Columbus at La Rabida
By Washington Irving (Adapted)
About half a league from the little
seaport of Palos de Moguer, in Andalusia, there stood,
and continues to stand at the present day, an ancient convent
of Franciscan friars, dedicated to Santa Maria de Rabida.
One day a stranger on foot, in humble
guise, but of a distinguished air, accompanied by a small
boy, stopped at the gate of the convent and asked of the
porter a little bread and water for his child. While receiving
this humble refreshment, the prior of the convent, Juan
Perez de Marchena, happened to pass by, and was struck
with the appearance of the stranger. Observing from his
air and accent that he was a foreigner, he entered into
conversation with him and soon learned the particulars
of his story.
That stranger was Columbus.
Accompanied by his little son Diego,
he was on his way to the neighboring town of Huelva, to
seek a brother-in-law, who had married a sister of his
The prior was a man of extensive information.
His attention had been turned in some measure to geographical
and nautical science. He was greatly interested by the
conversation of Columbus, and struck with the grandeur
of his views. When he found, however, that the voyager
was on the point of abandoning Spain to seek the patronage
of the court of France, the good friar took the alarm.
He detained Columbus as his guest,
and sent for a scientific friend to converse with him.
That friend was Garcia Fernandez, a physician of Palos.
He was equally struck with the appearance and conversation
of the stranger. Several conferences took place at the
convent, at which veteran mariners and pilots of Palos
Facts were related by some of these
navigators in support of the theory of Columbus. In a word,
his project was treated with a deference in the quiet cloisters
of La Rabida and among the seafaring men of Palos which
had been sought in vain among sages and philosophers.
Among the navigators of Palos was one
Martin Alonzo Pinzon, the head of a family of wealth, members
of which were celebrated for their adventurous expeditions.
He was so convinced of the feasibility of Columbus's plan
that he offered to engage in it with purse and person,
and to bear the expenses of Columbus in an application
Fray Juan Perez, being now fully persuaded
of the importance of the proposed enterprise, advised Columbus
to repair to the court, and make his propositions to the
Spanish sovereigns, offering to give him a letter of recommendation
to his friend, the Prior of the Convent of Prado and confessor
to the queen, and a man of great political influence; through
whose means he would, without doubt, immediately obtain
royal audience and favor. Martin Alonzo Pinzon, also, generously
furnished him with money for the journey, and the Friar
took charge of his youthful son, Diego, to maintain and
educate him in the convent.
Thus aided and encouraged and elated
with fresh hopes, Columbus took leave of the little junto
at La Rabida, and set out, in the spring of 1486, for the
Castilian court, which had just assembled at Cordova, where
the sovereigns were fully occupied with their chivalrous
enterprise for the conquest of Granada. But alas! Success
was not yet - for Columbus met with continued disappointments
and discouragements, while his projects were opposed by
many eminent prelates and Spanish scientists, as being
against religion and unscientific. Yet in spite of this
opposition, by degrees the theory of Columbus began to
obtain proselytes. He appeared in the presence of the king
with modesty, yet self-possession, inspired by a consciousness
of the dignity and importance of his errand; for he felt
himself, as he afterwards declared in his letters, animated
as if by a sacred fire from above, and considered himself
an instrument in the hand of Heaven to accomplish its great
designs. For nearly seven years of apparently fruitless
solicitation, Columbus followed the royal court from place
to place, at times encouraged by the sovereigns, and at
At last he looked round in search of
some other source of patronage, and feeling averse to subjecting
himself to further tantalizing delays and disappointments
of the court, determined to repair to Paris. He departed,
therefore, and went to the Convent of La Rabida to seek
his son Diego. When the worthy Friar Juan Perez de Marchena
beheld Columbus arrive once more at the gate of his convent
after nearly seven years of fruitless effort at court,
and saw by the humility of his garb the poverty he had
experienced, he was greatly moved, but when he found that
he was about to carry his proposition to another country,
his patriotism took alarm.
The Friar had once been confessor to
the queen, and knew that she was always accessible to persons
of his sacred calling. He therefore wrote a letter to her,
and at the same time entreated Columbus to remain at the
convent until an answer could be received. The latter was
easily persuaded, for he felt as if on leaving Spain he
was again abandoning his home.
The little council at La Rabida now
cast round their eyes for an ambassador to send on this
momentous mission. They chose one Sebastian Rodriguez,
a pilot of Lepe, one of the most shrewd and important personages
in this maritime neighborhood. He so faithfully and successfully
conducted his embassy that he returned shortly with an
Isabella had always been favorably
disposed to the proposition of Columbus. She thanked Juan
Perez for his timely services and requested him to repair
immediately to the court, leaving Columbus in confident
hope until he should hear further from her. This royal
letter, brought back by the pilot at the end of fourteen
days, spread great joy in the little junto at the convent.
No sooner did the warm-hearted friar
receive it than he saddled his mule, and departed, privately,
before midnight to the court. He journeyed through the
countries of the Moors, and rode into the new city of Santa
Fe where Ferdinand and Isabella were engaged in besieging
the capital of Granada.
The sacred office of Juan Perez gained
him a ready admission into the presence of the queen. He
pleaded the cause of Columbus with enthusiasm. He told
of his honorable motives, of his knowledge and experience,
and his perfect capacity to fulfill the undertaking. He
showed the solid principles upon which the enterprise was
founded, and the advantage that must attend its success,
and the glory it must shed upon the Spanish Crown.
Isabella, being warm and generous of
nature and sanguine of disposition, was moved by the representations
of Juan Perez, and requested that Columbus might be again
sent to her. Bethinking herself of his poverty and his
humble plight, she ordered that money should be forwarded
to him, sufficient to bear his traveling expenses, and
to furnish him with decent raiment.
The worthy friar lost no time in communicating
the result of his mission. He transmitted the money, and
a letter, by the hand of an inhabitant of Palos, to the
physician, Garcia Fernandez, who delivered them to Columbus
The latter immediately changed his threadbare garb for
one more suited to the sphere of a court, and purchasing
a mule, set out again, reanimated by hopes, for the camp
This time, after some delay, his mission
was attended with success. The generous spirit of Isabella
was enkindled, and it seemed as if the subject, for the
first time, broke upon her mind in all its real grandeur.
She declared her resolution to undertake the enterprise,
but paused for a moment, remembering that King Ferdinand
looked coldly on the affair, and that the royal treasury
was absolutely drained by the war.
Her suspense was but momentary. With
an enthusiasm worthy of herself and of the cause, she exclaimed:
"I undertake the enterprise for my own crown of Castile,
and will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds."
This was the proudest moment in the life of Isabella.
It stamped her renown forever as the patroness of the discovery
of the New World.