A. D. 1484-1492
While Ferdinand was fixing his mind on the foolish enterprise of crushing the Moors, a poor sailor was spending his time in trying to attract his attention to a far more sensible undertaking.
This was Christopher Columbus. He was a native of Genoa, the son of a wool-carder; at this time about fifty years old, quite gray and bronzed, as seafaring men are, though his blue eye was still clear, and his skin was fair and ruddy. He had spent all his life at sea, from the time he left the college at Pavia, at the age of fourteen. More than once he had been shipwrecked; once off the coast of Portugal his ship foundered in battle; he leaped into the waves and caught an oar, with the help of which he swam to shore, which was five or six miles distant. But the danger did not prevent his going to sea again as soon as lie could get a ship.
At that time there was a craze for adventure at sea. Within a short period the mariner's compass and the astrolabe, which took the place of our quadrant and sextant, had been invented, and with their help seamen were enabled to make voyages far from land. Thus the coasts of Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia had been explored. But nothing was known of America. Some people supposed that Asia spread over the greater part of the world, and that it was not very far by sea from China and Tartary to Spain. Many mariners believed that by taking ship at any Western port in Europe, and sailing due westward, the eastern shore of Asia could be reached. This was the notion of Christopher Columbus, and he had confirmed himself in the belief by studying the maps of the period, which were drawn chiefly from fancy.
Columbus was in this mind when he settled at Lisbon, in Portugal, and married. For a whole quarter of a century he made voyages of exploration, one after another—sometimes sailing to the Northern Seas, where the ice never melts, and sometimes down to the gold coast of Africa, where snow never falls—all the time keeping wary watch of the tides and currents and winds, of the flight of birds, of the drift of weeds, and of the course of fishes, so as to learn the secrets of the great ocean. To the beautiful islands lying off the coast of Spain and Portugal, Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands, he made many voyages, studying their shores and their waters, and whenever he found a mariner who had sailed out beyond them into the dark blue sea where the sea-weed grows on the top of the water, and blocks the way for ships, he was never tired of questioning hint about what he had seen.
At last he made up his mind, and asked King John, of Portugal, to give hire a vessel or two to, discover the western road to Asia. The king hesitated, consulted his ministers, studied over the maps; then resolving that if there was any discovery to be made he would make it himself, and would leave none of the glory of it for Columbus, he despatched a fleet westward. But the ships presently came back, the captains declaring that they had sailed as far as they dared westward, and had found no land. Columbus heard their report; and, understanding its meaning, slipped privately out of Portugal and took refuge in Spain.
He had no money and no friends. But a good priest, Juan Perez de Marchena, took him up, fed and clothed him, listened to his plans, and gave him a few coins and a letter to the queen's confessor. The confessor was of opinion that Columbus was crazy. The Duke of Medina Sidonia was like-minded; so were other great men at court. Many priests were inclined to suspect that any such discovery as Columbus planned was contrary to the Bible. Still, as the poor, battered old sailor stuck to his plans, and kept pressing them on the court, the king finally appointed a committee of learned men to consider them, and report to him at their leisure. The committee met at Salamanca.
It seems that the committee took six years to make up its mind on the subject. During all this time Columbus—who had with him his little son Diego—was strained to find bread. Sometimes he served as a soldier in the Spanish armies against the Moors. Sometimes he drew maps, at which business he was skilful, and sold them for a few cents. For two years he kept a book-store at Seville, and young men eager for adventures used to gather there to hear him talk of the rolling sea., of the dangers which beset those who go down to the deep in ships, and of the gold and gems which were to be gathered in the dirt of the distant countries where the savages lived.
At last, in 1491, the committee reported that Columbus's scheme was vain and impracticable. The king thought so too; so did most of his ministers; the queen hesitated; only Cardinal Mendoza, of whore you will hear more presently, and one or two other intelligent priests, thought that Columbus should have a chance to try his experiment. For nearly a year, while King Ferdinand with his army lay before the city of Granada, the debate went on, and the big heart of Columbus almost broke from disappointment and delay. At last, just as Granada surrendered, he gave up hope, and, mounting a horse, he rode slowly away from the camp.
He had not gone far when he was overtaken by a messenger from the queen's household, who bade him return. As soon as it became known that he as gone, Queen Isabella called a council, and declared that she was for granting the prayer of Columbus. When she was told that it would cost a great deal of money, and that the royal treasury had been emptied by the Moorish war, this glorious woman replied:
"I will assume the undertaking for my own Crown of Castile; if there is not money enough in the treasury to meet the expense, I will pawn my jewels."
I think you will understand the feelings with which Columbus wrote of this turning-point in his fortunes:
"In the midst of general unbelief, God infused into the Queen, my lady, the spirit of intelligence and energy; while every one else in his ignorance was thinking of the trouble and cost, she approved it and gave it all the help in her power."
In a sheltered cove on the shore of the Mediterranean, near the mouth of the River Tinto, is the little village of Palos, which four hundred years ago was larger than it is now. For some misconduct it had been condemned to furnish two ships for two years to the government service. These two ships were now placed at the service of Columbus; a third his friends agreed to supply. An order from the queen required the merchants of Andalusia to outfit these vessels at cost. To man them, one hundred and twenty men were needed. Adventurous young men from every part of Spain came forward; but to make up the full number of the crew, the government had to exempt volunŽteers from arrest for crime for two months after their return from. the voyage.
In this way the little fleet was manned.
It consisted of three vessels the Santa Maria, which was a large vessel for those days, and was the flag-ship, with Columbus himself in command, and the Pinta and Nina, smaller vessels, but well prepared for the voyage by two ship-builders named Pinzon, who commanded them. The Santa Maria carried sixty-six men, the Pinta thirty, and the Nina twenty-four. All three were provisioned for a year, and were supplied with fire-arms and a large stock of ammunition. Models of these ships, as large as the originals, were at the World's Fair at Chicago.
There was only a glimmer of dawn in the eastern sky when, at three o'clock in the morning of August 3rd, 1492, the fleet weighed anchor and spread sail to a fair wind. The people of Palos were out of bed, watching the sailing of the ships, and at the window of the convent where Columbus had found shelter and hospitality eight years before, his good friend the priest Perez de Marchena stood, with tears streaming down his cheeks, asking a blessing on the enterprise, and waving a white flag.