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The Great Republic by the Master Historians|
The Discovery of America by Columbus
by Bancroft, Hubert H.
|[It is a somewhat remarkable evidence of the rapid progress of nations in modern
times that after years of doubt and deliberation the utmost provision which the
kingdom of Spain could make for the discovery of a new world was a fleet of
three frail vessels which would now be considered scarcely fit for a coasting
voyage, and which thousands of individuals might provide at an hour's notice.
Only one of these vessels was decked, and the boldness of ignorance alone made
so many men willing to dare the risk of crossing an ocean in such crazy craft.
One hundred and twenty persons in all took part in the expedition, which set
sail from the port of Palos on the 3d of August, 1492. One of the vessels was in
distress when they were but three days from port, and the fleet was obliged to
put in to the Canary Islands for repair. Here they lay for a month before they
were ready to set sail again. While there the admiral learned that three
Portuguese caravels were hovering about the islands, and, fearing that the King
of Portugal was seeking to stop the expedition, he hastened to put to sea, to
escape this first danger to his long-cherished scheme. In continuation of the
story of this remarkable voyage we cannot do better than offer the following
selection from Irving's "Life and Voyages of Columbus."]
Early in the morning of the 6th of September, Columbus set sail from the island
of Gomera, and now might be said first to strike into the region of discovery, -
taking leave of these frontier islands of the Old World, and steering westward
for the unknown parts of the Atlantic. For three days, however, a profound calm
kept the vessels loitering, with flagging sails, within a short distance of the
land. This was a tantalizing delay to Columbus, who was impatient to find
himself far out of sight of either land or sail,-which, in the pure atmospheres
of these latitudes, may be descried at an immense distance. On the following
Sunday, the 9th of September, at day-break, he beheld Ferro, the last of the
Canary Islands, about nine leagues distant. This was the island whence the
Portuguese caravels had been seen; he was therefore in the very neighborhood of
danger. Fortunately, a breeze sprang up with the sun, their sails were once more
filled, and in the course of the day the heights of Ferro gradually faded from
On losing sight of this last trace of land, the hearts of the crews failed them.
They seemed literally to have taken leave of the world. Behind them was
everything dear to the heart of man, - country, family, friends, life itself;
before them everything was chaos, mystery, and peril. In the perturbation of the
moment, they despaired of ever more seeing their homes. Many of the rugged
seamen shed tears, and some broke into loud lamentations. The admiral tried in
every way to soothe their distress, and to inspire them with his own glorious
anticipations. He described to them the magnificent countries to which he was
about to conduct them: the islands of the Indian seas teeming with gold and
precious stones; the regions of Mangi and Cathay, with their cities of
unrivalled wealth and splendor. He promised them land and riches, and everything
that could arouse their cupidity or inflame their imaginations, nor were these
promises made for purposes of mere deception; he certainly believed that he
should realize them all.
[Columbus now directed the commanders of the other vessels that in the event of
separation they should continue to sail due west-ward, but that after sailing
seven hundred leagues they should lie by from midnight to dawn, as he
confidently expected to find land at about that distance. That the crews might
remain ignorant of the real distance traversed, he kept two reckonings, a
private and correct one for himself, and a log-book for general inspection, in
which the actual distance sailed was decreased.]
On the 13th of September, in the evening, being about two hundred leagues from
the island of Ferro, Columbus, for the first time, noticed the variation of the
needle, - a phenomenon which had never before been remarked. He perceived, about
nightfall, that the needle, instead of pointing to the north star, varied about
half a point, or between five and six degrees, to the northwest, and still more
on the following morning. Struck with this circumstance, he observed it
attentively for three days, and found that the variation increased as he
advanced. He at first made no mention of this phenomenon, knowing how ready his
people were to take alarm, but it soon attracted the attention of the pilots,
and filled them with consternation. It seemed as if the very laws of nature were
changing as they advanced, and that they were entering another world, subject to
unknown influences. They apprehended that the compass was about to lose its
mysterious virtues, and, without this guide, what was to become of them in a
vast and trackless ocean?
[Columbus succeeding in allaying their apprehensions by an ingenious though
incorrect explanation of the cause of the variation of the compass, a phenomenon
which, in fact, remains yet unexplained.]
On the 14th of September the voyagers were rejoiced by the sight of what they
considered harbingers of land. A heron, and a tropical bird called the Rabo de
Junco, neither of which are supposed to venture far to sea, hovered about the
ships. On the following night they were struck with awe at beholding a meteor,
or, as Columbus calls it in his journal, a great flame of fire, which seemed to
fall from the sky into the sea, about four or five leagues distant. These
meteors, common in warm climates, and especially under the tropics, are always
seen in the serene azure sky of those latitudes, falling as it were from the
heavens, but never beneath a cloud. In the transparent atmosphere of one of
those beautiful nights, where every star shines with the purest lustre, they
often leave a luminous train behind them which lasts for twelve or fifteen
seconds and may well be compared to a flame.
The wind had hitherto been favorable, with occasional, though transient, clouds
and showers. They had made great progress each day, though Columbus, according
to his secret plan, contrived to suppress several leagues in the daily reckoning
left open to the crew.
They had now arrived within the influence of the trade wind, which, following
the sun, blows steadily from east to west between the tropics, and sweeps over a
few adjoining degrees of ocean. With this propitious breeze directly aft, they
were wafted gently but speedily over a tranquil sea, so that for many days they
did not shift a sail. Columbus perpetually recurs to the bland and temperate
serenity of the weather, which in this tract of the ocean is soft and refreshing
without being cool. In his artless and expressive language he compares the pure
and balmy mornings to those of April in Andalusia, and observes that they wanted
but the song of the nightingale to complete the illusion. "He had reason to say
so," observes the venerable Las Casas; "for it is marvellous the suavity which
we experience when half-way towards these Indies; and the more the ships
approach the lands, so much more do they perceive the temperance and softness of
the air, the clearness of the sky, and the amenity and fragrance sent forth from
the groves and forests; much more certainly than in April in Andalusia."
They now began to see large patches of herbs and weeds drifting from the west,
and increasing in quantity as they advanced. Some of these weeds were such as
grow about rocks, others such as are produced in rivers; some were yellow and
withered, others so green as to have apparently been recently washed from land.
On one of these patches was a live crab, which Columbus carefully preserved.
They saw also a white tropical bird, of a kind which never sleeps upon the sea.
Tunny-fish also played about the ships, one of which was killed by the crew of
the Nina. Columbus now called to mind the account given by Aristotle of certain
ships of Cadiz, which, coasting the shores outside of the straits of Gibraltar,
were driven westward by an impetuous east wind, until they reached a part of the
ocean covered with vast fields of weeds, resembling sunken islands, among which
they beheld many tunny-fish. He supposed himself arrived in this weedy sea, as
it had been called, from which the ancient mariners had turned back in dismay,
but which he regarded with animated hope, as indicating the vicinity of land.
Not that he had yet any idea of reaching the object of his search, the eastern
end of Asia; for, according to his computation, he had come but three hundred
and sixty leagues since leaving the Canary Islands, and he placed the main land
of India much farther on.
On the 18th of September the same weather continued; a soft steady breeze from
the east filled every sail, while, to use the words of Columbus, the sea was as
calm as the Guadalquivir at Seville. He fancied that the water of the sea grew
fresher as he advanced, and noticed this as proof of the superior sweetness and
purity of the air.
Notwithstanding his precaution to keep the people ignorant of the distance they
had sailed, they were now growing extremely uneasy at the length of the voyage.
They had advanced much farther west than ever man had sailed before, and though
already beyond the reach of succor, still they continued daily leaving vast
tracts of ocean behind them, and pressing onward and onward into that apparently
boundless abyss. It is true they had been flattered by various indications of
land, and still others were occurring; but all mocked them with vain hopes:
after being hailed with a transient joy, they passed away, one after another,
and the same interminable expanse of sea and sky continued to extend before
them. Even the bland and gentle breeze, uniformly aft, was now conjured by their
ingenious fears into a cause of alarm; for they began to imagine that the wind,
in these seas, might always prevail from the east, and, if so, would never
permit their return to Spain.
Columbus endeavored to dispel these gloomy presages, sometimes by argument and
expostulation, sometimes by awakening fresh hopes and pointing out new signs of
land. On the 20th of September the wind veered, with light breezes from the
southwest. These, though adverse to their progress, had a cheering effect upon
the people, as they proved that the wind did not always prevail from the east.
Several birds also visited the ships; three, of a small kind which keep about
groves and orchards, came singing in the morning, and flew away again in the
evening. Their song cheered the hearts of the dismayed mariners, who hailed it
as the voice of land. The larger fowl, they observed, were strong of wing, and
might venture far to sea; but such small birds were too feeble to fly far, and
their singing showed that they were not exhausted by their flight.
On the following day there was either a profound calm, or light winds from the
southwest. The sea, as far as the eye could reach, was covered with weeds,-- a
phenomenon often observed in this part of the ocean, which has sometimes the
appearance of a vast inundated meadow. This has been attributed to immense
quantities of submarine plants, which grow at the bottom of the sea until ripe,
when they are detached by the surface. These fields of weeds were at first
regarded with great satisfaction, but at length they became, in many places, so
dense and matted as in some degree to impede the sailing of the ships, which
must have been under very little headway. The crews now called to mind some tale
about the frozen ocean, where ships were said to be sometimes fixed immovable.
They endeavored, therefore, to avoid as much as possible these floating masses,
lest some disaster of the kind might happen to themselves. Others considered
these weeds as proofs that the sea was growing shallower, and began to talk of
lurking rocks, and shoals, and treacherous quicksand; and of the danger of
running aground, as it were, in the midst of the ocean, where their vessels
might rot and fall to pieces, far out of the track of human aid, aid without any
shore where the crews might take refuge. They had evidently some confused notion
of the ancient story of the sunken island of Atlantis, and feared that they were
arriving at that part of the ocean where navigation was said to be obstructed by
drowned lands and the ruins of an engulfed country.
To dispel these fears, the admiral had frequent recourse to the lead; but,
though he sounded with a deep-sea line, he still found no bottom. The minds of
the crews, however, had gradually become diseased. They were full of vague
terrors and superstitious fancies; they construed everyting into a cause of
alarm, and harassed their commander by incessant murmurs.
[The discontent of the crew rapidly augmented, until it rose to the verge of
mutiny. Indications which Columbus considered favorable they viewed as
questionable, and he was kept busy in efforts to allay their fears. The cloud-
forms in the distance frequently deceived them with the illusion of land, the
people varying from the excitement of joy of deep depression as these illusory
For several days they continued on with the same propitious breeze, tranquil
sea, and mild, delightful weather. The water was so calm that the sailors amused
themselves with swimming about the vessel. Dolphins began to abound, and flying-
fish, darting into the air, fell upon the decks. The continued signs of land
diverted the attention of the crews, and insensibly beguiled them onward.
On the 1st of October, according to the reckoning of the pilot of the admiral's
ship, they had come five hundred and eighty leagues west since leaving the
Canary Islands. The reckoning which Columbus showed the crew was five hundred
and eighty-four, but the reckoning which he kept privately was seven hundred and
seven. On the following day the weeds floated from east to west; and on the
third day no birds were to be seen.
The crews now began to fear that they had passed between islands, from one to
the other of which the birds had been flying. Columbus had also some doubts of
the kind, but refused to alter his westward course. The people again uttered
murmurs and menaces; but on the following day they were visited by such flights
of birds, and the various indications of land became so numerous, that from a
state of despondency they passed to one of confident expectation.
Eager to obtain the promised pension, the seamen were continually giving the cry
of land, on the least appearance of the kind. To put a stop to these false
alarms, which produced continual disappointments, Columbus declared that should
any one give such notice, and land not be discovered within three days
afterwards, he should thenceforth forfeit all claim to the reward.
[On the 7th of October land was again proclaimed, but with the same result as
before. There were now seen, however, "great flights of small field-birds going
towards the southwest," and Columbus concluded to sail in that direction, from
the fact that the Portuguese had discovered the most of their islands by
following the flight of birds.]
For three days they stood in this direction, and the farther they went the more
frequent and encouraging were the signs of land. Flights of small birds of
various colors, some of them such as sing in the fields, came flying about the
ships, a then continued towards the southwest, and others were heard also flying
by in the night. Tunny-fish played about the smooth sea, and a heron, a pelican,
and a duck were seen, all bound in the same direction. The herbage which floated
by was fresh and green as if recently from land, and the air, Columbus observes,
was sweet and fragrant as April breezes in Seville.
All these, however, were regarded by the crews as so many delusions beguiling
them on to destruction; and when on the evening of the third day they beheld the
sun go down upon a shoreless ocean, they broke forth into turbulent clamor. They
exclaimed against this obstinacy in tempting fate by continuing on into a
boundless sea. They insisted upon turning homeward and abandoning the voy-age as
hopeless. Columbus endeavored to pacify them by gentle words and promises of
large rewards; but, finding that they only increased in clamor, he assumed a
decided tone. He told them it was useless to murmur; the expedition had been
sent by the sovereigns to seek the Indies, and happen what might, he was
determined to persevere until, by the blessing of God, he should accomplish the
Columbus was now at open defiance with his crew, and his situation became
desperate. Fortunately, the manifestations of the vicinity of land were such on
the following day as no longer to admit of a doubt. Beside a quantity of fresh
weeds, such as grow in rivers, they saw a green fish of a kind which keeps about
rocks; then a branch of thorn with berries on it, and recently separated from
the tree, floated by them; then they picked up a reed, a small board, and, above
all, a staff artificially carved. All gloom and mutiny now gave way to sanguine
expectation; and throughout the day every one was eagerly on the watch, in hopes
of being the first to discover the long-sought-for land.
The breeze had been fresh all day, with more sea than usual, and they had made
great progress. At sunset they had stood again to the west, and were ploughing
the waves at a rapid rate, the Pinta keeping the lead, from her superior
sailing. The greatest animation prevailed throughout the ships; not an eye was
closed that night.
As the evening darkened, Columbus took his station on the top of the castle or
cabin on the high poop of his vessel, ranging his eye along the dusky horizon,
and maintaining an intense and unremitting watch. About ten o'clock he thought
he beheld a light glimmering at a great distance. Fearing his eager hopes might
deceive him, he called to Pedro Gutierrez, gentleman of the king's bed-chamber,
and inquired whether he saw such a light; the latter replied in the affirmative.
Doubtful whether it might not yet be some delusion of the fancy, Columbus called
Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, and made the same inquiry. By the time the latter
had ascended the roundhouse, the light had disappeared. They saw it once or
twice after-wards in sudden and passing gleams, as if it were a torch in the
bark of a fisherman, rising and sinking with the waves, or in the hand of some
person on shore, borne up and down as he walked from house to house. So
transient and uncertain were these gleams that few attached any importance to
them; Columbus, however, considered them as certain signs of land, and,
moreover, that the land was inhabited.
They continued their course until two in the morning, when a gun from the Pinta
gave the joyful signal of land. It was first described by a mariner named
Rodrigo de Triana: but the reward was afterwards adjudged to the admiral, for
having previously perceived the light. The land was now clearly seen about two
leagues distant, whereupon they took in sail, and laid to, waiting impatiently
for the dawn.
The thoughts and feelings of Columbus in this little space of time must have
been tumultuous and intense. At length, in spite of every difficulty and danger,
he had accomplished his object. the great mystery of the ocean was revealed; his
theory, which had been the scoff of sages, was triumphantly established; he had
secured to himself a glory durable as the world itself.
It is difficult to conceive the feelings of such a man at such a moment, or the
conjectures which must have thronged upon his mind, as to the land before him,
covered with darkness. That it was fruitful, was evident from the vegetables
which floated from its shores. He thought, too, that he perceived the fragrance
of aromatic groves. The moving light he had beheld proved it the residence of
man. But what were its inhabitants? Were they like those of the other parts of
the globe? or were they some strange and monstrous race, such as the imagination
was prone in those times to give to all remote and unknown regions? Had he come
upon some wild island far in the Indian sea? or was this the famed Cipango
itself, the object of his golden fancies? A thousand speculations of the kind
must have swarmed upon him, as, with his anxious crews, he waited for the night
to pass away, wondering whether the morning light would reveal a savage
wilderness, or dawn upon spicy groves, and glittering fanes, and gilded cities,
and all the splendor of Oriental civilization.
It was on Friday morning, the 12th of October, that Columbus first beheld the
New World. As the day dawned he saw before him a level island, several leagues
in extent, and covered with trees like a continual orchard. Though apparently
uncultivated, it was populous, for the inhabitants were seen issuing from all
parts of the woods and running to the shore. They were perfectly naked, and, as
they stood gazing at the ships, appeared by their attitudes and gestures to be
lost in astonishment. Columbus made signal for the ships to cast anchor, and the
boats to be manned and armed. He entered his own boat, richly attired in
scarlet, and holding the royal standard; whilst Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and
Vincent Janez his brother, put off in company in their boats, each with a banner
of the enterprise emblazoned with a green cross, having on either side the
letters F. and Y., the initials of the Castilian monarchs Fernando and Ysabel,
surmounted by crowns.
As he approached the shore, Columbus, who was disposed for all kinds of
agreeable impressions, was delighted with the purity and suavity of the
atmosphere, the crystal transparency of the sea, and the extraordinary beauty of
the vegetation. He beheld, also, fruits of an unknown kind upon the trees which
overhung the shores. On landing, he threw himself on his knees, kissed the
earth, and returned thanks to God with tears of joy. His example was followed by
the rest, whose hearts indeed overflowed with the same feelings of gratitude.
Columbus then rising drew his sword, displayed the royal standard, and
assembling around him the two captains, with Rodrigo de Escobedo, notary of the
armament, Rodrigo Sanchez, and the rest who had landed, he took solemn
possession in the name of the Castilian sovereigns, giving the island the name
of San Salvador. Having complied with the requisite forms and ceremonies, he
called upon all present to take the oath of obedience to him, as admiral and
viceroy, representing the persons of the sovereigns.