The Fate of Christopher Columbus
To say of Columbus that he was not conspicuous for learning is but to
repeat that his chief powers were moral not intellectual. Patience,
endurance, tenacity, energy, and will — these, despite his ignorance, made
him great. Cupidity and vanity, entailing boastfulness and craft, we have
noted as his chief weaknesses; but as to cupidity the record is perhaps
less vulnerable than it is at times represented. Throughout the years 1500
to 1504, the years preceding and including his fourth voyage, gold was to
Columbus indeed a thing infinitely precious — precious in itself but far
more so as the indispensable justification of his life and work. Then it
is that we find him writing: "Gold is most excellent, gold is treasure,
and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world, and succeeds
in helping souls into Paradise."
Columbus was religious, formally and ceremoniously, albeit sincerely, religious. From an early date — in fact, while at Granada before his first voyage — he had embraced the idea of rescuing the Holy Sepulcher from the Infidel. To this end he was resolved, or so deemed himself, to devote his profits from the Indies. And withal he was eloquent. He waxed eloquent over the Holy Sepulcher; and when, after his third voyage, he was put upon waiting orders, alike to the impairment of his revenues and the wounding of his pride, he waxed eloquent over that injustice. "I have arrived at and am in such a condition," he writes in 1500, "that there is no person so vile but thinks he may insult me; he shall be reckoned in the world as valor itself who is courageous enough to consent to it. If I were to steal the Indies, or the land which lies toward them, of which I am now speaking, from the altar of St. Peter and give them to the Moors, they could not show greater enmity toward me in Spain. Who would believe such a thing where there was always so much magnanimity? . . . I undertook a fresh voyage to the new heaven and earth which up to that time had remained hidden; and if it is not held there in esteem like the other voyages to the Indies, that is no wonder because it came to be looked upon as my work."
His yet more famous letter, written in 1503 from Jamaica, on his fourth voyage, is the cry of a Wolsey left naked to his enemies: "I was twenty-eight years old when I came into your Highnesses' service, and now I have not a hair upon me that is not gray; my body is infirm, and all that was left to me, as well as to my brothers, has been taken away and sold even to the frock that I wore, to my great dishonor. . . . I implore your Highnesses to forgive my complaints. I am indeed in as ruined a condition as I have related. Hitherto I have wept over others — may Heaven now have mercy upon me, and may the earth weep over me. . . . Weep for me, whoever has charity, truth, and justice!"
In the spirit of that charity, truth, and justice which Columbus here invokes, let it be said that, whatever his deflections from straightforwardness, he was not alone therein in his age or profession. Martin Behaim, Sebastian Cabot, and Amerigo Vespucci — not one of them as a navigator dealt honestly with his own age or with posterity. But, points of character aside, what in the case of the great Genoese most excites wonder, is not that he discovered America but that America should have remained to be discovered by him. The expedition of Telles, or that of Dulmo and Estreito (Behaim), might well have reached the western continent. As early as 1500, indeed, Vicente Yañes Pinzón for Spain, and Pedralvarez Cabral for Portugal, touched the coast of South America.
Furthermore, as the region which was discovered by Columbus perpetuates, in the name Antilles, the mythical island of Antillia, so the region discovered by Pinzón and Cabral perpetuates in the name Brazil the mythical island of Brazil.
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