He was born to a working-class family in Genoa: Cristoforo Colombo, known to his future patrons, the Spanish, as Cristobal Colon and to us as Christopher Columbus. A giant of a redhead, six feet tall at a time when the average virile male was about five foot four, he was also a fast-talking, obsessive egomaniac who combined in curiosity, romantic stubbornness, and sense of mission something of Galileo, Don Quixote, and John the Baptist. With his brother he had run a profitable map-making firm, but not profitable enough to enable him to launch his grand design: to outflank the infidel Turk by sailing west across the so-called Ocean Sea to reach the spices of the Indies. For, if indeed the world was a sphere, then by sailing west from Europe you would come to the Indies and in time to the farthest reach of the earth's mass, to China and then Japan, or to Japan and then to China. Nobody could say for sure which came first.
The theory that you could reach the Orient by sailing west had been mooted since Roman times. But it was one thing to talk about it and another to dare to prove it. Leonardo da Vinci had made drawings of airplanes several centuries before the Wright brothers, yet making sketches of an attractive fantasy is not the same as getting sponsors for an actual launch. But Columbus, fired by a majestic vision, was prepared to do more than simply prove that the earth was round. A Christian of almost maniacal devoutness, he also longed for the secular trappings of pomp and power, and, beginning with the Indies, he would convert every prince and pauper he encountered and have himself proclaimed governor of every land and island he discovered.
In the late 1470s he began to tramp round Europe, looking for a royal sponsor. And in the following ten years he found none. He was turned down by the King of Portugal; his brother had no better success with the kings of France and England. Three times Columbus watched and waited while King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain passed his proposals on to royal councils. They called in expert witnesses and three times concluded that the adventure was perilously impractical and ruinously expensive. He was finally led to say that 'everyone to whom I spoke of this enterprise thought it a mere jest.'
But what must have been the sharpest hurt was the skepticism of the Portuguese. The testimony of their ship builders, navigators, and ships' captains must have been as damning as it was conclusive. They could not, or would not, answer the question of where Africa gave out, whether there could be an alternative route to Asia other than by the north. Most-daunting of all was the mystery of the Atlantic, the visible part of the Ocean Sea itself. No one had any idea how wide it was or what really lay on the other side of it, except quite possibly perdition. Did the islands that whimsically dotted the maps of the Sea really exist? Were they supplied with grain and fruits for reprovisioning? Had they harbors for safe shelter?
Columbus had convinced himself, by calculations both shrewd and wishful, that he had the answer to all these vexatious questions. And the oftener his plan was rejected, the more dogmatic he became. Like many another evangelist, he compensated for public ridicule by growing paranoid. By now he had inflated his original request for a mere expense account into a set of extraordinary demands. He must be entitled Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He must have ten percent of all the treasure, the gold, the loot he scooped up along the way. The governorship of the Indies and of every country and island he discovered must pass through his eldest son to his heirs 'for evermore.'
It was too much for Ferdinand and Isabella. They said no once again. So early in January 1492 he left Granada, in disgust, 'for evermore' and headed north for another appeal to France. But, on the plea of the Queen's confessor, one Juan Perez (an unsung hero of American history), he was stopped on a bridge at Pinos, six miles north of Granada, and brought back: the Queen was disposed to change her mind.
For one thing, the seven hundred-year-old civil war with the Moors had at last come to an end, for in that same January Granada, the last Islamic stronghold, surrendered. For another, Ferdinand and Isabella were reminded that another Genoese, Giovanni Caboto (whom we know as John Cabot), had convinced Henry VII of England that the Spice Islands could be reached by sea. Thirdly, the court treasurer pointed out to the Queen that Columbus's expedition would cost no more than a couple of royal banquets. And since, like every other European monarch, Isabella was pinched for money after the Turks had cut off trade with the East, and was appalled, like the rest of Christian Europe, by the enormous inroads the Turks were making right on down into Africa, two urgent questions presented themselves, profane and sacred: Who could replenish the royal treasury? And who could save the world for Christ?
In his final eloquent plea, Columbus avowed that both answers could be found in a book recently printed for the first time, the Travels of Marco Polo in China, undertaken two centuries before. Columbus had read it, believed it absolutely, and in the year it appeared had started his trek for a sponsor. But now he recited its tempting revelations. The Orient, Marco Polo had written, was a land dripping with spices and paved with gold. And, more miraculous still, it was ruled over by a great Christian prince. If he could be reached, this prince would muster his legions and, allied with the glorious Christian monarchs of a united Spain, would surround and contain the infidel Turk.
Columbus reinforced the testimony of Marco Polo by solemnly recounting the long and ardent conversations he himself had held with the Almighty that confirmed these marvelous revelations. (As his contract was to testify, his visions did not cloud his instinct for ten percent.) His Christian argument prevailed. His contract, all its grandiloquent provisions indulged, was signed at Granada, and, with the royal blessing and a letter to be delivered to the Grand Khan of China (Cathay), he was commissioned to prepare for his expedition 'for gospel and for gold.' There was a wrangling interval with the ship builders, who must have felt like an airplane manufacturer of the First World War being asked to raise the money to put John Glenn into space. They were not disposed to build ships that might sail off the edge of the earth. However, they bowed before a command from the Queen, and the royal treasurer underwrote the cost. Columbus needed three ships, but only two had to be built. The third, already in port, was owned by Juan de la Cosa, the man who eight years later was to draw the first map of the New World. It was bought for Columbus and became his flagship, the Santa Maria. Today it would not be acceptable as a Riviera yacht.
Only one hundred tons in weight and seventy-five feet long, the Santa Maria was not by a long shot one of the big ships of the time, but it was what was needed—a tough maneuverable tub, something between a freighter and a PT boat, sturdy enough to withstand roaring storms and agile enough to take quick shelter in the shallow channels of the imagined Atlantic islands. It was smeared with pitch against barnacles and had stones for ballast. It had a mainmast as long as the keel, one huge square sail, and a small topsail. The two accompanying ships, the Pinta and the Nina, were made over into square-riggers. They were all equipped with a gun or two against the unlikely risk of pirates, and among the more interesting provisions was red wine, the standard laxative, but to the amount of two and a half liters per man per day—which sounds like a very generous ration, though it could well have been meant to keep them all philosophical if the worst happened.
There were forty men—one Portuguese, another Italian, and the rest all Spaniards—aboard the flotilla, including a surgeon and the royal controller of accounts, sent along to keep tabs on Columbus's swindle sheet when he started to figure the cost of the gold and the spices he would accumulate. There was also a converted Jew who spoke Arabic, which was thought to be very similar to Chinese; he would be the interpreter. On the evening of August 2, 1492, the entire crew went ashore for confession, and on the next morning they set sail from Palos.
They sailed through August and September and came on none of those islands with which geographers had fancifully dotted the Atlantic. The crews grew weary, then anxious, then panicky. After a bout with the trade winds, which would slam at them on the homeward journey, they were close to mutiny. The captains of the two other ships at last signaled for a rendezvous and begged Columbus to turn back. He did his subtle best to reassure them by showing them the log, which he had faked to reduce the record of the miles they had gone from Spain. However, he must have had appalling apprehensions of his own, for he had miscalculated the width of the Sea of Gloom by about fifty percent.
He promised the captains that, if they were still in open sea forty-eight hours later, he would turn back. On the night of October 11, he swears, he 'prayed mightily to the Lord.' Whether by luck or divine intervention, on the following day he sighted, as he believed, the mainland of Asia or one of its offshore islands. We know it as San Salvador in the Bahamas. He went on to explore Haiti and then Cuba, which he soon decided was Marco Polo's Zipangu (Japan). He was a little puzzled by the absence of cities, but there were spices, and cotton, and weird birds, and coppery-colored natives, who kept assuring him—as the Indians did to all succeeding explorers—that inland, always farther inland, there were mountains of gold.
Till his dying day, Columbus never knew that he had not touched the Orient. For the present he was jubilantly convinced that he had, and like a good salesman he hurried back to Spain with what we should call display samples of the products of Japan: exotic plants, brilliant parrots, an alligator, prize natives got up like show horses, a little gold. His foreign sales exhibition was a brilliant success. For his second voyage he fitted out a fleet of seventeen ships, and there was a rush of fifteen hundred men—sailors, soldiers, youngsters on the loose—to explore the wonders of Asia, as well as a clutch of priests to sanctify the expedition and convert the potential slaves.
When Columbus landed again he paused only long enough to deplore the fact that the men he had left behind, having grabbed everything in sight including the native girls, had been massacred. He pushed on into Haiti, and here, in the stream beds, he did find considerable gold. He traced the coast of Cuba until it turned soouthwest and convinced himself he was now in southern China.