposed directions for sailing and all other necessary information, under the pretext that he cherished his propositions. Then he was to send a caravel (a small three-masted vessel) to the Cape de Verd islands on the pretext of carrying provisions there, with instructions to go as far westward as possible, to ascertain if there were any foundation for the navigator's theory. This was to secure advantages to the state without committing it to what might turn out to be a mere chimera. The king permitted himself to follow the advice of the bishop. The cowardly crew of the caravel did not go far, before they were frightened back by the great waves. Columbus discovered the infamous trick to defraud him of the honors of such a discovery, and with lofty pride he scorned all offers of the monarch to renew the negotiations. His wife was now dead. She had borne him a son, whom they had named Diego. The domestic ties which bound him to Portugal were broken, and turning his back upon the faithless king and priest, he took his boy and secretly departed from Lisbon late in the year 1484. Whither he went then nobody certainly knows. He first reappears in history in the south of Spain, standing, in the twilight of a beautiful October day, at the door of the Franciscan monastery near Palos, asking for a little bread and water for his famishing boy.

In summing up the character of Columbus, Mr. Irving wrote: "In him were singularly combined the practical and the poetical. His mind had grasped all kinds of knowledge, whether procured by study or observation, which bore upon his theories; impatient of the scanty aliment of the day, 'his impetuous ardor,' as has been well observed, 'threw him into the study of the fathers of the church, the Arabian Jews, and the ancient geographers;' while his daring but irregular genius, bursting from the limits of imperfect science, bore him to conclusions far beyond the intellectual vision of his contemporaries. If some of his conclusions were erroneous, they were at least ingenious and splendid. And their error resulted from the clouds which still hung over his peculiar path of enterprise. His own discoveries enlightened the ignorance of the age, guided conjecture to certainty, and dispelled that very darkness with which he had been obliged to struggle. It has been said that mercenary views mingled with the ambition of Columbus, and that his stipulations with the Spanish court were selfish and avaricious. The charge is inconsiderate and unjust. He aimed at dignity and wealth in the same lofty spirit in which he sought renown; they were to be part and parcel of the achievement, and palpable evidence of its success; they were to arise from the territories he should discover, and be commensurate in importance. No condition could be more just."

We have now traced, in brief outline, some of the principal causes which led to the discovery of America, and the chief events in the career of the great pioneer of such discovery. He demonstrated the fact that the earth is globular, and that fertile lands might be found by sailing westward from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean. Having discovered and pointed out the way to these lands, he retired, and other navigators and discoverers appeared upon the scene. The exploits of some of them, we will now consider.

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