James W. (James William) Buel.

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invisible power that was turning the needle from its true
direction in order to lead them into some whirlpool, or
bring them within the influence of other destructive agency ?
So serious did this phenomenon appear, that Columbus
was himself greatly disturbed by it, but he contrived an
explanation which partially allayed alarm, but it may be
added that while the fact is now universally known, science
has not yet been able to determine positively the cause.

Now the vessels entered the rec:ion of the westward
trade winds, which urged them along at an increased speed,
naturally arousing new fears, but these were directly quieted
by the sudden appearance of two birds, one a Mother Carey
chicken (petrel) and the other a wagtail, which it was errone-
ously believed never ventured a great distance from land.


Following this supposed indication of an approaching shore,
on the same night the crews were again plagued to distrac-
tion in beholding a flaming meteor swiftly speeding across
the sky and plunging into the sea five leagues distant from
the ships. The men at once accepted this as a signal from
heaven heralding their quick destruction, but Columbus
regarded it as a holy beacon, and as a presage of the certain
triumph which awaited the expedition.

Thereafter every natural condition was favorable to a
happy passage ; the sky was serene, the winds steady from
the east, sending the vessels plowing the Avaves in their
westward course, and the ocean was as peaceful as a babe
sleeping on its mother's breast. Under the balmy fragrance
of the healthful air the mind of Columbus became roseate
with blissful reflections. " If we only had the song of the
nightingale," he writes, " we might well believe ourselves
ashore among the waving groves, and near the flower-scent-
ed gardens of Spain,"

On the 19th of September a mist showed on the sea un-
disturbed by wind, which was taken as a precursor of land,
and on the Friday following other evidence that the shore
lay not very far beyond was presented by a mass of weeds
into which the ships thrust their bows. A booby bird came
sailing by to increase the illusion, and many fishes sported
about the vessels, some of which were harpooned, affording
a sportive divertisement that was intensely animating. But
the weeds became more dense and tangled, until they grew
into an imposing barrier to farther progress and aroused the
sailors to a sense of new dangers more appalling than they
had before conceived. Here, thought they, is the boundary
of the world, the interdict God has placed upon the passage
of mortals. Once within the remorseless fingers of this
verdant sea extrication will be impossible ; famine seemed
to show its hideous head ; thirst pointed its pale fingers

TtiE New world. 9^

towards their quivering lips ; in this turgid lake of damned
engorgement, green with the life of death, livid with the
slime of corruption, may be the haunt of the kraken, whose
palpy arms could embrace a ship to its destruction ; on this
great prairie of the ocean must live the hundred monsters
that played such a part in the sea-tales of the age, browsing
off an herbage that empoisoned every other living thing.
Under its slowly pulsing bosom there may be deadly reefs
to grind away the bottoms of the ships, or sandy bars to
hold them until storm, lightning or waterspout could com-
plete their annihilation.

But still, the ships drove on through this Sargasso sea of
impediment, until at last a passage was accomplished, but
with this abatement of fear a new alarm arose over the in-
variable wind that day after day impelled them westward,
until belief became fixed that return was impossible. No
reason that Columbus could command would give the crews
encouragement ; despair was followed by a mutinous and
murderous spirit ; many of them being criminals, whose
punishments were remitted to this service, they began to
clamor for a victim ; to openly murmur their seditions
against Columbus, who might have fallen before their venge-
ance had not an adverse wind begun to blow at the most
auspicious moment, as if to prove the unreasonableness of
their apprehensions.

On the 23d of September, Martin Alonzo Pinzon mounted
the high stern of the Pinta and shouted with joy, " Land !
Land ! I declare my right to the pension." Others were
equally certain that they saw land, whereupon there was an
excitement of uncontrollable delight among all the crews,
until in a little while they perceived that what was taken
for land was only a thick bank of clouds, and the despond-
ency which succeeded was the greater for this momentary


Complaints of a violent character were renewed, and
Columbus became, in the eyes of the sailors, a braggart,
humbug and fraud, whose own nation would not recognize
him, who had deceived the Spanish sovereigns, and whose
blind persistence would drive them to destruction. They
accordingly favored a submission to him of the alternative
of turning back or being cast into the sea. The Pinzons
were cognizant of this mutinous spirit, but held themselves
aloof from either encouraging or reproving it, but this inac-
tion proved how strong had grown their prejudice against
Columbus because of his refusal to turn aside in quest of
islands which the Pinzons believed lay near by, to the

From time to time cries of " land " were made, but every
such announcement proved delusive, and finally the long
pent-up torrent of fear, envy and hatred broke, in which
even the Pinzons joined. The united demand was for an
immediate return ; all authority was dissipated, the crews
were now a mob, and before this maddened body of infu-
riate men Columbus was powerless beyond the influence of
his persuasion, which, however, commanded respect when
his orders would have incited a swift vengeance. To these
howling caitiffs, therefore, he appealed, in the name of the
holy image that was emblazoned on the royal flag which
floated from the mast of the Sa)ita Maria, to their courage
as men, to their cupidity as slaves of avarice, and at last
begged them to renounce their evil purpose, or give him
three more days in which to seek the land for which they
had set out amid the prayers of their nation. This request
was finally granted and the disaffected men went back sul-
lenly to their several posts of duty.

On the following day evidences that land was not far
away began to multiply, while the wind increased to push
the vessels more rapidly forward. A green rush was seen


by the crew of the Santa Maria, and almost immediately
after the lookout on the Piiita observed two sticks which
had been evidently fashioned by human hands. Those of
the Nina, who were like vigilant in their watch, were fa-
vored by the sight of a green bush bearing clusters of red
berries, all of which several indications that land was near
revived the spirits of the crews, and good humor and de-
lightful anticipations took the place of fear and rebellious
feelings. Seeing that the men were now in an amiable
frame of mind, Columbus ordered a hymn (the Salve Re-
gina) to be sung, and then, after discoursing to them on the
manifestations of God's protecting care throughout the
voyage, elated them beyond measure by predicting that
land would be discovered before another night was ended.
He also charged them to be particularly watchful, and
promised to reward the one who should first perceive the
shore with the gift of his beautiful velvet doublet, which
was trimmed with gold lace and considered a thing of great
value. This premium was to be given in addition to a pen-
sion of ten thousand maravedis i%lG), promised by the
Queen to the one who should first see the land of the new

Every one on the three ships was now so excited with
expectancy that there was no desire to sleep ; each was
anxious to earn the double reward, and all were alike curi-
ous to catch a glimpse of the unknown shore.

About ten o'clock that night, as Columbus was watching
from the poop-deck of his vessel, his searching eye caught
the gleam of a moving light in the distance. Not fully
satisfied of his vision, he called two others to watch, and
they also beheld the same glorious beacon ; but then it
faded and was seen no more. Word passed quickly from
ship to ship, and the watch by all became more vigilant.
Sails were shortened, but wind and current still gave them

'~yc-~ ■ •" ■■'1


a goodly pace, and thus they pressed on until two o'clock
in the morning of Friday, October 12th, four hours after
Columbus had seen the fitful light, when a cannon shot
from the Pmta, which was a league in advance of the Santa
Maria, gave loud-voiced proclamation of the discovered
shore ; whereupon every one fell down in worshipful atti-
tude and lifted their voices in holy praise and thankfulness.
Juan Rodriguez Bermejo had been the first to discover,
through the haze of approaching morning, the high lifting
banks of a land on the western boundary of that gloomy
ocean which had held the secrets of infinity, and become in
the minds of men the representation of a boundless im-

The men who had been moved by mutinous disposition
two days before were now prostrate in homage before the
commander whose life they had threatened ; from condem-
nation they lifted their voices in adulation ; from an intens-
ity of depression, from a prostration of dread alarm, they
were suddenly become jocund, ready to embrace all the
world, so great was their delirium of thankfulness. In
avowing their obligations to Columbus, they would also do
penance for the crime of their evil machinations ; and hav-
ing no better gift to bestow they would acknowledge him
as the first discoverer of land, thereby giving to him the
fullest meed of honor, and refute the claim of the common
sailor Bermejo. And to the astonishment of all mankind,
the pension which he manifestly did not earn, in his thirst
for all the glory, ambition-mad, he took to himself ; a re-
ward that in all justice belonged to the poor sailor whose
lot was so humble he could not defend his right.

What was the light that Columbus indistinctly saw?
The Pinta was at least three miles ahead, and none of her
crew saw it ; may it not, therefore, have been flashes from
some taper on board that vessel? Indeed, since the dis-


tance from land must have been at least fifteen miles, no
one from the ship's deck could have perceived an object on
the flat shore because of the convexity of the earth. It is
also possible that the light which Columbus saw emanated
from a canoe which may have been passing from one island
to another, as it was a very common custom for islanders
to carry fire upon a fireplace of clay laid in the center of
their canoes. In fact, the fluttering light was not regarded
by Columbus as reliable evidence of the proximity of land
until after a cannon-shot from the Pinta gave announce-
ment of Bermejo's discovery. And yet he claimed and
possessed himself of the pension, to which the poor sailor
alone had any just right.



Under the spell of a wondrous enchantment, a vision as
glorious as that which broke upon the sight of Sir Galahad,
revealing the Holy Grail of his pious search, was the beatific
view presented to the longingly expectant crews when the
light of morning revealed the wondrous scene ! There be-
fore them lay a stretch of landscape marvelous for its
diversity of yellow sands, softly lapping surf, swelling un-
dulations, in a stretch of opalescent mists ; flowery groves
that breathed a fragrance like incense to advancing day ;
blue waters of a lake peeping in gladness through forests of
lofty evergreens, while along the beach, or resting in awe-
some admiration beneath broad-sheltering trees, were a
hundred specimens of an alien race, tawny, sun-browned,
symmetrical, disappareled, gazing with bewildered surprise
at their celestial-appearing visitors.

In the fair view before them, whether it were the shores
of Zipangu, or other lands of the blessed, there was eager-
ness to press its bosom ; but with becoming precaution the
ships were first placed in a state of defense, and then each
member of the expedition arrayed himself in corselet, tabard,
and helmet, and with such weapons as match-lock, pike, and
cross-bow, prepared to take possession of the beautiful land.
Columbus, however, wearing the dignities of Grand Admiral
of the ocean, and Viceroy of all the lands he should dis-
cover, presented a spectacle which might well impress even
those familiar with court regalia and imperial vestments,
for he clothed himself in the richest raiment procurable in



Spain, provided before his embarkation in anticipation of a
meeting with the Great Khan of Tartary. Above the scar-
let mantle that covered his shoulders, he bore the royal
flag, on which was emblazoned the image of Jesus Christ,
and taking his position in the bow of the first boat, started
for the inviting shore. Immediately behind him came the
yawls of the Nina and Pinta, bearing their commanders,
each of whom supported royal standards of Castile on
which were displayed the letters F. and Y., initials of the
sovereigns, Fernando and Ysabel.

With lusty arms the rowers pushed the boats rapidly
towards the shore, nearly a league from the anchorage,
where a landing having been made,* with a solemnity
befitting so thankful an occasion, Columbus planted the
standard of the cross and the flags of Spain in the yielding
sands. This done he lifted his voice in a prayer, only the
first accents of which have been preserved by history, while
those about him fell upon their knees with offerings of
thanksgiving : " Lord Eternal and Almighty God ! Who,
by Thy sacred word, hast created the heavens, the earth
and the seas, may Thy name be blessed and glorified every-
where. May Thy Majesty be exalted, who hast deigned to
permit that by Thy humble servant Thy sacred name should
be made known and preached in this other part of the
world." Having thus made his obligations to God, he gave
to the island the name of San Salvador (Holy Saviour), and
then took possession of it in the name of the Lord Jesus
Christ for the Crown of Castile. A large cross, made from
limbs of a tree, was next set up to mark the landing site,
and then efforts were made to communicate with the
natives, who stood off at a considerable distance watching
with fear and trembling the actions of their strange visitors.

* Billy Rice, the Irishman, is said to have been first to leap on shore, carry-
ing out the line with which to make the yawl fast.


By signs of amity, and a proffer of presents, Columbus at
length induced some of the bolder to approach, whom he so
graciously received that their companions directly came for-
ward, and an agreeable intercourse was presently established ;
but as their language was not understood by any of Columbus'
men, communication was conducted entirely by means of
signs. By these, however, it w^as learned that the island
upon which landing had thus been made was called by the
natives Giianahani. Subsequent investigation proved that
it was one of a considerable group afterwards named the
Bahamas. The imperfect knowledge acquired by Columbus,
and especially the indefinite description which he gave of
the island has been the cause of much dispute respecting
the exact land which he first discovered. While a majority
of authorities maintain that San Salvador of modern maps
was the real landing place, others declare that, from the
brief description given, Watling's Island is manifestly the
land of first discovery; but the impossibility of settling
this controversy renders a discussion of the question out
of place here.

The appearance of the people, which interests us most,
is thus described by Columbus in his journal : " The men
and women go naked as they were born into the world.
They are well shaped and with agreeable features. Their
hair, as coarse as horse hair, falls over their foreheads, and
is left to grow in a long tail behind, but it is not crisp.
These men are in truth a fine race ; they have lofty fore-
heads, and bigger heads than any natives I have ever seen
before in my travels. Their eyes are large and fine, their
legs straight, stature high, and their movements graceful.
Some are painted a blackish color, but are of the same
tawny hue as are the natives of the Canary Islands. Many
are painted white, red or some other color, as to the whole
body, or the face around the eyes, and sometimes only the


nose. They have no weapons such as we have, and seem
not even to know the properties of weaponry."

But though simple in their manner, the natives had such
weapons as lances made by pointing pieces of cane with
shark's teeth and obsidian. Some of the people were
observed to bear the marks of serious wounds, received, as
they explained, in battles with natives of neighboring islands
who sought to enslave them. When confidence was estab-
lished, the islanders curiously inquired, by means of signs, if
their visitors were not heaven-descended, for in their simple
faith they believed the vessels riding at anchor before them
were huge creatures of the air that had descended in the
night, bearing to them celestial passengers, the object of
whose visit they could not determine. But familiar inter-
course reassured them, and before the day was ended they
manifested the greatest curiosity to know their visitors
better, and evidenced their feeling of security by the freest
commingling and interchange of civilities, taking the form of
active barter of nets, fruits, cotton yarns, parrots and oc-
casional pieces of gold, for the attractive trifles that the
Spaniards had to give.

On the following morning hundreds of the natives came
off to the ships in canoes made from the trunks of trees,
some of which were large enough to comfortably carry as
many as fifty men, while others were so small as to scarcely
support a single person. But the islanders had such famil-
iarity with the water that they appeared aquatic in their
habits, and to be capsized miles from the shore gave them
no uneasiness, for they would dextrously right their crafts
and bale them out with gourds with which every paddler
was provided, in anticipation of such accidents.

Observing that a few of the islanders wore small orna-
ments of gold in their noses, the cupidity and avarice of
the Spaniards was quickly excited, and with great eagerness


Columbus inquired whence came those piece of the precious
metal. They responded by informing him that somewhere
south of them there was a larger island ruled by a king
who possessed immense quantities of gold, and whose drink-
ing vessels were all made of that metal. He asked some of
them to accompany him upon a visit to that auriferous
land, but they refusing, in his anxiety to enrich himself
and followers, Columbus hastened his departure. Herein
was the beginning of that long and painful story of the
cupidity, wandering and gold-greed with which the Spanish
adventurers and heroes of the sixteenth century were all

Only one thing restrained the desire of the crews for an
immediate embarkation to pursue their quest for gold, and
this was the condemnable passion of lustful appetite. Be-
fore their unbridled and lascivious senses the Spaniards saw
a people of modest manners and a guileless disposition, and
this they would violate by inaugurating an immorality to
which the natives were yet strangers. We cannot fail to re-
flect upon the astounding satire furnished by the contrast
of naked modesty and pure manners of this untutored island
tribe as compared with the lustful appetite, calculating ava-
rice, distrust, latent cruelty, and perfidious spirit of the
Spanish mariners, products as they were of one of the oldest
civilizations — a civilization upon which the forces of litera-
ture, art and so-called religion had operated for nearly a
thousand years.

Believing that the island upon which he had landed was
one of the five thousand described by Marco Polo as lying
in the sea off Cathay, Columbus regarded the natives as a
fraction of the great races of India, wherefore he called them
Indians. But they bore none of the characteristics ob-
served in the peoples with which Polo came in contact.
If, however, they were «^ far outlying contingent of the


natives of India, or Zipangu, they must be serviceable in
pursuing further discoveries, so Columbus took on board
his ship (by abduction) seven of the most promising is-
landers,* whom he so diligently instructed that they soon
became intelligent interpreters, and with these, on the 14th
of October, he renewed his voyage. To more thoroughly
acquaint himself with the size and productions of the island,
however, he sailed entirely around it, finding that it
abounded with cocoanuts and bananas — fruits never before
seen by Europeans — and such products as yams, cotton,
yucca, and pine-apples. But he deemed it unsuited for
colonization, because of its smallness, and he turned the
prows of his vessels to renew the quest for the mainland of
Cathay, which he hoped soon to gain, and there presenting
to the Grand Khan the letter of friendship from his sov-
ereigns, gather the rich recompense of his success and then
return in triumph to receive the favors of Isabella and the
plaudits of mankind.

A few hours' sail from Guanahani brought the expedition
in sight of a great cluster of islands, more than a hundred
of which his native interpreters named. One of the largest
appearing he approached, and finding the shores inviting
made a landing, and erecting thereon a cross as a sign of
Christian occupation, christened the island St. Mary of the
Conception. Two other large islands he named respectively
Fcrnandine and Isabella. The latter was so full of natural
delights that he remained there for two days exploring its
beauties of lovely scenery, picturesque groves, flowery
meads, and fruit-bearing trees. The air was full of sweet-
est fragrance and resonant with the voice of warbling birds,
no less gorgeously arrayed than tuneful. The natives were

* " I took some Indians, by force, from the first island I came to, that they
might learn our language, and tell what they knew of their country." — Letter
of Columbus to Don Raphael Sanchez,


very like those with whom he first came in contact, but
they Hved in huts more artistically constructed, and pos-
sessed more ornaments of gold. On the island — betraying
its volcanic origin — was a considerable lake of crystal water
abounding with fish. While walking along the shore Co-
lumbus was at first horror-stricken by the sight of a mon-
ster lizard with armament of bristling scales, dreadful claws
and hideous head. But instead of standing upon the offen-
sive, the creature retreated into the shallow water, whither
Columbus pursued and killed it with a lance. It being of
such remarkable size and repelling aspect he took ofT its
skin, which he declares measured seven feet in length, and
preserved it as an example of the frightful reptilian life of
the new world. This lizard was an iguana, common in the
inter-tropical countries of America, where, despite its horrid
appearance, the flesh is so highly esteemed as to readily
command twenty-five cents per pound in the markets. It
is not known to exceed five feet in length.

But all the beauties or wonders of earth could not long
retain the interest of Columbus. He gave to them the trib-
ute of a passing notice, but his mind was absorbed with
an ambition for gain ; his thirst for gold was unappeasable ;
his day-dreams were gilded with the treasure which he set
out to seek. Of this avaricious passion Barry, the compiler
from De Lorgues, his most ardent Catholic admirer, thus
writes : *' In this voyage his (Columbus') object was less to
observe nature than to acquire gold, in order to make Spain
interested in the matter of continuing the discoveries, by
giving palpable proofs of their importance. He sought
gold, especially in order to commence the fund of the im-
mense treasure he desired to amass. The deliverance of
the Holy Land and the purchase of the tomb of Jesus
Christ were always before his eyes — the supreme object of
his ambition. He desired then to collect, in order to con-


vert them into gold, the spices of the Orient, the frontiers
of which he beHeved he had reached. But it was gold that

Online LibraryJames W. (James William) BuelLibrary of American history (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 37)