Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Columbus and His Brothers in Irons


For condoning the grave offences of Roldan, the rebel, Columbus suffered the pains and penalties of one who has compounded a felony. Thenceforth, to the end of his life, he was beset by troubles and difficulties, until, overwhelmed by the burden of his sorrows, he sank into his grave. Although a truce had been concluded between the two, previous to this Roldan had written letters, when alcalde mayor, or chief-justice of the island, preferring serious charges against the Admiral. He and his brothers were accused of cruelty, avarice, and incapacity; they were charged, as foreigners, with an intention to throw off their allegiance to the crown, and either set up an independent government or transfer the island to some other power. The charge of disloyalty was absurd on its face, and could be entertained only by one like King Ferdinand, who saw in it an excuse for depriving Columbus of powers too great for a subject to possess, the granting of which he had long since repented. Against the accusations of his enemies, who now arose, like swarms of locusts, on every side, the frank and truthful letters of the Admiral availed little with the sovereigns. They themselves were convinced he had grossly deceived them in respect to the riches of the new country, which, instead of having been a source of wealth, was a constant drain upon the resources of Spain. They determined to inquire into the actual condition of affairs in Hispaniola, and appointed a commissioner to investigate the conduct of Columbus. Even had not their inclinations prompted them to the measure, they were forced to heed the clamors of the populace, who assailed them with demands for reparation, whenever they appeared in public. One day, as the royal pair were enjoying the charms of the Alhambra courts, a gang of fifty vagabonds, mostly returned colonists, broke into the corridors beneath their apartments and filled the air with denunciations of Columbus. His two sons, Diego and Ferdinand, who were then pages at court, happening to pass by, some of the rabble shouted: "Miralos—behold them—the whelps of him who discovered the land of delusion and vanity, the grave of Spanish hidalgos!" Such was the feeling against the sons of Columbus that their lives were hardly safe in the streets, and they were compelled to remain in seclusion.

The commissioner appointed by Isabella and Ferdinand to inquire into the doings of their Admiral was one Francisco de Bovadilla, who, though an officer of the royal household and a knight of Calatrava, was an "unknown quantity "until he suddenly emerged from obscurity in the capacity of grand inquisitor. He received his instructions, and sailed from Spain about the middle of July, in the year 1500, arriving at Hispaniola in the last week of August. Sailing into the harbor of Santo Domingo, he was surprised' and shocked to behold, hanging from gibbets on the bank of the river, the bodies of two Spaniards, and was further horrified to be told that seven had been hanged the week before, while as many more were in the fortress dungeon awaiting a similar fate. It is possible that Bovadilla may not originally have intended to proceed so hastily as he did, but the sight of his dead countrymen, and the impending fate of those others in the dungeon, may have caused the inconsiderate action of which he was guilty. If he were culpable, then his sovereigns were still more so, for they had invested him with unrestricted authority to do as he thought best. The Admiral had requested them to send out a person empowered to inquire into the charges brought against him by Roldan and others. Conscious of his own integrity, he desired the questions to be submitted to an impartial judge, in order to silence, at once and for all, the clamors of malicious and unjust accusers. But, instead of complying with this reasonable request, his sovereigns had sent out a man who was charged, not only to inquire into the conduct of the rebels, to "arrest their persons and sequestrate their effects," but, if considered advisable, to supersede the Admiral himself.

Don Diego Columbus was in command of the city at the time of Bovadilla's arrival, and upon him, immediately on landing, a demand was made for the release of the' prisoners in the fortress. When he refused to comply, Bovadilla produced his credentials. He caused to be read aloud, first, his "patent," investing him with the government of the islands; second, the royal mandate ordering the Admiral to deliver up to him all fortresses, etc.; third, authority for him to pay all arrears of wages due from Columbus to others, and for this purpose, of course, to take possession of his effects if the demands could not be met otherwise. Don Diego was an honest but weak man; both his brothers were absent, engaged in the interior pacifying Spanish rebels and Indians. They had nearly accomplished their good work, and, but for the inopportune arrival of Bovadilla, the island would have been brought entirely under the rule of rightful authority.

The documents were read at the door of a little church, the first erected in Santo Domingo city, the walls of which are still standing, on the left bank of the Ozama. From its porch door Bovadilla could see the fortress, in which were confined the condemned prisoners, among them the unfortunate lover of Higuenamota, the Indian princess. Calling together a force of armed men, the new Governor marched upon and assailed the fortress, liberated the prisoners, and into the dungeon they had occupied cast Don Diego himself, whose superstitious regard for the royal signature had prevented him from opposing the pretender, as he should have done. There he was soon joined by his brothers, who (also abjectly submissive to the royal mandate) came in and surrendered themselves at Bovadilla's command. The Admiral was at Fort Conception, nearly a hundred miles distant, but, on receiving a command from the arrogant Bovadilla to appear before him, travelled in haste, and almost unattended, to the capital. He was, of course, surprised and perplexed, and could not understand the true character of this usurper's business. For was he not the only Admiral of the Ocean Sea? Was he not viceroy and governor over the islands in perpetuity? There was no one higher in authority than he; how, then, could this person place his commands upon him? Whatever had operated to bring about this alarming condition of affairs, Columbus was soon convinced that the populace were on the side of Bovadilla, for he was received everywhere with hootings and revilings, and on arrival at the city was immediately arrested and sent to the fortress. By orders of the usurper, manacles were fastened on his wrists and ankles, and riveted there by a shameless wretch, who had once cooked the food for his table.

Two of the brothers were captives and in chains; but there still remained the lion-hearted adelantado, from whom Bovadilla expected at least a show of resistance, as he was in command of armed forces and was not of a nature to tamely submit. But, like his elder brother, Don Bartholomew was loyal to his heart's core, even when to be so was his undoing. Receiving from the Admiral an injunction to submit without resistance, he hastened in and gave himself up, leaving his retainers in the field. He, also, was placed in irons, and thus, by an unexampled display of assurance, Bovadilla obtained possession of the "upstart Columbus "and won a bloodless victory. He had reversed the proceedings as indicated in his instructions, and, instead of first bringing to trial the guilty and criminal wretches who had rebelled against royal authority, he had arrested and incarcerated its only lawful representatives! We must not, however, hold Bovadilla entirely blameworthy in this wretched affair, for the real culprits were those who sent him to the island. It cannot be urged in their defence that their creature, Bovadilla, exceeded his instructions, for he followed them out to the letter, and without them could not have proceeded in such a high-handed manner. Their treachery, duplicity, baseness, cannot be properly characterized without overstepping the bounds set by the impartial and judicious historian. As for Bovadilla, having made friends of the real criminals and taken their part, he did not lack for information against Columbus, whose great deeds were lost to sight, and whose elevated character was torn to shreds, by the hosts of enemies that flocked about the man in power and poured out complaints against his victim, sitting in the darkness of a felon's cell. Whatever we may have found to condemn in the dealings of Columbus with inferior people, like the Indians and the sailors in his employ, we should not be blinded to the true greatness of his nature apart from his avarice and selfishness. The mask of ignoble ambitions and duplicity falls away when he is in sore distress, and reveals the innate nobility of his character. The sins he committed were for the sake of his sovereigns: enslaving and oppression of the Indians—even the massacres—that they might receive the greater profit and he the greater glory. Honor and renown were empty phrases now, he must have bitterly reflected. He had imperilled his life, had committed what mankind generally considers unpardonable crimes, for the augmentation of his sovereigns' grandeur, and this  was his reward!

That he expected to be executed is shown by the following fragment of a conversation with Alonzo de Villejo, commander of the caravel in which he was sent to Spain. As the dungeon door was thrown open and that officer entered, accompanied by an armed guard, Columbus considered that his time had come. He had but recently sent men to the scaffold for the very crimes of which he was accused, and it seemed not unlikely this was his destination.

"Villejo," he said, mournfully, "whither are you taking me?"

"To the ship, your excellency; to embark."

"To embark," repeated the Admiral earnestly. "Villejo, do you speak the truth?"

"By the life of your excellency, it is true," replied the honest officer, who, throughout the voyage, was kind and courteous to his distinguished prisoner.

There were some to whom the venerable appearance of the Admiral appealed and by whom his great services were remembered, but these were few. The majority of the colonists exulted over his downfall and rejoiced at his distress. As he was taken to the caravel, between guards with loaded arquebuses, and to the accompaniment of clanking chains, a great shout went up from the rabble gathered at the river's bank. All had grievances, real or imaginary, which they held now to be avenged by the abasement of the Admiral, freed from whose detested rule they could indulge in license and liberty. Bovadilla was not among the throng, but kept in the background, from a window of the Admiral's house (where he maintained guard over the precious papers, moneys, and treasures he had seized), watching with satisfaction the departure of his enemies. But his reign was short, his rule disastrous, and his end was hastened by his arrogance. Knowing that his course in ousting Columbus and seizing the reins of government, which he was unable to control, would not be sustained by his sovereigns upon sober reflection, he urged the colonists to make the most of their opportunity. He sold them lands at minimum prices, gave them Indians without number to work the mines, and exacted only an eleventh of their proceeds, instead of the third formerly paid as tribute to the crown. Crime was rampant, criminals assumed the airs and equipages of cavaliers, for the dregs of the communities had risen to the surface. Ruffians and cut-throats, who had escaped the gallows or the galleys only by being banished to this island, compelled the hereditary caciques over a once free and happy people to become their slaves and burden-bearers. They seized their sons and daughters, consumed their provisions, and obliged them to bear them from place to place in litters, or hammocks suspended from poles, their shoulders raw and bleeding, until they fell to rise no more. Whatever the form of government adopted by the Spaniards, the miserable natives felt its exactions, were crushed by its severities, and before many years passed they had ceased to exist.

Scarcely had the two caravels in which Columbus and his brothers were embarked left the island out of sight ere it was a veritable region of misrule. But, except for the measures they had initiated, they were no longer responsible for the horrible cruelties enacted there. In a certain sense, Columbus was paying the penalty for his misdeeds; but it was light in comparison with what was to follow. He was enduring no more than he himself had inflicted upon captive Caonabo, who, also a prisoner and in chains, had preceded him over this very route to Spain. Caonabo had died and been thrown to the sharks; hundreds of others were languishing in slavery. What would befall the man who had caused all their miseries? His reflections, doubtless, were gloomy, but his spirit was unbroken. When Villejo would have removed his manacles, he said, disdainfully: "No, my sovereigns ordered me by letter to submit to Bovadilla, and by their authority he has chained me. I will wear these irons until they are removed by royal order, and then I shall keep them as memorials of the rewards bestowed for my services." He was as good as his word, wearing the manacles throughout the long and wearisome voyage, and in this condition he and his brothers were delivered to the alcalde of Cadiz. His son, Fernando, who was with him on his fourth voyage, says in his biography, "I saw them always hanging in his cabinet, and he requested that when he died they might be buried with him."

So far as rigid research has been able to ascertain, these chains were placed with Columbus in his coffin, after his death, in 1506, at Valladolid; but the pious intention of his heirs was frustrated by a Spanish thief. When his coffin was opened, at the time of the removal of his remains to Seville, a few years later, the manacles were missing, and it is a well-established tradition that they were stolen, by the keeper of the tavern in which he died. For many years, they were secreted by this man, his family, and descendants, but finally came into possession of a Genoese cavalier, by whom they are now preserved as precious relics.