South America: Chapter II

(by William Henry Koebel)


Cristopher Columbus

Columbus was admittedly a visionary.

It was to the benefit of his fellow Europeans and to the detriment of the South American tribes that to his dreams he joined the practical side of his nature.

Certainly the value of imagination in a human being has never been more strikingly proved than by the triumph of Columbus.

The enthusiasm of the great Genoese was of the kind which has tided men over obstacles and difficulties and troubles throughout the ages.
He was undoubtedly of the nervous and highly-wrought temperament common to one of his genius. He loved the dramatic.

There are few who have not heard the story of the egg with the crushed end which stood upright.
But there are innumerable other instances of the demonstrative powers of Columbus.

For instance, when asked to describe the Island of Madeira, he troubled not to utter a word in reply, but snatched up a piece of writing-paper and, crumpling it by a single motion of his hand, held it aloft as a triumphant exhibition of the island's peaks and valleys.

Fortunately for the adventurers of his period, his belief in his mission was unshakable.
It was, of course, a mere matter of chance that Columbus should have found himself in the service of the Spaniards when he set out upon his voyage which was to culminate in the discovery of the New World.

He himself had been far more concerned with the Portuguese than with their eastern neighbours. Indeed, until the discovery of America, the Spaniards, fully occupied with the expulsion of the Moors from within their frontiers in Europe, could give but little attention to the science of navigation.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, had for a considerable period been specializing in seamanship.

From his castle at Faro, on the southernmost shores of Portugal, where Prince Henry the Navigator had founded his maritime school, that royal scientist had watched with pride the captains whom he had trained as they sailed their vessels over the gold and blue horizon of the Far South, and had exultantly drunk in on their return the tales of new shores and of oceans ploughed for the first time; of spices, riches men, and beasts, all new and strange, and, all appealing strongly to the imagination of the learned Prince, who only restrained himself with difficulty from plunging into the unknown.

It was with men such as these of Prince Henry's with whom the Genoese had been brought into contact on his first visit to Portugal.
That he had been received by this set as one of themselves is sufficiently evidenced by the fact of his marriage with a daughter of Bartholomew Perestrello.

It was naturally, therefore, to the Portuguese Government that Columbus first applied for the assistance in men and ships which were to bear him to the land which he so fiercely promised.

As has been said, there is no doubt that Columbus was a visionary who possessed a large amount of practical knowledge and experience, from which the indulgence in these visions sprang.
That his theories were the result of something more than the merest speculation is certain.

Maritime legend and lore were rife in Genoa and the Mediterranean, and certainly abounded in Portugal under the benevolent and strenuous encouragement of Prince Henry the Navigator.
That some vague echoes of the feats performed by the Norsemen and others who had long before won their way to the Western Continent had penetrated to these parts of Europe there is no doubt.

Columbus, moreover, had stayed for many months at one of those half-way houses between Europe and the western mainland, Porto Santo, and the neighbouring Island of Madeira.

His father-in-law was at the time Governor of the lesser island, that of Porto Santo.
In such a spot as this the requirements of Columbus were naturally few, and he had gained a livelihood with ease by the making of maps.
His father was a carder of wool at Genoa, and young Christopher, rebelling at the monotony of this trade, commenced his maritime life before he was fifteen years old.

It was doubtless while at Porto Santo that Columbus had thought out his theories, aided by not a little evidence of the material order, such as floating logs and other objects, which had sailed, wind and current borne, from the unknown lands across the Atlantic.

Columbus, of course, was not actually the first to feel convinced of the possibility of gaining India by sailing to the West; the theory had been held by Aristotle, Seneca, Strabo, and others.

The sole mistake Columbus made in his calculations was concerning the size of the world.
He had overestimated the extent of the Continent of Asia, and underestimated the extent of the Atlantic Ocean; he seems to have been convinced that a very few days' sailing to the west of Madeira would bring him to the shores of India.

It was this error in calculation that undoubtedly was responsible for many long and agonizing hours spent on the actual voyage.

Jorge Cabral
Jorge Cabral

Columbus's proposals, it is true, were received with a certain interest by the Portuguese; but for the jealousy of some officials it is very probable that he would, in the first instance, have seen his cherished plans carried into effect.
As it was, a vessel was secretly fitted out, and was sent in command of a rival navigator to test the theories of Columbus.

After a while the ship returned, battered and worn, having discovered nothing beyond a series of exceptionally violent tempests.

This attempt was in any case destined to prove equally adverse to the fortunes of Columbus.
Had it succeeded, he would have undoubtedly been deprived of the credit which should have been his by right; since it failed, the venture was considered to have proved the fallacy of Columbus's theories.

When, disgusted with experiences such as these, Columbus left Portugal and took up his residence near the Court of Spain in company with this great idea of his, which followed him everywhere, and was in a sense bigger than himself, he met with an equal lack of success in the first instance.

Queen Isabella was sympathetic, but her cautious husband Ferdinand showed himself cold.
Dreading the utter destruction of his plans, Columbus determined to wash his hands of the Iberian Peninsula and its over-cautious rulers and statesmen.

He was actually on his way to England, whither one of his brothers had already preceded him, when a message from the Court of Spain caused him to hasten back.
It is possible that the Court had been in a haggling mood, and had given the discoverer credit for a similar phase; at all events, it was not until his person was almost out of reach that the now complaisant authorities called him back.

Ferdinand himself had given his consent, although in a grudging fashion. Isabella, however, proved herself enthusiastic, and it was she who signed the bargain with the famous Genoese, which gave a continent to the Royal Family of Spain.

The signing of the bargain, however, did not necessarily end the friction.
The authorities were now fully prepared to recognize Columbus as their messenger to the unknown world; but they were reluctant in the extreme that the intrepid navigator should be carried in too comfortable or costly a fashion.

In the end Columbus, conceding that half a fleet was better than no ships, gave way and took what was offered him.
He himself as Admiral was given charge of the Santa Maria, the largest vessel, while two diminutive craft, the Pinta and the Niña, made up this very humble fleet. Nevertheless, Columbus now had his desire; he had obtained in the main all that he had asked, although some of it in a lesser degree.

The concessions granted to Columbus for his first voyage were that he was to be made Admiral of the seas and countries to be discovered, a dignity which was to descend to his heirs; that he was to become Viceroy of all those islands and continents; to have the tenth part of the profits of the total undertaking; to be made sole mercantile judge; to have the right to contribute one-eighth part of the expenses of all the maritime ventures, and in return to be given an eighth part of the profits.

He carried with him a letter from Ferdinand and Isabella to any chance sovereign whom he might meet, which ran to this effect:

"Ferdinand and Isabella to King ... The Sovereigns having heard that he and his subjects entertain great love for them and for Spain.
They are, moreover, informed that he and his subjects very much wish to hear news from Spain, and send therefore their Admiral, Christopher Columbus, who will tell them that they are in good health and perfect prosperity.

Prester John, who was still considered to be ruling in some mystical fashion over an imaginary country, might have welcomed this species of circular communication.
It was certainly wasted on the inhabitants of Hispaniola, who were considerably more concerned with their own health and prosperity than with that of Ferdinand and Isabella, and who certainly had more reason when the adventurers had once landed.

So to a certain extent armed and prepared against any chance that he might encounter, Columbus set sail from Spain on August 3, 1492.

Much has been said concerning the character of the crews with which he had been provided.
It is true the American natives were destined in the first instance, by some peculiarly hard stroke of fortune, to make their acquaintance with Europeans largely through the intermediary of criminals.

It is often held to have been one of the greatest hardships of Columbus that his ships should have been manned so largely by desperadoes and malefactors pardoned especially in order to take part in the expedition.

In the peculiar circumstances of his first and exceptionally daring adventure the nature of his crew became of great and even of vital importance.

It is certain, however, that Columbus himself obviously suffered no permanent discouragement on account of the men of his first crew, for he subsequently advocated the transportation of criminals to the Indies, and, further, urged that any person having committed a crime (with the exception of those of heresy, lèse majesté, and treason) should have the option of ordinary imprisonment, or of going out at his own expense to Hispaniola to serve under the orders of the Admiral.

These edicts were actually brought into force, and although Columbus some years afterwards bitterly complained of the type of European whom he found at Hispaniola, there is no doubt that he himself was largely responsible for their presence.

Nevertheless, speaking generally, Columbus was not alone in being served by this species of retainer, for the custom, borrowed from the Portuguese, was a general one, and where volunteers failed, their places were supplied by the dregs of the prisons.

One of the principal charges brought against Columbus was that, in addition to his alleged maltreatment of his own men, he had refrained from baptizing Indians, and this because he had desired slaves rather than Christians.

He was accused, moreover, of having made many slaves in order to send them to Castile.
Of course, there is no doubt whatever as to the truth of this latter charge; but Columbus was not alone in this respect - indeed, at that time there was no single adventurer who had penetrated to these new regions without making slaves whenever the opportunity arose.

And it may be said in common fairness to the individual explorers that no other method was understood, and that this procedure was considered entirely legitimate.

It is unnecessary to enter here into the troubles and tribulations of Columbus's first voyage.

The details of the men's discontent and of the leader's courage, persistence, and strategy have been the subject of thousands of works.
The great contrition, moreover, of his mutinous crew, when after five weeks' sailing they sighted land, and their sudden admiration and almost worship of the great navigator, afford too familiar a subject to be dealt with here.

Suffice to say that Columbus took possession of this first land - the island which he believed to form part of a continent - in the name of the Crown of Castile and Leon, christening this herald of a new world San Salvador.

For a while the shock of this triumph appears to have deadened all other considerations, but only for a while. Columbus, like every other navigator of the period, had gone out in search of glory, and of gilded glory for preference.

The very first thought, therefore, which took possession of the minds of both the Admiral and his men, when the first exultation had died away in favour of more practical affairs, was that of gold.
To this end they cruised about the new seas, visiting Cuba, Haiti (or Hispaniola), and other islands.

After a while Columbus discovered some traces of the coveted metal, but these to his heated imagination were mere chance fragments of the golden mountains and valleys which lay somewhere beyond.

It was time, he determined, to seek for further assistance.

Leaving a small company of the Spaniards in the Island of Haiti, the inhabitants of which had proved themselves friendlily disposed, he sailed for Europe, taking with him such specimens of the New World as he thought would chiefly appeal to the Spanish Court. Among this merchandise were samples of the products of the Western Islands, small nuggets of gold, and human merchandise in the way of captive Indians.

When his heavily-laden ships arrived in Spain the entire nation broke out into thunders of acclamation.
Queen Isabella received him with even more than her accustomed amount of graciousness, while the coldness which had characterized Ferdinand's attitude towards him had now become altered to fervent enthusiasm.

The Court of Spain, convinced of the value of these new possessions, lost no time in applying to Pope Alexander VI. for his sanction of their dominion over the New World.

This the Pope granted, drawing the famous line from Pole to Pole, which was to serve as a dividing line between the colonies of Spain and Portugal.

Columbus, in the meanwhile, was preparing for his second voyage.
Naturally enough, this was conducted under very different auspices from the first.
It was now a proud fleet which, favoured by the trade winds, ploughed its way to the south-west, manned by a numerous, influential, and in many cases aristocratic, company.

The advent of this second fleet to Haiti brought about the first of the innumerable collisions between the Europeans and the natives of America.
Of the garrison which Columbus had left in the island none remained.
There was scarcely a trace, moreover, of the existence of the rough fort which had been constructed. The manner of the natives had altered; they received the new-comers with marked evidences of fear and distrust.

After a while the truth came out.
Some members of the European garrison had taken upon themselves to maltreat the natives, and these, resenting this, had turned upon their aggressors and slaughtered them to a man, after which they had burned the fort to the ground.

In order to inculcate the necessary terror into the unfortunate inhabitants a fearful revenge was wreaked on them by Columbus's men, and the unhappy people of Haiti paid for their act in floods of blood and tears.

This continued until the Indians became for the time being thoroughly cowed. Subsequently they were set to work to dig for gold and other metals in order to enrich the pioneers.

As time went on the natives were ground down more and more, and set to tasks for which they were temperamentally quite unsuited.
Death became rife among their ranks, and the hardships endured drove them to open rebellion.
The armour and weapons of the Spaniards rendered any attempts of the kind abortive, and massacres and torturing completed the enslaving process of the wretched race.

Communication between the New and Old World was at that time, of course, slow and precarious in the extreme.
Nevertheless, tidings of what was going on in the island of Hispaniola at length found their way to the ears of Ferdinand and Isabella. To these were added a number of reports, for the most part fabricated by Columbus's enemies, of the tyranny of the Admiral and of his ill-treatment of Spaniards of good birth.
Columbus, leaving his brother Bartholomew in charge of the new dominions, returned to Spain, confronted his enemies, and was able to refute the accusations brought against him. As regards the allegations of ill-treatment of the Spaniards this was easily enough disproved; as regards the Indians the matter was not so simple, for, to do them justice, Ferdinand and Isabella were keenly anxious to prevent any tyranny or ill-treatment of their new and remote subjects.

Columbus, having regained the confidence of his Sovereigns, started on his third voyage in the beginning of 1496.
On this occasion he discovered Trinidad, coasted along the borders of Guiana, and saw for the first time the Islands of Cubagua and Margarita.

In Haiti the Admiral found a discontented community.
His two brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, had become unpopular with the Spaniards, who were chafing beneath their authority.
The arrival of Columbus caused a temporary lull in the disputes, but after a while the power of the malcontents grew steadily, and their accounts of what was to the fore in Haiti, although wilfully garbled and exaggerated, began to bear weight with the Royal Family of Spain.

Columbus, in the first instance, had stipulated for the sole command of the fleets of the New World.
This was well enough in theory, but in practice the concession was almost immediately broken into.

Other expeditions started out from Spain to the New World. Alonso Ojeda, who had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, now came out in command of an expedition of his own.
In his company was Amerigo Vespucci, whose graphic and fanciful account of his own particular doings resulted eventually in the naming of the entire continent after him.

In 1499 Alonso Niño led an expedition out from Spain, followed shortly after by another commanded by Pinzon. In the meantime Brazil was being explored by the great Portuguese, Pedro Alvarez Cabral.

To return to Columbus, the glory of the great navigator had now waned.
As the years intervened between the date of his great feat and his less glorious present, his record became stale and forgotten, while the power and influence of his enemies grew.

In the year 1500 Columbus was sent to Spain - in chains this time.
On his arrival Ferdinand and Isabella, shocked at this state of affairs, endeavoured to make some minor reparation to the greatest man of his age. They were nevertheless firm in refusing to allow him to continue as Governor of Hispaniola and the new territories, and to this post was appointed Nicolas de Ovando.

This latter took out the first really imposing expedition which had set sail for Hispaniola.
The welfare of the Indians had been strictly committed to his charge by Ferdinand and Isabella.
Numerous humane laws had been drawn up for the protection of the natives, and these, it was intended, should be rigidly enforced.

Nevertheless, the thousands of miles of intervening ocean rapidly deprived these of any semblance of authority, and the misery and mortality of the men of Hispaniola continued unabated.

Although to a certain extent deserted and discredited, Columbus determined to make one more desperate effort to draw himself clear of the oblivion which was now enveloping him.

With a fleet of four small vessels he set sail from Cadiz on May 9, 1502.

Perhaps on this occasion his mortification was greater than ever before.
Ovando, the Governor, would have nothing to do with him.
Having suffered shipwreck and numerous other calamities besides, the great navigator, embittered and downcast, turned the bows of his ships towards Spain.

On landing he learned of the death of Queen Isabella, the only person of influence who had shown him a consistent friendship.
Realizing now that his influence and chances had finally departed, he retired into seclusion in the neighbourhood of Vallodolid, where he died in his sixtieth year on May 20, 1506.

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