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Bill Thayer

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On this webpage you can read a chapter of
Stories of Heroism

William Mace

published by
Rand McNally & Company
New York, 1909.

It's all right to copy it or use it any way you want.

I checked this page carefully for mistakes,
and didn't find any:
but if you find one, please let me know!


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 p8  Christopher Columbus, the First Great Man in American History

He Sought India and Found America

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The Boy Columbus

After the statue by GIulio Montverde in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

3. Old Trade Routes to Asia. More than 450 years ago, Christopher Columbus spent his boyhood in the queer old Italian town of Genoa on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Even in that far-away time, the Mediterranean was dotted with the white sails of ships busy in carrying the richest trade in the world. But no merchants were richer or had bolder sailors than those of Columbus's own town.

Genoa had her own trading routes to India, China, and Japan. Her vessels sailed eastward and crossed the Black Sea to the very shores of Asia. There they found stores of rich shawls and silks and of costly spices and jewels, which had already come on the backs of horses and camels from the Far East. As fast as winds and oars could carry them, these merchant ships hastened back to Genoa where other ships and sailors were waiting to carry their goods to all parts of Europe.

Every day the boys of Genoa, as they played along the wharves, could see the ships from different countries and could hear the stories of adventure told by the sailors. No wonder Christopher found it hard to work at his father's trade of combing wool; he liked to hear stories of the sea and to make maps and to study  p9 geography far better than he liked to comb wool or study arithmetic or grammar. He was eager to go to sea and while but a boy he made his first voyage. He often sailed with a kinsman, who was an old sea captain. These trips were full of danger, not only from storms, but from sea robbers with whom the sailors often had hard fights.

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A Sea Fight between Genoese and Turks

The Genoese were great seamen and traders. When the Turks tried to ruin their trade with the Far East by destroying their routes many fierce sea fights took place

While Columbus was growing to be a man, the wise and noble Prince Henry of Portugal was sending his sailors down the unknown west coast of Africa to find a new way to India. The Turks, by capturing Constantinople, had destroyed Genoa's overland trade routes.

The bold deeds of Henry's sailors drew many seamen to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Columbus went, too, where, he was made welcome by his brother and other friends. Here he soon earned enough by making maps to send money home to aid his parents, who were very poor.

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The Home of Columbus, Genoa

Columbus was now a large, fine-looking young man with ruddy face and bright eyes, so that he soon won the heart and the hand of a beautiful lady, the daughter of one of Prince Henry's old seamen. Columbus was in the midst of exciting scenes. Lisbon was full of learned men, and of sailors longing to go on voyages.  p10 Year after year new voyages were made in the hope of reaching India, but after many trials, the sailors of Portugal had explored only halfway down the African coast.

It is said that one day while looking over his father-in‑law's maps, Columbus was startled by the idea of reaching India by sailing directly west. He thought that this could be done, because he believed the world to be round, although all people, except the most educated, then thought the world flat. Columbus also believed that world was much smaller than it really is.

The best map of that time located India, China, and Japan about where America is. For once, a mistake in geography turned out well. Columbus, believing his route to be the shortest, spent several years in gathering proof that India was directly west. He went on long voyages and talked with many old sailors about the signs of land to the westward.

Finally Columbus laid his plans before the new King of Portugal, John II. The king secretly sent out a ship to test the plan. His sailors,  p11 however, became frightened and returned before going very far. Columbus was indignant at this mean trick and immediately started for Spain (1484), taking with him his little son, Diego.

4. Columbus at the Court of Spain. The King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, received him kindly; but some of their wise men did not believe that the world is round, and declared Columbus foolish for thinking that countries to the eastward could be reached by sailing to the westward. He was not discouraged at first, because other wise men spoke in his favor to the king and queen.

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Columbus soliciting aid from Isabella

From the painting by the Bohemian artist, Vaczlav Brozík,
now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York

It was hard for these rulers to aid him now because a long and costly war had used up all of Spain's money. Columbus was very  p12 poor and his clothes became threadbare. Some good people took pity on him and gave him money but others made sport of the homeless stranger and insulted him. The very boys in the street, it is said, knowingly tapped their heads when he went by to show that they thought him a bit crazy.

5. New Friends of America. Disappointed and discouraged, after several years of weary waiting, Columbus set out on foot to try his fortunes in France. One day while passing along the road, he came to a convent or monastery. Here he begged a drink of water and some bread for his tired and hungry son, Diego, who was then about twelve years of age. The good prior of the monastery was struck by the fine face and the noble bearing of the stranger, and began to talk with him. When Columbus explained his bold plan of finding a shorter route to India, the prior sent in haste to the little port of Palos, near by, for some old seamen, among them  p13 a great sailor, named Pinzon. These men agreed with Columbus, for they had seen proofs of land to the westward.

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La Rabida Convent near Palos

At this monastery, on his way to France, Columbus met the good prior

The prior himself hastened with all speed to his good friend, Queen Isabella, and begged her not to allow Columbus to go to France, for the honor of such a discovery ought to belong to Isabella and to Spain. How happy was the prior when the queen gave him money to pay for the expenses for Columbus to visit her in proper style! With a heart full of hope, once more Columbus hastened to the Spanish Court, only to find both king and queen busy in getting ready for the last great battle of the long war. Spain won a great victory, and while the people were still rejoicing, the queen's officers met Columbus to make plans for the long-thought‑of voyage. But because the queen refused to make him governor of all the lands he might discover, Columbus mounted his mule and rode away, once more bent on seeking aid from France.

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Columbus at the Convent of La Rabida

Columbus explaining his plan for reaching India to the prior and Pinzon, the great sailor

Some of the queen's men hastened to her and begged her to recall Columbus. Isabella hesitated, for she had but little money in her treasury. Finally, it is said, she declared that she would pledge her jewels, if necessary, to raise the money for a fleet. A swift horseman overtook Columbus, and brought him back. The great man cried with joy when Isabella told him that she would fit out an expedition and make him governor over all the lands he might discover.

 p14  Columbus now took a solemn vow to use the riches obtained by his discovery in fitting out a great army which should drive out of the holy city of Jerusalem those very Turks who had destroyed the greatness of his native city.

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Christopher Columbus

From the portrait by Antonis van Moor, painted in 1542, from two miniatures in the Palace of the Prado.
Reproduced by permission of C. F. Gunther, Chicago

6. The First Voyage. Columbus hastened to Palos. What a sad time in that town when the good queen commanded her ships on a voyage where the bravest seamen had never sailed! When all things were ready for the voyage, Columbus's friend, the good prior, held a solemn religious service, the sailors said good-by to sorrowing friends, and the little fleet of three vessels and ninety stout-hearted men sailed bravely out of the harbor, August 3, 1492.

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Columbus bidding farewell to the Prior

From the painting by Ricardo Balaca

Columbus commanded the Santa Maria, the largest vessel, only about ninety feet long. Pinzon was captain of the Pinta, the fastest vessel, and Pinzon's brother of the Niña, the smallest vessel. The expedition stopped at the Canary Islands to make the last  p15 preparations for the long and dangerous voyage. The sailors were in no hurry to go farther, and many of them broke down and cried as the western shores of the Canaries faded slowly from their sight.

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The Santa Maria, the Flagsip of Columbus

From a recent reconstruction
approved by the Spanish Minister of Marine

After many days, the ships sailed into an ocean filled with seaweed, and so wide that no sailor could see the end. Would the ships stick fast or were they about to run aground on some hidden island and their crews be left to perish? The little fleet was already in the region of the trade winds whose gentle but steady breezes were carrying them farther and farther from home. If these winds never changed, they thought, how could the ships ever make their way back.

The sailors begged Columbus to turn back, but he encouraged them by pointing out signs of land, such as flocks of birds, and green branches floating in the sea. He told them that according to the maps they were near Japan and offered a prize to the one who should first see land. One day, not long after, Pinzon shouted, "Land! Land! I claim my prize." But he had only seen a dark bank of clouds far away on the horizon. The sailors, thinking land near, grew cheerful and climbed into the rigging and kept watch for several days. But no land came into view and they grew more downhearted than ever. Because Columbus would not turn back, they threatened to throw him into the sea and declared that he was a madman leading them on to certain death.

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The Armor of Columbus

Now in the Royal Palace, Madrid

7. Columbus the Real Discoverer. One beautiful evening, after the sailors sang their vesper hymn, Columbus made a speech, pointing out how God had favored them with clear skies and gentle winds for their voyage, and said that since they were so near land the ships must not sail any more after midnight. That very night Columbus saw, far across the dark waters, the glimmering light of a torch. A few hours later the Pinta fired a joyful gun to tell that land had been surely found. All was excitement on board  p16 the ships and not an eye was closed that night. Overcome with joy, some of the sailors threw their arms around Columbus's neck, others kissed his hands, and those who had opposed him most, fell upon their knees, begged his pardon, and promised faithful obedience in the future.

On Friday morning, October 12, 1492, Columbus, dressed in a robe of bright red and carrying the royal flag of Spain, stepped upon the shores of the New World. Around him were gathered his officers and sailors, dressed in their best clothes and carrying flags, banners, and crosses. They fell upon their knees, kissed the earth, and with tears of joy, gave thanks. Columbus then drew his sword and declared that the land belonged to the King and Queen of Spain.

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The Landing of Columbus

From the painting by Dioscoro Puebla, now in the National Museum, Madrid

8. How the People Came to be Called "Indians." When the people of this land first saw the ships of Columbus, they imagined that the Spaniards had come up from the sea or down from the sky and that they were beings from Heaven. They, therefore, at first ran frightened into the woods. Afterwards, as they came back, they fell upon their knees as if to worship the white men.

 p17  Columbus called the island on which he landed San Salvador and named the people Indians because he believed he had discovered an island of East India, although he had really discovered one of the Bahama Islands, and, as we suppose, the one known to‑day as San Salvador. He and his men were greatly disappointed at the appearance of these new people, for instead of seeing them dressed in rich clothes, wearing ornaments of gold and silver, and living in great cities, as they had expected, they saw only half-naked, painted savages living in rude huts.

9. Discovery of Cuba. After a few days Columbus sailed farther on and found the land now called Cuba, which he believed was Japan. Here his own ship was wrecked, leaving him only the Niña, for the Pinta had gone, he knew not where. He was now greatly alarmed, for if the Niña should be wrecked he and his men would be lost and no one would ever hear of his great discovery. He decided to return to Spain at once, but some of the sailors were so in love with the beautiful islands and the kindly people that they resolved to stay and plant the first Spanish colony in the New World. After collecting some gold and silver articles, plants, animals, birds, Indians, and other proofs of his discovery, Columbus spread the sails of the little Niña for the homeward voyage, January 4, 1493.

10. Columbus Returns to Spain. On the way home a great storm knocked the little vessel about for four days. All gave up hope, and Columbus wrote two accounts of his discovery, sealed them in barrels, and set them adrift. A second storm drove the Niña to Lisbon, in Portugal, where Columbus told the story of his great voyage. Some of the Portuguese wished to imprison Columbus, but the king would not, and in the midst of March, the Niña sailed into the harbor of Palos.

 p18  What joy in that little town! The bells were set ringing and the people ran shouting through the streets to the wharf, for they had long given up Columbus and his crew as lost. To add to their joy, that very night when the streets were bright with torches, the Pinta, believed to have been lost, also sailed into the harbor.

Columbus immediately wrote a letter to the king and queen, who bade him hasten to them in Barcelona. All along his way, even the villages and the country roads swarmed with people anxious to see the great discoverer and to look upon the strange people and the queer products which he had brought from India, as they thought.

 p19  As he came near the city, a large company of fine people rode out to give him welcome. He entered the city like a hero. The streets, the balconies, the doors, the windows, the very house tops were crowded with happy people eager to catch sight of him.

In a great room of the palace, Ferdinand and Isabella had placed their throne. Into this room marched Columbus surrounded by the noblest people of Spain, but none more noble looking than the hero. The king and queen arose and Columbus fell upon his knees and kissed their hands. They gave him a seat near them and bade him tell the strange story of his wonderful voyage.

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The Reception of Columbus at Barcelona

From the celebrated painting by the distinguished Spanish artist, Ricardo Balaca

When he finished, the king and queen fell upon their knees and raised their hands in thanksgiving. All the people did the same, and a great choir filled the room with a song of praise. The reception was now over and the people, shouting and cheering, followed Columbus to his home. How like a dream it must have seemed to Columbus, who only a year or so before, in threadbare clothes, was begging bread at the monastery near Palos!

11. The Second Voyage. But all Spain was on fire for another expedition. Every seaport was now anxious to furnish ships, and every bold sailor was eager to go. In a few months a fleet of seventeen fine ships and fifteen hundred people sailed away under the command of Columbus (1493) to search for the rich cities of their dreams. After four years of exploration and discovery among the islands that soon after began to be called the West Indies, Columbus sailed back to Spain greatly disappointed. He had found no rich cities nor mines of gold and silver.

12. The Third and Fourth Voyages. On his third voyage (1498) Columbus sailed along the northern shores of South America, but when he reached the West Indies, the Spaniards who had settled there refused to obey him, seized him, put him in chains,  p20 and sent him back to Spain.

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Columbus in chains

After the clay model by the Spanish sculptor, Vallmitjiana, at Havana

But the good queen set Columbus free and sent him on his fourth voyage (1502). He explored the coast of what is now Central America, but afterward met shipwreck on the island of Jamaica. He returned to Spain a broken-hearted man because he had failed to find the fabled riches of India. He died soon afterward, not knowing that he had discovered a new world. In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci made a voyage to South America. Without intending to wrong Columbus, the country he saw, and afterward all land to the northward, was called America. Spain was too busy exploring the new lands to give proper heed to the death of the man whose discoveries would, after a few years, make the kingdom richer even than India. But it was left to the greatest nation in all the western world to do full honor to the memory of Columbus in the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago (1892‑1893).

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The house in which Columbus died

This house is in Valladolid, Spain, and stands in a street named after the great discoverer

Suggestions Intended to Help the Pupil

The Leading Facts. 1. Columbus was born near the shores of the Mediterranean and trained for the sea by study and by experience. 2. The people of Europe traded with the Far East, but  p21 the Turks destroyed their trade routes. 3. Columbus was drawn to Portugal because of Prince Henry's great work. 4. Columbus thought he could sail west and reach the rich cities of the East. 5. After many discouragements he won aid from Isabella and discovered the Bahama Islands, Cuba, and Haiti. 6. The king and queen of Spain received Columbus with great ceremony. 7. Columbus made three more voyages, but was disappointed in not finding the rich cities of India.

Study Questions. 1. Make a list of articles which the caravans (camels and horses) of the East brought to the Black Sea. 2. What studies fitted Columbus for the sea? 3. Why were there so many sailors in Lisbon? 4. How did Columbus get his idea of the earth's shape? 5. What did men in Portugal and Spain think of this idea? 6. Tell the story of Columbus in Spain. 7. What is the meaning of the vow taken by him? 8. Make a picture in your mind of the first voyage of Columbus. Read the poem "Columbus," by Joaquin Miller. 9. Shut your eyes and imagine you see Columbus land and take possession of the country. 10. Why was Columbus so disappointed? 11. How did the people of Palos act when Columbus returned? 12. Picture the reception of Columbus by the people, and by the king and queen. 13. Why was Columbus disappointed in the second expedition? 14. What did Columbus believe he had accomplished? 15. What had he failed to do that he hoped to do?

Suggested Readings. Columbus: Hart, Colonial Children, 4‑6; Pratt, Exploration and Discovery, 17‑32; Wright, Children's Stories in American History, 38‑60; Higginson, American Explorers, 19‑52; Glascock, Stories of Columbia, 10‑35; McMurry, Pioneers on Land and Sea, 122‑160; Brooks, The True Story of Christopher Columbus, 1‑103, 112‑172.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 06