THE VOYAGE THE WHOLE WORLD REMEMBERS
The New World
Columbus’s problems began, ironically, with his greatest success. It was summer when Columbus first sallied forth across the ocean blue --- or ocean dark, as Spain’s more timid sailors called that vast unknown beyond the Pillars of Hercules. He was a forty-one-year-old Italian vagabond who had seduced the most powerful woman in Europe into paying for his outrageous journey. Spain’s hierarchy-obsessed nobility considered him a nothing, a no-account foreigner. Somewhere, Columbus had promised, not so far over the western horizon, lay the wealth to finance Spain’s wars of unification and conquest. The voyage could end either in death and disgrace or in a most sublime glory.
Columbus was a cheerful, confident man, prone to the occasional boast. Those traits belied a deep intensity: Columbus’s focus was so great while sailing or praying that he was oblivious to events going on around him. Yes, the world was round --- of that he had no doubt. But often his world was nothing more than himself. He was sure he would succeed.
Commanding a fleet of three small caravels --- the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria --- he departed Spain a half hour before sunrise on August 3, 1492.
Just three days out, the Pinta’s rudder floated loose, the result of sabotage by her fearful owner, who it turned out had been cowed into supporting the journey. The little Niña, spry and lithe but designed for coastal sailing, was coltish on the high seas. The fleet limped into port in the mountainous Canary Islands for an unscheduled, monthlong layover. The Pinta’s rudder was refastened. A bowsprit was added to the Niña, and her sail configuration changed from a triangular lateen to square-rigged so she would handle easier with the wind as it came from behind.
Columbus hoisted sail from the Canaries on September 6. Over the thirty-three days that followed, the crews, more accustomed to short Mediterranean trips, pleaded for him to turn back. When he refused, they threatened mutiny. Through it all, Columbus did not deviate from his westerly course. At 10 p.m. on October 11, vesper prayers still fresh on his mind, Columbus spied a light bobbing in the distance. Four hours later a lookout confirmed that it was not a lamp or fire on some distant ship but the white sands of what would be labeled the New World a year later, reflected by a dazzling moon. At dawn Columbus climbed carefully over the side of the swaying Santa Maria, into a waiting longboat. He was rowed ashore, where he claimed the land for the Spanish sovereigns. Before the voyage was over, he would claim several other islands for Spain.
He might as well have been claiming them for himself. Columbus received a royal reward of ten thousand Spanish maravedis (a maravedi being the modern-day equivalent of twelve pennies) for being the first among his crew to sight land. But that was really just the beginning. The Spanish sovereigns had been so desperate to best their Portuguese neighbors (many of whom, thanks to the intimacies of royal lineage, were also their cousins and distant relations) that they practically handed the New World to Columbus. Indeed, a pair of treaties dreamed up a decade earlier and brokered with Ferdinand and Isabella four months prior to his voyage had given the charismatic Genovese explorer an enviable financial stake in his discoveries. The so-called Capitulations of Santa Fe pledged Columbus control over lands “discovered or acquired by his labor and industry,” elevated him to the rank of admiral, and named him viceroy and governor-general of all lands in his new domain. Columbus, or a chosen subordinate, would be the sole arbitrator in all disputes between his new lands and Spain, particularly in reference to shipping traffic.
He would also receive one-tenth of all royal profits (including gold, pearls, spices, or gems) from his discoveries; the right to purchase an eighth percentage of a ship sailing to the new lands, in exchange for a further one-eighth profit from any goods said ship procured; and one-third of any profit due him from his new title as Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Spain, after fronting all the money, had effectively entered a partnership with the perseverant Genovese rather than gaining a colony outright. Columbus had lived on the financial bubble his entire life. Now he was about to become rich.
Or so he thought. On his journey back to Europe aboard the Niña in March 1493 (the flagship Santa Maria having foundered off the coast of Hispaniola and the lesser members of its crew sent ashore to build a fort in which to live until a relief ship arrived), a cyclone shredded his sails. The Niña was too crippled to make it all the way to Spain and limped into Lisbon for repairs. Portuguese King João II --- João the Perfect, as he was known --- had long kept Columbus at a distance. A decade earlier, he had twice turned down Columbus’s proposals for a New World voyage. But he now hastily cleared his calendar to receive the explorer. The king was bearded and sloe-eyed, with long delicate fingers that in March 1493 looked girlish. He was revered for his intellect and physical strength but also feared for his ruthlessness. Once, when a brother-in-law threatened his power, João ordered his relative’s immediate execution. When another later tried the same thing, João strangled the misguided relation with those deceptively fragile-looking hands.