Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

Conversations with Columbus

1492 or 1493

While we cannot affirm that Christopher Columbus and Vespucci were acquainted previous to the voyage which made America known to Europe, it is well established that Amerigo was in Spain when his favored rival sailed from Palos, in August, 1492, and also when he returned, in March, 1493. In the very month of January, 1492, in which Vespucci wrote the letter quoted in the previous chapter, Columbus and the Spanish sovereigns signed the "capitulation" that set forth the demands of the discoverer and the concessions of the king and queen. That paper was signed and sealed in the palace of the Alhambra, not far distant from Cadiz, and still nearer to Seville, whither Vespucci removed soon after. He may have been there when Columbus passed through the latter city on his way to Palos, Seville being in the direct route between Granada and the Rio Tinto; but if he then saw and conversed with him there is no record of the fact.

What must have been his feelings, though, when he learned of the transaction between Columbus and the sovereigns? Columbus had gained permission to make—what he himself was far better equipped for—a voyage across the Sea of Darkness, to the islands that lay on the route of Marco Polo's Cathay. And Columbus had merely corresponded with his master, Toscanelli, at whose feet he, Vespucci, had sat, and during days and hours discussed the problem that his rival was now going forth to solve!

While Vespucci plodded, almost hopelessly, at Cadiz and Seville, Columbus pushed forward preparations for his voyage, and finally set sail. Did not Amerigo, then, send a sigh after him and his caravels, and think regretfully of his maps, his charts, globes, and nautical instruments lying dusty and disused in Florence? They were more to him than anything else in the world. With their aid, and countenanced by royal favor, he might have been the fortunate one to adventure upon the ocean, and seek the unknown regions which he was positive lay there veiled from human sight. But he was pledged to repair the family fortune, he was committed to the interests of his employers, and even if the suggestion of embarking on a voyage of discovery came to him he could not entertain it for an instant. He could not then; but perhaps opportunity might yet offer, he thought, and so sent for his books, charts, and instruments, in order to perfect himself in cosmography and nautical science. He became so proficient that some years after he was appointed by King Ferdinand pilot-major of Spain, and even the charts that Columbus made were brought to him for correction or verification.

The months went by, spent by Columbus in "making history," by Vespucci in lading ships for others to sail in, and in the intervals of business poring over his books and charts. At last, in the spring of 1493, one day a courier came dashing into Seville with the news of Columbus's return, by way of Portugal, a letter having arrived from Lisbon addressed to the sovereigns, and another for Santangel, secretary to the king. Then Vespucci knew his opportunity had taken flight, for the New World had been discovered, the glory belonged to Columbus!

Soon after the return of the voyagers to Palos, he may have seen the triumphal procession led by Columbus to Barcelona, and probably had speech with him and with some of his sailors. He saw the six Indians who had been made captive in the islands and were brought to Seville, for they remained there some time while Columbus was awaiting orders from Barcelona. A letter from the sovereigns came at last, addressed to "Don Cristobal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of the Indies," which probably Amerigo himself perused—with what a sickening of heart may be imagined—for it contained a memorandum from the sovereigns referring to the equipment of a second expedition, and his firm received the contract. Vespucci was then connected with the house of Berardi (having left the employ of the Medici), either as contracting agent or partner. Whatever relation he stood in to the firm, it was a most responsible one, for to him was committed the furnishing of a large fleet without delay.

It was about the last of March, or early in April, that Columbus delivered to him the order from the king and queen, and then set out for Barcelona overland. He arrived there duly, to be received with almost royal honors, and meanwhile the house of Berardi, under the active supervision of Vespucci, was busy with the preparation of the fleet. Ships were sought and chartered; caravels built, bought, and repaired; munitions provided and crews of sailors assembled, which Vespucci was obliged to hold and keep together against the sailing of the squadron.

And what was the personal appearance of these two great navigators, thus so strangely brought into business relations, and whose fame in after times was to fill the world? Although there is no portrait existing of Columbus which we can affirm to be authentic, still verbal portraits have been left by his contemporaries which convey to us the impression that the "Admiral" was tall and stalwart, dignified in bearing, with fair complexion, blue eyes, and hair then silvery gray.

Amerigo Vespucci was his exact opposite, in superficial characteristics, for he was under rather than above the middle height, "thick-set and brawny," with a dark complexion, black hair mixed with gray, and flashing black eyes. An authentic portrait, painted at a later date, shows him with head nearly bald, encircled only by a fringe of hair, prominent cheek-bones, aquiline nose, a firm, sweet mouth, and without the thick black beard he wore when he first met Columbus. His temper was mild, while that of Columbus was hasty, though firmly controlled, save on a few occasions when, tried beyond measure, it burst its bounds and swept away all opposition. But both great men were courteous in speech, the dignified demeanor of Columbus commanding admiration, while the modesty of Vespucci won the friendship of all with whom he came in contact.

The following dialogue between the two, or the purport of it, is thought to have taken place soon after the return of Columbus from Barcelona, either at Cadiz or Seville. It was but natural that the two should meet, that they should exchange views and compare notes, for, while Columbus had made the great discovery—through having been the first to apply the theories of Toscanelli and the ancients—Vespucci had for many years been thinking on the subject, and had enjoyed the friendship of the physicist, whom both revered. Whether this conversation is apocryphal or not, at least it embodies the divergent views of the two, and does no violence to their sentiments, as can be shown by their writings. It is adapted from Lester's Americus Vespucius.

Having with him, it is believed, the charts and books from which he deduced his theories, Vespucci probably invited Columbus to his lodgings, where the two spent many an hour in good-natured controversy. Nearly twenty years had elapsed since the learned doctor sent the chart and letter to Columbus, and now the latter, with the laurels of the great "discovery" on his brow, was to engage in argument with the person best acquainted with his life-work—who had followed it from its very inception, and who was to enjoy its usufruct forever.

Let us try to imagine them within the walls of Vespucci's house—whether in golden Seville or crystal Cadiz cannot be told; but it is easy to find one like it to-day, for the architecture of neither city has changed much since that time. The house is of stone, with thick white walls and roof of tiles. The rooms are large and dreary, but open on a court, or Moorish patio, around which they are ranged, and where a fountain tinkles merrily. The floor of Vespucci's room is tiled and damp, the furniture is scanty, but in the centre of the apartment is a large and massive table, upon which are spread his charts, while a globe—perhaps one of Behaim's, recently constructed—stands in a corner.

The arrival of the distinguished stranger at Vespucci's modest lodgings causes a flutter of excitement, not only in the household, but in the street, which is lined with gaping citizens, anxious to see the new admiral, who has already taken on the dignities of his station, is costumed in velvet, wears a sword at his side, and is accompanied by a retinue of hired retainers. Vespucci, on the contrary, shows no ostentation in his garb, for he is but a man of business, and, entirely unconscious of any discrepancy in their apparel, conducts his guest to the room where lie his treasures.

To the credit of Columbus, it should be said, he sees in Vespucci only the man of science, the student, the cosmographer, and, with the gentle dignity inseparable from this man who had appeared before kings and at courts, he compliments his host upon his collection. They are soon in earnest consultation, scanning the sea-charts, quoting authorities, advancing theories, becoming so absorbed as to ignore the yawning hangers-on of the admiral's staff, who soon retire, one after another, leaving the two geographers alone.

Finally, Columbus says, looking up from the chart upon which he had been sketching the route of his voyage:

"It grieves me much, worthy Signor Vespucci, to learn from our friend the Signor Berardi that you do not estimate as I do the result of our recent navigation to the west. With your well-known skill in cosmography, I fear me, you combine more of doubt than would be becoming to a Christian navigator."

"Your excellency mistakes my views greatly, or has been misinformed of them," replies Vespucci, courteously. "Far from undervaluing the effect of the discoveries which your genius has accomplished, I am the rather disposed to place a greater estimate upon them than does the Admiral Colon himself. If I judged them in the light in which they are viewed by the most of those who hope to profit by them, then, indeed, the imputation would be just; but I look not to such things, and well I know that your own mind is above them."

"In that respect you only do me justice. If I look for gain in aught that I have undertaken, it is only that I may devote it to a holy purpose. Have I not, even within the last few days, recorded my solemn oath that I would, in the event of my prosperous arrival at the court of the grand khan—whom, by the favor of God, I hope to convert to the true faith—employ the riches I shall acquire in the equipment of a force of four thousand horse and fifty thousand foot, for the recovery of the holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels? I am unwilling to think that your speech tends to the end of imputing to me mercenary motives; but wherein do we differ? Is not the way opened, and will not the intercourse I mean to establish with the pagan monarch contribute greatly to the purpose I keep ever in view? The holy father at Rome himself lends me encouragement in my undertaking, and regards with approbation my efforts to lead into the true Church so mighty a potentate."

"With all the deference that is due to your excellency's superior wisdom and experience, I would state that therein lies the very point of our difference. I deem it by no means certain that your ships have touched the territories of the grand khan at all, but rather land that has hitherto been alike unknown to him and to us. Thousands of leagues may yet intervene between that land and his dominions, whether of sea or earth remains to be discovered; and I judge in this wise as well from the accounts of cosmographers who have written on the subject, as from the description of the barbarous natives which you yourself have fallen in with in recent discoveries.

"The accounts of those who have penetrated to distant regions of the East lead us to understand that the subjects of the grand khan live in the midst of the most profuse wealth and luxury, and bedeck themselves with superfine garments, gold, and jewelry. These people, however, are wild and naked, little if any superior to the beasts, and cannot, I think, be in any wise connected with a monarch of such magnificence. My own thoughts carry me to the conviction that there exists near unto the lands you have visited an immense country, which may possibly belong to and be part of the grand khan's dominions, though I doubt if such be the case. Marco Polo himself speaks of an island lying far out in the ocean which washes the eastern shores of Asia—the great Cipango, abounding in riches and precious stones, which has never been subdued by the sovereign of Cathay, although he has made attempts to conquer it. This island I deem it necessary to discover, in the first place; then, even after it is circumnavigated or passed over—and the last may be the easier way—a voyage of long duration will still have to be accomplished before the empire of Cathay is reached. When I speak of a passage over this unknown island, I do so in view of its great extent, as I estimate it to be of such size that it might more properly be designated Terra Firma, being, according to my calculations, as large as, if not larger than, the whole of Europe. And herein do I estimate most highly the worth of the discoveries which your excellency has made, and their importance to this realm, as it will now be comparatively easy to pass the lands you have fallen in with by sailing either in a more northerly or a more southerly direction, in either case striking the country I have in my mind."

"Nay, nay, good Signor Vespucci. I have the confidence in my heart that you are mistaken. I feel, indeed, persuaded, by the many and wonderful manifestations of divine Providence in my especial favor, that I am the chosen instrument of God in bringing to pass a great event: no less than the conversion of millions who are now existing in the darkness of paganism. I would, indeed, provide for the good of the poor natives we have already met, as well by building cities on their islands and cultivating their lands, as by the erection of churches and the establishment of Christian worship. But I would by no means forget the greater end in view—namely, that of bringing to bear upon the infidels the wealth and power of the vast kingdom of Cathay, that thus being encompassed, by the armies from Europe on the one side, and by the innumerable hosts of Asia on the other, they may be utterly destroyed, and the tomb of our Lord be again placed in the possession of the true believers. . . . In these things I marvel much at your incredulity, Signor Vespucci, seeing that you have often had opportunities of conversing with the learned physicist Paolo, your own countryman—peace to his ashes!—who in his lifetime so nearly coincided with me in opinion."

"I have, indeed, as your excellency observes, oftentimes disputed and argued with the venerable Toscanelli, and to him is due much of the little knowledge I have been able to acquire in cosmography and astronomy. But from him I also learned that the descriptions which are given by Marco Polo were considered by many wise men as not altogether beyond the reach of doubt. If, then, he is in error in some particulars, how shall we draw the line, and say wherein he speaks the truth of his own knowledge? And how could he know the distance which exists between Cathay and the western shores of Europe, save by hearsay, and the reports of mariners on that unknown shore, who themselves must have been falsifiers, as it is well known that not one of them has ever appeared here who might have estimated the distance? I cannot, then, think that we are so near to Cathay as your excellency supposes, and had much rather follow the opinion that you have possibly approached the shore that has been hitherto represented as inaccessible to mortals."

"You speak of the paradise, which so many sound and able divines assert to be still in existence on earth."

"I do, though not so firmly believing in the relation as they do. If there be such a place existing, as described by the learned St. Basil, methinks it must be near unto those balmy isles which you have discovered, so similar in climate and in verdancy."

"Such, in sooth, has often been my opinion, and I deem it not to be inconsistent with the other, which holds to the proximity of Cathay. Oh, that I might, through the grace of God and intercession of the saints, ever arrive at that blessed spot, where all is happiness and beauty; where the harmonious songs of birds ever fall gratefully on the ear; where the air is filled with the fragrance of flowers, and a perpetual spring, combining with its own beauties those of every other season of the year, continually prevails; where the limpid waters flow smoothly and gently, or gush forth in purest fountains; where all is suggestive of perennial youth, and decay and death are unknown!

"But I perceive, Signor, that you are incredulous, as to this region of bliss, and even smile at my belief. Remember, then, that herein I only follow the opinions of the wise and learned fathers of our Church, but that in regard to Cathay I am supported by ample proof, from the discoveries of travellers and the relations of cosmographers."

"I am ever willing to yield to proofs; but methinks that the foundation of the error under which your excellency seems to labor is this: that you do not make sufficient allowance for exaggeration in the accounts of the great traveller Marco Polo. It appears to me that he has deceived himself as to the extent to which he penetrated Cathay, and that he has thereby carried out the eastern coast too far into the ocean. That being so, the learned Paolo, my countryman, in following him, finds it necessary to shorten the extent of ocean which intervenes between Cathay and Europe, in order to render accurate his estimate of the circumference of the globe."

"I note your objections, but cannot deem them correct, and yet hope to deliver the letters of my sovereigns, with which I was charged in my recent voyage, to the grand khan in person. But let us examine this question of longitude, for therein I am interested deeply, and have small doubt that I can turn you to my opinions."

"Most gladly will I do so, most noble admiral, for I am strongly moved to tempt the ocean myself, in the hope of adding something to the knowledge of mariners."

Within four or five years from the conjectural date of this dialogue, Vespucci made his first voyage, and saw for himself some of those "isles of paradise" which had so charmed Columbus. This was either in the year 1497 or 1499, depending upon whether we accept his own statement or the opinion of those who have challenged the authenticity of his narrative.