CHAPTER VII. HOW A BOY BROUGHT THE ADMIRAL TO GRIEF.
Columbus kept sailing on from one island to another. Each new island he found would, he hoped, bring him nearer to Cathay and to the marble temples and golden palaces and splendid cities he was looking for. But the temples and palaces and cities did not appear. When the Admiral came to the coast of Cuba he said: This, I know, is the mainland of Asia. So he sent off Louis, the interpreter, with a letter to the “great Emperor of Cathay.” Louis was gone several days; but he found no emperor, no palace, no city, no gold, no jewels, no spices, no Cathay—only frail houses of bark and reeds, fields of corn and grain, with simple people who could tell him nothing about Cathay or Cipango or the Indies.
So day after day Columbus kept on his search, sailing from island to island, getting a little gold here and there, or some pearls and silver and a lot of beautiful bird skins, feathers and trinkets.
Then Captain Alonso Pinzon, who was sailing in the Pinta, believed he could do better than follow the Admiral’s lead. I know, he said, if I could go off on my own hook I could find plenty of gold and pearls, and perhaps I could find Cathay. So one day he sailed away and Columbus did not know what had become of him.
At last Columbus, sailing on and troubled at the way Captain Alonso Pinzon had acted, came one day to the island of Hayti. If Cuba was Cathay (or China), Hayti, he felt sure, must be Cipango (or Japan). So he decided to sail into one of its harbors to spend Christmas Day. But just before Christmas morning dawned, the helmsman of the Santa Maria, thinking that everything was safe, gave the tiller into the hands of a boy—perhaps it was little Pedro the cabin boy—and went to sleep. The rest of the crew also were asleep. And the boy who, I suppose, felt quite big to think that he was really steering the Admiral’s flagship, was a little too smart; for, before he knew it, he had driven the Santa Maria plump upon a hidden reef. And there she was wrecked. They worked hard to get her off but it was no use. She keeled over on her side, her seams opened, the water leaked in, the waves broke over her, the masts fell out and the Santa Maria had made her last voyage.
Then Columbus was in distress. The Pinta had deserted him, the Santa Maria was a wreck, the Nina was not nearly large enough to carry all his men back to Spain. And to Spain he must return at once. What should he do?
Columbus was quick at getting out of a fix. So in this case he speedily decided what to do. He set his men at work tearing the wreck of the Santa Maria to pieces. Out of her timbers and woodwork, helped out with trees from the woods and a few stones from the shore, he made quite a fort. It had a ditch and a watch-tower and a drawbridge. It proudly floated the flag of Spain. It was the first European fort in the new world. On its ramparts Columbus mounted the cannons he had saved from the wreck and named the fort La Navidad—that is, Fort Nativity, because it was made out of the ship that was wrecked on Christmas Day-the day of Christ’s nativity, his birthday.
He selected forty of his men to stay in the fort until he should return from Spain. The most of them were quite willing to do this as they thought the place was a beautiful one and they would be kept very busy filling the fort with gold. Columbus told them they must have at least a ton of gold before he came back. He left them provisions and powder for a year, he told them to be careful and watchful, to be kind to the Indians and to make the year such a good one that the king and queen of Spain would be glad to reward them. And then he said good-by and sailed away for Spain.
It was on the fourth of January, 1493, that Columbus turned the little Nina homeward. He had not sailed very far when what should he come across but the lost Pinta. Captain Alonso Pinzon seemed very much ashamed when he saw the Admiral, and tried to explain his absence. Columbus knew well enough that Captain Pinzon had gone off gold hunting and had not found any gold. But he did not scold him, and both the vessels sailed toward Spain.
The homeward voyage was a stormy and seasick one. Once it was so rough that Columbus thought surely the Nina would be wrecked. So he copied off the story of what he had seen and done, addressed it to the king and queen of Spain, put it into a barrel and threw the barrel overboard.
But the Nina was not shipwrecked, and on the eighteenth of February Columbus reached the Azores. The Portuguese governor was so surprised when he heard this crazy Italian really had returned, and was so angry to think it was Spain and not Portugal that was to profit by his voyage that he tried to make Columbus a prisoner. But the Admiral gave this inhospitable welcomer the slip and was soon off the coast of Portugal.