Christopher Columbus and the New World
The Preparations At Palos
The Palos that witnessed the fitting out of the ships of Columbus exists no longer. The
soul is gone from it; the trade that in those days made it great and busy has floated away
from it into other channels; and it has dwindled and shrunk, until to-day it consists of
nothing but a double street of poor white houses, such almost as you may see in any sea-
coast village in Ireland. The slow salt tides of the Atlantic come flooding in over the
Manto bank, across the bar of Saltes, and, dividing at the tongue of land that separates the
two rivers, creep up the mud banks of the Tinto and the Odiel until they lie deep beside
the wharves of Huelva and Palos; but although Huelva still has a trade the tides bring
nothing to Palos, and take nothing away with them again. From La Rabida now you can
no longer see, as Columbus saw, fleets of caravels lying-to and standing off and on
outside the bar waiting for the flood tide; only a few poor boats fishing for tunny in the
empty sunny waters, or the smoke of a steamer standing on her course for the
Guadalquiver or Cadiz.
But in those spring days of 1492 there was a great stir and bustle of preparation in Palos.
As soon as the legal documents had been signed Columbus returned there and, taking up
his quarters at La Rabida, set about fitting out his expedition. The reason Palos was
chosen was an economical one. The port, for some misdemeanour, had lately been
condemned to provide two caravels for the service of the Crown for a period of twelve
months; and in the impoverished state of the royal exchequer this free service came in
very usefully in fitting out the expedition of discovery. Columbus was quite satisfied,
since he had such good friends at Palos; and he immediately set about choosing the ships.
This, however, did not prove to be quite such a straightforward business as might have
been expected. The truth is that, whatever a few monks and physicians may have thought
of it, the proposed expedition terrified the ordinary seafaring population of Palos. It was
thought to be the wildest and maddest scheme that any one had ever heard of. All that
was known about the Atlantic west of the Azores was that it was a sea of darkness,
inhabited by monsters and furrowed by enormous waves, and that it fell down the slope
of the world so steeply that no ship having once gone down could ever climb up it again.
And not only was there reluctance on the part of mariners to engage themselves for the
expedition, but also a great shyness on the part of ship-owners to provide ships. This
reluctance proved so formidable an impediment that Columbus had to communicate with
the King and Queen; with the result that on the 23rd of May the population was
summoned to the church of Saint George, where the Notary Public read aloud to them the
letter from the sovereigns commanding the port to furnish ships and men, and an
additional order summoning the town to obey it immediately. An inducement was
provided in the offer of a free pardon to all criminals and persons under sentence who
chose to enlist.