The Man Behind Columbus


They were discovered by the American scholar Alicia B. Gould y Quincy in the archive of Simancas. Both documents, signed by Ferdinand and Isabella, bear the date October 12, 1493, exactly one year after the discovery of America and six and a half months after the death of Pinzón. The first is a mandate to the authorities of Palos to take appropriate action on a petition by hve of the Pinzón children—Arias Pérez, Juan Martín, Mayor, Catalina, and Leonor—to have their stepmother evicted from the family home. The second, directed to the woman herself, instructs her to comply with the wishes of the Pinzón heirs or show cause to the royal magistrates in Palos why she should not.

Thus when Pinzón first met Columbus some time in the latter half of the Pinzón household, with an epileptic daughter and with a second wife at swords’ points with her stepchildren, was anything but happy.

Columbus had spent six bitter years, much of the time in dire poverty, trying to persuade the sovereigns to underwrite his expedition. They were mildly interested, but they were engaged in a costly war with the kingdom of Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. Moreover, a commission appointed to examine Columbus’ proposal, headed by the queen’s most trusted adviser, Father Talavera, reported on it unfavorably. The queen informed Columbus he could not count on royal support.

Heartsick, Columbus returned to La Rábida, where, several years earlier, he had been too poor to care for his son and had left him in the care of the monks. He was determined to try his fortunes in France. But the guardian of the monastery, Father Juan Pérez, had become interested in the project and persuaded him to delay his departure until a new appeal could be made to the queen. Father Pérez at one time had been a contador (accountant) in the queen’s household and had served as her confessor.

It is clear from testimony in the Pleitos that the new application to the queen was contingent on inducing Martín Pinzón to join the enterprise. The shrewd priest must have suspected that a weak point in Columbus’ case was the lack of an experienced navigator and fleet organizer.

Unfortunately, at the moment Pinzón was on a voyage to Italy with a cargo of sardines. Once there, he and his twenty-one-year-old son, Arias Pérez, visited Rome and were taken on a tour of the library of Pope Innocent vin. Their host is described as a “familiar” of the pope and an old acquaintance of Pinzón. He is not otherwise identified, but it is likely that he had once been a monk at La Rábida.

In the Pleitos the legal battery for the Crown made much of this visit of the Pinzón to the Vatican in attempting to prove that Pinzón and not Columbus had initiated the voyage of discovery. Responding to Question XI in the interrogatory of October 15, 1515, Arias testified to the conversation he and his father had had with the papal servant, whom he described as a “great cosmographer.”

“And there this witness and his said father were informed of these lands that awaited discovery,” Arias continued. He further said that his father was so impressed by the evidence of undiscovered lands that he was determined to go in search of them himself.

There is a great deal of eyewitness testimony relating to the first meeting between Columbus and Pinzón on the latter’s return from Italy. Typical was that of Hernando de Villareal, who said that he “knows that on arrival of the said Martín Alonso from Rome, the said Admiral [Columbus] reached an agreement with him and the said Admiral sent to court a friar of La Rábida and he made relation thereof to Their Highnesses …”

The evidence in the Pleitos dovetails with the accounts of the renewed negotiations between Columbus and the sovereigns as related by Father Las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus in their respective histories. Father Pérez wrote to the queen from La Rábida. His letter was so effective that she replied within two weeks, summoning both Pérez and Columbus to the royal encampment of Santa Fe on the vega , or lowland, of Granada, where the Spanish armies were besieging the Alhambra. The queen sent 20,000 maravedis (about $140) to Columbus so he could shed his threadbare clothes and make a decent appearance at court.

The Alhambra surrendered on January 2, 1492. Three and a half months later the monarchs signed the Capitulations of Santa Fe, authorizing the voyage and making extraordinary grants of titles and perquisites to Columbus. By a stroke of their pens the erstwhile Knight of the Ragged Cape, as some of the courtiers had scoffingly dubbed Columbus in his years of travail, was transformed into the Very Magnificent Lord, Don Cristóbal Colón, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Along with the Capitulations the sovereigns issued a directive to the town authorities of Palos to furnish and equip two caravels and to supply the necessary manpower for them.