Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

Famous Fellow-Voyagers


Though Amerigo Vespucci was on occasions intimately associated with Christopher Columbus, conversed with him, corresponded, and had much to do with the outfitting of his ships, it cannot be shown that the two ever went on a voyage together. Some have asserted that the Florentine accompanied the Genoese on his second voyage, in 1493, but such is not the case. From the friendship that existed between the two, it would doubtless have been gratifying to both could they have explored the New World in company, for each was a complement of the other, and much might have resulted from their conjoined efforts.

Still, while the great Admiral himself was not favored by the presence of Vespucci on any of his voyages, it chanced that several of those who were with him at different times afterwards accompanied his rival, either as captains or pilots of his expeditions. Notable among these was Vicente Yanez Pinzon, one of the noble family that came to the rescue of Columbus when in straits at Palos, and furnished the funds with which the impecunious navigator provided and equipped the vessel he had promised his sovereigns to contribute. The Pinzons actually provided and manned this vessel, the Nina, though Columbus had the credit of it, and Vicente Yanez was its captain throughout the first voyage to America, in 1492–1493.

The eldest of the three brothers, who "risked their lives and fortunes with Columbus in his doubtful enterprise," the first voyage to the unknown hemisphere, was Martin Alonzo, who commanded the Pinta. He ran counter to the commands of Columbus when off the coast of Cuba, and as a result fell into disgrace with the Spanish sovereigns, and died of chagrin soon after the first voyage was over. Columbus seemed to consider himself released from any obligations to the Pinzons, owing to the defection of Martin Alonzo, and they never received a single maravedi for their assistance at the most critical juncture of the Admiral's fortunes. As captain of the Nina, Vicente Yanez, the younger brother, stood by Columbus loyally, all through the voyage, and after the wreck of the flag-ship, off the north coast of Haiti, took his commander aboard the little caravel and brought him safely back to Spain.

He seems to have received no recognition from Columbus, either for his pecuniary aid or loyal support to him in time of disaster, and after the voyage was accomplished he sank out of sight for a while, to emerge again in 1494 or 1495. About that time, says a learned historian, "Ferdinand and Isabella began to feel somewhat disappointed at the meagre results obtained by Columbus. The wealth of Cathay and Cipango had not been found; the colonists who had expected to meet with pearls and gold growing on bushes were sick and angry; Friar Boyle was preaching that the Admiral was a humbug, and the expensive work of discovery was going on at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, Vicente Yanez Pinzon and other bold spirits were grumbling at the monopoly granted to Columbus, and begging to be allowed to make ventures themselves.

"Now, in this connection, several documents preserved in the archives of the Indies at Seville are very significant. On April 9, 1495, the sovereigns issued their letter of credentials to Juan Aguado, whom they were about sending to Hispaniola to inquire into the charges against Columbus. On that very day they signed the contract with Berardi [Vespucci's partner], whereby the latter bound himself to furnish twelve vessels, four to be ready at once, four in June, and four in September. On the next day they issued the decree throwing open the navigation to the Indies and granting to all native Spaniards, on certain prescribed conditions, the privilege of making voyages to the newly found coasts.

"On the 12th they instructed Fonseca to put Aguado in command of the first four caravels, . . . and it started off in August. The second squadron of four, which was to have been ready in June, was not yet fully equipped in December, when Berardi died. Then Vespucci, representing the house of Berardi, took up the work, and sent the four caravels to sea February 3, 1496. They were only two days out when a frightful storm overtook and wrecked them, though most of the crews were saved. The third squadron of four caravels was, I believe, that which finally sailed May 10, 1497. While it was getting ready, Vicente Yanez Pinzon returned from the Levant, whither he had been sent on important business by the sovereigns in December, 1495. Columbus, who had returned to Spain in June, 1496, protested against what he considered an invasion of his monopoly, and on June 2, 1497, the sovereigns issued a decree which for the moment was practically equivalent to a revocation of the general license accorded to navigators by the decree of April 10, 1495. Observe that this revocation was not issued until after the third squadron had sailed. The sovereigns were not going to be balked in the little scheme which they had set on foot two years before, and for which they had paid out, through Vespucci, so many thousand maravedis. So the expedition sailed, with Pinzon chief in command and Solis second; with Ledesma for one of the pilots, and Vespucci as pilot and cosmographer."

In the foregoing the historian accounts for the sailing of Pinzon and Vespucci in company, on that "debatable voyage" described in chapter VI. In the year 1499 both Pinzon and Vespucci were to sail—though in separate fleets—for the coasts of the continent which Columbus had accidentally revealed in his voyage of 1498. Vespucci was to coast its northern shores, while Pinzon, with a confidence born of successive ventures on the ocean, was to strike farther southward than any had done before him (in the western hemisphere), cross the equinoctial line, and reveal to the knowledge of civilized man the great river, afterwards called the Amazon, and the country of Brazil. The fleet in which Vespucci took passage left Spain in the month of May, 1499, that commanded by Pinzon left in December; and it is still a moot question whether the first or the second was the first to arrive on the coast of Brazil. But Pinzon sailed beyond Vespucci on that voyage, though he was to be surpassed, the next year, in the generous rivalry that existed for making the "farthest south."

Another companion of Vespucci worthy of note is the man called by Las Casas the best pilot of his day, Juan de la Cosa. He had been with Columbus on his first voyage, as owner and pilot of the Santa Maria, and also on his second, and may have had good grounds for believing himself as good a navigator as the Admiral, while as a cosmographer he was probably his superior. The historian, Peter Martyr, asserts that La Cosa and another pilot, Andres Morales, "were thought to be more cunning in that part of cosmography which teacheth the description and measurement of the sea" than any others in the world. In truth, the first map of importance made within a decade of the discovery of 1492 was that produced by La Cosa, in the summer of 1500, after his return from the voyage (his third to the New World) with Ojeda and Vespucci. It is thought that he embodied in that map the results of Vespucci's voyage of 1497-1498, as communicated to him during their intimate companionship of thirteen months. La Cosa, the Biscayan pilot, was a man cast in the same generous mould as Vespucci, and shared none of the narrow notions of Columbus. His great regard for Columbus is shown in the vignette to his map, which represents the giant Christopher (the "Christ-bearer") carrying the infant Jesus on his shoulders. Beneath this vignette is the legend, "Juan de la Cosa made this map, in the port of Santa Maria [near Cadiz], year 1500." It is the best map that had been put forth up to that date, and for a long time thereafter remained as a guide to mariners.

His services were in great request at that time, and in the month of October, 1500, he was engaged by Rodrigo Bastidas, a lawyer of Seville, to pilot a small expedition he had fitted out to search for gold and pearls. This was the expedition in which Vasco Nunez de Balboa first embarked for the New World, and which was so profitable that the leaders returned (though their vessels had sunk at their anchors in a harbor of Haiti) with sufficient pearls to give them each a fortune. If they had been content to live at ease in Spain, they might have done so during the remainder of their days; but both Bastidas and La Cosa were lured back to the coast of Terra Firma by the prospect of further enrichment, and there they came to untimely ends.

La Cosa was created alguazil mayor of the territory he and Vespucci had coasted, and finding Ojeda in want—both of money and an opportunity to display his prowess as a fighter—he generously shared his fortune with him and fitted out a fleet containing a ship and two small brigantines. Thenceforth, as fate willed it, the great-hearted pilot and the fiery cavalier were inseparable until cut down by death. In the month of November, 1509, they set sail from Santo Domingo with their three vessels and three hundred men. La Cosa piloted the little fleet into a safe harbor, as he knew the coast well from two previous visits to Terra Firma, but he endeavored to induce Ojeda to attempt a settlement farther on towards the Isthmus of Darien, as the Indians of this region were very ferocious and used poisoned arrows.

Ojeda, however, would not be turned from his purpose, which was to acquire a large number of slaves, either by stratagem or force. After the monks who accompanied his command had read a requisition to the savages, requiring them to submit gracefully and be converted, if they did not wish to incur the vengeance of the King of Spain, the Pope of Rome, and their emissaries there assembled, finding them obdurate, Ojeda gave the command to attack. The Indians, by this time, had assembled in great force, and if they understood the message (which was not likely, as it was in Spanish, a language they had never heard before) they manifested no inclination to heed its warnings. They brandished their spears, shot their arrows, and yelled defiance to the invaders. This was more than the rash Ojeda could endure, and he dashed headlong at the naked enemy without waiting for his men to follow.

Only the gallant La Cosa was with him at first, continually remonstrating with his friend for his temerity, but fighting bravely at his side. The old pilot was a man of peace, but he was destined to die a violent and a horrible death. While pressing forward in advance of their men, the retreat of Ojeda and La Cosa was cut off by the wily savages, who had pretended to retire to the hills, whence they soon returned in great force. La Cosa took refuge in a hut, where he gallantly defended himself until a poisoned arrow pierced his breast and he fell to the ground. One companion survived, to whom he said, as he felt the chill of death creeping over him, "Brother, since God hath protected thee from harm, sally out and fly; and if ever thou shouldst see Alonzo de Ojeda, tell him of my fate."

Thus expired Juan de la Cosa, former companion of Columbus and Vespucci, able pilot, skilled cartographer, loyal till death to the man who had led him into the forest where he met that fatal arrow.

It is claimed by some that Vespucci and La Cosa made two voyages together, in the years 1505 and 1507, but this is doubtful. After their return from the voyage of 1499-1500 they separated, Amerigo to take service with the King of Portugal, and La Cosa, upon the completion of his chart and after his return from the Bastidas expedition of 1500-1501, settling down to the enjoyment of his fortune. The third famous member of the trio, Alonzo de Ojeda, obtained authority from the king to colonize Coquibacoa, on the coast of Terra Firma, and received in addition a grant of land six leagues square in the island of Hispaniola.

The former venture had not been considered a success, but the merchants of Seville and Cadiz were persuaded to once more try their fortunes with the brave cavalier Ojeda, and fitted out for him a fleet of four large vessels. In command of these he set sail, in the year 1502, and after touching at Cumana, where he pillaged the Indians and took many prisoners, he proceeded to Coquibacoa. Finding the place unsuited for a settlement, he went farther westward and attempted a colony at Bahia Honda, building there a fortress and huts for his people. The Indians were hostile at first, but gold was found in abundance—so much of it, in fact, that the adventurers began to quarrel over it, and soon came to blows. Ojeda, as usual, was foremost in the fight that followed, and, as his company turned against him, he was entrapped on one of the caravels and placed in irons. Then the entire company sailed for Hispaniola, intending to submit the cause of their dissension, which was their strong-box full of gold, to the courts of that island for a decision. They arrived at a port on the western coast of Hispaniola, and in the night the manacled Ojeda slipped overboard into the water, intending to swim ashore and make his escape. The fetters on his feet were heavy, however, though his arms were free, and he was nearly drowned before his companions, hearing his cries for help, pulled him out of the water and again confined him in the hold of the vessel.

Taken to the city of Santo Domingo, he was placed on trial for attempting to defraud the government, and the decision was against him. He was not only deprived of his lands, but was stripped of everything he owned. For several years thereafter he roamed about the island, and made occasional voyages, but as a penniless, rather than an influential, adventurer. His good friend, the "ungodly bishop," Fonseca, was still in power, but inaccessible through the great distance that separated them. One happy day, however, Ojeda met La Cosa, who was then in the enjoyment of a considerable fortune, and who, with the reckless generosity for which sailors are proverbial, placed all his means at his disposal. He went to Spain, where he saw the bishop, secured a fleet (as already mentioned), and in it sailed for Santo Domingo, where he was met by his partner, and together the soldier and the sailor set out for Terra Firma.

Before they left the island, however, Ojeda must needs plunge himself into another difficulty by picking a quarrel with a rival discoverer, Nicuesa, whom he challenged to fight a duel. It seems that King Ferdinand had granted territory in Terra Firma to both these men; and, though there was certainly room enough and to spare in that vast region, they began to dispute over their perspective boundaries before they had staked them out. The hot-headed Ojeda was a skilled swordsman, but Nicuesa was artful enough to avoid an encounter, in which there was little doubt he would be killed, by insisting that each contestant should deposit five thousand castellanos with an umpire before engaging in the fight. As this was a larger sum than poor Ojeda could raise—which, of course, Nicuesa knew full well—the irate cavalier was obliged to sail without having obtained satisfaction.

This was the expedition that ended so disastrously, as narrated in a previous chapter. The Spaniard who was charged with La Cosa's last message to Ojeda was the only survivor of seventy who had followed the rash commander in his headlong attack. What had become of Ojeda himself none of the survivors could tell, for several days passed without news of him. His body was not to be found among the slain, and no one who knew him believed that the Indians could have captured him alive. He had fought like a tiger to reach and defend his friend La Cosa, but had been borne back by the thronging savages, and since then nothing had been heard of him. The woods and shore were searched by scouts, and he was finally found extended on some mangrove roots on the borders of the forest. He was in such an exhausted state that he could not speak, but, intrepid to the last, still clung to his buckler, and in his right hand grasped the good sword with which he had cut his way through the savage hordes.

Although famished, and so weak that he could not stand, it was discovered that he had not received a single wound; but on his shield were seen the dents made by more than three hundred arrows. His rescue had scarcely been effected before the ships of his deadly rival, Nicuesa, sailed into the harbor; but, instead of taking advantage of Ojeda's defenceless condition, the high-minded hidalgo offered to join with him in an attack upon the savages, in order to avenge his defeat. Combining their forces, the two erstwhile enemies fell upon the Indians while they were asleep, slaughtered an immense number, and then, after plundering their dwellings set them on fire.

Thus the unfortunate pilot and his comrades were avenged, and the ships sailed on, leaving behind hundreds of mangled corpses and huts reduced to ashes. It was not strange, then, that the surviving savages should ceaselessly attack the settlement soon after founded by Ojeda on their coast, and with such persistency that finally it had to be abandoned. It was in one of these attacks that Ojeda received his first wound. He had hitherto considered himself invulnerable, but, falling into an Indian ambush, a poisoned arrow pierced his thigh. After wrenching it from the wound, he ordered his surgeon, on pain of death for refusal, to burn out the venom with red-hot irons, and by this means, though his life was saved, he received injuries that made him permanently lame.

At last conditions in the settlement became so desperate that Ojeda seized the occasion of a pirate ship touching there to depart for Hispaniola in search of assistance. Leaving his company in charge of Francisco Pizarro—who in this manner began his conquering career—he embarked in the pirate ship, but had hardly cleared the harbor before he began a fierce quarrel with the commander, Talavera, by whose orders he was seized and fettered. Even when chained to the deck, the undaunted cavalier dared Talavera and his crew to fight him, two at a time, and when they refused denounced them all as cowards.

A violent gale arose, with the result that their ship was wrecked on the southern coast of Cuba. Escaping to shore, they endured terrible sufferings for weeks, wandering half famished in forests and through swamps, until finally rescued by a tribe of Indians who had not heard of Spanish atrocities and who gave them freely all the provisions they needed. A canoe was despatched to Jamaica with the tidings of disaster, and in the end Ojeda reached Hispaniola, where he had the satisfaction of seeing his late companions hung for their crimes, and where he passed the remainder of his life in poverty. He died in 1515, so poor, says Bishop Las Casas, "that he did not leave money enough to provide for his interment, and so broken in spirit that, with his last breath, he entreated his body might be buried in the monastery of San Francisco [the ruins of which may still be seen in Santo Domingo], just at the portal, in humble expiation of his past pride, 'that every one who entered might tread upon his grave.'"