FERNANDO AND ISABEL were disturbed by reports of the many failings of Columbus’s efforts emerging from La Isabella in 1494. True, there was gold at Española, as Columbus had promised—Antonio de Torres brought home thirty thousand pesos’ worth in the February 1494 flotilla. Columbus also pursued stories of rich mines he called Las Minas de San Cristóbal in the southern part of the island. Their location eluded the Spanish. Gold was gathered from the Arawaks and otherwise was alluvial, washed out of river sands and the earth. There was enough to make some men rich but not to sustain many years of commercial production. And despite reports of precious commodities, such as pepper, ginger, sandalwood, and cinnamon, no riches of the Indies as Columbus had itemized existed, save a dyewood on the south side of Española.
Problems had been mounting before the Torres flotilla had left for Spain in February. Preliminary news carried home persuaded the monarchs to issue a mandate they sent back with the four-ship relief flotilla commanded by Torres in August 1494, beseeching settlers to obey Columbus: “[W]e order all of you to carry out, execute [his orders], and cooperate with him, doing and carrying out all that he orders you to do on our behalf. Do this as if we commanded it in person, under pain of whatever penalties he imposes or orders imposed in our name.”
The colony was a disaster. Settlers were more interested in prospecting for gold (or wresting it from the Arawaks) than in hoeing fields and planting crops. Columbus himself had wasted little time in turning to seeking gold, disappearing on a twenty-nine-day expedition into the Española interior after the Torres flotilla left in February 1494. A fortified post called Santo Tomás was built in the mountainous gold region of Cibao, according to Michele da Cuneo, who was along on the expedition. It was one of a series of fortified posts built in a chain across the island to enforce the Spanish rule of law. But Columbus’s own men posed disciplinary headaches. He was unable to prevent some of his party from making private trades for gold: “[T]here were other deals, secretly made, against our rule and statute, for the value of about 1,000 castellanos,” Cuneo related. “As you know, the devil causes one to do ill, then lets it be discovered; also, as long as Spain is Spain, there will be no shortage of traitors. One man betrayed another until they were all discovered, and those found guilty were well flogged, and this one had his ears cut off and that one his nose, such that it was a pity to see.”
Columbus’s brutal justice could not rein in the avarice or the excesses it encouraged even when the activities were sanctioned. And when he returned from his expedition, he found efforts to grow European crops failing, despite the hyperbole of the early reports of La Isabella’s fecund soil. The Arawaks were well provided by their own staple crop of maize (corn); the Europeans were in danger of starving to death.
When the first council of La Isabella met on April 24, 1494, the young colony was facing ruin because of crop failure. Columbus refused to release food reserves stored in a royal warehouse. Some of the colonists moved farther away from town; some simply joined the Arawaks. Columbus meanwhile pursued a policy of demanding that the Arawaks pay regular taxes or tribute in gold. Every native over the age of fourteen in the presumed gold-producing regions was expected to provide a hawk’s-bell full of gold every three months. Hawk’s bells (which were tied to the legs of tamed hawks by the Spanish) had been introduced to the Arawaks as trade trinkets. Now their volume measure was a tool of servitude. The native reaction was predictable; having already obliterated La Navidad, they rose up against these grasping newcomers who were determined to become their feudal overlords.
As news of the reality of the settlement made its way across the ocean, Columbus’s Indies scheme began to lose traction with important and influential figures back in Spain. At the same time, Cabot’s bridge project was close behind it in sliding into disgrace.
SOMETHING HAD GONE seriously awry with Cabot’s bridge project—so awry that Seville’s ruling council of nobles had to meet on December 24, 1494, to decide how to proceed.
The minutes recorded how the council “have been entrusted to give, and have given to Johan Caboto, Venetian, fifty Spanish doubloons from the city, plus an additional three reales for each day for five months that he was in the city, so that an order should be given to build the bridge on this river with bricks.” The work, however, “has not been carried out.”
The council was informed on its dealings to date with Cabot by an alderman, Lorenzo Zomeno, using a report from Luis Méndez Portocarrero, who was an intriguing link to Columbus’s world in Seville’s dealings with Cabot. The aristocratic Portocarrero family had a lengthy history in Seville, and the report’s author probably was Luis Méndez de Haro y Sotomayor, a son-in-law of Pedro Portocarrero. Virtually nothing is known about this son-in-law, but Pedro Portocarrero was a former governor of Seville who held the hereditary lordship of Moguer, one of the key maritime communities around Palos that had been involved in mounting the first Columbus voyage. Don Pedro’s name surfaced in association with goods for a relief flotilla that departed Seville for Columbus at La Isabella around mid-October 1494, when Cabot was supposed to be building the bridge.
Also participating in the council meeting was one Don Alonsó de Guzmán, identified as the mayor of Seville. This must have been thirty-year-old Juan Alonsó Pérez de Guzmán y Afán de Ribera. A noble of tremendous stature in Spain, Juan Alonsó was Lord of Sanlúcar, Count of Niebla, third Duke of Medina-Sidonia, Marquis of Gibraltar as well as Cazaza, and commander of Castile’s coastal defenses. On May 2, 1493, Fernando and Isabel wrote Guzmán, thanking him for passing along word that he understood the Portuguese were planning to send ships west to investigate Columbus’s discoveries.
Luis Méndez Portocarrero’s report stated: “[I]t was required and is required that no more money must be given to [Cabot].” Alternately, Fernando and Isabel should be approached, “asking that they give permission for that which has been agreed to be carried out.” The council evidently thought the monarchs should have the option of continuing to employ Cabot, at their expense. Portocarrero’s instructions suggested that the bridge project, and Cabot, had been of royal interest from the beginning. The floating bridge Cabot was supposed to replace spanned the Guadalquivir right outside the gates of the Alcazar, home to the new royal apartments that Jerome Münzer noticed being fashioned for the royal family. Fernando quite possibly had convinced the Sevillans to pay for a Cabot marine infrastructure project, having failed to persuade the Valencians to fund Cabot’s harbor plan in 1493.
Portocarrero also advised that the council notify Don Juan de Silva, Count of Cifuentes, who served as the royal judge of Seville from 1482 to 1500. The count coincidentally had issued safe-conduct passes to Jerome Münzer and his party for their further travels in Castile when they arrived in Seville that November. Two councilors, Fernando Ruiz Cabeza de Vaca and Lope de Agreda, joined Alonsó de Guzmán in agreeing with and confirming Portocarrero’s instructions. Lorenzo Zomeno further agreed with Portocarrero’s guidance: The Count of Cifuentes should be “apprised of this [the situation with Cabot] so that [the count] negotiates in order that the city might not be caused loss.” The city’s civic leaders apparently were looking to this judicially powerful count from Toledo to get their money back from Cabot. Of all the creditors Cabot’s various misadventures had harvested, this group was easily the most daunting.
All in attendance voted that Lope de Agreda “should go speak with the Count.” But there was one dissenting voice, that of the absent councilor Fernando d’Esquivel—another name linked to Columbus. His signature is found on a 1489 certification of a copy of the decree appointing Alfonso Enríquez the admiral of Castile; Columbus studied this admiralty award in arguing for his own hereditary rights as Admiral of the Ocean Sea. A possible relative was Juan de Esquival, who probably was born in Seville around 1480 and sailed with Columbus on the second voyage. If Cabot was on that voyage, he may well have known Juan de Esquival, a rising star in the Columbus firmament who participated in the subjugation of Española’s rebellious natives and in 1509 founded Sevilla Nueva (New Seville) on the north coast of Jamaica as the island’s first governor.
Fernando d’Esquivel’s response to Cabot’s nonperformance on the bridge project was the harshest of all. Unable to attend the meeting, he had provided a statement that made clear his disgust, saying “he had always thought that the Venetian should be paid that which he was owed and that he should be dismissed from the city, and that the bridge should not be built; this is what he asks for and pleads for it by testimonial.”
Nothing survives to tell us if the count was ever approached or if the council instead took Fernando d’Esquivel’s advice and ran Cabot out of town without bothering to consult the judge. But Cabot may not even have been in Seville when the council convened to decide what to do about their nonexistent new bridge and the exasperating Venetian they had paid to design and build it.
WHO KNOWS WHAT CABOT did with the bridge money—perhaps he simply absconded with it, his life having turned into an ever-escalating Ponzi scheme: gaming new creditors to satisfy the restitution of old ones. But he had likely spied his next opportunity before squandering or abandoning the latest one, pocketing money from a phantom bridge as he was captivated by the possibilities of a fresh scheme beyond the limits of ports and their infrastructure.
There was a certain grandiosity emerging in Cabot’s methods, an inclination to reach for initiatives with a manner that bordered on bald nerve, given the increasing gap between what he proposed or agreed to do and what he actually achieved. With no known track record in Spain as a productive marine civil engineer, Cabot was about to reinvent himself as an explorer—despite no known experience as a navigator or commander of ocean voyages.
The times, however, promised opportunities at scales previously known only to conquering monarchs, with seemingly little or no previous experience required. A single inspired man could propose and pursue objectives that were transformative on a global scale. Columbus was a shining example of what ambition (along with the right connections) could achieve in a largely feudal world. Cabot may have abandoned the bridge—an assignment that he would have been delighted to secure only a few months earlier—because it was beyond his abilities actually to execute (or because the Guadalquivir proved to be much more difficult to span with a fixed link than had been thought) but also because something so much larger loomed before him. He was now after a prize that with the same application of time and energy as the bridge could yield a lifetime of prosperity and secure the futures of his three sons as well. A few months of sailing with the right commission could change everything. And men like Columbus and Cabot did not have to be grizzled, veteran mariners to become explorers. They just had to hire the right people to manage the ship or fleet under their command.
A legitimate sense of opportunity for Cabot must have emerged from what had previously been envy. Cabot’s Valencia scheme had failed just as Columbus had returned in triumph from his first voyage. Indeed, Cabot had some reason to blame Columbus for his harbor project’s failure. Had Columbus not come along with his stunning claim of an Indies landfall, Fernando might have been inclined to pour some of the royal treasury into the Valencia project rather than dedicate funds to the Española trading center.
If Cabot did not find a place in the infrastructure build-out of the Indies project in 1493 with an engineering role in the second voyage, then he had unquestionably secured it by June 1494 with the Seville bridge job. But even as Cabot’s project collapsed so ignominiously, Columbus’s enterprise was attracting alarming dissension. Opportunities for others in Spain to horn in on his monopoly loomed—provided the object of the monopoly itself didn’t become devalued to the point of disinterest.
BY LATE 1494, Seville was becoming disenchanted with the Indies project, at least as it was being conducted by Columbus. A Sevillan named Dr. Francisco de Cisneros wrote a petition to the king and queen, rejecting the idea that Columbus’s discoveries were in the Indies and arguing they were instead the fabled Hesperides in el mar oçeano atlántico ethiopico. He called for a new Spanish expedition toward the Indies free of the authority of Columbus. The date of the petition is unknown: September 1497 has been proposed, but it may have dated to the time Cabot was in Seville, so the Venetian could have been aware of Cisneros’s proposal. But the disquiet was much broader than that.
The papal legate Bernard Buyl, who had been assigned to Columbus’s second voyage by a bull in June 1493, was back in Seville in the latter part of November 1494—a letter by the monarchs at Madrid on December 3 mentioned his return. Columbus quite rightly feared what Buyl might say about him once back in Spain. Buyl was scathing in his criticism of the affairs of Española and the administrative mismanagement of Columbus. Momentum was building toward a major change in the crown’s policy where Columbus’s exclusive rights were concerned.
It was amid this ferment of disquiet that John Cabot failed to perform the work for which he had been paid on the fixed bridge. It was also precisely when the wandering German humanist Jerome Münzer passed through Seville en route to Portugal before turning back into Spain in early 1495, along the way amassing a series of encounters with key figures in the Indies scheme that seems almost divinely blessed in its good fortune and incalculably valuable to anyone considering a westward voyage of their own.
MÜNZER POSSESSED AN UNCANNY ability to turn up in the company of an improbable array of figures linked to Columbus’s activities. He had already devoted a week of his journey to Seville, where the number of significant people he could have met was near infinite. Five days after departing Seville, he was at the royal palace at Évora, enjoying an extended period of hospitality from João II.
The Portuguese king was so graciously accommodating that he knighted Münzer’s traveling companion Anton Hewart of Augsburg. Over the course of ten days at the palace, Münzer enjoyed his four dinners with João II. The knot of relationships by then was Gordian in its firmness. The previous year, Münzer had written the letter for Martin Behaim, conveying Maximilian I’s recommendation to João II that Behaim be tasked to a westward Portuguese voyage of discovery aimed at Cathay. João II already had been served by Behaim on the sun-sight committee; Behaim in turn had been favored by João II in the Dulmo-Estreito voyage patent. Columbus too had pitched João II on the westward voyage plan, and when he actually completed it for Fernando and Isabel, he ended up debriefing João II first when he made landfall in Portugal on his return.
Münzer and João II certainly had much to discuss of joint fascination in their dinners together, up to and including Columbus, Behaim, and Tordesillas, but Münzer divulged no details. The king, he allowed, “spoke with me of diverse things, and showed himself very cultivated.” He otherwise noted the king’s general desire to learn from visitors more of “the art of war, of navigation, or other sciences.”
From Évora and his dinners with the king Münzer headed for Lisbon, some sixty miles west, where he spent three days at the home of Behaim’s father-in-law, Joss van Huerter. (“We arranged lodgings in a very grand and very beautiful royal residence, in the home of the father-in-law of the lord Martin Behaim, the lord Judocus de Hurder, of Bruges, nobleman and captain of the islands of Faial and Pico. . . . This home was found in a very grand place, in a very vast flat space, near the monastery of St. Dominic. We were treated there excellently.”) If Behaim was there as well, the often-taciturn Münzer didn’t mention it. But the lodging arrangement showed that Behaim and Münzer remained closely allied.
From Lisbon, Münzer and his companions wended through Portugal and back into Spain, making for Madrid, where the Spanish court was then based. They arrived on January 17, 1495, and remained for eight days. Münzer enjoyed several incredibly fortuitous meetings, above and beyond his audience with Fernando and Isabel on January 24, at which he expressed his delight and astonishment at having encountered in Seville some baptized natives Columbus had brought from the Indies. Seville, he told the monarchs, “presented to our eyes an extraordinary spectacle. We saw there men of a new species, unknown in our world, arrived from the islands of the Indies that were discovered on your command.” Later in the same address, Münzer mentioned “the unknown peoples of the Indies, that you have shown into the unity of our faith.” The encounter with baptized natives strongly suggests that Münzer had met in Seville the archdeacon and bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, who was also chief administrator of the Indies venture.
“There was at Madrid a very wise poet, Pietro Martire of Milan,” Münzer further noted in his journal. This poet educated many young and prominent nobles, Münzer explained, “and he invited me to one of his lessons.” Münzer thus met Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, who knew Columbus personally and had only recently set his mind to producing his history of Columbus’s exploits. “I have begun to write a work concerning this great discovery,” he had confided in a letter to Giovanni Borromeo of Milan on October 20, 1494.
Martire remained in touch with the explorer while cultivating other sources on his voyages and continued to write historically crucial letters reporting on what had been discovered on the first and second voyages as he composed his history. The letters were intensely detailed and demonstrated superb (if not always reliable) access to information. The latest one had been written to his friend Polonius Laetus on January 10, only five days before Münzer arrived in Madrid. It conveyed a considerable amount about Española, including its supposed latitude and longitude.
As an aspiring geographer with his own ideas about how to reach the Indies, Münzer would have been pleased to engage Martire in conversation about Columbus’s finds and the state of his enterprise. Martire could be overly generous: He allowed (to his regret) Angelo Trevisan, secretary to the Venetian envoy Domenico Pisani during the latter’s embassy to Spain in 1501, to copy part of his treatise on Columbus’s voyages, which ended up being published in Venice before Martire could bring out his own work. Whether Münzer was able to read any of the Martire manuscript is something we will never know.
Next came his almost improbably fortunate encounter with Bernard Buyl. Münzer had turned up in Seville too soon to meet Buyl there, but at Málaga, Münzer had visited a new monastery of the Minorite order, “at the head of which is found the Aragon brother Bernard de Boil,” his account explained. “He had been sent as a true explorer to the shores of the islands of the Indies.” At Madrid, in the presence of Fernando, Münzer had the astonishing luck to encounter Buyl.
Buyl was far more than a priest. He had been a warship captain for the young king Fernando, leaving his naval duties on the Mediterranean to serve as Fernando’s secretary until 1481. After entering the priesthood, he had withdrawn to a Benedictine monastery near Montserrat. Buyl served Fernando as an ambassador to France for the negotiations that secured the Treaty of Barcelona in January 1493. He had then headed to Española as a legate of the pope on the second Columbus voyage.
“He was very intimate with me. . . . He spoke with me of the islands.” That was all Münzer cared to say, but Buyl would have conveyed to him a far more caustic, eyewitness account of Columbus’s activities than that provided by the generally enthusiastic and awestruck Martire. What a tale Buyl must have told: of Columbus’s administrative incompetence, the bad behavior of the colonists of Española, the suffering and hostility of the natives, and not the least the serious doubts that Columbus’s discoveries were anywhere near the actual Indies.
Münzer was returning home with the experience of his dinners with João II that surely touched at some point on Tordesillas and exploration if there was any discussion of “navigation.” He had also developed an exceptional grasp of how the Spanish enterprise in the Indies was unfolding and what had actually been found. This was at the very time John Cabot had gone missing. He would not be seen again until he resurfaced at the court of Henry VII in England no later than January 1496, seeking permission to mount the voyage that Münzer and Behaim had proposed to João II.