One day a man appeared in Portugal, who said he was certain that the earth was round, and that he could reach India by sailing westward. Every one laughed at him and asked him how he would like to try. He answered that he would sail round the earth, if any one would provide him with ships.
People jeered and scoffed.
"If the earth is a sphere," they said, "in order to sail round it you must sail uphill! Who ever heard of a ship sailing uphill?"
But this man, whose name was Christopher Columbus, remained firm in his belief.
When a boy, Columbus had listened eagerly to the stories the sailors told about strange lands and wonderful islands beyond the water. He was in the habit of sitting on the wharves and watching the ships. Often he would say, "I wish, oh, how I wish I could be a sailor!"
At last his father, who was a wool comber, said to him, "My son, if you really wish to become a sailor, I will send you to a school where you will be taught navigation."
Columbus was delighted at this, and told his father that he would study diligently. He was sent to the University of Pavia, where he learned all the geography that was then known, as well as how to draw maps and charts. He became a skillful penman, and also studied astronomy, geometry, and Latin.
But he did not spend a long time at his studies, for at the age of fourteen he went to sea. What he had learned, however, gave him an excellent groundwork, and from this time forward he made use of every opportunity to inform himself and to become a scholarly man.
His first voyage was made with a distant relative, who was an adventurous and daring man, and who was ever ready to fight with any one with whom he could pick a quarrel. In course of time Columbus commanded a ship of his own, and became known as a bold and daring navigator. He made a voyage along the coast of Africa as far south as Guinea, and afterwards sailed northward to Iceland.
At an early day he became familiar with the wildest kind of adventure, for at this time sea life on the Mediterranean was little more than a series of fights with pirates. Some say that during one of these conflicts Columbus's ship caught fire. In order to save his life, he jumped into the water and swam six miles to shore, reaching the coast of Portugal. Others say that he was attracted to that country by the great school of navigation which Prince Henry had established. However that may be, he appeared at Lisbon at the age of thirty-five, filled with the idea of sailing westward to reach those rich Eastern countries in which every one was so much interested.
He was laughed at for expressing such an idea. It is not pleasant to be laughed at, but Columbus was courageous and never wavered in his belief.
"The earth is a sphere," he said; "those foolish stories of its being flat and supported on a turtle's back cannot be true."
But those persons to whom he talked only laughed the more.
"Is there anything more foolish," they asked, "than to believe that there are people who walk with their heels up and with their heads hanging down?" "Think of a place where the trees grow with their branches down, and where it snows, hails, and rains upward!"
Everybody thought him an idle dreamer.
Columbus tried to persuade King John to furnish him with ships and allow him to test his belief. But King John cruelly deceived Columbus; for, after obtaining his maps and charts, he sent off an expedition of his own. He hoped in this way to gain the glory of the discovery. The sailors whom he sent, however, were not brave enough to continue the voyage, and returned, frightened by a severe storm.
Columbus was so disgusted by the treachery of King John that he made up his mind to leave Portugal and go to Spain. So, taking his little son, Diego, with him, he started on his journey. He traveled from place to place, trying to find some person who would help him make his ideas known to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He thought that if he could talk with them he could persuade them to furnish him with ships.
One day he came to a convent called La Rábida. Here Diego, who was weary and thirsty, begged his father to stop and ask for a drink of water. Columbus knocked at the big iron gate, and while he was conversing with the attendant a priest approached.
This priest was attracted by the noble bearing and refined speech of Columbus, and saw at once that he was not a beggar. He asked him what he wished, and Columbus related his story.
The good priest believed in him and said he would try to influence the king and queen to furnish him with ships. The priest brought the matter before the king; but at this time Spain was at war with the Moors, and King Ferdinand had no time to attend to anything else. Columbus was patient and waited. But as year after year passed and brought no prospect of obtaining the ships he wished, his hopes fell. After seven long, weary years of waiting, he was about to leave Spain in despair.
Just as he was leaving, however, a message was brought to him from the queen, asking him to explain his plans to her once more. Columbus did so, and the queen was so fully convinced that she exclaimed: "I will provide ships and men for you, if I have to pledge my jewels in order to do so!"
Three ships were fitted out for the voyage. These ships were very different from those we see to-day. They were light, frail barks called caravels, and two of them, the Pinta and Niña, had no decks. The third, the Santa Maria, had a deck. It was upon this largest caravel that Columbus placed his flag.
On the 3d of August, 1492, the little fleet set sail from Palos, entering upon the most daring expedition ever undertaken by man. The people of the town gathered on the wharf to see the departure of the vessels. Many of them had friends or relatives on board whom they expected never to look upon again. Sad indeed was the sight as the little caravels sailed out of the harbor and faded from view.
After sailing a few days, the Pinta broke her rudder. This accident the sailors took to be a sign of misfortune. They tried to persuade Columbus to put back to Palos, but he would not listen to such a suggestion. Instead of sailing back, he pushed on to the Canary Islands. Here his ships were delayed three weeks, after which they continued the voyage into unknown waters.
After they had sailed westward for many days, the sailors began to show signs of alarm, and they implored Columbus to return. He tried to calm their fears. He described the rich lands he hoped to find, and reminded them of the wealth and fame this voyage would bring to them. So they agreed to venture a little farther.
At last the compass began to point in a different direction, and the sailors became almost panic-stricken. They thought they were sailing straight to destruction, and when they found that Columbus would not listen to their entreaties they planned a mutiny. Though Columbus knew what the sailors were plotting, he kept steadily on his course. Fortunately, signs of land soon began to appear. A branch with berries on it floated past, a rudely carved paddle was picked up, and land birds were seen flying over the ships.
A prize had been offered to the sailor who first saw land, and all eagerly watched for it night and day. At last, early one morning, a gun was fired from the Pinta, and all knew that land had been sighted. The sailors were filled with the wildest joy, and crowded around Columbus with expressions of gratitude and admiration, in great contrast to the distrustful manner in which they had treated him a few days before.
The land they were approaching was very beautiful. It was a green, sunny island with pleasant groves in which birds were singing. Beautiful flowers were blooming all around and the trees were laden with fruit. The island was inhabited, too, for groups of strange-looking men were seen running to the shore.
At length the ships cast anchor, the boats were lowered, and Columbus, clad in rich scarlet and carrying in his hand the royal banner of Spain, was taken ashore. As soon as he stepped on the beach, Columbus knelt down and gave thanks to God. He then planted the banner of Spain in the ground and took possession of the country in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella.
This island he called San Salvador, because he and his crew had been saved from a watery grave, and also because October 12 was so named in the Spanish calendar.
Columbus supposed San Salvador to be one of the islands near the coast of Asia, but it is one of the Bahamas.
Thus was America discovered on the 12th of October, 1492.
The natives of this island were different from any people the Spaniards had ever seen. They were of a reddish-brown color, and had high cheek bones, small black eyes, and straight black hair. They were entirely naked, and their bodies were greased and painted. Their hair was decorated with feathers, and many of them were adorned with curious ornaments.
They were at first very much afraid of the white men and kept far away. But gradually they lost their fear and brought the Spaniards presents of bananas and oranges. Some of them gathered courage enough to touch the Spaniards and pass their hands over them, as if to make certain that they were real beings. These men, whose skin was so white, they thought to be gods who had come down from the sky.
When Columbus asked them where they found the gold of which many of their ornaments were made, they pointed toward the south. Then Columbus took some of them with him to search for the land of gold.
The next land he reached was the island of Cuba. Thinking that this was a part of India, he called the natives Indians. He then sailed to Haiti, which he called Hispaniola, or "Little Spain." For more than three months Columbus cruised among these islands, where the air was always balmy, the sky clear, and the land beautiful. The sailors believed these new lands were Paradise, and wanted to live there always.
At length, however, they thought of returning to their home and friends. So, taking several Indians with them, and many curious baskets and ornaments, they set out on their return voyage.
This voyage proved to be very stormy, and at one time it seemed certain that the ships would go down; but after a time the sea grew quiet, and on the 15th of March they sailed again into the little harbor of Palos.
You can imagine the excitement.
"What! has Columbus returned?" asked the people. "Has he really found the East by sailing westward?"
"Yes, he has," was the answer. "He has found India."
Columbus was given a royal welcome. The king and queen held a great celebration in his honor at Barcelona; and when the Indians marched into court the astonishment of every person was great. The Indians were half naked; their dark bodies were painted, and their heads were adorned with feathers. They carried baskets of seed pearls, and wore strange ornaments of gold. Some carried the skins of wild animals, and others carried beautiful birds of brilliant plumage. Every inhabitant of Barcelona rejoiced, and the bells were rung in honor of the great discoverer.
It was a happy time for Columbus. He felt repaid for all his suffering and trouble.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella now wished Columbus to go again to these newly discovered islands and search for the gold that was thought to be there. You may be sure Columbus was willing to go. So they fitted out seventeen vessels, manned by fifteen hundred men, and placed Columbus in command of this fleet. It was no trouble to find men who were willing to go on this voyage. All wanted to see the new world that had been found.
During this second voyage, which was made in 1493, Columbus discovered Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and some small islands in the Caribbean Sea.
On the island of Jamaica the Spaniards came upon the footprints of some strange animal which they thought to be a dragon. This dragon they believed was guarding the gold which they supposed was on the island. So they ran back to their ships in fear. Later on they became used to seeing these footprints, and found that they were those of alligators. At Puerto Rico they suffered from a savage attack made by the natives, who shot poisoned arrows and threw javelins at them. But in most other places the natives were very friendly.
Columbus thought this land was a part of the east coast of Asia, and he could not understand why he did not find cities such as Marco Polo had described.
Columbus then sailed to Hispaniola, where he planted a colony, of which he was made governor. It was not an easy matter to govern this island, because of the jealousies and quarrels of the Spaniards. At length Columbus returned to Spain, ill and discouraged.
Columbus made a third voyage in 1498, during which he sailed along the coast of Brazil, and discovered Trinidad Island. Here his ships encountered currents of fresh water which flowed with great force into the ocean. This led Columbus to think that so large a river must flow across a great continent, and strengthened his opinion that the land was a part of the great continent of Asia.
After sailing farther north along the Pearl Coast, which was so called because of the pearls found there, he returned to Hispaniola. Here he found the Spaniards engaged in an Indian war, and quarreling among themselves. Some officials became jealous of him, bound him with chains, and sent him back to Spain a prisoner. Ferdinand and Isabella were much displeased at this treatment of Columbus, and set him free.
A fourth voyage was made by Columbus in 1502, during which he explored the coast of Honduras in search of a strait leading to the Indian Ocean. In this venture he was unsuccessful. On his return to Spain he found his friend Queen Isabella very ill, and nineteen days after his arrival she died.
After Isabella's death the king treated Columbus cruelly and ungratefully. The people had become jealous of him, and his last days were spent in poverty and distress. He never knew that he had discovered a new continent, but supposed that he had found India.
Seven years after his death the king repented of his ingratitude, and caused the remains of Columbus to be removed from the little monastery in Valladolid to a monastery in Seville, where a magnificent monument was erected to his memory. In 1536 his bones were removed to the Cathedral of San Domingo in Hispaniola, and later they were taken to the cathedral in Havana.
When the United States took possession of Cuba, the Spanish disinterred the bones of Columbus again and carried them to Spain, placing them in the cathedral of Seville, where they now are.