Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

A Memorable Reign

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella has been called the most celebrated, and the year 1492 the most eventful, in Spanish history. Not the fall of Granada alone made that year notable; not the culmination of a long series of wars, extending through centuries, and conducing to the final triumph of Christian arms, made the year 1492 memorable—for the youth of this age scarcely need be told that it was, in a sense, the birth year of America!

A sad and preoccupied witness of the Christian triumph at Granada, one who saw the tumultuous entrance into the Alhambra of the Spanish army, the unfurling of the Castilian banner on the tower of la Vela, the departure of the broken-hearted Moors—one Christopher Columbus was attendant through it all. Possessed with his grand idea of reaching the Indies by sailing directly westward—a thing hitherto unheard of, at least unattempted—after his rebuffs at the court of Portugal he had come to Spain as early as the year 1482, and was sent by the Duke of Medina Celi to Isabella at Cordova. He followed her court to Salamanca in 1486, there had audience with the queen, and the next year appeared before the famous Council in the Dominican convent. Nothing came of that except discouragement; but he returned to Cordova the same year, whence he was summoned by Isabella to the military camp at Malaga. We have no continuous itinerary of his travels, but in 1489 he was with the army before the walls of Baza, where he probably saw and conversed with two holy men who had come from Jerusalem to enlist the aid of Spain against the infidels in the Orient.

For eight long years he was a hanger-on at court, ever fed on promises; put off with half denials, and again reassured with the prospect of assistance when the Moors should have been subjugated. At last, in 1491, weary and heartsick, Columbus resolved to depart from Spain, and on his way to the coast stopped at the convent of La Rabida, near the port of Palos, where his distinguished appearance attracted the attention of the prior. This was the turning of the tide in his fortunes, for the prior had formerly been confessor to the queen, and, impressed with the scheme of his visitor, offered to intercede in his favour. He did so, and, as the result, Columbus was again ordered to wait upon the queen, and with money for the journey from the royal exchequer, set, out for Santa Fé, where he arrived in time to witness, as we have noticed, the surrender of Granada. But that was no propitious time for the king or queen to engage in new adventures, with the royal treasury drained by the terrible drafts upon it for the Moorish wars, and again Columbus was disappointed, and a second time bade farewell to the court and set out for the coast. He had, however, proceeded but a few miles on his journey when the queen's courier overtook him with the pledge of her assistance, and so he returned to Granada. The point at which he was halted by the courier was at the Bridge of Pines, still spanning the stream as of yore, and the last decisive interview is said to have been in a corridor of the Alhambra, known as the Hall of Justice.

Here, finally, amid the tumults attendant upon the occupation of Granada, on the 17th of April, 1492, the "capitulation" was signed, by the terms of which the queen was to provide the funds for the voyage, and Columbus was to go forth to explore the territory and conquer the inhabitants of the unknown Western world.

Some. historians have asserted, and some have denied, that the queen pledged her jewels for the necessary funds; but certainly she is entitled to all the glory of that adventure, since the prudent Ferdinand looked coldly upon the schemes of the Genoese sailor, and if his advice had been followed he would have been promptly dismissed. It required a lofty faith, a serene confidence in Providence, to embark in such an enterprise, when she may have been already sated with the glory of conquest; and once having pledged her assistance, Isabella never wavered in her pecuniary and moral support. Ten days after the "capitulation" Columbus was at Palos with the royal command for sailors and caravels to be furnished by that port, and by the 1st of August the little expedition dropped down the Rio Tinto and made its final preparations for the long voyage across the Atlantic.

All students of our history know the glorious sequel to this voyage begun under such discouragements: of the discovery of land in the Bahamas in October following; of the meetings with strange copper-coloured people whom Columbus called "Indians"; of the triumphant return of two out of the three caravels that set forth, and the magnificent reception of Columbus by his sovereigns at their royal court in Barcelona. But with his departure from the Spanish coast Columbus temporarily sails out of our ken, and we must return to trace the course of events after the fall of Granada.

Happy should we be to chronicle such events as the preceding, only; to record acts of clemency and magnanimity toward the conquered peoples now absolutely dependent upon Isabella and Ferdinand for their fortunes and their lives. But almost contemporaneously with their arrival at the summit of their power, the Castilian sovereigns committed at least one act which the whole world has regarded with aversion even to the present day. Intent upon the union of the diverse peoples of their extensive kingdom under one religious faith, and perhaps with an eye to the material advantages which might also accrue, they issued an edict of expulsion against the most thrifty and law-abiding inhabitants of Spain, the Jews. These people had long been resident here, had accumulated vast properties, and under the Moors had been exempt from the persecution to which they were subject by the Goths in ancient times and by many of their successors.

Learning that this terrible edict was in contemplation, the wealthier of the Jews offered an immense ransom to be allowed to remain in the enjoyment of their religion and possessions. But while this offer was under advisement by the sovereigns, and when they seemed to incline to mercy, it is said that the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, injected the venom of his depraved nature into the discussion with disastrous effect. Bursting into the royal presence, he exclaimed with fury, as he held aloft a crucifix:

"Judas Iscariot sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Your Highnesses will sell him for thirty thousand. Here he is, take him and barter him away! Saying this, he dashed the crucifix upon the table and darted from the room.

Sad to relate, bigotry triumphed. The mercenary and bloodthirsty schemes of Torquemada were carried out to the full, and more than two hundred thousand stricken Jews were expelled the country, losing homes, wealth, all they possessed, which eventually reverted to the crown through the dastardly work of the Inquisition. This act of the crown, by which Spain lost some of its best subjects, was signed on the 30th of March, 1492; and thus the sovereigns, while at the same time outstretching one hand to grasp a new continent which was to yield them vast treasures yet with the other strangled domestic thrift and trade, and undermined the foundations of the kingdom they had sacrificed so much to consolidate and perpetuate.

The Jews had brought commerce and manufactures, they were skilled agriculturists, some of them learned for their time; the Moors had brought into Spain, or had developed there, a glorious architecture, schools, and colleges, renowned throughout Europe, arts, and even sciences, and had reclaimed from the desert vast areas of waste lands; they had built beautiful cities and towns, castles and palaces, which are the admiration of all who see them today; yet both Jews and Moors were driven from Spain as though they were its deadly enemies. Those who drove them forth were not capable of creating a tithe of what the Moors and Jews had done; to their credit is not one work of art, not one beautiful structure of renown; but they were through force of circumstance and skill at arms the conquerors, and the lives of these vastly superior peoples were at their mercy.

Had they but treated them with leniency, had they encouraged them in their peculiar industries and pursuits, Spain would probably have become the grandest nation in Europe, instead of merely rising to temporary greatness and ultimately sinking to insignificant proportions. As with the Jews, so the Castilian sovereigns dealt with the Moors. Though they had stipulated on oath that they should be protected in the observances of their own religion, yet not long after, urged thereto by the inquisitors of the Holy Office, they broke their sacred pledges and turned them over to their enemies. Many professed to become converted, to escape persecution, but others were driven to rebellion, fled to the mountains and waged a bloody war until overcome by force.

Says a learned historian of that time, when the Inquisition claimed its innocent victims by hundreds and thousands: "Now a scene of persecution and cruelty began which far exceeds in atrocity anything which history has related. Every tie of nature and society was broken, every duty and every relation violated, and torture forced from all alike false accusations, betrayal of friends, confession of impossible crimes; while the actors in these horrible tragedies were shielded by impenetrable secrecy from the revenge of their victims and the detestation of society."

Were it not for such acts as these, and had Isabella and Ferdinand inclined to mercy rather than listened to the advice of bigoted counsellors, their reign might have earned the distinction of being, what many have claimed for it, the greatest that Spain ever knew. They built wisely in many things, they advanced Spain from obscurity to become a power among nations; they earned the love and regard of their Christian subjects by works promoting their welfare; but at the same time they vitiated the good deeds by their barbarous treatment of "heretics."

It is no matter of wonder that an attempt was made on Ferdinand's life, in Catalonia, soon after the capture of Granada, and that even Isabella was not safe from covert attack. Still, they were a well-matched pair, and, from a worldly and contemporary point of view, were all-sufficient to Spain in her time of greatest need. Isabella was calm and lucid in her counsels, inclined to benevolence and mercy where religious questions were not involved, and, as one writer has expressed it, followed after Ferdinand's armies to garner the wheat which he had cut on the fields of war. Ferdinand was crafty, a diplomat whose match all Europe could not then produce. This is shown in his conduct of the Neapolitan wars, when, he outwitted the King of France, and eventually gathered the rewards to himself, adding the title of King of Naples to his other distinctions. "Foreign affairs were conducted by the king in behalf of Aragon, just as colonial affairs were for the benefit of Castile."

They did not lack for learned and astute counsellors, such as Cardinal Mendoza, Torquemada, and Ximenes. The last named, born before his sovereigns, yet outlived them both, and to the end was a faithful, even though bigoted, servant and courtier. Chosen as the queen's confessor in 1492, he was later appointed Archbishop of Toledo, and after Isabella's death became a cardinal, throughout his career remaining loyal to the throne.

Another faithful servant of the Crown was Gonsalvo de Cordova, who fought magnificently against the Moors, and then was sent to carry on the wars in Naples, where Spanish arms were so triumphant that he earned the title of the "Great Captain," and covered Ferdinand's reign with glory.

After the death of Isabella, which occurred on November 26, 1504, Ferdinand's diplomacy continued him in power as regent and sovereign, except for a brief term; and it was to him that Columbus vainly appealed for justice when, weak and broken from his four transatlantic voyages, he came back to endure poverty and neglect.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Fall of Granada  |  Next: When Spain was Great
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.