Most American schoolboys and schoolgirls know that Columbus sailed from “Palos in Spain” to discover America. Some of them know that he sailed on the 3d of August, 1492.
When they grow to be men and women, if they look for Palos on a good enough map they will not find it. It will be on some purely American-manufacture maps. But it will not be on the average map. I was in the cabinet of one of the first geographers in the world, and he took down an excellent map of Spain, on a large scale, authenticated by an official board, and there was no Palos there.
I had determined to see Palos. And Seville is the point of departure for this excursion. On a lovely May day we startedmy daughter and I. There is a railway, sufficiently good, built chiefly or wholly by a mining company, which comes from the valley of the Guadalquivir to that of the Tinto, and takes you there. It is a pleasant ride of sixty-five miles or thereabouts.
We fell into talk with a courteous Spanish gentleman, who was most eager to explain what we did not understand. The western sun, low in the horizon, is streaming through the windows of the carriage. Our friend is on the eastern side; he is looking watchfully across the marshes and the river; and so, as some mound of sand is passed by the train and opens a full view to the other side of the wide estuary, he raises his hand, points across the marshes and says, “Palo!”
We were all silent for a moment. I think he knew something of my feeling. And II found I cared for Palos more than I had supposed possible. I had crossed Spain with the intention of seeing the place. But I had not at any time pictured to myself the gulf between 1492 and 1882; nor even asked myself to imagine Columbus and Martin Pinzon at work on the equipment of the ships. Of a sudden all the features of the contrast presented themselves. Enough, perhaps, that, as we dashed on in the comfort of the railway train, we were looking across the desolate marshes to the forsaken village, where hardly a few white houses could be made out, and told ourselves that from the enterprise and courage of that place the discovery of America became possible.
The seaport of Palos in the time of Columbus was a place so important that the crew and vessels of the first expedition were all gathered there, in face of the difficulties which the superstition of the time and the terms of the voyage presented. I do not suppose it to have been a seaport of the first class, but it was a consider-able and active town. It was on the eastern side of the estuary of the Tinto River, a considerable stream, known to navigators as far back as the first history of navigation. It takes its name Tinto from the color which it brings from the copper and iron mines above, which are the very mines which gave to Spain its interest for Phoenician navigators. In nearly four centuries since Columbus’s time the current of the river has been depositing silt in what was then the port of Palos, and this port is now entirely filled up. With the destruction of the harbor the town has gone to ruin. The few white specks which my Spanish friend pointed out to me, in the light of the evening sun, marked the place of the few houses in which a hundred or two poor people are living, where were once the dock yards and warehouses of the active town. The rival town, Huelva, which was, even in Columbus’s time, a place of considerable importance, takes all the commerce of the estuary. I think not even a fishing-boat sails from Palos itself.
I was wakened the next morning, before five o’clock, to hear the singing of birds in a lofty orange-tree in the front of my window, that we might embark at once on our visit to the convent of Rabida, and, if possible, to the ruins of Palos. A fine half-decked boat, such as we might have hired in Marblehead for a like purpose, with a skipper who looked precisely like his Marblehead congener, but with the lateen sail which is so curiously characteristic of South-ern Europe, was ready for our little voyage. We passed heavy steamers which suggested little enough of Columbus, but there were fine-looking fishing-boats which suggested the plucky little “Nina” of his voyage; and their seamen are probably drest today much as the men who landed with him at San Salvador.
A run of an hour brought us to the fine head-land on which the convent of Rabida, or Sta. Maria de Rabida, stands, scarcely changed, if changed at all, from the aspect it bore on the day when Columbus “asked of the porter a little bread and water for his child.” Strange enough, as one pushes along the steep ascent from the landing at Rabida up the high bluff on which the convent stands, the palm-tree and the pine grow together, as if in token of the dream of the great discoverer who was to unite the continents.
In this convent Columbus made his home while the expedition was fitting out; Palos hard by, and quite accessible. Hither the Pinzons and the learned physician, Gracia Fernandez, were summoned by the good friar Marchena, Columbus’s steady friend, for the great consultations from which the discovery grew.
The convent is a large rambling building, of Moorish lines and aspect, built around several courts or gardens. Hardly any windows open through the outer walls; but the life of the building engages itself in and around the courts within. Here cloisters, made by columns with arches, surround the pretty enclosures, and in these one dines, writes, takes his “siesta,” or does nothing. Columbus’s room, as a fine chamber up-stairs is called, has a large table in the middle, on which is Columbus’s inkstand. All around the room there now hang pictures; some of him, one of Isabella, one of the good old friar, and some by modern painters of different scenes in the first great voyage and of his experiences after his return.
The old chapel of the convent is below. It is neat and pretty, and worship could be renewed there at any time. The Duke of Montpensier, who married a sister of Isabella II., the late Queen of Spain, arranged to have it all put in proper order. The nation maintains the place, and a charming family of Spaniards, grandfather, grandmother, son, daughter, and three nice boys, Christopher, Immanuel, and Joseph, keep it in order.
After a visit full of interest to Rabida, we re-turned to our boat, and I directed my seamen to take me to some landing whence I could go into the very streets of Palos, or what was left of them. To my surprize I was told that this was impossible. No such landing remains, even for a fishing boat of five tons. If the senor wished, it would be necessary for the boat to come to anchor, and the senor must be carried on the back of the skipper for three-quarters of a mile or more, over the flat under-water, formed where proud ships once rode. The senor declined this proposal, and bade the boatman take him to the bar of Saltes, the little island in front of Palos and Huelva, where Columbus’s vessels lay, and from which he sailed at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday, August 3, 1492.
The run from Rabida, tacking back and forth ° with a brisk breeze, was perhaps an hour, or a little more. The island, which was the last of Europe for the great navigator, can be scarcely changed. It is a narrow bar high enough to break the force of the south and southwest winds as they sweep in from the Atlantic, and thus make the admirable harbor of Huelva.
We discharged the grateful duty of collecting some memorials of a place so interesting, and then, by a rapid run before the wind, returned to the pier at Huelva, which is some six miles up the river.