Chronicles of America ´╗┐

The Early Career of Columbus

Among sojourners in Spain, prior to 1492, there was a Genoese, by name Christopher Columbus. He was tall and well-built, of dignified mien, with red hair and beard, a long ruddy face, clear gray eyes, and aquiline nose. To inferiors his manner was exacting and brusque, to equals it was urbane, and to superiors it was courtly. His figure showed to advantage, whereof he was not unduly aware, and he evinced a taste for yellow in beads and for crimson and scarlet in caps, cloaks, and shoes.

Unlike the Spaniards, whom he was to lead, Columbus was not in disposition primitive; he had no relish for blood and suffering. He was however, proud, with a measure of austerity; and he was highly romantic and strikingly devout.

His most signal powers, and they were signal indeed, were moral powers. In patience, endurance, tenacity, energy, will — powers which, far more than those distinctively intellectual, make for greatness — the world has rarely known his equal. Imagination, too, he possessed, rich and ardent, and it rendered him poetic, eloquent, and persuasive. But, just as he possessed the qualities named, so likewise he possessed the defects of them. He was masterful and imaginative, but his masterfulness tended to ungenerousness and his imagination to vagary and mischievous exaggeration. Nor was this all. His moral powers were largely determined in exercise by two positive principles of action which were undeniably sinister — vanity and cupidity — and under stress of these he became at times dissimulating, boastful, and crafty. It is probable, however, that the sinister in him has by recent writers been somewhat over-magnified. Throughout everything he was sincerely and enthusiastically religious. To him, as to others of Machiavellian strain, the end justified many means but not all, though among the justified means were those of guile.

According to the findings of the most recent scholarship, Christopher Columbus, the eldest in a family of four sons and one daughter, was born at Genoa on a date between August 26 and October 31, 1451. His grandfather probably, and his father certainly, was a wool-dealer and weaver; and the latter at one time also conducted a wine-shop. None of his progenitors had place or rank, and his sister married a cheesemonger. There were other persons in Europe in his time of the sobriquet " Columbus, " one of whom, William of Caseneuve, was a corsair and vice-admiral of France under Louis XI; and with these Christopher Columbus, about 1501, sought to indicate relationship by the remark that "he was not the first admiral in his family." But the claim, so far as can be ascertained, was wanting in foundation.

The education of Christopher was of the most elementary sort. It consisted merely of what was provided by a school maintained by the weavers' guild of the town of his birth, in a little street called Pavia Lane. How meager his first advantages were, appears in the fact that at no time in life did he assume to write his mother tongue, Italian, not even when addressing the Bank of St. George in Genoa.

Christopher, Bartholomew, Giovanni, Diego, and Bianchinetta.

We have seen that as a man Columbus was both vigorous of body and imaginative of mind. For him, therefore, as a lad in Genoa — the Genoa of our travelers, Rabbi Benjamin, Marco Polo, and Ibn Batuta — to develop a taste for the sea was more natural than not. In fact, he tells us that from his fourteenth year he was accustomed to embark on ships. But in 1472, when he was twenty-one years old, he declared before a notary that he was by trade a weaver. We may suppose then that up to this period his seafaring was tentative or in the nature of a youth's adventures; thereafter it became more and more an occupation.

In Genoa, at this time, dwelt two noblemen with whom Columbus seems to have been on terms of friendship. He went with them in 1475 to the island of Chios in the Ăgean, where he obtained a shipment of malmsey wine, and became familiar with "mastic." In 1476 the two noblemen embarked on a voyage to England, and again Columbus accompanied them in a flotilla — for it was a voyage of importance — which consisted of five armed merchantmen. When they were off Cape St. Vincent, who should appear but the corsair and French vice-admiral, William of Caseneuve, alias " Columbus"! Between the Genoese vessels and those of Louis XI there straightway ensued a desperate struggle. In the end, ships on both sides took fire, and the crews leaped overboard. Columbus of Genoa, the future discoverer, leaped with others and, being fortunate enough to be picked up, was landed on the Portuguese coast near Lisbon, wounded, drenched, and exhausted. Such, in August, 1476, was the advent of Columbus in Portugal, an advent certainly fortuitous if not "miraculous," as he terms it.

From Lisbon, Columbus continued in December his interrupted voyage to England, stopping probably at Bristol; and it would seem that he even adventured into the seas toward Iceland. "I sailed," he says, as quoted by his son Ferdinand, "in the month of February, 1477, a hundred leagues beyond the island of Thule [Iceland]." At some period prior to 1503 the discoverer had read the Latin poet Seneca and found the lines:

In later ages a time shall come,
When the Ocean shall relax its chains;
When Tiphys shall disclose new lands,
And Thule shall no longer be earth's bound.

Now Columbus took Tiphys, the pilot, as his own prototype; and, to make the identification more complete, he may have deemed it well that the discoverer of America should, as a preliminary, have fared beyond Thule.

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