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

The Death of Columbus

A.D. 1498-1506

Again, in 1498, Columbus crossed the Atlantic, having found places for his two soils as pages of Queen Isabella. This time he first sighted a three-pronged island, to which he gave the name of Trinidad; he sailed along the coast of the country we call Venezuela, which forms part of the continent of South America; likewise the shore of Central America, where he found gold mines, from which he got nuggets. One of the places he saw was so beautiful that he felt sure that it was the garden of Paradise, where Adam and Eve lived.

In these voyages and travels he collected gold and pearls, which he set aside for his good friend Isabella; but when he returned to his city in Hispaniola., he found everything in disorder. You remember that on his last voyage he had to man his ships with the refuse of the jails. This refuse no sooner found itself in freedom in a lovely climate in a country abounding in food and inhabited by a helpless people, than it broke loose from all restraint, and fell to robbing, murdering, and outraging the natives. A rebellion against Columbus was headed by a horrible wretch, named Roldan, who, strange to say, had been appointed chief-justice.

In the mean time, in Spain, the archdeacon had never ceased to intrigue against Columbus, to tell false stories about him, and to try to undermine him in the opinion of the king and queen. He could the more easily do this as Queen Isabella's faith in him was beginning to be somewhat shaken. She had distinctly forbidden the enslavement of the Indians; in spite of which five ship-loads of them—men and women, boys and girls—had arrived in Spain for sale. The queen set them free, and sharply rebuked the captains of the ships which had brought them. She thought Columbus should have prevented this. So when the archdeacon murmured that it was high time some one took Columbus's place in the New World she at first demurred, then hesitated, and at last consented; a hectoring, bullying soldier named Bobadilla was despatched to Hispaniola.


The front of a Spanish Church.

This man no sooner landed than he trumped up charges against Columbus, and, before any trial, seized him, and though he was ill in health and broken in spirit, clapped him in irons and thrust him into a dungeon. Chains were riveted round his ankles and his wrists, and he was compelled to sleep on the cold stones of the prison, where his teeth could be heard chattering half the night. His two brothers were also seized and jailed by his side. Then, after a pretended inquiry into the facts, Bobadilla ordered Columbus on board ship, ironed as he was, and sent him off to Spain. When he landed, the king and queen promptly set him at liberty, gave him money, and soothed him with kind words. It is said that when Isabella saw him, with his bent back, his snow-white head, and his tottering step, she burst into tears.

She recalled Bobadilla. He, taking ship for Spain in company with Chief-justice Holdall, was wrecked and drowned on the way, and so there was an end of him. But the queen did not forgive the slavery business. The governorship of Hispaniola did not go back to the old admiral, but went to a friend of the archdeacon's—Ovando by name. It was not till May, 1502, after two years' idleness, that Columbus got leave to revisit the world he had found.

When he reached Hispaniola he found that he was nobody. Ovando was supreme, and his officers paid scant respect to the old admiral. He was given a couple of ships, and allowed to go on exploring as before. He reached the coast of Central America, and kept wandering up and down in search of a strait or passage to Asia. I need not tell you he found none. He found natives of various races, some of whom were at first friendly, but who rose in wrath and fury when the Spaniards misbehaved. The season was stormy, and Columbus more than once narrowly escaped shipwreck. Once or twice, when he found a place where he could land, he and his men went ashore, and nearly perished from hunger. Ovando let a whole year pass without sending them any provisions.

Returning to Hispaniola, Columbus demanded his share of the products of his discovery, according to the terms of his contract with the king and queen. Ovando would not let him have a ducat. Thus, in his old age, after all his toil and its splendid results, he found himself penniless and houseless. He begged to be sent home. Ovando gave him a ship which was leaky, which lost her masts and nearly went to the bottom in a storm. He shifted to another, which kept afloat, but was so slow that he was fifty-eight days reaching the mouth of the Guadalquivir. He was unable to walk when he arrived; his men carried him ashore, and in a litter the battered and bruised old veteran was conveyed to Seville to die.

Misfortune had laid a heavy hand on him. Less than three weeks after his arrival his good and stanch friend Isabella died. Her husband, Ferdinand, looked upon the New World as a place to get money out of, and neither cared how he got it., nor felt any gratitude to him who had enabled him to get it. At the time Columbus returned from his fourth and last voyage, Spain was receiving about half a million dollars (of our money) from the West Indies each year. One-eighth or one-tenth of this belonged to Columbus, under the bargain he had made with Ferdinand and Isabella. They had not paid him a dollar, and now when he wrote to Ferdinand to say that he had not money enough to pay his bill at the inn at Seville, the king not only sent him nothing, but would not even answer his letter. Columbus persisted, even had himself carried into the king's presence, followed him from Granada to Segovia, and from Segovia to Valladolid, but Ferdinand was cold and immovable.


Death-bed of Queen Isabel.

"It appears," said the dying old admiral, "that his majesty does not see fit to fulfil that which he and the queen (who is now in glory) promised me by word and seal. For me to contend with him would be to contend against the wind."

He had a flicker of hope when the Archduke Charles, who married the Princess Juana., sent him word that he took the greatest interest in his discoveries. But Charles had other things to think of, and the old sailor gradually gave up the struggle.

His infirmities were pressing on him cruelly, and his pains were severe. He had found a resting-place in a small bare room, without carpet or curtains, in a mean inn at Valladolid, where hardly any one knew who or what he had been. His sons and one or two of their friends were with him, and a good Franciscan monk clothed him in a robe of the brotherhood. There he watched the approach of death. When he felt it come, on May 20th, 1506, he cried, "Lord, into thy hands I commend my soul!" and died.

When it was announced that Columbus was dead, King Ferdinand knew that he would worry him no more, and he ordered a splendid funeral. Seven years afterwards the admiral's body was removed to Seville: twenty-three years after that it was again removed to the cathedral at San Domingo, in Hispaniola. Nearly a hundred years ago, the Spaniards took from the cathedral at San Domingo a casket, which, as they believed, contained the remains of Columbus, and reburied it in the cathedral at Havana. But it seems doubtful whether they removed the right casket. It is now said that the one which was carried to Havana contained the body of some priest.

Wherever his mortal remains lie, his fame fills the world, and his family received honors which were denied to its founder. His son succeeded to his title of admiral and viceroy, and married the sister of the great Duke of Alva, of whom you will presently hear. His brother was given a high command in the New World. The family became one of the most considerable in Spain; one branch married into the reigning family of Portugal; the head of another branch married the Infanta Eulalia, and lately visited this country on the occasion of the World's Fair at Chicago.

You will, of course, agree with the Spanish grandee who said that if Columbus had not discovered America somebody else would. But you will perceive that so much may be said of all discoveries. The glory of a discoverer is none the less because some one else might have won it if he had been in time. When Columbus started out on his westward voyage the wisest men of his day said that the enterprise was foolhardy, and that its chief was a maniac. As you have read, it took eight years to convince the Spanish court that the experiment was worth trying. A man who perseveres against such obstacles, and whose efforts are crowned with success, you will always consider one of the heroes of whom the world must be proud.

When Columbus had made his landing on this hemisphere, on October 12th, 1492, other discoverers followed. John Cabot landed in Labrador on June 24th, 1497, Sebastian Cabot coasted along the shore of the Atlantic States in 1498—the year in which the Portuguese, Vasco de Gama, rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Amerigo Vespucci, after whom this continent is named, discovered the coast of Brazil between 1501 and 1503. There would have been more explorers, especially under the English flag, had it not been for the decree of the pope awarding all America to Spain. To explore in the face of that decree meant to make war on Spain, and England was not ready yet. So it came about that for the better part of a century after Columbus no explorers came to this continent except under the Spanish flag.

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