Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Sailor and Corsair


Crowning a headland on the coast of Spain, less than thirty miles distant from the southern boundary-line of Portugal, stands the ancient monastery of La Rabida. It was founded, according to tradition, during the reign of Trajan, Roman emperor, more than eighteen hundred years ago, and for a time was occupied by the Knights Templars, after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain becoming a possession of the Franciscan monks. As its name in Arabic signifies an outpost, they called it "Santa Maria de la Rabida," or the monastery of Saint Mary of the Frontier. It is almost as lonely now as in the time of him whose fortunes we shall shortly follow, for the nearest settlement is Palos, three miles away, while the same distance separates it from the Atlantic, the roar of whose waves may be heard here in times of storm, as they dash upon the "Arenas Gordas," or wild wastes of sands, that render this coast uninhabitable.

The headland upon which La Rabida is situated is based between two rivers, the Tinto and Domingo Rubio, the confluent waters of which follow the Odiel, then flow past a sandy island and mid foaming breakers to the ocean. Down this channel, floating on the bosom of the Tinto from Palos, came the caravels of Columbus, one day in August, 1492, and, taking their departure from La Rabida, sailed out into the ocean, on that voyage which made their crews akin to the immortals. Two thousand years ago this coast was known to the Phoenicians, for those daring sailors of Tyre, who found the passage between the Pillars of Hercules, came here to mine the ores of Tarshish, which they shipped from the port of Huelva, and which can be seen from La Rabida, across an arm of the sea, shining like a silvery snow-drift against the purple of its hills. Huelva was the "copper port" of ancient Tarshish, mention of which is made in the Bible, and the Rio Tinto [pronounced Teen-to, meaning colored] is said to derive its name from the beds of copper over which it flows.

Particular mention is made of La Rabida, at the outset of our voyagings with Columbus, because (strange though it may seem) it is, perhaps, the first spot with which we can positively identify the great discoverer in the early period of his wonderful career. As to the exact date of his birth, the house in which he was born, his adventures during youth and early manhood, his personal appearance even, there is "a great diversity of opinion among historians"; but the mists of obscurity dissolve away when, in the course of his wanderings, Columbus arrives at the hospitable portal of La Rabida. His experiences there will be narrated in due course; but it should be borne in mind that they were so important, and had such a bearing upon his subsequent discoveries in the "New World"—then to be revealed—that the old monastery has been aptly termed "the corner-stone of American history."

Christopher Columbus first arrived in Spain in the year 1484 or 1485, having come from Portugal with his son Diego. He intended to leave him with his sister-in-law, then residing at Moguer, or at Huelva, which towns form, together with Palos, not far distant from either, a distinguished triad in the history of Spain. He was on his way to the court of Isabella and Ferdinand, then at Cordova, and (though some historians make no mention of this first, conjectural arrival at La Rabida) it is quite possible he came here before going farther into Andalusia. In the first place, Huelva and Palos were the nearest Spanish ports to Portugal, whence he had come; in the second, La Rabida was the most conspicuous landmark on that part of the coast, the point of arrival and departure for many a mariner, its white towers being visible many miles at sea. He was not, however, a native of Spain, nor was his first visit to that country made until he was well advanced in life; as all the world should know, and as it seems hardly necessary to remind the reader.

Despite the uncertainty attaching to the exact place of his birth—so far as village, street, and house are concerned—there can exist no doubt whatever as to his nationality. He was an Italian, and was born in Genoa, as he himself testifies in his last will and testament, in the following item:

"I also enjoin Diego [his son], or any one who may inherit the estate, to have and maintain in the city of Genoa one person of our lineage to reside there with his wife, and appoint him a sufficient revenue to enable him to live decently, as a person closely connected with the family, of which he is to be the root and basis in that city; from which great good may accrue to him, inasmuch as I was born there, and came from thence."

He was a native of Genoa, most assuredly; but as to the date of his birth his biographers hold various opinions, with the majority in favor of that given by Washington Irving, which is "about" the year 1435. Although he may have been of what is called "illustrious descent," or allied to the nobility, the fact that it was not discovered until after he had become the most famous man in the world, casts a shadow of doubt upon the claim. His natural son, Ferdinand, who wrote a biography of the great "Admiral," does not dwell upon the fact that his father was the son of Dominico Colombo, a humble wool-comber, and his wife Susanna; but he sensibly concludes that he "should derive less dignity from any nobility of ancestry than from being the son of such a father."

As the eldest child of a poor man, himself probably uneducated, Christopher Columbus did not obtain the benefits of an education in the schools to any great extent. He was taught, or taught himself, reading, writing, grammar, and arithmetic, was good at drawing, and had a decided taste for geographical studies. There is a tradition that he at one time attended the university of Pavia, and, though this has been denied by some historians who profess to know, he somehow and somewhere (but probably in the rough school of experience) acquired a knowledge, ample for his times, of geometry, astronomy, geography, and navigation; while as for Latin, he could both write and speak it fluently.

He had two brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, to whom he was strongly attached, and of whom we shall learn something more than their names in the course of this narrative. He also had a sister, who married a person in her own station of life, and fell into the abysm of obscurity. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, no sooner had Christopher Columbus risen to a height above the level of the masses, than he stooped and raised his brothers beside him. They served him faithfully, loyally, and he requited their services to his best ability. Their devotion to each other in after life causes one to regret that we could not know more of their youthful years, and especially of the chief personage of this remarkable trio.

One thing is certain: Christopher could not have remained long at the university, even if he entered it, as at the age of fourteen he was serving as a sailor, on board a ship commanded by Captain Colombo, who is said to have been a connection of his family. He was also called a corsair, by courtesy; but, if the truth be told, it would appear that he was an out-and-out pirate, making a specialty of plundering the Mohammedan Moors, but not objecting to rich prizes of any nationality, should they fall in his way.

Under Corsair Colombo, young Christopher rapidly acquired a knowledge of navigation, as well as of warfare, that stood him in good stead later in life. He was engaged in many encounters, the traditions say, and on the coast of Africa received a bullet in his body which he carried to his dying day. At least, in the casket in Santo Domingo which, it is alleged, contains his sacred ashes, a bullet was found large enough to have inflicted a serious wound, and which must have been very inconvenient to carry about, whether in body or limb.

A strong attachment seems to have sprung up between the corsair and his young relative, and when the veteran retired from active life, Columbus shipped for several cruises with his nephew, who was called Colombo the younger, and made himself such a terror to the Moors that the African coast of the Mediterranean was inspired with a dread of his very name. While serving under the elder Colombo, Christopher is presumed to have been on board a ship of the squadron fitted out, in 1459, by John of Anjou, Duke of Calabria, against the kingdom of Naples. During the long struggle, which lasted four years, there was opportunity for Columbus to distinguish himself; and, indeed, he is said to have improved it on at least one occasion, in the harbor of Tunis, when he cut out an enemy's galley.

After the Naples expedition the young mariner was lost to sight for several years, in the interval between 1459 and 1470, having made his way to Portugal, where he made his advent (according to his son Ferdinand) in a most romantic manner. While he was with the younger Colombo, that reckless corsair attacked with his squadron four great Venetian galleys laden with rich cargoes. In the height of the conflict, and while Colombo's flag-ship was attached to one of the Venetian vessels by chains and grappling-irons, both burst into flames and were consumed to the water's edge. Their crews barely escaped by casting themselves into the sea, and among them was Columbus, who, with the help of a floating oar, swam to the shore, which was five or six miles distant. Making his way to Lisbon, he took up his abode in that city, where he resided for a fifth part of his life. The statement that he went to Portugal is true; but grave doubts are entertained as to his entering that country in the manner indicated, for it is thought he had already been a resident there several years when the encounter took place.



In whatever manner, and however impelled, Columbus was moved to take up his residence in Portugal, it cannot be doubted that it was in accord with the "eternal fitness of things." Born in a seaport city, early taking to the seafaring life as a career, after long dwelling upon the problems presented to a thoughtful mind as to the possible extension of oceanic voyaging, it was but natural that he should seek out the foremost nation of that time in maritime discovery. Though he may have returned to Genoa afterwards (some say in 1472), he never resided there for any length of time. He became naturalized as a citizen in Portugal, and the ties he formed there were further cemented by his marriage to an estimable lady of noble birth, Dona Felipa Munoz de Palestrello, who, like himself, came of Italian ancestry.

Religious and devotional, Columbus attended church with regularity, and it was while in the chapel of a convent at Lisbon that he first saw the lady who became his wife. Her father had been a naval officer under Prince Henry of Portugal, and was at one time governor of the island of Porto Santo, but at his death had left no great fortune to his daughter. The marriage; which quickly followed their first meeting, was one of pure attachment simply, and, though both were poor, they seem to have been happy and contented. They lived at first with Dona Felipa's mother at Lisbon, but soon after their marriage removed to Porto Santo in the Madeira Islands, where the bride's father had left her a small estate. All the charts and manuscripts of the deceased navigator were placed at the disposal of Columbus by his mother-in-law, and it is thought that by poring over them (disclosing as they did the schemes and discoveries of the Portuguese) he became possessed of the idea, which was persistent with him ever after, of sailing westward in search of a passage to the Indies. Under the enlightened Prince Henry, son of John I. and his wife, who was a sister of Henry IV. of England, Portugal had made great strides towards the circumnavigation of Africa, and attained an advanced position in commerce and navigation. Portuguese ships had crept from cape to cape of the "Dark Continent," and the problem the prince had set himself was in process of solution at the time of his death, in 1473.

While the Spanish sovereigns were pressing their conquests on land, Portugal was advancing her banners along the coast of Africa. Until that time, however, no navigators had penetrated into the Atlantic, or "Sea of Darkness," as it then was termed, farther westward from the coast than the Cape de Verde and Azores islands. Theories there had been, from times most ancient, including those of Plato and other philosophers, and there was a firm belief in the "lost Atlantis," an island far westward in the ocean voids, vestiges of which were still believed to exist. It was no new theory which began to take shape in the mind of Columbus: that beyond the farthest limits of man's voyaging into the Atlantic a land, or lands, existed, pertaining or adjacent to the Asian continent.

The idea developed slowly, but it persisted with Columbus, strengthened by what he had read, what he had observed, and by several accidental circumstances. He knew all that the ancients had written on the subject; he had thought for years along the lines they had suggested, and in his mind he had already projected himself across the Waste of waters to the unknown countries of his imagination. Possessed of strong sense and a penetrating mind, although imaginative and even superstitious, it is probable that Columbus rejected the rumors respecting the mythical St. Brandan's Isle; but he undoubtedly believed in Plato's Atlantis, and expected to find it somewhere in the Atlantic, between the Cape de Verdes and India.

Some writers have accepted, some rejected, the story of the shipwrecked pilot who returned to the Madeiras with a tale of new countries, and who expired in the house of Columbus, after narrating his strange experiences. It matters not whether Columbus received information from him that decided him in venturing westward in search of those lands, or made his decision from having heard of the various objects brought across the Atlantic by the waves and cast upon the shores of different islands. One of the King's pilots told him he had found at sea a piece of wood carved by some instrument not of iron, probably of stone or flint. Immense reeds, similar to those said to grow in India, and huge trunks of trees unlike any in Europe or the islands, had been cast ashore after strong westerly winds, together with the bodies of two dead men, whose features resembled those of none known to Africa or Europe.

All these things Columbus made note of, carefully treasuring every fact, every item of information, in corroboration of his theory of a western world beyond the waste of waters. An idea held tenaciously, a purpose strongly fixed, will attract support from every side, as the magnet draws the bits of iron. The theory of Columbus was not an inspiration, but a growth, or mental process, having its inception in a vigorous mind and sustained by cumulative circumstances. The idea might have occurred to any other man, have been entertained awhile, then have been forgotten or cast aside. In the mind of Columbus this seed, or germ, found fertile soil for its development; it grew and flourished until supremely dominant.