DISAPPOINTED BY the initial results of his audiences with Isabel and her advisors, Columbus wrote João II in March 1488 to renew his proposal, asking for a guarantee of safe passage in Portugal; in response, the king warmly invited him to return to Portugal to make his pitch. Whether Columbus actually did so, however, is unknown.
The Columbus narratives multiplied and defied reconciliation. Alessandro Geraldini would claim that Columbus had been turned down all over Europe before even arriving in Spain: He first went to France and then to Britain, and after being rejected by both kings, he tried João II in Portugal before heading to Spain.
Although the Geraldini timeline is unlikely, the Fernando Columbus biography would agree that Christopher tried his luck in England as well as France, but that Bartolomé made these efforts on his behalf. Christopher, so this version of the story goes, had dispatched Bartolomé to England, concerned that he might not succeed in convincing the Spanish monarchs to back him. But Bartolomé was waylaid at sea by pirates, presumably from France: “For which reason, and because of his poverty and the sickness which in those foreign parts assailed him cruelly, his mission, with which he was entrusted, dragged on for a long time until, having acquired a little competence from the maps which he was making, he began to make approaches to King Henry VII, father of Henry VIII who is now reigning.”
Bartolomé showed Henry a world map he had made, and after the king heard “what the Admiral [Columbus] was offering, he accepted the offer with good will and had him sent for. But since God had reserved him for Castile, the Admiral had gone already and returned with victory in its enterprise.” Later in the book the story was revisited, adding that Bartolomé was returning to Castile with a capitulation from Henry VII for his brother when he learned at Paris from Charles VIII that Columbus had already returned from the first voyage.
If any of this actually happened, Bartolomé must have set out on his mission to England around 1488 or 1489, with Henry offering to hire Columbus in 1492–93, while Bartolomé was in France. (The sixteenth-century English historiographer Richard Hakluyt would state that Bartolomé Columbus presented Henry VII with a world chart on February 13, 1488, but the source of this information is unknown, the chart has never been found, and the date seems too early, coming so close to Christopher Columbus’s audience with Isabel at Málaga in late 1487.) Around the time of the proposal to Henry, Bartolomé apparently had become a cartographer in the service of France’s regent, Anne de Beaujeu, who ruled in the name of her younger brother, the dauphin, until he formally took power as Charles VIII in 1492.
The contradictions in the Columbus story continued to gain momentum in Spain and eventually found additional strength among residents of the New World colonies his discoveries founded. The idea that Columbus relied on hearsay and rumor in formulating his voyage plan infuriated Alessandro Geraldini, who was appointed bishop of Santo Domingo in 1519 by Pope Leo X. Geraldini surely heard in Española the same sorts of local stories about Columbus that had reached the chronicler Oviedo when he was there a few years earlier, as the residents crafted their own foundation myth. Oviedo had found dubious their tale of the shipwrecked pilot at Madeira but would include it anyway in his history of the Indies. In 1522, Geraldini wrote Leo X a lengthy letter describing his voyage to Española, in which he dismissed such stories of Columbus’s early fact gathering.
These “monstrous, unnatural men” had contended that Columbus had heard from Galician sailors that land had been seen to the west. Others who were “tossed by a mighty tempest” off the Canary Islands saw strange trees and also reported to Columbus that unknown lands were nearby. “These reports are ridiculous,” Geraldini fumed. Columbus, he insisted, “was moved to undertake this long ocean expedition, not by the vain chatter of men or the experience of Galician sailors, but by sure reasoning and a sure [knowledge of the] orbit of heaven and earth.”
Geraldini gave Columbus’s ideas a more classical sheen. Columbus “was well-known for his knowledge of cosmography, mathematics, and techniques for measuring the sky and land, but was famous most of all for the greatness of his spirit.” Columbus had deduced that “the lands of the equator, or the Antipodes” could be reached by sailing a long way across the Ocean Sea. Columbus had been informed about the Antipodes by Plato’s Critias, and Geraldini implicitly equated them with the lost Atlantis when he wrote that Columbus refused to believe they could have sunk.
Whether Columbus actually could read the Latin of a work like Critias, the idea that he thought he could find (or would decide he had found) the Antipodes is not without support. On September 13, 1493, Pietro Martire wrote the Count of Tendilla and the Archbishop of Granada, saying “You remember Columbus [Colonum], the Ligurian, who persisted when in the camps with the sovereigns, that one could pass over by way of the Western Antipodes into a new hemisphere of the globe.” Martire, who had met Columbus on his return from the first voyage, would persist in this idea that reaching the Antipodes had been Columbus’s objective.
But Las Casas (who drew on Columbus’s now-lost accounts of his voyages for his Historia) thought Columbus had been mainly influenced by Toscanelli’s letter and map: “I think he based the whole scheme of his voyage on this letter.” According to Las Casas, Columbus wrote Toscanelli and received from him a copy of the letter and the map that had been sent to Fernan Martins in 1474.
Yet as likely as Toscanelli appears to have been Columbus’s chief inspiration—and for all that Geraldini was infuriated by tales of Columbus having been influenced by shipwrecked sailors and the allure of half-glimpsed islands—several eyewitnesses to Columbus’s activities in the lawsuit testimonies insisted on his indebtedness to Pedro Vásquez de la Frontera, an experienced mariner who lived in Palos and claimed to have made a passage toward an unknown land to the west while in the service of Portugal.
Three residents of Palos testified that they saw Vásquez both at the La Rábida monastery and in his Palos home, discussing plans for the 1492 voyage with Columbus and Martín Alonso Pinzón, a prominent local mariner who commanded the Pinta. Most emphatic was Alonso Vélez, mayor of Palos, who swore in 1532 that Pinzón received information from Vásquez, who had participated in a Portuguese expedition to discover a distant land. It was only because of “timidity” that they had missed the landfall, and they had also been misled “by the grasses [Sargasso Sea] that they had found in the gulf of the sea.” Vásquez advised Pinzón not to allow Columbus to turn back when they came upon these “grasses.” Coincidentally, Fernando Columbus’s biography and Las Casas’s Historia featured a mariner named Pedro de Valasco; Fernando wrote that Valasco told Columbus in Murcia about seeing land, in this case west of Ireland.
The Fernando biography offered still another story of intelligence being imparted to his father from northern waters, this time from a one-eyed sailor at Puerto de Santa María on the Bay of Cadíz, who confided “that on a voyage he had made to Ireland he saw that land which at the time he supposed to be a part of Tartary [in Asia], that it turned westward (it must have been what is now called the Land of Cod) and foul weather prevented them from approaching it.”
It was truly remarkable how many stories of Columbus’s intelligence gathering compiled by early Spanish chroniclers involved landfalls not beyond the Canaries or the Madeiras but instead far to the north. Perhaps the bounds of Columbus’s wisdom were being stretched post facto to accommodate the lands that in fact were discovered by Cabot. Yet the stories of a world to the west of Ireland were not isolated to the Columbus literature; they had engaged mariners long before Columbus ever sailed. For his part, Columbus may well have had reason to suspect that there was solid ground waiting to be discovered in northern latitudes before he departed Palos with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María on August 3, 1492, to seek it in more temperate climes.
THE ASPIRING EXPLORER eventually joined the Castilian staff of Isabel and resumed his voyage bid in late 1491, with the conquest of Granada all but completed. Columbus was an eyewitness to the surrender on January 2, 1492. “I saw Your Highnesses’ royal banners placed by force of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, which is the fortress of the said city,” he recalled of the fall of the city of Granada, “and I saw the Moorish king [Boabdil] come out to the city gates and kiss Your Highnesses’ royal hands and those of My Lord the Prince,” the infante don Juan, who was four years old.
Boabdil handed over the keys to Granada on January 6, and Columbus got down to the business of finally securing his privileges for the voyage. The court’s advisors still had good reasons to doubt his proposal. Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a doctor of laws who served as a legal counsel to Isabel, would state in 1515 that Columbus had made his proposal to a learned council on which he sat. He recalled how “all of them agreed that what the admiral wished was impossible to be true and that the admiral persisted against the opinion of most of them in making the voyage.” But with the Granada conquest out of the way, Columbus wore down their resistance.
Leaving aside the opinions emanating from ivory towers, the broad consensus in the maritime community was that Columbus’s plan was deeply flawed if not potentially fatal. Martín González, a ship’s biscuit maker at Moguer, just upriver from Palos and La Rábida, would watch Columbus outfit the first voyage and return successfully. He would testify that “many wise seamen said that running to the west from Cape Saint Vincent and by other winds they pointed out, they would never find land even if they traveled two years . . . all said that the hope of don Cristóbal Colón was futile and they made jest of him, saying that it was impossible [for] the admiral to find land.”
The king and queen ignored dissenting voices and insisted on sending Columbus anyway. The most critical opinion seems to have belonged to Luis de Santángel, chancellor of Fernando’s household and comptroller general (treasurer) of the kingdom of Aragon. Santángel was from a wealthy family of conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity. He and his brother Jaume had made a tidy fortune in Valencia as “tax farmers”—monarchs like Fernando essentially sold their future tax revenues to the highest bidder, leaving it to the bidder actually to collect the funds.
According to Geraldini, Luis de Santángel “asked Columbus how much money and how many ships would be required for such a long voyage. When he answered that he would require 3,000 gold pieces and two ships, Santángel immediately stated that he himself wanted to undertake the expedition and would provide the money, and then Queen Isabella, because of her naturally lofty spirit, received Columbus and very generously granted him the ships, troops, and money for opening up a new world to the human race.” Santángel’s enthusiasm unquestionably was an important factor in advancing the voyage. It was said that he argued that Columbus’s scheme, if successful, offered such extraordinary rewards that it was worth gambling the money on his little expedition.
The negotiations between Columbus (through his representative, Friar Juan Pérez of La Rábida) and the chancery staff of the royal courts resulted in an initial agreement executed on April 17, 1492, at Sante Fé, a town built by Spanish forces in 1490 to support their siege of the city of Granada to the east. This Santa Fé capitulation documented clause by clause the monarchs’ approval of terms. A final capitulation was then agreed to on April 30 in Granada. Columbus had requested the Granada version mainly to have the monarchs reiterate their promise to award him with royal offices should the voyage be successful. The most difficult points were his demands that he be rewarded with hereditary administrative titles to any lands he discovered as well as with a hereditary position of admiral. This clearly was based on his own experiences in Portugal, as his wife’s family held the hereditary title to the governorship of Porto Santos in the Madeiras. The Castilian royal staff was unhappy with the idea of granting Columbus hereditary title to what were civil service positions in the Spanish system, but he got his way.
The notion of Isabel pawning her jewels to fund the voyage is a myth, although she did borrow the money to make the voyage possible. On May 5, 1492, 1.14 million maravedis were loaned to Isabel and the Castilian crown by Santángel in his capacity as treasurer of the Sancta Hermandad, the national police force under the direction of Fernando and Isabel. The finances of Santángel and the Aragonose crown were densely intertwined, and the Sancta Hermandad post gave him access to proceeds from properties confiscated from Jews during their coincident expulsion from Spain—they were ordered to leave by May 1, 1492, or convert to Christianity by the end of July.
Empowered by his capitulation and with funds from the crown, Columbus headed to La Rábida and the town of Palos to mount the voyage. Within a year, he would return in triumph from his adventure on the Ocean Sea. But the spoils of discovery would see some of the leading citizens of this maritime community turn against his memory and in the process craft a counternarrative that cast into doubt his achievements and heritable rights.
BY THE SUMMER OF 1492, Christopher Columbus and John Cabot were both well established in Spain, as refugees of rather different sorts—Columbus of the Portuguese Braganza terror, Cabot of powerful and determined Venetian creditors. Cabot had wound up in Valencia: His experiences as a pellizer could have taken him there, as it was an important center on the Mediterranean coast for trade in Castilian wool and skins. It was also the financial and administrative capital of Aragon and one of Spain’s more prominent and sophisticated cities. Some forty thousand people lived there by 1489, making it one of the largest urban centers in southern Europe. Its ships fanned out across the Mediterranean, while the port provided a stepping-stone to Italian traders reaching toward the Atlantic and northern European markets.
The city was situated in the huerta, some fifty square miles of rich alluvial fields with extensive irrigation canals, and was bordered by coastal lands dominated by marjals, swampy terrain so sodden that it eventually would be turned over to rice cultivation. It offered opportunities beyond the hide trade that a Venetian like Cabot who had made part of his living in construction would naturally have sought. Maintaining canals in an area with such a high water table was a constant engineering challenge. Cabot’s landholdings and salt works in Chioggia were an interesting precedent; Chioggia’s fields were on canal-pierced lands reclaimed around the mouth of the Brenta River, and the marjals around Valencia would have posed familiar issues of drainage, reclamation, and cultivation.
Valencia itself was a city of canals, which were used for water power as well as drainage. The main canal of Na Rovella ran through Valencia’s heart, and two other major canals, Favara and Mislata, coursed around the city walls and delivered water into the city through secondary channels. The Na Rovella was a foul sewer, a conduit for human waste as well as the discharges of dyers, tanners, cloth finishers, and other trades, and posed its own engineering challenges. Valencia would have been a good place to apply any lessons Cabot had learned from construction in Venice’s district of San Palo and satellite town of Chioggia.
Cabot would have found a thriving mercantile community of Columbus’s fellow Ligurians. Nearly 600 Genoese businessmen appear in Valencian notarial records between 1450 and 1525; 200 were identified as merchants, and as many as 377 were prospering in what was broadly called the silk trade, most of those being classified as velluters, or velvet manufacturers. Cabot arrived soon after their self-governing community coalesced around a religious confraternity, as the Genoese began to build a chapel to host its activities in 1487.
Valencia was about two miles inland on the north bank of the river Turia, which emptied into the Balearic Sea of the Mediterranean. The city was enjoying a golden age of Renaissance prosperity and in 1482 began building a marvelous new complex, called La Lonja. Originally intended as an exchange market for oil, it expanded to include a silk exchange and a banking facility. La Lonja was a major project in the city core; the main Sala de Contración (contract or trading hall) and its tower would be completed in 1498, with the entire complex not finished until 1533.
It was during the construction of this ambitious facility that Cabot, in association with a Catalan merchant named Gaspar Rull, proposed a complementary one: an artificial harbor along the seashore at the mouth of the Turia River. His vision was taken seriously, and he possessed the drafting and engineering skills necessary to impress a monarch. In September 1492, the project was brought to the attention of the King of Valencia, who was holding court some 185 miles up the coast in the Catalunyan capital of Barcelona. As the kingdom had been part of the House of Aragon since 1238, the harbor scheme thus came before Fernando, who, with his wife, Isabel, had just sent Christopher Columbus off in search of a new westward route to the Orient with the financial help of Luis de Santángel, treasurer of the Sancta Hermandad, comptroller general of Aragon, and wealthy tax farmer of Valencia.