Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Isabella and Columbus

Hail! Columbus, in vision so bold,

Why thus depressed and fleeing?

'Tis Queen Isabel, whose hand behold

Outstretched for thy succeeding!

Columbus and Isabel


Columbus—Isabella's Primary Attitude—The Ecclesiastical Council— Columbus Sent from Court in Disappointment—How Perez and a Few Others Had Called Him Back—His Interview With the Queen at Santa Fé—Her Favorable Reflection and Strong Decision—Isabella Became the Patroness of the Enterprise—Columbus' Discovery of the New World (1492)—His Reception and Second Voyage, September, 1493—The Troubles that Envy Brought—Reception of Columbus at Burgos—The Voyage of 1498—Priests and Convicts Fill Up the Ships—A Commissioner, Bovadillo, Sent to Hispaniola—Columbus Went Back to Spain in Irons—Isabelia's Vexation—She Showed him Friendship—Ferdinand Detained Him—Ovando Went to the New World—Isabella Bade Columbus Farewell for his Fourth Voyage 1502)—Her Kindness to the Natives.

In the history of Christopher Columbus there are phases and incidents of his remarkable career that blend at some important points with the life of Queen Isabella. When we look at Columbus from the standpoint of posterity, and mark his enlightened conviction and his indomitable purpose, we cannot help feeling that it was not a little strange that an intelligent, courageous, and enterprising woman like this queen should have allowed this patient and able investigator to follow her court so long without extending to him sympathy and help. But we must remember' that then, as now, there were screens which limited the vision of any such royal person as Isabella. For her, most clearly defined, was that almost impenetrable one raised by the Church officials around her, who themselves were environed by ignorance, prejudice, and superstition. Fernando de Talavera, her confessor, with all his sincerity, was their confidant and their exponent.

Columbus brought to court the recommendation of his devoted friend, Juan Perez de Marchena. But Talavera gave no credit to his credentials. He saw in Columbus only an Italian adventurer, in his extraordinary theories and demands nothing but presumption, or perhaps an incipient commingling of lunacy and necromancy. This prelate, who was her friend, trusted more than any other, by the instructions of the queen selected a most worthy council, composed of ecclesiastics who were very great scholars indeed in all matters that pertained to the Church—and who shall say that the propositions of Columbus did not pertain to the Church? His matter was committed to them. After long consideration they gave their solemn verdict that the scheme of Columbus was unwise, impracticable, and based on reasons too weak to warrant the support of the Government.

A second screen to Isabella's vision was the all absorbing war with the Moors. As we have seen, it was her war. At times she was the directing mind at the front. She camped with the troops and participated in all their excitements. When not in the field with the army, she was collecting reinforcements and provisions and sending them forward. She was devising a thousand ways to collect the money for the enormous expenses. All this was in addition to the raising of her family and the reorganizing and ruling of her kingdom. It is not at all to be wondered at, from this point of view, that she did not give her mind to objects of maritime discovery while so necessarily and thoroughly occupied. And, after all, there was in her heart a gleam of sympathy for this strange man in his most forlorn days. His private expenses were several times paid by her orders, and villages through which he must go were instructed to supply his immediate wants. Even though the unfavorable decision of the council had been made known to her, she consulted, concerning him, Cardinal Mendoza, who himself was a far-seeing man and friendly to Columbus, and caused him to communicate kind words to this disappointed seeker. She said that engrossing business prevented her and her husband for the present from thinking of any undertaking such as he meditated; but that when the war was concluded they would listen to his proposals. Isabella could hardly have done more.

But the patience of Columbus was exhausted. He did not think then that Isabella, with all her compassion and consequent kindness, would ever seriously consider his cause. He resolved in this extremity to try the French king, Francis I. Fortunately his devoted Juan Perez now held him back. It was not altogether pity for his friend that led to his so doing. Perez and a few others had caught not a little of the enthusiasm of the Genoese. They had become capable of appreciating the value of his theories and demonstrations, and saw how some foreign government might, by a little enterprise, secure all the advantages now so royally offered to the crown of Castile. They made another effort. They betook themselves to the queen. It was at a favorable time. The great war was now ended. She was at liberty to give to these patriotic callers her undivided attention. Isabella then suddenly resolved to grant the enthusiast a personal hearing.

Columbus was invited to repair to Santa Fé; and what showed a turning point in his favor, money enough to clothe him respectably and to defray his travelling expenses went along with the message. So the discoverer appeared at court and had an interview with the queen. He repeated his reasoning. He glowed with his subject. The countries which he was to discover were painted like those which some happy relator depicts from memory. He spoke of the wealth to be acquired—gold and silver to replace the losses of war and to build up the institutions of Spain; yes, he went a step farther, and referred to the dark night of paganism hanging over those lands which were so well outlined on the map of his faith and hope, and even promised funds for the recovery of the holy sepulchre!

It is said that this promise, looking to the recovery of the sepulchre of our Lord, touched the queen, but that "the conversion of the benighted heathen was with Isabella by far the most potent argument."

It delighted her imagination. It was different from the ordinary satisfactions of royal ambition. While Ferdinand employed old methods of diplomacy and moved in old grooves, Isabella enjoyed higher and broader flights. The holy sepulchre to be wrenched from the Turks! and millions of children plunged in heathen darkness to be brought into the lap of the Church by the daughter of Castile! and all that through the treasures soon to be found in those strange countries.

And what was promised was more than a mere possibility. It was a confident hope. Isabella seems at this remarkable interview to have remembered more distinctly than before what she had heard in favor of this bold enterprise. At the moment when her strong and generous mind had come into possession of the true nature of what was urged, her resolution, like an inspiration, was instantaneous. Such things, seen in visions, she could not afford to neglect. For a woman such as she not to act when things such as these could be done would be a crime. Great ideas impose themselves imperiously as duties upon great minds. She had taken advice when the idea of discovering a new world was another's, a stranger's; now, when this idea had become her own, she took no further advice.

She bethought herself, it is true, of Ferdinand's coolness with regard to the project—a coolness somewhat pronounced. But this consideration made her pause only for a few moments. She had her own life to live; and such a clear-sighted woman, even under the effect of her loyal devotion to her husband, could not have failed to see in him an inferior nature. She had hitherto maintained her mental independence; but if ever at all she asserted independence, she must do so now. Yet there was another great hindrance—the oft-recurring, ubiquitous difficulty of those times, and in fact of most times—she had no money. Well, there was the last resort. She could pawn the crown jewels!

Just so soon and just so long as anything, however unusual, however strange, could be done to promote an enterprise, which now appeared to her in the light of a holy duty, to whose accomplishment her whole heart from this decisive moment was given, that thing should be done.

This was Isabella's mental state when she called the shrewd San Angel, the treasurer of the sovereigns, into council. She gave her royal word that the desired voyage should be begun; and she became at once the active protector and friend of that singular, heroic man, who, now in hope and now almost in despair, had followed her court for seven weary years.

"I undertake the enterprise for my own crown of Castile," Isabella cried, "and I will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds!"

Never had Isabella been so great. She was from that moment, as Irving says, "the patroness of the discovery of the New World." As soon as Isabella's determination became known, there was plenty of loyal support. Even the cautious San Angel assured her that she need not pledge her jewels, for he was prepared to advance the necessary funds. Of course the unfaltering resolve of this popular and successful queen found willing aid. Isabella, the Queen of Spain, just as she had accomplished what appeared to her the great work of her life in the interest of her country and her religion—to wit, the taking of all Granada into her domain, was enabled, by a favoring Providence, to do this also—to give the word which sent Columbus, in 1492, with his three little ships, across the hitherto unknown Atlantic.

The trials he met and the obstacles—often cruel and unforeseen—which he had to overcome reveal themselves by glimpses here and there in his history. But he overcame. He kept his promise. He discovered new lands, and undertook, in the name of the sovereigns, to govern them. His first return, in March, 1493, was a triumph. The court of Spain and the people received him with every demonstration of joy and appreciation. The celebrated painting of Columbus' return and reception at Barcelona, where the court then was, emphasizes the glory of that event.

His second voyage was from Cadiz. There were 1500 willing men of all sorts this time accompanying him; and he led out of that beautiful harbor in September, 1493, seventeen ships. He multiplied the details of his findings; but, as one might predict, his very successes excited envy and criticism among those around him, which reacted against him with ten times greater force in Spain.

There was at hand many an unscrupulous aristocrat, avaricious and ambitious, who saw in Columbus only too large aspiration. His rise to place and power was too sudden. For was he not at best but a novus homo?  And was he not foreign born? Calumny heaped upon calumny at last came to his ears, and he again turned homeward, in 1496, to endeavor to answer the charges, known and unknown, which had poisoned the minds of even the king and queen. But again Isabella received him, giving the audience at Burgos, and heard his explanations. His vindication was complete and satisfactory. But before this time other hardy navigators besides Columbus had reached the New World, participated in discoveries, and returned. They had made and circulated the most bitter complaints of the doings of Columbus. They had imputed to him oppressions of the slaves, illicit gains, and accumulated riches, and in unmeasured terms they had also denounced his mode of administration.

Satisfied of his innocence of intentional wrong-doing, the queen heard his story and dismissed him again to enter upon his third voyage in 1498. At this departure she strongly emphasized her desire that the natives should be converted to the Catholic faith, and that slavery and oppression should be avoided. To carry out her wishes, which doubtless also were his, he solicited and encouraged several priests, who were charged with establishing missions in New Spain to go with him.

"This departure, alas!" says De Nervo, "was more difficult than the other two. The sailors who had come back with Columbus had spoken no good of those far-off countries, and they themselves had arrived poor and sick. Under these conditions nobody then was willing to embark."

The stories, of one kind and another, were so discreditable that good sailors could not be hired; and Columbus was obliged to take convicts from the prisons upon condition of changing their confinement into deportation. Finally, thus furnished and thus attended, he left the harbor of San Lucar May 30th, 1498. On the arrival of Columbus at Hispaniola all the evils depicted to the good queen by his enemies were found indeed to exist. The natives were shamefully oppressed by the governor whom he had left in charge. The people had revolted, the fields and the mines had been abandoned, and mixed crowds, ravaging to prevent death by hunger, were wandering about from place to place. Anarchy prevailed. The brave discoverer went to work to restore order. But of course new reports, springing from new causes of hatred and revenge, found their way to Isabella. All this produced the intended effect. She, while not crediting all the stories and exaggerations born of envy and malice, did harbor the suspicion that Columbus did not possess the capacity or peculiar talents essential to such a government. And, unfortunately for him, there arrived about this time at Malaga two vessels loaded with slaves, made such on account of their revolt and robberies.

The renewed clamor of his enemies now became so loud that the queen did two things: first, she set at liberty every slave, granting him a full pardon; and second, she sent a commissioner, whom she believed worthy of confidence, with power and instructions to make a thorough investigation of all matters pertaining to the renowned admiral (Christopher Columbus) in the New World. Certainly gratitude and respect for this admiral had not left Isabella's heart!

There appeared to be need for strong interference. She allowed, however, to this commissioner (the Chevalier of Calatrava, Francisco de Bovadillo) larger power than she had intended. The mistake lay in the choice of the man. On Bovadillo's arrival at Hispaniola "Columbus was his first victim." One of his servants was compelled to lock the heavy chains that bound him. October 8th, 15oo, was made memorable by his forced embarkation from the grand New World that his pre-eminent genius had revealed to Christendom. Enslaved, humiliated, and loaded with fetters, he arrived at Malaga the 17th of the ensuing December. At this time the court was again at Granada. When Isabella heard of what had taken place her consternation and horror were extreme. Orders were instantly sent to free the admiral from those ignominious irons.

The messenger carried to him pleasant messages—for his expenses 1000 ducats from her bounty, and a courteous request for his presence at Granada. During the terrible and cruel voyage "this poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles." Now indeed his heart leaped with returning joy. Isabella graciously received him as soon as he arrived at Granada. At the sight of this dignified man, truly nature's nobleman, still marred, bruised, and haggard from the tortures inflicted upon him, the queen could not repress her tears; and Columbus was so touched by this proof of her sympathy that he fell on his knees before her, sobbing. It did not take long to answer all the charges that envy, and malice, and all uncharitableness had devised. He was quickly restored to the full esteem and confidence of her whom he denominated "the good queen." It was entirely for political reasons and due to the urgent diplomacy of King Ferdinand and those smooth-tongued ministers who abetted his schemes that Columbus was next given a temporary rest in Spain. The plausible Ovando was chosen for the vice-royalty of those most extensive possessions in the New World during the admiral's temporary absence.

Again, however, his entreaty to be sent on another voyage was finally and favorably answered; and she, with peculiar patronage and protection," bade him God-speed as he set forth, in 1502, to explore for the fourth time coasts as yet unknown, that millions of men of all nations might in a distant future unite to bless his memory, and with it that of the royal queen, who had never intermitted her confidence and esteem.

Isabella has very justly received from all writers, churchmen and laymen, men and women, who have undertaken to review her life, a high commendation for her attitude taken and persisted in toward the Indians of the New World. And in her solicitude there was no affectation. This matter evidently lay close to her heart. While for the sake of homogeneity and church unity she had yielded to the compromising policy of her husband and other harsh theorists in the sovereign acts which expelled the Jews from Spain; while she also at last had allowed the fanatical epigrams of Ximenes to override the mild methods of her chosen Bishop of Granada with regard to the conversion of the conquered Moors, we are rejoiced to say she never yielded her convictions with regard to the natives of America. Hundreds of adventurers who had gone so far from their homes had not been seeking honorable work in the New World, but were looking, for the most part, to enjoy idleness with impunity. They did not find that abundance of the treasures of silver and gold lying on the surface which they had expected. The tillage of the soil became imperative. Determined not to put their own dainty hands to the plough, they, the conquerors of the gentle natives of the south, compelled them to do the work. These poor people were distributed systematically. That they, the Spaniards, had the right to use the natives seemed to them at that period undeniable. Were not the Indians benighted heathens and their conquerors Christians? It was in their eyes and even in the eyes of the great admiral an all-sufficient, self-evident reason.

Herein Queen Isabella was ahead of her times. She was indignant at every oppressive measure. She wanted her subjects to be free. The Indians, she constantly affirmed, were her subjects. Once, we read, that as a number of such slaves were to be sold in Andalusia, she suspended the sale till a council of churchmen could be assembled to examine the subject of this man-selling and pronounce of it were lawful. On another occasion, when several hundred, brought by greedy merchants who had followed Columbus, reached the shores of Spain, she asked: "What right had Columbus thus to dispose of my subjects?" A royal order was at once issued not only setting the enslaved free, but sending them back to New Spain; and there all slaves held under any pretext were ordered to be at once set at liberty. She took pains to have missionaries selected, and as far as possible those specially fitted for the work, and sent over to them. It is evident that a good purpose toward the native population was ever in her mind. And she remembered to provide for their kind treatment in her will and testament. The sad condition and almost annihilation of that unfortunate race, under Ferdinand's subsequent rulings, was not due in any degree to Queen Isabella.