Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

How Columbus Became an Admiral


During the absence of Prior Marchena, Columbus and his boy wandered through the cool corridors of the monastery, walked meditatively along the shore at the foot of the hill, or visited Palos and Moguer, where they found sea-folk in plenty to tell them of strange voyages. They were frequent guests of Captain Pinzon, who lived in Moguer, and whose descendants still occupy the ancestral residence. He promised to furnish a vessel, or vessels, for the voyage, and to bear a portion of the expenses, which promise Columbus had in mind when, later, he made himself responsible for an eighth part of the expedition's cost.

When the royal order came for Columbus to attend the Queen at Granada, it was accompanied by a remittance of twenty thousand maravedis, or about two hundred and sixteen dollars, to defray the expenses of the journey, and for fit apparel in which to appear at court. The distance from La Rabida is nearly two hundred miles, and, as there were no railroads or stage-coaches running in those days, Columbus purchased a mule, upon which he rode all the way, arriving just in time to witness the fall of Granada.

The Spanish army of investment had arrived in the vega, or plain, of Granada, in April, 1491. It was fifty thousand strong, and took a strategic position on the present site of Santa Fe, a city which was practically founded by the establishment of the fortified camp. There, within sight of the great mosque of the Moslems, in Granada, and within sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, the Spanish sovereigns had sat down before the last refuge of the Moors in Spain.

In due time Columbus arrived in camp and stood at the entrance to Isabella's silken tent. He had left her at Seville, the year before, disgusted and disheartened, but now was back again at the instance of Isabella herself, who had yielded to the solicitations of her old confessor. But, while she was moved by the pleadings of her former adviser in spiritual matters to the extent of inviting the navigator back for another conference, she was overborne by her new confessor, Talavera, Archbishop of Granada. He was offended by the exorbitant demands of this needy navigator, who had returned as persistent and as confident as ever, stipulating in advance for ships, caravels, sailors, munitions, and articles for barter. He would be made "Admiral of the Ocean Sea "and viceroy over the regions he was yet to discover. He demanded the privilege of retaining one-tenth their revenues, and that he and his posterity should be considered among the aristocracy of the proudest nation on earth.

This "castle in Spain," which he had built many years before and still inhabited, came tumbling down about his ears when Talavera made his report. In a word, it was similar to that he had made before, only in this instance he was more pronounced in his condemnation of the penniless stranger who advanced such pretensions. He treated the proposition with ridicule; Isabella sadly rejected the terms Columbus offered, and once again he departed from her presence, this time firmly resolved to abandon Spain forever.

While La Rabida may be called the "corner-stone of American history," there is a bridge about two leagues from Santa Fe which, in a sense, may be said to connect the New World with the Old. It is the "Bridge of Pines," which, with a gateway and a turret, spans a stream on two high arches. This point had been reached by Columbus, on his return journey to La Rabida, when he was overtaken by a messenger from the Queen. She had changed her mind, he was informed, and this time, if he would condescend to return, would consent even to the terms he had dictated.

This change had been wrought, it was asserted, by the entreaties, even reproaches, of the King's receiver of the revenues in Aragon, Luis de San Angel, and the Queen's comptroller, Quintanilla, who had ever been friendly to Columbus. They represented that it was absurd to hesitate at the cost of an enterprise, the gain attending which might be incalculable, and the glory, to her nation and her Church, beyond all price. Throughout these various transactions the Queen has been represented, by some historians, as generous and enthusiastic; her husband Ferdinand, on the contrary, cold, calculating, distrustful, and opposed to all dealings with Columbus. At the crucial moment even, Isabella, in the first flush of her enthusiasm, is said to have exclaimed: "I undertake this enterprise for my own crown of Castile, and will pledge my jewels for the necessary funds." But the cold facts of history have long since proved that her jewels were already pledged, to aid in furnishing the "sinews of war" for the siege of Granada, and that it was Ferdinand's treasurer, and not Isabella's, who advanced the money furnished for the enterprise by the crown. Seventeen thousand florins were advanced by San Angel, on account, from the revenues of Aragon, and were reimbursed in part by the first gold brought by Columbus from America. The Queen, however, was the life of the enterprise; upon her decision turned the scale which had been so long poised in suspense, and she ever after afforded her protege both pecuniary and moral support.

Columbus was dubious about returning to Santa Fe, even after the assurances of the messenger that there was no doubt of a full acceptance of his terms; but he finally turned about, at the Bridge of Pines, and soon found himself in the august presence of the Queen, whose graciousness went far to atone for his years of suffering and neglect.

By arriving at Granada in January, 1492, the very month in which that city capitulated, Columbus had witnessed the surrender of unfortunate Boabdil, last King of the Moors in Spain, and was privileged to enter with the sovereigns the glorious Alhambra, that beautiful castle-palace containing the highest expression of Oriental art and architecture. It was about the beginning of February that the Queen's messenger overtook him at the bridge, and on April 17th a formal agreement with Columbus was signed by Ferdinand and Isabella, in which all the privileges he had demanded were conceded. As stated in that paper:

  1. He was appointed Admiral of the Ocean Sea, with the same rights, honors and favors as were enjoyed by the Lord Admiral of Castile. This office to be held by himself during life, and by his heirs and successors forever, "in all the lands and continents which he might discover and acquire in the ocean."

  2. He should be viceroy and governor-general over all the said lands and continents, with power to appoint all officers for their government.

  3. He should be entitled to one-tenth of everything said lands produced, as gold, precious stones, spices, and of all gains from barter and trade.

  4. That by contributing one-eighth part of the expenses of the expedition, he should receive one-eighth the profits, in addition to the tenth already stipulated.

Twenty years had elapsed since he conceived the project of sailing westward in search of the Indies, and he was fifty-six years of age at the time these concessions were granted him by the crown; but at last he found himself on the road to receive his great reward. He had endured poverty, contumely, neglect, had suffered much and long; but never for a moment had he abated his pretensions a particle. Possessed of a grand idea, he had remained true to it—and to himself.

While the issue of the voyage was pending, Columbus resided awhile in the Alhambra—that glorious palace above Granada built by the ancient Moors—where he gloomily paced its corridors or gazed abstractedly upon the entrancing views outspread before him from its portals. The memorable interview between him and his sovereigns, at which the foregoing "capitulations" were signed by the high contracting parties, took place, according to tradition, in the peerless "Hall of Justice," which bounds one side of the famous "Lions' Court," and is a dream of beauty. Here, also, he took leave of Isabella and Ferdinand, and, crowned at last with success, departed for the port of Palos, invested with the full rights and privileges which for years he had been so anxious to obtain.

In his journal, written on the voyage, he says:

"After your Highnesses had put an end to the war with the Moors who ruled in Europe, and had concluded that warfare in the great city of Granada, on the second of January of this present year (1492), I saw the royal banners of your Highnesses placed by force of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, which is the fortress of that city, and beheld the Moorish King sally forth from the gates of the city and kiss the royal hands of your Highnesses and of my lord the Prince . . . I departed from the city of Granada on Saturday the twelfth of May, of the same year, 1492, to Palos, a seaport, where I armed three ships, well calculated for such service, and sailed from that port, well furnished with provisions and many seamen, on Friday the third of August."

A little more than two months after King Boabdil had surrendered to the Spanish sovereigns, they had affixed the royal sign-manual to that paper confirming Columbus to title and interests in an undiscovered country beyond the unknown sea. The star of the hapless Moors in Spain had set forever, as that of America rose on the horizon. The year that witnessed the star of Spain in the ascendant was the birth-year of history and civilization for our continent. On the banks of the river Xenil, a commemorative chapel marks the spot made famous by the surrender of the Moorish King, and in the cathedral of Granada are the alabaster tombs of the dread sovereigns who thrust him into obscurity and at the same time sent forth Columbus on his voyage of discovery.

Having visited with Columbus the scenes identified with the dawn of discovery in America, let us now accompany him to Palos and La Rabida, whither he went about the middle of May, armed with royal orders and clothed with authority to enforce them. After passing the night at the monastery (where, we may be sure, neither he nor Fray Marchena spent much time in sleep, having so many things to talk about), he betook himself to the church of St. George, on the following morning. Here the town authorities were assembled, the alcalde  and regidor, together with many of the chief inhabitants, and in their presence the royal orders were read. The port of Palos had become indebted to the crown in some manner, and was condemned to serve it for a year with two armed caravels. To this extent the town was commanded to serve Columbus instead and the debt would be considered liquidated. Two caravels, or small sailing-vessels, were to be placed at his disposal within ten days, together with their crews, to go whither he desired. The authorities heard the mandate, and assented to the terms by which they were to be freed from their obligations; but when the people learned the nature of the voyage upon which they were called to serve by compulsion, the place was in an uproar instantly.

Palos, to-day, consists of a few mean houses scattered along a hill-side and one long street which wanders aimlessly from nowhere to nowhere. It has a branch leading to the Rio Tinto, where in ancient days there was a port, but this is only used by fishermen.

But Palos, in 1492, was the residence of hardy mariners who had voyaged to every known part of the world. They were ready for any kind of sea-venture—except this one proposed by Columbus. Where any sailor had once been, there they were ready to go; but they were terrified at the thought of sailing on and on into the untraversed seas. They refused, to a man, and also their neighbors over at Moguer, so force was used—moral as well as physical—to compel these rebellious subjects of the sovereigns to sail with Columbus. For this reason—inasmuch as many of the men finally sailed in order to escape arrest for crimes they had committed, having been promised immunity by the King—the crews Columbus took along were not altogether made up of reputable citizens. Even these were obtained only through the good offices of the Pinzon brothers, the wealthy ship-owners of Moguer. Had it not been for their active co-operation, the scheme of Columbus might have fallen to the ground. They were the leading men of Moguer and of Palos, its port; they were rich, honorable, reliable, and the simple sailor-folk believed in them implicitly. As for Columbus, they looked upon him merely as a foreign "adventurer who had wheedled their sovereigns into a chimerical expedition which was to cost them little and the chief adventurer nothing but his reputation. It cost him nothing, for he had nothing. For the clothes he wore, the shoes he stood in, Columbus was indebted to the bounty of the Queen. How, then, could he promise to furnish and equip one of the caravels and bear an eighth part of the expenses? Because, in a word, he relied upon the rich and influential Martin Alonzo Pinzon, who nobly redeemed his pledge, given in their first conversation at the monastery, that he would supply whatever was lacking in equipment. He and his brothers entered with enthusiasm into the scheme of Columbus, accepting it as a risky, but possibly profitable, commercial venture. They were influential in securing the vessels, prevailed upon their neighbors and relatives to enlist in the enterprise by their own example, furnishing one caravel, and bearing one-eighth the entire expenses.

Three vessels were comprised in the fleet finally assembled at Palos, the largest of which was the Santa Maria, of about one hundred tons burden, armed with four loin-bards, or small cannon, while the two smaller were merely great boats without decks amid ship, but with cabins, or "castles," in the prow and stern. They were provisioned for six months, and after the stores were aboard there was little room to spare for the ninety mariners, thirty officials and private adventurers, one hundred and twenty in all. Of the grand total, the Santa Maria  probably carried a complement of seventy, the Pinta, which was next in size, thirty, and the Nina  only twenty.

In 1892, the governments of Spain and the United States co-operated in reproducing the fleet of Columbus in facsimile, and on October 12th, that year, the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of land in the Bahamas, the three craft were gathered in the waters whence the originals sailed, August 3, 1492. There they were visited by thousands, including the Queen-regent of Spain, and in February following sailed for America over the historic course pursued by Columbus. They participated in a grand naval review at New York, and were afterwards taken to Chicago, where, anchored off-shore at Jackson Park, they formed an instructive and interesting exhibit at the great World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.