Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

The Return Voyage to Spain


The first bloodshed of the voyage, the first encounter between Europeans and Indians in America (unless we give credence to the Norsemen's tales of skirmishes with the "Skraelings") , occurred on the shore of Samana, near a little bay still known as the Golfo de las Flechas, or Gulf of Arrows. It was so named by Columbus on account of the multitude of arrows shot at the Spaniards by the natives, and which strewed the ground after the brief conflict was over, The Admiral regretted this encounter, fearing it might create "bad blood " between the Indians and his garrison at Navidad; but the Caribs were not incensed, for they rather respected a worthy foe, and seemed delighted as well as surprised to come in contact with people of greater prowess than themselves. They mingled with the Spaniards freely, and four of the young warriors offered to guide the Admiral to the Amazonian island, hoping, probably, to obtain redress, through their new and invincible friends, for long-standing offences.

The Indians had pointed to the northeast as the direction in which the island of Amazons lay, and, as that was on the homeward route to Spain, Columbus accepted their offer gladly, on January 16th setting sail for the mythical Madinino. He fully believed in this island of Amazons, and in one of the letters he wrote, on this very voyage, he says, "It is the first island, in going from Spain to the Indies, in which there are no men whatever." But he also says, "There was, farther west [of Guarico], a province I did not visit called Cibau, the people of which are born with tails!" He also believed in dog-headed men, one-eyed monsters, mermaids, dragons, and was greatly disappointed that he found none of them in the West Indies. But he made the most of the manatees he saw in the Rio del Oro, describing them as veritable mermaids, though "not so handsome" as he had been led to believe they were. However, he left the Gulf of Arrows and went in search of the Amazons, really expecting to find them. After proceeding fifty or sixty miles, the Indians said they were mistaken in locating the island in the northeast, as it really was in the south-east. This put a different face on the matter, and, as the wind now blew from a quarter favorable for the voyage to Spain, Amazon Island was left for another time. The unfortunate savages were taken along, perforce, and probably formed part of the procession later led by Columbus across Spain to Barcelona.

He already had a few Cubans, Lucayans or Bahamans, and Haitians or Arawaks; but these Caribs (or perhaps they were Cigueyans) would form an agreeable variety in the "ethnological congress" he purposed assembling at the court of Spain. He had collected them as curiosities merely; but, whatever his motive, he compelled the poor savages to take the voyage. They were downcast, even reduced to despair, at the prospect; but the sailors were overjoyed. They had grown tired of strange sights and peoples, foods and drinks; wearied of gazing on forest scenery, though varied and beautiful, and longed for the parched and barren plains of their own "sunny Spain." There was, therefore, a glad shout of assent when Columbus announced his decision to proceed for home, and gave the pilots orders to hold the course for Spain.

The favorable wind did not last very long, and during the remainder of the month the breezes were either very light, or dead ahead. The trade-winds, which had helped the vessels along on the outward voyage, operated as the sailors had feared they would, and prevented progress on the return. But the weather was mild, and the seas so calm that the Indians frequently plunged into the water and swam about the vessels. The sailors amused themselves by fishing, catching a shark and some tunny fish, which proved welcome additions to their diminishing stock of provisions, as by February 1st they were reduced to bread and wine and Indian peppers.

They worked out of the trade-wind region at last, and about February loth were enabled to steer a straight course towards Spain; but the pilots were confused in their reckoning, and Columbus alone knew approximately their position as to latitude and longitude. He may have been responsible for this, having confessedly kept a double reckoning on the outward voyage, so that the pilots calculated they were at least one hundred and fifty leagues nearer Spain than was actually the case. The Admiral allowed them to remain in error without enlightening them as to the truth, doing all he could, in fact, to add to their perplexity, so that he only should have accurate knowledge of the route to the West Indies.

In mid-February they were in about the latitude of Andalusia, though a long distance out in the Atlantic. Just at the time they were congratulating themselves upon a prosperous termination of the voyage, a terrible storm broke upon them which lasted several days. The seas ran mountains high, it seemed to those imperilled sailors at the mercy of wind and waves. They were obliged to take in all sail and scud before the blast with "bare poles," and as it was impossible for the vessels to keep company in such stress of weather, they soon separated. The Pinta  a second time sailed beyond the vision of Columbus; but on this occasion he knew it was owing to no dereliction of Captain Pinzon, the foremast of whose vessel was so weak that he had to scud directly before the storm.

Supposing the Pinta  to be lost, and that his own vessel 'could not long survive the gale, Columbus resorted to an expedient which shows his belief in the desperate nature of their condition. Oppressed by the thought that, even after all his sufferings, his great and glorious deeds might perish, leaving behind no record, he wrote on parchment an account of what had been done, seen, and found, wrapped it in a waxed cloth, which again he enclosed in a. cake of wax and placed in a barrel. This barrel was then made water-tight with pitch and thrown into the sea, while a duplicate of the manuscript was similarly enclosed in another cask, which was placed on the upper deck, in order that, if the vessel should go to pieces, it might be washed off by the waves.

Nothing further was ever heard of this message which the Admiral committed to the keeping of the waves, unless a story related by the master of a vessel in 1851 may have credence. While taking ballast, on the coast of Africa opposite Gibraltar (he reported), one of his crew picked up what appeared to be a large piece of pumice incrusted with barnacles. It was broken open, when a keg was disclosed, containing a cocoanut, covered with gum or wax, within which was a manuscript in old Gothic Spanish. Upon being deciphered, in sooth, it was found to be "the veritable account written by Columbus, nearly three hundred and sixty years before, whose signature it bore in a bold, dashing hand." The finder, who was then at Gibraltar, promised to take his prize to the United States; but as no news was subsequently received from him or the manuscript, it is possible both may have been lost at sea.

The Admiral did not inform his crew as to the true purport of his act in throwing the barrel overboard, fearing they would give way to despair, but told them it was done in performance of a vow. This they could readily believe, sharing the superstition of Columbus that the storm gods might be propitiated by vows and promises. Considering themselves beyond all human aid, they sought to avert extreme disaster by solemn vows to Heaven that, if saved, they would perform various pilgrimages and penitences, for which they cast lots, by placing a number of beans in a hat, one of which was marked with a cross. This bean was drawn by Columbus two or three times in succession, and, among other obligations, he was pledged to watch and pray during an entire night in a holy chapel of Moguer—a pledge which he faithfully redeemed.

The storm continued to rage for nearly a week thereafter, in the midst of which land was sighted. It proved to be the little island of St. Mary's, one of the Azores group, but could not be approached for two or three days more, on account of a contrary wind. When, at last, the storm-tossed mariners set foot on shore, they were roughly received by the Portuguese inhabitants of the island, led by the Governor, who had orders from his sovereign to arrest Columbus should he land in the Azores. One-half the crew were landed with great difficulty, owing to the roughness of the seas, and, in accordance with their vows on board ship, they went to a chapel, or hermitage, barefooted, and clad merely in their shirts, to offer thanksgivings for their deliverance. While engaged in these devotions, their coreligionists fell upon and made them prisoners, as if they were criminals, rather than discoverers worthy of great honor and renown. They were detained two or three days by the Governor, who sought by stratagem to get Columbus in his power, but without success. He only released them when shown the Admiral's credentials, displaying the royal seal of Spain, and then did what he could to make amends for his baseness and perfidy. Columbus had been exposed to great peril while the men of his crew were on shore, being then short-handed, with only landsmen and Indians to assist him, and was for two days beating about at sea, unable to regain the land. After receiving his rescued seamen on board, and threatening the unworthy representative of Portugal with the vengeance of his sovereigns, he stood away from this inhospitable island on February 24th, for three days enjoying fine weather, when head winds and a turbulent sea again assailed him. The coast of Portugal was not far distant, and the nearer to land the frail caravel was driven, the rougher the reception she received. Watery mountains succeeded to profound abysses, over and into which she was forced, while rain fell in torrents, lightning flashed, and thunder roared in deafening peals. Her sails were torn to tatters by a squall of wind, and under bare poles the gallant little Nina  plunged through the terrors of a night of gloom, when the cry of "Land!" was raised by a seaman on the watch.

It was at the end of a weary week of storm, at daybreak of March 4th, that the rock of Cintra was sighted, near the mouth of the river Tagus. The "golden Tagus" has its birth in the mountains of Spain, and among other famous cities on its banks is grand old Toledo, but it meets the sea on the coast of Portugal. It was a sore disappointment to Columbus that the first land on his return voyage should he that pertaining to the sovereign who had by treachery endeavored to deprive him of his just deserts. But the tempest still prevailing prevented him from putting to sea again and seeking a port of Spain, so he made the best of circumstances and stood into the river. Whatever was in store for him and his crew at Lisbon, the capital, only a few miles away, the people at the mouth of the river received them with enthusiastic greetings. They had watched with anxiety the approach of the little craft, coming in at the end of a storm that had raged for more than a week, and which had caused numerous shipwrecks on their coast. They flocked aboard in such numbers, having heard a report that the vessel was laden with gold, that Columbus was alarmed, especially in view of the fact that they bore a bad reputation. He sent a dispatch post-haste to the King, who was then at Valparaiso, requesting permission to repair to Lisbon, where he could rest in greater security. He also solicited an audience of his Majesty, though uncertain as to the nature of his reception from one who had spurned the offer of a world which he was now proceeding to lay at the feet of Portugal's rival. While awaiting answer to his communication, he was summoned on board a Portuguese man-of-war then anchored in the stream, the captain of which, Don Alonzo de Acuna, demanded an account of his doings. The commander was astonished to receive reply that, as an admiral of Spain, such a proceeding would be derogatory to his rights and dignities, and the demand was refused. Such was the still undaunted spirit of Columbus, which insisted upon the punctilios due to his station, even though in the midst of enemies and completely at their mercy. The captain was amused; but he was generous, and himself made the first visit of ceremony, going aboard the caravel in great state, and placing his services at the disposal of the great discoverer.

His reception by the King was such as was usually reserved for royalty alone; but what must have been the feelings of his host while listening to that wonderful story? Though consumed with inward rage and grief at the thought of what he had lost by his duplicity, and though (as even Portuguese historians have asserted) he was urged to deprive Columbus of his laurels and the Spanish sovereigns of their prospective empire by resort to the assassin's dagger, the King stifled his resentment, and treated Columbus with the greatest consideration. He even ordered (provided he wished to proceed to Spain by land) that the Admiral should be given horses and an escort to the frontier. During the days he was entertained at court, however, the weather had become favorable for voyaging, and so Columbus decided to proceed by sea rather than by land.

At sunrise, March 15th, after two days of pleasant sailing around the southwest coast of Portugal, the Nina, with her precious freightage from the New World, safely crossed the bar of Saltes, which she had left at sunrise of an August day the year before. Sailing up the estuary to the river Tinto, she cast anchor off the port of Palos, where, the signal having been sent from La Rabida, excited throngs awaited her arrival. The little town was in a tumult, for (as we know) every inhabitant of Palos had a friend or a relative in that expedition, the smallest vessel of which had at last returned, storm-battered and alone, after an absence of nearly seven months and a half.

"Only the Nina  [the child] has returned," the people whispered, fearsomely. "Where are the others: the Santa Maria  and the Pinta?"

The clamor and rejoicings of the crowd were hushed until, boats having put off from shore, the truth was ascertained. Then, as the sailors went ashore and mingled with their friends, cries arose of grief and of joy. Only one-third the number that sailed away had come back to Palos, and while these were welcomed as if returned from the grave—as if the ocean had given them up from its depths—there were yet fourscore more unaccounted for!

But the bells rang forth their greetings, a procession was formed, and in the church that had heard the royal proclamation read ten months before—that knell of doom to many—thanks were given Almighty God for His mercies. Hardly had the sounds of rejoicing died away, scarcely had the clangor of bells ceased to rend the air, when, as evening of that memorable day approached, and after the throngs had dispersed, another caravel sailed slowly up the river. It was the Pinta, whose master, Martin Alonzo Pinzon, had hoped to outstrip Columbus on the homeward voyage; but had returned only to taste the fruit of bitter disappointment.