Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

From Palace to Monastery


Columbus was a deeply religious man, as zealous and as bigoted as any member of the fraternity. He could match the scriptural quotations which the brothers hurled at him with others equally convincing, but he could not overcome their scruples and their ignorance. He then stood, as he may have been aware, within the shadow of the terrible Inquisition, then so firmly established in Spain, and but for his powerful friends might have paid the penalty for his "heretical sentiments" with his life. Equally trivial with the objections already mentioned were all that were brought forth, as, for example, the contention of one ecclesiastic that St. Paul compared the heavens to a tent or tabernacle, hence, he argued, the earth must surely be flat, like the bottom of a tent. Even admitting, for the sake of argument, that the earth were round, how in the name of reason, said one, could a ship that might gain the confines of India ever get back to Spain again? The rotundity of the globe "would present a sort of mountain, up which it would be impossible for her to sail, even with the most favorable wind."

In short, while the council was to some extent infected with his enthusiasm, its members were by no means convinced of the practicability of his scheme. The majority were inflexibly opposed; but as the consultation had been called mainly for the purpose of delaying Columbus at court, and preventing him from betaking himself to some other country, which might thereby reap a benefit which Ferdinand would like to obtain without incurring the attendant expense, no immediate decision was given. In fact, nearly or quite three years elapsed before a final answer was rendered the heart-sick seeker after royal support.

One man, and he, it is worthy of note, the professor of theology at the university, became a convert to the views presented by Columbus, and was henceforth his friend. Diego de Deza, who afterwards became Archbishop of Seville, pressed his cause with vigor, and frequently assisted him from his purse, while following in the train of that wandering court. We next find him at Malaga, on the Mediterranean coast, whither he had been summoned by the sovereigns for a conference, which was prevented by the exigencies of that stormy and stubbornly contested siege. That year, 1487, was an eventful and perilous one in the lives of the sovereigns, for in the spring Ferdinand had been surprised and nearly captured by the wary old monarch of the Moors, and, while encamped before Malaga, an attempt had been made to assassinate both the King and the Queen. The assassin had sought them in Isabella's pavilion, a tent with silken walls, and by mistake had attacked two of their attendants, one of whom, the Marchioness of Moya, became interested in the suit of Columbus, and assisted in pressing it upon the Queen whenever occasion offered.

That Ferdinand and Isabella had Columbus occasionally in mind, and were not willing he should leave the country for another court, he was frequently reminded, but could on no occasion obtain from them anything but evasive answers to his pleadings. They were stimulated to provide for his expenses and to grant him a sum of money in the nature of a retainer, in the spring of 1488, when, in answer to a letter he had written to King John II, of Portugal, Columbus received a cordial invitation to return, with a promise of immunity from "any suits of either a civil or criminal nature" that might then be pending against him. This refers to the report current at that time, that Columbus had fled from Portugal in debt, and with a prison yawning for his reception should he ever return. Another letter reached him about this time from King Henry VII. of England (to whom he had sent his brother Bartholomew at the time of his departure from Portugal) containing much matter of an encouraging nature and an invitation to his kingdom.

These communications from royal rivals in the race for supremacy caused the Spanish sovereigns to regard their guest with greater favor; but still there was the same delay in their answers to his importunities. A year later he was summoned to attend another conference of "wise men," this time in Seville, and an order was issued for his entertainment gratis while in that "city of the golden tower." But another campaign was about to begin that year (for one was conducted annually, every spring), and, instead of waiting the pleasure of the monks, Columbus gladly followed in the train of the court to participate in the siege of Baza. There he conducted himself with great gallantry, it is recorded, and there he met two reverend friars, brethren from the convent at the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, who had come with an insolent message from the Sultan of Egypt. It was to the effect that unless the Spanish sovereigns should desist from their wars against the Mohammedan Moors, he would destroy the sacred sepulchre and put to death every Christian in Jerusalem. This threat caused no commotion in the breasts of the sovereigns, who were inflexibly determined to root out every vestige of the Moorish population in Spain; but it roused the pious indignation of Columbus, who resolved to devote whatever profits should accrue from his discoveries to a crusade for the delivery of the holy tomb from the hands of the infidels. That he fervently desired to do this, and that he clung to this intention all his life, is shown by a clause in his last will and testament, written shortly before his death, in which he adjures his son and heir to create a fund for that purpose in the bank of St. George at Genoa, "and let it multiply there until such time as it may appear to him that something of consequence may be effected as respects the project for the, conquest of Jerusalem."

The siege of Baza was prolonged more than six months, but eventually it fell and the keys of the walled city were surrendered, together with the person of Muley Boabdil, one of the two rival kings of Granada. It was a most important capture, and was celebrated with great rejoicings, especially in Seville, whither the court (followed by the dejected Columbus) returned, but only to begin preparations for the marriage of the sovereigns' eldest daughter, Isabella, with Prince Alonzo, heir-apparent to the crown of Portugal. The vagrant Genoese was not altogether forgotten, for he was now attached to the royal suite and a stated sum allotted for his maintenance. Neither was he ignored, for the courtiers ridiculed him, and the children were taught to tap their foreheads when he passed, in token of his being regarded as a madman.

Spring and summer passed away; the winter of 1490–1491 found the sovereigns deep in their preparations for the final campaign against the Moors, now intrenched at Granada. One by one, as Ferdinand said, he had plucked the seeds from that "pomegranate" (the province of Granada), and now he would reach forth and grasp the fruit. Columbus knew this was to be a supreme endeavor to finally extirpate the Moors, and he had a tacit promise from the Queen that when the war was over she would be at liberty to engage in his enterprise. But he was weary from waiting, all those long years given to hanging upon the promises of royalty, of repeated rebuffs, of mingling with courtiers whom he despised and court fools whom he spurned. He insisted, at last, upon a definite answer to his solicitations, and he got it nearly four years after the conference at Salamanca had convened. It took those "wise men" a long time to decide that the project of Columbus was "vain and impracticable," and that it did not "become their highnesses to have anything to do with it." Or, rather, while they had probably come to this decision four years before, they had taken their time to deliver themselves of this embodiment of ignorance and bigotry. They were represented by Fernando de Talavera, who was commanded to communicate the decision to Columbus, which he did without delay. Unwilling to accept it from the lips of his enemy Talavera, Columbus left Cordova, where he had been residing with Dona Enriquez and their son, anxiously waiting, and hastened to Seville. There he was told, directly by or from the sovereigns, that they could not aid him then, but that if he would wait until after the war was over—provided it ended in the way they hoped and believed—they might bestow their patronage upon him.

Evasion and subterfuge could suffice to detain their heaven-sent guest no longer. Filled with sorrow, indignation, and fruitless regret for all those wasted years of a life in its prime, Columbus turned his back upon court, and King, and Queen. He was now at liberty to leave a land in which he had fared so ill, and, having received encouraging letters from the kings of England, France, and Portugal, he was not altogether without hope or recourse. Leaving his son Fernando with his mother at Cordova, he set out for Huelva, intending, it is thought, to abandon Spain forever, and lay siege to one of the monarchs mentioned; perchance he might obtain that justice which had been denied him in Spain.

It is supposed that his elder son Diego had remained, through those eventless years, with his aunt in Moguer, as in journeying to the point at which we shall next discover Columbus, either from Seville or Cordova, he would be likely to take that town on his way. For, whether he visited La Rabida or not, when he first set foot in Spain (as mentioned in the first chapter) he certainly arrived there soon after he had come to the determination to quit the country. Moguer is about a league from La Rabida, of which historic Palos, midway the distance, was its port. The fact is that Palos itself is half a mile or more from the Rio Tinto, and, though it may have been a port in the time of Columbus, is not now entitled to that distinction. The road between the two places winds between carefully-kept vine-yards, over the slopes of low-lying hills, thence passing through the straggling street of white-walled Palos, which to-day is lifeless, and, but for its historic associations with Columbus and the first great voyage to America, would be unattractive. Soon after leaving Palos you feel the ocean breezes and gain a distant glimpse of the sea. The scenery is now sombre and sad, the fields devoid of vegetation, except for the remains of a forest adorning the summit of a hill, climbing the landward slope of which the pilgrim to this shrine of times Columbian reaches a small plateau. On the seaward verge of this plateau stands the monastery of La Rabida, with massive white walls, red-tiled roofs, and central cupola. There are two entrances to this building, but it was at the arched gateway at the right, which leads directly into the reception-hall of the monastery, that Columbus and his son Diego paused to crave refreshment, near the close of an autumn day in 1491.

More than four hundred years have passed since these two climbed the hill-path leading to the portal of La Rabida, yet what young reader of these lines would not sympathize with those weary travellers who halted here to beg a bit of bread and cup of water? Hand-in-hand, rejoined after a separation of nearly seven years, father and son had fared forth to seek a foreign land. What those years had brought to Columbus, we know: weariness of heart, disappointed hopes; but what they had meant to the motherless lad, who had been left all that time without a father's protecting care and love, who can tell? His mother's sister may have been kind to him; but we know nothing more of her than merely her name. It is left to conjecture, in what manner the youth of Diego Columbus was passed. He only emerges from obscurity now and then, first as the companion of his father in his flight from Portugal; again as he purposes to seek another foreign shore, this time, probably, that of France. After his father's death, in 1506, he succeeded to his titles and honors (though he obtained them only after long litigation with the crown), and died while in the prime of life.

But we see them now, once more united, standing at the gateway of La Rabida, and (though they knew it not) at the parting of the ways. Columbus had come, as it were by chance, to the one man who was to secure for him his long-deferred reward. As father and son stood talking with the porter, they attracted the attention of the prior of the monastery, worthy Juan Perez de Marchena. Despite his humble garb and air of dejection, Columbus could never be anything but noble of bearing, and, struck by his dignified appearance, the prior entered into conversation with him. Then, finding him learned and more than ordinarily interesting, he invited him in to tarry a while. A fire was kindled in the great reception-room, and, as the flames leaped up the huge chimney-throat, the stranger told his story of wearisome waiting, long-cherished hopes, and finally of crushing defeat.

Now, it happened that Juan Perez de Marchena had once been the religious adviser and close friend of the Queen. He had retired to the monastery for the purpose of leading a life more in accord with his desire for quiet and meditation than the bustle of a court afforded him. But he still retained the loving regard of Isabella the Queen, who knew his heart of gold and who highly valued his advice.

His interest was aroused, his eye kindled, his heart warmed as Columbus unfolded his story, broached his theories, and developed his schemes in all their grandeur. Knowing the sailor-folk of Palos and the coast, aware of what had been done by voyagers hitherto, Friar Marchena was alive to all the possibilities that lay in this grand project, and he also realized what a glorious opportunity would be lost to Spain if Columbus were allowed to carry it to France or England. He sent for his physician, Garcia Fernandez, and also for an authority on matters maritime, Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and these three held a conference that lasted all night long in the great, square room that overlooks the Rio Tinto.

Reader, you may see it to-day, the "Columbus Room" of La Rabida, with its floor of earthen tiles and ceiling of cedar; may sit at the massive table around which gathered those great men who were actually sponsors for the birth of America; for it is still intact in the monastery, which has been restored, and is preserved as a sacred relic by the Spanish nation. Here, in this obscure corner of Spain, Columbus found men who could appreciate the magnitude of his ideas, who were ready to embark with him on the voyage of discovery. Supported by the views of a scientist like Doctor Fernandez, and backed by the wealthy mariner and ship-owner Martin Alonzo Pinzon, the good prior hesitated no longer in sending to Isabella a plea for Columbus. Fourteen days later the messenger returned with the thanks of the Queen, and a request for the prior to honor her with his immediate presence. That very night Juan Perez mounted his mule and started for Granada, where the sovereigns were then encamped. His heart and soul were in this enterprise, and he prevailed upon Isabella to order the return of Columbus to her court, after an impressive interview, in which he won her completely by his eloquence.