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The Life and Adventures of Christopher Columbus

By Washington Irving

from Works of Washington Irving, rev. ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860), Vol. 3.



THE joy occasioned by the great discovery of Columbus was not confined to Spain; the tidings were spread far and wide by the communications of ambassadors, the correspondence of the learned, the negotiations of merchants, and the reports of travelers, and the whole civilized world was filled with wonder and delight. How gratifying would it have been had the press at that time, as at present, poured forth its daily tide of speculation on every passing occurrence! With what eagerness should we seek to know the first ideas and emotions of the public, on an event so unlooked for and sublime! Even the first announcements of it by contemporary writers, though brief and incidental, derive interest from being written at the time; and from showing the casual way in which such great tidings were conveyed about the world. Allegretto Allegretti, in his annals of Sienna for 1493, mentions it as just made known there by the letters of their merchants who were in Spain, and by the mouths of various travelers. The news was brought to Genoa by the return of her ambassadors Francisco Marchesi and Giovanni Antonio Grimaldi, and was {272} recorded among the triumphant events of the year: for the republic, though she may have slighted the opportunity of making herself mistress of the discovery, has ever since been tenacious of the glory of having given birth to the discoverer. The tidings were soon carried to England, which as yet was but a maritime power of inferior importance. They caused, however, much wonder in London, and great talk and admiration in the court of Henry VII, where the discovery was pronounced "a thing more divine than human." We have this on the authority of Sebastian Cabot himself, the future discoverer of the northern continent of America, who was in London at the time, and was inspired by the event with a generous spirit of emulation.

Every member of civilized society, in fact, rejoiced in the occurrence, as one in which he was more or less interested. To some it opened a new and unbounded field of inquiry; to others, of enterprise; and every one awaited with intense eagerness the further development of this unknown world, still covered with mystery, the partial glimpses of which were so full of wonder. We have a brief testimony of the emotions of the learned in a letter, written at the time, by Peter Martyr to his friend Pomponius Laetus. "You tell me, my amiable Pomponius," he writes, "that you leaped for joy, and that your delight was mingled with tears, when you read my epistle, certifying to you the hitherto hidden world of the antipodes. You have felt and acted as became a man eminent for learning, for I can conceive no aliment more delicious than such tidings to a cultivated and ingenuous mind. I feel a wonderful exultation of spirits when I con- {273} verse with intelligent men who have returned from these regions. It is like an accession of wealth to a miser. Our minds, soiled and debased by the common concerns of life and the vices of society, become elevated and ameliorated by contemplating such glorious events."

Notwithstanding this universal enthusiasm, however, no one was aware of the real importance of the discovery. No one had an idea that this was a totally distinct portion of the globe, separated by oceans from the ancient world. The opinion of Columbus was universally adopted, that Cuba was the end of the Asiatic continent, and that the adjacent islands were in the Indian seas. This agreed with the opinions of the ancients, heretofore cited, about the moderate distance from Spain to the extremity of India, sailing westwardly. The parrots were also thought to resemble those described by Pliny, as abounding in the remote parts of Asia. The lands, therefore, which Columbus had visited were called the West Indies; and as he seemed to have entered upon a vast region of unexplored countries, existing in a state of nature, the whole received the comprehensive appellation of "The New World."

During the whole of his sojourn at Barcelona, the sovereigns took every occasion to bestow on Columbus personal marks of their high consideration. He was admitted at all times to the royal presence, and the queen delighted to converse with him on the subject of his enterprises. The king, too, appeared occasionally on horseback, with Prince Juan on one side, and Columbus on the other. To perpetuate in his family the glory of his achievement, a coat of arms was assigned him, in which the royal {274} arms, the castle and lion, were quartered with his proper bearings, which were a group of islands surrounded by waves. To these arms was afterwards annexed the motto:

		A Castilla y á Leon,
		Nuevo mundo dio Colon.

		(To Castile and Leon
		Columbus gave a new world.)

The pension which had been decreed by the sovereigns to him who in the first voyage should discover land, was adjudged to Columbus, for having first seen the light on the shore. It is said that the seaman who first descried the land, was so incensed at being disappointed of what he conceived his merited reward, that he renounced his country and his faith, and going into Afri ca turned Musselman; an anecdote which rests merely on the authority of Oviedo, who is extremely incorrect in his narration of this voyage, and inserts many falsehoods told him by the enemies of the admiral.

It may, at first sight, appear but little accordant with the acknowledged magnanimity of Columbus, to have borne away the prize from this poor sailor, but this was a subject in which his whole ambition was involved, and he was doubtless proud of the honor of being personally the discoverer of the land as well as projector of the enterprise.

Next to the countenance shown him by the king and queen, may be mentioned that of Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, the grand cardinal of Spain, and first subject of the realm; a man whose elevated character for piety, learning, and high prince-like quali- {275} ties, gave signal value to his favors. He invited Columbus to a banquet, where he assigned him the most honorable place at table, and had him served with the ceremonials which in those punctilious times were observed towards sovereigns. At this repast is said to have occurred the well-known anecdote of the egg. A shallow courtier present, impatient of the honors paid to Columbus, and meanly jealous of him as a foreigner, abruptly asked him whether he thought that, in case he had not discovered the Indies, there were not other men in Spain, who would have been capable of the enterprise? To this Columbus made no immediate reply, but, taking an egg, invited the company to make it stand on one end. Every one attempted it, but in vain; whereupon he struck it upon the table so as to break the end, and left it standing on the broken part; illustrating in this simple manner, that when he had once shown the way to the New World, nothing was easier than to follow it.1

The favor shown Columbus by the sovereigns, insured him for a time the caresses of the nobility; for in a court every one vies with his neighbor in lavishing attentions upon the man "whom the king delighted to honor." Columbus bore all these caresses and distinctions with becoming modesty, though he must have felt a proud satisfaction in the idea that they had been wrested, as it were, from the nation by his courage and perseverance. One can barely recognize in the individual thus made the companion of princes, and the theme of general wonder and admiration, the {276} same obscure stranger who but a short time before had been a common scoff and jest in this very court, derided by some as an adventurer, and pointed at by others as a madman. Those who had treated him with contumely during his long course of solicitation, now sought to efface the remembrance of it by adulations. Every one who had given him a little cold countenance, or a few courtly smiles, now arrogated to himself the credit of having been a patron and of having promoted the discovery of the New World. Scarce a great man about the court, but has been enrolled by his historian or biographer among the benefactors of Columbus; though, had one-tenth part of this boasted patronage been really exerted, he would never have had to linger seven years soliciting for an armament of three caravels. Columbus knew well the weakness of the patronage that had been given him. The only friends mentioned by him with gratitude, in his after letters, as having been really zealous and effective, were those two worthy friars, Diego de Deza, afterwards bishop of Palencia and Seville, and Juan Perez, the prior of the convent of La Rabida.

Thus honored by the sovereigns, courted by the great, idolized by the people, Columbus, for a time, drank the honeyed draught of popularity, before enmity and detraction had time to drug it with bitterness. His discovery burst with such sudden splendor upon the world, as to dazzle envy itself, and to call forth the general acclamations of mankind. Well would it be for the honor of human nature, could history, like romance, close with the consummation of the hero's wishes; we should then leave Columbus in the full fruition of great and well-merited prosperity. But his history is destined to furnish another proof, if proof be wanting of the inconstancy of public favor, even when won by distinguished services. No greatness was ever acquired by more incontestable, {277} unalloyed, and exalted benefits rendered to mankind, yet none ever drew on its possessor more unremitting jealousy and defamation; or involved him in more unmerited distress and difficulty. Thus it is with illustrious merit: its very effulgence draws forth the rancorous passions of low and groveling minds, which too often have a temporary influence in obscuring it to the world; as the sun emerging with full splendor into the heavens, calls up, by the very fervor of its rays, the rank and noxious vapors, which for a time, becloud its glory.

1. This anecdote rests on the authority of the Italian historian Benzoni, (lib i. p 12, ed. Venetia, 1572). It has been condemned as trivial, but the simplicity of the reproof constitutes its severity, and was characteristic of the practical sagacity of Columbus. The universal popularity of the anecdote is a proof of its merit.