Influences upon Columbus
In the career of Columbus, Portugal was the first turning-point.
Hither he returned in 1477 or 1478; and here, in 1479 or 1480, after
a trip back to Genoa, he married. This event was the reward of his
piety. In Lisbon there was a convent of the religious Order of St.
Jacques, called the Convent of Saints. Its protegees were bound to
vows of chastity — conjugal chastity, not celibacy — and among them
was Felipa, a daughter of two of the noblest of Portuguese houses,
and Felipa was beautiful. Coming daily to the chapel of this convent
to make his devotions, Columbus saw Felipa, fell in love with her,
and they were wed. To the couple, in 1480 or 1481, a child was born
— Columbus's first son, Diego. At this period, too, Columbus became
associated in Lisbon with his younger brother, Bartholomew, a
prepossessing youth of about nineteen, astute, of some education,
and skilled in the art of limning marine charts.
The father of Felipa Columbus was Bartholomew Perestrello, Governor of Porto Santo of the Madeira Group, and it is a firm tradition that, at his death in 1457, he left to his wife Isabel, Felipa's mother, charts and papers which served first to direct Columbus's mind toward great projects in the West. Another tradition — long credited, then long discredited, and now revived — was that Columbus, upon his marriage, settled in the island of Madeira, which is near to that of Porto Santo, and that, while he was here, a Spanish ship, which had been driven westward to the island afterwards found by Columbus and named Española, came forlornly back, getting as far only as Madeira. Here, so the tradition ran, the pilot of the ship, together with such of the crew as survived, debarked; but the crew, famished and sick, all died, leaving only the pilot. Then he, too, died in the house of Columbus; but not before he had imparted to his host the amazing story of his voyage and had given to him his log and a chart of his route.
Be the truth of these two traditions what it may, it is a well-settled fact that in Portugal Columbus met pilots and captains and was enabled to accompany Portuguese expeditions down the coast of Africa. "I was," he says, "at the Fortress of St. George of the Mine, belonging to the King of Portugal, which lies below the equinoctial line." The object of such voyages was largely the discovery of new islands. The Canaries and the Madeiras, the outermost of the Azores and the Cape Verde Group, all were treasure-trove of the fifteenth century, and there might well be others. In these times, indeed, islands rose smiling to greet the discoverer on his approach. Nay more: where actual islands were not forthcoming, imaginary ones developed in their stead. But were these isles as mythical and imaginary as they were represented? The question is pertinent, for upon the answer depends in good measure what we shall think of the nature of the incentive which underlay the voyage of 1492, the voyage resulting in the discovery of America.
The very appearance of islands like Antillia, Salvagio, Reyella, and Insula in Mar on charts such, for example, as the "Beccaria" of 1435 attests the prevalence of a tradition — and that a mature one — that such a group existed. Such a tradition could probably have had but one origin: chance voyages across the Atlantic from Europe to North America, and especially to the West India Islands of North America. Indeed, in 1474 or 1475, Fernão Telles sought the mythical Antillia — sometimes called the Isle of the Seven Cities — under express warrant from the King of Portugal, Alfonso V. And in his journal of 1492 Columbus records that "many honorable Spanish gentlemen [of the Canary Group] declared that every year they saw land to the west of the Canaries." Again he records that in 1484, when he was in Portugal, a man [Domimguez do Arco] came to the King "[John II] from the island of Madeira to beg for a caravel to go to this island that was seen"; and that "the same thing [the existence of an island in the West] was affirmed in the Azores." How, therefore, there might arise a story, true or false, of a shipwrecked pilot who gave to Columbus the clue to the finding of the island of Española, may readily be perceived. But, concerning stories of and by pilots, more anon.
Columbus had now acquired some knowledge of the theory and art of navigation, and, incidentally, some knowledge of Latin; and having made up his mind, as had Telles before him, that in the Atlantic to the west there yet remained "islands and lands" to be discovered, he obtained an audience with the King of Portugal and laid before him a definite proposal. He asked for three caravels equipped and supplied for a year; and, in the event of lands being found, for the viceroyalty and perpetual government therein, a tenth of the income therefrom, the rank of nobleman, and the title of grand admiral.
According to Portuguese chroniclers writing in the sixteenth century, the particular " land " Columbus had in view was Cipangu or Japan. But, whatever Columbus may have disclosed or reserved with respect to Japan, or with respect to Antillia, at this first interview with the Portuguese King, so affronted was the monarch by what he felt to be the vanity and presumption of the petitioner that he promptly referred his plea to a council of three experts, by whom, after some deliberation, it was dismissed. Thereupon Columbus, late in 1485 or early in 1486, left Portugal for Spain.
At this point in the fortunes of Christopher Columbus, there arises for consideration a peculiar circumstance. Columbus had a double, the well-known cosmographer of Nuremberg, Martin Behaim. Like Columbus, this man was born near the middle of the fifteenth century; like him, he lacked university training; like him, his early activities were commercial; like him, he settled in Portugal (1480-84) ; like him, he voyaged to Africa; like him, he was identified with an Atlantic island, Fayal in his case, and married the daughter of the Governor; like him, he was busied with nautical studies in Lisbon; like him, he was not highly regardful of veracity; and finally, like him, he died in neglect early in the sixteenth century. Behaim, however, unlike Columbus, was of patrician ancestry, was instructed in the use of nautical instruments, became a Knight of Portugal, and at Lisbon had the entrée to aristocratic and scientific circles.
The extent of his geographical knowledge may be inferred from a globe which he completed at Nuremberg in 1492, before the return of Columbus from his first voyage. His authorities included Aristotle and Strabo, Ptolemy, Marco Polo, and Sir John Mandeville; but his chief authority was Pierre d'Ailly, whose Imago Mundi [World Survey], written in 1410, formed a compendium of the geographical and cosmographical notions of authors such as Marinus of Tyre and Alfraganus the Arabian. To put the matter briefly, the ideas of Pierre d'Ailly and Marco Polo are strikingly expressed in this globe, which shows Cathay and India, both marked rich, opposite to Portugal and Africa, and about 120° west of the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores instead of the actual distance of over 200°. Cathay is thus brought forward nearly to the position of California; Cipango [Cipangu] or Japan, marked as especially rich, falls athwart the position of Mexico; while Antillia lies northeast of the position of Hayti or Española; and St. Brandan occupies, in part, the position of northern South America.
But why did Behaim take pains to construct a globe? The answer is clear. He had recently (1486) adventured in a project to confirm his geographical ideas; he had attempted a secret voyage westward to Asia in partnership with two fellow islanders---- Fernam Dulmo of Terceira, a navigator, and Joao Affonso Estreito of Madeira, his patron. The enterprise had failed; and yet he did not wish his ideas to be lost or appropriated by another.
Back to: The Spanish Conquerors