Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: Washington Irving  | Date: 1485

Columbus in Spain

THE immediate movements of Columbus on leaving Portugal are involved in uncertainty. It is said that about this time he made a proposition of his enterprise, in person, as he had formerly done by letter, to the government of Genoa. The republic, however, was in a languishing decline, and embarrassed by a foreign war…. Her spirit was broken with her fortunes; for with nations, as with individuals, enterprise is the child of prosperity, and is apt to languish in evil days when there is most need of its exertion. Thus Genoa, disheartened by her reverses, shut her ears to the proposition of Columbus, which might have elevated her to tenfold splendor, and perpetuated within her grasp the golden wand of commerce. While at Genoa Columbus is said to have made arrangements, out of his scanty means, for the comfort of his aged father. It is also affirmed, that about this time he carried his proposal to Venice, where it was declined on account of the critical state of national affairs. This, however, is merely traditional, and unsupported by documentary evidence. The first firm and indisputable trace we have of Columbus after leaving Portugal is in the south of Spain, in 1485, where we find him seeking his fortune among the Spanish nobles, several of whom had vast possessions, and exercised almost independent sovereignty in their domains.

Foremost among these were the dukes of Medina Sidonia and Medina Celi, who had estates like principalities lying along the sea-coast, with ports and shipping and hosts of retainers at their command. They served the crown in its Moorish wars more as allied princes than as vassals, bringing armies into the field led by themselves, or by captains of their own appointment. Their domestic establishments were on almost a regal scale; their palaces were filled with persons of merit, and young cavaliers of noble birth, to be reared under their auspices, in the exercise of arts and arms.

Columbus had many interviews with the duke of Medina Sidonia, who was tempted for a time by the splendid prospects held out; but their very splendor threw a coloring of improbability over the enterprise, and he finally rejected it as the dream of an Italian visionary.

The duke of Medina Celi was likewise favorable at the outset. He entertained Columbus for some time in his house, and was actually on the point of granting him three or four caravels which lay ready for sea in his harbor of Port St. Mary, opposite Cadiz, when he suddenly changed his mind, deterred by the consideration that the enterprise, if successful, would involve discoveries too important to be grasped by any but a sovereign power, and that the Spanish government might be displeased at his undertaking it on his own account Finding, however, that Columbus intended to make his next application to the king of France, and loth that an enterprise of such importance should be lost to Spain, the duke wrote to Queen Isabella recommending it strongly to her attention. The queen made a favorable reply, and requested that Columbus might be sent to her. He accordingly set out for the Spanish court, then at Cordova, bearing a letter to the queen from the duke, soliciting that, in case the expedition should be carried into effect, he might have a share in it, and the fitting out of the armament from his port of St. Mary, as a recompense for having waived the enterprise in favor of the crown.

The time when Columbus thus sought his fortunes at the court of Spain coincided with one of the most brilliant periods of the Spanish monarchy. The union of the Kingdoms of Arragon and Castile, by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, had consolidated the Christian power in the Peninsula, and put an end to those internal feuds, which had so long distracted the country, and insured the domination of the Moslems The whole force of united Spain was now exerted in the chivalrous enterprise of the Moorish conquest. The Moors, who had once spread over the whole country like an inundation, were now pent up within the mountain boundaries of the kingdom of Granada. The victorious armies of Ferdinand and Isabella were continually advancing, and pressing this fierce people within narrower limits. Under these sovereigns, the various petty kingdoms of Spain began to feel and act as one nation, and to rise to eminence in arts as well as arms. Ferdinand and Isabella, it has been remarked, lived together not like man and wife, whose estates are common, under the orders of the husband, but like two monarchs strictly allied. They had separate claims to sovereignty, in virtue of their respective kingdoms; they had separate councils, and were often distant from each other in different parts of their empire, each exercising the royal authority. Yet they were so happily united by common views, common interests, and a great deference for each other, that this double administration never prevented a unity of purpose and of action. All acts of sovereignty were executed in both their names; all public writings were subscribed with both their signatures; their likenesses were stamped together on the public coin; and the royal seal displayed the united arms of Castile and Arragon.

Ferdinand was of the middle stature, well proportioned, and hardy and active from athletic exercise. His carriage was free, erect, and majestic. He had a clear serene forehead, which appeared more lofty from his head being partly bald. His eyebrows were large and parted, and, like his hair, of a bright chestnut; his eyes were clear and animated; his complexion was somewhat ruddy, and scorched by the toils of war; his mouth moderate, well formed, and gracious in its expression; his teeth white, though small and irregular; his voice sharp; his speech quick and fluent. His genius was clear and comprehensive; his judgment grave and certain. He was simple in dress and diet, equable in his temper, devout in his religion, and so indefatigable in business, that it was said he seemed to repose himself by working. He was a great observer and judge of men, and unparalleled in the science of the cabinet. Such is the picture given of him by the Spanish historians of his time. It has been added, however, that he had more of bigotry than religion; that his ambition was craving rather than magnanimous; that he made war less like a paladin than a prince, less for glory than for mere dominion; and that his policy was cold, selfish, and artful. He was called the wise and prudent in Spain; in Italy, the pious; in France and England, the ambitious and perfidious. He certainly was one of the most subtle statesmen, but one of the most thorough egotists, that ever sat upon a throne….

Contemporary writers have been enthusiastic in their descriptions of Isabella, but time has sanctioned their eulogies. She is one of the purest and most beautiful characters in the pages of history. She was well formed, of the middle size, with great dignity and gracefulness of deportment, and a mingled gravity and sweetness of demeanor. Her complexion was fair; her hair auburn, inclining to red; her eyes were of a clear blue, with a benign expression, and there was a singular modesty in her countenance, gracing, as it did, a wonderful firmness of purpose, and earnestness of spirit. Though strongly attached to her husband, and studious of his fame, yet she always maintained her distinct rights as an allied prince. She exceeded him in beauty, in personal dignity, in acuteness of genius, and in grandeur of soul. Combining the active and resolute qualities of man with the softer charities of woman, she mingled in the warlike councils of her husband, engaged personally in his enterprises, and in some instances surpassed him in the firmness and intrepidity of her measures; while, being inspired with a truer idea of glory, she infused a more lofty and generous temper into his subtle and calculating policy.

It is in the civil history of their reign, however, that the character of Isabella shines most illustrious. Her fostering and maternal care was continually directed to reform the laws, and heal the ills engendered by a long course of internal wars. She loved her people, and while diligently seeking their good, she mitigated, as much as possible, the harsh measures of her husband, directed to the same end, but inflamed by a mistaken zeal…. She was always an advocate for clemency to the Moors, although she was the soul of the war against Granada. She considered that war essential to protect the Christian faith, and to relieve her subjects from fierce and formidable enemies. While all her public thoughts and acts were princely and august, her private habits were simple, frugal, and unostentatious. In the intervals of state business, she assembled round her the ablest men in literature and science, and directed herself by their counsels, in promoting letters and arts. Through her patronage, Salamanca rose to that height which it assumed among the learned institutions of the age. She promoted the distribution of honors and rewards for the promulgation of knowledge; she fostered the art of printing, recently invented; and encouraged the establishment of presses in every part of the kingdom; books were admitted free of all duty, and more, we are told, were printed in Spain, at that early period of the art, than in the present literary age.

It is wonderful how much the destinies of countries depend at times upon the virtues of individuals, and how it is given to great spirits, by combining, exciting, and directing the latent powers of a nation, to stamp it, as it were, with their own greatness. Such beings realize the idea of guardian angels, appointed by Heaven to watch over the destinies of empires. Such had been Prince Henry for the kingdom of Portugal; and such was now for Spain the illustrious Isabella.

WHEN Columbus arrived at Cordova he was given in charge to Alonzo de Quintanilla, comptroller of the treasury of Castile, but was disappointed in his expectation of receiving immediate audience from the queen. He found the city in all the bustle of military preparation. It was a critical juncture of the war. The rival kings of Granada, Muley Boabdil the uncle, and Mohammed Boabdil the nephew had just formed a coalition, and their league called for prompt and vigorous measures….

This was an unpropitious moment to urge a suit like that of Columbus. In fact the sovereigns had not a moment of leisure throughout this eventful year. Early in the spring, the King marched off to lay siege to the Moorish city of Loxa; and though the Queen remained at Cordova, she was continually employed in forwarding troops and supplies to the army, and, at the same time, attending to the multiplied exigencies of civil government….

In the winter, Columbus followed the court to Salamanca. Here his zealous friend, Alonzo de Quintanilla, exerted his influence to obtain for him the countenance of the celebrated Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, archbishop of Toledo and grand cardinal of Spain. This was the most important personage about the court; and was facetiously called by Peter Martyr, the "third king of Spain." The King and Queen had him always by their side, in peace and war. He accompanied them in their campaigns, and they never took any measure of consequence without consulting him. He was a man of sound judgment and quick intellect, eloquent in conversation, and able in the despatch of business. His appearance was lofty and venerable; he was simple yet curiously nice in his apparel, and of gracious and gentle deportment. Though an elegant scholar, yet, like many learned men of his day, he was but little skilled in cosmography. When the theory of Columbus was first mentioned to him, it struck him as involving heterodox opinions, incompatible with the form of the earth as described in the Sacred Scriptures. Further explanations had their force with a man of his quick apprehension and sound sense. He perceived that at any rate there could be nothing irreligious in attempting to extend the bounds of human knowledge, and to ascertain the works of creation: his scruples once removed, he permitted Columbus to be introduced to him, and gave him a courteous reception. The latter knew the importance of his auditor, and that a conference with the grand cardinal was almost equivalent to a communication with the throne; he exerted himself to the utmost, therefore, to explain and demonstrate his proposition. The clear-headed cardinal listened with profound attention. He was pleased with the noble and earnest manner of Columbus, which showed him to be no common schemer; he felt the grandeur, and, at the same time, the simplicity of his theory, and the force of many of the arguments by which it was supported. He determined that it was a matter highly worthy of the consideration of the sovereigns, and through his representations Columbus at length obtained admission to the royal presence.

We have but scanty particulars of this audience, nor can we ascertain whether Queen Isabella was present on the occasion; the contrary seems to be most probably the case. Columbus appeared in the royal presence with modesty, yet self-possession, neither dazzled nor daunted by the splendor of the court or the awful majesty of the throne. He unfolded his plan with eloquence and zeal, for he felt himself, as he afterwards declared, kindled as with a fire from on high, and considered himself the agent chosen by Heaven to accomplish its grand designs.

Ferdinand was too keen a judge of men not to appreciate the character of Columbus. He perceived that, however soaring might be his imagination, and vast and visionary his views, his scheme had scientific and practical foundation. His ambition was excited by the possibility of discoveries far more important than those which had shed such glory upon Portugal; and perhaps it was not the least recommendation of the enterprise to this subtle and grasping monarch, that, if successful, it would enable him to forestall that rival nation in the fruits of their long and arduous struggle, and by opening a direct course to India across the ocean, to bear off from them the monopoly of oriental commerce.

Still, as usual, Ferdinand was cool and wary and would not trust his own judgment in a matter that involved so many principles of science. He determined to take the opinion of the most learned men in the kingdom, and to be guided by their decision. Fernando de Talavera, prior of the monastery of Prado and confessor of the queen, one of the most erudite men of Spain, and high in the royal confidence, was commanded to assemble the most learned astronomers and cosmographers for the purpose of holding a conference with Columbus, and examining him as to the grounds on which he founded his proposition. After they had informed themselves fully on the subject, they were to consult together and make a report to the sovereign of their collective opinion.

THE interesting conference relative to the proposition of Columbus took place in Salamanca, the great seat of learning in Spain. It was held in the Dominican convent of St. Stephen, in which he was lodged and entertained with great hospitality during the course of the examination.

Religion and science were at that time, and more especially in that country, closely associated. The treasures of learning were immured in monasteries, and the professors’ chairs were exclusively filled from the cloister. The domination of the clergy extended over the state as well as the church, and posts of honor and influence at court, with the exception of hereditary nobles, were almost entirely confined to ecclesiastics. It was even common to find cardinals and bishops in helm and corslet at the head of armies; for the crosier had been occasionally thrown by for the lance, during the holy war against the Moors. The era was distinguished for the revival of learning, but still more for the prevalence of religious zeal, and Spain surpassed all other countries in Christendom in the fervor of her devotion….

Such was the period when a council of clerical sages was convened in the collegiate convent of St. Stephen, to investigate the new theory of Columbus. It was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, and other branches of science, together with various dignitaries of the church, and learned friars. Before this erudite assembly, Columbus presented himself, to propound and defend his conclusions. He had been scoffed at as a visionary by the vulgar and the ignorant; but he was convinced that he only required a body of enlightened men to listen dispassionately to his reasonings, to insure triumphant conviction.

The greater part of this learned junto, it is very probable, came prepossessed against him, as men in place and dignity are apt to be against poor applicants. There is always a proneness to consider a man under examination as a kind of delinquent, or impostor, whose faults and errors are to be detected and exposed. Columbus, too, appeared in a most unfavorable light before a scholastic body: an obscure navigator, a member of no learned institution, destitute of all the trappings and circumstances which sometimes give oracular authority to dullness, and depending upon the mere force of natural genius. Some of the junto entertained the popular notion that he was an adventurer, or at best a visionary; and others had that morbid impatience of any innovation upon established doctrine, which is apt to grow upon dull and pedantic men in cloistered life.

What a striking spectacle must the hall of the old convent have presented at this memorable conference! A simple mariner, standing forth in the midst of an imposing array of professors, friars, and dignitaries of the church; maintaining his theory with natural eloquence, and, as it were, pleading the cause of the new world….

Several of the objections proposed by this learned body have been handed down to us, and have provoked many a sneer at the expense of the university of Salamanca; but they are proofs, not so much of the peculiar deficiency of that institution, as of the imperfect state of science at the time…. All subjects were still contemplated through the obscure medium of those ages when the lights of antiquity were trampled out and faith was left to fill the place of inquiry. Bewildered in a maze of religious controversy, mankind had retraced their steps, and receded from the boundary line of ancient knowledge. Thus, at the very threshold of the discussion, instead of geographical objections, Columbus was assailed with citations from the Bible and the Testament: the book of Genesis, the Psalms of David, the prophets, the epistles, and the gospels. To these were added the expositions of various saints and reverend commentators: St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Gregory, St. Basil and St. Ambrose, and Lactantius Firmianus, a redoubted champion of the faith. Doctrinal points were mixed up with philosophical discussions, and a mathematical demonstration was allowed no weight, if it appeared to clash with a text of Scripture, or a commentary of one of the fathers. Thus the possibility of antipodes, in the southern hemisphere, an opinion so generally maintained by the wisest of the ancients, as to be pronounced by Pliny the great contest between the learned and the ignorant, became a stumbling-block with some of the sages of Salamanca. Several of them stoutly contradicted this fundamental position of Columbus, supporting themselves by quotations from Lactantius and St. Augustine, who were considered in those days as almost evangelical authority. But, though these writers were men of consummate erudition, and two of the greatest luminaries of what has been called the golden age of ecclesiastical learning, yet their writings were calculated to perpetuate darkness in respect to the sciences.

The passage cited from Lactantius to confute Columbus, is in a strain of gross ridicule, unworthy of so grave a theologian. "Is there any one so foolish," he asks, "as to believe that there are antipodes with their feet opposite to ours; people who walk with their heels upward, and their heads hanging down? That there is a part of the world in which all things are topsy-turvy; where the trees grow with their branches downward, and where it rains, hails and snows upward? The idea of the roundness of the earth," he adds, "was the cause of inventing this fable of the antipodes, with their heels in the air; for these philosophers, having once erred, go on in their absurdities, defending one with another."

Objections of a graver nature were advanced on the authority of St. Augustine. He pronounces the doctrine of antipodes to be incompatible with the historical foundations of our faith; since, to assert that there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe, would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, it being impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean. This would be, therefore, to discredit the Bible, which expressly declares, that all men are descended from one common parent.

Such were the unlooked-for prejudices which Columbus had to encounter at the very outset of this conference, and which certainly relish more of the convent than the university. To his simplest proposition, the spherical form of the earth, were opposed figurative texts of Scripture. They observed that in the Psalms, the heavens are said to be extended like a hide, that is, according to commentators, the curtain or covering of a tent, which, among the ancient pastoral nations, was formed of the hides of animals; and that St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, compares the heavens to a tabernacle, or tent, extended over the earth, which they thence inferred must be flat.

Columbus, who was a devoutly religious man, found that he was in danger of being convicted not merely of error, but of heterodoxy. Others more versed in science admitted the globular form of the earth, and the possibility of an opposite and habitable hemisphere; but they brought up the chimera of the ancients, and maintained that it would be impossible to arrive there, in consequence of the insupportable heat of the torrid zone. Even granting this could be passed, they observed that the circumference of the earth must be so great as to require at least three years to the voyage, and those who should undertake it must perish of hunger and thirst, from the impossibility of carrying provisions for so long a period. He was told, on the authority of Epicurus, that admitting the earth to be spherical, it was only inhabitable in the northern hemisphere, and in that section only was canopied by the heavens; that the opposite half was a chaos, a gulf, or a mere waste of water. Not the least absurd objection advanced was, that should a ship even succeed in reaching, in this way, the extremity of India, she could never get back again; for the rotundity of the globe would present a kind of mountain, up which it would be impossible for her to sail with the most favorable wind.

Such are the specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry, with which Columbus had to contend throughout the examination of his theory. Can we wonder at the difficulties and delays which he experienced at courts, when such vague and crude notions were entertained by the learned men of a university? . . .

There were no doubt objections advanced more cogent in their nature, and more worthy of that distinguished university. It is but justice to add also, that the replies of Columbus had great weight with many of his learned examiners. In answer to the Scriptural objections, he submitted that the inspired writers were not speaking technically as cosmographers, but figuratively, in language addressed to all comprehensions. The commentaries of the fathers he treated with deference as pious homilies, but not as philosophical propositions which it was necessary either to admit or refute. The objections drawn from the ancient philosophers he met boldly and ably upon equal terms; for he was deeply studied on all points of cosmography. He showed that the most illustrious of those sages believed both hemispheres to be inhabitable, though they imagined that the torrid zone precluded communication; and he obviated conclusively that difficulty; for he had voyaged to St. George la Mina in Guinea, almost under the equinoctial line, and had found that region not merely traversable, but abounding in population, in fruits and pasturage.

When Columbus took his stand before this learned body, he had appeared the plain and simple navigator; somewhat daunted, perhaps, by the greatness of his task, and the august nature of his auditory. But he had a degree of religious feeling which gave him a confidence in the execution of what he conceived his great errand, and he was of an ardent temperament that became heated in action by its own generous fires. Las Casas, and others of his contemporaries, have spoken of his commanding person, his elevated demeanor, his air of authority, his kindling eye, and the persuasive intonations of his voice. How must they have given majesty and force to his words, as, casting aside his maps and charts, and discarding for a time his practical and scientific lore, his visionary spirit took fire at the doctrinal objections of his opponents, and he met them upon their own ground, pouring forth those magnificent texts of Scripture, and those mysterious predictions of the prophets, which, in his enthusiastic moments, he considered as types and annunciations of the sublime discovery which he proposed! . . .

THE Castilian court departed from Salamanca early in the spring of 1487 and repaired to Cordova, to prepare for the memorable campaign against Malaga. Fernando de Talavera, now bishop of Avila, accompanied the queen as her confessor, and as one of her spiritual counselors in the concerns of the war. The consultations of the board at Salamanca were interrupted by this event, before that learned body could come to a decision, and for a long time Columbus was kept in suspense, vainly awaiting the report that was to decide the fate of his application.

It has generally been supposed that the several years which he wasted in irksome solicitation, were spent in the drowsy and monotonous attendance of antechambers; but it appears, on the contrary, that they were often passed amidst scenes of peril and adventure, and that, in following up his suit, he was led into some of the most striking situations of this wild, rugged, and mountainous war. Several times he was summoned to attend conferences in the vicinity of the sovereigns, when besieging cities in the very heart of the Moorish dominions; but the tempest of warlike affairs, which hurried the court from place to place and gave it all the bustle and confusion of a camp, prevented those conferences from taking place, and swept away all concerns that were not immediately connected with the war. Whenever the court had an interval of leisure and repose, there would again be manifested a disposition to consider his proposal, but the hurry and tempest would again return and the question be again swept away….

Wearied and discouraged by these delays, he began to think of applying elsewhere for patronage, and appears to have commenced negotiations with King John II. for a return to Portugal. He wrote to that monarch on the subject, and received a letter in reply dated 20th of March, 1488, inviting him to return to his court, and assuring him of protection from any suits of either a civil or criminal nature, that might be pending against him. He received, also, a letter from Henry VII. of England, inviting him to that country, and holding out promises of encouragement.

There must have been strong hopes, authorized about this time by the conduct of the Spanish sovereigns, to induce Columbus to neglect these invitations….

During this long course of solicitation, he supported himself, in part, by making maps and charts, and was occasionally assisted by the purse of the worthy friar Diego de Deza. It is due to the sovereigns to say, also, that whenever he was summoned to follow the movements of the court, or to attend any appointed consultation, he was attached to the royal suite, and lodgings were provided for him and sums issued to defray his expenses. Memorandums of several of these sums still exist in the book of accounts of the royal treasurer, Francisco Gonzalez, of Seville, which has lately been found in the archives of Simancas; and it is from these minutes that we have been enabled, in some degree, to follow the movements of Columbus during his attendance upon this rambling and warlike court.

During all this time he was exposed to continual scoffs and indignities, being ridiculed by the light and ignorant as a mere dreamer, and stigmatized by the illiberal as an adventurer. The very children, it is said, pointed to their foreheads as he passed, taught to regard him as a kind of madman.

The summer of 1490 passed away, but still Columbus was kept in tantalizing and tormenting suspense…. He was wearied, if not incensed, at the repeated postponements he had experienced, by which several years had been consumed. He now pressed for a decisive reply with an earnestness that would not admit of evasion. Fernando de Talavera, therefore, was called upon by the sovereigns to hold a definite conference with the scientific men to whom the project had been referred, and to make a report of their decision. The bishop tardily complied, and at length reported to their majesties, as the general opinion of the Junto, that the proposed scheme was vain and impossible, and that it did not become such great princes to engage in an enterprise of the kind on such weak grounds as had been advanced.

Notwithstanding this unfavorable report, the sovereigns were unwilling to close the door upon a project which might be productive of such important advantages. Many of the learned members of the Junto also were in its favor, particularly Fray Diego de Deza, tutor to Prince Juan, who from his situation and clerical character had access to the royal ear, and exerted himself strenuously in counteracting the decision of the board. A degree of consideration, also, had gradually grown up at court for the enterprise, and many men, distinguished for rank and merit, had become its advocates. Fernando de Talavera, therefore, was commanded to inform Columbus, who was still at Cordova, that the great cares and expenses of the wars rendered it impossible for the sovereigns to engage in any new enterprise; but that when the war was concluded they would have both time and inclination to treat with him about what he proposed.

This was but a starved reply to receive after so many days of weary attendance, anxious expectation, and deferred hope; Columbus was unwilling to receive it at second hand, and repaired to the court at Seville to learn his fate from the lips of the sovereigns. Their reply was virtually the same, declining to engage in the enterprise for the present, but holding out hopes of patronage when relieved from the cares and expenses of the war.

Columbus looked upon this indefinite postponement as a mere courtly mode of evading his importunity, and supposed that the favorable dispositions of the sovereigns had been counteracted by the objections of the ignorant and bigoted. Renouncing all further confidence, therefore, in vague promises, which had so often led to disappointment, and giving up all hopes of countenance from the throne, he turned his back upon Seville indignant at the thoughts of having been beguiled out of so many precious years of waning existence.

ABOUT half a league from the little seaport of Palos de Moguer in Andalusia there stood, and continues to stand at the present day, an ancient convent of Franciscan friars, dedicated to Santa Maria de Rabida. One day a stranger on foot, in humble guise, but of a distinguished air, accompanied by a small boy, stopped at the gate of the convent, and asked of the porter a little bread and water for his child. While receiving this humble refreshment, the prior of the convent, Juan Perez de Marchena, happening to pass by, was struck with the appearance of the stranger and observing from his air and accent that he was a foreigner, entered into conversation with him, and soon learned the particulars of his story. That stranger was Columbus. He was on his way to the neighboring town of Huelva, to seek his brother-in-law, who had married a sister of his deceased wife.

The prior was a man of extensive information…. He was greatly interested by the conversation of Columbus, and struck with the grandeur of his views. It was a remarkable occurrence in the monotonous life of the cloister, to have a man of such singular character, intent on so extraordinary an enterprise, applying for bread and water at the gate of his convent.

When he found, however, that the voyager was on the point of abandoning Spain to seek patronage in the court of France, and that so important an enterprise was about to be lost forever to the country, the patriotism of the good friar took the alarm. He detained Columbus as his guest, and, diffident of his own judgment, sent for a scientific friend to converse with him. That friend was Garcia Fernandez, a physician, resident in Palos, the same who furnishes this interesting testimony. Fernandez was equally struck with the appearance and conversation of the stranger; several conferences took place at the convent, at which several of the veteran mariners of Palos were present. Among these was Martin Alonzo Pinzon, the head of a family of wealthy and experienced navigators of the place, celebrated for their adventurous expeditions. Facts were related by some of these navigators in support of the theory of Columbus. In a word, his project was treated with a deference in the quiet cloisters of La Rabida, and among the seafaring men of Palos, which had been sought in vain among the sages and philosophers of the court. Martin Alonzo Pinzon especially, was so convinced of its feasibility that he offered to engage in it with purse and person, and to bear the expenses of Columbus in a renewed application to the court….

The little council at the convent of La Rabida now cast round their eyes for an ambassador to depart upon this momentous mission. They chose one Sebastian Rodriguez, a pilot of Lepe, one of the most shrewd and important personages in this maritime neighborhood. The Queen was, at this time, at Santa Fe, the military city which had been built in the Vega before Granada, after the conflagration of the royal camp. The honest pilot acquitted himself faithfully, expeditiously, and successfully, in his embassy. He found access to the benignant princess, and delivered the epistle of the friar. Isabella had always been favorably disposed to the proposition of Columbus. She wrote in reply to Juan Perez, thanking him for his timely services, and requesting that he would repair immediately to the court, leaving Christopher Columbus in confident hope until he should hear further from her. This royal letter was brought back by the pilot at the end of fourteen days, and spread great joy in the little junto at the convent. No sooner did the warm-hearted friar receive it, than he saddled his mule, and departed privately, before midnight, for the court….

The sacred office of Juan Perez gained him a ready entrance in a court distinguished for religious zeal; and, once admitted to the presence of the queen, his former relation, as father confessor, gave him great freedom of counsel. He pleaded the cause of Columbus with characteristic enthusiasm, speaking, from actual knowledge, of his honorable motives, his professional knowledge and experience, and his perfect capacity to fulfil the undertaking; he represented the solid principles upon which the enterprise was founded, the advantage that must attend its success, and the glory it must shed upon the Spanish crown. It is probable that Isabella had never heard the proposition urged with such honest zeal and impressive eloquence. Being naturally more sanguine and susceptible than the king, and more open to warm and generous impulses, she was moved by the representations of Juan Perez, which were warmly seconded by her favorite, the Marchioness of Moya, who entered into the affair with a woman’s disinterested enthusiasm. The Queen requested that Columbus might be again sent to her, and, with the kind considerateness which characterized her, bethinking herself of his poverty, and his humble plight, ordered that twenty thousand maravedies in florins should be forwarded to him, to bear his traveling expenses, to provide him with a mule for his journey, and to furnish him with decent raiment, that he might make a respectable appearance at the court….

WHEN Columbus arrived at the court, he experienced a favorable reception, and was given in hospitable charge to his steady friend Alonzode Quintanilla, the accountant general. The moment, however, was too eventful for his business to receive immediate attention. He arrived in time to witness the memorable surrender of Granada to the Spanish arms. He beheld Boabdil, the last of the Moorish kings, sally forth from the Alhambra, and yield up the keys of that favorite seat of Moorish power; while the king and queen, with all the chivalry, and rank, and magnificence of Spain, moved forward in proud and solemn procession, to receive this token of submission. It was one of the most brilliant triumphs in Spanish history. After near eight hundred years of painful struggle, the crescent was completely cast down, the cross exalted in its place, and the standard of Spain was seen floating on the highest tower of the Alhambra. The whole court and army were abandoned to jubilee….

The war with the Moors was at an end, Spain was delivered from its intruders, and its sovereigns might securely turn their views to foreign enterprise. They kept their word with Columbus. Persons of confidence were appointed to negotiate with him, among whom was Fernando de Talavera, who, by the recent conquest, had risen to be archbishop of Granada. At the very outset of their negotiation, however, unexpected difficulties arose. So fully imbued was Columbus with the grandeur of his enterprise, that he would listen to none but princely conditions. His principal stipulation was, that he should be invested with the titles and privileges of admiral and viceroy over the countries he should discover, with one tenth of all gains, either by trade or conquest. The courtiers who treated with him were indignant at such a demand Their pride was shocked to see one, whom they had considered as a needy adventurer, aspiring to rank and dignities superior to their own. One observed with a sneer that it was a shrewd arrangement which he proposed, whereby he was secure, at all events, of the honor of a command, and had nothing to lose in case of failure. To this Columbus promptly replied, by offering to furnish one eighth of the cost, on condition of enjoying an eighth of the profits. To do this, he no doubt calculated on the proffered assistance of Martin Alonzo Pinzon, the wealthy navigator of Palos.

His terms, however, were pronounced inadmissible. Fernando de Talavera had always considered Columbus a dreaming speculator, or a needy applicant for bread; but to see this man, who had for years been an indigent and threadbare solicitor in his antechamber, assuming so lofty a tone, and claiming an office that approached to the awful dignity of the throne, excited the astonishment as well as the indignation of the prelate. He represented to Isabella, that it would be degrading to the dignity of so illustrious a crown to lavish such distinguished honors upon a nameless stranger. Such terms, he observed, even in case of success, would be exorbitant; but in case of failure, would be cited with ridicule, as evidence of the gross credulity of the Spanish monarchs.

Isabella was always attentive to the opinions of her ghostly advisers, and the archbishop, being her confessor, had peculiar influence. His suggestions checked her dawning favor. She thought the proposed advantages might be purchased at too great a price. More moderate conditions were offered to Columbus, and such as appeared highly honorable and advantageous. It was all in vain; he would not cede one point of his demands, and the negotiation was broken off.

It is impossible not to admire the great constancy of purpose and loftiness of spirit displayed by Columbus, ever since he had conceived the sublime idea of his discovery. More than eighteen years had elapsed since his correspondence with Paulo Toscanelli of Florence, wherein he had announced his design. The greatest part of that time had been consumed in applications at various courts. During that period, what poverty, neglect, ridicule, contumely and disappointment had he not suffered! Nothing however, could shake his perseverance, nor make him descend to terms which he considered beneath the dignity of his enterprise. In all his negotiations be forgot his present obscurity, he forgot his present indigence; his ardent imagination realized the magnitude of his contemplated discoveries, and he felt himself negotiating about empire.

Though so large a portion of his life had worn away in fruitless solicitings; though there was no certainty that the same weary career was not to be entered upon at any other court; yet so indignant was he at the repeated disappointments he had experienced in Spain, that he determined to abandon it forever, rather than compromise his demands. Taking leave of his friends, therefore, he mounted his mule, and sallied forth from Santa Fe in the beginning of February, 1492, on his way to Cordova, whence he intended to depart immediately for France.

When the few friends who were zealous believers in the theory of Columbus saw him really on the point of abandoning the country, they were filled with distress, considering his departure an irreparable loss to the nation. Among the number was Luis de St. Angel, receiver of the ecclesiastical revenues in Arragon. Determined if possible to avert the evil, he obtained an immediate audience of the Queen, accompanied by Alonzo de Quintanilla. The exigency of the moment gave him courage and eloquence. He did not confine himself to entreaties, but almost mingled reproaches, expressing astonishment that a queen who had evinced the spirit to undertake so many great and perilous enterprises, should hesitate at one where the loss could be so trifling, while the gain might be incalculable. He reminded her how much might be done for the glory of God, the exaltation of the Church and the extension of her own power and dominion. What cause of regret to her self, of triumph to her enemies, of sorrow to her friends, should this enterprise, thus rejected by her, be accomplished by some other power. He reminded her what fame and dominion other princes had acquired by their discoveries; here was an opportunity to surpass them all. He entreated her majesty not to be misled by the assertions of learned men, that the project was the dream of a visionary. He vindicated the judgment of Columbus, and the soundness and practicability of his plans. Neither would even his failure reflect disgrace upon the crown. It was worth the trouble and expense to clear up even a doubt upon a matter of such importance, for it belonged to enlightened and magnanimous princes to investigate questions of the kind, and to explore the wonders and secrets of the universe. He stated the liberal offer of Columbus to bear an eighth of the expense, and informed her that all the requisites for this great enterprise consisted but of two vessels, and about three thousand crowns….

There was still a moment’s hesitation. The King looked coldly on the affair, and the royal finances were absolutely drained by the war. Some time must be given to replenish them. How could she draw on an exhausted treasury for a measure to which the king was adverse! St. Angel watched this suspense with trembling anxiety. The next moment reassured him. With an enthusiasm worthy of herself, and of the cause, Isabella exclaimed, "I undertake the enterprise for my own crown of Castile, and will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds." This was the proudest moment in the life of Isabella; it stamped her renown forever as the patroness of the discovery of the New World.

St. Angel, eager to secure this noble impulse, assured her majesty that there would be no need of pledging her jewels, as he was ready to advance the necessary funds. His offer was gladly accepted; the funds really came from the coffers of Arragon; seventeen thousand florins were advanced by the accountant of St. Angel out of the treasury of King Ferdinand….

Columbus had pursued his lonely journey across the Vega and reached the bridge of Pinos, about two leagues from Granada, at the foot of the mountain of Elvira; a pass famous in the Moorish wars for many a desperate encounter between the Christians and infidels. Here he was overtaken by a courier from the Queen, spurring in all speed, who summoned him to return to Santa Fe. He hesitated for a moment, being loth to subject himself again to the delays and equivocations of the court; when informed, however, of the sudden zeal for the enterprise excited in the mind of the Queen, and the positive promise she had given to undertake it, he no longer felt a doubt, but, turning the reins of his mule, hastened back, with joyful alacrity to Santa Fe confiding in the noble Probity of that Princess.

ON arriving at Santa Fe, Columbus had an immediate audience of the Queen, and the benignity with which she received him atoned for all past neglect. Through deference to the zeal she thus suddenly displayed, the King yielded his tardy concurrence, but Isabella was the soul of this grand enterprise. She was prompted by lofty and generous enthusiasm, while the King proved cold and calculating in this as in all his other undertakings.

A perfect understanding being thus effected with the sovereigns, articles of agreement were ordered to be drawn out by Juan de Coloma, the royal secretary. They were to the following effect:—

1. That Columbus should have, for himself, during his life, and his heirs and successors forever, the office of admiral in all the lands and continents which he might discover or acquire in the ocean, with similar honors and prerogatives to those enjoyed by the high admiral of Castile in his district.

2. That he should be viceroy and governor-general over all the said lands and continents; with the privilege of nominating three candidates for the government of each island or province, one of whom should be selected by the sovereigns.

3. That he should be entitled to reserve for himself one tenth of all pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and all other articles and merchandises, in whatever manner found, bought, bartered, or gained within his admiralty, the costs being first deducted.

4. That he, or his lieutenant, should be the sole judge in all causes and disputes arising out of traffic between those countries and Spain, provided the high admiral of Castile had similar jurisdiction in his district.

5. That he might then, and at all after times, contribute an eighth part of the expense in fitting out vessels to sail on this enterprise, and receive an eighth part of the profits.

The last stipulation, which admits Columbus to bear an eighth of the enterprise, was made in consequence of his indignant proffer, on being reproached with demanding ample emoluments while incurring no portion of the charge. He fulfilled this engagement, through the assistance of the Pinzons of Palos, and added a third vessel to the armament. Thus one eighth of the expense attendant on this grand expedition, undertaken by a powerful nation, was actually borne by the individual who conceived it, and who likewise risked his life on its success….

The port of Palos de Moguer was fixed upon as the place where the armament was to be fitted out, Columbus calculating, no doubt, on the cooperation of Martin Alonzo Pinzon, resident there, and on the assistance of his zealous friend the prior of the convent of La Rabida. Before going into the business details of this great enterprise, it is due to the character of the illustrious man who conceived and conducted it, most especially to notice the elevated, even though visionary spirit by which he was actuated. One of his principal objects was undoubtedly the propagation of the Christian faith. He expected to arrive at the extremity of Asia, and to open a direct and easy communication with the vast and magnificent empire of the Grand Khan. The conversion of that heathen potentate had, in former times, been a favorite aim of various pontiffs and pious sovereigns, and various missions had been sent to the remote regions of the East for that purpose. Columbus now considered himself about to effect this great work; to spread the light of revelation to the very ends of the earth, and thus to be the instrument of accomplishing one of the sublime predictions of Holy Writ….

The ardent enthusiasm of Columbus did not stop here. Anticipating boundless wealth from his discoveries, he suggested that the treasures thus acquired should be consecrated to the pious purpose of rescuing the holy sepulcher of Jerusalem from the power of the infidels. The sovereigns smiled at this sally of the imagination, but expressed themselves well pleased with it, and assured him that even without the funds he anticipated, they should be well disposed to that holy undertaking. What the king and queen, however, may have considered a mere sally of momentary excitement, was a deep and cherished design of Columbus. It is a curious and characteristic fact, which has never been particularly noticed, that the recovery of the holy sepulcher was one of the great objects of his ambition, meditated throughout the remainder of his life, and solemnly provided for in his will. In fact, he subsequently considered it the main work for which he was chosen by Heaven as an agent, and that his great discovery was but a preparatory dispensation of Providence to furnish means for its accomplishment.


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Chicago: Washington Irving, "Columbus in Spain," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in America, Vol.1, Pp.99-133 Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Irving, Washington. "Columbus in Spain." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in America, Vol.1, Pp.99-133, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Irving, W, 'Columbus in Spain' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , America, Vol.1, Pp.99-133. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from