In the early dawn of August 3, 1492,º the people of the little town of Palos, in western Andalusia, must have watched with strange feelings the departure of three small ships for unknown waters. Less than three months had elapsed since the royal order came to provide two vessels for twelve months and wages for the crews for four months, as a penalty for some offence against the crown.1 At first the hardy sailors of Palos shrank from the mysterious voyage, and only the criminals in the jail were ready for the venture, relying on the promise that all who volunteered were to be exempt from criminal prosecution until two months after their return.2 But, thanks to the powerful influences of the Pinzon family, there was no need to depend upon the jail-birds, and capable crews were secured from Palos and the surrounding towns.3
The full list of sailors and landsmen was ninety, p21 according to Las Casas, and one hundred and twenty, according to Oviedo.4 Among them were the three Pinzon brothers, Juan de la Cosa, a maker of the famous map of 1500, and Luis de Torres, a converted Jew, who was taken as an interpreter by reason of his knowledge of Arabic. Besides the Spaniards there were two representatives of that race which was later in no small measure to enter into the inheritance of Spain in the New World. William Ires [Harris?] of Galway, Ireland, and Tallarte de Lajes [Allard?].5 Neither returned from the voyage. It is not a little strange, in view of the religious spirit of the age and of the enterprise, that no priest joined the company.
Of the three vessels only the Santa Maria was fully decked and large enough to be styled a ship (nao). Her tonnage has been variously estimated at one hundred tons,6 and at two hundred and eighty tons.7 The other two, the Pinta and the Niña, of the low-built, swifter type called caravels, are supposed to have measured fifty and forty; or one hundred and forty and one hundred tons.
The admiral directed his course towards the Canaries, Spain's only pre-Columbian colonial dependency, and to‑day almost the only remnant of her oceanic empire. There he tarried for about a month p22 refitting the Pinta. The final start was made on Thursday, September 6.
It is the singular good-fortune of posterity to possess a detailed account of this momentous voyage from the hand of the protagonist in the drama. No other in the history of the world was more important, and of no voyage earlier than or during the age of discoveries have we so full and trustworthy a narrative. In the form in which it has come down to us it is an abridgment by Las Casas, closely following the text of the original record prepared for the king and queen, and frequently preserving long passages in the exact wording of the author. In its pages we are admitted into the very presence of the admiral to share his thoughts and impressions as the strange panorama of his experiences unfolded before him.
The voyage was not imperilled by storms, yet as the waves rolled by day after day, as the little vessels followed the setting sun, the strain proved too great for the common minds of the crew. First there was secret grumbling, then plotting to put the admiral out of the way or to throw him overboard.8 At last, on the tenth day of October, they could stand it no longer; but the admiral soothed them and reminded them of the advantages which would come from success; "and he added that it was useless to complain, as he had come to go to the Indies p23 and he would keep on till he found them with the aid of our Lord."
Fortunately, the strain was soon relaxed. The next evening a flickering light was observed, and on Friday they found themselves near a small coral island in the Bahamas, called by the natives Guanahani, which Columbus renamed San Salvador (Holy Saviour), and which is probably Watling Island.9 That he had reached the Indies, Columbus had no doubt, and in his first mention of the natives he calls them "Indians,"10 thus attaching the name forever to the aborigines of the New World.
When on October 21 he heard of Cuba for the first time, he believed it to be Cipango, and planned to go on "to the main-land and to the city of Guisay,º11 and to give the letters of your highness to the Gran Can." This belief soon became a fixed idea, immovable in the face of the most telling evidence. The very qualities that had insured Columbus's success contributed to his failure to realize just what he had achieved. Gazing at the naked Indians paddling their canoes, he could write, "It is certain that this is the main-land, and that I am in front of Zayto and Guinsay, a hundred leagues — a little more or less — distant the one from the other"12 — Guinsay with its Oriental splendor and twelve thousand p24 stone bridges,13 and Zaitun with its hundred pepper ships a year!14
Not less ready was he to read into the vague gestures and signs of the natives more grotesque recollections of his reading of Marco Polo. As the Venetian traveller reported that the island of Lambri was inhabited by men with tails, so Columbus understands the Indians to tell him of the province of Avan, in Cuba, whose "inhabitants are born with tails."15 Again he understands that the island of Matinino is "entirely populated by women, without men,"16 for had he not read in Marco Polo of the two islands of Masculia and Femenina?17 Why, too, does he report that he found no people of "monstrous appearance," but for the reason that he had read in Pierre d'Ailly that in the ends of the earth were "monsters of such a horrid aspect that it were hard to say whether they were men or beasts?"18
From the smaller Bahamas his course was directed to Cuba, the eastern third of whose northern shores he explored. Believing that he was upon main-land not far from the realm of the Great Khan, on November 2 he despatched his Jewish interpreter, Luis de Torres, to that monarch. Instead of the Oriental prince they found a village of naked Indians. p25 It was on this journey, however, that Europeans first saw men drawing the smoke from the leaves of a plant which were rolled in the form of a tube and lighted at one end. These tubes they learned were called tobaccos.19
From Cuba, Columbus went to Hayti, which from the similarity of its first appearance to that of Spain he named La Isla Española,20 "the Spanish Island," whence comes the English Hispaniola. There, on Christmas Day, the Santa Maria ran aground and became a total wreck. All the cargo and provisions were saved through the ready help and kindly honesty of the Indians. In consequence of this disaster, and to prepare a way for Spanish colonization by learning the native language and by acquiring a more complete knowledge of the resources of the island, Columbus decided to leave such as were willing to stay till his return.21
Every provision was made for a safe sojourn and the successful establishment of the first white settlement in the New World. He left bread and wine for a year, seed for sowing, tools, and arms. Among the forty-four who remained were skilled artisans, a good gunner, a physician, and a tailor.22 Las Casas reports for us, presumably from the unabridged journal, the solemn injunctions which Columbus p26 bestowed upon them before he left: that they should obey their captain implicitly, cultivate friendly relations with the natives, and scrupulously avoid injuring man or woman, and that they should keep together.23
The return was far from the peaceful progress of the outward voyage, for two violent storms were encountered, one on February 14, just before reaching the Azores, and the other the night of March 3 as they approached the coast of Portugal. They were both safely weathered, however, and on March 4, 1493, Columbus dropped anchor within the mouth of the river Tagus.
For half a century from time to time little fleets had started southward in the hope of eventually reaching the Indies. Four years before Columbus's voyage Africa had been rounded, and the fruition of so many efforts seemed within reach. Now the news spread that the stranger in the caravel had returned from "the Indies," and soon the "crowd that swarmed to see the Indians and to hear the story of the voyage overran the little vessel; nor could the surrounding water be seen, so full was it of the boats and skiffs of the Portuguese."24
Four days later, on March 8, the admiral received a letter from the king of Portugal, inviting him to visit him at Valparaiso, some thirty miles p27 from Lisbon. About nine years earlier the two had met, when the petition of the visionary sailor was rejected as mere prattle of the island of Cipango, an echo of Marco Polo.25 Now, the admiral of the Ocean Sea proudly announces that he has returned from the discovery of the islands of Cipango and of Antilia, and shows his Indians, gold, and other trophies, and reminds King John of his failure to accept the opportunity offered to him. In the king's opinion, however, the discoveries were embraced in his dominion of Guinea. The contemporary chronicler, Ruy de Pina, who describes the interview, says that the said admiral went beyond the bounds of truth, and made out the affair as regards gold and silver and riches much greater than it was. By‑standing courtiers suggested that the intruder could be provoked into a quarrel and then killed without any suspicion of connivance on the part of the king. But the king, a God-fearing prince, forbade it, and showed honor to the admiral.26
On Friday, in the early afternoon of March 15, 1493, Columbus cast anchor in the harbor of Palos. The joy and pride of the villagers may be imagined. The whole population turned out to receive Columbus with a procession and to give "thanks to our Lord for so great favor and victory."27
p28 The news of Columbus's voyage was disseminated rapidly, first through private correspondence, and later through the publication of his own narrative, addressed in the form of letters to Luis de Santangel and to Gabriel Sanchez. The most important accounts in private correspondence, although not the earliest, are found in the letters of Peter Martyr of Anghiera, an Italian resident at the court of Spain, later the author of the first history of America. On May 14 he wrote to Count Giovanni Borromeo from Barcelona, where Columbus had appeared before the king and queen a month previous: "A few days since, one Christopher Colon, a Genoese, returned from the antipodes in the west. From my kings he had obtained three ships to visit this province, with some difficulty, indeed, for what he said was esteemed fables."28
The knowledge which the world at large obtained of the discovery was derived from the various editions of Columbus's own letter inscribed to Gabriel Sanchez, which is merely a duplicate of the letter to Luis de Santangel. The Sanchez letter was translated into Latin in April, 1493, and in that form was reprinted in different countries and passed through nine editions within a year. There were, besides, two Spanish editions of the Santangel letter and three editions of the Sanchez letter in Italian.29 Two of these were a quaint poetical rendering by p29 the Florentine poet Giuliano Dati.30 The earliest titles of the Latin letter read: "Letter of Christopher Colom; to whom our age owes much; on the islands of India lately found beyond the Ganges."31
The earliest European potentate to be informed of the discoveries was naturally the head of the church. Ferdinand and Isabella seem to have lost no time in announcing to Pope Alexander VI, himself a Spaniard, that some time since they had purposed to explore and discover islands and remote main-lands, but had been detained by the war in Granada; that having successfully completed that conquest, they had despatched Christopher Colon, at much labor and expense, to make search for such lands; and that with God's help, by sailing in the west towards the Indians,32 he had discovered some very remote islands not hitherto found; that gold, silver, and spices were produced in these islands, and that their inhabitants seemed fitted for Christianity.33
Two things in this announcement attract our attention: the assertion that the monarchs had planned such an exploration before 1492; and that the royal purposes of Columbus's voyage were as stated in their patent, discovery, and the extension of the p30 Christian religion, and not a new route to the Indies. Apparently Ferdinand and Isabella were not altogether convinced that Columbus had reached the Indies of Marco Polo, and make no point of that in their communication. If this be true, they were not alone in such scepticism, for Peter Martyr entertained strong doubts whether Columbus had reached the Orient; for on October 1, 1493, after having had abundant opportunity to talk with Columbus, he wrote the archbishop of Braga that Columbus believed that he had reached the Indies; for himself he would not absolutely deny this, but he believed that the size of the globe seemed to suggest otherwise.34 Similarly, John II of Portugal believed that Columbus's voyage had been really in western waters, in the region covered by his dominion of Guinea.
Since the Portuguese lordship of Guinea rested upon a long series of discoveries, reinforced by papal bulls granting to the king of Portugal all that had been or should be discovered south of Cape Bojador towards Guinea and the southern shores; and since Spain had by the treaty of 1480 conceded to Portugal all the islands discovered or to be discovered from the Canaries southward in the region off Guinea, it was evident that, unless a compromise could be effected, some clash must arise between the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal over these new lands. It was for this reason that the matter was brought so promptly to the attention p31 of the pope, and that he was requested to issue a bull declaring the rights of Spain.35
For such a function of umpire the pope from his international position was well fitted. Alexander responded with equal promptness, and in his famous bulls of May 3 and 4 he recognized the existing rights of Portugal and established those of Spain, by drawing an imaginary line from north to south, one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verdº Islands. East of this line Portugal was to retain the rights already assigned to her; and south and west of it the Spanish monarchs were to have the same exclusive rights of exploration, trade, and colonization over all the lands that should be discovered that were not occupied by any Christian prince. This award delimited, in modern phrase, two spheres of influence. It did not divide the world between Spain and Portugal, but rather marked out the regions in which the right of discovery would give unquestioned and final title.
Still the phrasing was not altogether satisfactory to Ferdinand and Isabella, apparently for the reason, possibly urged by Columbus, that nothing was said of the Indies. Hence, in September, 1493, Alexander issued another bull granting the Spanish monarchs full rights to hold such lands as they could discover to the south and west "and eastern regions and to India." Thus if the Spaniards by going west should eventually reach the East Indies, their right, p32 by prior discovery and occupation, would hold against the Portuguese, who might feel that India was preempted to them by the earlier bulls. King John was not satisfied with the location of the demarcation line,36 and he was still less satisfied with this amplification of the Spanish rights.
In consequence it was agreed by the treaty of Tordesillas, between Spain and Portugal, June 7, 1494, that the line of demarcation should be drawn three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verd Islands, or at a distance about half-way between the Cape Verd Islands and the new discoveries.37 This shifting of the line to the west later secured Portugal's title to Brazil, and, after the immense distance of the Spice Islands beyond India was discovered, encouraged Spain to believe that these islands really fell within her demarcation.
1 Navarrete, Viages, II, 12.
2 Ibid., II, 15; III, 578.
3 Ibid., III, 578; Las Casas, Historia, I, 260.
4 Las Casas, Historia, I, 260; Oviedo, Historia General, I, 22.
5 Markham, Life of Columbus, 69.
6 Ibid., 66.
7 Ruge, Columbus, 102.
8 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis (ed. 1574), 3; in English in Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 168.
9 On the landfall, see Markham, Life of Columbus, 89‑107.
Thayer's Note: Trust in the identification of the island led to its being renamed San Salvador Island in 1925.
10 Markham, Journal of Columbus, October 12.
11 Kinsai or Quinsai in Marco Polo.
12 Markham, Journal of Columbus, 65 (November 1).
13 Noted by Columbus on the margin of his copy of Marco Polo. Raccolta Colombiana, pt. I, vol. II, 462.
14 Cf. Toscanelli's letter to Fernam Martins.
15 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, 10.
16 Markham, Journal of Columbus, January 15.
17 Raccolta Colombiana, pt. I, vol. II, 468.
18 Ibid., 380.
19 Markham, Journal of Columbus, October 15; Las Casas, Historia, I, 322, translated in Thacher, Columbus, I, 561.
20 Markham, Journal of Columbus, December 9; cf. Thacher, Columbus, I, 586.
21 Las Casas, Historia, I, 406.
22 Markham, Journal of Columbus, January 2.
23 Las Casas, Historia, I, 415, translated in Thacher, I, 632.
24 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 122 (ed. 1867), in English in Pinkerton's Voyages, XII, 52.
26 Ruy de Pina, Chronica del Rey D. João II; Collecção de Livros Ined., II, 178; translated in Prescott's Ferdinand and Isabella, II, 161, n.
27 Ferdinand Columbus, Historie, 124.
28 Letter no. 131, in Thacher, Columbus, I, 54.
29 Thacher, Columbus, II, 72.
30 Major, Select Letters of Columbus, pp. xc‑cviii.
31 Fac-simile in Thacher, Columbus, II, 48.
32 "Versus Indos," in bull of May 3, omitted in bull of May 4.
33 Text of bull of May 4 and Eden's translation in Fiske, Discovery of America, II, 580 ff.; modern translation of both bulls in Blair and Robertson, The Philippine Islands, I.
34 Thacher, Columbus, I, 59.
35 Navarrete, Viages, II, 60, 77, 90.
36 Navarrete, Viages, II, 96.
37 Translations of the bull of September 25 and of the treaty of Tordesillas are given in Blair and Robertson, The Philippine Islands, I. Thacher gives fac-similes and translations of the bulls, Columbus, II, 124 ff., and a translation of the treaty, 175 ff.
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