True Historical Stories for Catholic Children – Christopher Columbus

New Catholic Dictionary illustration of Christopher ColumbusIn the northern part of Italy, that lovely coun- try of Europe, there is a city on the Mediterranean Sea called the City of Palaces. Its name is Genoa, and hers, in the year 1435, Christopher Columbus was born. His father was a poor weaver, but managed to give his son a very good education, even sending him for a time to the university of Padua.

From his early childhood Columbus showed a strong liking for the sea, and I suppose that his favorite amusement was sailing toy ships or playing sailor with his little companions in Genoa. At the age of fourteen he made his first voyage in the ship of a cousin of the same name, or Colombo, as it is called in Italian, and from then on he followed a sea-faring life. The life of a sailor in those days was anything but tranquil or secure. The boats of pirates or of hostile countries were frequently met with when fierce fights took place. Even the different Italian states were at war, and once when Columbus was sailing off the coast of Portugal his vessel engaged in a conflict with a Venetian ship which took fire. The two vessels had been fastened together with chains, and could not be separated before the one commanded by Columbus also began to burn. He threw himself into the sea, caught hold of an oar floating near him in the water, and managed to swim to shore, five miles away.

In Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, Columbus met and married an Italian lady, the daughter of a great seaman and explorer. Her name was Felipa Monis de Perestrello. Her father’s charts, or maps of the sea, and accounts of the voyages he had made fell into Columbus’ hands, and it is probable that in this way he first planned his great voyage of discovery. He had long been sure that the world was round, like a ball, but supposed it to be much smaller than it really is, thinking that if he sailed directly westward from Europe, he would finally reach the eastern coast of Asia. This belief he held to the day of his death, and he never knew that he had discovered a new continent.

Columbus’ native city, Genoa, and Venice, another Italian city were, at that time, powerful and rich. They enjoyed an immense trade with India, from which country their merchants imported great quantities of silks, jewels, ivory, spices and other products of the far East. These goods were carried many hundreds of miles on the backs of camels to the Black Sea where they were loaded on ships for Italy. In 1453, the Turks, a barbaric tribe from the interior of Asia, besieged and took the Christian city of Constantinople, thus closing the Black Sea, on which the city is situated, to the traders of Genoa and Venice. You see what a great loss this was to commerce and how naturally men’s minds should be occupied trying to find a new way of reaching India. This was Columbus’ dream, and he was constantly planning and scheming how he might realize it. He was poor, with a family to support, even helping his old father and his three younger brothers in Genoa. How could he think of fitting out even one ship for his undertaking? But our hero never despaired. He waited patiently and trusted in God who at length rewarded him. After being refused aid by the King of Portugal, he applied to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. They had his charts examined, considered his plans and then rejected them, as the King of Portugal had done. Hoping they would change their minds, he waited five weary years, and then determined to ask help from France. With his son, Diego, he started sadly on his journey. How it happened that he had to pass the Franciscan monastery of La Babida, and, as he was tired and hungry, he stopped to ask the good monks for something to eat, and permission to rest. While there, he told them of his idea of discovering a new way to the Indies, and of the many disappointments he had met with. The superior of the monastery had been the queen’s confessor, and he asked Columbus to delay his journey to France until he could speak with the sovereigns in the hope of prevailing on them to help him. The kind old monk set out at once for the court, and to his great joy, returned with a message for Columbus to appear again before the king and queen. This time he was heard with favor, the queen especially being so determined that he should make his voyage of discovery that she promised to sell her jewels, if money for the enterprise could not be had in any other way. At last, our hero was rewarded for all his patient waiting. Three ships were bought and manned, not without considerable trouble, for the sailors regarded such an expedition into unknown seas with fear and dread. In due time, everything was ready, and three little vessels, the Santa Maria (in which Columbus went) the Pinta and the Nina set sail on August 3, 1492, from the port of Palos, in southern Spain. You may be sure that Columbus and all his men heard Mass and received Holy Communion before they embarked, committing themselves with many devout prayers to the protection of the Holy Trinity and of the Blessed Virgin. The good superior of the convent of La Pabida stood upon the shore and gave his blessing as the ships started westward. Having stopped at one of the Canary Islands to mend a broken rudder, the little fleet again set sail, this time into unknown seas. Many of the sailors shed tears when they saw land fading from view in the distance, but Columbus comforted them with promises of land and riches in the countries to which they were going, speaking with so much certainty that he inspired them with confidence.

How began an anxious time. Day after day, and week after week, nothing but a dreary waste of water. The men became restless, many wished to force Columbus to turn hack, believing that he wa« taking them to certain destruction. They were calmed somewhat by a few signs of land which began to appear, such as a carved stick and a green branch with perfectly fresh berries on it, floating in the water. At length, after many disappointments, for the clouds on the horizon at sea often looked like land, and deceived the poor anxious sailors many times, a gun was fired, as a signal from the Pinta, and all knew that land had really been reached. A hymn was sung in the cabin of each ship, and prayers of thanksgiving said, we may imagine how fervently.

On the morning of October 12, 1492, Columbus landed on an Island of the Bahama group to which he gave the name of San Salvador, or in English, Holy Saviour, taking possession in the name of the Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The poor simple natives crowded around them, gazing with awe and wonder at the rich dresses and fair faces of the Spaniards, supposing them to be something like angels descended from the skies. Because Columbus thought he had reached a part of India, he called them Indians. Their good will was gained by presents of colored caps, little bells and glass beads which Columbus had brought with him.

Having rested and refreshed himself, Columbus once more set sail to continue his voyage of discovery. He proceeded in a southerly direction, cruising along the coast of Cuba, until a storm forced him to anchor in a bay. He landed and erected a cross on a little hill near the shore. In Havana, the capital of Cuba, there is a chapel called the Templete. It marks the spot where the first Mass in Cuba was celebrated, and once a year, on the feast of Saint Christopher, it is opened. Hot a month ago I stood under the spreading tree that shades the little building and could almost fancy I saw Columbus and his followers kneeling there, assisting at the Holy Sacrifice and thanking God for having preserved them from so many perils. The city of Havana is really named Saint Christopher of the Havana, in honor of Columbus, and there hangs over one of the altars in the beautiful cathedral a fine old painting of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of the city.

For many years, the remains of Columbus rested in a niche in the wall of the sanctuary in the Havana cathedral, but they were removed to Seville in Spain, not many years ago. I saw the place where his coffin had rested so long, and felt sorry that he had not been allowed to remain in the country he had discovered and for which he suffered so many trials.

Having spent about three months cruising among the Islands of the West Indies, Columbus determined to return to Spain. Bad weather was encountered all the way, and, just as he was expecting to sight land, a violent hurricane burst upon the three little vessels. When he reflected that his ships might be lost, and with them all records of his discoveries, the grief of Columbus was intense. He wrote a short account of his voyage, enclosed the paper in a cake of wax which he sealed up in a cloth, placed in a keg and threw into the sea, in the hope that it would one day be washed ashore and reach the sovereigns of Spain. This done, he gathered the crew in the cabin where fervent prayers were said for deliverance from the shipwreck which threatened them. It was determined that if they were spared, one of their number should make a pilgrimage to a shrine of the Blessed Virgin in Spain, called Santa Maria de la Oueva. They drew lots, placing as many beans as there were persons on board, in a cap. One bean was marked with a cross and this was the one Columbus drew, the lot thus falling to him. Soon after, a streak of blue sky appeared in the West, the wind blew with less violence, and on March 15, Columbus entered the harbor of Palos, having taken about seven and a half months for his wonderful voyage.

I could not describe to you the rejoicing and wonder of the people when the news spread that the three little vessels had really returned. The bells were rung, stores closed, and when Columbus landed, a great procession was formed to escort him to the church, where a solemn thanksgiving was offered to Almighty God for the discovery of the New World.

The court was then at Barcelona, in the north of Spain, and when the king and queen were notified of Columbus return, they sent him a letter addressed to “Don Christopher Columbus, our Admiral of the Ocean-sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands discovered in the Indies,” inviting him to repair at once to court. This he did, taking with him six Indians and various plants and curiosities brought from the New World. Upon his arrival at Barcelona, he was met by a number of courtiers and nobles, and a great crowd of people who formed a procession to escort him to the presence of the king and queen. First in the parade marched the Indians, then came persons carrying live parrots, stuffed birds, and rare plants from the Hew World, and following these rode Columbus richly dressed, mounted on a splendid horse and surrounded by an escort of noblemen. He was received with every mark of distinction by Ferdinand and Isabella, and when he had given them an account of his voyage, they fell on their knees, and with tears of joy thanked God for his great mercy, after which the anthem Te Deum laudamus was sung by the choir of the royal chapel.

The queen who was very pious, at once took steps for the conversion of the Indians. Those that Columbus had brought with him were baptized with great ceremony, the king, the queen, and other members of the royal family, standing sponsors for them. To minister to those in the West Indies, the pope appointed Father Bernard Boyle, apostolic vicar in the Hew World. He took with him, when he went to take charge of his new mission, vestments and ornaments for the altar which the queen had given from her own chapel.

You may imagine how different Columbus’ second voyage was from the first. This time there was no difficulty in getting men to go with him, and he sailed in triumph from Cadiz on September 25, with three large vessels and fourteen smaller ones. He took with him all kinds of domestic animals and fowls to stock the islands of the West Indies, also the seeds of oranges, lemons, melons, and other European fruits.

This voyage was a pleasant one, with fair weather, and on November 2, land was sighted. It was an island unknown to Columbus, one of a group all close together. He cruised about, looking for a good place to anchor, and, at last, came to a large island with a lofty mountain, from the sides of which gushed waterfalls, some of them so high up that they seemed to be falling from the sky. Here he landed, and, as a promise had been made to the monks of Guadalupe, a monastery in Spain, to call some new place for their convent, the island was given the name of Guadalupe. Columbus also discovered on this voyage the Island of Hayti, and Santo Domingo which he called Hispaniola. Here he founded the first city in the New World giving it the name of Isabella, in honor of the queen. Having seen the new city laid out into streets and the work of the house-building begun, Columbus appointed his brother, Bartholomew Columbus, and a man named Pedro Margarite, in command of the settlement, and left to continue his discoveries. After an absence of four months during which time he discovered Jamaica and cruised around the southern end of Cuba, he returned to Isabella. Here all was in confusion. Sickness had attacked the Spaniards, many of them had died, the new city was almost a ruin, and worst of all, Pedro Margarite had deserted his post and left for Spain to report to the sovereigns how badly things had gone in the new settlement of Isabella. Fortunately for Columbus, just at this time, a ship arrived in Spain from Hispaniola, with news of his return from the discovery of Jamaica, and bringing specimens of gold found in the New World.

The king and queen decided to send some one to examine into the state of the colony. Hot wishing to offend Columbus, they appointed a close friend of his, Juan Aguado to be the commissioner. A false friend he proved to be, for he acted in a high-handed manner, made the colonists think he had been sent to take Columbus’ place, and altogether drove our poor hero almost to distraction. Wishing to set himself right with Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus determined to return to Spain, setting sail when Aguado did, but in a different vessel. On his arrival he succeeded in clearing himself of the suspicion under which he had rested, even obtaining many new rights and privileges from the crown.

Happy over his success, he started on his third voyage to the Hew World on May 30, 1498 with six vessels. He sailed farther to the southward than ever before, and landed on the continent, in what is now Venezuela, South America. After cruising for a while in that vicinity, he returned to the settlement of Isabella. But, alas! matters here had gone from bad to worse. There was much sickness and great discontent among the Spaniards, who blamed Columbus for all their troubles. The friendly Indians had been changed into enemies by the wicked conduct of some of the settlers, and I think that then the brave spirit of Columbus was really broken. In the meantime his enemies had again been busy in Spain. They accused him to the king and queen of being a tyrant and said all kinds of unjust things about him. The sovereigns finally listened to these complaints, and sent an officer of the royal household, Francisco de Bobadilla to take command of the new colony, and if he thought proper, to send Columbus back to Spain for trial. This authority he used to the utmost, even going so far as to arrest Columbus and put him in chains. It was with difficulty that a man would be found willing to rivet the chains. At last a cook, one of Columbus’ own servants, to his shame be it said, fastened the irons upon the limbs of the innocent and venerable prisoner. The master of the vessel in which Columbus sailed for Spain wished to relieve him of them, but he refused, saying that he would only take them off at the order of his sovereign. He kept these chains in his room until the day of his death, to remind him, he said, of the vanity of earthly greatness.

When Columbus arrived, a prisoner in Spain, there was great anger among the people at the outrageous way in which he had been treated. He received a letter from the king and queen inviting him to court, vdiere he was received with every mark of favor. He had written a letter to a lady of the royal household in which he said that the slanders of worthless men had done him more harm than all his services had profited him, and that if he built hospitals and churches his enemies would call them dens of robbers. This letter seems to have had some influence over the king and queen, for justice was done, to a certain extent, although he was never restored entirely to the rights he enjoyed when the colony of Hispaniola was founded.

Although much worn in mind and body, Columbus now made ready for his fourth and last voyage to the New World. This time he cruised far to the westward, crossing the Caribbean Sea and landing in what is now Honduras, Central America. Stormy weather was encountered and he was at one time in great danger of shipwreck. All this anxiety wore upon him, sick and feeble as he was, and several times it seemed as if his end was near. He resolved to visit Hispaniola and Jamaica, but wbat he found there only added to his troubles. The Indians, at first so gentle and friendly, had become cruel enemies of the Spaniards, who had to fight several fierce battles with them before they could be conquered. There had been serious disagreements among the colonists, many of them blaming Columbus for their sufferings. All these troubles were too much for his failing strength, and he set sail for Spain, hoping to find there, in his home at Seville, rest and consolation. But a new trial awaited him. It was his hope that the sovereigns would restore to him certain rights in the affairs of the Hew World which had been taken from him, and it is probable that this would have been done if the queen had lived. However, her death occurred very shortly after his return. The loss of this constant and faithful friend was a sad blow. He was writing to his son Diego when the mournful news reached him, and he added a postscript to his letter asking him to pray for the repose of the queen’s soul. “Her life was always Catholic and holy,” he wrote, “and prompt to all things in God’s holy service; for this reason we may rest assured that she is received into His glory and beyond the care of this rough and weary world.”

This was the last of Columbus’ many sorrows. His illness continued to increase but in the midst of his pains he did not neglect to make his will and to arrange for the distribution of many small gifts. Even a poor Jew in the city of Lisbon was to receive a small piece of silver, probably for some little service he had once rendered to Columbus. After receiving the Last Sacraments with great fervor, Columbus died on the beautiful feast of the Ascension, 1506, his last words being: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

His body rested for a time in the chapel of a monastery in Seville, but was afterwards removed to Hispaniola where it remained for many years in the cathedral of the city of Santo Domingo. Then it was brought to Havana, Cuba, where it rested until the close of the war which freed Cuba from Spanish rule. When the Spaniards left the island, they caused Columbus’ remains to be taken from the cathedral in Havana and brought to Spain. They were placed in the cathedral of Seville, where they now repose, I hope, to be disturbed no more.

Columbus was tall and handsome, with bright eyes and fair hair which trouble had turned quite white before he was thirty-five years old. You have seen how pious he was, and how in all his troubles he never failed to recommend himself and his affairs to the care of Almighty God and of Llis Blessed Mother. It was his custom never to depart on a voyage without first going to confession and receiving Holy Communion.

Columbus had, in this world, but a poor reward for all his sufferings and labors, but God’s ways are not our ways, and we may hope and believe that the great discoverer of our country has found in heaven the recompense which was denied him on earth.

– text taken from True Historical Stories for Catholic Children, by Josephine Portuondo, 1907