Columbus had intended to call at some of the smaller islands before beginning his return voyage across the Atlantic; but on the 16th of January there was such a fair wind blowing that he determined not to delay. Through this change of plans he omitted to take in ballast for his ships, and they were very ill provided against the stormy weather which followed. On one island the Spaniards saw some sea-calves, which they took for mermaids; though, as they quaintly said, they were not nearly as beautiful as the long-haired, sweet-voiced fish-women of the stories.
For the first day or two all went well; then, during the rest of January, light, baffling winds blew, and little progress was made. Soon the pilots lost their reckoning, and Columbus would not help them to find it, for he wanted to be the only man who knew the way across the seas.
About the middle of February a terrible storm arose. The Pinta was sailing very badly, for she had sprung her mizzenmast, and Pinzon was forced to let her run before the wind. He signalled to the Admiral as long as he could by means of lanterns, but at last the larger vessel disappeared, and the little Niña was alone on the sea. Great billows lifted her up and dropped her again; every time she fell into the hollow between them it seemed impossible that she should ride the next mountainous wave. She was top-heavy for want of ballast, leaking and strained, and, worst of all, the provisions, except a little bread and some peppers, had been exhausted.
Columbus took what measures he could for the common safety: to steady the Niña he had the empty provision-casks filled with sea-water; and he stayed at the helm himself to see that a steady hand kept the Niña's bows to the waves.
Fearing that none of the sailors would ever reach Spain to tell of his success, he wrote two accounts of the voyage, fastened them up in oiled paper, and enclosed each in a barrel. Thus he thought Ferdinand and Isabella might hear some day of his fortune, and be good to his family for his sake. While the sailors watched him in wonder, he cast one of the barrels into the sea, and placed the other on the poop where it would float if the ship went down.
Then he called his men together and told them to pray to God to bring them safely through this perilous voyage. They made many vows to the saints which they would fulfil if they escaped death. One was that a man should go with a great wax candle in his hand to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. They drew lots for this by putting a bean marked with a cross among others in a bag, and Columbus drew out the marked bean. Another pilgrimage fell to him too, and a third to one of the sailors. Then together they vowed that they would all go in a procession barefoot, and in their shirts, to thank God at the first port they found.
On the 18th of February, after the storm had lasted at its worst for five days, they came in sight of land. This proved to be one of the southern islands of the Azores, which belonged to the Portuguese. Columbus allowed half his men to go ashore to perform their vow, and intended to go with the rest on their return. The men went to a chapel near the shore barefoot and in their shirts as they had vowed; but when they left the building they were surrounded by soldiers, and were told they would not be permitted to return to the ship, but would be taken to prison.
Afterwards a captain and some soldiers were sent out in a boat to seize the Admiral, but dared not venture on board the ship. Columbus threatened the officer with the King of Spain's severe displeasure, but he retorted that the Portuguese did not fear the King of Spain. In spite of the high waves, Columbus was forced to remain at sea for two days, for he could not work the Niña with only half his crew. He was afraid that Spain and Portugal might be at war, and he did not know what to do.
At length another boat put out from the shore with some priests on board, who said that the governor of the island wished to see Columbus' royal instructions. They were at once shown the letters of the Spanish sovereigns, and after a time they declared that the governor had decided to let the ship proceed, and that the sailors would be released. What had led the governor to change his mind the Admiral could not tell, for he was informed by some of the men who had been ashore that the jealous King of Portugal had given orders that the adventurers should be imprisoned if they landed at any of his ports.
Soon after her crew had been restored, the Niña put out to sea. She was driven before the storm for several days, and then came to the coast of Portugal. Though Columbus feared the treatment he might receive from the Portuguese, he dared not proceed farther in such stormy weather, and he anchored at the mouth of the river Tagus. There the governor of a town hard by rowed out to him, and ordered him to get into the boat and give an account of himself.
But when he declared who he was, and from what great quest he had returned, he was treated more courteously, and soon King John himself sent for him and listened eagerly to his story, wondering whether the new lands could not be claimed by Portugal after all. Columbus with calm dignity assured him that the credit and glory of the expedition belonged to the Spanish sovereigns, and, though the King was greedy, he knew the adventurer was too stern a man to frighten. And so, after spending days and nights in fruitless plottings with his counsellors, in the end he was obliged to give up all that once might have been his; for he dared not risk a war with Spain.
Again Columbus set forth, and this time he steered direct for the port of Palos from which he had sailed. All the people came flocking out to meet the ship, and they were rejoiced to see their brothers and sons again. But greater still was the joy at Palos and throughout Spain when tidings came of the rich and beautiful lands that had been discovered. First Columbus' old supporters, among them the prior of the convent, came to him, and congratulated him, and made a great feast in his honour. Then he was led to the city of Seville, which he entered in triumph. Before him walked the Indians whom he had brought back, bearing baskets full of the new gold and wearing gold collars and bracelets. Other men carried specimens of strange plants and animals and brightly coloured birds; and one huge scaly lizard five feet long alarmed the crowd which thronged the streets. Nobles, priests, and merchants vied with each other in doing honour to the discoverer.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella receiving Columbus.
Next he went to Barcelona, where Ferdinand and Isabella were, and marched in a procession to the palace. The King and Queen rose from their thrones when they saw him, begged him to be seated, and heard his story. When they had listened to the end, all stood and sang the Te Deum. For once in his life Columbus found a reward of his labours.
No other man would have had the heroism to steer the ships across the Atlantic Ocean, the cheerfulness which kept up the hearts of his men, nor the watchful care which had brought back every member of his crew alive and well. All Europe resounded with his praises. In England, Henry VII. and his Court declared that the discovery was not man's work: it was a miracle. A letter came from the old student Toscanelli, who was beside himself with joy at finding his belief had proved true. No one knew, however, the true greatness of the adventure. All thought, not that a vast new continent had been found, but that Columbus had reached some islands off the east coast of India. And because the islands had been found by sailing to the west, they were named the West Indies; and this name they keep to this day.
While Columbus was at the height of the royal favour, Martin Pinzon in the Pinta entered the port of Palos. He did not doubt that the Niña had perished in the storm, and that he would bring the first news of success to Spain and be the hero of the voyage. But he heard Columbus' name on every man's lips, and he was very much disappointed. Nevertheless, he sent to Ferdinand and Isabella to tell of his own adventures, and waited anxiously for a reply. When a cold letter came forbidding him to approach the Court, he was so much grieved and dismayed that he became very ill, and after a few days he died. Pinzon was a brave man and a skilful sailor, and had done much for the success of the voyage. He paid dearly enough for his disloyalty to the Admiral.