In the spring succeeding the fall of Granada there came to Spain a glory and renown that made her the envy of all the nations of Europe. During the year before an Italian mariner, Christopher Columbus by name, after long haunting the camp and court of Ferdinand and Isabella, had been sent out with a meagre expedition in the forlorn hope of discovering new lands beyond the seas. In March, 1493, extraordinary tidings spread through the kingdom and reached the ears of the monarchs at their court in Barcelona. The tidings were that the poor and despised mariner had returned to Palos with wonderful tales of the discovery of a vast, rich realm beyond the seas,—a mighty new empire for Spain.
The marvellous news set the whole kingdom wild with joy. The ringing of bells and solemn thanksgivings welcomed Columbus at the port from which he had set sail. On his journey to the king's court his progress was impeded by the multitudes who thronged to see the suddenly famous man, the humble mariner who had discovered for Spain what every one already spoke of as a "New World." With him he brought several of the bronze-hued natives of that far land, dressed in their simple island costume, and decorated, as they passed through the principal pities, with collars, bracelets, and other ornaments of gold. He exhibited, also, gold in dust and in shapeless masses, many new plants, some of them of high medicinal value, several animals never before seen in Europe, and birds whose brilliant plumage attracted glances of delight from all eyes.
It was mid-April when Columbus reached Barcelona. The nobility and knights of the court met him in splendid array and escorted him to the royal presence through the admiring throngs that filled the streets. Ferdinand and Isabella, with their son, Prince John, awaited his arrival seated under a superb canopy of state. On the approach of the discoverer they rose and extended their hands to him to kiss, not suffering him to kneel in homage. Instead, they bade him seat himself before them,—a mark of condescension to a person of his rank unknown before in the haughty court of Castile. He was, at that moment, "the man whom the king delighted to honor," and it was the proudest period in his life when, having proved triumphantly all for which he had so long contended, he was honored as the equal of the proud monarchs of Spain.
At the request of the sovereigns Columbus gave them a brief account of his adventures, in a dignified tone, that warmed with enthusiasm as he proceeded. He described the various tropical islands he had landed upon, spoke with favor of their delightful climate and the fertility of their soil, and exhibited the specimens he had brought as examples of their fruitfulness. He dwelt still more fully upon their wealth in the precious metals, of which he had been assured by the natives, and offered the gold he brought with him as evidence. Lastly, he expatiated on the opportunity offered for the extension of the Christian religion through lands populous with pagans,—a suggestion which appealed strongly to the Spanish heart. When he ceased the king and queen, with all present, threw themselves on their knees and gave thanks to God, while the solemn strains of the Te Deum were poured forth by the choir of the royal chapel.
Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella.
Throughout his residence in Barcelona Columbus continued to receive the most honorable distinction from the Spanish sovereigns. When Ferdinand rode abroad the admiral rode by his side. Isabella, the true promoter of his expedition, treated him with the most gracious consideration. The courtiers, emulating their sovereigns, gave frequent entertainments in his honor, treating him with the punctilious deference usually shown only to a noble of the highest rank. It cannot be said, however, that envy at the high distinction shown this lately obscure and penniless adventurer was quite concealed, and at one of these entertainments is said to have taken place the famous episode of the egg.
A courtier of shallow wit, with the purpose of throwing discredit on the achievement of Columbus, intimated that it was not so great an exploit after all; all that was necessary was to sail west a certain number of days; the lands lay there waiting to be discovered. Were there not other men in Spain, he asked, capable of this?
The response of Columbus was to take an egg and ask those present to make it stand upright on its end. After they had tried and failed he struck the egg on the table, cracking the shell and giving it a base on which to stand.
"But anybody could do that!" cried the critic.
"Yes; and anybody can become a discoverer when once he has been shown the way," retorted Columbus. "It is easy to follow in a known track."
By this time all Europe had heard of the brilliant discovery of the Genoese mariner, and everywhere admiration at his achievement and interest in its results wore manifested. Europe had never been so excited by any single event. The world was found to be larger than had been dreamed of, and it was evident that hundreds of new things remained to be known. Word came to Barcelona that King John of Portugal was equipping a large armament to obtain a share of the new realms in the west, and all haste was made to anticipate this dangerous rival by sending Columbus again to the New World.
On the 25th of September, 1493, he set sail with a gallant armament, which quite threw into the shade his three humble caravels of the year before. It consisted of seventeen vessels, some of them of large size for that day, and fifteen hundred souls, including several persons of rank, and members of the royal household. Many of those that had taken part in the Moorish war, stimulated by the love of adventure, were to win fame in the coming years in the conquest of the alluring realms of the West, and the earliest of these sailed now under the banner of the Great Admiral.
The story of Columbus is too familiar to readers for more to be said of it here. It was one in which the boasted honor of the Spanish court was replaced by injustice and lack of good faith. Envy and malice surrounded the discoverer, and in 1500 he was sent home in chains by an infamous governor. The king, roused by a strong display of public indignation, disavowed the base act of his agent, and received Columbus again with a show of favor, but failed to reinstate him in the office of which he had been unjustly deprived. The discoverer of America died at Valladolid in 1506, giving directions that the fetters which he had once worn, and which he had kept as evidence of Spanish ingratitude, should be buried with him.