Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

The Discovery of America

A.D. 1492-1493

In six days the little fleet reached the Canary Islands, and there it spent nearly a month in refitting. The rudder of the Pinta required mending, and the sails of the Nina were too large. On September 6th the repairs were finished, and the ships sailed westward on the unknown deep.

The crew soon began to see wonders. They sailed into a sea which was full of orange sea-weed floating on the surface, with crabs swimming in the branches. In the air were flocks of boobies, gulls, and petrels. Strange visions appeared before the excited fancy of the sailors, and they began to long to be at home. They became quite discontented after September 23rd, when Martin Pinzon fancied he saw land, and it turned out to be a cloud on the horizon. Columbus never allowed himself to be discouraged, and he kept up the spirit of his men by praying to the saints, and telling stories of the vast treasures the crew would reap when they reached the dominions of the Khan of Tartary. Martin Pinzon was for steering south, where he believed he would find a rich island which he called Cipango, but Columbus insisted on sailing due west, in order to strike the continent of Cathay. Both were kept up by dreams of land which only existed in their imagination.

Early in October objects came floating by which no one could mistake. A branch of a rose-bush with rose-buds on it passed close to the Nina. Then a stick with carving on it was seen. Land could not be far off. A reward of thirty-six dollars in money—to which Columbus added his velvet coat—was offered to him who first saw the shore.

At ten o'clock in the evening of October 11th Columbus thought he saw a light bobbing and flickering in the west, and four hours later a gun was fired from the Pinta, to signify that land was iii sight. The crews could hardly contain themselves till morning. When the sun rose they saw that they had found land in reality—a white sandy beach with clumps of palms and other trees in the back-ground, very refreshing to the eye of the tired sailors. Columbus and his officers landed in their most gorgeous apparel, and after returning thanks to God on their bended knees, planted the cross and the flag of Spain on the beach, to signify that these regions henceforth belonged to the Spanish king.

A number of natives, wearing no clothes, came down to meet them, and said that the island was called Guanahani. Columbus called it San Salvador. For a long time it was supposed to be the island which is marked as Cat Island on the maps. But now it is believed to be Watling Island, one of the Bahamas, a coral rock on which the winds have deposited a little soil, and trees have grown from seeds blown from other islands. Columbus stayed there several days, exchanging glass beads for balls of cotton, rolls of tobacco, and little rings of gold, which the natives wore in their noses. Then he sailed to other islands near by, sonic of which were more beautiful than San Salvador in their rich tropical foliage and their bright clear waters.

On their shores he found curious fish, pink, and silver, and striped, with yellow fins, hog-fish, purple and scarlet fish, flying fish, and whales; strange monstrous crabs, queer lizards and iguanas, with rows of white teeth and sharp claws; and in the woods a variety of parrots and birds of brilliant plumage, flying and singing over meadows in which flowers and fruit perfumed the air, He found one thing which was worth more than all the rest—the potato. But Columbus had not sailed across the ocean to see pretty birds, or strange fish, or green lizards, or flowers, or even potatoes. He wanted gold, and that he had not found. The natives told him that there was an abundance of gold and pearls too in the island of Cuba; therefore he weighed anchor, and to Cuba he went.


Vision on the Voyage.

This island, again, he said, was the fairest ever seen by the eye of man, with great tall palms and giant trees full of singing birds, and fields planted with corn and sweet-potatoes. Ile found here guinea-pigs and musk-deer and a queer fish, called a coffer-fish, which wore a coat of mail from its head to its tail; likewise sugar-cane, bananas, cocoanuts, and cassava, out of which they made bread. But no gold.

The natives said he must go farther on—to the island which Columbus called Hispaniola, his successors named San Domingo, and of which one end is now called Hayti, and the other end Dominica.

Here again he found a lovely country, spreading trees, in which nightingales sang, and a great abundance of fish in the waters round the island. He also bought from the natives, in exchange for beads and cloth, a few plates of gold, not many nor large of their kind. But the native chief told Columbus that if it was gold he wanted he could show him a place where he could load his ships with it, only it was a little farther on. There were whole mountains of gold a few days' sail farther west. Columbus said he would see those mountains.

But on Christmas Eve, as the Santa Maria was sailing round an island, Columbus and his helmsman fell asleep, and their vessel ran on a sand bank, where the cruel waves battered the life out of her on the bottom. The Pinta was cruising on her own account; and nothing remained of the fleet but the little Nina. With her Columbus tried to find his way to the islands with the mountains of gold. But his men were anxious to see their homes, and to tell of the new world they had found. Forty-two of them, who were willing to stay in the new country, Columbus planted in a fort which he built at a place he christened Navidad, in Hispaniola; with the rest, and a few natives who were anxious to see the world, on January 4th, 1493, he started homeward in the Nina.

It was a dreadful voyage. After the expedition had been a fortnight at sea the provisions gave out, and the crew had to live on the flesh of tunnies and sharks which they caught. Then a storm overtook them, and though Columbus on his knees agreed to carry a candle to our Lady of Guadaloupe, and to undertake a pilgrimage to Saint Clara's shrine; though the entire crew vowed to walk barefoot and in their shirts to offer thanks for their rescue at the first church they found—if they ever found a church again—the little Nina nevertheless came very near foundering with all on board.

Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella a touching account of his distress:


The landing of Columbus.

"Above all," he said, "my sorrows were multiplied when I thought of my two sons at Cordova, at school, left destitute of friends in a strange land before I was known to have performed such service that your Majesties might be inclined to relieve them."

Happily the wind moderated, and after much further buffeting by the waves the Nina managed to cast anchor off the Portuguese island of Santa Maria, and to land her men to fulfil their vow. The Portuguese governor was for holding them as prisoners, on the ground that they had made discoveries which should by right have been made by King John of Portugal. But Columbus swore a great oath that if one of the Nina's crew was touched he would sweep every living creature off the island, and the Nina sailed without further interference.

Her troubles were not ended, however; for no sooner had she got fairly to sea again than the tempest rose once more, her sails were torn from the masts, and the little craft, helpless as a cork on the top of the waves, was dashed hither and thither in a mighty sea, with high winds, a deluge of rain, and constant thunder and lightning. Once more Columbus vowed to go on a pilgrimage to our Lady of La Cinta in his shirt and barefoot, and he had hardly taken the vow when the land appeared over the weather bow, and a tremendous succession of high seas carried the Nina into the mouth of the river Tagus.

King John's first idea was to lock up Columbus in prison. He could not forgive himself for having been so stupid as to let the glory of the discovery slip through his fingers and go to Ferdinand and Isabella. But by this time the discoverer had landed, the people of Lisbon had seen the Indians and the gold, everybody was in the wildest excitement, Columbus was the hero of the hour, and there would have been trouble if he had been molested. So King John put the best face on the matter, smothered his disappointment, invited Columbus to court, and bade him sit by his side with his hat on his head.

When a man was allowed to sit by King John with his hat on his head people understood that he was somebody quite out of the common run. But when the great lords of Portugal heard the story which Columbus had to tell, and his account of the splendid countries he had seized for Spain, and when they remembered that the Pope had given all these countries to Portugal, they declared that such things could not be endured, Columbus must be killed, and a fleet sent out to rediscover the islands on which he had landed.

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