In April 1485, Bartolomeo Minio, who had managed not to die of malaria in Nauplion, or of camp fever in the Ferrara War, was elected captain of the trading muda to Flanders and England. This was the biennial sailing of four great trading galleys carrying 200,000 ducats worth of goods belonging to Venetian merchants and the state for trade in English and Flemish markets.
The galleys were transporting metalwork from the east, currants, molasses, spice, sugar, raw and spun cotton, lambskins and hides, wax, paper, silk, various kinds of eastern and Venetian fabrics, carpets, small luxury goods, and much else.
To be captain meant that Minio was responsible, not for the details of sailing, but for the military defense of the galleys from the pirates and privateers that littered the waters the whole way down the Adriatic, westward across the Mediterranean, through Gibraltar, and then up the Spanish and French coasts. Each galley had 30 crossbowmen, and everyone else was armed and expected to participate in defense. There is no indication that there was any ordnance aboard though some may have had personal firearms. The major pirate concern was a Columbo, from a family of pirates. This Columbo was variously known in Venetian records as Collombo, John the Greek, George the Greek, Nick the Greek, and Columbus Jr. This is confusing. Columbo primarily sailed as a privateer under the license of one king or another -- in this case Charles VIII of France -- and we find records of Venice making treaties with him not to attack her ships.
The muda of four galleys sailed 15 July, and stopped off in Messina and Famagusta. By late August, the convoy had reached the Atlantic. At night they sailed with lanterns on their masts to keep track of each other's positions, and used trumpets to signal. These, as you might expect, made them easy to track. A single candle can be seen 12 kilometers away on a clear night.
They were tracked. At dawn on the morning of 23 August they were attacked in the Bay of Biscay by seven ships (think Nina-Pinta-Sta. Maria-types) of Columbo's privateers. One of the privateers became really famous. This is his son's account:
The first cause of the Admiral's [Columbus] coming to Spain and devoting himself to the sea was a renowned man of his name and family, called Colombo [Nicolò Griego], who won great fame on the sea because he warred so fiercely against infidels and the enemies of his country that his name was used to frighten children in their cradles. . . . on one occasion he captured four large Venetian galleys of such great size and armament that they had to be seen to be believed. . . . . While the Admiral was sailing in the company of the said Colombo the Younger (which he did for a long time), it was learned that those four great Venetian galleys aforesaid were returning from Flanders. Accordingly Colombo went out to meet those ships and found them between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, which is in Portugal. Here they came to blows, fighting with great fury and approaching each other until the ships grappled and the men crossed from boat to boat, killing and wounding each other without mercy, using not only hand arms but also fire pots and other devices. After they had fought from morning to the hour of vespers, with many dead and wounded on both sides, fire spread from the Admiral's ship to a great Venetian galley. As the two ships were grappled tight with hooks and iron chains which sailors use for this purpose, and on both sides there was much confusion and fear of the flames, neither side could check the fire; it spread so swiftly that soon there was no remedy for those aboard save to leap in the water and die in this manner rather than suffer the torture of the fire. But the Admiral, being an excellent swimmer, and seeing land only a little more than two leagues away, seized an oar which fate offered him, and on which he could rest at times; and so it pleased God, who was preserving him for greater things, to give him the strength to reach the shore. However, he was so fatigued by his experience that it took him many days to recover.The struggle lasted from about 6 in the morning to nearly 8 in the evening. Most of the oarsmen and crossbowmen were killed and two of the investors. Minio, the two surviving investors, the merchants, and a few oarsmen and crossbowmen were set ashore on the coast of Portugal in their smallclothes. King Joao II "The Perfect" of Portugal who had great affection for Venice provided them
One of the major losses to Venice was the Flemish wools which should have been brought back: a great deal of the Venetian wool industry was involved in processing and weaving these wools, and their loss could mean industry-wide starvation. The king of France, Charles VIII, was eventually able to retrieve most of the stolen goods. He tried to protect his corsairs, but after some of them murdered a royal messenger, the king had to inflict "due and signal punishment." Columbo apologized.
* Alan Hartley writes: "These figures are in pounds. ("Weight" is used in English in that sense in "hundredweight, " a variable measure of about 112 pounds.)