Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies A-F » Christopher Columbus


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

Christopher Columbus

      The discovery and the discoverer of America have furnished an almost inexhaustible theme for the critic, the biographer, and the historian. In the year 1892 there was celebrated an event which has come by common consent to be regarded as a world-famous epoch, worthy to be held in everlasting remembrance. We commemorated the man whose discovery almost doubled the extent of the habitable globe.

      The life, the voyages, the brilliant triumphs, and the mournful end of Columbus are already familiar to most readers. To recount them at length would be here a needless repetition. Let us rather attempt to glance at some of the historic disputes involving the character and acts of the great discoverer, to sketch briefly the sources of information about him, and to characterize some of the more important writings upon the subject.

      There is no lack of biographical material concerning the discoverer of America. He has left memorials of his personality and life-history more abundant than most of the men who have influenced their age. There are more than sixty authentic letters of Columbus in existence. There are long narratives of his expeditions and discoveries, by persons who knew him more or less intimately. There is an extended biography of him written by his own son, Ferdinand Columbus, or from materials furnished by him. There are numerous documents and state papers authenticating his acts, his privileges, and his dignities. And yet, with all the wealth of material, so copious upon his character and his career, it would seem, from recent developments, that the true discoverer of America is yet to be discovered.

      Among the many lives of Columbus that have been written, there exist some twenty-five in the English language. Of these two or three only have any historical or critical value. The mass of biographies, both English and American, are mere echoes or abridgments, in other forms of language, of the great work of Washington Irving, first published in 1828. This book was written in Spain, and based upon collections of documents (manuscript and printed) not previously used by biographers. Hence its value as the most copious and systematic life of Columbus which had appeared in any language. The finished and graceful style which characterizes all the works of its accomplished author gave it a high place in literature, which it has maintained for more than half a century, being constantly reprinted.

      Next in point of time to Irving, though treating Columbus with less fulness of detail, came the polished historian Prescott, whose "History of Ferdinand and Isabella" was published in 1837. This ardent and laborious scholar was, like Irving, constitutionally inclined to the optimistic view of his leading characters. To magnify the virtues and to minimize the faults of their heroes has always been the besetting sin of biographers. The pomp and picturesque circumstance of the Spanish court, the splendid administrative abilities of Ferdinand, the beauty, amiability, and devoted piety of Isabella, are depicted in glowing colors, but the crimes and cruelties which they sanctioned, while condemned upon one page, are softly extenuated upon others. Columbus appears as a romantic figure in history, the glory of whose successful discovery atones for his many failings.

      Of the original sources of information about Columbus the most important are:

      1. The great collection of original documents printed in Spanish by Navarrete, in 1825-37, in five volumes, and partly reprinted in a French translation in 1828. These contain the precious letters of Columbus, many of which have been translated and recently published in English.

      2. The "Historia general de las Indias," of Oviedo, first published in 1535.

      3. The "Historia de las Indias," of the Spanish Bishop Las Casas, composed in 1527 to 1561, which remained in manuscript until 1875, when it was printed from the original Spanish.

      4. The "Letters and the Decades of Peter Martyr," written in part contemporaneously with the discovery of America, and printed in Latin in 1530, and in English in 1555.

      5. The "Historia de las Reyes Catolicos," of Andres Bernaldez.

      6. The "Life of the Discoverer," by Ferdinand Columbus, first published in 1571 at Venice, in Italian.

      The last five writers had personal knowledge or intercourse with Columbus, while Las Casas, Oviedo, and Ferdinand had the advantage of residence in America, and intimate knowledge of the aborigines, and of the men and events of the period.

Columbus ridiculed at the Council of Salamanca.

      Almost every item involved in the checkered and eventful life of Columbus has afforded a fruitful theme for controversy. His birth, even, is disputed, under stress of evidence, as falling anywhere between 1435 and 1447--a discrepancy of twelve years. His birthplace is claimed by more towns than that of Homer, although his own statement, that he was a native of Genoa, has met general concurrence. His knowledge of geography, astronomy, and navigation is asserted and denied with various degrees of pertinacity. His treatment by the sovereigns of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon is so far in question that irreconcilable differences of opinion exist. How much Columbus really owed to the aid of the crown, and how much to private enterprise, in fitting out his expeditions of discovery, cannot be definitely ascertained. How far he was hindered by the bigotry, or helped by the enlightenment of powerful ecclesiastics, as at the council of Salamanca, is a theme of perennial controversy.

      The island where he first landed is so far from being identified, that many books have been written to prove the claims of this, that, or the other gem of the sea to be the true land-fall of Columbus. His treatment of the natives has been made the subject of unsparing denunciation and of undiscriminating eulogy. His conduct toward his own, often mutinous, crews is alternately lauded as humane and generous, or denounced as arrogant and cruel, according to the sympathies or the point of view of the critic. His imprisonment and attempted disgrace have been made the theme of indignant comment and of extenuating apology. His moral character and marital relations are subjects of irreconcilable differences of judgment. His deep religious bias, so manifest in nearly all his writings, has been praised as a mark of exalted merit by some writers, and stigmatized by others as cant and superstition. The last resting-place of his bones, even, is in doubt, which it required an elaborate investigation by the Royal Academy of History of Madrid to solve in favor of Havana, as against the cathedral of Santo Domingo; though its report is still controverted, and M. A. Pinart has proved to the satisfaction of many that a misprision took place and that the true remains of Columbus still rest at Santo Domingo. The movement to canonize the great discoverer has been championed with more zeal than discretion by some over-ardent churchmen, while the too-evident human frailties of the proposed candidate for the honors of sainthood have inspired an abundant caution in the councils of the Vatican.

      On a subject fraught with so much inherent difficulty, contradictory evidence, and conflict of opinion, he is on the safest ground who candidly holds his judgment in reserve. In the light of the keenly-sifted evidence which modern critical study has brought to bear, the laudatory judgments of Irving and Prescott, rendered sixty years ago, cannot stand wholly approved.

      Neither can a discerning reader accept the fulsome laudations of his principal French biographer, Roselly de Lorgues, whose rhetorical panegyrics and pious eulogies place its author in the front rank of the canonizers.

      On the other hand, those who have taken the unfavorable view of Columbus, have done their utmost to divest him of most of the honors which the general voice of history has assigned him as America's greatest discoverer. The established fact that parts of North America were seen centuries before, though no permanent settlement nor continuity of intercourse ensued, has been used to discredit him, though he was undeniably the pioneer who set out with a plan to discover, and did discover by design, what others found only by accident. His geographical ideas were derived, they say, from Behaim and Toscanelli; his nautical skill from Pinzon; his certainty of finding new lands from Alonzo Sanchez; his courage and daring from some of his fellow-voyagers.

      We are pointed to his double reckoning on his first voyage, by which he deceived his sailors as to their true distance from Spain, as evidence of a false nature. He is charged with ambition, cupidity, and arrogance, in demanding titles, dignities, and money as fruits of his discoveries. He was, we are told, a fanatic, a visionary, a tyrant, a buccaneer, a liar, and a slave-trader. He was proud, cruel, and vindictive.

      What manner of man, then, was this Columbus, with whose name the trump of fame has been busy so long? As to his person, we have no verified portrait, while the likenesses (of all periods) claiming to represent his features, present irreconcilable differences. But here is the description of him given by Herrera: "Columbus was tall of stature, long-visaged, of a majestic aspect, his nose hooked, his eyes gray, of a clear complexion, somewhat ruddy. He was witty and pleasant, well-spoken and eloquent, moderately grave, affable to strangers, to his own family mild. His conversation was discreet, which gained him the affection of those he had to deal with, and his presence attracted respect, having an air of authority and grandeur. He was a man of undaunted courage and high thoughts, patient, unmoved in the many troubles and adversities that attended him, ever relying on the Divine Providence." Gomara describes him as "a man of good height, strong-limbed, with a long countenance, fresh and rosy in aspect, somewhat given to anger, hardy in exposure to fatigues."

      Benzoni says that Columbus was "a man of exalted intellect, of a pleasant and ingenuous countenance."

      Bernaldez, the historian of Ferdinand and Isabella, who knew him intimately in his later years, says "he was a man of very lofty genius, and of marvellously honored memory."

      With these personal characteristics, Columbus united a restless spirit, a firm will, and a singularly enthusiastic temperament. The latter faculty gave him a consuming zeal for his undertakings, which was as rare as it proved ultimately successful in compassing his great discovery. He was discouraged by no rebuffs, would take no denials. His motto seemed to be never to despair, and never to let go. His spiritual nature was as remarkable as his intellectual. Here, his imagination was the predominant faculty. He firmly believed himself divinely commissioned to find out the Indies, and to bring their inhabitants into the fold of the true faith. He had early vowed to devote the profits of his enterprise, if successful, to rescue the tomb of Christ from the infidels. Himself a devout son of the Church, he fervently believed that he had miraculous aid on many perilous occasions of his life. Humble before God, he was sufficiently proud and independent before men. He insisted upon conditions with the haughty sovereigns of Spain which they deemed exacting, but the high views and tenacity of Columbus carried the day, and his own terms were granted at last. He never forgot, in all his subsequent trials and humiliations, that he was a Spanish admiral, and Viceroy of the Indies.

      Such was the character of Columbus. Let us now look at his environment, which in all men contributes so much to make or modify character. Born in Genoa, the headquarters in that day of navigation, Columbus early imbibed a passion for maritime affairs. His youthful days and nights were given to the study of astronomy and of navigation. He was a trained sailor and map-maker from his boyhood. He brooded over the problems involved in the spherical form of the earth. He caught up all the hints and allusions in classical and mediaeval writers that came in his way, of other lands than those already known. The Atlantis of Plato, and the clear prediction in Seneca of another world in the west, fired his imagination. He himself tells us that he voyaged to the Ultima Thule of his day, which was Iceland, besides various expeditions in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

      The early fancies of isles in the western sea loomed up before his eyes, and repeated themselves in his dreams. These visions were heightened by that vague sense of wonder that is linked with the unknown. No wonder, then, that Columbus, with a bent almost preternatural toward the undiscovered regions of the globe, should dream of new lands, new men, new scenery, and new wealth. But to his vivid imagination dreams became realities, until he believed with all the force of his ardent nature that he was divinely commissioned to be a discoverer. Hitherto the Portuguese voyages familiar to Columbus had only skirted the coast of Africa, and discovered the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores. It was not till 1486, years after the idea of his western voyage took firm root in his mind, that the Cape of Good Hope was at last doubled by Vasco da Gama. All voyages prior to his had been only tentative and brief, slowly creeping from headland to headland, or else finding new islands by being drifted out of courses long familiar to mariners.

      It was the supreme merit of Columbus that he was the first to cut loose from one continent to find another, and to steer boldly across an unknown sea, in search of an unknown world. We need not belittle (still less need we deny) the finding of Greenland and of other parts of North America by the Norsemen in the ninth and tenth centuries. We may hail Eric the Red and his stout son, Leif Ericson, as pioneers in what may be termed coasting voyages of discovery. But the story of America gains as little from these shadowy and abortive voyages as civilization has gained from their fruitless results.

      On the first voyage of Columbus, he was more fortunate in the uncertain elements which always affect sea voyages so overpoweringly than in some of his later ones. His own vessel, with single deck, was about ninety feet long, by a breadth of twenty feet. The Pinta, a faster sailer, and the Nina (or "baby") were smaller caravels, and without decks, commanded respectively by the brothers Martin and Vicente Pinzon. The three vessels carried ninety persons, sailing September 6, 1492, running first south to the Canaries, and then stretching straight westward on the twenty-eighth parallel for what the admiral believed to be the coast of Japan. Delightful weather favored the voyagers, but when, on the tenth day out from Spain, the caravels struck into that wonderful stretch of seaweed and grass, known as the Sargasso Sea, fear lest they should run aground or soon be unable to sail in either direction took possession of the crews. In five days the caravels ran into smooth water again. But as their distance from Spain grew greater, the spirit of protest and mutiny grew louder. Columbus needed all of his invincible constancy and firmness of purpose to quell and to animate his despairing crews. At last, October 21, 1492--day ever memorable in the annals of this world--the unknown land rose from the bosom of the water. It was named by its pious discoverer San Salvador--Holy Saviour. The charm of climate and of landscape enchanted all, and fear and despondency gave way to delight and joy and the most extravagant anticipations. The subsequent history of this first voyage, the wreck of the admiral's flag-ship Santa Maria, the base desertion of Pinzon, and his baffled attempt to forestall Columbus in the credit of the discovery, the triumphal honors paid to the successful admiral, and the pope's bull conferring upon Spain all lands west of a meridian one hundred leagues from the Azores--all this is familiar to most readers. The actual discoveries of the first voyage included Cuba and Hispaniola (or Haiti), with some little islands of the Bahama group, of small importance.

      On his second voyage Columbus found no difficulty in collecting seventeen ships and 1,500 adventurers, so popular had the new way to the Indies become when the way was once found. He set sail six months after his return to Spain, or on September 15, 1493. He returned in June, 1496, after three years of explorations, interrupted by a long illness, and having discovered Jamaica, Porto Rico, Santa Cruz, Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, and Guadaloupe.

      The third voyage began May 30, 1498, and embraced six vessels and 200 men. Columbus struck southwestward from the Cape Verde Islands and ran nearly to the equator, into a region of torrid heat, discovering Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, and the Gulf of Paria, and making his first landing on the continent, at the Pearl Coast, near the mouth of the Orinoco, in what is now Venezuela. This voyage witnessed many disasters--the rebellion of Roldan, the severe prostration of the admiral by fever, and his seizure and imprisonment in chains by the infamous Bobadilla.

      The fourth and last voyage of Columbus, with four small caravels and 150 men, was begun May 11, 1502. On this voyage he discovered Martinique and the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Veragua, on the mainland, returning to Spain, after untold disasters and miseries, on November 7, 1504. Then followed the weary struggle of the infirm old voyager to secure justice and a part of his hard-earned benefits from the crown. But Isabella had died, and Ferdinand, under the influence of the hard-hearted and cruel bigot, Fonseca, postponed all the claims of Columbus. He who had given a world died in poverty, a suppliant for the means of an honorable existence.

      It is easy enough for the writers of the nineteenth century to criticise the actors of the fifteenth; and learned scholars, sitting in luxurious easy-chairs in great libraries, can pass swift and severe judgment upon the acts and motives of Columbus. But let them go back four hundred years, and divest themselves of the bias which the science of to-day unconsciously inspires; let them quit the age of steam-engines, telegraphs, democratic governments, printing-presses, and Sunday-schools; let them orient themselves, and become Spaniards of 1492, instead of Americans of 1892; let them take the place of Columbus--if they are gifted with imagination enough among their manifold endowments to do it; let them think his thoughts, endure his trials, cherish his resolves, encounter his rebuffs, overcome his obstacles, launch out on his voyage, govern his mutinous crew, deal with his savage and hostile tribes, combat the traitors in his camp, suffer his shipwrecks, struggle with his disappointments, bear the ignominy of his chains, see his visions, and pray his prayers.

      Behold him, launched on his uncertain voyage across the "sea of darkness," in three little caravels, no larger than the modern yacht, and far less seaworthy. Watch his devoted and anxious look, his solitary self-communings, his all-night vigils under the silent stars. See his motley crew, picked up at random in Palos streets, ignorant, superstitious, and full of fears, dreading every added mile of the voyage, and alarmed at the prevalent east winds which they thought would never permit them to sail back to Spain; so that Columbus, on a contrary head-wind springing up, thanked God with all the fervency of his pious soul. Pursue his career in his later expeditions, hampered by the mutinous vagabonds whom fate had thrust upon him as followers, many of them desperadoes just out of jail. See his baffled endeavors to maintain order and discipline among such a crew; to restrain their excesses, curb their lawless acts of violence, and secure some semblance of decency in their conduct toward the natives. Many of them, we read, were so given over to idleness and sloth, that they actually made the islanders beasts of burden, to carry them on their backs. It is a most unhappy fact that the missionaries of the cross were often accompanied by bands of miscreants, who wantonly broke every commandment in the decalogue and trampled upon every precept of the gospel. See him in his last voyage, beating about the rocks and shoals of an unknown archipelago, overtaken by West India hurricanes, almost engulfed in waterspouts, scudding under bare poles amid perilous breakers, blinded by lightning, deafened by incessant peals of thunder, his crazy little barks tossed about like cockle-shells in the raging waves, his anchors lost, his worm-eaten vessels as full of holes as a honey-comb, two caravels abandoned, and the two remaining run ashore at Jamaica, where Columbus built huts on their decks to shelter his forlorn crew. See him stranded here, pressed by hunger and want, visited by sickness and almost blindness, burning with fever under the wilting, fiery heat of the tropics, desolate, forsaken, infirm, and old. There he lay a whole year without relief, until the cup of his misery was full.

      If Columbus was sometimes harsh and cruel, we are to remember that he lived in an age when the most cruel and barbarous punishments were common. There are numerous instances of his clemency both to natives and to his revolted Spaniards, and he more than once jeopardized his own life by sparing theirs. Among a treacherous and vindictive race, many of whom were continually plotting for his overthrow, the admiral, endowed with full power over the lives and acts of his followers, was compelled to make examples of the worst, many of whom were criminals released from the prisons of Spain. Like other fighters, he met treachery with treachery, cruelty with cruelty. He had never learned to love his enemies, nor to turn his cheek for the second blow. Show us the man invested with absolute power, in that or in any former age, who abused it less. Try him by the moral standards, not of our humane and enlightened age, but by those of his own. Compared with the deeds of darkness that were done by Bobadilla and Ovando, the governors who replaced him, the reign of Columbus appears, even at its worst, to have been mild and merciful.

      By the side of the atrocities and cruel massacres perpetrated under Cortes in Mexico, and Pizarro in Peru, the few deeds of blood under Columbus appear slight indeed. While we have no right to extenuate his errors and his abuses, we have as little right to hold him to a standard nowhere set up in his day. He had learned his ethics in a school which taught that, for great and pious objects, the end justified the means. In the ardor of his zeal for what he deemed the Christian faith, Columbus committed many glaring mistakes and errors; but what over-zealous apostle or reformer has failed to do the same? Columbus was unduly eager after gold, they say; but in our advanced age, when that which Virgil called "the accursed hunger for gold" pervades all ranks, and our cities are nothing but great encampments of fortune-hunters, does it lie in our mouths to condemn him?

      The age of Columbus took him as he was--all full of human imperfections and frailties, but full also to overflowing with a great idea, and with a will, a perseverance, a constancy, and a faith so sublime, as fairly to conquer every obstacle, after a weary struggle of eighteen years, and to carry forward his arduous enterprise to triumphant success. That the great discoverer failed as a governor and administrator makes nothing against his merits as a discoverer. That his light at last went out in darkness--that the world he discovered brought nothing to Spain but disappointment and Dead Sea ashes--that he dragged out a miserable old age in rotten and unseaworthy ships, lying ill in the torrid heats of the West Indies, racked with excruciating pain, and in absolute penury and want--all this but adds point to a life so full of paradox that we may almost pardon him for believing in miracles. After so much glory and so much fame, his life darkened down to its dreary and pathetic close. His ardent soul went at last where wicked governments cease from troubling, and weary mariners are at rest. On May 20, 1506, worn out by disease, anxieties, and labors, the great discoverer launched forth on his last voyage of discovery, beyond the border of that unknown land whose boundaries are hid from mortal ken.

      His place among the immortals is secure. By the power of the unconquerable mind with which nature had endowed him, he achieved a fame so imperishable that neither the arrows of malice, nor the shafts of envy, nor the keenest pens of critics, nor the assaults of iconoclasts can avail to destroy it.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.