The Man Behind Columbus

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The world in which Martín and María began their married life was not a tranquil one. Palos was a tough little frontier seaport in a turbulent land. Andalusía was the bloody battleground for the hatreds and ambitions of feudal nobles who maintained private armies and even fleets of war. Bands of robbers nested in strongholds in the mountains and made periodic forays on villages and towns, returning with impunity to their lairs. Also, along the Andalusian coast the towns were prey to raids by Moslem corsairs from North Africa. The area around Palos, situated at the head of the estuary of the Saltés, an open door to the ocean, was particularly vulnerable to forays.

According to tradition in Palos, Pinzón’s two younger brothers continued to live with him on Galle de la Râbida after María moved in as a bride, and she kept house for all three. At the end of her first confinement she and Martín, attired in their Sabbath best and accompanied by two sponsors, carried their infant son to the baptismal font in the church of San Jorge, where a friar from the monastery of La Râbida solemnly christened him Arias Pérez Pinón. In subsequent years came Juan Martín, Catalina, Diego Martín, Mayor, Leonor, and Francisco Martín.

Most of the children were reasonably healthy, but there was a distressing exception. One of the little girls—which one is not known—was subject to violent convulsions. Her malady was diagnosed as the dreaded gota coral —epilepsy in its most acute form. This melancholy ordeal in the married life of the Pinzóns is revealed in a curious document brought to light by the Spanish historian Navarrete. Couched in archaic Castillan legalese, it is a mandate issued by Ferdinand and Isabella on December 5, 1500, ordering the authorities of Palos to act on a petition by Arias Pérez Pinzón that his brothers be compelled to take their turns in caring for their epileptic sister in their respective homes.

Martín and María had been married five years when the wretched reign of Enrique IV, the last of the Trastámara dynasty, which had ruled Castile for a hundred years, ended with his death in Madrid in 1474. The throne was seized immediately by his young half sister Isabella and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, whom she had secretly married five years before. Isabella had the support of a powerful faction of Castilian nobles who were profoundly disturbed by the moral degeneracy of Enrique’s court.

Their accession precipitated a war with Portugal, whose king, Afonso v, claimed the Castilian throne on behalf of his niece, Juana. Afonso sent an invading army into Castile to enforce her claim, but it was routed by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in a battle on the Duero River in 1476.

Afonso did not attempt a second invasion, but the war continued at sea with singular ferocity. Martín Pinzón and his fellow seamen of Palos were in the forefront of the naval fighting that ranged up and down the Atlantic coast from Lisbon to Guinea in West Africa. In the Pleitos a number of witnesses testified to Pinzón’s personal prowess. Commanding his own ship on privateering expeditions, he won the admiration of his contemporaries by his valor and daring.

“At the time of the war with Portugal, all the Portuguese feared him because each day he captured some of them,” declared Gonzalo Martín of Huelva in his deposition in 1532. Fernando Iáñes Montiel, also of Huelva, said that “he knew very well the said Martín Alonso Pinzón and he was the most valorous man in all this land and with his ship he was feared by the Portuguese.” Ferrán Yáñez described Pinzón as being “as courageous a man as there was in this land … and there was no Portuguese ship that dared face him.”

Because of past irritations the fighting was especially bitter. The Spanish seamen resented the Portuguese claim to a monopoly of the African trade; the Portuguese were incensed by the Spaniards’ incursions into what they considered their exclusive domain. The war finally ended with the Treaty of Alcáçovas in September, 1479. Afonso gave up his claim to the Castilian throne; Ferdinand and Isabella recognized the exclusive right of the Portuguese to West African trade.

This last provision put a severe crimp in the economy of Palos. The shipowners and their crews henceforth had to depend largely on less lucrative trade with the Canaries and with Mediterranean and northern European ports.

So things went until one day in the winter of 1484-85 an indigent foreigner appeared at the gate of the monastery of La Rábida and begged for bread and water for his small son. It was a minor event that later was to have unimaginable consequences for Pinzón and for the whole world: the stranger was Christopher Columbus.

It was probably two or three years after this that María died and Pinzón took a second wife, Catalina Alonso, who was hated by her new stepchildren. There is no surviving record as such either of María’s death or of the second marriage. But both events are implicit in two curious documents in the royal archives of Spain, both bearing the same date and marking another intervention by the Catholic sovereigns in the Pinzón family affairs.