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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Columbus in Europe
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[From the age of Phoenician enterprise to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, covering a period of more than two thousand years, maritime enterprise in Europe lagged, and the boldness of the ancients was emulated by none of their successors. The Mediterranean long continued the theatre of commerce. In later years, in which the Atlantic coast became the seat of an active sea-going trade, the only sailors who ventured far out of sight of land were the half-barbarous Scandinavian pirates.

A bolder spirit appeared in the discovery of the Canary Islands by Spanish navigators in 1334. No further step in discovery was made until 1419, when the Portuguese discovered the Madeira Islands. The Portuguese from this time developed a new spirit of enterprise, and advanced point by point along the coast of Africa until 1486, in which year Bartholomew Diaz discovered the Cape of Good Hope. This event rendered it evident to the experienced sailors of Portugal that Africa could be circumnavigated and the East Indies reached by this route. While preparations were being made for the important voyage which should prove the truth of this theory, a yet more important event occurred, in the discovery of America by Columbus. The steps leading to this great enterprise we may give in the words of a noted historical work of the last century, "The History of America," by William Robertson.]

Among the foreigners whom the fame of the discoveries made by the Portuguese had allured into their service was Christopher Colon or Columbus, a subject of the re-public of Genoa. Neither the time nor place of his birth are known with certainty; but he was descended of an honorable family, though reduced to indigence by various misfortunes. His ancestors having betaken themselves for subsistence to a seafaring life, Columbus discovered, in his early youth, the peculiar character and talents which mark out a man for that profession. His parents, instead of thwarting this original propensity of his mind, seem to have encouraged and confirmed it by the education which they gave him. After acquiring some knowledge of the Latin tongue, the only language in which science was taught at that time, he was instructed in geometry, cosmography, astronomy, and the art of drawing. To these he applied with such ardor and predilection, on account of their connection with navigation, his favorite object, that he advanced with rapid proficiency in the study of them. Thus qualified, he went to sea at the age of fourteen (1461), and began his career on that element which conducted him to so much glory.

His early voyages were to those ports in the Mediterranean which his countrymen the Genoese frequented. This being a sphere too narrow for his active mind, he made an excursion to the northern seas (1467), and visited the coasts of Iceland, to which the English and other nations had begun to resort on account of its fishery. As navigation, in every direction, was now become enterprising, he proceeded beyond that island, the Thule of the ancients, and advanced several degrees within the polar circle. Having satisfied his curiosity by a voyage which tended more to enlarge his knowledge of naval affairs than to improve his fortune, he entered into the service of a famous sea-captain, of his own name and family. This man commanded a small squadron, fitted out at his own expense, and by cruising sometimes against the Mahometans, sometimes against the Venetians, the rivals of his country in trade, had acquired both wealth and reputation. With him Columbus continued for several years, no less distinguished for his courage than for his experience as a sailor. At length, in an obstinate engagement, off the coast of Portugal, with some Venetian caravels returning richly laden from the Low Countries, the vessel on board which he served took fire, together with one of the enemy's ships, to which it was fast grappled. In this dreadful extremity his intrepidity and presence of mind did not forsake him. He threw himself into the sea, laid hold of a floating oar, and by the support of it, and his dexterity in swimming, he reached the shore, though above two leagues distant, and saved a life reserved for great undertakings.

As soon as he recovered strength for the journey, he repaired to Lisbon, where many of his countrymen were settled. They soon conceived such a favorable opinion of his merit, as well as talents, that they warmly solicited him to remain in that kingdom, where his naval skill and experience could not fail of rendering him conspicuous. To every adventurer, animated either with curiosity to visit new countries, or with ambition to distinguish himself, the Portuguese service was at that time extremely inviting. Columbus listened with a favorable ear to the advice of his friends, and, having gained the esteem of a Portuguese lady, whom he married, fixed his residence in Lisbon. This alliance, instead of detaching him from a seafaring life, contributed to enlarge the sphere of his naval knowledge, and to excite a desire of extending it still further. His wife was a daughter of Bartholomew Perestrello, one of the captains employed by Prince Henry in his early navigations, and who, under his protection, had discovered and planted the islands of Porto Santo and Madeira. Columbus got possession of the journals and charts of this experienced navigator, and from them he learned the course which the Portuguese had held in making their discoveries, as well as the various circumstances which guided or encouraged them in their attempts. The study of these soothed and inflamed his favorite passion; and while he contemplated the maps, and read the descriptions of the new countries which Perestrello had seen, his impatience to visit them became irresistible. In order to indulge it, he made a voyage to Madeira, and continued during several years to trade with that island, with the Canaries, the Azores, the settlements in Guinea, and all the other places which the Portuguese had discovered on the continent of Africa.

By the experience which Columbus acquired during such a variety of voyages to almost every part of the globe with which, at that time, any intercourse was carried on by sea, he was now become one of the most skilful navigators in Europe. But, not satisfied with that praise, his ambition aimed at something more. The successful progress of the Portuguese navigators had awakened a spirit of curiosity and emulation, which set every man of science upon examining all the circumstances that led to the discoveries which they had made, or that afforded a prospect of succeeding in any new and bolder undertaking. The mind of Columbus, naturally inquisitive, capable of deep reflection, and turned to speculations of this kind, was so often employed in revolving the principles upon which the Portuguese had founded their schemes of discovery, and the mode in which they had carried them on, that the gradually began to form an idea of improving upon their plan, and of accomplishing discoveries which hitherto they had attempted in vain.

To find out a passage by sea to the East Indies was the great object in view at that period. From the time that the Portuguese doubled Cape de Verd, this was the point at which they aimed in all their navigations, and in comparison with it all their discoveries in Africa appeared inconsiderable. The fertility and riches of India had been known for many ages; its spices and other valuable commodities were in high request throughout Europe, and the vast wealth of the Venetians, arising from their having engrossed this trade, had raised the envy of all nations. But how intent soever the Portuguese were upon discovering a new route to those desirable regions, they searched for it only by steering towards the south, in hopes of arriving at India, by turning to the east, after they had sailed round the farther extremity of Africa. This course was still unknown, and, even if discovered, was of such immense length that a voyage from Europe to India must have appeared, at that period, an undertaking extremely arduous and of very uncertain issue. More than half a century had been employed in advancing from Cape Non to the equator; a much longer space of time might elapse before the more extensive navigation from that to India could be accomplished. These reflections upon the uncertainty, the danger, and tediousness of the course which the Portuguese were pursuing, naturally led Columbus to consider whether a shorter and more direct passage to the East Indies might not be found out. After revolving long and seriously every circumstance suggested by his superior knowledge in the theory as well as practice of navigation, after comparing attentively the observations of modern pilots with the hints and conjectures of ancient authors, he at last concluded that by sailing directly towards the west, across the Atlantic Ocean, new countries, which probably formed a part of the great continent of India, must infallibly be discovered.

Principles and arguments of various kinds, and derived from different sources, induced him to adopt this opinion, seemingly as chimerical as it was new and extraordinary. The spherical figure of the earth was known, and its magnitude ascertained with some degree of accuracy. From this it was evident that the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, as far as they were known at that time, formed but a small portion of the terraqueous globe. It was suitable to our ideas concerning the wisdom and beneficence of the Author of Nature, to believe that the vast space still unexplored was not covered entirely by a vast un- profitable ocean, but occupied by countries fit for the habitation of man. It appeared, likewise, extremely probable that the continent on this side of the globe was balanced by a proportional quantity of land in the other hemisphere. These conclusions concerning the existence of another continent, drawn from the figure and structure of the globe, were confirmed by the observations and conjectures of modern navigators. A Portuguese pilot, having stretched farther to the west than was usual at that time, took up a piece of timber artificially carved, floating upon the sea; and as it was driven towards him by a westerly wind, he concluded that it came from some unknown land situated in that quarter. Columbus's brother-in-law had found, to the west of the Madeira Isles, a piece of timber fashioned in the same manner and brought by the same wind, and had seen, likewise, canes of an enormous size floating upon the waves, which resembled those described by Ptolemy as productions peculiar to the East Indies. After a course of westerly winds, trees, torn up by the roots, were often driven upon the coasts of the Azores, and at one time the dead bodies of two men, with singular features, resembling neither the inhabitants of Europe nor of Africa, were cast ashore there.

[Columbus was of the opinion, from the statements of several ancient writers, that India was a country of immense size, extending far to the east, and that it might be most easily reached by sailing westward around the spherical globe. He had no conception of its actual distance, and no dream of an intervening continent.]

To a mind less capable of forming and of executing great designs than that of Columbus, all those reasonings and observations and authorities would have served only as the foundation of some plausible and fruitless theory, which might have furnished matter for ingenious discourse or fanciful conjecture. But with his sanguine and enterprising temper, speculation led directly to action. Fully satisfied himself with respect to the truth of his system, he was impatient to bring it to the test of experiment, and to set out upon a voyage of discovery. The first step towards this was to secure the patronage of some of the considerable powers in Europe capable of undertaking such an enterprise. As long absence had not extinguished the affection which he bore to his native country, he wished that it should reap the fruits of his labors and invention. With this view, he laid his scheme before the senate of Genoa, and making his country the first tender of his service, offered to sail under the banners of the republic in quest of the new regions which he expected to discover. But Columbus had resided for so many years in foreign parts that his countrymen were unacquainted with his abilities and character; and, though a maritime people, were so little accustomed to distant voyages that they could form no just idea of the principles on which he founded his hopes of success. They inconsiderately rejected his proposal, as the dream of a chimerical projector, and lost forever the opportunity of restoring their commonwealth to its ancient splendor.

[His next application was to John II. of Portugal, to whom his abilities were known, and who listened graciously to his project. But the parties to whom the monarch referred the scheme induced him dishonorably to despatch a vessel, with strict secrecy, in the direction indicated by Columbus. The pilot chosen, however, returned after a short voyage, and declared the project dangerous and impracticable. When Columbus learned of this treacherous proceeding, he indignantly left Portugal and proceeded to Spain, then under the joint rule of Ferdinand and Isabella. Here he spent years in seeking to enlist the monarchs in his favor, until finally, despairing of success, he sent his brother to England and prepared to visit that country in person.]

About that time Granada surrendered, and Ferdinand and Isabella, in triumphal pomp, took possession of a city (January 2, 1492) the reduction of which extirpated a foreign power from the heart of their dominions and rendered them masters of all the provinces extending from the bottom of the Pyrenees to the frontiers of Portugal. As the flow of spirits which accompanies success elevates the mind and renders it enterprising. Quintanilla and Santangel, the vigilant and discerning patrons of Columbus, took advantage of this favorable situation in order to make one more effort in behalf of their friend. They addressed themselves to Isabella, and, after expressing some surprise that she, who had always been the munificent patroness of generous undertakings, should hesitate so long to countenance the most splendid scheme that had ever been proposed to any monarch, they represented to her that Columbus was a man of a sound understanding and virtuous character, well qualified, by his experience in navigation, as well as his knowledge of geometry, to form just ideas with respect to the structure of the globe and the situation of its various regions; that by offering to risk his own life and fortune in the execution of his scheme he gave the most satisfying evidence both of his integrity and hope of success; that the sum required for equipping such an armament as he demanded was inconsiderable, and the advantages which might accrue from his undertaking were immense; that he demanded no recompense for his invention and labor but what was to arise from the countries which he should discover; that, as it was worthy of her magnanimity to make this noble attempt to extend the sphere of human knowledge, and to open an intercourse with regions hitherto unknown, so it would afford the highest satisfaction to her piety and zeal, after re-establishing the Christian faith in those provinces of Spain from which it had been long banished, to discover a new world, to which she might communicate the light and blessings of divine truth; that if now she did not decide instantly, the opportunity would be irretrievably lost; that Columbus was on his way to foreign countries, where some prince, more fortunate and adventurous, would close with his proposals, and Spain would forever bewail the fatal timidity which had excluded her from the glory and advantages that she had once in her power to have enjoyed.

These forcible arguments, urged by persons of such authority and at a juncture so well chosen, produced the desired effect. They dispelled all Isabella's doubts and fears: she ordered Columbus to be instantly recalled, declared her resolution of employing him on his own terms, and, regretting the low state of her finances, generously offered to pledge her own jewels in order to raise as much money as might be needed in making preparations for the voyage. Santangel, in a transport of gratitude, kissed the queen's hand, and, in order to save her from having recourse to such a mortifying expedient for procuring money, engaged to advance immediately the sum that was requisite.

Columbus had proceeded some leagues on his journey when the messenger from Isabella overtook him. Upon receiving an account of the unexpected revolution in his favor, he returned directly to Santa Fe, though some remainder of diffidence still mingled itself with his joy. But the cordial reception which he met with from Isabella, together with the near prospect of setting out upon that voyage which had so long been the object of his thoughts and wishes, soon effaced the remembrance of all that he had suffered in Spain during eight tedious years of solicitation and suspense. The negotiation now went forward with facility and despatch, and a treaty or capitulation with Columbus was signed on the seventeenth of April, one thousand four hundred and ninety two.

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 Isabel, surmounted by crowns.

William Robertson

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