By Riley Lewis
The night was as quiet as it ever got on the open ocean. The ship creaked intermittently, and the wind and waves never completely stopped, but to one accustomed to life at sea, the night was essentially silent. On deck, a weary watchman had his head cradled in his arms, fast asleep. The ship was still days from its destination. It was only in the captain’s cabin where any noise could be detected. Faintly, the scratching of a quill and a feeble light crept onto the deck from under the door.
Behind that door, a man sat at a table, his back to the entryway. From behind, only a candlelight-cast silhouette could be seen of a hunching figure stooped over his work. Closer inspection revealed a man, staring at several pieces of parchment on the table in front of him. Some were crumpled, others had been scratched out, but the one directly in front of the man bore only one word: “Señor.” Though the man’s eyes appeared locked onto the letters, they were, in fact, unfocused; his thoughts were thousands of miles away in two different directions.
The man had thin, graying hair that was already being overcome with baldness. His face was lined and weathered, and a trickle of sweat dripped down toward the end of his long nose, in spite of the relatively cool February night. His tan face was illuminated by the nearby candle, whose light glistened on his extended forehead. His mouth had fallen slightly open, completely forgotten. Indeed, his entire body remained completely rigid, except for his hands, which incessantly picked at a long feather quill, making it appear far less regal than any peacock feather ever should. Only these hands betrayed the fierce struggle going on behind those still, pale eyes.
“I must be honest,” the man thought for the thousandth time, this time not even bothering to glance up at a small crucifix hanging on the wall. “But if they don’t hear something worth celebrating, they’ll never fund another voyage.” He also refused to look at his two longest drafts. One was far too interesting to be true, and the other, far too true to be interesting. Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep up like this. Soon, he would run out of parchment, and if his findings weren’t firmly entrenched in writing, all but the simplest would be reduced to gossip and invention, the ramblings of a madman. No, his story had to be written down. And it had to be done perfectly.
Resignedly, he forced the quill onto the nearly blank page. “As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given…” Writing about God was good. The topic was neither unpopular with the crown nor entirely misleading. Nevertheless, Bible stories and prayers wouldn’t send him the ships he needed if he was to capitalize on the impact of his discovery.
He kept writing. Salvador, María, Fernandina, Isabella, Juana. They were only names. Names would not convince sailors to leave on an uncharted course. Few things could. With a lurch, he thought of the ungodly cargo secured below deck. Surely something else could prompt future voyages. Anything else.
“The land there is elevated,” he continued, “and full of trees of endless varieties.” Describing beauty shouldn’t hurt. Plus, that part was true too. There had been many mountains and trees, but not like the ones he had come to expect from his books. Still, scenery could only get a traveler so far. “Birds of a thousand kinds were singing in the month of November when I was there.” He described the palm trees, the pine woods, the meadows, all of which he knew would do very little to inspire investors. “No one else understands,” he thought bitterly. “Why is the need to explore not enough? Why must all curiosity be motivated by greed?” Realistically, he knew that he had to sell his discovery—he had to give them something to sell.
“There is honey,” he added feebly, “and a great variety of fruits.”
This was going nowhere. The man set the now barren quill onto the table and stood up. He knew of only two commodities that would give him the reaction he needed. The first, gold, was obvious. Months of searching, however, had yielded no results. Only a few scraps of roughly shaped ore, given to him by his hosts. That might be enough to convince the crown that there was indeed gold on the islands. And certainly there would be some, or how would the locals have found any?
He abruptly returned to the table and retrieved the quill without sitting down. “Inland there are numerous mines of metals…” A twinge of guilt pricked his chest. He remembered the words of the Lord to Moses: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” To tell of gold would surely be false witness, but how could it be against his neighbor? Further expeditions would hurt no one, and they might actually prove him to be correct. No, no one would be hurt, unless… if they found no gold, there was still that second commodity. But only as a last resort. More words appeared on the page, but the man never remembered deciding to write them.
Involuntarily, he turned to look at the crucifix on the wall. He was entering dangerous waters, figuratively more than literally. Perhaps it was better to be honest and unprofitable after all. He returned to his chair and began writing again, telling how the land was “rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages.” If the king and queen wished to settle, there was that option. A colony of subsistence farmers, however, would hardly transform his patron country into the empire it yearned to be. “The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers,”he rambled on, but what did that matter? He picked up the parchment, ready to tear it to shreds and start again. Instead, he paused, reread his words, and suddenly set them back down gently and added, before he could stop himself “most of which bear gold.”
It was such a silly claim—one that any member of his crew or following explorers could disprove easily. But it would give him the draw he needed. It would fund a second voyage. Surely, that was more important than a few misleading words? “There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals.” And why not? If Marco Polo had found them, surely they were there. He merely had yet to discover their hiding place..
But what if he never did? Would they all mock him again, as they had done for years? Call him delusional? A hypocrite and a heretic? A perpetual failure? But he had not failed! He had found exactly what he had been searching for, hadn’t he? Was there nothing to be said for being right, even if it came to little to no financial gain? But there was yet a profit to be made. If he couldn’t grant his monarchs gold, perhaps he could give them labor.
“They have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them,” he reluctantly added, afraid to say directly what he knew he was implying. “The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.” The people seemed happy to comply with everything he had requested. Perhaps it was better that they… “They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves.”
“I had to win their love,” he wrote, deciding to shift tactics. “and to induce them to become Christians.” That might protect them, he realized. Baptism could prevent their being abused. He would prefer it that way. “Therefore I hope that their Highnesses will decide upon the conversion of those people to our holy faith, to which they seem much inclined.”
What was he doing? Was he really discussing the people who had loved him so much as goods to be bartered? The crucifix glistened in the candlelight, and a drop of sweat fell from the end of his nose onto the parchment. He thought of his captives, who had been so passive, so accommodating, who had praised him heedlessly in front of their fellows, who were already making small strides forward in learning Spanish. Could he be so cruel? As of yet, he had merely implied that they were docile and generous. If he left it there, perhaps no harm would come to them. He returned to the topic of geography, he told tales of the natives’ myths, men with tails and cannibals and such, and he reminded his readers of the gold mines that never had been real. When future explorers found no gold mines, however, what would they say of him? What would history say of him? That his fruitless venture had been an utter waste of the king’s time, money, and ships, one of which already sat at the bottom of the ocean?
“Only the men remaining there could destroy the whole region, and run no risk,” he found himself writing. Must it always go back to conquest? Was the only way to redeem the reputation of Cristóbal Colón the death and enslavement of hundreds? Thousands? Millions? How many Taínos, Caribs, and Arawaks had to suffer in order to make his venture worthwhile? Must the admiral of the ocean sea become a conquistador, merely to be a successful explorer?
Refusing to look at the crucifix, Cristóbal stood up. He picked up the candle in one hand and the nearly finished letter with the other. He still could not decide whether or not he would actually send it. He left the stuffy cabin and out onto the deck. Without even noticing the sleeping watchman, he opened up the hold and dropped slowly down into the galley. Walking to the end of the hallway, he looked into the small cage where his prisoners slept. Ten men, the most valuable discovery of the four month voyage. Two white glimmers in the semidarkness told him that not all were asleep. One of his captives sat against the walls of the galley, staring at Cristóbal intently. Cristóbal tried to smile, but found that his face wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, he nodded and turned, placing the letter on a crate, determined to finish.
Cristobal turned suddenly to face the speaker. Now, not only his eyes, but his teeth gleamed in the darkness. “What did you say?”
“¡Hermano!” the Taíno repeated, “¡Mí hermano!” He again showed his teeth; was that a smile or a threat? Perhaps he was merely proud of himself for learning the words correctly. Then he stared at his captor, waiting for a response.
Cristobal shivered involuntarily. Ignoring the Indian, he turned to the letter and hastily concluded. “Fará lo que mandaréis. El Almirante.” Then he escaped from the dingy galley, taking the letter and the candle with him. As he ascended through the hold and closed it behind him, the galley was once again flooded with darkness, and the two bright eyes disappeared. The ocean’s near silence was restored, except for one last whisper into the night.
Before his return to Europe after reaching the new world for the first time, Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colón, as he would have been known to the Spanish) directed a letter to Luis de Santangel, a minister to the Spanish monarchy. The letter would then be translated and sent across Europe, making it the first public document proclaiming Columbus’s arrival. The italicized portions of this story were taken directly from that document.
Riley Lewis studied history and Spanish at Brigham Young University and currently lives in England with his wife. He specializes in developing educational tours and presentations for museum audiences and enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction as well, especially when such is of a historical nature.