Christopher Columbus, Mariner


At Cordova, as in most cities of the Peninsula, there was already a colony of Genoese, one of whom was an apothecary; and apothecary shops in those days were meeting places for physicians and amateur scientists. Columbus naturally dropped in at the shop of his compatriot, and here became acquainted with a frequenter of the informal club, Diego de Harana. Diego invited him to his house, where he met a twenty-year-old country cousin of the Haranas, Beatriz Enríquez. She became Columbus’s mistress and in 1488 bore him his second son, Ferdinand. The fact that Columbus never married Beatriz has troubled his more pious biographers, as, judging from certain provisions for her in his will, it troubled his conscience; but nobody at the time seems to have held this lapse of morals against him. His wife had been a lady of rank who helped him to establish a position in Portugal, and according to the standards of the day, a second marriage with a peasant’s daughter would have been unsuitable for one who intended to be a nobleman and admiral. The Harana family were pleased with the connection; at least two Haranas subsequently served under Columbus, and the friendship between them and the legitimate Colóns continued for two or three generations.

On May Day 1486, almost a year from the time he had first set foot in Spain, Columbus was received by the Queen in the Alcazar that still stands at Cordova. Isabella the Catholic was one of the ablest European sovereigns in an age of strong kings. She had an intuitive faculty for choosing the right man for a job, and for doing the right thing at the right time. She was very close to Columbus’s age and similar to him in temperament, and in coloring—blue eyes and auburn hair. Her marriage with Ferdinand of Aragon had united all “the Spains,” excepting Portugal, to which she was allied, and the remnant of the Moorish Caliphate of Cordova, which she had resolved to conquer. Some spark of understanding evidently passed between Christopher and Isabella at their first meeting, and although she turned down his enterprise more than once, he found that he could count on her in the end. On this occasion she appointed a special commission under Hernando de Talavera, her confessor, to examine the Great Project and recommend whether she should accept or reject it, or allow Medina Celi to back it.

Then began a period of almost six years, the most unhappy in Columbus’s entire life. He had to sustain a continual battle against prejudice, contumely and sheer indifference. A proud, sensitive man who knew that his project was feasible and that it would open new pathways to maritime achievement and opportunity, he had to endure clownish witticisms and crackpot jests by ignorant courtiers, to be treated worse than a beggar, and at times actually to suffer want. Worst of all, perhaps, he learned by experience the meaning of the phrase cosas de España , the irritating procrastination of Spaniards, who never seemed to be able to make up their minds, to carry out a plain order, or to make a firm decision without fees or favors. In later years he often alluded bitterly to these experiences and tactlessly contrasted the enormous wealth and power he had conferred on Spain with his pitiable and protracted efforts to obtain a fair hearing.

The Talavera commission, meeting at Salamanca∗ around Christmastide 1486, could not reach an agreement. At least one member, Diego de Deza, was in favor of the Great Enterprise, and it was doubtless due to his influence, or Talavera’s, that early in 1487 Columbus was given a retaining fee of 12,000 maravedis a year.∗ That was the pay of an able seaman, enough to support a man of Columbus’s simple tastes, if it had been paid regularly.

∗ It is this commission whose deliberations have been so distorted by Washington Irving and others as a debate on whether the world was a sphere or not. Actually, we know nothing definite about the arguments, but we may be certain that since the commission consisted of men of learning, the sphericity of the earth never came into question.

∗ To convey the equivalent of Spanish currency of this era, I have tried to state the gold content in British and U. S. coinage before both countries went off the gold standard. Thus, 12,000 maravedis equalled $83 in gold (four double eagles plus, $3.00), or 16½ guineas.

Month followed month, another Christmas passed, but nothing issued from the Talavera commission. So, early in 1488, Columbus wrote to John II of Portugal, requesting another hearing and asking for a safe-conduct from arrest for his unpaid bills in Lisbon. The King replied promptly and most cordially, urging Columbus to come immediately, and promising protection from lawsuit or arrest. There were probably two reasons for this sudden and flattering change of attitude—Dulmo and Estreito had not located the mythical Island of Antilia, and Bartholomew Dias, embarked on perhaps the twentieth Portuguese attempt to reach the Indies by rounding Africa, had been gone seven months and nothing had been heard from him.