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Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 8748

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The condition of knowledge respecting Columbus's early life was such, when Prescott wrote, that few would dispute his conclusion that it is hopeless to unravel the entanglement of events, associated with the opening of his career. The critical discernment of Harrisse and other recent investigators has since then done something to make the confusion even more apparent by unsettling convictions too hastily assumed. A bunch of bewildering statements, in despite of all that present scholarship can do, is left to such experts as may be possessed in the future of more determinate knowledge. It may well be doubted if absolute clarification of the record is ever to be possible.

His education.

The student naturally inquires of the contemporaries of Columbus as to the quality and extent of his early education, and he derives most from Las Casas and the Historie of 1571. It has of late been ascertained that the woolcombers of Genoa established local schools for the education of their children, and the young Christopher may have had his share of their instruction, in addition to whatever he picked up at his trade, which continued, as long as he remained in Italy, that of his father. We know from the manuscripts which have come down to us that Columbus acquired the manual dexterity of a good penman; and if some existing drawings are not apocryphal, he had a deft hand, too, in making a spirited sketch with a few strokes. His drawing of maps, which we are also told about, implies that he had fulfilled Ptolemy's definition of that art of the cosmographer which could represent the cartographic outlines of countries with supposable correctness. He could do it with such skill that he practiced it at one time, as is said, for the gaining of a livelihood. We know, trusting the Historie, that he was for a brief period at the University of Pavia, perhaps not far from 1460, where he sought to understand the mysteries of cosmography, astrology, and geometry.


At Pavia.

Bossi has enumerated the professors in these departments at that time, from whose teaching Columbus may possibly have profited. Harrisse with his accustomed distrust, throws great doubt on the whole narrative of his university experiences, and thinks Pavia at this time offered no peculiar advantages for an aspiring seaman, to be compared with the practical instruction which Genoa in its commercial eminence could at the same time have offered to any sea-smitten boy. It was at Genoa at this very time (1461), that Benincasa was producing his famous sea-charts.


[From St. Martin's Atlas.]

Goes to sea.

After his possible, if not probable, sojourn at Pavia, made transient, it has been suggested but not proved, by the failing fortunes of his father, Christopher returned to Genoa, and then after an uncertain interval entered on his seafaring career. If what passes for his own statement be taken he was at this turn of his life not more than fourteen years old. The attractions of the sea at that period of the fifteenth century were great for adventurous youths. There was a spice of piracy in even the soberest ventures of commerce. The ships of one Christian state preyed on another. Private ventures were buccaneerish, and the hand of the Catalonian and of the Moslem were turned against all. The news which sped from one end of the Mediterranean to the other was of fight and plunder, here and everywhere. Occasionally it was mixed with rumors of the voyages beyond the Straits of Hercules, which told of the Portuguese and their hazards on the African coast towards the equator.

Prince Henry, the Navigator.

Not far from the time when our vigorous young Genoese wool-comber may be supposed to have embarked on some of these venturesome exploits of the great inland sea, there might have come jumping from port to port, westerly along the Mediterranean shores, the story of the death of that great maritime spirit of Portugal, Prince Henry, the Navigator, and of the latest feats of his captains in the great ocean of the west.


[From the Isolario, 1547.]

Anjou's expedition.

It has been usual to associate the earliest maritime career of our dashing Genoese with an expedition fitted out in Genoa by John of Anjou, Duke of Calabria, to recover possession of the k

ingdom of Naples for his father, Duke René, Count of Provence. This is known to have been undertaken in 1459-61. The pride of Genoa encouraged the service of the attacking fleet, and many a citizen cast in his lot with that naval armament, and embarked with his own subsidiary command. There is mention of a certain doughty captain, Colombo by name, as leading one part of this expeditionary force. He was very likely one of those French corsairs of that name, already mentioned, and likely to have been a man of importance in the Franco-Genoese train. He has, indeed, been sometimes made a kinsman of the wool-comber's son. There is little likelihood of his having been our Christopher himself, then, as we may easily picture him, a red-haired youth, or in life's early prime, with a ruddy complexion,-a type of the Italian which one to-day is not without the chance of encountering in the north of Italy, preserving, it may be, some of that northern blood which had produced the Vikings.

The Historie of 1571 gives what purports to be a letter of Columbus describing some of the events of this campaign. It was addressed to the Spanish monarchs in 1495. If Anjou was connected with any service in which Columbus took part, it is easy to make it manifest that it could not have happened later than 1461, because the reverses of that year drove the unfortunate René into permanent retirement. The rebuttal of this testimony depends largely upon the date of Columbus's birth; and if that is placed in 1446, as seems well established, Columbus, the Genoese mariner, could hardly have commanded a galley in it at fourteen; and it is still more improbable if, as D'Avezac says, Columbus was in the expedition when it set out in 1459, since the boy Christopher was then but twelve. As Harrisse puts it, the letter of Columbus quoted in the Historie is apocryphal, or the correct date of Columbus's birth is not 1446.

It is, however, not to be forgotten that Columbus himself testifies to the tender age at which he began his sea-service, when, in 1501, he recalled some of his early experiences; but, unfortunately, Columbus was chronically given to looseness of statement, and the testimony of his contemporaries is often the better authority. In 1501, his mind, moreover, was verging on irresponsibility. He had a talent for deceit, and sometimes boasted of it, or at least counted it a merit.

Much investigation has wonderfully confirmed the accuracy of that earliest sketch of his career contained in the Giustiniani Psalter in 1516; and it is learned from that narrative that Columbus had attained an adult age when he first went to sea,-and this was one of the statements which the Historie of 1571 sought to discredit. If the notarial records of Savona are correct in calling Columbus a wool-comber in 1472, and he was of the Savona family, and born in 1446, he was then twenty-six years old, and of the adult age that is claimed by the Psalter and by other early writers, who either knew or mentioned him, when he began his seafaring life. In that case he could have had no part in the Anjou-René expedition, whose whole story, even with the expositions of Harrisse and Max Büdinger, is shrouded in uncertainties of time and place. That after 1473 he disappears from every notarial record that can be found in Genoa shows, in Harrisse's opinion, that it was not till then that he took to the sea as a profession.

We cannot say that the information which we have of this early seafaring life of Columbus, whenever beginning, is deserving of much credit, and it is difficult to place whatever it includes in chronological order.

We may infer from one of his statements that he had, at some time, been at Scio observing the making of mastic. Certain reports which most likely concern his namesakes, the French corsairs, are sometimes associated with him as leading an attack on Spanish galleys somewhere in the service of Louis XI., or as cruising near Cyprus.

So everything is misty about these early days; but the imagination of some of his biographers gives us abundant precision for the daily life of the school-boy, apprentice, cabin boy, mariner, and corsair, even to the receiving of a wound which we know troubled him in his later years. Such a story of details is the filling up of a scant outline with the colors of an unfaithful limner.

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