RIDERLESS CAMELS charged through the dust and crowds of the battlefield. Pierced by spears and arrows, dying horses crumpled to the ground. Men screamed and charged, hacking at each other with swords and spears and knives. Corpses lay strewn in the dirt, still clutching their weapons, while the battle raged around them and wind blew the dust in billowing clouds. Some of the dead wore turbans and others were decked out like lightly armoured medieval knights, but many appeared to be poorly equipped peasants. This was one of the battles of Granada, as illustrated by the renowned nineteenth-century illustrator Paul Gustave Doré. On January 2, 1492, the city of Granada, the final Muslim city in Iberia, the lone outpost of al-Andalus, capitulated to “the Catholic Kings” Ferdinand and Isabella after a lengthy siege. The actual battle, though probably unlike the stylized heroic endeavour depicted by Doré, did end seven centuries of religious and cultural conflict over Iberia and completed the Spanish reconquest of the entire peninsula. The reign of the Islamic invaders was ended.
In December 1491, during the final siege of Granada, the ever-patient Christopher Columbus was at the mobile Spanish royal court Santa Fe (Holy Faith), a hastily but stoutly built whitewashed stone fort in the shape of a cross, located on the outskirts of Granada. He may have even been a volunteer in the army while awaiting the second report of Talavera and the cosmological commission, augmenting his meagre retaining fee with a soldier’s wage.
Although Ferdinand and Isabella’s commission had earlier turned down his “Enterprise of the Indies,” claiming that it was too speculative and rested on weak foundations, Columbus was kept waiting because of Isabella’s suggestion that he reapply to the court after the conquest of Granada. During this time he had been conducting unspecified services for the Castilian crown, probably some sort of spying or courier duties, and had had one previous meeting with Isabella while awaiting the fall of Granada.
Since their marriage as teenagers in 1469, Ferdinand and Isabella had worked to unite the crowns and the peoples of two of the most powerful Spanish kingdoms, to end the internecine quarrelling between the two Iberian nations and consolidate them into a larger and greater kingdom. The push to reconquer the last Muslim stronghold in Spain had consumed their energy since 1482, but with the final defeat of the Moors the unified and victorious Spanish nations of Castile and Aragon were ready for new enterprises. Once the monarchs had led their people through the conquest of Granada, they turned their attention to following the lead of their Portuguese brethren in casting their gaze westward into the unexplored Atlantic. Ferdinand had been a successful warrior since his earliest days, a fine strategist and commander. According to Machiavelli, the reason behind his assault on Granada was “to engage the energies of the Barons of Castile who, as they were giving their minds to the war, had no mind for causing trouble at home. In this way, without their realizing what was happening, he increased his standing and his control over them.” After all, Machiavelli observed, “nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations of personal abilities.” One of Isabella’s advisers had reputedly informed her of Tullius Hostilius, a legendary king of ancient Rome, who ordered his soldiers to the offensive unprovoked, solely to keep them occupied and their fighting skills in order.
This war, together with the slow but steady conquest of the Canary Islands, had not only consumed the revenues and manpower of the Castilian and Aragonese crowns, it had also forged a common Spanish identity, a newfound unity and sense of common purpose. As Hugh Thomas observes inRivers of Gold, Isabella’s accomplishments in her first ten years as heiress and then queen were “remarkable by any standard. No woman in history has exceeded her achievement . . . These two monarchs launched their kingdoms on a collaboration that, if not always happy, was immensely important and profitable for both realms.” Now, after the conquest of Granada, they were at a crossroads.
Columbus had endured eight years of delays, obfuscation, setbacks and interminable waiting described by Las Casas as “a terrible, continued, painful and prolonged battle; a material one of weapons would not have been so sharp and horrendous as that which he had to endure from informing so many people of no understanding, although they presumed to know all about it.” Columbus had already made one previous journey to Santa Fe to meet with Queen Isabella, but he had arrived just after a major fire in the living quarters, and no one wanted to be bothered with him or his ideas. Now he had returned after the fall of Granada at the queen’s request, and again he presented his case before the committee. Again he was rebuffed, for the same reasons. One of Isabella’s advisers then pointed out that the cost to the crown of sponsoring Columbus’s scheme would be little more than the cost of entertaining a visiting foreign prince for a week—after all, most of Columbus’s outrageous demands would be payable only if he should succeed; and even if the venture failed, the mere attempt would lend a patina of enlightenment to the sovereigns as “generous and high-minded princes for having tried to penetrate the secrets of the universe, as other princes . . . had been praised for doing.” Isabella changed her mind.
A royal courier was sent to deliver this exciting news to Columbus, but in a fury at being passed over once again, he had already departed Santa Fe on his mule, riding north to peddle his scheme to the king of France. According to a fanciful but possibly accurate tale, the galloping rider overtook him on the road and persuaded him to return. He was to be given all that he requested for the voyage, including all the outrageous titles, honours and extraordinary powers he had demanded. If he succeeded, he would bring new revenues to a crown badly in need of them after the expenses of the Granada campaign, and he would check the expansion of João II and his budding Portuguese mini-empire in Africa.
With the conquest of Granada, Spain had thousands of battle-hardened hidalgos, young warriors of noble blood, who expected land in exchange for their military service. Without a common enemy, they might start to fight among themselves again— Ferdinand and Isabella remembered well the endless strife in Castile and Aragon that had prevailed for most of their lives, including the early part of their reign. The discovery of new lands to the west would help solve this impending problem, especially since they were barred by papal decree from commissioning or endorsing voyages south along the coast of Africa. The Portuguese monopoly was a point of annoyance and frustration to Isabella and Ferdinand, who were also busy with machinations to secure the newly vacant papacy for a Spanish native who was one of the prime contenders; they were successful later that year, just before Columbus sailed. It was an event that, combined with Columbus’s voyage, was to have a monumental impact on the world.
During her reign, Isabella had become ever more ordered and somewhat humourless and fastidious. On one occasion she mused that the four things she most enjoyed seeing in life were “men-at-arms in the field, a bishop in his robes, a lady in a drawing room, and a thief on the gallows.” This single revealing statement could easily describe her approach to governing Castile and Aragon, particularly as she aged and the dynastic turbulence that had preoccupied her and Ferdinand in the early years of their reign gave way over time to the political security that enabled them to mould the institutions of their society. She could not tolerate disunity and disorder in the nation. More ominously for many of her subjects, when combined with her lifelong piety and religious fervour, this attitude came to include spiritual unity and the “purification” of what would become the state faith. Ferdinand was a ruthless pragmatist, motivated by gold as much as religious fervour. When blended with the bigoted opinions, near-maniacal hatreds and sadistic methods of the first Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, Isabella and Ferdinand’s reign lurched into totalitarianism and repression, all in the quest for unity and peace.
By 1492, the Inquisition had already claimed thousands in the name of spiritual purity and was on its way to becoming one of the most violent and terrorizing institutions in history. One month before Columbus was given the go-ahead to begin working towards his epochal voyage, Ferdinand and Isabella issued their famous Edict of Expulsion, which would lead to the exile or religious conversion of all Jews in Castile and Aragon. Not many years later, this edict, similar in impact to what modern writers would call “ethnic cleansing,” would be applied to all Muslims as well. The spiritual purity of all Catholics, especially those newly converted to avoid expulsion from their homeland, was enforced by the tortures and horrors of the Inquisitors with their anonymous denunciations, book burnings, theatrical trials, violently extracted confessions, public burnings of heretics and apostates following the infamous autos-da-fé, and, of course, the confiscations of property for the use and support of the Inquisitors and their institution.
AFTER SO long a delay, things now moved very quickly for Columbus. By May 1492 he was in the southwestern port of Palos outfitting three small ships for the voyage, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria. Now forty-one years old, Columbus had lost none of his zeal and energy during his eight-year hiatus from the sea. After tremendous effort, he had the ships provisioned, crewed and ready to depart by August. Before sunrise on August 3, Columbus attended mass, as he usually did, before being rowed out to his ship. He was equipped with three letters of state from Ferdinand and Isabella, one addressed to the “Grand Khan,” the presumed ruler of Asia, and two left blank so that the names of foreign princes or dignitaries could be inserted once the ships reached Asia. Columbus was infuriatingly smug and pious and later became a nearly fanatical religionist, filled with a sense of purpose as God’s chosen instrument to discover a shorter route to the Indies. His sense of his own grandeur and historic purpose would only increase during this and subsequent voyages.
The three ships weighed anchor and drifted out of port on the morning tide before setting sail. They cruised southwest to the Canary Islands, by then mostly subdued and under Spanish control. Here Columbus heard a rumour that some Portuguese caravels lurked in the ocean nearby, hoping to intercept him and capture his ships. On September 6, after six weeks of repairs and additional provisioning, Columbus ordered his three ships to steer west into the winds that he hoped would carry them to the Orient. Historians disagree on whether Columbus was a shrewd observer of the westward trend of Atlantic winds, gleaned from his early days of voyaging for Portugal along the African coast, or whether he was merely lucky, but the three ships picked up the trade winds almost immediately and made remarkable speed.
Always concerned for the morale of his superstitious crew, Columbus soon began falsifying the reported official sailing distances of the ships. On September 10, for example, his best estimate of the distance sailed was about eighty miles, but he reported it to be only forty-eight miles. Similarly, on the eleventh he recorded sixty miles but reported only forty-eight; and on the thirteenth he reported only sixty-five miles, though he estimated the ships had travelled nearly one hundred. Columbus’s underreporting of the distance travelled became even more drastic after a month at sea. His reasoning was to allay fears among the crew that they were getting farther and farther from land and had travelled too far to return. His plan was to guard against panic while pretending to use sophisticated scientific navigational techniques of quadrants and astrolabes to give the impression that he knew exactly where they were and how far they had travelled.
For weeks, the three ships enjoyed generally good weather, reliable winds and only drizzle and clouds. There were several false reports of land and general excitement at seeing sea birds. Every few days, Columbus was predicting the sight of land. By mid-September the mariners “began to see many bunches of very green weed, which had recently (as it seemed) been torn from land, whereby all judged that they were near some island.” They had reached the Sargasso Sea, a massive floating plain of algae that occupies the central mid-Atlantic. Columbus’s son Ferdinand later recalled his father’s fear “that there might happen to them what is supposed to have happened to St. Amador in the frozen sea that is said to hold ships fast”—that they might be stuck in the weeds so far from home that they would starve to death or perish from dehydration. But the weeds parted silently and let them slip through to the west.
There were more mirages of land and the men became ever more tense and fearful, but Columbus deviously continued to urge them on with his musing on the signs of impending land: weeds, birds, clouds and currents. He placed his claims and speculations at convenient intervals to ease the crew through each day and to encourage them optimistically and incrementally on. Apart from the growing tension and fear as they progressed farther from port than anyone had ever gone before, the conditions could not have favoured Columbus more. The wind filled the sails day after day, night after night, without fail.
But even the good weather began to be seen as a bad sign, an omen. The “people,” as Columbus called his sailors, grew ever more fearful that there would be no winds to propel them back home—that they could now only ever sail west with the winds. And after many weeks at sea, the restless crew spoke out and threatened to mutiny if Columbus didn’t turn the ship around and head for home before they all perished. “They met together in the holds of the ships,” Ferdinand recalled his father’s testimony years later, “saying that the admiral in his mad fantasy proposed to make himself a lord at the cost of their lives or die in the attempt; that they had already tempted fortune as much as their duty required and had sailed farther from land than any others had done.” If Columbus refused to change course for home, “they should heave him overboard and report in Spain that he had fallen in accidentally while observing the stars; and none would question their story.”
But around 2 a.m. in the morning of October 12 the small flotilla was running strongly before the wind with a clear, near-full moon overhead, when a sailor high in the rigging of the Pinta spied the white foam of waves against a distant island, thereby earning for himself the princely award of an entire year’s pay from his sovereigns. Or so he thought; Columbus later claimed that he himself had spied the land the previous evening, thereby denying the sailor the prize and the glory of the first land sighting and claiming it all for himself. The three ships sailed near to each other, the sailors conferring by yelling across the open water, and they agreed to shorten sail and stay clear until morning. At first light they cruised around an island looking for a break in the barrier reef ringing it, and then slipped through and weighed anchor off a sandy beach. Bringing flags ashore, Columbus planted them in the ground, claiming the land for Castile and naming it San Salvador, ignorant of the fact that the locals called their island Guanahani. (The island is probably part of the Bahamas, but could really have been any number of small, low-lying, fertile reef-encircled islands.) After declaring the island to belong to Castile, Columbus greeted the people who lived there.
The native Taínos, enthusiastic and friendly, “all came to the beach shouting”—an occurrence that Columbus bizarrely interpreted as them “giving thanks to God” for his arrival (something they surely would not have done if they could have foreseen the future). Later that day Columbus wrote in his journal that the islanders “ought to be good servants and of good skill, for I see that they repeat very quickly whatever was said to them. I believe that they would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they belonged to no religion.” For the moment, though, all was cordial, and some islanders brought food and water to the mariners on the beach while others “plunged into the sea” and swam out to the ships. Finding the naked islanders to be courteous and friendly and “very well built of very handsome bodies and very fine faces,” Columbus was astonished at and pleased with their peaceful life. He was, however, disappointed in the apparent poverty of the people on this scrub-covered, stony island. The “Indians” (for surely he had set foot in the Indies) dwelt in primitive huts rather than golden-domed palaces and ate simple local food rather than having the spicy exotic cuisine that the Europeans might have imagined.
After three days Columbus grew tired of the island and its people. He wrote in his journal that “I intend to go and see if I can find the Island of Japan.” After the ships were re-provisioned and watered, and the men a little rested, they set sail for greater places. Columbus calculated that his flotilla had sailed approximately 2,400 miles across the ocean, nearly the exact distance he had proposed to sail to reach Cipangu, the isle of Japan. Clearly this was not Cipangu but one of the thousands of small islands Marco Polo had written about that infested the waters east of that magnificent land. Nevertheless Columbus kept sight of his objective. “I was attentive,” he reported, “and worked hard to know if there was any gold.” He duly reported that the “Indians” wore small gold nose jewellery. When he asked them where he could obtain more of this substance, they indicated with hand gestures to the south, where there was “a king there who had great vessels of it and possessed a lot.” His greed and imagination fired up, he prepared to sail in that direction, taking a few local guides with him to show the way. The three ships wound their way southward through a maze of islands, stopping at several to search for gold, but only to be disappointed. Columbus remained an optimist: “I cannot fail (with our Lord’s help),” he wrote in a revealing passage, “to find out where it comes from.”
Columbus had a nose for a few things other than gold, however, noting exotic trees and flowers “very unlike ours” and fishes “of the brightest colours in the world, blue, yellow, red and of all colours, and painted in a thousand ways.” In one moment of contentment he wrote that “the singing of the little birds was such that it would seem that man would never wish to leave here.” He and his men gathered up a vast collection of all the new things to display to their sponsors when they returned; things that might justify the expense of the voyage and provide further financial support for additional voyages. After several weeks of island-hopping—naming them after his patrons and his faith—Columbus resolved to head farther west, where surely lay the mainland, inspired by an optimistic distortion of a few native words that he believed meant Cipangu.
On October 28, the flotilla reached the island of Cuba, which Columbus mistakenly believed was the mainland. After a few locals along the coast pointed inland to indicate the place of their king, he sent a scouting party to search for great cities in the jungle. His two emissaries were a converted Jew “who knew Hebrew and Aramaic and even some Arabic”—languages presumably of value in an oriental court—and a sailor who had once been present at an audience with an African king while slave trading and would therefore have more experience in matters of protocol with a pagan monarch such as the Great Khan. Alas, after a twenty-five-mile trek into the interior the emissaries encountered only a small village of perhaps a thousand people, friendly and pleasant, but boasting no imperial palace. They did, however, observe the men drying and rolling the leaves of a plant and then rolling them into cigars, “to drink the smoke thereof.”
Columbus swallowed his disappointment, weighed anchor and continued coasting along the coast of Cuba, following another rumour about the location of a source for the gold that the natives wore in small quantities. It was the land of Babeque, where people reputedly hammered gold into bars on the beach by candlelight. With renewed vigour the ships sailed off to the south in pursuit of this legend. During ten days of contrary winds, one of Columbus’s captains took the Pinta and sailed ahead without Columbus’s permission, presumably to the reach the golden land first and enrich himself. Meanwhile, in early December, Columbus’s remaining two ships, Niña and Santa Maria, made a slight change in direction and spied the shore of a fertile land of such beauty that “a thousand tongues would not suffice” to describe it. A perfect harbour was backed by a rolling plain of forests and cultivated fields. The explorer boldly pronounced it to be “La Isla Española,” the Spanish Isle, now known as Hispaniola. The land was more densely populated than any they had encountered so far in the Indies and, most promising, the people wore gold jewellery.
Columbus sent an exploring party to lure a few natives back to the beach “in order to treat them well” and thereby show the intruders’ good intentions. The only person who ventured to meet the strange voyagers, however, was a beautiful young woman to whom Columbus gave some gifts and some clothing before allowing her to return. After this encounter, he and his men were well received on the island. Several local chiefs, men who were “of few words and fair manners,” came to visit. One of these visiting dignitaries noticed Columbus’s interest in a piece of gold jewellery he was wearing and, in exchange for some intriguing gifts of colourful clothing and trinkets, presented it as a gift and promised to bring more. Columbus noted in his journal that the people were “fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow, and do aught else that may be needed.” His view of the people he encountered was that they could easily be enslaved and exploited in exchange for saving their souls.
Soon a messenger invited the eager Columbus to make a trip into the interior of the island to meet a king named Guacanagari at his town and receive more gifts of gold. The gold, the messenger told Columbus, perhaps sensing his avarice, came from a place inland. The man used a word to describe this place that Columbus translated as Cibao and then deluded himself into thinking the word was a version of Cipangu—Japan, his ultimate destination. But good fortune could not last indefinitely, and around midnight on December 24, the Santa Maria ground into a coral reef and began to sink. The ship was abandoned on Christmas Day. Columbus pragmatically decided that this seeming misfortune was a sign from God directing him to establish a settlement with the timbers from the stricken ship. He set his men to work, and they soon constructed a fortified outpost, naming it La Navidad, the first Spanish settlement in the Americas.
During this time the local chief told Columbus tales of the frightening Caniba, who sometimes raided their settlements and reputedly ate their victims. Other people he had encountered in the past few months had also mentioned these fierce raiders. Columbus concocted a deluded explanation for these terrifying stories: “Caniba is nothing else than the people of the Grand Khan,” he wrote, “which should be very near . . . they come to capture the natives, and since the captives don’t return they suppose they’ve been eaten.” He offered to protect the natives from the Caniba and ordered his men to fire some guns into the air to prove the point. He was then given a present in honour of his latest claims: a large gold mask, grander and heavier than any he had seen before. With the settlement underway and the hefty mask suggesting that a significant source of this wonderful substance was not too distant, Columbus noted that the grounding of his flagship “was no disaster but great luck; for it is certain that if I had not run aground, I should have kept to sea without anchoring in this place.” With these discoveries, Columbus and his men were growing anxious to return to Spain and tell the incredible tale of their adventures.
On January 4, 1493, a few days after the Santa Maria sank, with friendly relations secured with the local inhabitants and the fort complete and garrisoned by thirty-nine people who opted to stay behind and pursue the rumours of gold, Columbus set sail in the sole remaining ship, the Niña, for the return Voyage. After two days at sea he spied the Pinta on the horizon, and the two ships joined again for the return voyage. The captain sheepishly informed Columbus that he hadn’t found any great source of gold, and Columbus decided to ignore the insubordination from three weeks earlier when the Pinta had sped away. The two ships sailed along the coast of Hispaniola for a while, trading with natives for provisions and collecting water for the home journey. Columbus persuaded several more natives to join them aboard the ship to see Spain. On January 18 they put to sea.
Columbus headed northeast to the latitude of Bermuda, picked up the westerlies and set off back across the Atlantic Ocean. Strong winds quickly propelled the two ships east, but just as they were nearing the Azores on February 12 the sky grew dark, and gale-force winds began to tear in from the southwest. Dangerous, frothing cross-seas swamped the deck and threatened to capsize the tiny ships. The temperature grew cold and blustery, and a few days later the ships lost sight of each other, each presuming the other had gone down. Fearing his own demise, Columbus at the height of the storm scrawled a brief account of his remarkable journey on parchment, wrapped it in wax paper, sealed it in a cask and flung it into the sea. The cask has never been recovered.
On February 15 the storm-battered Niña spied one of the Azores Islands but was buffeted by contrary winds for three days. Eventually she cruised into a safe harbour and dropped anchor at the southern island of Santa Maria. The Azores were Portuguese islands, and Columbus never intended to stop in foreign or potentially hostile territory, but his men were in desperate need of rest, fresh provisions, water and wood. We can only imagine what the natives, on board ship for the first time, thought of their ordeal.
The next day Columbus allowed half the crew to go ashore to pray in a church, as they all had vowed to do during the storm. Without warning, the men were captured by the local garrison, who believed they were returning from an illegal voyage in Africa. Then, armed men in a boat tried to lure Columbus off his ship and to take him prisoner. He threatened to destroy the town with his guns and take one hundred Portuguese prisoners if his men were not released. At night the wind blew strong and broke the anchor cables, and Columbus was forced to sail to another island, returning a few days later to again seek the release of his crew. This time he was successful, presumably because after the islanders had questioned the captured sailors it was determined that they had indeed come from the west and not from Africa, and therefore there were no legal grounds for holding them.
Setting out from the Azores for the nine-hundred-mile voyage to the mainland, Columbus’s ship was again beset by a terrifying and monstrous storm, stronger than the previous one. Battered, tossed like a toy in a tub, the Niña was flung about the tempestuous sea for days, until on March 4 the crew spied the moonlit cliffs of the coast of Portugal, where they were nearly driven against the rocks and destroyed. Only by brutally hard work were they able to claw off the lee shore out to sea again and save themselves. By morning the Niña was cruising past the mouth of the Tagus River. With the ship damaged and in need of repairs, her sails in shreds and the exhausted mariners needing a respite, Columbus decided to drop anchor downstream from Lisbon. He was well aware of the poor optics of making his first port of call on the mainland his old haunt of Portugal rather than the land of his royal sponsors in Spain. Some historians have speculated that he had ulterior motives for the visit, perhaps as a spy, but it is just as likely that with a badly damaged ship and exhausted crew he had little choice if he wished to survive the final leg of the voyage.
At least as compelling a motive is Columbus’s arrogance and desire to bask in the glory of his achievements in the land where he had been snubbed years before. Some historians have suggested that Columbus’s ship might not have been as damaged as he initially claimed in his letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, that in fact it was merely a good pretext for a visit to Portugal, to announce his success to all those who had doubted him years before. However, while he might have savoured this opportunity to boast of his success to his doubters, fabricating claims of damage seems like an unnecessarily dangerous attempt at revenge. Columbus surely was aware of João II’s reputation for ruthlessness.
A damaged Spanish ship rushing in from a storm into a Portuguese port after a lengthy voyage was not a common sight, and the obvious conclusion was that the ship was returning from an illegal voyage to Africa or Portuguese islands in the Atlantic and was blown off course in the storm. Secrecy was not an option to Columbus, particularly as the Niña lay anchored next to a towering Portuguese man-of-war bristling with cannons and armed men. So he immediately sent word to the Portuguese king of his arrival from the “Indies” and spread the word around the harbour as well, displaying the captured “Indians” and exotic wares from the lands he had visited as proof of his outlandish tale. Men in boats paddled out to the Niña to hear the news, and according to Columbus’s son Ferdinand in his later recollection of the scene as described by his father, “so many people swarmed aboard to see the Indians and hear the story of the discovery that there was not room for them all; and the surrounding water could not be seen, so full was it of the Portuguese boats and skiffs. Some of the Portuguese praised God for so great a victory; others were angry that the enterprise had slipped through their fingers because of the King’s skepticism and indifference. That day, then, passed with much attendance on people.”
While the ship was being repaired, Columbus was summoned by the king. He set off inland, travelling along the muddy rutted tracks with a mule train carting his precious souvenirs and several of the captured “Indians.” João II’s court had recently moved a two-day journey inland from Lisbon to escape a plague in the city. Columbus must have been nervous, for he had no idea how the king who had turned down the very enterprise the explorer had now succeeded at, would respond. Nevertheless, Columbus was still a boastful and somewhat swaggering man, and as later events were to show, his writing of his trepidation at the meeting and his claims that he did not want to go were probably meant for show to his Spanish sponsors. It seems just as likely that with fate driving him to Lisbon, Columbus warmed up to the opportunity to rub João II’s nose in the success of the venture that had been the focus of his life and ambition for nearly a decade.
He was brought into the audience hall with the king and his important advisers. Here Columbus’s account differs from that of other chroniclers. According to him, he was received with great honour and respect “by the principal personages of his household.” He and the king talked freely, with João greatly agitated at Columbus’s success and regretting that he had been so foolish as to doubt the indomitable explorer. In fact, at first the king was in a passion and wrath at his own foolishness at doubting the mariner. Although João indicated that he was greatly pleased with the success of the voyage, he regretfully informed Columbus that the new discoveries properly belonged to him rather than to the monarchs of Spain, because of the earlier treaties between them and certain papal donations from previous years. Columbus replied that he had no idea about that, and that it was not his concern. He then restated that he had not trespassed on Portuguese territory in Africa or the Atlantic islands.
The account of the Portuguese court chronicler Rui de Pina gives a livelier and more revealing account of the meeting. De Pina mentions that Columbus had brought with him many specimens from his voyage and several natives as well. King João II was both “dismayed and chagrined” by Columbus’s visit, “not only because he believed the discovery fell within his sphere of influence, but also because the Admiral’s attitude was somewhat arrogant and his account of what he discovered was greatly exaggerated.”
João produced a cup of beans and poured them onto a table, and one of the natives was ordered to assemble a rough chart of the islands—which he promptly did, grouping them to indicate Hispaniola, Cuba and the Bahamas and Lesser Antilles. João swiped them from the table in a passion. He ordered another native to be brought in to perform the same task, which he also did accurately. The king “could no longer conceal the great chagrin, which so far he had dissembled, over the loss of things so estimable, which by his own fault he had let slip from his hands.” He then “grew quiet and sad when he saw that the natives of the land who accompanied him were not black, with kinky hair and that they were not the same stature as the people of Guinea, but in aspect, colour, and hair, they resembled, according to what he had been told, the people of India, on the discovery of which he had been hard at work.”
Writing after the fact, João de Barros, a court historian who was not present at the meeting but who is nevertheless considered one of the most trustworthy court chroniclers of the era, noted that Columbus’s motivation was “not so much to please the King as to spite him . . . accusing and upbraiding the King for not having accepted his proposal.” Before Columbus had even returned to Spain, his voyage threatened to erupt into an international quarrel between two leading maritime nations of the era.
Columbus was a charismatic leader of men at sea, a brilliant natural navigator and sailor, but he was not a humble man, convinced as he was of his divine favour and purpose in life. Nor was he particularly astute at playing his role in the royal court of Portugal’s nobility. His flamboyant and unnecessary display of his exotic “Indian” wares and kidnapped peoples, his chiding the king for turning him down years before and his smug gloating over his success in an endeavour claimed to be impossible by the people then in the audience room with him—people of royal bloodlines in an era when aristocracy and commoner were sharply distinguished— may have temporarily soothed his swelling ego, but it did little to further the acceptance of the legal implications of his discoveries by the proud and haughty nobles who ruled Portugal. Columbus’s behaviour was a personal affront to João II’s dignity. So swaggering was his performance that several courtiers suggested to the king that they assassinate Columbus and put an end to the whole affair—if he never returned to Spain, the matter would resolve itself. But however ruthless his past behaviour, João II sensed it was too late to eliminate Columbus, “since such a deed might in itself cause some scandal.” On March 13, 1493, the Niña hoisted sails, cruised out of Lisbon harbour and headed to the Castilian port of Palos, from where she had sailed nearly seven months earlier.
Sailing into Palos a few hours after Columbus came the “lost ship,” the Pinta, which also had been hit by storms after the two ships lost sight of each other. She also had also somehow survived. Crowds thronged the ships, eager to hear the astonishing tales of the new lands and to behold the exotic people and items they had brought home and proudly displayed. Columbus sent an official letter to Isabella and Ferdinand and awaited a reply. The royal couple were naturally suspicious of Columbus’s having put in to Portugal before Spain, in spite of Columbus’s pleading and perhaps exaggerated claims of damage to his ships in the storm. Nevertheless, a reply from the monarchs arrived on April 7, addressed to Don Cristobal Colon, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands that he hath discovered in the Indies”—the very titles he had asked for in his original petition.
In the coming months Columbus, white-haired, tanned and stately in bearing, was treated like a hero in the towns through which he passed in Castile. He boldly strode into the audience room in the royal palace in Barcelona, knelt before the sovereigns and, in front of the assembled courtiers, was received graciously. Isabella and Ferdinand, instead of remaining seated, as was the usual custom, stood to greet him and ordered a chair to be brought to the table so that he could sit with them—an uncommon boon that was “a token of great love and honour among the Spaniards.” Columbus looked like a Roman senator as he delivered his report, regaling the audience with a suspenseful account of his oceanic crossing, his first sight of land and his daring deeds while exploring the islands of the Indies.
He then began his theatrical display. He ordered to be brought forward the gold and other exotic items he had shipped home: unusual or never-before-seen items such as chili peppers, sweet potatoes and pineapples, which soon became one of Ferdinand’s favourites. He also displayed screeching monkeys, squawking parrots and, especially, the six surviving people he had captured, who were now done up with garishly painted faces and adorned in gold jewellery. They were clearly neither Europeans nor Moors. So pleased was Ferdinand with the success of the venture that he extended an offer to Columbus to join him on a hunting expedition— an offer usually made only to close family relations or very powerful grandees. Columbus was now a celebrity. He was soon to be very wealthy, as he was heaped with honours, gifts and appointments.
Isabella and Ferdinand lost no time in spreading news of Columbus’s epic voyage, and within months the educated and curious circles in Spain and Portugal were talking of the great discoveries. It took several years for the news of the voyage to become generally known in northern Europe. Ferdinand and Isabella were pleased because a new field of activity had been opened for Spanish adventurers, who had been idle since the fall of Granada the previous year. Within months, preparations were underway for a second Spanish voyage, with plans to make a permanent settlement on Hispaniola in order to better exploit the natives for gold-mining labour. Within a few months, a great fleet of seventeen ships and over 1,200 sailors, soldiers, colonists and officials were embarking on a second Atlantic crossing. The assault on the Americas had begun.
SOME HISTORIANS have questioned whether or not Columbus was indeed the first European to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Certainly the Norse voyagers had skipped across the northern waters to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland) and settled there briefly in the early eleventh century. Fishermen from Bristol may have spied the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and may have landed there. From as early as the 1460s, a decade before Prince Henry died, scattered records exist of voyages further west from the Azores, such as grants issued between 1462 and 1475 to discoverers of six unnamed islands. Some maps that predate the recorded dates of Portuguese voyages seem to show islands farther west in the Atlantic than the Azores, leading some to speculate that the Portuguese had indeed reached such eastern Caribbean islands as Puerto Rico, but these voyagers left no record.
There is also some evidence that the Portuguese possessed charts that showed, or purported to show, a greater knowledge of world geography than had been supposed. Depictions of Africa exist showing it not as a solid landmass extending to the South Pole, as charts based on the writings of Ptolemy depicted, but as being surrounded by water. Although no explanation has yet been made for the appearance of geographical information on maps that predates the earliest known historical voyages, cartographers of the time frequently sketched in speculative or fanciful landmasses or islands to fill blank spaces. That something vaguely resembling a known island appears on an ancient map does not necessarily imply that the information was based on anything other than speculation or fancy. Of course, cosmographers, geographers, cartographers and mariners knew that something lay in the waters west of Europe; the world didn’t just end. But the arguments against the pre-Columbian exploration of the Americas south of Newfoundland or the circumnavigation of Africa are stronger than those in favour, which are based on conjecture and supposition and theory rather than hard facts or evidence. In fact, João II would have had compelling diplomatic reasons to boldly advertise any prior discoveries across the Atlantic, in order to claim both the right of first discovery and the support of the papacy—the only means of claiming a monopoly over the territories.
ALTHOUGH COLUMBUS was convinced that he had sailed to the Indies, as early as his return from the first voyage there were those who speculated that he had discovered something entirely different, something that Ptolemy had never mentioned or even imagined. The chronicler Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian in Spain, astutely observed, upon hearing the remarkable tale of the voyage and seeing examples of the materials returned and the people who were reportedly from Asia, that they were all very unlikely to be Asian in origin. In a letter to a friend he referred to Columbus as the “Discoverer of a New World.”
The Genoese were the great slave traders of the Mediterranean, capturing and selling peoples as diverse as Ethiopians, Crimeans, black Africans, Greeks and eastern Europeans, as well as the peoples of the Canary Islands. Thus it is not surprising that, initially, Columbus’s main interest in the new peoples he met seemed to be in their potential as slaves: “They are without arms, all naked,” he wrote, “and without skill at arms, a thousand running away from three, and thus they are good to be ordered about, to be made to work, plant and do whatever is wanted, to build towns and be taught to go clothed and accept our customs . . . All can be carried to Castile or held as captives on the Island.” As a result the Genoan Columbus also introduced slavery from Atlantic islands farther west, from the Caribbean. The sailing time from Spain to Hispaniola was long, dangerous and uncomfortable; life was harsh on the new islands in the Caribbean; many new arrivals perished miserably from starvation, privation and conflict with the natives. For decades it was so difficult to persuade any colonists or adventurers to cross the ocean that by 1497 it was proposed to deport criminals to the distant lands, a plan that was similarly, famously and more successfully put into effect by the British in Australia centuries later.
Although Columbus had the opportunity to retire with estates in Spain and to let others continue the dirty and complicated work of further discoveries, trade and colonization, he turned down the offer. At the end of his first voyage he was at the pinnacle of his fame and favour with the Spanish monarchs, and he may have fared better had he retired as an explorer and rested on those laurels, but perhaps at the expense of his historical legacy: multiple voyages and personal tragedy make for enduring intrigue. Columbus’s later career never reached the same lofty heights. He made three further voyages of discovery to the Caribbean region, but his skills as an administrator of men on land never matched his skills as an admiral at sea. He was also plagued by his own grandiose claims under the terms of his agreement with “the Catholic Kings,” Ferdinand and Isabella. By asking for too much and refusing to retire, indeed by continuously fighting to maintain his monopoly as the only explorer allowed to set foot in the New World, he fought for something that was impossible, considering the scope of what he had revealed during his voyages, and thereby undermined his own authority as others sought their own fortunes across the western sea.
Columbus died, bitter and disappointed, soon after returning from his fourth voyage in 1506. By then he was a wealthy man, but he had made many powerful enemies in the Spanish court and among the prominent seafaring families. Reading the accounts of Columbus’s life, one can’t avoid the impression that he was vain, arrogant, fanatical and power-hungry, and that he later evolved into a religious fanatic. He failed to recognize the significance of his discoveries, believing—despite all the evidence to the contrary—that he had reached the shores of Asia. He and his brothers were poor administrators, fanning anger among the colonists to the point of being sent back to Spain in chains. A popular explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, who arrived years later, had the new lands named after him and was even credited for several centuries thereafter as being the first seafarer to sail to America; Columbus, it was claimed, only reached some islands.
Others sailed greater distances, endured more horrible suffering and hardships, triumphed over greater dangers and charted more new territory. But Columbus made two major discoveries that have secured his position at the top of the hierarchy of explorers during the Age of Sail: in addition to indisputably discovering lands previously unknown to Europeans, Columbus had cracked the secret of the Atlantic wind system. He discovered the circular pattern of winds that for centuries became the primary and preferred route to reach America from Europe, and that would consistently bring ships back to Europe from America—the northeast trade winds to the south for heading west, and the more northern westerlies for returning east. Anyone could now cross the Atlantic to the “Indies” and return to Europe reliably and predictably. And while Columbus may not have been the first to reach the Americas, he was certainly the one who brought on the familiar series of cataclysmic long-term global changes, changes that Felipe Fernández-Armesto outlines in 1492: The Year the World Began. With Columbus’s voyages, Fernández-Armesto writes, “The aeons-old history of divergence virtually came to an end, and a new, convergent era of the history of the planet began . . . It made genuinely global history . . . possible, in which events everywhere resonate together in an interconnected world.”
In the immediate aftermath of Columbus’s first voyage, however, the most pressing worry in the Iberian peninsula was the possible resumption of the violent, petty quarrels that had engulfed the region in past decades. King João II’s furious and hasty reaction to Columbus’s news was to claim the lands for himself and for Portugal. Before Columbus had presented his report to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Portuguese king publicly announced that the new lands Columbus had discovered belonged to Portugal. He ordered a mighty armada, commanded by Francisco de Almeida, son of the count of Abrantes, to shadow Columbus across the Atlantic on his next voyage in order to occupy these new lands for the Portuguese crown. João II sent his emissary, Rui de Sande, to Castile to announce to Isabella and Ferdinand that, based on his discussions with Columbus in Lisbon and his reading of earlier treaties and papal donations, the new lands belonged to Portugal. Isabella and Ferdinand likewise dispatched a diplomat, Lope de Herrera, to João IIto initiate a discussion between the two nations and to announce that the Spanish monarchs would defend their discoveries with force, and attack at sea any ships they found in the new lands that did not have their permission to sail there. While Francisco de Almeida readied the Portuguese armada, Isabella and Ferdinand manoeuvred their own fleets closer to Portugal, preparing for conflict.
Who would control these new lands and have dominion over the expanding world? Columbus’s discoveries were of tremendous strategic significance, but no one yet knew just how important. It was left to Columbus to proclaim that “not only Spain but all Christendom will receive encouragement and profit”—though, in the heady excitement in the wake of his news, and particularly because of the gold he displayed, the point was amply made. The old civil war and family feud in Iberia was barely a decade in the past, and Spanish armies and hidalgos were restless after the fall of Granada. A war, if it came to that, would be a brutal, lingering affair. The Portuguese and Spanish monarchs certainly disliked, perhaps even still hated, each other, and it would not take much to goad them into war again. Perhaps the conflict would open a crack for the Moors to again invade the Iberian peninsula. Certainly war would stunt Portuguese enterprise and the exploration of Africa, and halt further Spanish voyages across the Atlantic, before Spain had even explored the region and its diverse peoples.
Within weeks of Columbus’s return from his first epic voyage, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched a courier to Rome with news of the extraordinary events and with a specific request to the one person whose moral and spiritual authority was beyond question: the pope.