The New Student's Reference Work/Columbus, Christopher

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Christophe Colomb in Meyers.jpg

Columbus, Christopher. In 1470 there arrived on the coast of Portugal, on a plank that was part of the wreckage of a privateer sunk in a sea-fight, an adventurous mariner. Born in Genoa, Italy, perhaps in 1436, perhaps in 1446, he was of the stature and coloring of Norse pirates. His eyes were as pale a blue as sea-ice, his red and white skin was bronzed by 20 years' exposure to wind and sun; his auburn hair, already pointed with silver, shone like a nimbus above a handsome, smooth-shaven, aquiline face. Besides being a skilled navigator, he was a man of learning, temperate habits and speech and as strict piety as if he were of some religious order. These qualities must have recommended him in Lisbon, for the Portuguese were among the most ardent Christians and the most daring voyagers in the world. Gradually the facts came out that Columbus, Colombo or Colon (for he used the Latin, Portuguese and Spanish forms of his name indifferently) had learned geography, mathematics and nautical astronomy, and had coasted the Mediterranean and voyaged to the Guinea coast. He had read Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, and knew of the strange, disquieting adventures of Portuguese voyagers who had been blown far to the westward. He boldly held the not original opinion that the earth is a sphere.

Although unknown and penniless, this man was so remarkable that within a year he had married the daughter of Palestrello, an ex-governor of the Madeira Islands and a learned geographer. He thus had access to the dead man's maps, charts and calculations that confirmed his opinion that the Indies and the land of Kubla Khan could be reached by sailing westward. He presented a plan for an expedition, first (about 1475) to Genoa, then to John II of Portugal, to Henry VII of England, to two Spanish dukes and finally to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile.

Twelve years he spent, a beggar at indifferent courts, dismissed as impracticable by the wise, ridiculed by the foolish, betrayed by cupidity, deluded by false promises. His wife died, his property was exhausted, he had been made the buffet of capricious fortune. But he was not dismayed. When learning, piety, self-control and a single-hearted purpose go hand in hand, they may defy all the fates to baffle them. At 55 [?45?] years of age we find him (1492) leading his motherless son, Diego, through the lovely landscape of Andalusia, begging bread and shelter of the monks of La Rabida, a monastery that overlooks the harbor of Palos. Undiscouraged, he poured the tale of his incredible ambition into the ears of the simple brothers, only to find among them a geographer who could understand his plans and an ex-confessor to Queen Isabella who could recommend him to royalty. On the 3d of August, 1492, the monks of La Rabida bade him Godspeed out of the harbor of Palos, on the most momentous voyage in history.

How perilous that voyage was you must read a long biography to realize. It lasted ten weeks. The crews of 120 men were mostly made up of criminals and vagabonds, who had choice of this dangerous adventure or of imprisonment for their misdeeds—as treacherous a lot of cutthroats as ever commander shipped.

The Island of Guanahani was sighted on the 12th of October, 1492, and the banner of Spain unfurled above the soil of the New World. The details of this and of his three subsequent voyages are given in every school-history. The great discoverer had the misfortune—for Spain—to sail too far south. Had he cleared the Bahamas, he must have reached the Carolina coast and discovered the continent of North America. But he struck the wilderness of islands, large and small, that guard the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea, and thus won tropical America for Spain and Portugal, leaving the more valuable northern continent for England and France to colonize and fight over. He thought the earth-sphere much smaller than it is and Asia much larger, and mistook the archipelago of the West Indies for islands fringing India, China and Japan. So he continued to explore these, seeking always the continent beyond. On his fourth and last voyage he skirted South America, found the Orinoco River, and reached Yucatan. The sweep of the Gulf Stream made him look for a passage westward about where we are digging the Panama Canal to-day. On his first voyage he built a fort on San Domingo, now Haiti, out of the wreckage of the Santa Maria, and planted a colony. Then he returned to Spain with gold, strange plants and animals and six natives for baptism. After his second voyage, in 1493, misfortune, misery and insults marked the remaining ten years of life, lightened by brief periods of wealth, honor and royal favor. In the failure of his colonies too little allowance was made in his own time for the evils of a tropical climate, savage natives and uncultivated land. Too little is made by his biographers of the character of Spanish colonists. The adventurers who went with Columbus were inspired, not by desire for a home in the New World, but by greed for gain and by religious bigotry that had its logical result in exploitation and cruelty. His long absences from Spain gave ambitious and unscrupulous men at court ample time to plot, so that adequate support and authority were withheld from him. From his third voyage (1498) he was sent home (1500) in irons and, as he feared, to disgrace and death. Tardy reparation made and his enemies punished, he had the magnanimity to set out on a fourth voyage in May, 1502, for their majesties of Spain. In May, 1506, he died at Valladolid, Spain, aged 60 or 70. In 1796 his bones were removed from San Domingo to the cathedral at Havana, Cuba. The title Duke of Veragua was conferred on his son Diego, and continues to-day in the descendants of his great-granddaughter.

Columbus' task was to conceive a benificent idea and to put it to the proof in the most obvious way. For this his knowledge was as complete as possible, his plan definite, his purpose undefiled by self-interest, his resourcefulness and persistence unbounded, his courage sublime. He found a path across the unknown seas, and charted it so others could safely follow. He had sown the seed, leaving to others the harvest.  Even the continent he had discovered was given the name of a later, lesser man.  But for that he probably would have cared little.  His personal name Christopher, he shrouded in a mystical, pietistic signature which symbolized the fact that he considered himself but a servant of Christ, Mary and Joseph.  Above his title which made the descendants of a Genoese wool-comber grandees of Spain, he held his rank of admiral.  He was the greatest mariner the world had seen, or was to see, undespairing, undismayed.  By his will he directed that the head of his house, in every generation should describe himself as Duke of Veragua, The Admiral.  The best known and most accessible life of Columbus is probably the one by Washington Irving.  It needs to be supplemented by the writings of Adams, Fiske, Harrisse, Markham, Prescott, Thacher or Winsor.