The Conquest of the Sea



IT was “manifest destiny” that someone in this age would dare the perils of the Atlantic to find India or “Cathay.” For two thousand years legend had told of an Atlantis across the sea; and later myths had placed beyond the Atlantic a fountain whose waters conferred eternal youth. The failure of the Crusades compelled the discovery of America; the domination of the eastern Mediterranean by the Turks, the closing or obstruction of land routes by the Ottomans at Constantinople and by anti-Christian dynasties in Persia and Turkestan, made the old avenues of East-West trade costly and dangerous. Italy and even France might cling to the remnants of that trade over every discouragement of tolls and war, but Portugal and Spain were too far west to make such arrangements profitably; their problem was to find another route. Portugal found one around Africa; nothing was left for Spain but to try a passage west.

The growth of knowledge had long since established the sphericity of the earth. The very errors of science encouraged audacity by underestimating the width of the Atlantic, and picturing Asia as lying ready for conquest and exploitation on the farther side. Scandinavian mariners had reached Labrador in 986 and 1000, and had brought back news of an immense continent. In 1477, if we may believe his own account, Christopher Columbus visited Iceland,1 and presumably heard proud traditions of Leif Ericsson’s voyage to “Vinland.” All that was needed now, for the great adventure, was money. Bravery abounded.

Columbus himself, in the Mayorazzo or will that he made before setting out on his third voyage across the Atlantic, named Genoa as his birthplace. It is true that in his extant writings he always calls himself by the Spanish name Cristóbal Colón, never by the Italian name Cristoforo Colombo; but this was presumably because he was writing in Spanish, living in Spain, or sailing for a Spanish sovereign, not because he had been born in Spain. Possibly his forebears had been Spanish Christianized Jews who had migrated to Italy; the evidence of Hebraic blood and sentiment in Columbus is almost convincing.2 His father was a weaver, and Christoforo appears to have followed that craft for a time in Genoa and Savona. The biography written by his son Ferdinand credits him with studying astronomy, geometry, and cosmography at the University of Pavia, but the university records do not list him, and he himself tells us that he became a sailor at fourteen.3 For in Genoa every road leads down to the sea.

In 1476 a ship on which he was heading for Lisbon was attacked by pirates; the vessel foundered; Columbus relates that with the support of some wreckage he swam six miles to the shore; but the great admiral had high powers of imagination. A few months later (he says) he sailed for England as seaman or captain, thence to Iceland, thence to Lisbon. There he married, and settled down as a maker of maps and charts. His father-in-law was a mariner who had served Prince Henry the Navigator; doubtless Columbus heard from him some glowing tales of the Guinea coast. In 1482, probably as an officer, he joined a Portuguese fleet that sailed that coast to Elmina. He read with interest, and many annotations, Pope Pius II’s Historia rerum gestarum, which suggested the circumnavigability of Africa.4

But his studies more and more inclined him to the west. He knew that Strabo, in the first century of our era, had told of an attempt to circle the globe. He was familiar with Seneca’s lines: “An age will come in after years when Ocean will loose the bonds of things, and an immense land will appear, and the prophet Tiphys will reveal new worlds, and Thule [Iceland? ] will no longer be the end of the earth.”5 He had read The Book of Ser Marco Polo, which glorified the riches of China and placed Japan 1,500 miles east of the mainland of Asia. He made over a thousand notes in his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi. He accepted the prevailing estimate of the earth’s circumference as 18,000 to 20,000 miles; and combining this with Polo’s displacement of Japan, he reckoned that the nearest Asiatic islands would be some 5,000 miles west of Lisbon. He had heard of a letter (1474) in which the Florentine physician Paolo Toscanelli had advised King Affonso V of Portugal that a shorter way to India than that around Africa could be found by sailing 5,000 miles west. Columbus wrote to Toscanelli, and received an encouraging reply. His purpose matured, and seethed in his brain.

About 1484 he proposed to John II of Portugal that the King should equip three vessels for a year of exploration across the Atlantic and back; that Columbus should be appointed “Great Admiral of the Ocean” and perpetual governor of whatever lands he might discover; and that he should receive a tenth of all revenues and precious metals thereafter derived from those lands by Portugal.6 (Obviously the idea of spreading Christianity was secondary to material considerations.) The King submitted the proposal to a committee of savants; they rejected it on the ground that Columbus’s estimate of the distance across the Atlantic as merely 2,400 miles was far too small. (It was approximately correct from the Canary Islands to the West Indies.) In 1485 two Portuguese navigators proposed a similar project to King John, but agreed to finance it themselves; John gave them at least his blessing; they sailed (1487), followed too northern a route, encountered rough westerly winds, and turned back in despair. Columbus renewed his appeal (1488); the King invited him to an audience; Columbus came just in time to witness the triumphant return of Bartholomeu Dias from a successful rounding of Africa. Absorbed in prospects of an African route to India, the Portuguese government abandoned consideration of a passage across the Atlantic. Columbus turned to Genoa and Venice, but they too gave him no encouragement, for they had a vested interest in the eastward route to the East. He commissioned his brother to sound out Henry VII of England, who invited Columbus to a conference. When the invitation reached him he had already committed himself to Spain.

He was now (1488) some forty-two years old; tall and thin, with long face, ruddy complexion, eagle nose, blue eyes, freckles, bright red hair already turning gray, and soon to be white. His son and his friends described him as modest, grave, affable, discreet, temperate in eating and drinking, fervently pious. Others alleged that he was vain, that he paraded and inflated the titles he received, that he ennobled his ancestry in his imagination and his writings, and that he bargained avidly for his share in the New World’s gold; however, he was worth more than he asked. He deviated occasionally from the Ten Commandments, for at Córdoba, after his wife’s death, Beatriz Enríquez bore him an illegitimate son (1488). Columbus did not marry her, but he provided well for her in his life and his will; and as most dignitaries in those agile times had such by-products, no one seems to have been put out by the accident.

Meanwhile he had laid his petition before Isabella of Castile (May 1, 1486). She referred it to a group of advisers presided over by the saintly Archbishop Talavera. After long delay they reported the plan to be impracticable, arguing that Asia must be much farther west than Columbus supposed. Nevertheless Ferdinand and Isabella gave him an annuity of 12,000 maravedís ($840?), and in 1489 they furnished him with a letter ordering all Spanish municipalities to provide him with food and lodging; perhaps they wished to keep an option on his project lest by some chance it should bestow a continent on a rival king. But when the Talavera committee, after reconsidering the scheme, again rejected it, Columbus resolved to submit it to Charles VIII of France. Fray Juan Pérez, head of the monastery of La Rabida, dissuaded him by arranging another audience with Isabella. She sent him 20,000 maravedis to finance his trip to her headquarters at the siege city of Santa Fé. He went; she heard his plea kindly enough, but her advisers once more discountenanced the idea. He resumed his preparations for going to France (January 1492).

At this critical juncture a baptized Jew prodded the march of history. Luis de Santander, finance minister to Ferdinand, reproached Isabella for lack of imagination and enterprise, tempted her with the prospect of converting Asia to Christianity, and proposed to finance the expedition himself with the aid of his friends. Several other Jews—Don Isaac Abrabanel, Juan Cabrero, Abraham Senior—supported his plea.7 Isabella was moved, and offered to pledge her jewels to raise the needed sum. Santander judged this unnecessary; he borrowed 1,400,000 maravedís from the fraternity of which he was treasurer; he added 350,000 out of his own pocket; and Columbus somehow got together 250,000 more.* On April 17, 1492, the King signed the requisite papers. Then or later he gave Columbus a letter to the Khan of Cathay; it was China, not India, that Columbus hoped to reach, and which to the end of his life he thought he had found. On August 3 the Santa Maria (his flagship), the Pinta, and the Niña sailed from Palos with eighty-eight men, and provisions for a year.

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