Post-classical history


CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS and Martín Alonso Pinzón were scarcely on speaking terms when the return voyage began. Columbus was on the verge of departing the north coast of the island of Española (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) for home on January 6, 1493, when Martín Alonso reappeared with the Pinta, sailing westward, not having been seen since November 26. Columbus turned back to lead Martín Alonso to the anchorage at Monte Cristi.

No log or journal would survive to explain exactly where the Pinta had been all this time, but after stealing away, Martín Alonso had first lighted on the Bahamian island of Great Inagua, which was thought to be Baneque, where there was no promised gold. He had then turned toward Española, taking shelter in an anchorage at the mouth of a river far to the east.

Pinzón loyalists would affirm that Martín Alonso led a shore party up this river, which he named for himself. The party was gone for three days. Arias Pérez Pinzón said his father “saw such signs of gold in this land that everyone was astonished and greatly pleased” and then led a second expedition inland at another location on the island. Once back at the Pinta, according to his son’s version of events, Martín Alonso sent natives in canoes to notify Columbus. After being told of the gold, Columbus arrived at Española from the Bahamas. Six weeks had passed since he and Martín Alonso had separated.

Columbus had his own version of the insubordination, and it contained no summons to Española by Pinzón. The Pinta had holed up at his eponymous river for sixteen days and acquired gold mainly through trade with the natives, with Martín Alonso keeping half of it and his men sharing the other half. When Pinzón learned that Columbus too was on the north coast of Española, he concluded that an encounter could not be avoided and attempted to have his men swear that they had traded at the River of Martín Alonso only for six days.

If Martín Alonso returned to Spain without squaring matters first with Columbus, he risked losing his life or liberty for disobeying the commander of a royal expedition, whatever side agreement between them might have been the basis of this voyage. He must have decided it was better to make the best of his situation now. And so he had steered west, back along the north shore of Española, to seek out his erstwhile commander. Still, when he saw only the Niña on January 6, he probably thought he was about to be reunited with his brothers. Instead, he found himself back in the company of Columbus, as by then the Santa María had been lost.

Columbus’s chartered flagship had been wrecked on the north shore of Española at midnight on Christmas Eve. The Santa María had come inside the reef east of Cap-Haitien and likely had gone aground off the beach at Bord De Mer De Limonade. Short of room for all of his men aboard the little Niña, Columbus decided to establish a fortified post, La Navidad (the nativity), which was thrown together from the salvaged remains of the ship. Left behind there were almost half of the men in the three-ship expedition, thirty-nine in all. It was placed under the joint command of three men, the royal representatives Pero Gutiérrez and Rodrigo Sánchez de Segovia, and Diego de Arana, the second cousin of Columbus’s companion, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, with orders to venture into the countryside and find gold. Columbus had then transferred to the Niña with the remaining men for the return voyage.

Martín Alonso came aboard the Niña at Monte Cristi and “made his excuses, saying that he had become separated from [Columbus] against his will, giving reasons,” according to the Las Casas journal abstract, “but the Admiral says that they were all untrue and that he had acted out of great pride and greed on the night that he had gone off and left him. And the Admiral says that he had no idea where he had got the arrogance and disloyalty with which he had treated him on that voyage.”

Francisco Medel, a town councilor in Huelva, would testify that Martín Alonso Pinzón had found both Española and Puerto Rico (which was initially called San Juan), and attributed Columbus’s anger to prideful resentment that Pinzón had discovered and marked these landfalls before he could. Medel said Columbus told Pinzón that “he should obey him in conformity with the powers of the king.” Medel was among deponents who alleged that Columbus had tried to turn back on the crossing when Pinzón insisted on carrying forward and had Pinzón reply, “According to your wishes we would already have returned and not found land. I have discovered and marked it in the name of king. Let us go to Spain and they will judge us.” When Columbus threatened to “have him hanged on his door,” Pinzón replied, “Do I deserve that? For having placed you in the honor that I have placed you, do you say that to me?”

Columbus believed Martín Alonso and his brother Vicente Yáñez “and others who supported them in their arrogance and greed” were bent on making their own claim to what had been discovered by the wayward Pinta—“that everything was already theirs, and not heeding the honor which the Admiral had done to them.” The Pinzón faction moreover “had not obeyed nor were obeying his orders, but rather were doing and saying many unjust things against him.”

Columbus was vulnerable to criticism for his own decisions, which could have tempered his displeasure with Martín Alonso. According to the chronicler Oviedo, Pinzón was appalled to learn that Columbus had left behind thirty-nine men at La Navidad and argued that it was wrong to abandon these Christians in this foreign land. Pinzón had good reason to fear their vulnerability to native attack, as the Pinta had suffered a fierce assault while anchored in the River of Martín Alonso.

While Columbus would not be dissuaded from his decision to leave the men behind at La Navidad, he also chose to accept Martín Alonso’s return without inflicting punishment or promising to have him judged once back in Spain. “The Admiral decided to turn a blind eye,” reiterated Las Casas in the journal abstract, “so as not to give Satan a chance to do his evil deeds by hindering the voyage as he had done up till then.” He “suffered in silence” Pinzón’s disobedience “to bring his voyage to a successful conclusion.” Columbus also feared some of the sailors, calling them “bad company” and “rabble.”

Yet Columbus was not planning to turn the other cheek indefinitely. As Las Casas quoted him from the journal entry for January 9: “I will not suffer the deeds of evil men of little worth who presume to have their own way with scant regard for him who gave them that honor.”

Columbus and Pinzón would have made for miserable, wary company, each in command of his own vessel, each deeply displeased with the behavior of the other, yet each realizing that it was in their own interest to return together. It was impossible to say how severely one might turn on the other when they were home, and there would have been a mutual desire to keep track of a rival. But on February 14, 1493, by accident or intent, Pinzón again slipped away from Columbus.

SO CLOSE TO SUCCESS, and everything was about to be lost. Christopher Columbus’s quest for fame and fortune—his very life—was in utter peril. After almost a month at sea since departing Española, working northeastward to the latitude of the Azores and Portugal’s Cape St. Vincent, Columbus feared he would never be able to deliver the news of his triumph: The voyage he had spent upward of a decade trying to mount had proven, as promised, a westward route across the Ocean Sea to the wealth of the Indies.

The two ships were raked by a ferocious North Atlantic storm. Fearing the worst, Columbus composed a long letter on February 14, 1493, describing his discoveries, making at least two copies. One, which he dated February 15, he would send to the treasurer of Aragon, Luis de Santángel, should he actually survive; the other was sealed in a barrel and tossed overboard. Columbus concealed from his crew the barrel’s contents, letting them understand that he was making a religious offering in hope of sparing them from the tempest.

If the Niña went down, this barrel’s wanderings in currents and waves might deliver—somewhere, somehow—some word of his accomplishments. Fernando and Isabel still could learn that their faith in him had not been misplaced, that his critics were wrong to have argued that the voyage scheme was both illogical and impossible. The physical evidence of his success—gold especially, and seven Indigenous people, at least some of whom he had abducted—might go down with him, but his words would endure, and so would his name. A forty-two-year-old Genoese merchant’s representative who had started out as a simple wool worker would be remembered as the most heroic voyager of this or any other age.

As the wind shrieked and the barrel splashed into a voracious sea, Columbus lost contact with the Pinta. The two ships had no choice but to run before the wind during the worst of the storm, and in the night, the Pinta had outpaced theNiña and disappeared altogether, even though Columbus had kept flares burning to allow the vessels to maintain contact. In the morning, Columbus found his life had been spared but that he also had the sea to himself. The Pinta had either gone down or was now making her own way home. The possibility that the Pinta’s captain, Martín Alonso Pinzón, was still alive and would reach Spain before he did might have been the worst of the two outcomes for Columbus.

Columbus had ample reason to be concerned that Martín Alonso would beat him home to Spain and be the one to report not only on what they had found but what had happened. There might be nothing left for Columbus but a substantial debt to a slaver for a lost ship and a litany of shame.

COLUMBUS COULD NOT CHASE down Martín Alonso after they were separated by the storm. Land was sighted the next morning, and Columbus desperately needed to pause and reballast the Niña. There was much argument over where they were. Columbus claimed some of his men thought they were off Madeira while others said they were approaching Lisbon. He was confident they were in the Azores, and he was right: The speck of land ahead proved to be Santa María, the most southeasterly landfall in the archipelago.

Columbus had nearly passed the Azores altogether, and it might have been to his advantage to do so. When most of his crew went ashore on Santa María, they were seized by locals who feared Columbus might be another ravaging pirate, and the acting governor, João da Castanheira, tried unsuccessfully to lure Columbus ashore in order to capture him as well. Outraged by the reception, Columbus had to make for São Miguel, about forty miles north, under a skeleton crew and plead for the return of his men. Between securing their release, reballasting, and reprovisioning, Columbus was not under way again until February 25, only to be met by yet more calamitous weather.

WHILE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS made his historic if fractious and geographically bewildered cruise of the northeastern Caribbean, John Cabot’s plan to create an artificial harbor for Valencia slowly advanced. Fernando and Isabel and their advisors, however, were awash in other pressing issues, not the least of which was Fernando’s health. He was still recovering from an assassination attempt in November 1492. A crazed man named Cagnamarc from a village near Barcelona was convinced he would become king if Fernando died, and did his best to arrange that with a knife.

In addition, the monarchs’ diplomatic file was fairly bursting. On January 19, 1493, Fernando and Isabel concluded the Treaty of Barcelona with a new figure in European politics, Charles VIII of France. The only son of Louis XI technically had been in power since ascending to the throne in 1483 at age thirteen, but control of the state had remained with a regent, his sister Anne de Beaujeu (who as noted might have employed Bartolomé Columbus as a cartographer), until her brother’s marriage in 1491 to Anne de Bretagne.

By 1492, the twenty-two-year-old Charles was fully in charge, albeit to the perturbation of many. He was physically frail—the right side of his body appeared stronger than the left—and one diplomat noticed that his hands trembled constantly. He was perhaps too well read, as he seemed given over to romantic notions of chivalrous quests. A Florentine ambassador reported that he was incapable of dealing with serious matters. “He comprehends them so little, and takes so little interest in them, that I am embarrassed to say it.” As a Venetian envoy summarized, “I hold for certain that, whether in body or in spirit, he is worth little.” Charles’s imminent military misadventures in Italy would induce a fresh paroxysm of diplomatic maneuvering throughout Europe that helped dictate the course of John Cabot’s erratic career.

The Treaty of Barcelona was one of Charles’s first major foreign policy initiatives. Determined to establish amicable relations with the rising power of the united Spain, Charles returned to Spain the frontier counties of Roussillon and Cerdagne in the Pyrénees—quite possibly where Cabot had been holed up before appearing in Valencia. The counties had been pawned by Fernando’s predecessor, Juan II, to Louis XI in order to finance his actions in the Navarrese civil war and had been occupied by French troops ever since.

Next up for Fernando and Isabel was a proposal that March by England’s Henry VII to reratify the 1489 Treaty of Medina del Campo and with it the agreement that his son and successor, Arthur Tudor, would wed Fernando and Isabel’s youngest child, Catherine (Catalina) of Aragon, in England in late 1498, when Arthur was twelve and Catherine thirteen. Henry’s effort to resuscitate a lapsed agreement provided Fernando and Isabel a fresh opportunity to strengthen Spain’s strategic alliances through dynastic marriages. But they were lukewarm to the overture. They had what they wanted in diplomacy foremost from the Treaty of Barcelona in mending fences with France and no longer needed a dynastic alliance with England to threaten Charles VIII. Henry was left dangling.

At the same time, the Spanish monarchs were awaiting news from the Ocean Sea. Alonso de Lugo, Gianotto Berardi, and Francisco de Riberol were close to wrapping up their conquest of La Palma in the name of Fernando and Isabel and soon would be inquiring after their 700,000-maravedi reward. And there was the matter of what had become of Christopher Columbus and his three ships.

But Fernando did not forget about Cabot. On February 26 and 27, the king issued orders to Valencia’s governor-general, Diego de Torres, to begin construction of the artificial harbor. Columbus had just departed São Miguel in the Azores, on what hopefully would be the final leg of the return voyage to Spain. Fernando’s royal priorities were about to undergo a profound change.

A SQUALL ON MARCH 3 forced Columbus to reduce the Niña to bare masts after his sails were torn: The winds and seas “devoured them from opposite directions” according to Las Casas as rain and lightning filled the night sky. Columbus was certain they would perish, but in the morning as the weather eased he spied the Rock of Sintra marking the approach to Lisbon’s harbor.

Of all the ports a storm could offer for salvation, Portugal’s main naval base surely was the most daunting. Columbus already claimed to have learned at São Miguel that if João da Castanheira had been able to seize him at Santa María, he never would have been released, as there allegedly had been orders from the king, João II, to capture him if the opportunity arose. The Niña anchored initially off the beach at Restelo, on the north shore of the river leading into Lisbon’s capacious and superbly sheltered harbor.

Columbus was promptly accosted by the captain of a massive Portuguese warship anchored nearby. The naval officer turned out to be Bartolomeu Días, who had proven that southern Africa could be rounded to reach the Indian Ocean in 1487–88. The Portuguese effort in establishing such a route to the Indies had stalled since then. At Restelo, Días brusquely demanded that Columbus turn himself over to the warship. Columbus refused to do so, but he provided his letter of commission from Fernando and Isabel.

Columbus wrote two letters on March 4. One was to Fernando and Isabel describing his triumph: “That everlasting God who has given Your Highnesses so many victories has now given you the greatest ever given to any monarch. I have come with the fleet that Your Highnesses gave me from the Indies, to which I crossed in thirty-three days after departing from your kingdoms.”

The other was addressed to João II, requesting permission to move the Niña into the harbor proper. Columbus informed the Portuguese king “how the Monarchs of Castile had ordered him not to be afraid of entering His Highness’s ports to buy whatever he needed.” Columbus asked the king’s permission to move his ship into Lisbon’s harbor “in case some villains, thinking that he was carrying a lot of gold, and seeing him in a deserted harbor, should take it into their heads to commit some act of villainy, and also so that the King might know that he had not come from Guinea but from the Indies.”

Columbus’s letter to João II seemed to be saying: I have a lot of gold on board, but I didn’t get it from your West African territory—I have just returned from the Indies with it. He was almost delighting in the opportunity to tweak the Portuguese king for not having employed him in his Indies scheme when he had the chance, confident that no harm could come to him with Fernando and Isabel as his protectors. But Columbus also may have been hedging his bets. Fearful of the reception awaiting him in Spain if Martín Alonso had beaten him home, Columbus could have been using this landfall to test the waters with João II, to see how he would be received and how interested the Portuguese might be in employing him going forward, if it came to that.

Columbus’s behavior would arouse suspicions in Spain, which he was still protesting in 1500 in a letter to Juana de La Torre, who had been governess of the household of Crown Prince Juan. “I think your Ladyship will remember that when, after losing my sails, I was driven into Lisbon by a tempest, I was falsely accused of having gone there to the King [João II] in order to give him the Indies. Their Highnesses afterwards learned the contrary, and that it was extremely malicious.”

In his letter written to Fernando and Isabel at Restelo, Columbus had condemned Martín Alonso’s behavior while eliding the less complimentary details of his own performance. He explained how he had departed Española with “only one caravel, for I had left my flagship with the men in Your Highnesses’ town of Navidad, where they were establishing a fortress, as I shall later report.” Not a word about actually having lost the Santa María, which veritably had become La Navidad. As for the fate of his other vessel, the Pinta,“someone from Palos, whom I had put in charge of it, expecting loyal service, made off with it, thinking to help himself to great amounts of gold from an island about which an Indian had given information. I thought I would do with him later what seemed best.” Although Columbus had not named Martín Alonso, he had made clear Pinzón’s insubordination and had every intention of exacting revenge once back in Spain.

WHETHER BY DIPLOMATIC POUCH or Genoese trader, two Columbus letters—the one written to Santángel while at sea and the one to Fernando and Isabel of March 4—were quickly delivered. Martín Alonso Pinzon had not yet rematerialized in the Pinta, and so Columbus was able to get first word of his discoveries to the Spanish monarchs. The court was then seated in Barcelona, and news propagated from there with blistering speed. On March 9, a Genoese merchant at Barcelona named Annibale De Zennaro relayed word to his brother in Milan of the discoveries, mainly drawing on details in the letter to Santángel that had only just arrived. On that day, as word of Columbus’s discoveries raced on to Italy, the explorer was making an unplanned rain-soaked pilgrimage to Santa Maria das Virtudes, some thirty miles to the northeast of Lisbon.

The entire sojourn in Portugal was beginning to look like a serious miscalculation. João II had retreated to Santa Maria das Virtudes, a sanctuary for the Portuguese monarchs since 1434, to avoid an outbreak of the plague. Although Columbus allegedly was reluctant to make the trip, he was politely but firmly informed that the weather was too poor to allow him to sail from Lisbon anyway and his presence was commanded by João II.

To hear Columbus tell it, the audience nevertheless came off splendidly, if a bit stickily. “João II seemed to be very pleased that the voyage had been undertaken and had ended successfully, but that he understood that according to the treaty between the Monarchs and himself, those conquests belonged to him.” The king was referring to Alcáçovas. Columbus professed ignorance, alleging he had neither seen this treaty nor knew anything about it, which could not have been the case. He allowed only that Fernando and Isabel had ordered him not to go near São Jorge de Mina or anywhere else on the Guinea coast.

“The King graciously replied that he was certain that there would be no need for third parties in this matter.” On the contrary, there would be considerable diplomatic haggling over the rights to Columbus’s discoveries. And while Columbus had survived the audience and was treated respectfully, he could not make a ready retreat from Portugal. On the way back to Lisbon, at the monastery of San Antonio in Vila Franca, there was another audience, with the queen consort, Eleanor of Viseu. The meeting delivered Columbus back into the political treachery that had caused him and members of his late wife’s family to flee Portugal. Eleanor was powerful in her own right as consort, and her immediate kin had been at the heart of the Braganza conspiracy. João II had murdered Eleanor’s older brother, Diogo, Duke of Viseu; her sister Isabella had been the wife of the executed Duke of Braganza.

In order to mend fences with Portugal, Spain’s Fernando and Isabel had arranged the 1490 wedding of their eldest child, Isabel, to Eleanor and João II’s only child, Crown Prince Afonso. In 1491, Afonso (then sixteen, five years younger than his bride) was killed in a horse-riding accident, plunging the Portuguese succession into disarray. João II had an illegitimate son, Jorge de Lencastre, whom he was determined to advance as his heir, but Eleanor for one would not stand for it. While visiting Eleanor, Columbus met with her younger brother, Manoel, not yet twenty-four, who had replaced their murdered older brother Diogo as Duke of Viseu. It was Manoel who would come to rule Portugal on the death of João II in October 1495.

Columbus finally set sail again on March 13, nine days after fetching up like some storm-tossed petrel at Restelo. At sunrise on March 15, the Niña arrived off the bar of Saltés marking the entrance to her home port. Columbus waited for high tide at noon to carry him over the bar and back into the greater harbor community of Huelva, Palos, and the La Rábida monastery.

While Columbus had been making his whirlwind of audiences with the present and future Portuguese monarchy, the Pinta had cast up 230 nautical miles north of Lisbon, in the port of Baiona in Spain’s province of Galicia. Martín Alonso Pinzón sent word to Fernando and Isabel of his return; they directed him to return to Palos. There was no way for him to avoid another difficult reunion with Columbus, and the Pinta reappeared at the bar of Saltés within hours of Columbus’s own arrival.

Yet evidently the two men never met. Almost forty-three years later, Martín Alonso’s cousin, Hernan Pérez Mateos, would testify at Santo Domingo as to what transpired: “Martín Alonso did not join up with don Cristóbal Colón because, this witness learned, Martín Alonso was afraid of him, for what reason he did not know, except that he heard that if don Cristóbal Colón could capture Martín Alonso, that he would do so, and would take him with him as a prisoner before a court.”

Like others who testified, Pérez Mateos also said that Martín Alonso was quite ill. Wading in the waters of the River of Martín Alonso in search of gold, it was believed, had exposed him to some terrible pathogen. He retired to an estate he owned outside of Moguer, Pérez Mateos explained, without ever actually setting foot in the town of Palos on his return. The illness worsened, and some of his kinsmen arranged to have Martín Alonso moved to the care of the Franciscans at La Rábida.

Columbus’s most worrying rival to his discovery claims was dead within a few days.

Lost was the most credible contrary source as to what had actually happened on the voyage. As another deponent, Pedro Arias of Palos, would attest, Martín Alonso “could not go to kiss the hands of their highnesses,” and in his absence, “no advocate appeared on behalf of Martín Alonso to tell their highness the truth.” Columbus alone would be able to define what had been found and to reap the benefits in partnership with Fernando and Isabel.

Yet as one rivalry expired at La Rábida, another was being born from within Columbus’s plan to turn La Navidad into a trading colossus.

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