Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

How a Man Tried to Reach the East
by Sailing West

It is the month of February, 1492. The skies are mild, the flowers in bloom, and the birds are singing in the orange gardens of the Alhambra, in the old town of Granada. Notwithstanding this joy and gladness in nature, there is one man in Granada who has no heart to enjoy it, for he has just seen a great hope, one which he has cherished many years, go down, never to rise again, so far as he can see. He comes out from the Alhambra—leaving its magnificent colonnades, its bubbling fountains, its beautiful gardens, never expecting again to behold them—mounts a male, rides out through the narrow streets, through the city gate, with his head bowed upon his breast. He is a gray-bearded man, and time is deepening the furrows in his forehead, and on this day they are deeper than ever. He has a proud spirit, and it is hard to bear the great disappointment that has come to him. In bitterness of spirit, he rides away.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


He is a sailor, and has conceived the idea that by sailing west he can reach the east. He believes that the earth is round, although nearly everybody else says that it is flat. The sailor was born in Genoa, where, when he was a boy, he helped his father comb wool. He went to school in Pavia, and studied Latin, geometry, astronomy, and navigation. When he was only fourteen years old, he went to sea with his uncle, and was in a battle with some Venetian ships. Then he sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, coasted along Africa as far south as Guiana. Once, off the coast of Portugal, he had a terrible fight with a Venetian ship. He was a captain then. Both of the ships were set on fire, and he saved himself by swimming two miles to the shore. It was a fortunate escape, however, for an old sea captain, who had a beautiful daughter, befriended him, and the daughter became his wife.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Those were delightful days. Lisbon was a royal city. It had a strong old castle, built of stone—the Castle of Belem—and a castle on a hill overlooking the town. Every day there were processions of priests in the streets, carrying banners and crosses.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The old captain had made many voyages to the Canary Islands. He did not believe the stories told about the unknown sea far away to the west of the islands—that it was boiling-hot, nor that the great continent Atlantis which Plato wrote about had disappeared beneath the waves. It was from talking with his wife's father that the gray-bearded man had come to believe that by sailing west he could reach the Indies. He remembered that the old Carthaginians maintained that there were green islands in the west. He had read that St. Brandon, a priest of Scotland, eight hundred years before, had been swept by a storm far away to the west, and had landed in a strange country. He was informed that Martin Vincent, a sailor of Lisbon, when he was four hundred miles from land, on a voyage to the Canary Islands, once picked up a piece of wood curiously carved, which the winds had drifted from the west. Reeds like those brought from India had floated to the shores of Portugal, and the bodies of two men unlike any other human beings had been seen in the water by sailors when far from land. From whence came they?

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Fired with enthusiasm, the sailor went to the king, John of Portugal, with his project, and made it so plain that the earth was round, that China (which Marco Polo had visited) could be reached by sailing west, that the king in part believed it. But would not great glory, honor, and advantage come from such a discovery? Certainly; and the king determined to secure whatever benefit might come from it. He was not a high-minded man, and, after getting all the information he could from the sailor, sent out a ship secretly to make discoveries; but the sailors, after a few days, became frightened at finding themselves so far from land, and returned, saying that there was no land in that direction. "You can't reach the east by sailing west," they said.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Those were dark days to the brave sailor. The king had acted perfidiously, and now his wife died. He could no longer stay in Lisbon, but took his little boy, Diego, and gent home to his native city (Genoa), for he thought perhaps his townsmen would help him; but they laughed at him instead.

"Reach the Indies by sailing west?"


"You are crazy."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


So he can get no help from those who know him best. He has a brother in Spain; he will go and visit him. He lands with his son Diego at Palos. His brother lives in the country. He is too poor to hire a mule, and the sailor, with his pack on his back, leading Diego, goes out over the dusty road on foot. He comes to the convent La Rabiada. Diego is hungry, for he has had little to eat. Surely the good fathers will give him a crust of bread and a drink of water. He knocks at the gate. The porter answers the knock, and goes to get a bit of bread, and while he is gone Father Perez, the prior of the convent, who has been out for a walk, comes up. He wears a broad-brimmed hat, and has a red cross embroidered on his robe. He is a good luau, and hears the sailor's story.

"Reach India by sailing west?"


[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"That is an idea worth thinking about. You must spend the night with me. I have a learned friend, Doctor Fernandez. I will ask him to come in and spend the evening."

So the sailor and Diego got a good supper; and Father Perez and Doctor Fernandez listen to the sailor's story, and are greatly pleased with what he has to say. Father Perez gives him a letter of introduction, as we have already seen, to Father Talavera, who is Queen Isabella's confessor, and who has great influence at court. He is one of the men who ask questions. The sailor must go and see him, and he will introduce him to the king and queen. Meanwhile, Diego can stay at the convent and attend school. This is in 1486.

The sailor leaves Diego with his good friend, and hastens to Cordova, where King Ferdinand is commanding a great army. All the nobles of Spain are there, and squadrons are marching to drive the Moors out of the' country. The sailor delivers ins letter to Father Talavera; but the queen's confessor cannot stop to notice a poor sailor, even though he comes with a letter from his friend, Father Perez; nor has the king any time to listen to his story. The army moves away, and the sailor, to keep himself from starvation, draws maps and charts, which he sells in Cordova.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The days are very dark now. No money, and starvation before him. But he finds another friend, Cardinal Mendoza, who has great influence with the king. Having married Isabella, and made Castile and Aragon a united country, Ferdinand is planning new enterprises. He covets the kingdom of Navarre, in the Pyrenees. He will seize that by-and-by, and so rob Catherine de Foix of her dominion. But just now he is sitting by the gurgling fountains. The cardinal goes to the king.

"I have made the acquaintance of a sailor who has a grand project to lay before your Majesty."

"What is it?"

"To reach the east by sailing west."

"Oh yes, I remember Father Talavera said something about it some time ago."

He is no ordinary man. I have listened to his story with great interest: his project seems reasonable."

"I will direct Father Talavera to call a council of learned men to investigate the matter."

The council meets in the Convent of St. Stephen, in Salamanca. There are bishops, archbishops, and learned doctors from the universities, in the assembly, who hear what the sailor has to say.

"Do you mean to say that you can reach the east by going west?"


"It is a preposterous idea."

"But the ancient geographer Ptolemy, and the learned men of his time, maintained that the earth was round; and if it is round, does it not stand to reason that we can reach India by sailing west?"

"No. To say that the earth is round is contrary to the Bible, which says, in the Psalms, that the heavens are stretched out like a tent. Of course it must be flat."

"The sun and moon are round, as we see; why not the earth?" the sailor replies.

"If the earth is a ball, what holds it up?" the cardinal inquires.

"We might ask what holds the sun and moon up," is the sailor's answer.

"The idea that the earth is round is absurd. How can men walk with their heads hanging down and their feet upward, like flies on a ceiling?" asks a learned doctor.

"How can trees grow with their roots in the air?" interposes another.

"The water would all run out of the ponds, and we should all fall off," says still another.

So the wise doctors reason.

"The idea is based on a false philosophy, and to say that the earth is round is heresy," says one.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


That is their decision. Heresy! It is an ominous word. The men who ask questions make short work with heretics. The sailor must be careful about his belief. If he maintains that the world is round, when the doctors say it is flat, it will be worse for him.

Seven years pass. The sailor is growing old, but he has not given up his belief that he can reach India by sailing west. He has waited for Ferdinand and Isabella to drive the Moors from Spain. They have succeeded—have taken the last stronghold, Granada, and are now in the grand and beautiful Alhambra, with their little girl Katherine, who is four years old. They sit by the gurgling fountains, walk amidst the orange-groves, and stroll along the corridors where the Moorish kings have lived in luxuriance and pride. The sailor has thought, now that the war is over, Ferdinand and Isabella would aid him. Vain hope; he has had his last interview with them. The queen was almost persuaded to help him, but has at last declined. Never again will he trouble her. He is riding away, turning his back forever on Spain.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Have you seen a man on a mule—a gray-bearded man—pass out of the gate?"

A horseman asks the question of the soldier guarding the entrance to the city.

"Yes; there he is, away on the plain," says the sentinel, pointing to the retreating form.

The horseman sees a little speck far away, strikes the spurs into the sides of the horse, and flies like the wind along the road.


The sailor reins in his mule.

"The queen has sent me to ask yon to return."

Christopher Columbus turns once more to the city, and with him turns the world. It was Luis St. Angel, one of Columbus's friends, who saw hint ride away so downhearted, who hastened to the queen to persuade her to call him back.

"Think how great the gain may be, at a trifling expense, if what the sailor believes should prove true," said the earnest man.

"It shall be done. I will undertake. I will pledge my jewels to raise the money. Call him back."

So the horseman rides after him. He goes back to the grand palace to hold one more interview with the king and queen. Perhaps, while they are turning over the project, he plays with the little girl Katherine, taking her in his arms, maybe, and telling her a story. Let us keep Katherine in remembrance, for we shall see her by-and-by.

All things are arranged. It is the 3rd of August. Three little ships lie at anchor in the harbor of Palos. They are little larger than fishing-boats, and only the largest has a deck in the centre. The other two are built high, with decks at stem and stern, but open in the centre. There is a commotion on shipboard and on the shore. A great crowd has assembled, for the ships are about to sail away where ships never yet have sailed, over unknown seas—over that sea where the waves are boiling-hot. The sailors are loath to go. No one knows what dangers await them—what storms, what whirlpools, what mysterious agencies may destroy them. The admiral of the little fleet (the gray-bearded sailor, Christopher Columbus) says that the world is round; if so, how will they ever be able to return? Can a ship sail uphill? The sailors have not volunteered to go, but have been forced into service by the king. On the shore their friends are weeping and lamenting their departure. Never again will they behold them. The vessels are the Santa Maria, with the admiral's flag flying above it; the Pinta, commanded by Alonzo Pinzon; and the Nina, commanded by Yanez Pinzon.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Columbus's ever-faithful friend, the good prior of La Rabiada, stands upon the deck of the Santa Maria to bestow his blessing. The last good-bye is spoken, the anchors are raised, the sails spread, and the vessels sail away, shaping their course toward the Canaries.

On the third day the Pinta's signal of distress is flying; her rudder is unhung and broken, but Captain Alonzo Pinzon is an able seaman, and secures it with ropes until the Canary Islands are reached, when a new rudder is obtained.

On Saturday, the 6th of September, the three vessels turn their prows westward. On Sunday morning they are still within sight of land; but a fresh breeze springs up, and soon the last glimpse fades away.

The sailors would be brave in a battle, but now they give way to their fears. The apprehension of experiencing something which no man has ever experienced—something strange and terrible—causes their cheeks to whiten and their eyes to fill with tears.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The admiral calms them by his description of India—a land abounding with gold and silver and precious stones, which they will surely visit..

Monday morning conies, and they discover the mast of a vessel floating in the sea, which is covered with sea-weed, and has been a long time in the water. The sailors give way to their lamentations. They too, surely, will be shipwrecked.

On the 13th of September the ships are two hundred miles west of the Canaries. Columbus notices, in the evening, that the compass no longer points to the north star, but has changed five degrees to the west. 'What is the meaning of it? Is the guide to which they have always trusted to fail them now? He knows that the sun and moon are globes; he believes that the earth also is a globe; but he does not know that the earth turns on its axis every twenty-four hours—so bringing day and night. Such an idea has not yet dawned upon the mind of any man. There is a young man, however, up in Poland, Nikolaus Kopernik, nineteen years old, who is studying astronomy, and who a few years hence will propound the startling theory that the apparent movement of the sun around the earth is in reality the earth turning on its axis every twenty-four hours.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


There is also a man in Pisa—the city in which there is a wonderful leaning tower—Galileo, who is studying the heavens. He is twenty-seven years old; and a few years hence he will construct a tube with glasses in it which will bring the stars and planets so near to the earth that he will see that several moons are clustered around Jupiter—that they change their positions from day to clay.

But Christopher Columbus knows nothing of this; he sees only that his compass is failing him. The sailors behold it with terror; but he quiets their fears by saying that the north star is not exactly north.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


On, day after day, they sail. Birds hover around the ships. The water is full of sea-weed. By the 1st of October they have sailed twenty-three hundred miles—though the reckoning which Columbus shows to the sailors makes it only seventeen hundred miles.

The wind blows steadily from the east; but the sailors, seeing bow far they have come, fear that with the wind blowing steadily in one direction they never will be able to return. They are all but ready to mutiny; but Columbus quiets them, and offers to give twenty-five dollars to the man who first discovers land. Now all eyes are turned toward the west.


A sailor shouts it. All heart's beat more quickly, but the sailor is mistaken: no land is to be seen, and the enthusiasm is followed by despondency. They murmur once more.

"We are not far from land. We shall soon discover it," says Columbus. "See! there is a bush with berries on it."

They pick up a shrub floating in the sea. Sure enough there are berries on it. That did not grow in the sea.

"These are land birds," says Columbus, pointing to birds that hover around the vessels.

"Look there! A piece of wood. That did not grow in the sea."

They pick up the wood. "What! it is carted. These are marks of tools. It is not part of a vessel. It did not come from a ship. No ship ever sailed here. There must be land ahead."

At sunset the crew kneel upon the deck, and chant the vesper-hymn,

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


It is sixty-seven days since they left Palos. Columbus has calculated that it is three thousand miles from Spain to China, and he has sailed almost that far. He knows from the birds around him, by the change in the temperature of the atmosphere, that he cannot be far from land. Once only has he changed his course, and that to the south-west, following the birds which fly in that direction. Ten o'clock. What is that? A light! There it is—far away. A moment he sees it. It is gone. There it is again.

Two o'clock in the morning, October 12th—hour most memorable! Hoderigo de Friana is on the lookout at the mast-head of the Pinta. What is that? It cannot be a bank of cloud, for the stars are brightly shining.

"Land! Land! Land!"

There is a commotion on shipboard.


"There—there. Don't you see it?"

"Land! Land! Land!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The cannon are fired. No echoes like those ever before were awakened along the shores of the Bahama Isles. Day dawns.

There it is, a green and sunny isle—an earthly paradise—green trees, fragrant flowers, myriads of birds, groups of men, women, and children, gazing in wonder upon the ships.

The sailors who have been so faint-hearted, so ready to mutiny, throw themselves upon the deck and beg Columbus to forgive them. The anchors are dropped and the boats lowered. The banner of Spain is unfurled, and Columbus, in a scarlet robe, wearing his sword, approaches the shore. He steps from the boat, kneels, and with clasped hands gives thanks to God, and then with imposing ceremonies takes possession of the land in the name of the king and queen, and names it San Salvador. The natives gather around, wondering at what they see. From whence came these beings? From the clouds? Or did they rise from the sea? They accept with delight the trinkets which Columbus gives them. They throw themselves into the water and swim out to the ships, climb the sides, and gaze in astonishment at what they behold. When the cannon are fired, they fall on their faces. To them it is lightning and thunder. They bring fruits (bananas and yams and oranges), and birds of bright plumage (parrots and other birds), and give them to the sailors. They wear pieces of gold attached to their ears, which they give in exchange for little tinkling bells. The Spaniards are eager to obtain gold.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Where did you get it?" they ask, by signs, and the Indians point toward the west. The sailors can see other islands lying along the horizon, and they enter the ships and sail away, carrying seven of the Indians, who willingly go with them.

They visit island after island, gazing in wonder and delight at the ever-changing but beautiful panorama. The mountains are clothed with tropical verdure. There are myriads of bright-hued flowers, climbing vines, groves of palm and cocoa. The sea breaks on pebbled beaches, the skies are mild, the air balmy and resonant with the songs of birds such as they never before have seen. They have found paradise.

They come to an island larger than the others, where rivers of sweet waters descend from the mountains. They go up a placid stream in their boats, beholding everywhere new beauties.

"I could live here forever," says Columbus. The natives call this island Cuba. He returns to the ship and coasts for three days along the shores, believing that he has reached India.

The Indians bring them a fruit which grows in the ground, which they roast in a bed of hot ashes, and which is sweet and nutritious. "What do you call it?" the sailors ask, by signs.


[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


This is the first eating of potatoes by Europeans.

The Indians roll up a dry leaf of a plant which bears a beautiful pink flower, light one end and inhale the smoke at the other end, puffing it from their mouth and nostrils.

"To-bac-co," say they.

The sailors try it, and are made sick at first, but soon enjoy it. From Cuba the vessels sail to an island which the Indians call Hayti, but which Columbus calls Hispaniola. He lands, and beneath the giant forest trees rears a cross and plants the standard of Spain. Thousands of parrots chatter around them, humming-birds dart swiftly through the air, and flamingoes stalk along the shore.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The sailors capture an Indian girl, but Columbus treats her kindly, and she is delighted with the necklace of little bells which he gives her. One of the vessels strikes upon a rock and is wrecked, but the sailors take the goods on shore. Through the Indian girl, Columbus induces the natives to return from the forest into which they have fled. They are simple-hearted, kind, and honest; nor do they steal any of the goods. "They love their neighbors as themselves," writes Columbus in his journal.

The chief gets up a grand banquet of fish, fruits, and potatoes; and, after the feast, the natives have a dance. Columbus, in turn, orders the sailors to go through military evolutions. The Indians gaze in admiration upon the bright swords gleaming in the sunshine, but fall to the ground in terror when a cannon is fired. Columbus builds a fort, and leaves a garrison to hold it, and sails for Spain. He reaches the Azores, but, soon after leaving those islands, a great storm comes on, and the ships are separated. He fears that all will be lost; but, on the 4th of March, he drops anchor at the mouth of the river Tagus, ten miles from Lisbon; and on the 15th of March he sails into the harbor of Palos.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


What a commotion there is!

"Christopher Columbus has come!"

The cry runs over the town. Every boat is launched, and the rowers pull with all their might, to be the first to reach the ship.

"A new world is discovered!" The bells ring, cannon thunder, bonfires blaze. It is not a fiction, for there are the Indians—six of them—and parrots, flamingoes, rolls of Indian cloth, bananas, potatoes, gold! The news goes from house to house. Everybody rejoices over the wonderful intelligence.

It is a triumphal march which Columbus makes to Barcelona—six hundred miles—to pay his respects to Ferdinand and Isabella. He goes as a conqueror, noblemen accompanying him. People come from afar to see him, to gaze upon the Indians and the parrots.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The king and queen receive Columbus in great state, and take delight in honoring him. And why should they not? Has he not given them a new empire? But the doctors who ridiculed him at Salamanca are envious. It is not pleasant to have all their fine theories upset, and to feel that they have made fools of themselves. Besides, this adventurer is an Italian; and they do not like to think that an Italian, and not a Spaniard, is the discoverer of a new world. The Grand Cardinal invites Columbus to a dinner. The great doctors are there. One is so envious that he cannot restrain himself from giving Columbus a little stab.

"Do you think that there is no man in Spain capable of making the discovery?" he asks.

Columbus replies by asking a question:

"Is there any one at the table who can make an egg stand on end?" They try, but all fail.

"Can you do it?"


He breaks the shell at the end, and the egg stands.

"That is the way to do it."

"Anybody can do that."

"So anybody can go to the new land, now that I have discovered it."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Very soon Columbus is sailing west again, this time with twelve ships and twelve hundred men. Thousands want to go. They take horses, pigs, cattle, and dogs, for these animals are not found in the new world. Twelve priests go to convert the Indians to the Catholic faith. He comes to the colony, but no one is there. They find skulls, bones, decayed bodies, ruins. Those whom he left quarrelled among themselves, then separated and lived with the Indians. A powerful tribe came down one day from the mountains and killed every Spaniard, and a great many of the coast Indians. He leaves a second colony, and sails away to the west in search of new lands, and discovers the island of Jamaica. He finds no mountains of gold, and the adventurers are disappointed. Sickness breaks out; their provisions fail. Some of the ships turn back to Spain. Many of those who are with him are young noblemen, who, because they do not find gold, denounce Columbus as a deceiver; but he sails on, discovers new lands, and then returns to Spain. The nobles are so jealous of him that two years pass before he can get ready for another voyage. He sails once more, steering farther south, and, after sailing thirty-eight days, discovers an island with three mountain peaks, which he calls "The Trinity;" and just beyond he beholds the main-land, South America, and sails many miles along the coast. This is in 1498.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


He is Governor of the New World. The only settlement is that in Hayti; but the grandees are so jealous that they cannot bear to have an Italian over them. They accuse him to the king falsely, invent lies, till the king is persuaded to supersede him, and send out a vain, pompous, cruel man—Bobadilla—to be governor, who arrests Columbus, puts him in prison, rivets fetters upon his ankles, and sends him to Spain.

The captain of the ship is indignant at such treatment of the noble hearted sailor.

"I will strike off the irons," he says.

"No; the king commanded me to submit to whatever Bobadilla should order in his name. I will not remove them. I will wear them, and keep them as memorials of my reward!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


In irons he is taken to Cadiz.

"Shame! shame!"

The people shout it., and the king strikes off the fetters.

Once more Columbus sails. He is an old man now; his beard is white, and he is not so strong as he was. He stops at Hayti, and then sails west through the Caribbean Sea, skirting the main-land, seeking ever to find a passage to India. He lands at a place where there is a delicious spring of water, and which to this day is called Columbus's Spring. His vessels are driven ashore in a storm. He is taken sick. The Indians are hostile. He needs provisions, but cannot get them from the Indians, who are planning to attack the strangers. He must make them supply him with food. He understands astronomy, and knows that the moon will

soon be eclipsed. The Indians are superstitious, and he sends this word to the chiefs:

"The Great Spirit is offended with you, because you will not supply me with provisions."

The Indians laugh at the message.

"You will see the moon fade away. The Great Spirit will cover it up and make it all dark."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


They laugh again. Night comes, and the full moon rises, round and red; but soon the Indians see a shadow creeping over it, beginning at one side.

"A dragon is eating it up!" they cry, and throw themselves upon the ground in terror.

"The Great Spirit will pardon you, and give you back the moon, if you bring me provisions."

"We will bring them."

They come with baskets filled with yams and potatoes and fruits. So he obtains provisions, but his vessels are driven ashore in a storm, and he must die there unless a vessel shall perchance sail along the coast.

One day the sailors see two specks far away, and soon discover that they are two vessels. A fire is kindled, and those on board the ships, attracted by the smoke, sail along the shore and discover those whom they are seeking. So Columbus and his fellow-sailors are rescued from death.

Twelve years have passed since Columbus discovered San Salvador. The islands which then were a paradise, the abode of simple-hearted people, are drenched in blood. The Spaniards have had but one thought—to get gold and to gratify passion. Thousands of the Indians have been killed, other thousands carried into slavery. The Indians had no rights which the cruel men felt bound to respect.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


On the 20th of May, 1506, at Valladolid, Christopher Columbus, old, in poverty, begging his bread, lies down to die. No one cares for him, but he dies calmly and peacefully. So closes the life of the man who led the way for the discovery of the future home of Liberty.