The Man Behind Columbus

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Columbus returned in triumph to Palos, and the royal directives were read in the church plaza to a small knot of Palos officialdom. Unfortunately for Columbus, his new admiral’s uniform and the decrees from the sovereigns did little for him in the jaundiced eyes of the local citizens. To them he was still the indigent foreigner without money or credit who was trying to force them to go on a desperate journey to God knew where.

To Alonso Pardo, town notary of Moguer, fell the task of seeking two caravels in accordance with the royal mandate. He managed to commandeer a couple of ships of dubious vintage whose owners were either unlucky or indifferent. Pardo, a witness years later in the Columbus family litigation, testified that “this witness saw that everyone scorned the said Christopher Columbus and believed he would die and everyone who went with him.”

The hostile state of mind of the people of Palos is abundantly revealed in uncontroverted testimony presented in the Pleitos . Witness after witness, in interrogatories taken over a period of twenty years and in widely separated places, testified to the universal lack of confidence in Columbus when he tried to man and equip the fleet on his own.

“Everyone said the enterprise of the said Don Cristóbal was vain and they made a mockery of it,” declared Martín Gonzalo Bisochero in the 1515 hearing in Moguer.

The villagers’ hostility toward Columbus was even confirmed by witnesses sympathetic to Diego Columbus. One of them was Juan Rodríguez de Cabezudo, a Moguer farmer who had rented a donkey to Columbus when the latter went to court after his first interview with Pinzón. “Many persons made fun of the said Admiral,” Cabezudo testified. “They … even reproached this witness for lending him a mule and publicly they scorned the enterprise.”

Week after week the embargoed caravels swung idly at anchor in the Rio Tinto while Columbus strove in vain to enlist a crew. Apparently he must have given the sovereigns the idea that the villagers’ stolid resistance portended a full-scale revolt. On June 20, nearly a month after the reading of the ordinance impounding the caravels, Their Highnesses sent a stern letter to the Palos authorities ordering Columbus’ ships manned by any means necessary. And they sent an officer of the royal household named Juan de Penalosa to see that the order was carried out. At the same time the alcaide (governor) of the castle was summarily ousted and replaced by the corregidor (royal magistrate), Juan de Cepeda, who armed it to repel any rebellion.

 

These drastic measures only hardened the passive resistance of the villagers. The boycott was complete.

The reader may well wonder whatever happened to the understanding Columbus had reached with Pinzón. The question has never been satisfactorily answered. There is only one reasonable conclusion: with the mandates of the sovereigns in hand, Columbus had decided he had no need for Pinzón’s collaboration, no necessity to share the glory and profits of the expedition. Professor Manuel Sales Ferre of the University of Seville, who did extensive research in the transcripts of the Pleitos , believes the boycott was actively abetted by a resentful Pinzón, who used his powerful influence in the community to thwart Columbus at every turn. Thus the enterprise was caught in a riptide of contention between two stubborn wills—the one armed with the authority of the Crown, the other with Pinzón’s moral authority in the comarca .

In the end Columbus had to go to Pinzón. Father Pérez was probably an active mediator in the impasse. Once Columbus had accepted the reality that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put together a crew for him, there remained the task of winning Pinzón to a reconciliation. This probably was not as difficult as it might seem. Pinzón was now fifty years old, well past the life expectancy of those days. Undoubtedly he yearned for one more great adventure to crown his distinguished maritime career. Even more compelling, perhaps, was his longing to escape from his unhappy household.

It is not difficult to imagine the scene as the two protagonists faced each other, Columbus now conciliatory and expansive in his promises, Pinzón dour and still suspicious as he stated his conditions for undertaking the voyage. What were those conditions? No one knows for sure. If there was a written agreement, it has not survived. However, there was considerable testimony by witnesses in the Pleitos on this point.

The import of the sworn evidence is that the two partners agreed to share equally the rewards of the expedition. Obviously such an understanding could relate only to the material profits and not to grants of high office made to Columbus by the sovereigns.