Columbus Before The Queen, By Peter Frederick Rothermel (c. 1812-1895)

This painting, by the American artist Peter Frederick Rothermel (c. 1812-1895), depicts the explorer, Christopher Columbus, in an audience with his patron, Queen Isabella (r. 1474-1504). She was ruler of the Kingdom of Castile (in her own right) and of Aragon (through her marriage to King Ferdinand, r. 1479-1516). The Spanish monarchs had not been Columbus’ first choice for patronage. He only began reaching out to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand after his proposed expedition had already been rejected by the Portuguese and the English. Isabella and Ferdinand, too, were hesitant about supporting the expedition, and the roles played by Alonso de Quintanilla (the Spanish court’s chief accountant) and Pedro Gonzales de Mendoza (Cardinal and Archbishop of Toledo) in advocating for Columbus’ cause should not be undervalued. Despite the rocky start, Columbus and the Spanish monarchs formed a partnership in 1492 that would soon send Europe into a colonial craze. In his expedition logbook, Christopher Columbus wrote down his impression of the meetings he had with the monarchs, which occurred at the end of the Reconquista (and the unfortunate subsequent expulsion of Spain’s remaining Jewish population) in 1492. Columbus’ original log-book sadly has been lost, but a digest copy of the log was preserved by Bartolomé de las Casas (c. 1484-1566), and he quoted Columbus’ reflections about meeting with the monarchs:

“Your highnesses ordained that I should not go eastward by land in the usual manner but by the western way which no one about whom we have positive information has ever followed. Therefore having expelled all the Jews from your dominions in that same month of January, your Highnesses commanded me to go with an adequate fleet to those parts of India, in return you granted me great favours bestowing on me the titles of Don and High Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and perpetual governor of such islands and mainland as I should discover and win or should in future be discovered and won in the Ocean Sea, and that these rights should be inherited by my eldest son and so on from generation to generation” (Digest of Columbus’ Log-Book On His First Voyage, entry for January 2).

Although Columbus referenced the month, January, he actually did not receive a contract from the Spanish monarchs until late April. This period of negotiation was detailed by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (c. 1478-1557), who explained in his General and Natural History of the Indies that, “A first grant and agreement was made by the sovereigns to Columbus in the city of Santa Fé, in the Kingdom of Granada, on 18 April 1492, before secretary Juan de Coloma. And the agreement was confirmed by a royal appointment given to him thirteen days later in the city of Granada on 30 April 1492…” (Oviedo, General and Natural History, II.4). With royal backing, Columbus set sail from the Spanish mainland on his ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, making his first stop at the Canary Islands. Finally, on September 6 1492, Christopher Columbus would set off across the Atlantic. To the great frustration of Columbus, he would utterly fail in his quest to reach Asia, for the American continents blocked his path.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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