The Life of Columbus
by Arthur Helps
Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse

[Footnote 23: A sarcasm to "catch the conscience of the king."]


"Though this be madness, there is method in it;" but still, the whole character of Columbus forbids us to assume that this alleged vision was merely an ingenious device for remonstrating with the Sovereigns. It must not be forgotten that in those times the popular belief as to such matters was very different from that which obtains now; and that Columbus was as credulous as his contemporaries on the subject of the supernatural. It was easy for an imagination like his to be wrought upon so as to give to "airy nothings," to the "thousand phantasies that crowd into the memory," the character of special revelations from heaven. In this very despatch his religious fervour is displayed again and again. Jerusalem, according to the prophecy, was to be rebuilt by the hand of a Christian. He would be that Christian. Prester John, so said tradition, had asked for missionaries to instruct him in the true faith. He would conduct them to the kingdom of this unknown potentate. Then he goes on to deplore his own hard case; "surrounded by cruel and hostile savages; isolated, infirm, expecting each day will be my last; severed from the holy sacraments of the Church, so that my soul, if parted here from my body, must be for ever forgotten....If it should please God to deliver me hence, I humbly supplicate your majesties to permit me to repair to Rome, and perform other pilgrimages." Columbus, then, being really convinced of the fatal consequences of not being within reach of formal communion with the Church, must have felt that he was risking more than his mere bodily life when he wandered into those unknown countries; that he staked both body and soul on his success.


Laden with these despatches, Mendez and a Spanish comrade set out along the coast in a canoe manned by six Indians. The party arrived safely at the easternmost Cape of Jamaica (now called Point Morant); but while awaiting calm weather for crossing the strait to Hispaniola, they were attacked by a tribe of savages, who overpowered them by sheer force of numbers, and carried them off as captives. The beads and toys, however, which Mendez had taken with him to barter with the natives, were too attractive not to claim the chief share of the attention of his conquerors; and while they were settling the division of the spoil he managed to effect his escape to his canoe, and to return in it in safety to Santa Gloria. As soon as a second canoe could be procured, Mendez was ready to make a second attempt, but on this occasion he stipulated that he should be accompanied to the easternmost point of Jamaica by a force sufficient to protect him from the hostile tribes. Accordingly, on the 7th July, 1503, the Adelantado, with an armed escort, proceeded along the shore; while Mendez, with six Spaniards and ten Indians, in one canoe, and Fieschi (a Genoese, who had commanded one of the caravels), with a like number in the other, made their way by sea to Point Morant.

After waiting a short time for fine weather, the two canoes started for Hispaniola, and reached a little island called Navazza on the third day, both Spaniards and Indians having suffered terribly from the want of water, with which they were insufficiently supplied. Another day's labour at the oar brought them to Cape Tiburon, where Mendez left his companions and proceeded alone to St. Domingo. Here he was informed that the governor had left for Xaragua; and thither he made his way alone, through fifty leagues of wild forest country, to represent to Ovando the necessity of sending relief to the admiral, and that speedily. Ovando seems to have temporized. He dreaded the return of Columbus, as likely to excite the seditious to a revolt against his own government. And so far from taking active steps in the matter himself, it was only with reluctance that he authorized Mendez to proceed to St. Domingo to purchase a caravel on behalf of Columbus, in which Fieschi might return to Santa Gloria, and bring him off.


Meanwhile, month after month passed by, and the unfortunate castaways at Santa Gloria had no tidings from Hispaniola, and were even ignorant whether their messengers had succeeded in reaching that island. At last, in January, 1504, the murmurs against the inaction of Columbus broke out into open mutiny. Francesco Porras, the captain of one of the caravels, headed the mutineers, and going to the admiral, who was confined to his bed by the gout, told him that he, the admiral, evidently was afraid to return to Spain; but that the people had determined to remain no longer to perish, and intended to depart at once. On this there arose shouts from the followers of Porras, "To Castile! We follow!" The admiral made a temperate speech, pointing out the danger of attempting to leave the island in mere canoes, and the absurdity of supposing that he had not a common interest with them in all respects. But Porras was as persistent in his desire to go, as Columbus in his determination to stay; and, taking possession of the canoes which had been purchased from the natives, the mutineers set out on their journey towards Hispaniola, leaving the admiral and his brother with scarcely any adherents except those whom sickness incapacitated for undertaking the journey.


The progress of Porras and his followers through the island was marked by a series of outrages on the natives which completely neutralized the effect of the admiral's conciliatory policy. They seized forcibly on whatever provisions could be found, and mockingly referred the owners to Columbus for payment. Three attempts to cross over to Hispaniola failed in consequence of rough weather. On one occasion the canoes were in so much danger of being swamped that the Spaniards cast everything on board into the sea; and, as this did not lighten the canoes sufficiently, they then proceeded to force overboard their unfortunate companions, the Indians, who swam after them for a long time, but sank one by one, being prevented by the swords of the Spaniards from approaching. Abandoning, as hopeless, their design of reaching Hispaniola, the mutineers then proceeded to roam over the island, quartering themselves on the Indians, and committing every possible excess.

Of course the influence of this conduct on the relations between Columbus and the natives, was soon apparent. The trinkets and beads, which had once been so precious in their eyes, had first lost the charm of novelty, then the value of rarity. The circulating medium became so depreciated that provisions were scarcely procurable. And, similarly, the personal veneration which the natives had first evinced for the white men, had given way to contempt and to hatred, when familiarity had shown how worthless were these "superior beings." The Indians refused to minister to their wants any longer; and famine was imminent.


But just at this last extremity, the admiral, ever fertile in devices, bethought him of an expedient for re-establishing his influence over the Indians. His astronomical knowledge told him that on a certain night an eclipse of the moon would take place. One would think that people living in the open air must be accustomed to see such eclipses sufficiently often, not to be particularly astonished at them. But Columbus judged—and as the event proved, judged rightly—that by predicting the eclipse he would gain a reputation as a prophet, and command the respect and the obedience due to a person invested with supernatural powers. He assembled the caciques of the neighbouring tribes. Then, by means of an interpreter, he reproached them with refusing to continue to supply provisions to the Spaniards. "The God who protects me," he said, "will punish you. You know what has happened to those of my followers who have rebelled against me; and the dangers which they encountered in their attempt to cross to Haiti; while those who went at my command,[24] made the passage without difficulty. Soon, too, shall the divine vengeance fall on you; this very night shall the moon change her colour and lose her light, in testimony of the evils which shall be sent upon you from the skies."

[Footnote 24: This was a gratuitous assumption: as the admiral had as yet no tidings of the success of Mendez.]


The night was fine: the moon shone down in full brilliancy. But, at the appointed time, the predicted phenomenon took place, and the wild howls of the savages proclaimed their abject terror. They came in a body to Columbus, and implored his intercession. They promised to let him want for nothing if only he would avert this judgment: as all earnest of their sincerity they collected hastily a quantity of food, and offered it at his feet. At first, diplomatically hesitating, Columbus presently affected to be softened by their entreaties. He consented to intercede for them; and, retiring to his cabin, performed, as they supposed, some mystic rite which should deliver them from the threatened punishment. Soon the terrible shadow passed away from the face of the moon; and the gratitude of the savages was as deep as their previous terror. But, being blended with much awe, it was not so evanescent as gratitude often is; and henceforward there was no failure in the regular supply of provisions to the castaways.


Eight months had passed away without any tidings of Mendez, when, one evening there hove in sight a small caravel which stood in towards the harbour of Santa Gloria, and anchored just outside. A boat which put off from the caravel brought on shore her commander, a certain Diego de Escobar, whom Columbus recognized as a person whom he had sentenced to be hanged as it ringleader in Roldan's mutiny, and who had been pardoned by Bobadilla. The proceedings of this person—whose reprieve must have now seemed to the admiral particularly injudicious—were singular enough. Standing at a distance from Columbus, as if the admiral had been in quarantine, he shouted, at the top of his voice, a message from Ovando, to the effect that he (the governor) regretted the admiral's misfortunes very keenly, that he hoped before long to send a ship of sufficient size to take him off. He added, that in the meantime, Ovando begged him to accept a slight mark of his friendship. The "slight mark of his friendship" was—a side of bacon, which, with a small cask of wine and a letter from Ovando he delivered to the admiral; and rowed off as fast as possible. The whole scheme of this visit, which was probably planned by Ovando with the object of ascertaining the real condition and designs of Columbus, was in the last degree insulting to him and tantalizing to his companions, with whom D'Escobar would not permit any communication to be held. However, the admiral wrote a civil reply to Ovando, describing piteously the hardships of his condition, and disclaiming any ulterior design with regard to the government of Hispaniola. Carrying this missive, D'Escobar set sail at once, and was out of sight, on his return voyage, before the morning of the day after his arrival.


This mysterious visit was by no means satisfactory to the admiral's companions. As he alone had held communication with D'Escobar, he was free to give them whatever account he chose of his interview; and this liberty, it may be parenthetically observed, he did not scruple to exercise somewhat at the expense of strict truth. He represented himself as having refused to depart with D'Escobar, because the caravel was too small to carry them all away, and he was determined to share their lot, confident in Ovando's assurance of speedy succour. He made overtures for a reconciliation to Porras, and endeavoured to persuade the mutineers to return on board the ships. But these overtures were scornfully repulsed and the admiral's messengers were sent back with threats of force. As for the caravel, Porras had little difficulty in persuading his credulous followers that it was merely an apparition which Columbus had conjured up by magic arts; and such was the reputation for sorcery which the admiral had acquired by his astronomical observations, that even the sight and taste of some tangible bacon (half of that present from Ovando of which we have heard) which he sent as a peace offering to the mutineers, failed to convince them of the material character of the supposed phantom ship.


Soon, however, the differences between the rival parties were brought to an issue. The Adelantado received information that Porras was planning a descent on the ships, with the object of seizing the stores and capturing the admiral. Resolving to anticipate this attack, he placed himself at the head of fifty[25] devoted partisans of Columbus, and sallied out to engage the mutineers. A furious struggle ensued; but the Adelantado performed prodigies of valour, and his followers were better supplied with fire-arms than the rebels; so that the latter sustained a complete defeat, and their leader Porras was carried off as a prisoner to the ships.

[Footnote 25: It would appear from this number that either there had been some defection from the ranks of the mutineers or that more than half the Spaniards had remained faithful to the admiral.]


The natives, who had been spectators of the affray, were much perplexed. Wiser people than these poor savages have looked with sorrowful wonder on the appeal to brute force to decide the quarrels of nations; and the Indians, when they saw strife and death among the beings whom they had formerly considered as heaven-descended and immortal, felt that their estimate of these attributes ought to be lowered. But when curiosity impelled them to examine the corpses of the Spaniards who had been killed in the encounter, after minutely inspecting several bodies, they came to that of Ledesma—whose name may be remembered as that of the gigantic pilot of Seville who swam through the surf at Bethlehem to the Adelantado's relief—who had now fallen, covered with wounds, fighting on behalf of the mutineers. As the savages proceeded to thrust their fingers into his wounds, Ledesma, who had fainted from pain, recovered consciousness, and uttered a stentorian yell which put the Indians to flight, says an ancient chronicler, "as if all the dead men were at their heels." And as Ledesma eventually recovered, notwithstanding his having received wounds sufficient to kill three ordinary persons, the natives must have been inspired by a proper respect for the almost miraculous vitality of the white men.


The victory gained by the Adelantado was conclusive. The rebels at once submitted to the admiral, who consented to pardon them; reserving only their ringleader, Porras, for future punishment. It was arranged that they should not again take up their habitation on board the ships, but Columbus sent ashore a trusty lieutenant as their commander, and supplied them at the same time with European articles to barter for food with the natives. And so the two bands of castaways—one on ship and one on shore—awaited the promised succour, with the weariness of hope deferred.


It was not till the 28th of June, 1504, when just a year had elapsed since their arrival at Santa Gloria, that the Spaniards were gladdened by the sight of the two caravels which had been sent—one by Mendez, the other by Ovando—to their relief. Their embarkation, as may be supposed, was quickly effected; but adverse winds made the voyage to Hispaniola a long one, and the two vessels did not reach St. Domingo before the 13th of August.


Much to the surprise of the admiral, he found himself treated with the most punctilious courtesy by Ovando, who even proceeded to the harbour, with a numerous suite, to receive him in state upon his arrival. However, differences soon arose as to the conflicting jurisdictions of the viceroy and the governor; especially with regard to the case of Porras, whom Ovando, in opposition to the admiral's wish, insisted upon releasing from custody. Moreover he even announced his intention of instituting a general enquiry as to the events which had taken place in Jamaica, in order to decide whether Porras and his associates had been justified in their rebellion. Columbus disputed the right of Ovando to take upon himself the office of judge in such a matter; and remarked that his own authority as viceroy must have sunk very low indeed, if it did not empower him to punish his officers for mutinying against himself. This dispute was unfortunate as regards the private interests of the admiral, for the revenues arising from his property in the island had been collected under the authority of the governor, who, upon the occurrence of this quarrel, was easily able to raise difficulties in the way of his obtaining a fair account of the proceeds. But he was all the more anxious to return to Spain; and, within a month from his arrival at St. Domingo, he started homeward in the caravel which had brought him from Jamaica.


But even in this last voyage he was forced to "make head against a sea of troubles." His evil star was in the ascendant. Twice his vessel nearly foundered. Twice her masts were sprung in successive tempests. His own health was succumbing to the acute attacks of gout which had become more and more frequent for the last few years. And so, prostrated by sickness, nearly ruined in means, and now hopeless of encouragement from the Sovereigns, the discoverer of the New World arrived at Seville, on the 7th of November, 1504, in as miserable a plight as his worst enemy could have wished.

He could scarcely expect to be received with much favour at court. He had failed in the search for that strait leading to the kingdom of the Grand Khan, the discovery of which had been the special object of his expedition; he had lost his ships; he had brought home wonderful stories of golden lands, but no gold. Porras[26] was at large, and had influence at court, which enabled him to stimulate the existing prejudice against Columbus.

[Footnote 26: It seems just possible that, as the original narrative of the mutiny of Porras was written by Fernando Columbus, who would naturally take his father's side, something is to be said for Porras which has not been said for him by historians.]


Poor, old, infirm, he had now to receive intelligence which was to deepen all his evils. He remained at Seville, too unwell to make a journey himself, but sent his son Diego to court, to manage his affairs for him. The complaints of the admiral, that he had no news from court, are quite touching. He says, he desires to hear news each hour. Couriers are arriving every day, but none for him: his very hair stands on end to hear things so contrary to what his soul desires. He alludes, I imagine, to the state of the Queen's health; for, in a memorandum of instructions to his son, written at this period, the first thing, he says, to be done is, "to commend affectionately, with much devotion," the soul of the Queen to God. Could the poor Indians but have known what a friend to them was dying, one continued wail would have gone up to heaven from Hispaniola and all the western islands. The dread decree, however, had gone forth, and on the 26th of November, 1504, it was only a prayer for the departed that could have been addressed; for the great Queen was no more. If it be permitted to departing spirits to see those places on earth they yearn much after, we might imagine that the soul of Isabella would give "one longing, lingering look" to the far West.


And if so, what did she see there? How different was the aspect of things from what governors and officers of all kinds had told her: how different from aught that she had thought of, or commanded! She had insisted that the Indians were to be free: she would have seen their condition to be that of slaves. She had declared that they were to have spiritual instruction: she would have seen them less instructed than the dogs. She had ordered that they should receive payment for their labour: she would have found that all they received was a mockery of wages, just enough to purchase once, perhaps, in the course of the year, some childish trifles from Castile. She had always directed that they should have kind treatment and proper maintenance: she would have seen them literally watching under the tables of their masters, to catch the crumbs which fell there. She would have beheld the Indian labouring at the mine under cruel buffetings, his family, neglected, perishing, or enslaved. She would have marked him on his return, after eight months of dire toil, enter a place which knew him not, or a household that could only sorrow over the gaunt creature who had returned to them, and mingle their sorrows with his; or, still more sad, she would have seen Indians who had been brought from far distant homes, linger at the mines, too hopeless, or too careless, to return.


Turning from what might have been seen by Queen Isabella, had her departing gaze pierced to the outskirts of her dominions, we have to record the closing scene of the strange eventful history of Columbus, who did not long survive his benefactress. Ever since his return from his fourth voyage to the Indies, he had done little else than memorialize, and petition, and negotiate about his rights. But Ferdinand, who had always looked coldly on his projects, was disposed to regard his claims with still less favour. Columbus professed himself willing to sacrifice the arrears of revenue due to him, but urged strenuously his demand that his son Diego should be made viceroy of the Indies, in accordance with the terms of the grant making that dignity hereditary in his family. Ferdinand did not refuse absolutely: the breach of faith would have been too flagrant. But he procrastinated, and ended by referring the matter to the significantly named Board of Discharges of the Royal Conscience, which board regulated its proceedings by the known wishes of the king, and procrastinated too.

The proverb, "Fear old age, for it does not come alone," was especially applicable to Columbus, while suffering sickness without the elasticity to bear it, poverty with high station and debt, and all the delay of suitorship, not at the beginning, but at the close, of a career. A similar decline of fortune is to be seen in the lives of many men; of those, too, who have been most adventurous and successful in their prime. Their fortunes grow old and feeble with themselves; and those clouds, which were but white and scattered during the vigour of the day, sink down together, stormful and massive, in huge black lines, across the setting sun.


Shortly after the arrival of Philip and his queen in Spain, Columbus had written to their Highnesses, deploring his inability to come to them, through illness, and saying that, notwithstanding his pitiless disease (the gout), he could yet do them service the like of which had not been seen. Perhaps he meant service in the way of good advice touching the administration of the Indies; perhaps, for he was of an indomitable spirit, that he could yet make more voyages of discovery. But there was then only left for him that voyage in which the peasant who has seen but the little district round his home, and the great travellers in thought and deed, are alike to find themselves upon the unknown waters of further life. Looked at in this way, what a great discoverer each of us is to be! But we must not linger too long, even at the deathbed of a hero. Having received all the sacraments of the Church, and uttering as his last words, "In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum," Columbus died, at Valladolid, on Ascension Day, the 20th of May, 1506. His remains were carried to Seville and buried in the monastery of Las Cuevas; afterwards they were removed to the cathedral at St. Domingo; and, in modern times, were taken to the cathedral at Havana, where they now rest.



Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse