« PreviousContinue »
The continent of America was probably unknown to the ancients. If once known, as some have supposed, to the Carthaginians, the Scandinavians, and the Welsh, all knowledge of it was afterwards lost. The discovery of this extensive region, constituting nearly one half of the habitable globe, was the accidental result of the attempts, made in the fifteenth century, to find a passage by sea, from the ports of Europe to the East Indies, whose precious commodities were then transported, over land, by a long, dangerous, and expensive route.
This passage was universally sought by sailing south along the western coasts of Europe and Africa, in the hope of finding a termination of the continent, when the Indies it was supposed, might be attained by taking at first an easterly
and then a northerly course. The discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, in 1487, encouraged expectation, and gave increased activity to the spirit of adventure.
Among the navigators of that age, Christopher Columbus, a native of the republic of Genoa, was distinguished for experience and skill in his profession, for extensive knowledge, and for a bold and original genius. The shape of the earth, then known to be round, and the fact that pieces of carved wood, a canoe, and two human bodies, of a complexion different from that of Europeans, had been driven by long westerly winds, upon the shores of islands contiguous to Europe, suggested to his observing mind the project of seeking the East Indies by sailing directly west.
Unable to defray the expences of an expedition, he sought first the assistance of his native city. His countrymen, accustomed only to cruising, in frail vessels, along the shores of the continent, treated the project as chimerical, and declined furnishing aid.
A pressing application to the king of Portugal, in whose dominions he had resided, met likewise with ridicule and rejection. Persevering in his purpose, he then sent his brother Bartholomew, to England, to apply to Henry VII. and went himself to Spain, which was then governed by Ferdinand and Isabella, from whom he solicited assistance.
For a long time he solicited in vain. At length the queen, persuaded by his representations, became his friend and patron. By her direction, three small vessels were fitted out, and he was authorized to sail with these upon his projected voyage of discovery. On the third of August, 1492, he departed from Palos, in Spain, directing his course towards the Canary islands.
He stopped there to refit, and on the sixth of September boldly ventured into seas which no vessel had yet entered, with no chart to direct him, no guide but his compass, and without any knowledge of the tides or currents which might interrupt his course. He moved rapidly before the trade wind, which blows invariably from the east to the west between the tropics, judiciously concealing from his ignorant and timid crews the progress he made, lest they might be alarmed at the speed with which they receded from home.
About the fourteenth of September, he was distant nearly six hundred miles from the most westerly of the Canaries, and here the magnetic needle was observed to vary from its direction to the polar star and incline towards the west; an appearance which, although now familiar, had never before been observed.
Columbus and his companions were alarmed. They were far from land, and far from the tracks of other navigators; all before and around them was unknown; and their only guide seemed to be no longer entitled to their confidence. But although alarmed, Columbus lost not his presence of mind. He assigned a reason for the variation, which, without satisfying himself, silenced the murmurs of his companions. But the interval of quiet and subordination was short; disaffection soon re-appeared among the ignorant and wavering, and gradually spreading, at length pervaded the whole squadron. The men blamed their sovereign for listening to the schemes of a dreaming adventurer. The indications of land had all proved fallacious. They would be amused and deceived no longer; they agreed that Columbus should be forced to relinquish an undertaking which seemed to promise nothing but destruction; and some of the more daring talked of throwing him into the sea as a visionary projector, whose death would cause no regret and produce po inquiry.
Amidst these difficulties, Columbus displayed those traits of character which proved the greatness of his mind, and his peculiar fitness for the arduous duties of his station. He appeared with a steady and cheerful countenance, as if satisfied with what he had done. Sometimes he soothed his companions by holding out to them a prospect of riches and of fame, and by offering a gratuity to him who should first discover land. Sometimes he assumed a tone of authority, threatening them with the vengeance of their sovereign, and everlasting infamy, should they compel him to abandon the undertaking.
These encouragements and threats prevented open and forcible resistance to his authority. Meanwhile the squadron proceeded onward; the indications of land had become frequent, and convinced him that it could not be far distant. But his crew were unconvinced, and their discontent increased. Assembling tumultuously on deck,