Christopher Columbus, Mariner


John II received Columbus with unexpected graciousness, but his court chronicler tells us that the King was inwardly furious with the Admiral for telling what sounded like a tall tale, and he suspected that the new discoveries had been made in a region where Portugal had prior rights. The courtiers urged the King to have this boastful upstart discreetly assassinated (just as he had recently disposed of an annoying brother-in-law), but, fortunately, he refused. And the King had to admit that his Indian guests looked very different from any Africans he had ever seen or heard of. Two of them impressed him deeply by making a rough chart of the Antilles with beans, at which the King was convinced, smote his breast and cried out, “Why did I let slip such a wonderful chance?”

On March 13, the gallant little caravel weighed anchor from Lisbon. Strange to relate, Pinta was following her, out of sight but not far astern. She had missed the Azores and so was not subjected to the last and worst of the tempests that swept over Niña , and she made port at Bayona near Vigo in northern Spain about the end of February. Martin Alonso Pinzón, whom Columbus had suspected of wanting to beat him home with the news, attempted just that. He sent a message across Spain to Ferdinand and Isabella at Barcelona, announcing his arrival and begging permission to come himself and tell them all about the voyage. The Sovereigns sent back word that they preferred to hear the news from Columbus himself. Pinta then sailed from Bayona for Palos.

At daybreak, March 14, Niña wore ship around Cape St. Vincent and passed the beach where Columbus had swum ashore after the sea fight seventeen years earlier. And at midday, March 15, she crossed the bar of Rio Saltés on the young flood tide and dropped anchor off Palos.

Pinta entered on the same tide. The sight of Niña already there, snugged down as if she had been at home a month, finished Martin Alonso Pinzón. Older than Columbus, ill from the hardships of the voyage, mortified by his snub from the King and Queen, he could bear no more. He went directly from Pinta to his country house near Palos, took to his bed and died within the month.

So ended, 224 days after it began, the greatest round voyage in history. Columbus’s final words to his Journal of it have been preserved:

Of this voyage I observe that the will of God hath miraculously been set forth (as may be seen from this journal) by the many signal miracles that He hath shown on the voyage and for myself, who for so great a time was in the court of Your Highnesses, with the opposition and against the opinion of so many high personages of your household, who were all against me, alleging this undertaking to be folly, which I hope in Our Lord will be to the greater glory of Christianity, which to some slight extent has already occurred.

On or shortly after Easter Sunday, April 7, his cup of happiness overflowed upon receipt of a letter from Ferdinand and Isabella, addressed to “Don Cristóbal Colon, their Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands that he hath discovered in the Indies.” These were the exact titles that they’had promised him if he did reach the Indies, and the use of them indicated that they believed he had made good. They expressed their pleasure at his achievements, commanded him to attend court, and, “Inasmuch as we will that that which you have commenced with the aid of God be continued and furthered,” ordered preparations for a second voyage to be started immediately.

The Admiral purchased clothes suitable for his rank and formed a procession with some of his officers, hired servants and six of the long-suffering Indians. These wore their native full dress (largely feathers and fishbone-and-gold ornaments) and carried parrots in cages. The news traveled ahead, and everyone who possibly could flocked to marvel at these strange-looking men, so unlike any in European experience. Traversing lovely Andalusia, they entered Cordova, where the municipality gave Columbus a great reception and he saw his mistress and picked up his two sons. Around April 20 the cavalcade arrived at Barcelona, where “all the court and the city” came out to meet the great man.

Now the fortunes of Columbus reached apogee. As he entered the hall where the Sovereigns held court, his dignified stature, his gray hair, and his noble countenance tanned by eight months on the sea made the learned men present compare him with a Roman senator. As he advanced to make obeisance, Ferdinand and Isabella rose from their thrones, and when he knelt to kiss their hands, they bade him rise and be seated on the Queen’s right. The Indians were brought forward and presented, the gold artifacts and samples of alleged rare spices were examined, a multitude of questions asked and answered, then all adjourned to the chapel of the Alcazar where a Te Deum was chanted. And it was observed that at the last line, “O Lord, in Thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded,” tears were streaming down the Admiral’s face.


A Communication