James W. (James William) Buel.

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have been the lovely woman that captured our ambitious
Genoese navigator at first sight. But whatever the facts, it
is true that after a reasonably long courtship Columbus
married Felippa, who, though possessed of small patrimony,
brought her husband no mean distinction, for she was one
of the first ladies of Lisbon, and was of great advantage in
extending his acquaintance among influential people, partic-
ularly the nobility.

We do not know how long he remained in Lisbon pur-
suing his profession as a cosmographer, but certainly the
period was not great, for his restless ambition would not
permit him to continue a quiet employment, and thus we
learn of voyages projected and performed by him to other
lands ; but these were unsuccessful, because he retired to
the uninviting estates of his wife on Porto Santo, which
poverty alone would have induced him to do, and there his
first child, which he named Diego, was born,


In this singularly quiet retreat, whence the first colonists
had been driven by a pest of rabbits, Columbus conceived
bolder schemes than had ever before moved him to ambi-
tious undertakings. In poverty his mind found relaxation
from the worriments of his former surroundings, and in-
tensified his aspirations. His passion for the glory which
feats at arms invest gave placet© projects that contemplated
beneficent results to all the world. Here he read with re-
newed interest the works of Ptolemy, the first geographer,
of Aristotle, Strabo and Pliny, and studied with the keenest
zest Cardinal Aliaco's " Cosmographia," in which science,
superstition and absurd conceits were equally blended, to
the confusion of truth. But his reflections and aspirations
were most largely promoted by the travels of Marco Polo,
and of Sir John Mandeville, whose narratives of adventures
in the far east, in a kingdom called Cathay, and in the won-
derful country of Tartary, stirred him with a new ambition,
and lifted him from his impoverished surroundings to a
realm of idealism — of dreamy splendor.

Before reading the astounding revelations of Polo and
Mandeville, picturing a land of fabulous wealth and royal
aggrandizement, Columbus had arrived at a theory respect-
ing the earth's shape, and had become convinced of its
sphericity. Now his resolution suddenly became fixed to
confirm this belief and at the same time to find a water-way
to the rich kingdom of the Tartar Khan.

It was given to Columbus to demonstrate, but not to
originate, the theory of the globular shape of the earth.
Indeed, in this concept he was anticipated by writers of
antiquity, just as he was preceded by voyagers to the
Western Hemisphere many hundred years before his time.
Aristotle and Strabo were in accord respecting the earth's
rotundity, and only differed in their estimates of its size,
the former being far wrong in his underestimation of the


circumference, while the latter's computation was very
nearly correct, viz., 377°. Marinus, of Tyre, a geographer
of great renown, of the eleventh century, also believed in
the globular shape of the earth, and fixed its circumference
at about 450°, while Ptolemy, in the twelfth century, dis-
puted the claims of Marinus only by reducing the actual
circumference about one-fourth. Columbus inclined to the
belief of Ptolemy, estimating, as he did, that only one-
seventh of the earth was water ; and this supposition led
him to believe that Cipango, of Marco Polo, was not more
than three thousand miles westward of Portugal, whereas
the real distance to that country — believed to be Japan —
is by water little short of fifteen thousand miles.

If Columbus was, as represented by nearly all his biog-
raphers, a student of the ancient writers, or geographers,
he must have been impressed by the many allusions made
by these to lands lying far westward of the Pillars of Her-
cules (straits of Gibraltar). Virgil is supposed to have re-
ferred to such lands in the sixth book of the ALneld : " Jacet
extra sidera tellus," a free translation of which may read :
** Beyond the horizon lies a country,"

In Strabo's Be- Situ Orbis (1472) is to be found a clear
expression of belief in the existence of a large country be-
yond the Atlantic, which he says may possibly compare
with Spain or India. Besides the general views advanced
by Ptolemy, there must have met the attention of Columbus
the conflict of theories between that great Alexandrian
geographer and Pomponius Mela, in which the former urged
that discoveries be pursued east and west, while the latter
maintained that better results w^ould follow lines of explora-
tion north and south, for by this philosopher, as well as by
Columbus himself, the world was supposed to be pear-
shaped. As early as the fifth century Macrobius, a Roman,
declared that the earth was composed of four continents,


two of which remahied to be discovered, and this theory
had several distinguished disciples preceding the Colum-
bian age. Similar views, but somewhat more specific, and
pointing towards a new world beyond the Atlantic, were
expressed by Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Vincen-
zius, all before the fourteenth century.

In addition to the theories which gave creation to the
idea of a western continent long before the time of Colum-
bus, there were not wanting evidences supporting the claim
that this unknown country had been many times visited and
described. A story was told, first by an anonymous writer, in
about 1482, and afterwards repeated and adopted by several
creditable authors, to the effect that a Spanish pilot named
Sanches, while attempting a passage between Madeira and
the Canaries, was driven out of his course by a storm and
landed on the shores of an island said to have been Hayti.
Subsequently this pilot came to Lisbon and found lodgment
with Columbus, to whom he related the facts and in whose
house he died. It is also declared, by not a few reliable
writers, that John Costa Coriereal made a voyage west-
ward and reached the ice-bound coast of Newfoundland in
the year 1463, and was followed thither by his brother a
year later, on which voyages, however, they both perished.
Niccolo Zeni, or Zeno, towards the close of the fourteenth
century, started on a voyage from Venice in quest of new
lands beyond Hercules' Pillars, and after sailing among the
islands of the west for nearly one year, became pilot to an
island chief named Zichmni, where he was some time
afterwards joined by his brother, Antonio. Four years
later Niccolo died in a country called Frieslanda, but An-
tonio continued in the service of Zichmni ten years longer,
at last returning to Venice, bringing not only an account of
a strange world beyond the Atlantic, but also maps, letters,
etc., referring to the country. It was not, however, until


1558 that a descendant of the Zenis discovered these valu-
able documents and caused them to be published, accom-
panied by a narrative of the voyages. After a thorough
study of the subject the following names have been identi-
fied on the Zeni map : Egronelant, Greenland ; Islanda,
Iceland; Estland, the Shetland Islands; Frisland, the
P'aroe group ; Markland, Nova Scotia ; Estotiland, New-
foundland ; Drogeo, coast of North America, about Labra-
dor ; Icaria, Ireland. Long anterior to this (270 B. C.) there
was an account, incorporated in ancient geographies, of a
voyage by the Grecian navigator, Pytheas, to unknown
lands of the far west, and a map was drawn by Lelewel
showing the discoveries of Pytheas, upon which is repre-
sented the island of Atlantis, and the shores of a country
which corresponds with Brazil.

Among other voyagers who are said to have visited the
new world before the time of Columbus was a Pole named
John Scolvus, or Kolno, who, while in the service of
Denmark, in 1476, was on the coast of Labrador ; and a
Dieppe navigator named Cousin, who, while bound for some,
point on the coast of Africa, was blown far out to sea and
reached South America in 1488. And on a chart prepared
by the Pizigani brothers, dated 1367, there appear islands
which may be identified with Madeira, the Azores, the
Canaries, and also two islands, called respectively " Antilla "
and " De la man Satanaxio," which are undoubtedly the
same as Cuba and Hayti, while some knowledge of the two
Americas is implied.

Besides these testimonies supporting Columbus in his
belief that land, or India, might be reached by sailing
directly westward, there were other evidences, though less
convincing. On more than one occasion pieces of wood,
rudely carved, had been picked up on the coast of Madeira
and on the shores of the Azores had been found very large


pine trees of an unknown species washed up by the sea.
Columbus had also been told that on the isle of Flowers there
had been found on the strand the corpses of two men of a
race which none of the islanders had ever before seen. But
this story, like that told by Martin Vincente, of finding a
piece of carved wood more than thirteen hundred miles
west of Europe ; and of Antonio Leme, who claimed to have
discovered a large island five hundred miles west of Madeira,
is undoubtedly apocryphal, and comparable to many prepos-
terous stories current at that time. Historians seem to be
unmindful of the fact that there is no ocean current sweeping
the American shores that would carry objects to the Azores
or Madeira ; and if there was such a current bodies of men
would not be preserved, even in salt water, for a time
necessary to drift them such a distance. Some have thought
that long-prevailing winds from the west might have wafted
these curious relics of a land beyond the Atlantic to the
shores where they were found, but this supposition is as
improbable as is the story of St. Brandan, then current, of
having visited an island to the west that was peopled by
demons and the ghosts of men drowned at sea.

But absurd as were many of the tales told by the supersti-
tious and unveracious sailors, they doubtless had more or
less effect upon Columbus, who was not disposed to reject
the improbable when it might be turned to his advantage,
either in strengthening his own faith, or helping to spread
belief in a western passage to India in others.

The age in which Columbus lived was not one of unbounded
liberty of either speech or conscience, and a degree of cir-
cumspection was necessary in putting forth any theory that
controverted the opinions of the times, for otherwise public
avowal was likely to be followed by public condemnation.
For this reason Columbus acted with a discretion which
showed that he was no less adroit than opinionated ; appre-


dating the influence of scientists, and having already learned
the views of Paul Toscanelli, the most distinguished Italian
scientist of that time, through a letter which the latter had
written to the King of Portugal, Columbus made bold to
crave an expression of Toscanelli's opinion respecting his
scheme. Probably the result Avas what he had anticipated,
but whatever may have been his expectations, in a reason-
able interval Columbus received from the distinguished
Florentine a copy of the letter written to Portugal's King,
bearing date of June 25th, 1477, in which communication
the probability of reaching India by a voyage to the west
was stated, and in a subsequent letter the project advanced
by Columbus was commended.

Toscanelli, besides being a great cosmographer, astron-
omer, mathematician and astrologer, was a man of vast in-
fluence, who found a hearty welcome at the pontifical court
of Rome, and who was chief adviser to the King of Portugal
on subjects connected with geography and navigation.
When, therefore, the views of Columbus received the indorse-
ment of a man of such eminence as Toscanelli, and in which
there was a concurrent expression from Canon P'ernando
Martinez, he had obtained a recognition that justly increased
his enthusiasm and determination, besides serving him
greatly in converting others to similar opinions. Nor did
Toscanelli content himself with submitting proofs adduced
from his own knowledge as a cosmographer, for so in-
terested was he in confirming the theories of Columbus,
that he added to his letters the concurrent testimonies
which he had gathered from records and correspondence
with navigators, and thus materially assisted in leading
others to embrace the beliefs which Columbus was seeking
means to demonstrate. These opinions of leading scientists
of the time served to renew interest in older sea talcs, in
which unknown islands were represented as having been


seen by shipwrecked mariners and super-pious bishops. It
was this excited condition of the public mind, no doubt,
that prompted Antonio Leone, of Madeira, to seriously re-
late to Columbus an account of his voyage a hundred
leagues to the west and his having sighted three consider-
able islands, upon which, however, he did not land.

Others pretended to have seen islands suddenly rise out
of the sea, and as mysteriously sink from sight again, while
there was a legend, now often recounted, to the effect that
on one island in the far west seven bishops had taken refuge
in their flight (whether by ship or wing is not related) from
the Moors and found thereon seven splendid cities, pre-
sumably with all the comforts to which they had before been

But the evidences of previous discoveries of a western
continent, and the belief entertained by many that Cipango,
of Marco Polo, might be reached by a voyage to the west,
in no wise detracted from the honors won by Columbus,
since results rather than accidents, theories and unimproved
chances, concern us most. Many men saw apples fall from
a tree before Newton observed such a natural accident, yet
it was reserved for him to discover in a falling apple the law
of gravitation. And if America had been visited, however
often, before the time of Columbus, the honor and glory
were nevertheless reserved to him of making the discovery
valuable to mankind.


Before the end of the year 1477 Columbus had become
so enthusiastic in his determination to sail in quest of eastern
lands that he returned with his family to Lisbon, and hav-
ing obtained a ship he sailed in a northwesterly direction,
by England, along the Scandinavian shores, and thence west
to Iceland. Here he tarried awhile with Icelandic bishops,
from whom it is reasonably supposed he obtained informa-
tion of the discovery of Vineland by the Northmen — the
Viking Navigators — as early as the year 985. It is certain
that the story of discoveries and settlements on the Ameri-
can shore — then called Vineland — was preserved in the Scan-
dinavian Sagas, and all the attendant circumstances of the
voyagers of Herjulfson, Leif Ericksort, Thorwald, Thorstein
and Thorfinn were familiar through repetition of the history
around the yule logs of the Iceanders, where it was custo-
mary to recite the Sagas.

What he learned in the land of Ultima Thule of Ptolemy
— Iceland — served the more to indelibly impress Columbus
with the truthfulness of his theory ; besides which specific
infc^rmation, he had observed, through the philosophic in-
stinct that was in him, the length of time it took the sun
to traverse the length of the Mediterranean, and calculated
time and distance so as to determine an arc of the earth
and thus measure its circumference. There was practically
a unanimity of opinion at this period as to the hemispheric
shape of the earth, though several of the most distinguished
scientists of the age had advanced the theory of its sphe-


ricity ; but not a few cosmographcrs, and nearly all ecclesias-
tics, ridiculed as preposterous the idea of the earth being
other than a plane capped with a dome, the edges of which
marked the horizon, beyond which were darkness and
possibly nameless things. To counteract so general an
opinion, not wholly disconnected with pious faith, Columbus
was for a while distressed for opportunity to explain his
theory before influential bodies.

It is no discredit either to Columbus or to the Church to
venture the suspicion that, in order to obtain audiences
which other means appear to have denied him, he now
assumed a degree of religious devotion and intense piety
which had not previously characterized his life, and that his
purpose may have been to gain the confidence of eccle-
siastics through whom alone, he justly reasoned, could he
reach the ears of those whose assistance he required.
That Columbus was a strong Catholic, by conviction as
well as by birth, is undeniable, but at this time of his life
there are appearances of efforts at pietistical manifes-
tations not before noted, and a purpose may have been be-
hind it.

Against this suspicion, however, may be opposed the
equally reasonable conclusion that long brooding over his
scheme had developed in him a belief that he had been
divinely commissioned to carry the gospel of Christ to the
uttermost parts of the world, to lands whereon the feet of
a Christian had never trod. This belief is even intimated
in one of his letters, in which he refers to himself as having
been designed to fulfill a prophecy of Isaiah. It is possible
also that he may have been urged to this conviction by
reflecting upon the interpretation of his name, in which
there appeared to be a foreshadowing of the Divine intent
operating through him. The family name, COLOMBO, sig-
nifies in the Latin a dovt\ indicative of purity, innocence


and simplicity, and the Colombian coat-of-arms accordingly
bore a device of three white doves on an azure field, beneath
which were the Christian graces, faith, hope, charity. The
word Colombo also expresses navigation, love for the sea, or
the keel of a vessel ; by which combination it was easy for
Columbus to conceive that in his surname there was pro-
phetic signification of an inspired man, destined to carry
the gospel of purity and simplicity of heart across the ocean
waters to unknown lands.

But as if to reinforce the interpretation of which the word
Colombo was susceptible, he had been baptized in a church
dedicated to St. Stephen and christened at that moment
Christophorus, which, as De Lorgues says, was a name
most appropriate for the functions he was to discharge
among men. This latter signifies a disciple of Christ, or
one who bears the cross ; hence, he who spreads the gospel.
To one so visionary, so enthusiastic, so quick to embrace
an opinion, and so tenacious of his beliefs as was Columbus,
the conclusion is unavoidable that he must have been
deeply impressed by the coincidence of his ambitious con-
ception and the signification of both his family and bap-
tismal names.

The chronology of Columbus' acts cannot be determined,
and hence the diversity of statement of his biographers as
to the time and place when he first made an appeal for na-
tional assistance in furtherance of his scheme. By some his
voyage to Iceland is represented as having been made be-
fore his sojourn on the island of Porto Santo, and in pursu-
ance of information gained at the pontifical court of Rome,
where, among the Vatican archives, it is declared reports
were found detailing the American discoveries of Norse
navigators. Others represent him as performing this journey
after the rejection of his proposal to the Portuguese sov-
ereign. In this confusion, arising from irreconcilable dates


and indefiniteness of circumstances, we can do no better
than attempt to relate the facts in the order in which they
appear to have most probably occurred.

That Columbus was sensibly impressed with a belief in
a power bestowed by special dispensation of Providence is
clearly indicated by the severely independent, commanding
spirit which he exhibited when appearing before the senates
and courts with overtures for aid in carrying his projects
into effect. It may be reasonably inferred, from more
than a single circumstance, that he made his first appeal for
assistance before the Congress of Genoa, that being his native
city, and the republic of which he had helped to perpetuate
when threatened by the arrogance of Venice. But to his
argument and appeals the Genoese Senate returned only
evasive replies, pleading such excuses as a depleted treasury,
danger of the undertaking, and the probable profitlessness of
such a discovery even if made.

But, inspired by dreams of golden accomplishment, hope
still lured him forward to perfect his schemes, and from
Genoa Columbus went directly to the republic of St. Mark,
where he laid his proposals before the Venetian Senate,
hoping to make Italy the beneficiary of his enterprise ; but
the council scarcely deigned to hear his appeal ; nor did it
give any audience to his views and arguments. Thus re-
jected, Columbus went to Savone, at which place his father
was now living, and where he remained only one year, but
in what engagement we do not know. Thence he returned
again to Lisbon, and spent the next few years drawing
charts and studying the works of philosophers and his-
torians. In the meantime his devoted wife, Felippa, died,
leaving to him the care of a son, Diego, who was now prob-
ably ten 3^ears of age. But the rejection of senates and the
loss of relatives in no wise abated his ardor, for he was sus-
tained in all afflictions by remembrance of sacrifices borne


by Christ, and an inflexible belief in the inspiration of his

Patiently abiding his time, Columbus at length thought
he saw an opportunity for a successful presentation of his
purposes and desires before the Court of Portugal, as King
John II. began to manifest his disposition to extend his
dominions. But at no time would Columbus descend from
his lofty dignity, which bore the effrontery of an affected
superiority, and this seemingly supercilious air, which was
really a self-consciousness of inspiration, increased the nat-
ural difficulties which attend an audience at court. He
had acquired the character of a visionary, and when at
length he was permitted to appear before the King, there
was little to predispose him to royal favor. Perhaps he
would not have been admitted to the King's presence had
it not been for the antecedent relations which he bore to-
wards Don Henry, John's father, as the son-in-law of Porto
Santo's governor, and husband to a woman who had been
intimate with the best society, court and others, of Lisbon.
Instead of finding Columbus obsequious, which usually
characterizes the conduct of those seeking the royal favor.
King John directly detected in the application a spirit of
self-complacency and assurance truly astonishing, which
was further aggravating to the monarch by the extravagant
conditions accompanying the application. In the interview
Columbus entertained no doubt that he should discover new
countries rich in treasure and vast in extent. To his intense
imagination everything was so real that he fancied himself
already returning from a long voyage, bringing the most
glorious fruits of discovery, for which service he esteemed
himself as the equal of any potentate however powerful, and
entitled to any reward however great. Therefore his de-
mands were made commensurate with the deed he was
expected to accomplish. He would not only accept nobility


for himself, but required that hereditary honors be bestowed
upon his family ; that he be commissioned as high admiral
of the ocean, and receive a tenth part of all gains resulting
from the expedition, the same to be given in perpetuity to
his descendants.

The extraordinary conditions which Columbus thus im-
posed gave offense to John, which was increased by his
peremptory refusal to accept anything less ; but when the
King was so far indulgent as to refer the matter to a com-
mission, instead of instantly dismissing him as a presump-
tuous dreamer, Columbus felt certain that, whatever the out-
come of the official inquiry, his plans had produced a strong
impression upon Portugal's ruler.

The council, consisting of Diego Ortiz Cazadilla, Bishop of
Ceuta, Roderigo, the King's physician, and a Jewish cosmog-
rapher named Joseph, upon assembling, summoned Colum-
bus to explain more fully his theories and purposes. This
opportunity was embraced to his greatest possible advantage,
in which the great navigator set forth his beliefs and all the
reasons upon which his determinations were based. His
arguments seemed to prevail with Roderigo and Joseph,

Online LibraryJames W. (James William) BuelLibrary of American history (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 37)