Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Columbus, Christopher

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COLUMBUS, Christopher, discoverer, b. in Genoa about 1436; d. in Valladolid, 20 May, 1506. It is a singular circumstance that we do not know with certainty where or when Columbus was born. His descendant, the Duke de Veragua, believes, with the best authorities, that he was a native of Genoa, and that his birth occurred about the year 1436 — possibly as late as 1440. According to the custom of the time, he Latinized his name of Christoforo Colombo into Columbus, and when he went to Spain adopted the Spanish form of it, Cristóbal Colon. He was the eldest son of Domenico Colombo, a wool-comber, and his wife, Susanna Fontanarossa. They had two other sons, Bartolomeo and Giacomo, the latter called in Spain Diego. The early history of Columbus is involved in obscurity. His son and biographer, Ferdinand, unwilling from mistaken pride to reveal the humble condition from which his father emerged, has left his biography very incomplete. We know that for a time he attended school and assisted his father in the trade of wool-combing before going to sea at the age of fifteen, also that he saw some sea-fighting in the wars between Genoa and Venice. These unknown years, it would appear, were stormy, laborious, and eventful. “Wherever ship has sailed,” Columbus writes, “there have I journeyed.” We know that he was for a time engaged in selling books in Genoa, and that at a later date he was wrecked in an engagement begun off Cape St. Vincent, and, before his ship sank, escaped on a plank and reached the shores of Portugal. This was about 1470. He made his way to Lisbon, where he supported himself by making maps and charts and by occasional voyages. A few years later he met and married Donna Felipa, daughter of an Italian named Parestrello, who had been governor of Porto Santo. Columbus resided for some time on this island, where his wife — would that we knew something of her — had inherited a small property, and where their son Diego was born. Here he studied the papers and maps left by his father-in-law, a distinguished navigator under Prince Henry, of Portugal, and here he was constantly brought into association with persons interested in maritime discovery. The precise date when Columbus conceived the design of discovering, not a new continent, but a western route to Asia, cannot be determined — probably about 1474. During the ensuing ten years he made proposals of discovery to Genoa, Portugal, Venice, France, and England, which were deemed by some of those governments the extravagant demands of a mere adventurer. The king of Portugal, after having referred the project to a maritime junto and to his council, both of whom regarded it as visionary, nevertheless sent a caravel, under the pretext of taking provisions to the Cape de Verde islands, but with secret instructions to try the route proposed by Columbus. After sailing several days, the pilots, losing courage, returned with the report that no indications of land had been seen. King John was not yet inclined to give up the scheme, although it had been most unmercifully ridiculed by his council and other unbelievers. But Columbus, who had lost his wife and property, as well as all hope of aid in that quarter, determined to abandon Portugal and seek elsewhere for patronage. Accordingly he left Lisbon toward the end of 1484 secretly, lest his departure should be prevented, and set out for Spain. Meeting with Marchena, the Superior of La Rabida, an Andalusian monastery, now preserved by the government of Spain as anational monument, that good man became so deeply interested in his glorious project that he detained him as a guest, and sent for the learned physician of Palos, Garcia Fernandez, to discuss the scheme. Now it was for the first time listened to with admiration. Marchena, assuming charge of the maintenance and education of the young son of Columbus, gave the father a letter of introduction to the confessor of Isabella, Fernando de Talavera. After seven years of weary attendance on the Spanish court, Columbus was on the point of departure for France when stipulations were at last signed by Ferdinand and Isabella at the camp of Santa Fé, on 17 April, 1492. On Friday, 3 Aug., Columbus, as admiral of the seas and lands which he expected to discover, set sail from the bar of Saltes, near Palos, with 120 men in three small ships, as seen in the illustration — the “Santa Maria,” a decked vessel of ninety feet keel, and two caravels or undecked boats, the “Pinta” and “Nina,” much smaller than the “Santa Maria.”


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On Friday, 12 Oct., 1492, the outposts of the New World were seen. One of the Bahama group is the land first discovered, but as to which particular island there is great difference of opinion. Humboldt thinks it was Cat island, called by the natives Guanahavi and by the Spaniards San Salvador. Some writers have claimed that it was on that beautiful spot where Columbus wished to be buried and where he slept for centuries — the island of Santo Domingo. According to the latest investigations, Columbus certainly landed on Cat, Samana, or Watlings islands. These investigations, pursued chiefly in the explorer's log-book, would seem to indicate that the admiral's landing-place was the last-mentioned island, now (1886) believed to be the true San Salvador. This is perhaps as near as the world will ever come to a certain knowledge of the “landfall” of Columbus on the American continent. In the spring of the following year news of the startling event burst upon the astonished ears of Europe. Columbus returned to Europe, landing triumphantly at Palos on Friday, 15 March, 1493, and in his journey through Spain to Barcelona he received princely honors all the way. There his entrance with some of the natives, and with the arms and utensils of the discovered islands, was a long-delayed triumph, as striking and more glorious than that of a Roman conqueror.

With seventeen ships and 1,700 men Columbus sailed on his second voyage from Cadiz, 25 Sept., 1493, discovered the Windward islands, Jamaica, and Porto Rico, and founded a colony in Hispaniola, of which he left his brother Bartholomew lieutenant-governor, reaching Cadiz 11 June, 1496. He succeeded in clearing himself of the charges preferred against him by the adventurers who had accompanied him, and on 30 May, 1498, sailed with six ships on his third voyage. Columbus discovered the Orinoco and then visited Hispaniola, only to again become the victim of malice and misrepresentation. A commissioner sent by the Spanish king to inquire into the charges placed him and his brother in chains and sent them to Spain. When the captain of the ship offered to free him from his fetters, Columbus proudly replied: “No, I will wear them as a memento of the gratitude of princes.” The indignation expressed throughout Spain at this outrage caused the king to disclaim having authorized it; but the nobles were jealous of his superior rank, and Ferdinand dissatisfied with the small profits received from the expedition to the New World. The only subsequent employment Columbus received was the command of four caravels to search through the sea, now the gulf, of Mexico. He sailed from Cadiz, 9 May, 1502, coasted along the south side of the gulf, and, after much suffering from hardship and famine, reached San Lucar, 7 Nov., 1504, where he lay sick for several months, and, on his recovery and return to Spain, had his claim finally rejected by the king. At length, infirm in body, but in full possession of his faculties, having, in his own words, “no place to repair to but an inn, and often with nothing to pay for his sustenance,” the discoverer of a new world died at No. 2 Calle Ancha de la Magdalena on Ascension day, in a small apartment of a modest house, with a few faithful friends and followers standing by his bedside. A small tablet on the front of the two-story stone building, some 600 years old, briefly states, “Here died Columbus.”

The travels of the discoverer did not cease with his death. His remains, after burial at Valladolid, were removed to Seville. In 1536 they were taken with great pomp to Santo Domingo and interred in the cathedral. In 1796 what were supposed to be his ashes were again removed to the cathedral of Havana and buried there with imposing ceremonials; but it is believed by many authorities that the remains conveyed to Cuba were not those of Columbus, but those of his son Diego. On this point, and in answer to the recent assertion that he was a native of Calvi, in Corsica, the Duke of Veragua says in a letter to the writer: “I do not think any of the historians or writers have been successful in their attempts to deprive Genoa of the honor of being the birthplace of Columbus or in taking from Havana the glory of possessing his ashes.”

The name and fame of Columbus are not local or limited; they do not belong to any single country or people. They are the proud possession of the whole civilized world. In all the transactions of history there is no act which for vastness and performance can be compared to the discovery of the continent of America, “the like of which was never done by any man in ancient or in later times.” After forming his great and glorious designs, Columbus still continued, even during his most destitute days, the promiser of kingdoms, holding firmly in his grasp “the keys of the ocean sea,” claiming as it were from heaven the Indies as his own, and “dividing them as he pleased.” He never knew the extent or value of his discovery. He died in the conviction that, the land he had reached was the long-sought Indies. But it was a country far richer than the Indies; and had he, in quitting Cuba, struck into a westerly instead of a southerly direction, it would have carried him into the very depths of the golden regions whose existence he had so long and so vainly predicted. As it was, he “only opened the gates,” to use his own language, for others more fortunate than himself; and before he left Hispaniola for the last time the young adventurer arrived there who was destined, by the conquest of Mexico, to realize all the magnificent visions, which had been derided only as visions, in the lifetime of Columbus.

The accompanying illustration is a representation of a noble statue by Sunal, a Spanish sculptor, which will be set up in the Central park on the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of our continent, an event which it is believed will be celebrated by the governments of Spain and the United States, other European and American nations perhaps participating in the quadricentennial of the momentous event. The late king of Spain, who said to the writer, “Columbus should form an enduring bond between Spain and the United States,” was deeply interested in the proposed celebration, expecting to visit the New World with a large Spanish fleet, and perhaps to witness the unveiling of the Columbus statue in the Central park.


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The following remarkable letter, not to be found in any of the biographies of Columbus, was written in Spanish by the great admiral two days before he jailed from Saltes in search of “that famous land.” It was addressed to Agostino Barberigo, doge of Venice, to whom the discoverer had previously made proposals of exploration, and has lain perdu for three hundred and ninety-two years among the fifteen millions of Venetian archives contained in an ancient monastery near the grand canal. There is a surprising tone of confidence about the letter, and the reference to “the famous land” is certainly remarkable:

Magnificent Sir: Since your republic has not deemed it convenient to accept my offers, and all the spite of my many enemies has been brought in force to oppose my petition, I have thrown myself in the arms of God, my Maker, and He, by the intercession of the saints, has caused the most clement king of Castile not to refuse to generously assist my project toward the discovery of a new world. And praising thereby the good God, I obtained the placing under my command of men and ships, and am about to start on a voyage to that famous land, grace to which intent God has been pleased to bestow upon me.” Like Shakespeare, the “Inventor de las Indias” has suffered a series of feeble and foolish attacks from those who would fain rob him of the glory of being the most successful of all navigators, as they would deprive “the myriad-minded” of the authorship of his own writings. The latest of these futile efforts to prove him to be an “inglorious Columbus,” was made in an address before the New York Historical Society, on the evening of 2 Nov., 1886 — Fernando, son of Christopher Columbus and Beatriz Enriquez, his second wife, b. in Spain in 1488; d. in 1539. His father legitimated him by a codicil dated at Segovia, 25 Aug., 1505. At the age of ten he was a page of Queen Isabella, and then began his studies, becoming proficient in mathematics, cosmography, and naval subjects. In 1508-'9 he made a voyage to Hispaniola with his eldest brother, Admiral Diego Columbus, and afterward he accompanied Charles V. to Italy and Germany, travelled in Africa and Asia, and retired in 1530, when he became a priest. He collected a fine library of 20,000 volumes, which he bequeathed to the cathedral of Seville. A large number of the most valuable of these were found in October, 1886, mouldering in a cellar of Seville. He wrote “Historia del Almirante Don Cristóbal Colon,” which would have been lost but for a translation into Italian made by Alonso de Ulloa (Venice, 1571), and left another manuscript, “Apuntamientos sobre la Demarcacion del Maluco y sus Islas,” kept in the archives of Simancas. See “Select Letters relating to the Four Voyages to the New World of Columbus,” translated and edited by R. H. Major (London, Hakluyt society, 1847); “Life and Voyages of Columbus,” by Washington Irving (New York, 1828); “The Spanish Conquest of America,” by Sir Arthur Helps (London, 1858-'60); “Notes on Columbus,” by Henri Harrisse (printed privately, New York, 1865); “Memorials and Footprints of Columbus,” by Jas. Grant Wilson (New York, American geographical society, 1885).