The Life of Columbus
by Arthur Helps
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Transcribers Notes:

Several non-English proper names have been rendered in ASCI, omitting the proper accents.

Page headers have been moved to the beginning of the appropriate paragraph and several very long paragraphs have been split to correspond to the page headers. See the DOC or PDF versions for the original pagination and map images.

The following glossary provides references and definitions of unfamiliar (to me) terms and names.

Adelantado Governor or commander. Refers to Don Bartholomew Columbus (brother of Christopher) in this volume.

Angelic Doctor: Thomas Aquinas

Arroba In Spanish-speaking countries, a weight of about 25 pounds. In Portuguese-speaking countries, about 32 pounds.

Aught Anything whatever.

Bartholomew Columbus Brother of Christopher Columbus.

Cacique Title for an Indian chief in the Spanish West Indies.

Ca da Mosto or Cadamosto Alvise Ca' da Mosto, (1432-1488) Venetian explorer and trader who wrote early accounts of western African exploration.

Caonabo Cacique (chief) who destroyed Columbus's first garrison at La Navidad.

Cave of Adullam About 13 miles west of Bethlehem where David gathered "every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented" (1 Sam. 22:2).

Cipango Japan.

Compeer Person of equal status; a peer.

Contumely Contempt arising from arrogance; insolence.

Cosmography Study of the universe, including geography and astronomy.

Diego Columbus Son of Columbus and Donna Felipa

Don Diego Columbus Brother of Columbus

Donna Felipa Munnis Perestrelo Wife of Christopher Columbus. Daughter of the first governor of Porto Santo. Only issue was Diego.

Dragon's blood Thick red liquid from a palm (Daemonorops draco) in tropical Asia; formerly used in varnishes and lacquers.

Encomienda A grant entitling Spaniards to land plus the Native American inhabitants of that land. The land and its inhabitants.

Fernando Columbus Son of Christopher Columbus and Beatrice.

Friesland Located in Europe on the North Sea between the Scheldt and Weser rivers. Now a province of the northern Netherlands.

Galliot Light, swift galley.

Gyve Shackle for the leg.

Las Casas Bartlome de las Casas is the chief source of information about the islands after Columbus arrived. Other historians overlooked the Indian slave trade, begun by Columbus; Las Casas denounced it as "among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind."

Machiavelli: Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) Political philosopher, author of The Prince, that focuses on problems of a monarch, the foundation of political authority and how to retain power, rather than pursue ideals.

Maravedis Spanish currency. One million Maravedis (one cuentos) in 1490 is equivalent to about 308 English Pounds in 1860, or US$ 48,000 in 2005.

Martyr, Peter Peter Martyr d'Anghera wrote early accounts of Columbus, Ojeda, Cortes, and other Spanish explorers. An Italian humanist from Florence. Served as tutor in the Spanish court and had direct access to Columbus. Author of "De Orbe Novo" describing the first European contacts with native Americans.

Moors Arabs

Provence Province of southeast France bordering on the Mediterranean.

Pinzon, Martin Alonzo Chief shipowner of Palos. Accompanied Columbus as a captain.

Paria, Gulf of Between Trinidad and Venezuela.

Repartimiento Spanish, from repartir, to divide. Distribution of slaves or assessment of taxes.

Tagus River on the Iberian Peninsula flowing westward through central Portugal into the Atlantic.

Ultima Thule Ancient name for northern-most region of the habitable world.

End of Transcribers Note

The Life of Columbus





First published 1868. Reprinted 1869, 1873, 1874, 1877, 1878, 1881, 1883, 1887, 1890, 1892. Included in Bohn's Standard Library, 1896, Reprinted 1897.



This Life of Columbus is one of a series of biographies prepared under my superintendence, and for the most part taken verbatim from my "History of the Spanish Conquest in America."

That work was written chiefly with a view to illustrate the history of slavery, and not to give full accounts of the deeds of the discoverers and conquerors of the New World, much less to give a condensed memoir of each of them.

It has, therefore, been necessary to rearrange and add considerably to these materials, and for this assistance I am indebted to the skill and research of Mr. Herbert Preston Thomas.

Perhaps there are few of the great personages in history who have been more talked about and written about than Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America. It might seem, therefore, that there is very little that is new to be said about him. I do not think, however, that this is altogether the case. Absorbed in, and to a certain extent overcome by the contemplation of the principal event, we have sometimes, perhaps, been mistaken as to the causes which led to it. We are apt to look upon Columbus as a person who knew that there existed a great undiscovered continent, and who made his way directly to the discovery of that continent—springing at one bound from the known to the unknown. Whereas, the dream of Columbus's life was to make his way by an unknown route to what was known, or to what he considered to be known. He wished to find out an easy pathway to the territories of Kublai Khan, or Prester-John.

Neither were his motives such as have been generally supposed. They were, for the most part, purely religious. With the gold gained from potentates such as Kublai Khan, the Holy Sepulchre was to be rebuilt, and the Catholic Faith was to be spread over the remotest parts of the earth.

Columbus had all the spirit of a crusader, and, at the same time, the investigating nature of a modern man of science. The Arabs have a proverb that a man is more the son of the age in which he lives than of his own father. This was not so with Columbus; he hardly seems to belong at all to his age. At a time when there was never more of worldliness and self-seeking; when Alexander Borgia was Pope; when Louis the Eleventh reigned in France, Henry the Seventh in England, and Ferdinand the Catholic in Arragon and Castille—about the three last men in the world to become crusaders—Columbus was penetrated with the ideas of the twelfth century, and would have been a worthy companion of Saint Louis in that pious king's crusade.

Again, at a time when Aristotle and "the Angelic Doctor" ruled the minds of men with an almost unexampled tyranny: when science was more dogmatic than theology; when it was thought a sufficient and satisfactory explanation to say that bodies falling to the earth descended because it is their nature to descend—Columbus regarded natural phenomena with the spirit of inductive philosophy that would belong to a follower of Lord Bacon.

Perhaps it will be found that a very great man seldom does belong to his period, as other men do to theirs. Machiavelli [1] says that the way to renovate states is always to go back to first principles, especially to the first principles upon which those states were founded. The same law, if law it be, may hold good as regards the renovation of any science, art, or mode of human action. The man who is too closely united in thought and feeling with his own age, is seldom the man inclined to go back to these first principles.

[Footnote 1: Machiavelli was contemporary with Columbus. No two men could have been more dissimilar; and Machiavelli was thoroughly a product of his age, and a man who entirely belonged to it.]

It is very noticeable in Columbus that he was it most dutiful, unswerving, and un-inquiring son of the Church. The same man who would have taken nothing for granted in scientific research, and would not have held himself bound by the authority of the greatest names in science, never ventured for a moment to trust himself as a discoverer on the perilous sea of theological investigation.

In this respect Las Casas, though a churchman, was very different from Columbus. Such doctrines as that the Indians should be somewhat civilized before being converted, and that even baptism might be postponed to instruction,—doctrines that would have found a ready acceptance from the good bishop—would have met with small response from the soldierly theology of Columbus.

The whole life of Columbus shows how rarely men of the greatest insight and foresight, and also of the greatest perseverance, attain the exact ends they aim at. In this respect all such men partake the career of the alchemists, who did not transmute other metals into gold, but made valuable discoveries in chemistry. So, with Columbus. He did not rebuild the Holy Sepulchre; he did not lead a new crusade; he did not find his Kublai Khan, or his Prester John; but he brought into relation the New World and the Old.

It is impossible to read without the deepest interest the account from day to day of his voyages. It has always been a favourite speculation with historians, and, indeed, with all thinking men, to consider what would have happened from a slight change of circumstances in the course of things which led to great events. This may be an idle and a useless speculation, but it is an inevitable one. Never was there such a field for this kind of speculation as in the voyages, especially the first one, of Columbus. The first point of land that he saw, and landed at, is as nearly as possible the central point of what must once have been the United Continent of North and South America. The least change of circumstance might have made an immense difference in the result. The going to sleep of the helmsman, the unshipping of the rudder, (which did occur in the case of "The Pinzon,") the slightest mistake in taking an observation, might have made, and probably did make, considerable change in the event. During that memorable first voyage of Columbus, the gentlest breeze carried with it the destinies of future empires. Had he made his first discovery of land at a point much southward of that which he did discover, South America might have been colonized by the Spaniards with all the vigour that belonged to their first efforts at colonization; and, being a continent, might not afterwards have been so easily wrested from their sway by the maritime nations.

On the other hand, had some breeze, big with the fate of nations, carried Columbus northwards, it would hardly have been left for the English, more than a century afterwards, to found those Colonies which have proved to be the seeds of the greatest nation that the world is likely to behold.

It was, humanly speaking, singularly unfortunate for Spanish dominion in America, that the earliest discoveries of the Spaniards were those of the West India Islands. A multiplicity of governors introduced confusion, feebleness, and want of system, into colonial government. The numbers, comparatively few, of the original inhabitants in each island, were rapidly removed from the scene of action; and the Spaniards lacked, at the beginning, that compressing force which would have been found in the existence of a body of natives who could not have been removed by the outrages of Spanish cruelty, the strength of Spanish liquors, or the virulence of Spanish diseases.[Footnote 2]

[Footnote 2: The smallpox, for instance, was a disease introduced by the Spaniards, which the comparatively feeble constitution of the Indians could not withstand.]

The Monarchs of Spain, too, would have been compelled to treat their new discoveries and conquests more seriously. To have held the country at all, they must have held it well. It would not have been Ovandos, Bobadillas, Nicuesas and Ojedas who could have been employed to govern, discover, conquer, colonize—and ruin by their folly—the Spanish possessions in the Indies. The work of discovery and conquest, begun by Columbus, must then have been entrusted to men like Cortes, the Pizarros, Vasco Nunez, or the President Gasca; and a colony or a kingdom founded by any of these men might well have remained a great colony, or a great kingdom, to the present day. ARTHUR HELPS. London, October, 1868.


CHAPTER I. Early Discoveries in the Fifteenth Century

CHAPTER II. Early Years of Columbus

CHAPTER III. Columbus in Spain

CHAPTER IV. First Voyage

CHAPTER V. Homeward bound

CHAPTER VI. Second Voyage of Discovery

CHAPTER VII. Illness; Further Discoveries; Plots against Columbus

CHAPTER VIII. Criminals sent to the Indies; Repartimientos; Insurrection

CHAPTER IX. Columbus's Third Voyage

CHAPTER X. Arrival at Hispaniola; Bad Treatment by Bobadlilla

CHAPTER XI. Columbus pleads his Cause at Court; New Enterprise; Ovando

CHAPTER XII. Remarkable Despatch; Mutiny; Eclipse predicted, and its influence; Mutiny quelled

CHAPTER XIII. Falling Fortunes: Conclusion

CHAPTER I. Early Discoveries in the Fifteenth Century.


Modern familiarity with navigation renders it difficult for us to appreciate adequately the greatness of the enterprise which was undertaken by the discoverers of the New World. Seen by the light of science and of experience, the ocean, if it has some real terrors, has no imaginary ones. But it was quite otherwise in the fifteenth century. Geographical knowledge was but just awakening, after ages of slumber; and throughout those ages the wildest dreams had mingled fiction with fact. Legends telling of monsters of the deep, jealous of invasion of their territory; of rocks of lodestone, powerful enough to extract every particle of iron from a passing ship; of stagnant seas and fiery skies; of wandering saints and flying islands; all combined to invest the unknown with the terrors of the supernatural, and to deter the explorer of the great ocean. The half-decked vessels that crept along the Mediterranean shores were but ill-fitted to bear the brunt of the furious waves of the Atlantic. The now indispensable sextant was but clumsily anticipated by the newly invented astrolabe. The use of the compass had scarcely become familiar to navigators, who indeed but imperfectly understood its properties. And who could tell, it was objected, that a ship which might succeed in sailing down the waste of waters would ever be able to return, for would not the voyage home be a perpetual journey up a mountain of sea?


But the same tradition which set forth the difficulties of reaching the undiscovered countries promised a splendid reward to the successful voyager. Rivers rolling down golden sand, mountains shining with priceless gems, forests fragrant with rich spices were among the substantial advantages to be expected as the result of the enterprise. "Our quest there," said Peter Martyr, "is not for the vulgar products of Europe." The proverb "Omne ignotum pro magnifico" [Transcribers's note: Everything unknown is taken for magnificent.] was abundantly illustrated. And there was another object, besides gain, which was predominant in the minds of almost all the early explorers, namely, the spread of the Christian religion. This desire of theirs, too, seems to have been thoroughly genuine and deep-seated; and it may be doubted whether the discoveries would have been made at that period but for the impulse given to them by the most religious minds longing to promote, by all means in their power, the spread of what, to them, was the only true and saving faith. "I do not," says a candid historian [Faria y Sousa] of that age, "imagine that I shall persuade the world that our intent was only to be preachers; but on the other hand the world must not fancy that our intent was merely to be traders," There is much to blame in the conduct of the first discoverers in Africa and America; it is, however, but just to acknowledge that the love of gold was by no means the only motive which urged them to such endeavours as theirs. To appreciate justly the intensity of their anxiety for the conversion of the heathen, we must keep in our minds the views then universally entertained of the merits and efficacy of mere formal communion with the Church, and the fatal consequences of not being within that communion.


This will go a long way towards explaining the wonderful inconsistency, as it seems to us, of the most cruel and wicked men believing themselves to be good Christians and eminent promoters of the faith, if only they baptized, before they slew, their fellow-creatures. And the maintenance of such church principles will altogether account for the strange oversights which pure and high minds have made in the means of carrying out those principles, fascinated as they were by the brilliancy and magnitude of the main object they had in view.

But while piety, sometimes debased into religious fanaticism, had a large part in these undertakings, doubtless the love of adventure and the craving for novelty had their influence also. And what adventure it was! New trees, new men, new animals, new stars; nothing bounded, nothing trite, nothing which had the bloom taken off it by much previous description! The early voyagers moreover, were like children coming out to take their first gaze into the world, with ready credulity and unlimited fancy, willing to believe in fairies and demons, Amazons and mystic islands, "forms of a lower hemisphere," and fountains of perpetual youth.


The known world, in the time of Prince Henry of Portugal (at whose discoveries it will be convenient to take a preliminary glance), was a very small one indeed. The first thing for us to do is to study our maps and charts. Without frequent reference to these, a narrative like the present forms in our mind only a mirage of names and dates and facts, is wrongly apprehended even while we are regarding it, and soon vanishes away. The map of the world being before us, let us reduce it to the proportions it filled in Prince Henry's time; let us look at our infant world. First take away those two continents, for so we may almost call them, each much larger than a Europe, to the far west. Then cancel that square massive looking piece to the extreme south-east; its days of penal settlements and of golden fortunes are yet to come. Then turn to Africa; instead of that form of inverted cone which it presents, and which we now know there are physical reasons for its presenting, make a scimetar shape of it, by running a slightly curved line from Juba on the eastern side to Cape Nam on the western. Declare all below that line unknown. Hitherto, we have only been doing the work of destruction; but now scatter emblems of hippogriffs and anthropophagi on the outskirts of what is left on the map, obeying a maxim, not confined to the ancient geographers only: "Where you know nothing, place terrors." Looking at the map thus completed, we can hardly help thinking to ourselves, with a smile, what a small space, comparatively speaking, the known history of the world has been transacted in, up to the last four hundred years. The idea of the universality of the Roman dominion shrinks a little; and we begin to think that Ovid might have escaped his tyrant.[3] The ascertained confines of the world were now, however, to be more than doubled in the course of one century; and to Prince Henry of Portugal, as the first promoter of these vast discoveries, our attention must be directed.

[Footnote 3: But the empire of the Romans filled the world; and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag the gilded chain in Rome and his senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rocks of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master. GIBBON'S Decline and Fall, vol. i. p. 97, Oxford Edition.]


This prince was born in 1394. He was the third son of John the First of Portugal and Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. That good Plantagenet blood on the mother's side was, doubtless, not without avail to a man whose life was to be spent in continuous and insatiate efforts to work out a great idea. Prince Henry was with his father at the memorable capture of Ceuta, the ancient Seplem, in the year 1415. This town, which lies opposite to Gibraltar, was of great magnificence, and one of the principal marts in that age for the productions of the eastern world. It was here that the Portuguese first planted a firm foot in Africa; and the date of this town's capture may, perhaps, be taken as that from which Prince Henry began to meditate further and far greater conquests. His aims, however, were directed to a point long beyond the range of the mere conquering soldier. He was especially learned, for that age of the world, being skilled in mathematical and geographical knowledge. He eagerly acquired from Moors of Fez and Morocco, such scanty information as could be gathered concerning the remote districts of Africa. The shrewd conjectures of learned men, the confused records of Arabic geographers, the fables of chivalry, were not without their influence upon an enthusiastic mind. The especial reason which impelled the prince to take the burden of discovery on himself was that neither mariner nor merchant would be likely to adopt an enterprise in which there was no clear hope of profit. It belonged, therefore, to great men and princes; and amongst such, he knew of no one but himself who was inclined to it. This is not an uncommon motive. A man sees something that ought to be done, knows of no one that will do it but himself, and so is driven to the enterprise even should it be repugnant to him.


Prince Henry, then, having once the well-grounded idea in his mind that Africa did not end, according to the common belief, at Cape Nam [Portuguese for "not"], but that there was a region beyond that forbidding negative, seems never to have rested until he had made known that quarter of the world to his own. He fixed his abode upon the promontory of Sagres, at the southern part of Portugal, whence, for many a year, he could watch for the rising specks of white sail bringing back his captains to tell him of new countries and new men.

One night, in the year 1418, he is thought to have had a dream of promise, for on the ensuing morning he suddenly ordered two vessels to be got ready forthwith, and placed them under the command of two gentlemen of his household, Zarco and Vaz, whom he directed to proceed down the Barbary coast on a voyage of discovery. A contemporary chronicler, Azurara, tells the story more simply, and merely states that these captains were young men, who, after the ending of the Ceuta campaign, were as eager for employment as the prince for discovery; and that they were ordered on a voyage having for its object the general molestation of the Moors as well as the prosecution of discoveries beyond Cape Nam.


The Portuguese mariners had a proverb about the Cape, "He who would pass Cape Not either will return or not," [Quem passar o Cabo de Nam, ou tornara ou nam], intimating that if he did not turn before passing the Cape he would never return at all. On this occasion it was not destined to be passed, for the two captains were driven out of their course by storms, and accidentally discovered a little island, where they took refuge, and which, from that circumstance, they called Porto Santo. On their return their master was delighted with the news they brought him, more on account of its promise than its substance. In the same year he sent them out again with a third captain, Bartholomew Perestrelo, to convey a supply of seeds and animals for the newly-found island. Unfortunately, however, among the animals were some rabbits, which multiplied so rapidly that they overspread the whole island, and, by devouring every plant and blade of grass which grew there, soon changed a fruitful land into a bare wilderness.


In the following year, Zarco and Vaz, seeing from Porto Santo something that seemed like a cloud, but yet different (the origin of so much discovery, noting the difference in the likeness), built two boats, and, making for this cloud, soon found themselves alongside a beautiful island abounding in many things, but most of all in trees, on which account they gave it the name of Madeira (wood). The two discoverers landed upon the island in different places. The prince, their master, afterwards rewarded them with the captaincies of the districts adjacent to those places. To Perestrelo he gave the island of Porto Santo, to colonize it. Perestrelo, however, did not make much of his captaincy; and spent his life in endeavouring to make head against the rabbits, which were as destructive as a plague of locusts, and which by their fecundity resisted all his efforts to exterminate them. This captain has a place in history, as being the father-in-law of Columbus, who, indeed, lived at Porto Santo for some time, and here, on new found land, studied the cosmographical works which Perestrelo had been at pains to accumulate; meditating far bolder discoveries.


Zarco and Vaz began the cultivation of their island of Madeira, but met with an untoward event at first. In clearing the wood, they kindled a fire amongst it, which burned for seven years, we are told; and, in the end, that which had given its name to the island, and which, in the words of the historian, overshadowed the whole land, became the most deficient commodity. The captains founded churches in the island, and the King of Portugal, Don Duart, gave the temporalities to Prince Henry, and all the spiritualities to the Knights of Christ.

From this time forth, Prince Henry prosecuted his explorations with a fixity of purpose which could not but ensure success. Through every discouragement he persevered still. Many a Swiss peak has gone through three phases. It has been pronounced, first, "inaccessible," then, "a very dangerous ascent," and finally, "a pleasant excursion." So it was with each fresh headland which seemed to bar the way down the African coast. And the travellers who came last, in each case, found it next to impossible to imagine what were the difficulties and dangers that had seemed so formidable to their predecessors.


For a long time Cape Bojador, which is situate seventy leagues to the south of Cape Nam, was the extreme limit of discovery. This cape was formidable in itself, being terminated by a ridge of rocks, with fierce currents running round them; but was much more formidable from the fancies which the mariners had formed of the sea and land beyond it. "It is clear," they were wont to say, "that beyond this cape there are no people whatever; the land is as bare as Libya—no water, no trees, no grass in it; the sea so shallow, that at a league from the land it is only a fathom deep; the currents so fierce, that the ship which passes that cape will never return;" and thus their theories were brought in to justify their fears.

This outstretcher (for such is the meaning of the word Bojador) was therefore as a bar drawn across that advance in maritime discovery, which had for so long a time been the first object of Prince Henry's life.


For twelve years the prince had been sending forth ships and men, with little approbation from the public—the discovery of Madeira and Porto Santo serving to whet his appetite for further enterprise, but not winning the common voice in favour of his projects. The people at home, improving upon the reports of the sailors, said that "the land which the prince sought after was merely some sandy place like the deserts of Libya; that princes had possessed the empire of the world, and yet had not undertaken such designs as his, nor shown such anxiety to find new kingdoms; that the men who arrived in those foreign parts (if they did arrive) turned from white into black men; that the king, Don John, the prince's father, had endowed foreigners with land in his kingdom, to break it up and cultivate it, a thing very different from taking the people out of Portugal, which had need of them, to bring them amongst savages to be eaten and to place them upon lands of which the mother country had no need; that the Author of the world had provided these islands solely for the habitation of wild beasts, of which an additional proof was that those rabbits which the discoverers themselves had introduced were now dispossessing them of the island."

There is much here of the usual captiousness [Transcriber's note: Finding trivial faults.] to be found in the criticism of bystanders upon action, mixed with a great deal of false assertion and assumed knowledge of the ways of Providence. Still, it were to be wished that most criticism upon action was as wise; for that part of the common talk which spoke of keeping their own population to bring out their own resources, had a wisdom in it which the men of future centuries were yet to discover throughout the Peninsula.


Prince Henry, as may be seen by his perseverance up to this time, was not a man to have his purposes diverted by such criticism, much of which must have been, in his eyes, worthless and inconsequent in the extreme. Nevertheless, he had his own misgivings. His captains came back one after another, with no good tidings of discovery, but with petty plunder gained as they returned from incursions on the Moorish coast. The prince concealed from them his chagrin at the fruitless nature of their attempts, but probably did not feel it less on that account. He began to think, was it for him to hope to discover that land which had been hidden from so many princes? Still he felt within himself the incitement of "a virtuous obstinacy," which would not let him rest. Would it not, he thought, be ingratitude to God, who thus moved his mind to these attempts, if he were to desist from his work, or be negligent in it? He resolved, therefore, to send out again Gil Eannes, one of his household, who had been sent the year before, but had returned, like the rest, having discovered nothing. He had been driven to the Canary Islands, and had seized upon some of the natives there, whom he brought back. With this transaction the prince had shown himself dissatisfied; and Gil Eannes, now entrusted again with command, resolved to meet all dangers, rather than to disappoint the wishes of his master. Before his departure, the prince called him aside and said, "You cannot meet with such peril that the hope of your reward shall not be much greater; and, in truth, I wonder what imagination this is that you have all taken up—in a matter, too, of so little certainty; for if these things which are reported have any authority, however little, I would not blame you so much. But you quote to me the opinions of four mariners, who, as they were driven out of their way to Frandes or to some other ports to which they commonly navigated, had not, and could not have used, the needle and the chart: but do you go, however, and make your voyage without regard to their opinion, and, by the grace of God, you will not bring out of it anything but honour and profit."


We may well imagine that these stirring words of the prince must have confirmed Gil Eannes in his resolve to efface the stain of his former misadventure. And he succeeded in doing so; for he passed the dreaded Cape Bojador—a great event in the history of African discovery, and one that in that day was considered equal to a labour of Hercules. Gil Eannes returned to a grateful and most delighted master. He informed the prince that he had landed, and that the soil appeared to him unworked and fruitful; and, like a prudent man, he could not only tell of foreign plants, but had brought some of them home with him in a barrel of the new-found earth, plants much like those which bear, in Portugal, the roses of Santa Maria. The prince rejoiced to see them, and gave thanks to God, "as if they had been the fruit and sign of the promised land; and besought our Lady, whose name the plants bore, that she would guide and set forth the doings in this discovery to the praise and glory of God, and to the increase of His holy faith."


The old world had now obtained a glimpse beyond Cape Bojador. The fearful "outstretcher" had no longer much interest for them, being a thing that was overcome, and which was to descend from an impossibility to a landmark, from which, by degrees, they would almost silently steal down the coast, counting their miles by thousands, until Vasco de Gama should boldly carry them round to India. But now came stormy times for the Portuguese kingdom, and the troubles of the regency occupied the prince's attention to the exclusion of cosmography.

In 1441, however, there was a voyage which led to very important consequences. In that year Antonio Goncalvez, master of the robes to Prince Henry, was sent out with a vessel to load it with skins of "sea-wolves," a number of them having been seen, during a former voyage, at the mouth of a river about a hundred and fifty miles beyond Cape Bojador. Goncalvez resolved to signalize his voyage by a feat that should gratify his master more than the capture of sea-wolves; and he accordingly planned and executed successfully an expedition for seizing some Azeneghi Moors, in order, as he told his companions, to take home "some of the language of that country." Tristam, another of Prince Henry's captains, afterwards falling in with Goncalvez, a further capture of Moors was made, and Goncalvez returned to Portugal with the spoil. This voyage seems to have prompted the application which Prince Henry made, in the same year, to Pope Martin the Fifth, praying that his holiness would grant to the Portuguese crown all that should be conquered, from Cape Bojador to the Indies, together with plenary indulgence for those who should die while engaged in such conquests. The pope granted these requests; though afterwards, as we shall see, the Spanish discoveries of Columbus and his successors rendered it necessary that the terms of the grant should be modified. "And now," says a Portuguese historian, "with this apostolic grace, with the breath of royal favour, and already with the applause of the people, the prince pursued his purpose with more courage, and with greater outlay."


One proof of this popular approval was furnished by the formation of a company at Lagos, in 1444, who received permission from the prince to undertake discovery along the coast of Africa, paying him a certain portion of any gains which they might make. Whether the company was expressly founded for slave traffic may be doubtful; but it is certain that this branch of their business was soon found to be the most lucrative one, and that from this time Europe may be said to have made a distinct beginning in the slave trade, henceforth to spread on all sides, like the waves on troubled water, and not, like them, to become fainter and fainter as the circles widen. For slavery was now assuming an entirely new phase. Hitherto, the slave had been merely the captive in war, "the fruit of the spear," as he has figuratively been called, who lived in the house of his conquer, and laboured at his lands. Now, however, the slave was no longer an accident of war. He had become the object of war. He was no longer a mere accidental subject of barter. He was to be sought for, to be hunted out, to be produced; and this change accordingly gave rise to a new branch of commerce.

Some time before 1454 a Portuguese factory was established at one of the Arguim islands, and this factory soon systematized the slave-trade. Thither came all kinds of merchandize from Portugal, and gold and slaves were taken back in return; the number of the latter sent home annually, at the time of Ca da Mosto's visit in 1454, being between seven and eight hundred.

The narrative of the Portuguese voyages along the African coast is, for the most part, rather uninviting. It abounds with names, and dates, and facts; but the names are often hard to pronounce, the dates have sometimes an air of uncertainty about them, and the facts stand out in hard relief, dry and unattractive. Could we recall, however, the voyagers themselves, and listen to their story, we should find it animating enough. Each enterprise, as we have it now, with its bare statistics, seems a meagre affair; but it was far otherwise to the men who were concerned in it. Of the motives[4] impelling men to engage in such expeditions, something has already been said.

[Footnote 4: "They err who regard the conquistadores as led only by a thirst for gold, or even exclusively by religious fanaticism. Dangers always exalt the poetry of life, and moreover, the powerful age which we here seek to depict in regard to its influence on the development of cosmical ideas, gave to all enterprises, as well as to the impressions of nature offered by distant voyages, the charm of novelty and surprise, which begins to be wanting to our present more learned age in the many regions of the earth which are now open to us."—Humboldt's Kosmos. Sabines translation, 1848, vol. ii. p. 272]


But besides the hopes and fears of each individual of the crew, the conjoint enterprise had in it a life to be lived, and a career to be worked out. It started to do something; fulfilled its purpose, or at least some purpose; and then came back, radiant with success—from that time forward to be a great fact in history. Or, on the other hand, there was some small failure or mischance, perhaps early in the voyage; the sailors then began to reckon up ill omens, and to say that little good would come of this business. Further on, some serious misadventure happened which made them turn, or from the mere lapse of time they were obliged to bethink themselves of getting back. Safety, not renown or profit, now became their object; and then hope was at last out the negative of some fear. Thereupon, no doubt, ensued a good deal of recrimination amongst themselves, for very few people are magnanimous enough to share ill-success kindly together. Then, in the long dull evenings of their voyage homewards, as they sat looking on the waters, they thought what excuses and explanations they would make to their friends at home, and how shame and vexation would mingle with their joy at returning.


This transaction, teeming, as it did, with anxious life, makes but a poor show in some chronicle;—they sailed, and did something, or failed in doing, and then came back, and this was in such a year:—brief records, like the entry in an almanack, or the few emphatic words on a tombstone.

At the period, however, we are now entering upon, the annals of maritime discovery are fortunately enriched by the account of a voyager who could tell more of the details of what he saw than we have hitherto heard from other voyagers, and who was himself his own chronicler.

In 1454, Ca da Mosto, a young Venetian, who had already gained some experience in voyaging, happened to be on board a Venetian galley that was detained by contrary winds at Cape St. Vincent. Prince Henry was then living close to the Cape. He sent his secretary and the Venetian consul on board the galley. They told of the great things the prince had done, showed samples of the commodities that came from the lands discovered by him (Madeira sugars, dragon's blood, and other articles), and spoke of the gains made by Portuguese voyagers being as great as 700 or 1000 per cent. Ca da Mosto expressed his wish to be employed, was informed of the terms that would be granted, and heard that a Venetian would be well received by the prince, "because he was of opinion, that spices and other rich merchandise might be found in those parts, and know that the Venetians understood these commodities better than any other nation."

In fine, Ca da Mosto saw the prince, and was evidently much impressed by his noble bearing. He obtained his wishes, and being furnished with a caravel, he embarked his merchandise in it, and set off on a voyage of discovery. There was now, for the first time, an intelligent man on board one of these vessels, giving us his own account of the voyage.


From Ca da Mosto the reader at once learns the state of things with regard to the slave-trade. The Portuguese factory at Argnim was the headquarters of the trade. Thither came all kinds of merchandise; and gold and slaves were taken back in return. The "Arabs" of that district (Moors, the Portuguese would have called them) were the middle men in this affair. They took their Barbary horses to the negro country, and "there bartered with the great men for slaves," getting from ten to eighteen slaves for each horse. They also brought silks of Granada and Tunis, and silver, in exchange for which they received slaves and gold. These Arabs, or Moors, had a place of trade of their own, called Hoden, behind Cape Blanco. There the slaves were brought, "from whence," Ca da Mosto says, "they are sent to the mountains of Barka, and from thence to Sicily; part of them are also brought to Tunis and along the coast of Barbary, and the rest to Argin, and sold to the licensed Portuguese. Every year between seven and eight hundred slaves are sent from Argin to Portugal."

"Before this trade was settled," says Ca da Mosto, "the Portuguese used to seize upon the Moors themselves (as appears occasionally from the evidence that has before been referred to), and also the Azenegues, who live further towards the south; but now peace is restored to all, and the Infante suffers no further damage to be done to these people. He is in hopes, that by conversing with Christians, they may easily be brought over to the Romish faith, as they are not, as yet, well established in that of Mohammed, of which they know nothing but by hear-say."


No doubt the prince's good intentions were greatly furthered by the convenience of this mode of trading. In short, gain made for itself its usual convenient channels to work in, and saved itself as much as it could the trouble of discovery, or of marauding. Ca da Mosto being, as was said before, the first modern European visiting Africa who himself gives an account of it, and being, moreover, an honest and intelligent man, possessing the rare combination of keen observation and clear narrative power, all that he writes is most valuable. He notices the differences, both as regards the people and the country, to be found on the opposite sides of the Senegal River. On the northern side he finds the men small, spare and tawny, the country arid and barren; on the southern side, the men "exceeding black, tail, corpulent and well made; the country green, and full of green trees." This latter is the country of Jalof, the same that Prince Henry first heard of in his intercourse with the Moors. Both men and women, Ca da Mosto says, wash themselves four or five times a day, being very cleanly as to their persons, but not so in eating, in which they observe no rule. They are full of words, and never have done talking; and are, for the most part, liars and cheats. Yet, on the other hand, they are very charitable; for they give a dinner or a night's lodging and a supper, to all strangers who come to their houses, without expecting any return.


Leaving the country of the Jalofs, Ca da Mosto proceeded eight hundred miles further, as he says, (but he must, I think, have over-estimated his reckoning,) to the country of a negro potentate, called King Budomel. Here it appears that the religion, of the court at least, was Mohammedan, and Ca da Mosto records a conversation which he had with Budomel upon the subject. "The king asked him to give his opinion of their manner of worship, and also some account of his own religion. Hereupon Ca da Mosto told him, in presence of his doctors, that the religion of Mohammed was false, and the Romish the true one. This made the Arabs mad, and Budomel laugh; who, on this occasion, said that he looked upon the religion of the Europeans to be good, for that none but God could have given them so much riches and understanding. He added, however, that the Mohammedan law must be also good; and that he believed the negroes were more sure of salvation than the Christians; because God was a just Lord, and therefore, as He had given the latter Paradise in this world, it ought to be possessed in the world to come by the negroes, who had scarcely anything here, in comparison with the others."


From Budomel's country the voyagers, sailing southwards, came to the river Gambra (now called Gambia), which they entered, but could not succeed in conciliating the natives, who attacked them with signal valour, and maintained the contest with almost unparalleled bravery, considering that the arms used by the Europeans were totally unknown to their opponents.


During their stay in this river Ca da Mosto and his companions saw the constellation of the southern cross for the first time. Finding that the natives would have nothing to do with them,

for they believed that the Christians were very bad people, and bought negroes to eat them, Ca da Mosto and the other commanders wished to proceed a hundred miles further up the river; but the common sailors would not hear of it, and the expedition forthwith returned to Portugal.

Two years later, in 1456, Ca da Mosto made another voyage, in the course of which he discovered the Cape de Verde Islands. Leaving them, he went again to the Gambia River, which he ascended much further than he had done during his previous expedition, and he also succeeded on this occasion in conciliating the natives. Then he went down the coast, passed Cape Roxo, and afterwards sailed up the Rio Grande, but, from want of any knowledge of the language of the people, was unable to prosecute his explorations among them.

Some time between 1460 and 1464, an expedition went out under Pedro de Cintra, one of the King of Portugal's gentlemen, to make further discoveries along the African coast. These voyagers, whose story is briefly told by Ca da Mosto, discovered Sierra Leone (so called on account of the roaring thunder heard there), and went a little beyond Cape Mesurado. The precise date of this voyage is uncertain, but we may fairly consider Sierra Leone as being the point attained at, or about, the death of Prince Henry in 1463, of whose character, before parting with him, something deserves to be said.


This great leader of maritime discovery resembled Columbus strongly in one thing, namely, his unity of purpose. He resembled him, too, in his patience and in his unvarying confidence of success, even under disappointment. "He was bold and valorous in war, versed in arts and letters; a skilful fencer; in the mathematics superior to all men of his time; generous in the extreme; most zealous for the increase of the faith. No bad habit was known in him. His memory was equal to the authority he bore, and his prudence equal to his memory." [Faria y Sousa.] And to this character the chronicler, Azurara, who evidently knew the prince well, and speaks with perfect honesty about him, adds two or three of those little niceties of description which give life and reality to the picture. He says that the prince was a man of great counsel and authority, wise and of good memory, but in some things slow, whether it was through the prevalence of the phlegmatic temperament in his constitution, or from intentional deliberation, being moved to some end which men did not perceive.


It was this temperament, probably, that made the prince incapable of "ill-will against any person, however great the injury he had received from him," so that this placidity of disposition seemed an actual fault in him. He was accordingly thought "deficient in distributive justice." There are instances in his conduct which bear out this, and one especially, in which he is stated to have overlooked the desertion of his banner, on an occasion of great peril to himself, and afterwards to have unjustly favoured the persons who had thus been found wanting in courage. This, no doubt, was an error on his part, but at least it was an heroic one, such as belonged to the first Caesar; and in the estimation of the prince's followers, it probably added to their liking for the man what little it may have taken away from their confidence in the precision of his justice as a commander.


We learn, from the same authority, that his house was the resort of all the good men of the kingdom, and of foreigners, and that he was a man of intense labour and study. "Often the sun found him in the same place where it had left him the day before, he having watched throughout the whole arc of the night without any rest."

Altogether, whether we consider this prince's motives, his objects, his deeds, or his mode of life, we must acknowledge him to be one of the most notable men, not merely of his own country and period, but of modern times and of all nations, and one upon whose shoulders might worthily rest the arduous beginnings of continuous maritime discovery. Would that such men remained to govern the lands they have the courageous foresight to discover! Then, indeed, they might take to themselves the motto talant de bien jaire, which this prince, their great leader, caused to be inscribed by his captains in many a land, that as yet, at least, has not found much good from its introduction, under his auspices, to the civilization of an older world.


Hurrying over this preliminary sketch, we may briefly note that about six years after Prince Henry's death, the Gold Coast was explored by Fernando Gomez, and the Portuguese fort was built there which Columbus afterwards visited; that Fernando Po discovered an island which was then called Formosa, but which is now known by the name of its discoverer; and that Diego Cam, accompanied, it is said, by Martin Behaim (Martin of Bohemia), the most celebrated geographer of those times—to whom, by the way, some of the credit exclusively due to Columbus has been rather unfairly given—discovered the kingdom of Congo. About this time an ambassador sent to the King of Portugal by the sovereign of Benin, a territory between the Gold Coast and Congo, happened to speak about a greater power in Africa than his master, to whom indeed his master was but the vassal. This instantly set the Portuguese king thinking about Prester John, of whom legends spoke as a Christian king ruling over a Christian nation somewhere in what was vaguely called the Indies; and the search after whom is, in maritime discovery, what the alchemist's pursuit after the philosopher's stone was in chemistry. The king concluded that this "greater power" must be Prester John; and accordingly Bartholomew Diaz and two other captains were sent out on further discovery. They did not find Prester John, but made their way southwards along a thousand and fifty miles of new coast, as far as a cape which, from experience, they called Cape Stormy, but which their master, seeing in its discovery an omen of better things, renamed as the Cape of Good Hope.


It is a fact of great historical interest, and a singular link between African and American discovery, that Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher, was engaged in this voyage. The authority for this important statement is Las Casas, who says that he found, in a book belonging to Christopher Columbus, being one of the works of Cardinal Aliaco, a note "in Bartholomew Colon's handwriting," (which he knew well, having several of the letters and papers concerning the expedition in his own possession), which note gives a short account, in bad Latin, of the voyage, mentions the degree of latitude of the Cape, and concludes with the words "in quibus omnibus interfui."


In fiction, too, this voyage of Bartholomew Diaz was very notable, as it presented an occasion for the writing of one of the most celebrated passages in modern poetry, a passage not easily to be surpassed for its majesty and tenderness, and for a beauty which even those tiresome allusions to the classics, that give a faded air to so much of the poetry of the sixteenth century, cannot seriously disfigure nor obscure.

It is to be found in the Lusiadas of Camoens, and indicates the culminating point of Portuguese discovery in Africa, as celebrated by the national poet.

Just as the mariners approach the Cape, a cloud rises, darkens the air, and then discloses a monstrous giant, with deep-set, caverned eyes, of rugged countenance, and pallid earthy colour, vast as that statue of Apollo, the colossal wonder of the world. In solemn language, this awful shape pours forth disastrous prophecies, and threatens his highest vengeance on those who have discovered him—maledictions which, alas! may be securely uttered against those who accomplish aught that is bolder than has hitherto been attempted by their fellow men.

When vexed by the question "Who art thou?" the "stupendous body" harshly and mournfully replies, that he is that great stormy Cape, hitherto hidden from mankind, whom their boldness in discovering much offends.

He then relates the touching story of his love: how he was Adamastor, of the race of Titans, and how he loved Thetis, the fairest being of the sea; and how, deceived by the (magic) arts of her "who was the life of his body," he found himself caressing a rough and horrid crag instead of her sweet, soft countenance; and how, crazed by grief and by dishonour, he wandered forth to seek another world, where no one should behold him and mock his misery; how still the vengeance of the gods pursued him; and how he felt his flesh gradually turning into rock, and his members extending themselves among the long waves; and how, for ever to increase his agony, the beautiful Thetis still encircled him.

Having told his grief, he made himself into a dark cloud (Desfez-se a nuvem negra), and the sea roared far off with a sonorous sound. And then the Portuguese mariner lifted up his hands in prayer to the sacred chorus of angels, who had guided the vessel so long on its way, and prayed God to remove the fulfilment of the evil things which Adamastor had prophesied against his nation.

The Genius of the Stormy Cape might have taken up a direr song of prophecy against the inhabitants of the unfortunate land of which he formed so conspicuous and mournful a prominence.


Maritime discovery had now, by slow and painful degrees, proceeded down the coast of Africa, nearly to the southernmost point, and from thence will soon be curving round in due course to India. But expeditions by sea were not the only modes of discovery undertaken by the Portuguese in the reign of John the Second of Portugal. Pedro de Covilham and Alfonso de Paiva went on an enterprise of discovery mainly by land. The latter died at Cairo, the former made his way to Cananor, Calecut, and Goa, and thence back to Cairo, where he found that his companion had died. He then set out again, and eventually came into the kingdom of Shoa, [5]to the court of "the King of Habbesh," who fulfilled sufficiently in Covilham's eyes, the idea of Prester John, and was accordingly called so. It is a curious coincidence, that an ambassador from the King of Habbesh, called Lucas Marcos, a priest of that country, came about this time to Rome and afterwards to Lisbon, which circumstance gave a new impetus to all the King of Portugal's "hopes, wishes, and endeavours."

[Footnote 5: A country in the south of Abyssinia. Tegulet, the ancient capital of Shoa, is in 38 degrees 40' E. long., and 9 degrees 45' N. lat.]


A more remarkable person even than an ambassador from Prester John arrived nearly at the same time at Lisbon. This was Bemoin, Prince of Jalof. Bemoin came to seek the protection of the King of Portugal, and the reason of his coming was as follows. He was the brother, on the mother's side, of Brian, King of Jalof. This king was inert and vicious. He had, however, the wisdom to make Bemoin prime minister, and to throw all the cares and troubles of governing upon him. Nothing was heard in the kingdom but of Bemoin. But he, seeing, perhaps, the insecurity of his position, diligently made friends with the Portuguese, keeping aloof, however, from becoming a convert, though he listened respectfully to those who expounded the Christian faith to him. Cibitab, a brother of the inert Brian, by the father's side, became jealous of Bemoin, revolted, killed Brian, and vanquished Bemoin, who thereupon threw himself upon the protection of his Portuguese friends, and came to Lisbon.


Bemoin was received magnificently by King John of Portugal. The negro prince had formerly alleged that one of his reasons for not becoming a Christian was the fear of disgusting his followers; but, being in Portugal, that reason no longer held good, and he became a convert, being baptized as Don John Bemoin, having King John for a godfather. Twenty-four of Bemoin's gentlemen received baptism after him. This is the account of his reception. "Bemoin, because he was a man of large size and fine presence, about forty years old, with a long and well-arranged beard, appeared indeed not like a barbarous pagan, but as one of our own princes, to whom all honour and reverence were due. With equal majesty and gravity of demeanour he commenced and finished his oration, using such inducements to make men bewail his sad fortune in exile, that only seeing these natural signs of sorrow, people comprehended what the interpreter afterwards said. Having finished the statement of his case as a good orator would, in declaring that his only remedy and only hope was in the greatness and generosity of the king, with whom he spoke aside for a short time, he was answered by the king in few words, so much to his satisfaction that immediately it made a change in his whole look, spirits, and bearing, rendering him most joyous. Taking leave of the king, he went to kiss the queen's hand, and then that of the prince, to whom he said a few words, at the end of which he prayed the prince that he would intercede in his favour with the king. And thence he was conducted to his lodgings by all the nobility that had accompanied him."

After this, Bemoin had many conversations with the king, and always acquitted himself well. Amongst other things, he gave information respecting various African nations, and especially of the king of a Jewish people, who in many things resembled Christians. Here again the Portuguese monarch was delighted at finding himself upon the traces of Prester John.


It must not be forgotten to mention, that the king made great rejoicings in honor of Bemoin's conversion, on which occasion the negro prince's attendants performed singular feats on horseback.

Bemoin maintained his favour at the Portuguese court, and succeeded in his object of obtaining military assistance. He was sent back to his own country with a Portuguese squadron of twenty caravels, which had for its instructions, besides his restitution, to found a fort on the banks of the river Senegal.

The Portuguese arrived at the river, and began building the fort, but are said to have chosen an unhealthy spot to build on. Whether they could have chosen a healthy one is doubtful. The commander, however, Pedro Vaz, thought that there was treachery on Bemoin's part, and killed him with the blow of a dagger on board his vessel. The building was discontinued, and Pedro Vaz returned to Portugal, where he found the king excessively vexed and displeased at the fate of Bemoin.


The historian may now stop in his task of tracing Portuguese discovery along the coast of Africa. We have seen it making its way with quiet perseverance, for seventy years, from Cape Nam to the Cape of Good Hope, a distance of some six thousand miles. This long course of discovery has been almost entirely thrown into shade by the more daring and brilliant discovery of America, which we have now to enter upon. Yet these proceedings on the African coast had in them all the energy, perseverance, and courage which distinguished American discovery. Prince Henry himself was hardly a less personage than Columbus. They had different elements to contend in. But the man whom princely wealth and position, and the temptation to intrigue which there must have been in the then state of the Portuguese court, never induced to swerve from the one purpose which he maintained for forty years, unshaken by popular clamour, however sorely vexed he might be with inward doubts and misgivings; who passed laborious days and watchful nights in devotion to this one purpose, enduring the occasional short-comings of his agents with that forbearance which springs from a care for the enterprise in hand, so deep as to control private vexation (the very same motive which made Columbus bear so mildly with insult and contumely from his followers),—such a man is worthy to be put in comparison with the other great discoverer who worked out his enterprise through poverty, neglect, sore travail, and the vicissitudes of courts. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that Prince Henry was undoubtedly the father of modern geographical discovery, and that the result of his exertions must have given much impulse to Columbus, if it did not first move him to his great undertaking. After the above eulogium on Prince Henry, which is not the least more than he merited, his kinsmen, the contemporary Portuguese monarchs, should come in for their share of honourable mention, as they seem to have done their part in African discovery with much vigour, without jealousy of Prince Henry, and with high and noble aims. It would also be but just to include, in some part of this praise, the many brave captains who distinguished themselves in these enterprises.


How far the great discoverer, on whose career we are about to enter, was himself actually concerned in these African expeditions we have no means of deciding. But there can be little doubt that this raising the curtain of the unknown, this glimpse of new countries, gave a keen stimulus to the researches of geographers, and, in fact, set the fashion of discovery. Men's minds were drawn into this special channel; and it remained for Christopher Columbus first to form a sound theory out of the conflicting views of the cosmographers, and finally to carry out that theory with the boldness and resolution which have made his name one of those beacon-fires which carry on from period to period the tidings of the world's great history through successive ages.

CHAPTER II. Early Years of Columbus.


The question of Columbus's birthplace has been almost as hotly contested as that of Homer's. A succession of pamphleteers had discussed the pretensions of half a dozen different Italian villages to be the birthplace of the great navigator; but still archaeologists were divided on the subject, when, at a comparatively recent period, the discovery of the will in which Columbus bequeathed part of his property to the Bank of Genoa, conclusively settled the point in favour of that city. "Thence I came," he says, "and there was I born." As to the date of his birth there is no such direct evidence; and conjectures and inferences, founded on various statements in his own writings, and in those of his contemporaries, range over the twenty years from 1436 to 1456, in attempting to assign the precise time of his appearance in the world. Mr. Irving adopts the earlier of these two dates, upon the authority of a remark by Bernaldez, the curate of Los Palacios, which speaks of the death of Columbus in the year 1506, "at a good old age, being seventy years old, a little more or less." But this statement has an air of vagueness, and is, moreover, inconsistent with several passages in Columbus's own letters.[6] And the evidence of the ancient authorities who seem most to be relied on, points rather to the year 1447 or 1448 as the probable date.

[Footnote 6: "His hair," says his son Fernando, "turned white before he was thirty." This would add to his apparent age, and might have deceived Bernaldez.]


His father was a wool-carder; but this fact does not necessarily imply, in a city of traders like Genoa, that his family was of particularly humble origin. At any rate, like most others, when the light of a great man's birth is thrown upon its records, real and possible, it presents some other names not altogether unworthy to be inscribed among the great man's ancestors. Christopher was not, he says in a letter to a lady of the Spanish court, the first admiral of his family—referring, evidently, to two naval commanders bearing his name, who had attained some distinction in the maritime service of Genoa and France, and the younger of whom, Colombo el Mozo, was in command of a French squadron in the expedition undertaken by John of Anjou against Naples for the recovery of the Neapolitan crown. But his relationship with these Colombos, if traceable at all, was probably only a very distant one, and his son, in admitting this, wisely says that the glory of Christopher is quite enough, without, there being a necessity to borrow any from his ancestors.

At a very early age he became a student at the University of Pavia, where he laid the foundations of that knowledge of mathematics and natural science, which stood him in good stead throughout his life. At Genoa he would naturally regard the sea as the great field of enterprise which produced harvests of rich wares and spoils of glorious victories; and he may have heard, now and then, news of the latest conclusions of the Arabic geographers at Senaar, and rumours of explorations down the African coast, which would be sure to excite interest among the maritime population of his birthplace. It is not wonderful that, exposed to such influences, he preferred a life of adventure on the sea to the drudgery of his father's trade in Genoa. Accordingly, after finishing his academical course at Pavia, he spent but a few irksome months as a carder of wool (tector panni) and actually entered on his nautical career before he was fifteen years old.


Of his many voyages, which of them took place before, and which after, his coming to Portugal, we have no distinct record; but are sure that he traversed a large part of the known world, that he visited England, that he made his way to Iceland and Friesland[7] (where he may possibly have heard vague tales of the discoveries by the Northmen in North America), that he had been at El Mina, on the coast of Guinea, and that he had seen the Islands of the Grecian Archipelago. "I have been seeking out the secrets of nature for forty years," he says, "and wherever ship has sailed, there have I voyaged." But beyond a few vague allusions of this kind, we know scarcely anything of these early voyages. However, he mentions particularly his having been employed by King Rene of Provence to intercept a Venetian galliot. And this exploit furnishes illustrations both of his boldness and his tact. During the voyage the news was brought that the galliot was convoyed by three other vessels. Thereupon the crew were unwilling to hazard an engagement, and insisted that Columbus should return to Marseilles for re-inforcement. Columbus made a feint of acquiescence, but craftily arranged the compass so that it appeared that they were returning, while they were really steering their original course, and so arrived at Carthagena on the next morning, thinking all the while that they were in full sail for Marseilles.

[Footnote 7: The account of this voyage to the north of Europe, as commonly quoted, furnishes a singular instance of the inaccuracy of translators in the matter of figures. Columbus is there made to say, that at the Ultima Thule, which be reached, "the tides were so great as to rise and fall twenty-six fathoms," i.e. 156 feet. Of course this an absurdity; for no tides in Europe rise much above 50 feet. We have no record of the exact words used by Columbus, but in the extant Italian translation he is made to speak of the rise being venti sei bracchia, i.e. twenty-six ells (not fathoms), or about fifty-two feet. But even this reduced estimate must be excessive. Except in the Bristol Channel there is no rise of tide in the seas of Northern Europe which at all approaches this limit. At Reikiavik (Iceland) the rise is seventeen and a half feet. In Greenland it varies from a minimum of seven feet at Julianshaab to a maximum of twelve and a half feet at Frederikshaab.]


Considering how much more real the hero of a biography appears if we can picture him accurately in our mind's eye, and see him "in his habit as he lived," it is singularly unfortunate that the personal appearance of Columbus has been so variously described by the old historians that it is impossible to speak with certainty on the subject. Strangely enough, too, no well-authenticated portrait of the great discoverer exists. Ferdinand Columbus, who would be a good authority, fails to give us, in describing his father, any of those little touches which make up a good literary photograph. We learn, however, that he had a commanding presence, that he was above the middle height, with a long countenance, rather full cheeks, an aquiline nose, and light grey eyes full of expression. His hair was naturally light in colour, but, as has been already stated, it turned nearly white while he was still a young man.

The peculiar characteristics of his mind are such as we might naturally expect to find in the originator of such a work as the discovery of America,—who was, indeed, one of the great spirits of the earth; but still of the same order of soul to which great inventors and discoverers have mostly belonged. Lower down, too, in mankind, there is much of the same nature leading to various kinds of worthy deeds, though there are no more continents for it to discover.

But to return to the renowned personage of whom we are speaking. There was great simplicity about him, and much loyalty and veneration. The truly great are apt to believe in the greatness of others, and so to be loyal in their relations here; while, for what is beyond here, a large measure of veneration belongs to them, as having a finer and more habitually present consciousness than most men of something infinitely above what even their imaginations can compass. He was as magnanimous as it was possible, perhaps, for so sensitive and impassioned a person to be. He was humane, self-denying, courteous. He had an intellect of that largely inquiring kind which may remind us of our great English philosopher, Bacon. He was singularly resolute and enduring. The Spaniards have a word, longanimidad, which has been well applied in describing him, as it signifies greatness and constancy of mind in adversity. He was rapt in his designs, having a ringing for ever in his ears of great projects, making him deaf to much, perhaps, that prudence might have heeded:—one to be loved by those near him, and likely by his presence to inspire favour and respect.


At what precise period his great idea came into his mind we have no means of ascertaining. The continuous current of Portuguese discoveries had, as we have seen, excited the mind of Europe, and must have greatly influenced Columbus, living in the midst of them. This may be said without in the least detracting from his merits as a discoverer. In real life people do not spring from something baseless to something substantial, as people in sick dreams. A great invention or discovery is often like a daring leap, but it is from land to land, not from nothing to something; and if we look at the subject with this consideration fully before us, we shall probably admit that Columbus had as large a share in the merit of his discovery as most inventors or discoverers can lay claim to. If the idea which has rendered him famous was not in his mind at the outset of his career of investigation, at any rate he had from the first a desire for discovery, or, as he says himself, the wish to know the secrets of this world. It may be a question whether this impulse soon brought him to his utmost height of survey, and that he then only applied to learning to confirm his first views; or whether the impulse merely carried him along with growing perception of the great truth he was to prove, into deep thinking upon cosmographical studies, Portuguese discoveries, the dreams of learned men, the labours of former geographers, the dim prophetic notices of great unknown lands, and vague reports amongst mariners of driftwood seen on the seas. But at any rate we know that he arrived at a fixed conclusion that there was a way by the west to the Indies; that he could discover this way, and so come to Cipango, Cathay, the Grand Khan, and all he had met with in the gorgeous descriptions of Marco Polo and other ancient authorities. We may not pretend to lay down the exact chronological order of the formation of the idea in his mind, in fact, to know more about it than he would probably have been able to tell us himself. And it must not be forgotten that his enterprise, as compared with that of the Portuguese along the coast of Africa, was as an invention compared to an improvement. Each new discovery then was but a step beyond that which had preceded it; Columbus was the first to steer boldly from shore into the waste of waters, an originator, not a mere improver.


Fernando Columbus divides into three classes the grounds on which his father's theory was based; namely, reasons from nature, the authority of writers, and the testimony of sailors. He believed the world to be a sphere; he under-estimated its size; he over-estimated the size of the Asiatic continent. The farther that continent extended to the eastward the nearer it came round towards Spain. And this, in a greater or less degree, had been the opinion of the ancient geographers. Both Aristotle and Seneca thought that a ship might sail "in a few days" from Cadiz to India. Strabo, too, believed that it might be possible to navigate on the same parallel of latitude, due west from the coast of Africa or Spain to that of India. The accounts given by Marco Polo and Sir John Maundeville of their explorations towards China confirmed the exaggerated idea of the extent of Eastern Asia.


But of all the works of learned men, that which, according to Ferdinand Columbus, had most weight with his father, was the "Cosmographia" of Cardinal Aliaco. And this book affords a good illustration of the then state of scientific knowledge. Learned arguments are interspersed with the most absurd fables of lion-bodied men and dog-faced women; grave, and sometimes tolerably sound, disquisitions on the earth's surface are mixed up with the wildest stories of monsters and salamanders, of giants and pigmies. It is here that we find the original of our modern acquaintance, the sea-serpent, described as being "of huge size, so that he kills and devours large stags, and is able to cross the ocean;" and the wonders of the unknown world are enunciated with a circumstantial minuteness which must have easily won the credence of a willing disciple like Columbus. He was also confirmed in his views of the existence of a western passage to the Indies by Paulo Toscanelli, the Florentine philosopher, to whom much credit is due for the encouragement he afforded to the enterprise. That the notices, however, of western lands were not such as to have much weight with other men is sufficiently proved by the difficulty which Columbus had in contending with adverse geographers and men of science in general, of whom, he says, he never was able to convince any one. After a new world had been discovered, many scattered indications were then found to have foreshown it. "When he promised a new hemisphere," writes Voltaire, "people maintained that it could not exist, and when he had discovered it, that it had been known a long time." It was to confute such detractors that he resorted to the well known expedient for making an egg stand on end; an illustration of the meaning of originality which, by the way, was not itself original, as Brunelleschi had already employed it when his merit in devising a plan for raising the cupola of Florence cathedral was questioned.


Of the amount of evidence furnished by the testimony of sailors, it is difficult to speak with any degree of accuracy. Rumours of drift-wood, apparently carved with some savage implements; of mammoth reeds, corresponding with Ptolemy's account of those indigenous to India; even of two corpses, cast up on one of the Azores, and presenting an appearance quite unlike that of any race of Europe or Africa; all seem to have come to the willing ears of Columbus, and to have been regarded by him as "confirmations, strong as proofs of holy writ," of the great theory.

About the year 1470 Columbus arrived at Lisbon. According to the account given by his son, and adopted by the historian Bossi, he had sailed with Colombo el Mozo (the nephew of that "first Admiral of the family" of whom we have already heard) on a cruise to intercept some Venetian merchantmen on their way home from Flanders. At break of day the battle began, off Cape St. Vincent, and lasted till nightfall. The privateer commanded by Columbus grappled a huge Venetian galley, which, after a hand-to-hand struggle, caught fire, and the flames spread to the privateer. Friends and enemies alike sought safety in the sea, and Columbus, supporting himself on an oar, succeeded, when nearly exhausted, in gaining the land, which was at some six miles distance. God preserved him, says his son, for greater things.


It was probably not long after this that he married Donna Felipa Munnis Perestrelo, who was residing at the convent of All Saints, in Lisbon, where he was a regular attendant at the services of the church. She was a daughter of that captain of Prince Henry's who has been already mentioned as the first governor of Porto Santo. On that island, after a short residence in the Portuguese capital, Columbus took up his abode, busying himself with the papers of his deceased father-in-law, and earning a livelihood by making maps and charts for sale. It is a curious fact that the great chief of American discoverers should thus have inhabited a spot which was the first advanced outpost in African discovery. He was here on the high road to Guinea, and being in constant communication with the explorers of the new regions, it was likely that he would become imbued with some of their enthusiasm for adventure.


Shrouded in obscurity as this period of his life remains, we are only able to find vague traditions of the unsuccessful effort which Columbus made to induce the Senate of Genoa to take up his project. From the Portuguese crown he could scarcely look for help, embroiled as it was in costly wars, and having already a field for discovery along the African coast, which it would scarcely be wise to forsake for an undertaking similar in kind, but more hazardous and less definite. However, King John the Second, to whom Columbus applied, seems to have listened with attention to the exposition of his scheme, and indeed, according to the account of Fernando, to have given a sort of qualified promise of his support, but to have disagreed with Columbus as to terms. The king referred the matter to a Committee of Council for Geographical Affairs, before whom Columbus laid his plans; but it is possible that even in the fifteenth century Boards had come to regard projectors as their natural enemies, and the report of the Committee was entirely adverse to the scheme for Atlantic discovery. But it seems that the king, was not satisfied yet, whereupon the Bishop of Ceuta (who had headed the opposition to Columbus in the Council) suggested that a caravel should be secretly equipped and sent out, with instructions founded on the plan laid before the committee. And this piece of episcopal bad faith was actually perpetrated. The caravel, however, returned without having accomplished anything, the sailors not having had heart to adventure far enough westward. It was not an enterprise to be carried out successfully by men who had only stolen the idea of it.

CHAPTER III. Columbus in Spain.

Columbus, disgusted at the treatment he had received from the Portuguese Court, quitted Lisbon for Spain, probably in the year 1485, with his son Diego, the only issue of his marriage with Donna Felipa, now no longer living. Here he addressed himself to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and to the Duke of Medina Celi, whose extensive possessions along the coasts of Spain were likely to incline them in favour of a maritime expedition. There is some uncertainty as to the degree of encouragement which he received from them; but long afterwards, when Columbus had succeeded, the Duke of Medina Celi wrote to the Cardinal of Spain showing that he (the duke) had maintained Columbus two years in his house, and was ready to have undertaken the enterprise, but that he saw it was one for the queen herself, and even then he wished to have had a part in it. Probably, any man in whose house Columbus resided for two years would have caught some portion of his enthusiasm, and have been ready to take up his project. It may be conjectured, however, that none of the nobles of the Spanish court would have been likely to undertake the matter without some sanction from the king or queen.


To the queen, accordingly, the Duke of Medina Celi addressed a letter, of which Columbus was himself the bearer, commending his enterprise to the royal favour. But the juncture was singularly inopportune for the consideration of any peaceful project. The war with the Moors was raging more and more furiously, as they were driven back, contesting every inch of ground, farther and farther from the heart of the kingdom. The court was now at Cordova, actively preparing for the campaign which was to result in that subjugation of the crescent to the cross, throughout the Peninsula, which was completed by the conquest of Granada some six years later. Amid the clang of arms and the bustle of warlike preparation, Columbus was not likely to obtain more than a slight and superficial attention to a matter which must have seemed remote and uncertain. Indeed, when it is considered that the most pressing internal affairs of kingdoms are neglected by the wisest rulers in times of war, it is wonderful that he succeeded in obtaining any audience at all.


However, he was fortunate enough to find at once a friend in the Treasurer of the Household, Alonso de Quintanilla, a man who, like himself, "took delight in great things," and who obtained a hearing for him from the Spanish monarchs. Ferdinand and Isabella did not dismiss him abruptly. On the contrary, it is said, they listened kindly; and the conference ended by their referring the business to the Queen's Confessor, Fra Hernando de Talavera, who was afterwards Archbishop of Granada. This important functionary summoned a junta of cosmographers (not a promising assemblage!) to consult about the affair, and this junta was convened at Salamanca, in the summer of the year 1487. Here was a step gained; the cosmographers were to consider his scheme, and not merely to consider whether it was worth taking into consideration. But it was impossible for the jury to be unprejudiced. All inventors, to a certain extent, insult their contemporaries by accusing them of stupidity and of ignorance. And the cosmographical pedants, accustomed to beaten tracks, resented the insult by which this adventurer was attempting to overthrow the belief of centuries. They thought that so many persons wise in nautical matters as had preceded the Genoese mariner never could have overlooked such an idea as this which had presented itself to his mind. Moreover, as the learning of the middle ages resided for the most part in the cloister, the member's of the junta were principally clerical, and combined to crush Columbus with theological objections. Texts of Scripture were adduced to refute his theory of the spherical shape of the earth, and the weighty authority of the Fathers of the Church was added to overthrow the "foolish idea of the existence of antipodes; of people who walk, opposite to us, with their heels upwards and their heads hanging down; where everything is topsy turvy, where the trees grow with their branches downwards, and where it rains, hails, and snows upwards." King David, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Lactantius, and a host of other theological authorities were all put in evidence against the Genoese mariner: he was confronted by the "conservatism of lawyers united to the bigotry of priests." Las Casas displays his usual acuteness when he says that the great difficulty of Columbus was, not that of teaching, but that of unteaching: not of promulgating his own theory, but of eradicating the erroneous convictions of the judges before whom he had to plead his cause. In fine, the junta decided that the project was "vain and impossible, and that it did not belong to the majesty of such great princes to determine anything upon such weak grounds of information."

Ferdinand and Isabella seem not to have taken the extremely unfavourable view of the matter entertained by the junta of cosmographers, or at least to have been willing to dismiss Columbus gently, for they merely said that, with the wars at present on their hands, and especially that of Granada, they could not undertake any new expenses, but when that war was ended, they would examine his plan more carefully.


Thus terminated a solicitation at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella which, according to some authorities, lasted five years; for the facts above mentioned, though short in narration, occupied no little time in transaction. During the whole of this period, Columbus appears to have followed the sovereigns in the movements which the war necessitated, and to have been treated by them with much consideration. Sums were from time to time granted from the royal treasury for his private expenses, and he was billeted as a public functionary in the various towns of Andalusia, where the court rested. But his must have been a very up-hill task. Las Casas, who, from an experience larger even than that which fell to the lot of Columbus, knew what it was to endure the cold and indolent neglect of superficial men in small authority, and all the vast delay, which cannot be comprehended except by those who have suffered under it, that belongs to the transaction of any affair in which many persons have to cooperate, compares the suit of Columbus to a battle, "a terrible, continuous, painful, prolix battle." The tide of this long war (for war it was, rather than a battle) having turned against him, Columbus left the court, and went to Seville "with much sadness and discomfiture." During this dreary period of a suitor's life—which, however, has been endured by some of the greatest men the world has seen, which was well known by close observation, or bitter experience, to Spenser, Camoens, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Bacon—one joy at least was not untasted by Columbus, namely, that of love. His beloved Beatrice, whom he first met at Cordova, must have believed in him, even if no one else had done so; but love was not sufficient to retain at her side a man goaded by a great idea, or perhaps that love did but impel him to still greater efforts for her sake, as is the way with lovers of the nobler sort.


Other friends, too, shared his enthusiasm, and urged him onward. Juan Perez de la Marchena, guardian of the monastery of La Rabida, in Andalusia, had been the confessor of Queen Isabella, but had exchanged the bustle of the court for the learned leisure of the cloister. The little town of Palos, with its seafaring population and maritime interests, was near the monastery, and the principal men of the place were glad to pass the long winter evenings in the society of Juan Perez, discussing questions of cosmography and astronomy. Among these visitors were Martin Alonzo Pinzon, the chief shipowner of Palos, and Garcia Hernandez, the village doctor; and one can fancy how the schemes of Columbus must have appeared to the little conclave as a ray of sunlight in the dulness of their simple life. Hernandez, especially, who seems to have been somewhat skilled in physical science, and therefore capable of appreciating the arguments of Columbus, became a warm believer in his project. It is worthy of notice that a person who appears only once, as it were, in a sentence in history, should have exercised so much influence upon it as Garcia Hernandez, who was probably a man of far superior attainments to those around him, and was in the habit of deploring, as such men do, his hard lot in being placed where he could be so little understood. Now, however, he was to do more at one stroke than many a man who has been all his days before the world. Columbus had abandoned his suit at court in disgust, and had arrived at the monastery before quitting Spain to fetch his son Diego, whom he had left with Juan Perez to be educated. All his griefs and struggles he confided to Perez, who could not bear to hear of his intention to leave the country for France or England, and to make a foreign nation greater by allowing it to adopt his project. The three friends—the monk, the learned physician, and the skilled cosmographer—discussed together the propositions so unhappily familiar to the last named member of their little council. The affection of Juan Perez and the learning of Hernandez were not slow to follow in the track which the enthusiasm of the great adventurer made out before them; and they became, no doubt, as convinced as Columbus himself of the feasibility of his undertaking. The difficulty, however, was not in becoming believers themselves, but in persuading those to believe who would have power to further the enterprise.


Their discussions upon this point ended in the conclusion that Juan Perez, who was known to the queen, having acted as her confessor, should write to her highness. He did so; and the result was favourable. The queen sent for him, heard what he had to say, and in consequence remitted money to Columbus to enable him to come to Court and renew his suit.


He attended the court again; his negotiations were resumed, but were again broken off on the ground of the largeness of the conditions which he asked for. His opponents said that these conditions were too large if he succeeded, and if he should not succeed and the conditions should come to nothing, they thought that there was an air of trifling in granting such conditions at all. And, indeed, they wore very large; namely, that he was to be made an admiral at once, to be appointed viceroy of the countries he should discover, and to have an eighth of the profits of the expedition. The only probable way of accounting for the extent of these demands and his perseverance in making them, even to the risk of total failure, is that the discovering of the Indies was but a step in his mind to greater undertakings, as they seemed to him, which he had in view, of going to Jerusalem with an army and making another crusade. For Columbus carried the chivalrous ideas of the twelfth century into the somewhat self-seeking fifteenth. The negotiation, however, failed a second time, and Columbus resolved again to go to France, when Alonzo de Quintanilla and Juan Perez contrived to obtain a hearing for the great adventurer from Cardinal Mendoza, who was pleased with him. Columbus then offered, in order to meet the objections of his opponents, to pay an eighth part of the expense of the expedition. Still nothing was done.


And now, finally, Columbus determined to go to France, and indeed had actually set off one day in January of the year 1492, when Luis de Santangel, receiver of the ecclesiastical revenues of the crown of Aragon, a person much devoted to the plans of Columbus, addressed the queen with all the energy that a man throws into his words when he is aware that it is his last time for speaking in favour of a thing which he has much at heart. He told her that he wondered that, as she always had a lofty mind for great things, it should be wanting to her on this occasion. He endeavoured to pique her jealousy as a monarch, by suggesting that the enterprise might fall into the hands of other princes. Then he said something in behalf of Columbus himself, and the queen was not unlikely to know well the bearing of a great man. He intimated to her highness that what was an impossibility to the cosmographers, might not be so in nature. Nor, continued he, should any endeavour in so great a matter be attributed to lightness, even though the endeavour should fail; for it is the part of great and generous princes to ascertain the secrets of the world. Other princes (he did not mention those of neighbouring Portugal) had gained eternal fame this way. He concluded by saying that all the aid Columbus wanted to set the expedition afloat, was but a million of maravedis (equivalent to about 308 Pounds, English money of the period); and that so great an enterprise ought not to be abandoned for the sake of such a trifling sum.

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