Christopher Columbus, Mariner


On the practical side, in the course of his voyages he observed evidence such as exotic tree trunks and “horse-beans,” which are the fruit of an American mimosa, washed ashore in the Azores; the flat-faced corpses seen at Galway, who, if Chinese, could not have floated many thousand miles without decomposing; numerous reports of islands west of the Azores and the Canaries. For Columbus did not assume that he had to make his transoceanic voyage in one jump. There was no reason to suppose that Flores and Corvo were the last islands before you hit “The Indies.” The legendary voyages of Saint Brendan, the Irish seagoing monk of the sixth century, were believed to be true, and the Portuguese had their own legend about the Island of Antilia, settled by refugees from the Moorish wars in the eighth century. An old salt in Lisbon even claimed he had been there and had been chased out. Toscanelli, too, mentioned Antilia as a convenient island of call, and, as we shall see, Columbus made a brief search for it on his First Voyage.

In 1484 he made his first effort to interest a prince—John II, King of Portugal, a nephew of Henry the Navigator who was intensely interested in new discoveries. According to the contemporary Portuguese historians and chroniclers, the Columbian project was exactly the same then as later-to reach Japan by sailing west and to discover other islands en route. “The King,” says one of the historians, “as he observed this Christovão Colom to be a big talker and boastful … and full of fancy and imagination with his Isle Cypango … gave him small credit.” Nevertheless, the King committed the project to a junta consisting of a prominent churchman and two Jewish physicans of reputed skill in celestial navigation. They turned it down, flat. Their reasons for so doing are not recorded, but we may assume that they had a more accurate idea of the distance to be covered than did Columbus.

It may be, however, that Columbus simply asked too much, since the kings of Portugal were accustomed to having their discoveries made free. There are about a dozen records of the monarch granting one of his captains an island, such as one of the Azores, or an island west of the Azores, if he could find it. In the very year 1485, when the King’s committee rejected Columbus’s project, he gave permission to two Portuguese mariners, Dulmo and Estreito, to set forth and discover Antilia at their own proper charge and expense. If they found it, they would be hereditary captains there and receive suitable honors and titles. They agreed to sail west for forty days and then return if they found nothing.

It is obvious why this and all other pre-Columbian Portuguese attempts to discover islands west of the Azores failed. In the first place, there was no Antilia, and no island nearer than Newfoundland; in the second place, to sail west from the Azores, as all these men did, one had to buck westerly winds in high latitudes. Columbus, in his African voyages, had observed the steady easterly tradewinds between the Equator and the latitude of the Canaries, and so chose the Canaries as his point of departure. That is the plain reason why he succeeded in finding something, even though it was not what he wanted.

Before Christopher could try it his way, he must have money and support. In 1485, the same year that the Portuguese committee turned him down, his wife Dona Felipa died at Lisbon. That broke his strongest tie with Portugal. Nobody there would stake him if the King would not, so Columbus decided to try his luck in Spain. He knew no one there except a sister of his late wife who was married to a Spaniard in Huelva, so to that part of Spain, the County of Niebla adjoining Portugal, Columbus took ship with his five-year-old son Diego.

It must have been with sinking heart that Columbus entered the Rio Saltés and sighted the sleepy little ports of Huelva and Palos, a sad contrast to bright, bustling Lisbon. As his ship rounded into the Rio Tinto, he observed on a bluff the buildings of the Franciscan friary of La Rábida. That suggested a solution to his problem of what to do with Diego, as the Franciscans were known to take “boarders.” So, after landing at Palos, he walked with his little son four miles to the friary, knocked at the gate and asked the porter for a drink of water and some bread for the boy. Fortunately, Antonio de Marchena, a highly intelligent Franciscan who had studied astronomy, came to the gate and got into conversation with Columbus. He invited both father and son to stay, accepted Diego as a pupil and introduced Columbus to the Count of Medina Celi, a grandee of Spain and also an important shipowner of Cadiz.

Medina Celi, of whom Columbus asked “three or four well-equipped caravels, and no more,” had almost decided to underwrite the enterprise when it occurred to him to ask permission of the Queen. He did so, and Isabella refused, believing that so important an enterprise as that of Columbus should be conducted by the crown. But this transfer from Count to Queen postponed Columbus’s voyage some six years.

Bargaining with Princes

About nine months elapsed before Columbus could obtain an audience with the Queen, because the court was traveling from city to city in central and northern Spain, and he had no funds to follow. From Seville, where his negotiations with Medina Celi had taken place, he went to the nearby city of Cordova to await the Queen’s good pleasure.