MoboReader> Literature > The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600


The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600 By Edward Potts Cheyney Characters: 27148

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


To set forth the conditions in Europe which favored the work of discovering America and of exploring, colonizing, and establishing human institutions there, is the subject and task of this book. Its period extends from the beginning of those marked commercial, political, and intellectual changes of the fifteenth century which initiated a great series of geographical discoveries, to the close, in the later years of the seventeenth century, of the religious wars and persecutions which did so much to make that century an age of emigration from Europe. During those three hundred years few events in European history failed to exercise some influence upon the fortunes of America. The relations of the Old World to the New were then constructive and fundamental to a degree not true of earlier or of later times. Before the fifteenth century events were only distantly preparing the way; after the seventeenth the centre of gravity of American history was transferred to America itself.

The crowding events, the prominent men, the creative thoughts, and the rapidly changing institutions which fill the history of western Europe during these three centuries cannot all be described in this single volume. It merely attempts to point out the leading motives for exploration and colonization, to show what was the equipment for discovery, and to describe the most significant of those political institutions of Europe which exercised an influence on forms of government in the colonies, thus sketching the main outlines of the European background of American history. Many political, economic, intellectual, and personal factors combined to make the opening of our modern era an age of geographical discovery. Yet among these many causes there was one which was so influential and persistent that it deserves to be singled out as the predominant incentive to exploration for almost two hundred years. This enduring motive was the desire to find new routes, from Europe to the far East.

Columbus sailed on his great voyage in 1492, "his object being to reach the Indies." [Footnote: Columbus's Journal, October 3, 21, 23, 24, etc Cf. Bourne, Spain in America, chap, 11] When he discovered the first land beyond the Atlantic, he came to the immediate conclusion that he had reached the coast of Asia, and identified first Cuba and then Hayti with Japan. A week after his first sight of land he Reports, "It is certain that this is the main-land and that I am in front of Zayton and Guinsay" [Footnote: Columbus's Journal, November 1] Even on his third voyage, in 1498, he is still of the opinion that South America is the main-land of Asia. [Footnote: Columbus's will] It was reported all through Europe that the Genoese captain had "discovered the coast of the Indies," and "found that way never before known to the East." [Footnote: Ramusio, Raccolta de Navigazioni, I, 414] The name West Indies still remains as a testimony to the belief of the early explorers that they had found the Indies by sailing westward.

When John Cabot, in 1496, obtained permission from Henry VII. to equip an expedition for westward exploration, he hoofed to reach "the island of Cipango" (Japan) and the lands from which Oriental caravans brought their goods to Alexandria. [Footnote: Letter of Soncino, 1497, in Hart, Contemporaries, I., 70.] It is true that he landed on the barren shore of Labrador, and that what he descried from his vessel as he sailed southward was only the wooded coast of North America; but it was reported, and for a while believed, that the king of England had in this manner "acquired a part of Asia without drawing his sword." [Footnote: Ibid. Cf. Bourne. Spain in America, chap v.] In 1501 Caspar Cortereal, in the service of the king of Portugal, pressed farther into the ice-bound arctic waters on the same quest, and with his companions became the first in the dreary list of victims sacrificed to the long search for a northwest passage. [Footnote: Harrisse, Les Cortereal] When the second generation of explorers learned that the land that had been discovered beyond the sea was not Asia, their first feeling was not exultation that a new world had been discovered, but chagrin that a great barrier, stretching far to the north and the south, should thus interpose itself between Europe and the eastern goal on which their eyes were fixed. Every navigator who sailed along the coast of North or South America looked eagerly for some strait by which he might make his way through, and thus complete the journey to the Spice Islands, to China, Japan, India, and the other lands of the ancient East. [Footnote: Bourne, Spain in America, chap viii.] Verrazzano, in 1521, and Jacques Cartier, in 1534, 1535, and 1541, both in the service of the king of France, and Gomez, in the Spanish service, in 1521, were engaged in seeking this elusive passage. [Footnote: Pigeonneau, Histoire du Commerce de la France, II, 142-148.] For more than a hundred years the French traders and explorers along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes were led farther and farther into the wilderness by hopes of finding some western outlet which would make it possible for them to reach Cathay and India. Englishmen, with greater persistence than Spaniards, Portuguese, or French, pursued the search for this northwestern route to India. To find such a passage became a dream and a constantly renewed effort of the navigators and merchants of the days of Queen Elizabeth; the search for it continued into the next century, even after colonies had been established in America itself; and a continuance of the quest was constantly impressed by the government and by popular opinion upon the merchants of the Hudson Bay Company, till the eighteenth century.

A tradition grew up that there was a passage through the continent somewhere near the fortieth parallel. It was in the search for this passage that Hudson was engaged, when, in the service of the Dutch government, in 1609, he made the famous voyage in the Half Moon and hit on the Hudson River; just as in his first voyage he had tried to reach the Indies by crossing the North Pole, and in his second by following a northeast route. [Footnote: Asher, Henry Hudson, the Navigator, cxcii.- cxcvi.] Much of the exploration of the coast of South America was made with the same purpose. To reach India was the deliberate object of Magellan when, in 1519 and 1520, he skirted the coast of that continent and made his way through the southern straits. The same objective point was intended in the "Molucca Voyage" of 1526-1530, under the command of Sebastian Cabot, [Footnote: Beazley, John and Sebastian Cabot, 152.] as well as in other South American voyages of Spanish explorers. Thus the search for a new route to the East lay at the back of many of those voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which gradually made America familiar to Europe.

The same object was sought in explorations to the eastward. The earliest voyages of the Portuguese along the coast of Africa, it is true, had other motives; but the desire to reach India grew upon the navigators and the sovereigns of that nation, and from the accession of John II., in 1481, every nerve was strained to find a route to the far East. Within one twelvemonth, in the years 1486 and 1487, three expeditions left the coast of Portugal seeking access to the East. The first of these, under Bartholomew Diaz, discovered the Cape of Good Hope; the second was an embassy of Pedro de Cavailham and Affonso de Paiva through the eastern Mediterranean to seek Prester John, a search which carried one of them to the west coast of India, the other to the east coast of Africa; the third was an exploring expedition to the northeast, which reached, for the first time, the islands of Nova Zembla. [Footnote: Beazley, Henry the Navigator.] The Portuguese ambition was finally crowned with success in the exploit of Vasco da Gama in reaching the coast of India by way of the southern point of Africa, in 1498; the Spanish expedition under Magellan reached the same lands by the westward route twenty years afterwards. Even after these successes, efforts continued to be made to reach China and the Indies by a northeast passage around the northern coast of Europe. Successive expeditions of Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch were sent out only to meet invariable failure in those icy seas, until the terrible hardships the explorers endured gradually brought conviction of the impracticability of this, as of the northwestern, route. What was the origin of this eagerness to reach the Indies? Why did Portuguese, Spaniards, English, French, and Dutch vie with one another in centuries of effort not only to discover new lands, but to seek these sea-routes to the oldest of all lands? Why were the old lines of intercourse between the East and the West almost deserted, and a new group of maritime nations superseding the old Mediterranean and mid-European trading peoples? The answer to these questions will be found in certain changes which were in progress in those lands east of the Mediterranean Sea, which lie on the border-line between Europe and Asia. Through this region trade between Europe and the far East had flowed from immemorial antiquity; but in the fifteenth century its channels were obstructed and its stream much diminished.

Mediaeval Europe was dependent for her luxuries on Asia Minor and Syria, Arabia and Persia, India and the Spice Islands, China and Japan. Precious stones and fabrics, dyes and perfumes, drugs and medicaments, woods, gums, and spices reached Europe by many devious and obscure routes, but all from the eastward. One of the chief luxuries of the Middle Ages was the edible spices. The monotonous diet, the coarse food, the unskilful cookery of mediaeval Europe had all their deficiencies covered by a charitable mantle of Oriental seasoning. Wines and ale were constantly used spiced with various condiments. In Sir Thopas's forest grew "notemuge to putte in ale." [Footnote: Chaucer, Sir Thopas, line 52.] The brewster in the Vision of Piers Plowman declares:

"I have good ale, gossip, Glutton wilt thou essay? 'What hast thou,' quoth he, 'any hot spices?' I have pepper and peony and a pound of garlic, A farthing-worth of fennel seed for fasting days" [Footnote: Text C, passus VII, lines 355, etc.]

Froissart has the king's guests led to "the palace, where wine and spices were set before them." [Footnote: Froissart, Chronicles, book II, chap lxxx] The dowry of a Marseilles girl, in 1224, makes mention of "mace, ginger, cardamoms, and galangale." [Footnote: Quoted in Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography, II, 433, n.] In the garden in the Romaunt of the Rose, "Ther was eek wexing many a spyce, As clow- gelofre, and licoryce, Gingere, and greyn de paradys, Canelle, and setewale of prys, And many a spyce delitable, To eten when men ryse fro table." [Footnote: Chaucer (Skeat's ed), lines 1367-1373.]

When John Ball wished to draw a contrast between the lot of the lords and the peasants, he said, "They have wines, spices, and fine bread, when we have only rye and the refuse of the straw." [Footnote: Froissart, Chronicles, book II, chap lxxiii.] When old Latimer was being bound to the stake he handed nutmegs to his friends as keepsakes. [Footnote: Froude, History of England.]

Pepper, the most common and at the same time the most valued of these spices, was frequently treated as a gift of honor from one sovereign to another, or as a courteous form of payment instead of money. "Matilda de Chaucer is in the gift of the king, and her land is worth 8 pounds, 2d, and 1 pound of pepper and 1 pound of cinnamon and 1 ounce of silk," reads a chance record in an old English survey. [Footnote: Festa de Nevil, p 16.] The amount of these spices demanded and consumed was astonishing. Venetian galleys, Genoese carracks, and other vessels on the Mediterranean brought many a cargo of them westward, and they were sold in fairs and markets everywhere. "Pepper-sack" was a derisive and yet not unappreciative epithet applied by German robber-barons to the merchants whom they plundered as they passed down the Rhine. For years the Venetians had a contract to buy from the sultan of Egypt annually 420,000 pounds of pepper. One of the first vessels to make its way to India brought home 210,000 pounds. A fine of 200,000 pounds of pepper was imposed upon one petty prince of India by the Portuguese in 1520. In romances and chronicles, in cook-books, trades-lists, and customs- tariffs, spices are mentioned with a frequency and consideration unknown in modern times.

Yet the location of "the isles where the spices grow" was very distant and obscure to the men of the Middle Ages. John Cabot, in 1497, said that he "was once at Mecca, whither the spices are brought by caravans from distant countries, and having inquired from whence they were brought and where they grew, the merchants answered that they did not know, but that such merchandise was brought from distant countries by other caravans to their home; and they further say that they are also conveyed from other remote regions." [Footnote: Letter of Soncino, in Hart, Contemporaries, I., 70.] Such lack of knowledge was pardonable, considering that Marco Polo, one of the most observant of travellers, after spending years in Asia, believed, mistakenly, that nutmegs and cloves were produced in Java. [Footnote: Marco Polo (Yule's ed.), book III., chap vi., 217, n.] It was only after more direct intercourse was ope

ned up with the East that their true place of production became familiarly known in Europe. Nutmegs and mace, cloves and allspice were the native products of but one little spot on the earth's surface: a group of small islands, Banda, Amboyna, Ternate, Tidore, Pulaway, and Prelaroon, the southernmost of the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, just under the equator, in the midst of the Malay Archipelago. Their light, volcanic soil, kept moist by the constant damp winds and hot by the beams of an overhead sun, furnished the natural conditions in which the spice-trees grew. Here the handsome shrubs that-yield the nutmeg and its covering of mace produced a continuous crop of flowers and fruit all the year around. Cloves grew in the same islands, as clusters of scarlet buds, hanging at the ends of the branches of trees which rise to a greater height and grow with even a greater luxuriance than the nutmeg-bushes. [Footnote: Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, chap. xix.]

Pepper had scarcely a wider field of production. The forests that clothed a stretch of the Malabar coast of India some two hundred miles in length, and extending some miles back into the interior, were filled with an abundant growth of pepper-vines. One of the earliest of European travellers in India, Odoric de Pordenone, says: "The province where pepper grows is named Malabar, and in no other part of the world does pepper grow except in this country. The forest where it grows is about eighteen days in length." [Footnote: Odoric de Pordenone (D'Avezac's ed), chap. x.] John Marignolli, in 1348, also speaks of this district as "where the world's pepper is produced." [Footnote: Quoted in Marco Polo (Yule's ed), II., 314, n., and Sir John Mandeville, chap, xviii.] Its habitat was, however, somewhat more extensive, for in less abundance and of inferior quality the pepper- vines were raised all the way south to Cape Comorin, and even in the islands of Ceylon and Sumatra.

Cinnamon-bark was the special product of the mountain-slopes in the interior of Ceylon, but this also grew on the Indian coast to the westward, [Footnote: Marco Polo (Yule's ed), book III, chaps, xiv., xxv.] and, in the form of cassia of several varieties, was obtained in Thibet, in the interior provinces of China, and in some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago. Ginger was produced in many parts of the East; in Arabia, India, and China. Odoric attributes to a certain part of India "the best ginger that can be found in the world" [Footnote: Odoric de Pordenone (D'Avezac's ed), chap. x.] and Marco Polo records its production of good quality in many provinces of India and China. [Footnote: Marco Polo (Yule's ed), book II, chap. lxxx., book III., chaps, xxii., xxiv., xxv, xxvi.] A great number of other kinds of spices were produced in various parts of the Orient, and consumed there or exported to Europe. Precious stones were of almost as much interest to the men of the Middle Ages as were spices. For personal ornament and for the enrichment of shrines and religious vestments, all kinds of beautiful stones exercised an attraction proportioned to the small number and variety of articles of beauty and taste in existence.

"No saphir ind, no rube riche of price, There lakked than, nor emeraud so grene." [Footnote: Chaucer, Court of Love, lines 78, 79.]

These were as much characteristic products of the East as were spices. Diamonds, before the discovery of the American and African fields of production, were found only in certain districts in the central part of India, especially in the kingdom of Mutfili or Golconda. Marco Polo tells the same story of the method of getting them there that is reported by Sindbad the Sailor. [Footnote: Marco Polo (Yule's ed), book III., chap, xix.; Arabian Nights.] Rubies, the next most admired stone of the Middle Ages, were also found, to some extent, in India, but more largely in the island of Ceylon, in farther India, and, above all, in the districts of Kerman, Khorassan, Badakshan, and other parts of the highlands of Persia along the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., App., I.] Sapphires, garnets, topaz, amethyst, and sardonyx were found in several of the same districts and also in the mountains and streams of the west coast of India, from the Gulf of Cambay all the way to Ceylon. The greatest markets in the world for these stones were the two Indian cities of Pulicat and Calicut; the former on the southeastern, the latter on the western shore of the great peninsula. Pearls were then, as now, produced only in a very few places, principally in the strait between Ceylon and the mainland of India, and in certain parts of the Persian Gulf. In the native states in the south of India they were, however, accumulated in enormous quantities, and scarcely a list of Eastern articles of merchandise omits mention of them. One of the early European expeditions brought home among its freight 400 pearls chosen for their size and beauty, and forty pounds of an inferior sort. The passion of the native rajahs of India for gems had made the treasury of every petty prince a storehouse where vast numbers of precious stones had been garnered through thousands of years of wealth and civilization. This mass served as the booty of successive conquerors, and from time to time portions of it came into the hands of traders, along with stones newly obtained from natural sources. An early chronicler, in describing the return of the Polos to Venice from the East, tells how, from the seams of their garments, they took out the profits of their journeys in the East, in the form of "rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, diamonds, and emeralds." [Footnote: Ramusio, Raccolta, quoted in Marco Polo (Yule's ed.), book I., chap, xxxvii.] Drugs, perfumes, gums, dyes, and fragrant woods had much the same attraction as spices and precious stones, and came from much the same lands. The lofty and beautiful trees from which camphor is obtained grew only in Sumatra, Borneo, and certain provinces of China and Japan. Medicinal rhubarb was native to the mountainous districts of China, whence it was brought to the cities and the coast of that country on the backs of mules. Musk was a product of the borderlands of China and Thibet. The sugar-cane, although it grew widely in the East, from India and China to Syria and Asia Minor, was successfully managed so as to produce sugar in quantities that could be exported only in certain parts of Arabia and Persia. Bagdad was long famous for its sugar and articles preserved in sugar. Indigo was grown and prepared for dyeing purposes in India. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels, II., App., I.] Brazil wood grew more or less abundantly in all parts of the peninsula of India and as far east as Siam and southern China. This wood, from which was extracted a highly valued dye, made a particularly strong impression on the mediaeval imagination. European travellers in India gave accounts of its being burned there for firewood, as their strangest tale of luxury and waste. It gave its name to a mythical island of Bresil, in the western seas, which was the subject of much speculation and romance. The same name was eventually applied to the South American country that now bears it, because it produced a similar dye-wood in large quantities. Sandal-wood and aloe-wood, which were valuable for their beautiful surface and fragrance when used in cabinet-work, and for their pleasant odor when burned as incense, grew only in certain parts of India.

Many articles of manufacture, attractive for their material, their workmanship, or their design, came from the same Eastern lands. Glass, of superior workmanship to anything known in Europe, came from Damascus, Samarcand, and Kadesia, near Bagdad. Objects of fine porcelain came from China, and finally became known by the name of that country. A great variety of fabrics of silk and cotton, as well as those fibres in their raw state, came from Asia to Europe. Dozens of names of Eastern origin still remain to describe the silk, cotton, hair, and mixed fabrics which came to Europe from China, India, Cashmere, and the cities of Persia, Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor. Brocade, damask, taffeta, sendal, satin, camelot, buckram, muslin, and many varieties of carpets, rugs, and hangings, which were woven in various parts of those lands, have always since retained the names of the places which early became famous for their manufacture. The metal- work of the East was scarcely less characteristic or less highly valued in the West, though its varieties have not left such specific names. [Footnote: Heyd, Geschtchte des Levantehandels, II., App., 543-699.] Europe could feed herself with unspiced food, she could clothe herself with plain clothing, but for luxuries, adornments, refinements, whether in food, in personal ornament, or in furnishing her palaces, her manor- houses, her churches, or her wealthy merchants' dwellings, she must, in the fifteenth century, still look to Asia, as she had always done. It is true that in the later Middle Ages many articles of beauty and ornament were produced in the more advanced Western countries; but not spices nor drugs, nor precious stones, nor any great variety of dyes. Oriental rugs are even yet superior to any like productions of the West; and a vast number of other articles of Eastern origin then held, and indeed still hold, the markets.

In return for the goods which Europe brought from Asia a few commodities could be shipped eastward. European woollen fabrics seem to have been almost as much valued in certain countries of Asia as Eastern cotton and silk goods were in Italy, France, Germany, and England. Certain Western metals and minerals were highly valued in the East, especially arsenic, antimony, quicksilver, tin, copper, and lead. [Footnote: Birdwood, Hand-book to the Indian Collection (Paris Universal Exhibition, 1878), Appendix to catalogue of the British Colonies, pp. 1-110.] The coral of the Mediterranean was much admired and sought after in Persia and India, and even in countries still farther east. Nevertheless the balance of trade was permanently in favor of the East, and quantities of gold and silver coin and bullion were used by European merchants to buy the finer wares in Asiatic markets. There was much general trading in Eastern marts. Numbers of Oriental merchants, like Sindbad the Sailor and his company, "passed by island after island and from sea to sea and from land to land; and in every place by which we passed we sold and bought and exchanged merchandise." The articles enumerated above were almost without exception in demand throughout the whole East, and were bought by merchants in one place and sold in another. Marco Polo, in describing the Chinese city of Zayton, says: "And I assure you that for one shipload of pepper that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere destined for Christendom, there come a hundred such, aye and more too, to this haven of Zayton." [Footnote: Marco Polo (Yule's ed), book II., chap. lxxxii] Even as late as 1515, Giovanni D'Empoli, writing about China, says: "Ships carry spices thither from these parts. Every year there go thither from Sumatra 60,000 cantars of pepper and 15,000 or 20,000 from Cochin and Malabar-besides ginger, mace, nutmegs, incense, aloes, velvet, European gold-wire, coral, woollens, etc." [Footnote: Quoted in ibid, book II., 188.] Nevertheless the attraction of the West was clearly felt in the East. Extensive as were the local purchase and sale of articles of luxury and use by merchants throughout India, Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, and China, yet the export of goods from those countries to the westward was a form of trade of great importance, and one which had its roots deep in antiquity. A story of the early days tells how the jealous brothers of Joseph, when they were considering what disposition to make of him, "lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a travelling company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt." [Footnote: Genesis, xxxvii. 25.] When the prophet cries, "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with garments dyed red from Bozrah?" he is using two of the most familiar names on the lines of west Asiatic trade. Solomon gave proof of his wisdom and made his kingdom great by seizing the lines of the trade-routes from Tadmor in the desert and Damascus in the north to the upper waters of the Red Sea on the south. The "royal road" of the Persian kings from Sousa to Ephesus made a long detour through northern Asia Minor, which was inexplicable to modern archaeologists until it was perceived that it was following the line of a trade-route much more ancient than the Persian monarchy. [Footnote: Ramsay, The Historical Geography of Asia Minor, chap. i.] The harbor of Berenice, named after the mother of Ptolemy Philadelpnus, was built by him as a place of transit for goods from India which were to be carried from the Red Sea to the Nile. [Footnote: Hunter, Hist. of British India, I., 40.] Roman roads followed ancient lines through Asia Minor and Syria, and medieval routes in turn, in many places, passed by the remains of Roman stations. Thus the East and the West had been drawn together by a mutual commercial attraction from the earliest times, an attraction based on the respective natural productions of the two continents, and favored by the vast superiority of the East in the creation of articles of beauty and usefulness.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top