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Author: Henry Frith
Author: William Henry Giles Kingston
Title: Notable Voyagers, From Columbus to Nordenskiold
Subject: Voyages and travels
Copyright Status: Public domain
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Columbus before the conclave of Professors at Seville—His parentage and early history—Battle with Venetian galleys—Residence in Portugal—Marries widow of a navigator—Grounds on which he founded his theory—Offers his services to the King of Portugal—His offer declined—Sends his brother Bartholomew to Henry the Seventh of England—Don John sends out a squadron to forestall him—Sets off for Spain—Introduced by the Duke of Medina Celi to Queen Isabella—She encourages him—Plan for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre—His long detention at Court while Ferdinand and Isabella are engaged in the war against the Moors of Granada—A hearing at length afforded him—His demands refused—Leaves the Court in poverty and visits Palos on his way to France—Met by Juan Perez, Prior of the Rabida convent—The Prior listens to his plans—Introduces him to the Pinzons, and informs the Queen of his intended departure—Sent for back at Court—All his demands agreed to—Authority given him to fit out a squadron.
In the year 1486 a council of learned professors of geography, mathematics, and all branches of science, erudite friars, accomplished bishops, and other dignitaries of the Church, were seated in the vast arched hall of the old Dominican convent of Saint Stephen in Salamanca, then the great seat of learning in Spain. They had met to hear a simple mariner, then standing in their midst, propound and defend certain conclusions at which he had arrived regarding the form and geography of the earth, and the possibility, nay, the certainty, that by sailing west, the unknown shores of Eastern India could be reached. Some of his hearers declared it to be grossly presumptuous in an ordinary man to suppose, after so many profound philosophers and mathematicians had been studying the world, and so many able navigators had been sailing about it for years past, that there remained so vast a discovery for him to make. Some cited the books of the Old Testament to prove that he was wrong, others the explanations of various reverend commentators. Doctrinal points were mixed up with philosophical discussions, and a mathematical demonstration was allowed no weight if it appeared to clash with a text of Scripture or comment of one of the fathers.
Although Pliny and the wisest of the ancients had maintained the possibility of an antipodes in the southern hemisphere, these learned gentlemen made out that it was altogether a novel theory.
Others declared that to assert there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, as it would have been impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean, and therefore discredit would be thrown on the Bible.
Again, some of the council more versed in science, though admitting the globular form of the earth, and the possibility of an opposite habitable hemisphere, maintained that it would be impossible to arrive there on account of the insupportable heat of the torrid zone; besides which, if the circumference of the earth was as great as they supposed, it would require three years to make the voyage.
Several, with still greater absurdity, advanced as an objection that should a ship succeed in reaching the extremity of India, she could never get back again, as the rotundity of the globe would present a kind of mountain up which it would be impossible for her to sail even with the most favourable wind.
The mariner replied in answer to the scriptural objection that the inspired writers were not speaking technically as cosmographers, but figuratively, in language addressed to all comprehensions, and that the commentaries of the fathers were not to be considered as philosophical propoundings, which it was necessary either to admit or refute.
In regard to the impossibility of passing the torrid zone, he himself stated that he had voyaged as far as Guinea under the equinoxial line, and had found that region not only traversable, but abounding in population, fruits, and pasturage.
Who was this simple mariner who could thus dare to differ from so many learned sages? His person was commanding; his demeanour elevated; his eye kindling; his manner that of one who had a right to be heard, while a rich flow of eloquence carried his hearers with him. His countenance was handsome; his hair already blanched by thought, toil, and privation.
He was no other than Columbus, who, after his proposals had been rejected by the Court of Portugal, had addressed himself to that of Spain, and had, year after year, waited patiently to obtain a hearing from Ferdinand and Isabella, then occupied in their wars against the Moors.
He had been a seaman from the age of fourteen. He was born in the city of Genoa about the year 1435, where his father, Dominico Colombo, carried on the business of a wool comber, which his ancestors had followed for several generations. He was the eldest of three brothers, the others being Bartholomew and Diego. He had at an early age evinced a desire for the sea, and accordingly his education had been mainly directed to fit him for maritime life.
His first voyages were made with a distant relative named Colombo, a hardy veteran of the seas, who had risen to some distinction by his bravery.
Under this relative young Christopher saw much service, both warlike and in trading voyages, until he gained command of a war ship of good size. When serving in the squadron of his cousin information was brought that four richly-laden Venetian galleys were on their return voyage from Flanders. The squadron lay in wait for them off the Portuguese coast, between Lisbon and Cape Saint Vincent. A desperate engagement ensued; the vessels grappled each other. That commanded by Columbus was engaged with a huge Venetian galley. Hand-grenades and other fiery missiles were thrown on board her, and the galley was wrapped in flames. So closely were the vessels fastened together, that both were involved in one conflagration. The crews threw themselves into the sea. Columbus seized an oar, and being an expert swimmer, reached the shore, though fully two leagues distant. On recovering he made his way to Lisbon. Possibly he may have resided there previously; certain it is that he there married a lady, the daughter of a distinguished navigator, from whose widow he obtained much information regarding the voyages and expeditions of her late husband, as well as from his papers, charts, journals, and memoranda.
Having become naturalised in Portugal, he sailed occasionally on voyages to the coast of Guinea, and when on shore supported his family by making maps and charts, which in those days required a degree of knowledge and experience sufficient to entitle the possessor to distinction.
He associated with various navigators, and he noted down all he heard. It was said by some that islands had been seen far away to the west when they had been driven in that direction. Whatever credit might have been given to these reports by Columbus, he had far stronger reasons for believing that, by sailing across the ocean to the west, he should reach land. He was of opinion that about one-third of the circumference of the earth was unknown and unexplored. A great portion of this might be filled up by the eastern regions of Asia, while the tract of water intervening between these countries might be less than at first supposed.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, two great travellers, Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, journeyed eastward over a large portion of Asia, and had given vivid descriptions of the magnificence of its cities and scenery. Marco Polo especially had described two large islands, Ontilla and Cipango, the latter undoubtedly Japan, which it was expected would be the first reached by a navigator sailing westward.
A Portuguese pilot, Martin Vicenti, after sailing four hundred and fifty-two leagues to the west of Cape Saint Vincent, had found a piece of carved wood evidently laboured with an iron instrument, and as probably the wind had drifted it from the west, it might have come from some unknown land in that direction. A brother-in-law of Columbus had likewise found a similar piece of wood drifted from the same quarter. Reeds of enormous size, such as were described by Ptolemy to grow in India, had been picked up, and trunks of huge pine-trees had been driven on the shores of the Azores, such as did not grow on any of those islands. The bodies of two dead men, whose features differed from those of any known race of people, had been cast on the island of Flores. There were islands, it was rumoured, still farther west than those visited, and a mariner sailing from Port Saint Mary to Ireland asserted that he had seen land to the west, which the ship’s company took to be some extreme point of Tartary.
These facts being made known to Columbus, served to strengthen his opinion. The success indeed of his undertaking depended greatly on two happy errors: the imaginary extent of Asia to the east, and the supposed smallness of the earth. A deep religious sentiment mingled with his meditations. He looked upon himself as chosen by Heaven for the accomplishment of its purposes, that the ends of the earth might be brought together, and all nations and tongues united under the banner of the Redeemer.
The enthusiastic nature of his conceptions gave an elevation to his spirit, and dignity and eloquence to his whole demeanour. He never spoke in doubt or hesitation, but with as much certainty as if his eyes had beheld the promised land.
No trial or disappointment could divert him from the steady pursuit of his object. That object, it is supposed, he meditated as early as the year 1474, though as yet it lay crude and immatured in his mind. Shortly afterwards, in the year 1477, he made a voyage to the north of Europe, navigating one hundred leagues beyond Thule, when he reached an island as large as England, generally supposed to have been Iceland.
In vain he had applied to Don John the Second, who ascended the throne of Portugal in 1481. That king was so deeply engaged in sending out expeditions to explore the African coast that his counsellors advised him to confine his efforts in that direction. He would, however, have given his consent had not Columbus demanded such high and honourable rewards as were considered inadmissible.
To his eternal disgrace the Bishop of Ceuta advised that Columbus should be kept in suspense while a vessel was secretly dispatched in the direction he pointed out, to ascertain if there was any truth in his story. This was actually done, until the caravel meeting with stormy weather, and an interminable waste of wild tumbling waves, the pilots lost courage and returned.
Columbus, indignant at this attempt to defraud him, his wife having died some time previously, resolved to abandon the country which had acted so treacherously. He first sent his brother Bartholomew to make proposals to Henry the Seventh, King of England; but that sovereign rejected his offers, and having again made a proposal to Genoa, which, from the reverses she had lately received, she was unable to accept, he turned his eyes to Spain.
The great Spanish Dukes of Medina Sidonia and Medina Coeli, were at first inclined to support him, and the latter spoke of him to Queen Isabella, who giving a favourable reply, Columbus set off for the Spanish Court, then at Cordova.
The sovereigns of Castile and Arragon were, however, so actively engaged in carrying on the fierce war with the Moors of Grenada, that they were unable to give due attention to the scheme of the navigator, while their counsellors generally derided his proposals.
The beautiful and enlightened Isabella treated him from the first with respect, and other friends rose up who were ready to give him support.
Wearied and discouraged by long delays, however, he had again opened up negotiations with the King of Portugal, and had been requested by that monarch to return there. He had also received a letter from Henry the Seventh of England, inviting him to his Court, and holding out promises of encouragement, when he was again summoned to attend the Castilian Court, and a sum of money was sent him to defray his expenses, King Ferdinand probably fearing that he would carry his proposals to a rival monarch, and wishing to keep the matter in suspense until he had leisure to examine it.
He accordingly repaired to the Court of Seville. While he was there two monks arrived with a message from the Grand Soldan of Egypt, threatening to put to death all the Christians and to destroy the Holy Sepulchre if the Spanish sovereigns did not desist from war against Grenada.
The menace had no effect in altering their purpose, but it aroused the indignation of the Spanish cavaliers, and still more so that of Columbus, and made them burn with ardent zeal once more to revive the contest of faith on the sacred plains of Palestine. Columbus had indeed resolved, should his projected enterprise prove successful, to devote the profits from his anticipated discoveries to a crusade for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre from the power of the infidels.
During the latter part of the year 1490 Ferdinand and Isabella were engaged in celebrating the marriage of their eldest daughter, the Princess Isabella, with Prince Don Alonzo, heir apparent of Portugal. Bearing these long and vexatious delays as he had before done, Columbus supported himself chiefly by making maps and charts, occasionally assisted from the purse of his friend Diego de Deza.
The year was passing on. Columbus was kept in a state of irritating anxiety at Cordova, when he heard that the sovereigns were about to commence that campaign which ended in the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Aware that many months must pass before they would give their minds to the subject if he allowed the present moment to slip by, he pressed for a decisive reply to his proposals with an earnestness that would admit of no evasion.
The learned men of the council were directed to express their opinion of the enterprise. The report of each was unfavourable, although the worthy friar Diego de Deza, tutor to Prince John, and several others, urged the sovereigns not to lose the opportunity of extending their dominions and adding so greatly to their glory.
Again, however, Columbus was put off. Having no longer confidence in the vague promises which had hitherto been made, he turned his back on Seville, resolved to offer to the King of France the honour of carrying out his magnificent undertaking.
Leaving Seville, his means exhausted, he travelled on foot, leading his young son Diego by the hand, to the sea-port of Palos de Moguer in Andalusia. Weary and exhausted, he stopped to ask for bread and water at the gate of the ancient Franciscan convent of Santa Maria de Rabida.
The Prior, Juan Perez de Marchena, happening to come up, and remarking the appearance of the stranger, entered into conversation with him. The Prior, a man of superior information, was struck with the grandeur of his views, and when he found that the navigator was on the point of abandoning Spain to seek patronage in the Court of France, and that so important an enterprise was about to be lost for ever to the country, his patriotism took the alarm. He entertained Columbus as his guest, and invited a scientific friend—a physician—Garcia Fernandez, to converse with him.
Fernandez was soon captivated by his conversation. Frequent conferences took place, at which several of the veteran mariners of Palos were present. Among these was Martin Alonzo Pinzon, the head of a family of wealthy and experienced navigators. Facts were related by some of the mariners in support of the theory of Columbus, and so convinced was Pinzon of the feasibility of his project, that he offered to engage in it with purse and person. The Prior, who had once been confessor to the Queen, was confirmed in his faith by the opinions expressed, and he proposed writing to her immediately, and entreated Columbus to delay his journey until an answer could be received.
It was decided to send Sebastian Rodriguez, a shrewd and clever pilot, to Santa Fé, where the Queen then was. Isabella had always been favourable to Columbus, and the Prior received a reply desiring that he himself should repair to Court. He went, and, seconded by the Marchioness of Moya and other old friends, so impressed the Queen with the importance of the undertaking, that she desired Columbus might be sent for, and ordered that seventy-two dollars, equal to two hundred and sixteen of the present day, might be forwarded to him, to bear his travelling expenses.
With his hopes raised to the highest pitch, Columbus again repaired to Court; but so fully occupied was he with the grandeur of his enterprise, that he stipulated that he should be invested with the title and privilege of admiral, and viceroy over the countries he should discover, with one-tenth of all gains, either by trade or conquest. It must be remembered the pious and patriotic way—according to his notions—in which he intended to expend the wealth he hoped to acquire.
The courtiers were indignant, and sneeringly observed that his arrangement was a secure one, that he was sure of a command, and had nothing to lose.
On this he offered to furnish one-eighth of the cost, on condition of enjoying one-eighth of the profit. The King looked coldly on the affair, and once more the sovereigns of Spain declined the offer. Columbus was at length again about to set off on his journey to Palos, when the generous spirit of Isabella was kindled by the remarks of the Marchioness of Moya, supported by Louis de Saint Angel, Receiver of the Ecclesiastical Revenues in Arragon. She exclaimed, “I undertake the enterprise for my own crown of Castile, and will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds!”
This was the proudest moment in the life of Isabella, as it stamped her as the patroness of the great discovery.
Saint Angel assured her there was no necessity for pledging her jewels, and expressed his readiness to advance seventeen thousand florins. A messenger was dispatched to bring back the navigator, with the assurance that all he desired would be granted; and so, turning the reins of his mule, he hastened back with joyful alacrity to Santa Fé, confiding in the noble probity of the Queen.
Articles of agreement were drawn up by the royal secretary at once. Columbus was to have for himself during his life, and his heirs and successors for ever, the office of admiral of all lands and continents which he might discover.
Secondly: He was to be viceroy and governor-general over them.
Thirdly: He was to be entitled to receive for himself one-tenth of all pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and all other articles and merchandise obtained within this admiralty.
Fourthly: He or his lieutenant was to be the sole judge in all cases and disputes arising out of traffic between those countries and Spain.
Fifthly: He might then, and at all after times, contribute an eighth part of the expense in fitting out vessels to sail on this enterprise, and receive one-eighth part of the profit.
The latter engagement he fulfilled through the assistance of the Pinzons of Palos, and added a third vessel to the armament.
Thus, one-eighth of the expense attendant on this grand expedition, undertaken by a powerful nation, was actually borne by the individual who conceived it, and who likewise risked his life on its success.
The capitulations were afterwards signed by Ferdinand and Isabella on the 17th of April, 1492, when, in addition to the above articles, Columbus and his heirs were authorised to prefix the title of Don to their names.
It was arranged that the armament should be fitted out at the port of Palos, Columbus calculating on the co-operation of his friends Martin Alonzo Pinzon and the Prior of the convent.
Both Isabella and Columbus were influenced by a pious zeal for effecting the great work of salvation among the potentates and peoples of the lands to be discovered. He expected to arrive at the extremity of the ocean, and to open up direct communication with the vast and magnificent empire of the Grand Khan of Tartary. His deep and cherished design was the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre, which he meditated during the remainder of his life, and solemnly provided for in his will.
Let those who are disposed to faint under difficulties in the prosecution of any great and worthy undertaking, remember that eighteen years elapsed after the time that Columbus conceived his enterprise, before he was able to carry it into effec….