Christopher Columbus, Mariner


For want of funds, Christopher was delayed in leaving for Lisbon, and before he and his brother Bartholomew (who had remained there) could “do business” with John II, Dias returned. The Columbus brothers were present in December 1488 when the three caravels commanded by Dias sailed proudly up the Tagus. Their great captain had rounded the south cape of Africa—the Cape of Good Hope the King named it—and was well on his way up the east coast when his men mutinied and forced him to turn back. That ended King John’s interest in Columbus. His man had found a sea route to the Indies, so why invest money in the doubtful West-to-the-Orient project?

Moreover, Columbus had a rival in Portugal, Martin Behaim, a young Nuremberger who like him had made voyages under the Portuguese flag and married the daughter of a Portuguese master mariner. Behaim’s ideas of the size of the Earth and the length of Asia, incorporated in a globe that he constructed in 1492, were almost identical with those of Columbus, and in 1493, just too late, he proposed to John II to do exactly what Columbus had done, or thought he had done.

Around New Year’s, 1489, the Columbus brothers decided on a plan of action. Christopher returned to Spain, where he still had hopes from the slow-moving Talavera commission, while Bartholomew wound up the chart-making business and embarked on a long journey to try to sell the West-to-the-Orient project to some other prince. Unable to make any impression on Henry VII of England, Bartholomew proceeded to France, where Anne de Beaujeu, sister to King Charles VIII, befriended him and employed him to make charts for her at Fontainebleau. Through her, Bartholomew became friendly with the French King but never obtained any certain prospect of his support.

Success to Christopher always seemed to be just around the corner, but in 1489 he still had three years to wait before obtaining anything definite. We know very little of how he passed the time. According to one contemporary, he started a branch of “Columbus Brothers, Chartmakers and Booksellers” at Seville. The Queen took notice of his return to Castile by giving him an open letter to all local officials, ordering them to furnish him board and lodging en route to court, which was then in a fortified camp outside the Moorish city of Baza, under siege by the Spanish army. There is some indication that Christopher joined the army as a volunteer while waiting for an answer, and he certainly had the time to fire a few shots at the infidels.

Not until late in 1490 did the Talavera commission issue its report, and it was unfavorable. The experts advised the Queen that the West-to-the-Orient project “rested on weak foundations”; that its attainment seemed “uncertain and impossible to any educated person”; that the proposed voyage to Asia would require three years’ time, even if the ships could return, which they judged doubtful; that the Ocean was infinitely larger than Columbus supposed, and much of it un-navigable. And finally, it was not likely that God would have allowed any uninhabited lands of real value to be concealed from His people for so many centuries. Rejection could not have been more flat, and we must admit that all the commission’s arguments, save the last, were sound. Suppose there had been no America, no ship then built, however resolute her master and crew, or frugal in provision, could have made the ten-thousand-mile voyage from Spain to Japan.

Apparently a complete deadlock. Columbus knew he could do it; the experts were certain he could not. It needed something as powerful as feminine intuition to break the log jam.

For the present, all the Queen would do was to give Columbus fresh hope. He could apply again, said she, when the war with the Moors was over. He waited almost another year and then decided to leave Spain and join his brother in France. Calling at the La Rábida friary near Palos to pick up his son Diego, now about ten years old, he was persuaded by the prior, Father Juan Pérez, to give the Queen another chance, and wrote to her to that effect. She replied by summoning Columbus to court, and sent him a generous gift to buy himself some decent clothing and a mule.

Columbus always found more friends and supporters among priests than among laymen. They seemed to understand him better, since his thoughts and aspirations were permeated with religious emotion. He was far more particular than most laymen in saying the daily offices of the church—prime, tierce, sext, none and compline. He seldom missed an opportunity to attend Mass, and in an age of picturesque and elaborate profanity, he was never heard to utter any other oath than “By San Fernando!” or to curse, except that he would blurt out, “May God take you!” when exasperated. He had a fine presence and an innate dignity that impressed people, of whatever estate, and although he never spoke perfect hidalgo Castilian, it was not expected that he should, as Genoa-born and of long residence in Portugal.