Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

The "Gap in the Globe"


More than two months elapsed before the fleet furnished Columbus was pronounced ready for sea, owing to the obstacles interposed by the owners of the two vessels that had been impressed; but finally the three craft dropped down the Tinto to the Domingo Rubio, at the foot of monastery hill, where they were careened and over-hauled. Here Columbus took in the last of his sea-stores, here the tardy mariners were gathered together and embarked, and here the sorrowing crews bade final farewell to their friends and relatives, whom they never expected to meet again on earth.

The visitor to Palos may find still standing there the quaint old church of St. George, in the porch of which the royal proclamation was read, and where the register may be seen containing the names of the sailors who received communion just preceding their departure. This church was occasionally attended by Columbus while awaiting the outfitting of his fleet; but he oftener worshipped in the chapel at the monastery, where he passed in prayer the greater portion of the night before he sailed.

At sunrise of Friday, August 3, 1492, Columbus took his departure from the bar of Saltes, in the estuary between Huelva and La Rabida, and soon after, in the freshening breeze of early morning, the vessels were wafted along their course. Steering southwesterly, for the Canary Islands, they were not long in leaving the coast of Spain in their wake, and then the crews gave themselves up to grief and despondency. Though they had humbly and devoutly received the blessing of Fray Marchena, as he pronounced a benediction from the strand, those who had been impressed were filled with sullen anger, and all were gloomy from having set sail on a Friday. In this connection, the superstitiously inclined may be interested to note that Columbus not only sailed on a Friday, but he and the sovereigns signed their contract on Friday; he discovered land on Friday, set sail homeward on Friday, and finally reached Palos again on that same day of ill omen!

Most of the men on board the fleet were old acquaintances and neighbors, many were related to one another, and Columbus himself was perhaps conspicuous from having no intimate friend or relative in the company. Both his sons had been left in Spain—Ferdinand with his mother, at Cordova, and Diego in care of the Queen, who had taken him as page to her son, Prince Juan. But for the fact that the enterprise had its birth in the brain of Columbus, it might well have been called a Pinzon expedition, for the Pinta  was commanded by Martin Alonzo, who had with him as steersman his brother. Francisco, and the Nina  by another brother, Vicente Yaflez, who afterwards became famous on account of discoveries he made in America. We have seen what the Pinzons did in the matter of fitting out the fleet; and as they were expert navigators, looked up to and respected by all, it is not strange that, in the estimation of the sailors, Columbus should have suffered by comparison.

Still, Christopher Columbus was Admiral of the fleet, and all were compelled to obey him, even the veteran Martin Alonzo, commander of the Pinta. He displayed his skill as navigator almost at the outset, when, the rudder of his caravel having broken loose (it was supposed through the connivance of the owners, who wished to prevent it from sailing on the voyage), he secured it temporarily with ropes, thus maintaining steering way until the Canaries were reached. The rudder became unshipped on the third day out, and as the islands were not sighted until the ninth, the other vessels were compelled to shorten sail in order to keep him company.

After cruising among the Canaries for nearly three weeks, seeking in vain to replace the Pinta  with another vessel, Columbus was obliged to cause a new rudder to be made and shipped. At the same time he changed the Nina  from lateen to square rig, so that she might sail more steadily and swiftly. He provisioned his ships, and took in wood and water at the island of Gomera, which lies twenty miles southwest of Teneriffe, and on September 6th tried to take his departure. He was stimulated to sail at once, on account of rumors reaching him of Portuguese caravels hovering in the offing, probably for the purpose of his detention or capture. Three days of calm, however, held the impatient voyagers within sight of land, and it was not until sunset of the 9th that the last outpost of the Canaries, diminutive Ferro, sank, as it were, beneath the surface of the ocean.

And now, having seen Columbus and his little company of timorous seamen actually ventured on the Sea of Darkness, shall we not improve the occasion, while they are eventlessly voyaging, to obtain a closer acquaintance with the Admiral, as he stands on the castle of his flag-ship, the Santa Maria? The man himself should be interesting, as well as his aims and his equipment for the great adventure. As to his personal appearance, wrote Las Casas, who knew him well and intimately, "he was tall, rather than medium-sized. His face was long and commanding, his nose aquiline, eyes light (bluish gray), and complexion fair, tending to ruddy. The beard and hair, when he was a young man, were fair, but very soon turned white on account of his many toils. Finally, in his person and venerable aspect, he presented the appearance of one of high position and authority, worthy of all reverence." Oviedo, the historian, who also knew him, and Ferdinand Columbus, his son, give descriptions agreeing with Las Casas's in the main, so that we shall have a very fair conception of his looks from these verbal portraits, even though it cannot be affirmed that any authentic picture of him exists that was painted from life.

We know (for the matter has been thrashed out a thousand times) that Columbus started out with the preconceived idea of a "terraqueous globe," which might be traversed from east to west, and that there were antipodes. Improving somewhat upon the chart that Paolo Toscanelli had sent him, he yet made the distance separating the great continents much less than it really was, and herein lay an error fortunate for himself and for the world. He assumed that the circumference of the globe at the equator might be divided into three hundred and sixty degrees, or twenty-four hours of fifteen degrees each. Two-thirds of these "hours "were already comprised in the world then known, leaving (as he reasoned) only eight hours, or one-third the distance round the world, to be traversed. Toscanelli's map represented the earth much smaller than it really was, and carried the east coast of Asia so far over towards the west coast of Africa that the intervening ocean seemed very easy to cross. Scattered over its surface, also, were islands conveniently placed for tarrying-places, such as Antilla and Cipango. Columbus was constantly looking for these islands, and throughout his voyages confidently expected to find the "Grand Khan" of Cathay, to whom he carried a letter from Ferdinand and Isabella, as follows:

"The Spanish sovereigns have heard that you and your subjects have great affection for them and for Spain. They are further aware that you and your subjects are desirous of information respecting Spain. They, therefore, cordially send their Grand Admiral, Christopher Columbus, who will tell you that they are in good health and perfect prosperity.

"I, the King.

"I, the Queen."

That letter was never delivered, and the Grand Khan was never discovered, though Columbus sought for him in every island he visited. Neither did he find Cipango (which is supposed to have been Japan, while Cathay was meant for China), for a continent and another ocean intervened between him and the lands of which he had dreamed so many, many years.

There are many memorials of Columbus in Spain, including the places we have mentioned; his armor is in the royal armory, and one of his charts in the naval museum of Madrid; but the most interesting relics are to be found at Seville. In that city is the Columbian library of twenty thousand volumes, bequeathed by Ferdinand Columbus, in which are several books that once belonged to the Admiral, some with marginal notes in his own hand. Could we but have peeped into the diminutive cabin of the Santa Maria, we should probably have found some of these same books in the little library Columbus carried with him on that first voyage across the Atlantic. His favorite volume seems to have been Marco Polo's book of adventures, published in Latin, at Antwerp, 1485, for it has many marginal notes made by him, as also has another volume, the Theologia, published in Venice, 1489. A Latin edition of Ptolemy's geography, edition of 1475 (which contains a map of Greenland) was well thumbed by Columbus; and another book, called the Imago Mundi, or Image of the World, was taken with him on the first voyage and richly adorned with notes in the margins. Further, a volume which furnished him plausible arguments to sustain his theory of a western passage to the Indies is the Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum, which contains on a fly-leaf his own transcription of the letter he received from Paolo Toscanelli in 1474.

These books alone constitute a very good library for a mariner of that period, four hundred years ago, and that they were earnestly studied and thoroughly digested is shown by the notes we have referred to. They absorbed his waking hours, when he was not on deck scanning the horizon for signs of something to vary the monotony of the boundless sea.

Besides his books, the Admiral carried, of course, the crude nautical instruments of his time, a compass and an astrolabe, by which he determined his latitude; but he could only guess at his longitude, and he measured time by an hour-glass. "It has been said that he probably had no means for accurately calculating the speed of his vessels, as there is no mention of the log-and-line before 1519; and as to the telescope, it was first used nearly a century later. Having such a slight equipment, the sailors of that day of course were very timid about venturing far from land." This will account for their terror at finding themselves for the first time sailing into the immensity of watery space, until then never cleft by keel of any kind. In order to keep his men in ignorance of the distance run each day, the crafty yet simple Columbus made two reckonings, one of which, the longer, he kept secret, while the shorter alone was open to inspection by the crews. This silly stratagem deceived none but the simplest of the sailors, and did not prevent them from breaking out into frequent lamentations over the constantly increasing distance that separated them from home, from friends, and native land.

"The task that Columbus set himself, and which he was now carrying out, was simply to go to the Canary Islands, in about latitude 28 north, and sail due west until he struck land." Towards the last of the voyage he was diverted from his course somewhat by taking the advice of his pilots, and by the flights of birds to the southward, else he might have landed on the coast of our own Florida, not far south of St. Augustine, and thus have anticipated its discovery by Ponce de Leon twenty years.

It seems a simple thing, to sail westward merely, day after day, and now that the voyage has been a thousand times accomplished, the wonder is, not that Columbus ventured it, but that it had not been done centuries before. "But," said a noted writer, "when I think of Columbus in his little bark, his only instruments an imperfect compass and a rude astrolabe, sailing forth upon an unknown sea, I must award him the credit of being the boldest seaman that ever sailed the salt ocean!" It was an easy thing to do after one had shown the way, as Columbus proved to the courtier when he stood the egg on end.

After many days sailing, always with a fair wind after them, and no opposing gales or currents, the crews began to think it would not be so easy to get back again, up the incline of that "watery hill." Having seen a floating spar or mast, the relic of some wrecked vessel, after land had been lost to sight two days, their fears were greatly excited, and they were thrown into a panic, by the variation of the compass. This was the first of the discoveries Columbus made before he discovered land, and it disturbed him greatly to find, when about eight hundred miles

from Ferro, that the needle no longer pointed directly to the north star. He tried to keep this discovery to himself, but the pilots soon noticed it, and he was forced to invent an explanation. It was a plausible and at the same time nearly accurate one; for Columbus was learned in nautical astronomy, and a little ahead of his companions, who soothed themselves with his theory, but again became agitated over the prevalence of the winds from one point of the compass. This has been called the second preliminary discovery of Columbus (though it was the third): that of the trade-winds, steadily blowing from the east and north-east, and which increased the farther the vessels went to the westward and southward.

Excepting for the slight accident to the Pinta, the entire voyage seems to have been a combination of fortunate and favorable events. From the time land was lost sight of at Ferro, until land was discovered in the Bahamas, nature interposed no obstacle to baffle the plans of Columbus, and he had only his wretched and timorous crews to deal with. They were enough, it is true, to tax the resources of a mind more active than that of Columbus and incense a nature far nobler; but he bore with them patiently, in his heart believing they were assisting him to achieve immortal fame. His nature, like his ideals, was lofty; but his temper was by no means of the best, and sometimes burst forth explosively. Not often, though, and not on that first voyage, for he was supported then by his trust in a favorable outcome for his hazardous venture.

During the first four weeks at sea there were absolutely no tokens of land save a few birds. On September 14th some of the sailors saw a tropic bird (which flies swiftly and far out at sea), and on the 10th they were cheered by the arrival in the rigging of their ships of some singing-birds, which they welcomed as sure tokens that land was near. These small birds, however, were probably migrant warblers which, as we of this later day know well, are capable of performing long journeys on the wing, and which are sometimes blown hundreds of miles from land.

On, on they went, scarcely shifting sail in weeks, the very steadiness of the wind and the tranquillity of the sea causing perturbation in their bosoms, and thus voyaging they sailed into their third discovery, the sluggish waters of the great Sargasso Sea, with its weed-strewn expanse in the vortex of variable winds.