Columbus' Negotiations in Spain

Spain was the country to which Columbus looked with the greatest hope after the rejection of his scheme by Portugal. No country at that time occupied the attention of Europe so much as Spain. By the marriage of Ferdinand II of Arragon, with Isabella of Castile, the whole of the peninsula, except Portugal, had been consolidated into one powerful kingdom. Ruling separately over their distinct territories - the wise, cold, and wary Ferdinand over his subjects of Arragon, and the generous and high-souled Isabella over hers of Castile - the two made it their common endeavor to promote the glory of Spain, and raise its reputation as one of the first powers of Christendom. They were at this time engaged in a war with Granada, the last of the Moorish kingdoms in Spain; and all their energies were occupied in the accomplishment of what was then regarded a noble and chivalrous enterprise - the entire expulsion of the Moors from the peninsula. Spain, accordingly, was then the land of daring deeds, and hither our poor Italian resolved to bend his steps, with the scheme of a new world.

In Andalusia, one of the most southern of the Spanish provinces, and next to Granada, is an insignificant little seaport, of the name of Palos de Moguer. At a little distance from this village stood, and we believe still stands, a Franciscan convent, dedicated to Santa Marie de Rabido. One clay, late in the year of 1485, a stranger on foot, accompanied by a little boy, stopped at the convent gate, and begged a little bread and water for his child. The stranger was of a noble aspect, venerable from his white hairs, and interesting from his foreign accent. While the porter of the convent was supplying him with what he had asked, the prior, Juan Perez de Marchena, chanced to pass, and, struck with the stranger's appearance, he entered into conversation with him. The stranger informed him that his name was Columbus, and that, with his son, he was on his way to the neighboring town of Huelua, where his brother-in-law resided. Inviting him into the convent, the prior soon learned the rest of his story; and instantly conceiving a wonderful affection for the extraordinary man whom Providence had thus cast in his way, he insisted on his taking up his residence with him until a fit time should arrive for proceeding to the court of the Spanish sovereigns. Himself a man of information and ability, Juan Perez entered heartily into Columbus' views, and sent for such scientific persons in the neighborhood as he thought would be able to form a judgment on the matter. Here, in the midst of a little club of listeners, gathered in the evenings in the comfortable apartment of the prior, did Columbus produce his charts and expound his project in the winter of 1485-6; and long afterwards, in the height of his fame, did the great navigator remember Juan Perez, his first kind friend in Spain.

Early in the year 1486 Columbus set out for Cordova, where the Spanish court then resided, making preparations for a spring campaign against the Moors of Granada. He left his son Diego under the charge of the worthy prior, who, to add to his other kindnesses, furnished him with a letter of introduction to Fernando de Talavera, prior of Prado, and confessor of Queen Isabella - a man, therefore, of some importance, and likely to be of use to him. The letter proved of small avail; either Juan Perez had overrated his influence with so great a personage as Talavera, or Talavera was too busy to pay any attention to the poor Italian enthusiast who was introduced to him. Neither Columbus nor his project appears to have been mentioned to the Spanish sovereigns; and the campaign against the Moors having commenced, there was no hope of his obtaining an interview with them for some time. While the court was thus , shifting about, Columbus remained in Cordova, supporting himself, as before, by his skill in designing maps. Here also his worth, his noble appearance, and the modest enthusiasm of his manners, gained him many kind friends, through whom he made the acquaintance of Mendoza, archbishop of Toledo, and grand cardinal of Spain. Mendoza, after being satisfied that there was something more in Columbus' project than a mere vague fancy, procured him an audience with Ferdinand and Isabella. The able Ferdinand instantly perceived the propriety of at least inquiring into the scheme which was proposed to him; he therefore referred the matter to Fernando de Talavera, the above-mentioned prior, to whom Columbus had already been introduced: instructing him to hold a council of the most learned geographers and scientific men to examine and report on the plan submitted by Columbus.

Few meetings ever held are more interesting to us now than the great meeting of scientific men held in the convent of St. Stephen, at Salamanca to investigate into the feasibility of Columbus' project of reaching the East Indias by sailing due west. There were assembled all the sages of Spain, professors of astronomy, geography, and mathematics, most of them churchmen, together with a number of learned friars and ecclesiastical dignitaries in their robes; and in the midst of them all stood a simple mariner of Genoa, ready to explain his scheme and answer questions. A great majority seem to have been prepossessed against Columbus from the beginning, arguing that of necessity he must be wrong, seeing that it was not in the nature of things that one man could know better about such matters than all the rest of the world. Others, however, favored him so far as to be ready at least to enter into argument with him. The arguments produced against him were of the strangest kind - a mixture of crude science with religious dogmas quotations from Scripture interpreted in the oddest manner together with extracts from the Greek and Latin fathers. To all the objections urged Columbus answered with firmness and modesty, failing, however, as may be supposed, to convince men against long-cherished prejudice, backed by an erroneous interpretation of Scripture.

The deliberations of the assembly were interrupted by the departure of the court from Cordova in the spring of 1487. No answer had as yet been given to Columbus with respect to his project; on the whole, how ever, there seemed little hope of a favorable one. The next five years were occupied by the Spanish sovereigns in the war against Granada, so that they had no leisure to enter personally into a consideration of the merits of the proposal made to them by the Genoese navigator. During all that time Columbus waited patiently, generally residing at Cordova, where, it is said, the children in the streets used to point to their foreheads as he passed, bidding each other look at the mad Italian; sometimes, however, following the court in its journeys from place to place, and even taking part in the sieges and battles in which the Spanish troops were engaged. His hopes seem to have alternately risen and sunk during these five years. In the year 1488 he appears to have despaired of a favorable issue to his application; for in that year lie despatched his brother Bartholomew Columbus to England to make an offer of his project to Henry VII. Unfortunately, Bartholomew was captured by pirates on the voyage, and was not able to reach England for some years, otherwise Spain might have been for ever deprived of the advantages offered her; for when the scheme was ultimately proposed to Henry VII, he embraced it more warmly than any monarch to whom it had been broached before. In the same year, 1488, Columbus received a letter from the king of Portugal, inviting him to return to that country, but he refused the invitation.

In the winter of 1491, when the Spanish monarchs were about to commence their last Moorish campaign, Columbus received an answer to his frequent applications. He was informed that the expenses of the war prevented the sovereigns from engaging at present in any new enterprise, but that, when the war was over, his scheme would be again considered. This was most disheartening to one who had waited so long. Already advanced in years, he began to fear that death would overtake him before he had obtained the means of accomplishing his design. He resolved to quit Spain. Before doing so, however, he offered his scheme to two of the Spanish nobles, whose wealth and importance made them almost independent princes - the Duke of Medina Sidonia and the Duke of Medina Celi. Both, after some delay, refused to engage in the project, as too ambitious for any but a great sovereign. Columbus, therefore, hesitated no longer, but prepared to go to France, where he anticipated a more favorable reception. Before setting out, he proceeded to the convent at Palos, to visit his friend Juan Perez, and to bring away his son Diego, whom with his other son, Fernando, he intended to leave at Cordova. When his old friend the prior saw Columbus once more at the gate of his monastery, after several years of vain solicitation at court, he was deeply affected. He entreated him by all means to remain in the country. He had been father confessor to the queen, and thought he might still exercise an influence over her mind. He accordingly proceeded to Santa Fe, where the sovereigns were in person superintending the siege of the capital of Grenada. Perez obtained a ready access to the queen. He laid before her the propositions of Columbus with freedom and eloquence. Isabella was moved with the grandeur of the project. The principles on which it was founded, the advantages that would result from its success, and the glory it would shed on Spain, were for the first time represented to her in their true colors. She promised her patronage to the undertaking. Columbus was summoned to court, and 20,000 maravedies, equivalent to upwards of $200 of our money, were sent to him to pay his traveling expenses; and he arrived in time to witness the memorable surrender of' Granada to the Spanish arms. It was now only necessary to agree upon the terms of the proposed enterprise. A meaner spirit, after years of unsuccessful toil, poverty, and disappointment, would have been glad to secure the assistance of the sovereigns on such arrangements as their own liberality might dictate. But Columbus stipulated his own rewards and honors, and would consent to no other. He demanded them as if he were already successful, and aware of the extent and importance of his discoveries. In consequence of his resoluteness in adhering to these demands, the negotiation was once more broken off; and Columbus, mounting his mule, left Santa Fe, resoled never to return. He was within two leagues of Grenada, when a courier overtook him and brought him back. The court now agreed that he should be admiral on the ocean, and enjoy all the privileges and honors allowed to the high admiral of Castile; that he should be governor over all the countries he might discover; and that he should reserve to himself one-tenth of all pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, and articles of merchandise, in whatever manner obtained, within his admirality. They also allowed that he should appoint judges in all parts of Spain trading to those countries; and that on this voyage, and at all other times, he should contribute an eighth part of the expense, and receive an eighth part of the profits. These articles of agreement were signed by Ferdinand and Isabella at the city of Santa Fe on the 17th of April 1492.

Preparations for the voyage were now commenced in good earnest. The port of Palos de Moguer, already mentioned, was fixed as the place where the armament should be fitted out. Royal orders were issued to the magistrates of Palos to have three caravels in readiness, and somewhat arbitrary measures were had recourse to for the purpose of obtaining crews. As soon as the nature of the enterprise became known, the little town of Palos was in an uproar; the owners of vessels refused to lend them; and the boldest seamen absconded, lest they should be pressed into such service. Columbus had repaired to the spot; but all his exertions were unavailing; neither vessels nor crew could be got. At length a rich and adventurous navigator, named Alonzo Pinzon, came forward, and interested himself strenuously in the expedition. His assistance was effectual. He owned vessels, and had many seamen in his employ, and consequently possessed great influence. He and his brother Vicente Pinson determined to take commands, and sail with Columbus. Their example had a great effect; they persuaded their relations and friends to embark with them; and the vessels were ready for sea within a month after they had thus engaged in their equipment.

After all, the armament was miserably ill-proportioned to the grandeur of the enterprise. Only one of the three small vessels was full-decked. The other two, says Washington Irving, were light barques, called caravels, not superior to river and coasting craft of more modern days. They are delineated as open, and without deck in the center; but built up high at the prow and stern, with forecastles and cabins for the accommodation of the crew. The largest vessel was called the Santa Maria: on board of this Columbus hoisted his flag. The second, called the Pinta, was commanded by Martin Alonzo Pinson, accompanied by his brother Francisco Martin, as pilot. The third, called the Nina, had latine sails, and was commanded by the third of the brothers, Vicenta Yanez Pinzon. The crews, including Columbus, the three Pinzons, three other pilots, several royal officials, a physician and a surgeon, some private adventurers with their servants, and ninety sailors, amounted in all to one hundred and twenty persons.

Thus, in the fifty-sixth year of his age, after innumerable efforts and disappointments, and at least eighteen years after he had matured his project in his own mind, did Columbus find his wishes gratified, by being placed at the head of an armament bound on a voyage through the hitherto unexplored Atlantic. He still labored under the delusion that the lands he would reach by sailing in that direction would be the East Indies - the golden regions lying in the eastern extremity of Asia, and described in such glowing colors by Marco Polo. So firm was he in this belief, that he was furnished by Ferdinand and Isabella with letters to be delivered to the great khan of Tartary. It ought to be mentioned also, as characteristic of the times, and of the almost wildly-enthusiastic genius of Columbus, that he had all along cherished the design of devoting the wealth which should be acquired from his discoveries to the object of rescuing the holy sepulchre of Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels.