True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers

Author: Elbridge Streeter Brooks

Chapter II. What People Thought of the Idea.

I do not wish you to think that Columbus was the first man to say that the earth was round, or the first to sail to the West over the Atlantic Ocean. He was not. Other men had said that they believed the earth was round; other men had sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean. But no sailor who believed the earth was round had ever yet tried to prove that it was by crossing the Atlantic. So, you see, Columbus was really the first man to say, I believe the earth is round and I will show you that it is by sailing to the lands that are on the other side of the earth.

He even figured out how far it was around the world. Your geography, you know, tells you now that what is called the circumference of the earth—that is, a straight line drawn right around it—is nearly twenty-five thousand miles. Columbus had figured it up pretty carefully and he thought it was about twenty thousand miles. If I could start from Genoa, he said, and walk straight ahead until I got back to Genoa again, I should walk about twenty thousand miles. Cathay, he thought, would take up so much land on the other side of the world that, if he went west instead of east, he would only need to sail about twenty-five hundred or three thousand miles.

If you have studied your geography carefully you will see what a mistake he made.

It is really about twelve thousand miles from Spain to China (or Cathay as he called it). But America is just about three thousand miles from Spain, and if you read all this story you will see how Columbus’s mistake really helped him to discover America.

I have told you that Columbus had a longing to do something great from the time when, as a little boy, he had hung around the wharves in Genoa and looked at the ships sailing east and west and talked with the sailors and wished that he could go to sea. Perhaps what he had learned at school— how some men said that the earth was round—and what he had heard on the wharves about the wonders of Cathay set him to thinking and to dreaming that it might be possible for a ship to sail around the world without falling off. At any rate, he kept on thinking and dreaming and longing until, at last, he began doing.

Some of the sailors sent out by Prince Henry of Portugal, of whom I have told you, in their trying to sail around Africa discovered two groups of islands out in the Atlantic that they called the Azores, or Isles of Hawks, and the Canaries, or Isles of Dogs. When Columbus was in Portugal in 1470 he became acquainted with a young woman whose name was Philippa Perestrelo. In 1473 he married her.

Now Philippa’s father, before his death, had been governor of Porto Santo, one of the Azores, and Columbus and his wife went off there to live. In the governor’s house Columbus found a lot of charts and maps that told him about parts of the ocean that he had never before seen, and made him feel certain that he was right in saying that if he sailed away to the West he should find Cathay.

At that time there was an old man who lived in Florence, a city of Italy. His name was Toscanelli. He was a great scholar and studied the stars and made maps, and was a very wise man. Columbus knew what a wise old scholar Toscanelli was, for Florence is not very far from Genoa. So while he was living in the Azores he wrote to this old scholar asking him what he thought about his idea that a man could sail around the world until he reached the land called the Indies and at last found Cathay.

Toscanelli wrote to Columbus saying that he believed his idea was the right one, and he said it would be a grand thing to do, if Columbus dared to try it. Perhaps, he said, you can find all those splendid things that I know are in Cathay—the great cities with marble bridges, the houses of marble covered with gold, the jewels and the spices and the precious stones, and all the other wonderful and magnificent things. I do not wonder you wish to try, he said, for if you find Cathay it will be a wonderful thing for you and for Portugal.

That settled it with Columbus. If this wise old scholar said he was right, he must be right. So he left his home in the Azores and went to Portugal. This was in 1475, and from that time on, for seventeen long years he was trying to get some king or prince to help him sail to the West to find Cathay.

But not one of the people who could have helped him, if they had really wished to, believed in Columbus. As I told you, they said that he was crazy. The king of Portugal, whose name was John, did a very unkind thing—I am sure you would call it a mean trick. Columbus had gone to him with his story and asked for ships and sailors. The king and his chief men refused to help him; but King John said to himself, perhaps there is something in this worth looking after and, if so, perhaps I can have my own people find Cathay and save the money that Columbus will want to keep for himself as his share of what he finds. So one day he copied off the sailing directions that Columbus had left with him, and gave them to one of his own captains without letting Columbus know anything about it, The Portuguese captain sailed away to the West in the direction Columbus had marked down, but a great storm came up and so frightened the sailors that they turned around in a hurry. Then they hunted up Columbus and began to abuse him for getting them into such a scrape. You might as well expect to find land in the sky, they said, as in those terrible waters.

And when, in this way, Columbus found out that King John had tried to use his ideas without letting him know anything about it, he was very angry. His wife had died in the midst of this mean trick of the Portuguese king, and so, taking with him his little five-year-old son, Diego, he left Portugal secretly and went over into Spain.

Near the little town of Palos, in western Spain, is a green hill looking out toward the Atlantic. Upon this hill stands an old building that, four hundred years ago, was used as a a convent or home for priests. It was called the Convent of Rabida, and the priest at the head of it was named the Friar Juan Perez. One autumn day, in the year 1484, Friar Juan Perez saw a dusty traveler with a little boy talking with the gate-keeper of the convent. The stranger was so tall and fine-looking, and seemed such an interesting man, that Friar Juan went out and began to talk with him. This man was Columbus.

As they talked, the priest grew more and more interested in what Columbus said. He invited him into the convent to stay for a few days, and he asked some other people—the doctor of Palos and some of the sea captains and sailors of the town—to come and talk with this stranger who had such a singular idea about sailing across the Atlantic.

It ended in Columbus’s staying some months in Palos, waiting for a chance to go and see the king and queen. At last, in 1485, he set out for the Spanish court with a letter to a priest who was a friend of Friar Juan’s, and who could help him to see the king and queen.

At that time the king and queen of Spain were fighting to drive out of Spain the people called the Moors. These people came from Africa, but they had lived in Spain for many years and had once been a very rich and powerful nation. They were not Spaniards; they were not Christians. So all Spaniards and all Christians hated them and tried to drive them out of Europe.

The king and queen of Spain who were fighting the Moors were named Ferdinand and Isabella. They were pretty good people as kings and queens went in those days, but they did a great many very cruel and very mean things, just as the kings and queens of those days were apt to do. I am afraid we should not think they were very nice people nowadays. We certainly should not wish our American boys and girls to look up to them as good and true and noble.

When Columbus first came to them, they were with the army in the camp near the city of Cordova. The king and queen had no time to listen to what they thought were crazy plans, and poor Columbus could get no one to talk with him who could be of any help. So he was obliged to go back to drawing maps and selling books to make enough money to support himself and his little Diego.

But at last, through the friend of good Friar Juan Perez of Rabida, who was a priest at the court, and named Talavera, and to whom he had a letter of introduction, Columbus found a chance to talk over his plans with a number of priests and scholars in the city of Salamanca where there was a famous college and many learned men.

Columbus told his story. He said what he wished to do, and asked these learned men to say a good word for him to, Ferdinand and Isabella so that he could have the ships and sailors to sail to Cathay. But it was of no use.

What! sail away around the world? those wise men cried in horror. Why, you are crazy. The world is not round; it is flat. Your ships would tumble off the edge of the world and all the king’s money and all the king’s men would be lost. No, no; go away; you must not trouble the queen or even mention such a ridiculous thing again.

So the most of them said. But one or two thought it might be worth trying. Cathay was a very rich country, and if this foolish fellow were willing to run the risk and did succeed, it would be a good thing for Spain, as the king and queen would need a great deal of money after the war with the Moors was over. At any rate, it was a chance worth thinking about.

And so, although Columbus was dreadfully disappointed, he thought that if he had only a few friends at Court who were ready to say a good word for him he must not give up, but must try, try again. And so he staid in Spain.


When you wish very much to do a certain thing it is dreadfully hard to be patient; it is harder still to have to wait. Columbus had to do both. The wars against the Moors were of much greater interest to the king and queen of Spain than was the finding of a new and very uncertain way to get to Cathay. If it had not been for the patience and what we call the persistence of Columbus, America would never have been discovered—at least not in his time.

He staid in Spain. He grew poorer and, poorer. He was almost friendless. It seemed as if his great enterprise must be given up. But he never lost hope. He never stopped trying. Even when he failed he kept on hoping and kept on trying. He felt certain that sometime he should succeed.

As we have seen, he tried to interest the rulers of different countries, but with no success. He tried to get help from his old home-town of Genoa and failed; he tried Portugal and failed; he tried the Republic of Venice and failed; he tried the king and queen of Spain and failed; he tried some of the richest and most powerful of the nobles of Spain and failed; he tried the king of England (whom he got his brother, Bartholomew Columbus, to go and see) and failed. There was still left the king of France. He would make one last attempt to win the king and queen of Spain to his side and if he failed with them he would try the last of the rulers of Western Europe, the king of France.

He followed the king and queen of Spain as they went from place to place fighting the Moors. He hoped that some day, when they wished to think of something besides fighting, they might think of him and the gold and jewels and spices of Cathay.

The days grew into months, the months to years, and still the war against the Moors kept on; and still Columbus waited for the chance that did not come. People grew to know him as "the crazy explorer" as they met him in the streets or on the church steps of Seville or Cordova, and even ragged little boys of the town, sharp-eyed and shrillvoiced as all such ragged little urchins are, would run after this big man with the streaming white hair and the tattered cloak, calling him names or tapping their brown little foreheads with their dirty fingers to show that even they knew that he was "as crazy as a loon."

At last he decided to make one more attempt before giving it up in Spain. His money was gone; his friends were few; but he remembered his acquaintances at Palos and so he journeyed back to see once more his good friend Friar Juan Perez at the Convent of Rabida on the hill that looked out upon the Atlantic he was so anxious to cross.

It was in the month of November, 1491, that he went back to the Convent of Rabida. If he could not get any encouragement there, he was determined to stay in Spain no longer but to go away and try the king of France.

Once more he talked over the finding of Cathay with the priests and the sailors of Palos. They saw how patient he was; how persistent he was; how he would never give up his ideas until he had tried them. They were moved by his determination. They began to believe in him more and more. They resolved to help him. One of the principal sea captains of Palos was named Martin Alonso Pinzon. He became so interested that he offered to lend Columbus money enough to make one last appeal to the king and queen of Spain, and if Columbus should succeed with them, this Captain Pinzon said that he would go into partnership with Columbus and help him out when it came to getting ready to sail to Cathay.

This was a move in the right direction. At once a messenger was sent to the splendid Spanish camp before the city of Granada, the last unconquered city of the Moors of Spain. The king and queen of Spain had been so long trying to capture Granada that this camp was really a city, with gates and walls and houses. It was called Santa Fe. Queen Isabella, who was in Santa Fe, after some delay, agreed to hear more about the crazy scheme of this persistent Genoese sailor, and the Friar Juan Perez was sent for. He talked so well in behalf of his friend Columbus that the queen became still more interested. She ordered Columbus to come and see her, and sent him sixty-five dollars to pay for a mule, a new suit of clothes and the journey to court.

About Christmas time, in the year 1491, Columbus, mounted upon his mule, rode into the Spanish camp before the city of Granada. But even now, when he had been told to come, he had to wait. Granada was almost captured; the Moors were almost conquered. At last the end came. On the second of January, 1492, the Moorish king gave up the keys of his beloved city, and the great Spanish banner was hoisted on the highest tower of the Alhambra—the handsomest building in Granada and one of the most beautiful in the world. The Moors were driven out of Spain and Columbus’s chance had come.

So he appeared before Queen Isabella and her chief men and told them again of all his plans and desires. The queen and her advisers sat in a great room in that splendid Alhambra I have told you of. King Ferdinand was not there. He did not believe in Columbus and did not wish to let him have either money, ships or sailors to lose in such a foolish way. But as Columbus stood before her and talked so earnestly about how he expected to find the Indies and Cathay and what he hoped to bring away from there, Queen Isabella listened and thought the plan worth trying.

Then a singular thing happened. You would think if you wished for something very much that you would be ve up a good deal for the sake of getting it. Columbus had worked and waited for seventeen years. He had never got what he wanted. He was always being disappointed. And yet, as he talked to the queen and told her what he wished to do, he said he must have so much as a reward for doing it that the queen and her chief men were simply amazed at his—well, what the boys to-day call "cheek"—that they would have nothing to do with him. This man really is crazy, they said. This poor Genoese sailor comes here without a thing except his very odd ideas. and almost "wants the earth" as a reward. This is not exactly what they said, but it is what they meant.

His few friends begged him to be more modest. Do not ask so much, they said, or you will get nothing. But Columbus was determined. I have worked and waited all these years, he replied. I know just what I can do and just how much I can do for the king and queen of Spain. They must pay me what I ask and promise what I say, or I will go somewhere else. Go, then! said the queen and her advisers. And Columbus turned his back on what seemed almost his last hope, mounted his mule and rode away.

Then something else happened. As Columbus rode off to find the French king, sick and tired of all his long and useless labor at the Spanish court, his few firm friends there saw that, unless they did something right away, all the glory and all the gain of this enterprise Columbus had taught them to believe in would be lost to Spain. So two of them, whose names were Santangel and Quintanilla, rushed into the queen’s room and begged her, if she wished to become the greatest queen in Christendom, to call back this wandering sailor, agree to his terms and profit by his labors.

What if he does ask a great deal? they said. He has spent his life thinking his plan out; no wonder he feels that he ought to have a good share of what he finds. What he asks is really small compared with what Spain will gain. The war with the Moors has cost you ever so much; your money-chests are empty; Columbus will fill them up. The people of Cathay are heathen; Columbus will help you make them Christian men. The Indies and Cathay are full of gold and jewels; Columbus will bring you home shiploads of treasures. Spain has conquered the Moors; Columbus will help you conquer Cathay.

In fact, they talked to Queen Isabella so strongly and so earnestly, that she, too, became excited over this chance for glory and riches that she had almost lost, Quick! send for Columbus. Call him back! she said. I agree to his terms. If King Ferdinand cannot or will not take the risk, I, the queen, will do it all. Quick! do not let the man get into France. After him. Bring him back!

And without delay a royal messenger, mounted on a swift horse, was sent at full gallop to bring Columbus back.

All this time poor Columbus felt bad enough. Everything had gone wrong. Now he must go away into a new land and do it all over again. Kings and queens, he felt, were not to be depended upon, and he remembered a place in the Bible where it said: "Put not your trust in princes." Sad, solitary and heavy-hearted, he jogged slowly along toward the mountains, wondering what the king of France would say to him, and whether it was really worth trying.

Just as he was riding across the little bridge called the Bridge of Pinos, some six miles from Granada, he heard the quick hoof-beats of a horse behind him. It was a great spot for robbers, and Columbus felt of the little money he had in his traveling pouch, and wondered whether he must lose it all. The hoof-beats came nearer. Then a voice hailed him. Turn back, turn back! the messenger cried out. The queen bids you return to Granada. She grants you all you ask.

Columbus hesitated. Ought he to trust this promise, he wondered. Put not your trust in princes, the verse in the Bible had said. If I go back I may only be put off and worried as I have been before. And yet, perhaps she means what she says. At any rate, I will go back and try once more.

So, on the little Bridge of Pinos, he turned his mule around and rode back to Granada. And, sure enough, when he saw Queen Isabella she agreed to all that he asked. If he found Cathay, Columbus was to be made admiral for life of all the new seas and oceans into which he might sail; he was to be chief ruler of all the lands he might find; he was to keep one tenth part of all the gold and jewels and treasures he should bring away, and was to have his "say" in all questions about the new lands. For his part (and this was because of the offer of his friend at Palos, Captain Pinzon) he agreed to pay one eighth of all the expenses of this expedition and of all new enterprises, and was to have one eighth of all the profits from them.

So Columbus had his wish at last. The queen’s men figured up how much money they could let him have; they called him "Don Christopher Columbus," "Your Excellency" and "Admiral," and at once he set about getting ready for his voyage.


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Chicago: Elbridge Streeter Brooks, "Chapter II. What People Thought of the Idea.," True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers in True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2019,

MLA: Brooks, Elbridge Streeter. "Chapter II. What People Thought of the Idea." True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers, in True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2019.

Harvard: Brooks, ES, 'Chapter II. What People Thought of the Idea.' in True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers. cited in , True Story of Christopher Columbus, Admiral; Told for Youngest Readers. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2019, from