Christopher Columbus
by Mildred Stapley
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From this point Mendez went on with his six rowers till he found the governor; but before going into that matter, let me tell you how proud, and justly proud, Diego Mendez was all his life of this canoe trip. He lived to be an old man (in the city of Valladolid), and when he felt himself nearing the end, he asked his relatives to mark his grave by a tombstone, "in the center of which let a canoe be carved (which is a piece of wood hollowed out in which the Indians navigate), because in such a boat I navigated some three hundred leagues; and let some letters be carved above it saying canoa."

Quite right of you, Diego Mendez, to wish posterity to know of your plucky voyage. We hope your relatives gave you the coveted tombstone; and we hope, also, that they carved, on its reverse side, that of all the men who ever served Don Cristobal Colon, you were the most loyal and the most valiant.

The Admiral, in writing an account of what happened on the Jamaica beach while Mendez was seeking aid, says:—

"At the request of the king's treasurer, I took two brothers with me to the Indies—one as captain, the other as auditor. Both were without any capacity for their work, yet became more and more vain. I forgave them many incivilities. They rebelled openly on Jamaica, at which I was as much astonished as if the sun should go black."

Yet why, we ask, should Columbus have been so astonished? Had he ever known much else from those under him but incivility and rebellion?

Ever since Mendez left in August the men had been looking in vain for his return. Autumn and winter and spring wore away, and as the natives had grown tired of feeding them, the shipwrecked crew were now mere skeletons. Of course they blamed the pain-racked Admiral because Mendez had not returned with succor; and of course they were constantly quarreling among themselves. One day the captain who had commanded the vessel that went to pieces near Darien came into the cabin where the sick Admiral lay, and grumbled and quarreled and said he was going to seize canoes from the Indians and make his way to Haiti. It was Francisco Porras, one of the two brothers foisted on Columbus by their relative, the king's treasurer, who wanted to get rid of them.

Porras and forty-one of the discontented voyagers actually started for Haiti, but a short time on the rough sea sent them back ashore. They next formed themselves into a raiding party and outraged the natives in every possible way, falsely saying that they did so by order of the Admiral. This so angered the Indians that they marched down to Don Christopher's Cove, surrounded the beached ships, and threatened to kill every Spaniard there.

It so happened that there was to be an eclipse of the moon that night, and Columbus suddenly recalled it and turned the fact to good use. He told the angry natives that the power that had made the moon and the stars was very displeased with them and would prove it that very night by darkening the moon. The childish creatures decided to wait before attacking and see if the Admiral spoke the truth. When the eclipse really started, they became terrified and sent their chiefs to ask Columbus's pardon; Columbus promptly declared that the light of the moon would return if the Indians would faithfully promise to treat the Spaniards kindly and supply them with food. The credulous creatures hastened to procure it; and as they brought it to the shore, the moon kindly emerged from the black shadow that had covered it. Result, the Indians believed Columbus to be a superior being and from that time on they fed him and his men well. This eclipse was on February 29, 1504.

But even with plenty of food the months of waiting were long and dreary. Had the brave Diego Mendez gone to the bottom? He must have perished, thought the Admiral, for surely if he had reached San Domingo alive even the harsh Comendador Ovando could not have refused to send aid to stranded countrymen on a savage island! But why not, good Admiral? Had not this same Ovando refused to let you enter the harbor of San Domingo last year when the frightful hurricane was gathering?

Yet that was what happened. Ovando, whose heart, if he ever had one, had shriveled to the size of a mustard grain, practically refused to send help. On hearing Mendez' tale he said he was sorry for the Admiral and his men, but he did not say he would send them a ship. Mendez kept at him, telling him very emphatically that the one hundred and thirty stranded Spaniards would certainly die unless soon rescued; still Ovando said he was sorry, but did not offer to send relief. Instead, scoundrel that he was, he did send a small caravel, very small indeed, so that it could not accommodate the forlorn men, and could not carry them any provisions. The captain, one of Roldan's rebels, was carefully instructed merely to see if Columbus and his shipmates were still alive, and then to come back and report. The Roldan rebel took his caravel to Don Christopher's Cove, rowed out in a small trailer until within shouting distance of the two rotting hulks on the beach, and yelled out that Governor Ovando was very sorry to learn from Mendez that the Admiral and his party were in trouble, and regretted that he had no ship large enough to send to their rescue. And then the villain sailed back to his villainous master.

Imagine this studied, impudent message to a group of men whose eyes had been straining for months to see a relief ship head their way! Imagine sending such a message to the most illustrious discoverer the world has ever known! A more dastardly bit of cruelty hardly exists in history!

This expedition was kept secret from Diego Mendez, however; and Diego, still storming about because nothing was being done, went among the populace of San Domingo and declared that it was a base, shameful business to leave a sick old man to perish on a savage island, especially when that old man had discovered all these lands for Spain. The people, though many of them had been the sick old man's enemies in bygone days, and though they never suspected the greatness of Columbus, agreed. They even began to clamor that Columbus should be rescued; but it was not until they had clamored long and urgently that their knightly governor sent a ship.

On June 25, 1504, exactly one year after Columbus had beached his two remaining caravels, the relief ship came in sight. "Never in my life," wrote Christopher, "did I experience so joyful a day!" and we may well believe it.

On the 15th of August the party reached San Domingo after their long suffering and hardships. Ovando, seeing how popular sympathy had turned towards the sick Admiral, decided to secure a little popular favor himself out of the incident by inviting the discoverer to stay in his own house, that is, the governor's house, which really had belonged to Columbus. There Columbus learned that the agent appointed to set aside his share of the island profits had not done so; also, as Ovando wanted to punish Captain Porras, who had rebelled on Jamaica, while Columbus preferred to deal with the matter himself, host and guest disagreed.

Too proud to remain an unwelcome guest in Ovando's house, Columbus collected what he could of the money due him, and prepared to go home to Spain. Two vessels were purchased, one for Bartholomew and one for Fernando and himself. Again Columbus proceeded with the familiar business of calking ships, buying provisions, and engaging a crew. In less than a month he was off again from San Domingo on the last voyage he was ever to make. On September 12, 1504, the ships weighed anchor and pointed away from the "western lands" which Christopher Columbus had made known to Europe. The white-haired old man, we may be sure, stood long on deck gazing backward as the scene of his triumph and his humiliation faded from sight. Never again could he undertake a voyage of discovery, for he was now a confirmed invalid. Cipango, Cathay, and "the strait" to the Indian Ocean were not for him; so it was with many a heartburn that his poor old eyes strained toward the fading islands.

His ill luck held out to the end. The first day a sudden storm broke with a crash and carried away his masts. With the utmost difficulty he and Fernando got into a small boat and clambered on board Bartholomew's vessel, the disabled boat being sent back to San Domingo. Still the sea would show him no mercy. Hardly had he crawled into a berth than another tempest came, and another and another, one unending, pitiless fury all across the ocean, till our great man must have thought that old Atlantic hated him for having solved her mysteries. The ship appeared to leap and stagger every minute of the time, and the Admiral was too ill to take command. Bartholomew was doing his best and little Fernando was helping; running down to his father for orders, scurrying up to his uncle with directions. What a struggle for life it was! And it was repeated every single day till November 7, when the crippled little caravel put into the harbor of San Lucar near Cadiz. Christopher Columbus's last voyage was over. No bells pealed out to greet him; no flags were flung to the breeze; but at least he had the glory of knowing in his heart that he had conquered that grim, unknown, menacing Atlantic Ocean which man had feared since the beginning of time.



The merciless storm that had beaten Columbus across the ocean swept over Spain after he landed. He had gone as far north as Sevilla, intending to proceed from there to court, which was being held at Medina del Campo, in Old Castile; but illness overcame him, and for three months he lay bedridden in the Sevillan monastery called Las Cuevas.

Besides his rheumatism, and all the other ills that might arise from two and a half years of exposure and bad food, an event happened, a few days after his return to Spain, that crushed him utterly. This was the death of his best friend, the only one to whom he could look for securing his rights in "the Indies," where Ovando and other enemies had conspired to rob him of his share of profits in the colonies. The great Queen Isabella had passed away on November 26, 1504, in the lonely castle at Medina del Campo. In these two lives, though they had walked such different paths, there was much resemblance. The queen, like Columbus, had known a life of unceasing hard work and anxiety; like Columbus she had striven for a great purpose and had triumphed; her purpose being the driving out of the Moor, and the establishment of Spain as a world power; like Columbus, she had made mistakes, and like Columbus, she had known much sorrow. There was a strong bond of sympathy between these two, and the news of the queen's death was a great blow to the bedridden old man in Sevilla.

Isabella had asked to be buried in Granada, the city she had labored so hard to win for Christianity, and from the day the little funeral party set out from Medina to the day they arrived at Granada, three weeks later, a frightful tempest raged that swept away bridges, flooded rivers, and made roads impassable. All the time poor Columbus, as he lay ill in the monastery, listened to the storm and thought of that mournful party tramping with their solemn burden down to the city where he and Isabella had both gained a victory. Maybe he envied the worker who had passed away first, for he sadly wrote to his son Diego, "Our tired lady now lies beyond the desires of this rough and wearisome world."

But Columbus himself was not yet out of this "wearisome world," and was troubling his weary brain far too much about its petty details. From his fourth voyage he had returned much poorer than he ever expected to be at the end of his sea-going life. The little money he had been able to collect from his plantation in Espanola had been used to equip the ships that brought him home, and to pay his sailors; for this was a point on which he was always most scrupulous. When his ready money was thus used up, the good monks of Las Cuevas had to provide for his necessities until finally the banks advanced money on the strength of his claims against the Crown. After the death of Isabella these claims had small chance of being considered to his full satisfaction, for Ferdinand argued that the contract of Granada was, owing to the vast extent of the new lands, impossible for either the Crown on the one hand or Columbus on the other to fulfill. That rascally Porras, who had caused so much trouble during the Jamaica days, was at court, filling everybody's ears with slanderous stories about the Admiral during the days when the Admiral himself was wearying Ferdinand with a constant stream of letters. Every day that he was able to sit up he wrote long appeals for "his rights" and his property. Not only did he present his claims for recognition and reward, but he told how badly things had been going in San Domingo under Ovando; how the comendador was hated by all for his tyranny and for the favoritism he showed; and how things would soon come to a sorry pass in the colony unless a better governor were quickly appointed; and then, poor man, deluded with the idea that he could set things right, he asked to be reinstated as governor! Good Christopher! can you not realize that your work is done now, for better or worse? Can you not let others solve the great problems across the ocean? Can you not see that you have been greatest of them all, and that nothing more is required of you? And as for all the dignities and titles and properties that should be yours, according to the Granada contract, we know you want them only to pass them on to your boy, Diego; but never mind him; you are leaving him a name that will grow greater and greater through the coming ages; a name that is a magnificent inheritance for any child.

About this time the sick man received a visit which brightened him a great deal, a visit from the man who, never intending any harm, was destined to soon assume the greatest honor which the world could have given Columbus—the honor of naming the newly discovered lands Columbia, instead of America.

Americo Vespucci was an Italian from Florence who, in 1492 or 1493, came to Sevilla to carry on a commercial business. Here he learned of Columbus's first voyage and became eager to make a trip himself to the new lands. It was a Florentine friend of Americo's who fitted out Columbus's second expedition; but this Florentine died before the vessels were ready, and Americo continued the work. More than this; seeing, when the king canceled Columbus's monopoly, a chance for himself to win glory, he hastened off with one of the new expeditions. He claimed that they reached a continental coast on June 16, 1497, which was earlier than Columbus had reached Para, and eight days before Cabot touched at the northern edge of the new continent. We have only Americo's own account of the voyage, and his statements are so inaccurate that many students refuse to believe him the real discoverer of South America.

Of Americo's second voyage, however, we have reliable information, for it was made in the company of Alonzo de Ojeda, that one-time friend of Columbus who later rebelled against him at Espanola. Vespucci sent a letter to a friend in Florence describing his voyages and saying that the continent he had reached "ought to be considered a new world because it had never before been seen by European eyes." His second letter, written from Portugal in September, 1504, to another friend, was used by Martin Waldseemuller, a German professor who was then collecting all the information he could gather to make up a book on geography.

Martin Waldseemuller divided the globe into four large parts or continents—Europe, Asia, Africa, and the newly discovered fourth part, which he suggested "ought to be called America, because Americus discovered it." This professor, like most learned men of his time, wrote in Latin; and in Latin the Italian name Americo is Americus; the feminine form of Americus is America, which was used because it was customary to christen countries with feminine names. As nobody else had yet suggested a name for the vast new lands in the west, the German's christening of 1507 was adopted for the country which should have been called Columbia, in justice to the man who first had the splendid courage to sail to it across the untraveled waters and reveal its existence to Europe. Had Columbus lived to know that this was going to happen, it would have been one more grievance and one more act of ingratitude added to his already long list; but at the time that Americo Vespucci visited his countryman who lay ill in Sevilla, neither one of them was thinking about a name for the far-away lands. They merely talked over their voyages as any two sailors might. As Vespucci was now looked up to as a practical, new-world traveler and trader, and the Admiral was lonely and forgotten, it shows a kind feeling on the visitor's part to have looked him up. When Americo left to go to court, Columbus gave him this letter to carry to Diego, who was still in the royal service:—

* * * * *

My dear son:

Within two days I have talked with Vespucci. He has always manifested a friendly disposition towards me. Fortune has not always favored him and in this he is not different from many others. He left me full of kindest purposes towards me and will do anything he can (at court). I did not know what to tell him to do to help me, because I knew not why he had been called there.

* * * * *

In February, 1505, a royal order was issued to the effect that Don Cristobal Colon be furnished with a mule to ride to court, then being held in Segovia. To ride a mule in those days necessitated a royal permit, for every Spaniard preferred mules to horses. The government hoped that horses would be in more general use if the use of mules was restricted.

The Admiral's long rest with the monks of Las Cuevas had apparently improved his health, for, as this royal permit proves, he applied for a mule and went to Segovia; from there, that same year, he followed the king to Salamanca and later to Valladolid. Segovia, Salamanca, Valladolid! All bleak, harsh places in winter, and fiery hot ones in summer. Our poor Admiral left pleasant Sevilla and exposed his worn old body to icy blasts and burning suns all for naught; for, as Las Casas writes:—

"The more he petitioned, the more the king was bland in avoiding any conclusion; he hoped, by wearing out the patience of the Admiral, to induce him to accept some estates in Castile instead of his powers in the Indies; but Columbus rejected these offers with indignation."

The Admiral could not be made to see that the Granada contract was impossible; that Ferdinand had signed it only because he never expected the voyage to be successful; and that now, when men were beginning to believe Americo's assertion that a whole continent lay off in the west, it was preposterous that one family should hope to be its governor and viceroy and to control its trade. No, Columbus could only go on reiterating that it was so written down in Granada, away back in April, 1492.

So King Ferdinand merely shrugged his shoulders and referred the matter to a learned council who talked about it a long, long time, hoping the sick old man might meanwhile die; and at last the sick, tired, troublesome old man obliged them, and left all the business of "shares" and "profits" for his son Diego to settle several years after by bringing suit against the Crown. Toward the end of 1505 and the beginning of 1506 the Admiral became very ill. He was in Valladolid, and he realized that he could travel no more; so he secured for himself, or perhaps Diego secured for him, as comfortable a lodging as possible in a street now called the Calle Colon, and determined not to move about any more. We, accustomed to heat and a dozen other comforts in our dwellings, would not consider the house in the Calle Colon, with its cold stone floors and walls, a suitable place for a rheumatic, broken- down old man; but it was the typical solid, substantial residence of its day; and the only pity is that the city of Valladolid permitted it to be torn down a few years ago to make room for a row of flats.

Even in icy Valladolid, winter with its discomfort comes to an end at last. One May day, when spring sunshine was warming up the stone chamber where the old Admiral lay, he called for a pen and put the last touches to his will. All the titles he still hoped to get back were for Diego; and should Diego die without a son, Fernando was to be Admiral; and if Fernando should have no son, the loyal brother Bartholomew, who had shared those horrible days of disappointment and disaster off in the Indies, was to be Admiral. (Brother Diego had no need of an inheritance, for he had become a monk.) Part of the moneys due Columbus, if ever collected, were to be spent on that long-dreamed-of Crusade to recover the Holy Sepulchre. His remains were to be taken out to San Domingo. These were a few of the instructions he left.

The next day, May 20, 1506, came another whisper of springtide, and the faithful Diego Mendez, who "navigated three hundred leagues in a canoe," came to see him; his sons, Diego and Fernando, too, and his brother Bartholomew; and as the dim old eyes saw these affectionate faces bending over him, he counseled Diego always to love his younger brother Fernando, as he had always loved Bartholomew; and Diego pressed his hand and promised. Then the old man rested quietly for a time. He was clad in the frock of a Franciscan monk, the same sort of frock that good Friar Juan Perez wore when he welcomed him to La Rabida.

They opened the window to let in the May warmth, and Christopher sniffed feebly. Did he recall the beautiful climate of Haiti which he said was "like May in Cordova"? Let us hope, at least, that it was peaceful recollections like this that flitted through his vanishing senses, and not recollections of the horrible hurricanes and insurrections and shipwrecks and prisons that made up part of his eventful life. He made no sound, not even a whisper, so we will never know what thoughts the May warmth brought to him. We only know that after a while he crossed his hands peacefully on his breast and murmured, "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit." A moment later and the great Admiral passed forth on his last voyage into the unknown.

The event on May 20, 1506, passed unheeded. A life had ended whose results were more stupendous than those of any other human life ever lived. Yet Valladolid took no notice of Columbus's death; neither did Spain. The nation was too busy watching the men who had practical plans for colonizing the new lands, and turning them into profit, to concern itself with the death of the one brave soul who had found the path. Indeed, Cristobal Colon was really forgotten before his death; yet he was living on, as every great spirit lives on, in the ambitions of the men who were endeavoring to push his work still further. When, a few years after his death, Balboa first saw the Pacific stretching far, far off to Asia, and when in another few years the whole globe had been circumnavigated, from Spain back again to Spain, only then did the vastness of Columbus's discovery begin to be appreciated. Europe at last realized that, during all her centuries of civilization, when she had thought herself mistress of the world, she had in fact known but half of it. As this truth took shape in men's minds, the humble, forgotten Genoese began to come into his own. They saw that he had done more than risk his life on the western ocean; he had sent a thrill through every brave, adventurous heart, and this at a moment of the world's development when such seed was sure to take root. Christopher Columbus, one of the greatest products of the Renaissance, had carried that Renaissance to a glorious climax.


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