The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words

Author: Edward Everett Hale

Chapter VII.


The letter which Columbus sent from Lisbon to the king and queen was everywhere published. It excited the enthusiasm first of Spain and then of the world. This letter found in the earlier editions is now one of the most choice curiosities of libraries. Well it may be, for it is the first public announcement of the greatest event of modern history.

Ferdinand and Isabella directed him to wait upon them at once at court. It happened that they were then residing at Barcelona, on the eastern coast of Spain, so that the journey required to fulfill their wishes carried him quite across the kingdom. It was a journey of triumph. The people came together in throngs to meet this peaceful conqueror who brought with him such amazing illustrations of his discovery.

The letter bearing instructions for him to proceed to Barcelona was addressed "To Don Christopher Columbus, our Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the islands discovered in the Indies." So far was he now raised above the rank of a poor adventurer, who had for seven years attended the court in its movements, seeking an opportunity to explain his proposals.

As he approached Barcelona he was met by a large company of people, including many persons of rank. A little procession was formed of the party of the Admiral. Six Indians of the islands who had survived the voyage, led the way. They were painted according to their custom in various colors, and ornamented with the fatal gold of their countries, which had given to the discovery such interest in the eyes of those who looked on.

Columbus had brought ten Indians away with him, but one had died on the voyage and he had left three sick at Palos. Those whom he brought to Barcelona, were baptized in presence of the king and queen.

After the Indians, were brought many curious objects which had come from the islands, such as stuffed birds and beasts and living paroquets, which perhaps spoke in the language of their own country, and rare plants, so different from those of Spain. Ornaments of gold were displayed, which would give the people some idea of the wealth of the islands. Last of all came Columbus, elegantly mounted and surrounded by a brilliant cavalcade of young Spaniards. The crowd of wondering people pressed around them. Balconies and windows were crowded with women looking on. Even the roofs were crowded with spectators.

The king and queen awaited Columbus in a large hall, where they were seated on a rich dais covered with gold brocade. It was in the palace known as the "Casa de la Deputacion" which the kings of Aragon made their residence when they were in Barcelona. A body of the most distinguished lords and ladies of Spain were in attendance. As Columbus entered the hall the king and queen arose. He fell on his knee that he might kiss their hands but they bade him rise and then sit and give an account of his voyage.

Columbus spoke with dignity and simplicity which commanded respect, while all listened with sympathy. He showed some of the treasures he had brought, and spoke with certainty of the discoveries which had been made, as only precursors of those yet to come. When his short narrative was ended, all the company knelt and united in chanting the "Te Deum," "We Praise Thee, O God." Las Casas, describing the joy and hope of that occasion says, "it seems as if they had a foretaste of the joys of paradise."

It would seem as if those whose duty it is to prepare fit celebrations of the periods of the great discovery, could hardly do better than to produce on the twenty-fourth of April, 1893, a reproduction of the solemn pageant in which, in Barcelona, four centuries before, the Spanish court commemorated the great discovery.

From this time, for several weeks, a series of pageants and festivities surrounded him. At no other period of his life were such honors paid to him. It was at one of the banquets, at which he was present, that the incident of the egg, so often told in connection with the great discovery, took place. A flippant courtier—of that large class of people who stay at home when great deeds are done, and afterwards depreciate the doers of them—had the impertinence to ask Columbus, if the adventure so much praised was not, after all, a very simple matter. He probably said "a short voyage of four or five weeks; was it anything more?" Columbus replied by giving him an egg which was on the table, and asking him if he could stand it on one end. He said he could not, and the other guests said that they could not. Columbus tapped it on the table so as to break the end of the shell, and the egg stood erect. "It is easy enough," he said, "when any one has shown you how."

It is well to remember, that if after years showed that the ruler of Spain wearied in his gratitude, Columbus was, at the time, welcomed with the enthusiasm which he deserved. From the very grains of gold brought home in this first triumph, the queen, Isabella, had the golden illumination wrought of a most beautiful missal-book.

Distinguished artists decorated the book, and the portraits of sovereigns then on the throne appear as the representations of King David, King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba and other royal personages. This book she gave afterwards to her grandson, Charles V, of whom it has been said that perhaps no man in modern times has done the world more harm.

This precious book, bearing on its gilded leaves the first fruits of America, is now preserved in the Royal Library at Madrid.

The time was not occupied merely in shows and banquets. There was no difficulty now, about funds for a second expedition. Directions were given that it might be set forward as quickly as possible, and on an imposing scale. For it was feared at court that King John of Portugal, the successful rival of Spain, thus far, in maritime adventure, might anticipate further discovery. The sovereigns at once sent an embassy to the pope, not simply to announce the discovery, but to obtain from him a decree confirming similar discoveries in the same direction. There was at least one precedent for such action. A former pope had granted to Portugal all the lands it might discover in Africa, south of Cape Bojador, and the Spanish crown had assented by treaty to this arrangement. Ferdinand and Isabella could now refer to this precedent, in asking for a grant to them of their discoveries on the western side of the Atlantic. The pope now reigning was Alexander II. He had not long filled the papal chair. He was an ambitious and prudent sovereign—a native of Spain—and, although he would gladly have pleased the king of Portugal, he was quite unwilling to displease the Spanish sovereigns. The Roman court received with respect the request made to them. The pope expressed his joy at the hopes thrown out for the conversion of the heathen, which the Spanish sovereigns had expressed, as Columbus had always done. And so prompt were the Spanish requests, and so ready the pope’s answer, that as early as May 3, 1493, a papal bull was issued to meet the wishes of Spain.

This bull determined for Spain and for Portugal, that all discoveries made west of a meridian line one hundred leagues west of the Azores should belong to Spain. All discoveries east of that line should belong to Portugal. No reference was made to other maritime powers, and it does not seem to have been supposed that other states had any rights in such matters. The line thus arranged for the two nations was changed by their own agreement, in 1494, for a north and south line three hundred and fifty leagues west of the Cape de Verde Islands. The difference between the two lines was not supposed to be important.

The decision thus made was long respected. Under a mistaken impression as to the longitude of the Philippine Islands in the East Indies, Spain has held those islands, under this line of division, ever since their discovery by Magellan. She considered herself entitled to all the islands and lands between the meridian thus drawn in the Atlantic and the similar meridian one hundred and eighty degrees away, on exactly the other side of the world.

Under the same line of division, Portugal held, for three centuries and more, Brazil, which projects so far eastward into the Atlantic as to cross this line of division.

Fearful, all the time, that neither the pope’s decree, nor any diplomacy would prevent the king of Portugal from attempting to seize lands at the west, the Spanish court pressed with eagerness arrangements for a second expedition. It was to be on a large and generous scale and to take out a thousand men. For this was the first plan, though the number afterwards was increased to fifteen hundred. To give efficiency to all the measures of colonization, what we should call a new department of administration was formed, and at the head of it was placed Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca.

Fonseca held this high and responsible position for thirty years. He early conceived a great dislike of Columbus, who, in some transactions before this expedition sailed, appealed to the sovereigns to set aside a decision of Fonseca’s, and succeeded. For all the period while he managed the Indian affairs of Spain, Fonseca kept his own interests in sight more closely than those of Spain or of the colonists; and not Columbus only, but every other official of Spain in the West Indies, had reason to regret the appointment.

The king of Portugal and the sovereigns of Spain began complicated and suspicious negotiations with each other regarding the new discoveries. Eventually, as has been said, they acceded to the pope’s proposal and decree. But, at first, distrusting each other, and concealing their real purposes, in the worst style of the diplomacy of that time, they attempted treaties for the adjustment between themselves of the right to lands not yet discovered by either. Of these negotiations, the important result was that which has been named,—the change of the meridian of division from that proposed by the pope. It is curious now to see that the king of Portugal proposed a line of division, which would run east and west, so that Spain should have the new territories north of the latitude of the Grand Canary, and Portugal all to the south.

In the midst of negotiation, the king and queen and Columbus knew that whoever was first on the ground of discovery would have the great advantage. There was a rumor in Spain that Portugal had already sent out vessels to the west. Everything was pressed with alacrity at Cadiz. The expedition was to be under Columbus’s absolute command. Seamen of reputation were engaged to serve under him. Seventeen vessels were to take out a colony. Horses as well as cattle and other domestic animals were provided. Seeds and plants of different kinds were sent out, and to this first colonization by Spain, America owes the sugar-cane, and perhaps some other of her tropical productions.

Columbus remained in Barcelona until the twenty-third of May. But before that time, the important orders for the expedition had been given. He then went to Cadiz himself, and gave his personal attention to the preparations. Applications were eagerly pressed, from all quarters, for permission to go. Young men of high family were eager to try the great adventure. It was necessary to enlarge the number from that at first proposed. The increase of expense, ordered as the plans enlarged, did not please Fonseca. To quarrels between him and Columbus at this time have been referred the persecutions which Columbus afterwards suffered. In this case the king sustained Columbus in all his requisitions, and Fonseca was obliged to answer them.

So rapidly were all these preparations made, that, in a little more than a year from the sailing of the first expedition, the second, on a scale so much larger, was ready for sea.


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Chicago: Edward Everett Hale, "Chapter VII.," The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words, ed. Morris, Charles, 1833-1922 in The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words Original Sources, accessed February 16, 2020,

MLA: Hale, Edward Everett. "Chapter VII." The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words, edited by Morris, Charles, 1833-1922, in The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words, Original Sources. 16 Feb. 2020.

Harvard: Hale, EE, 'Chapter VII.' in The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words, ed. . cited in , The Life of Columbus; in His Own Words. Original Sources, retrieved 16 February 2020, from