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Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 27756

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Maritime enterprise in Portugal.

Columbus, disappearing from Italy in 1473, is next found in Portugal, and it is a natural inquiry why an active, adventurous spirit, having tested the exhilaration of the sea, should have made his way to that outpost of maritime ambition, bordering on the great waters, that had for many ages attracted and puzzled the discoverer and cosmographer. It is hardly to be doubted that the fame of the Portuguese voyaging out upon the vasty deep, or following the western coast of Africa, had for some time been a not unusual topic of talk among the seamen of the Mediterranean. It may be only less probable that an intercourse of seafaring Mediterranean people with the Arabs of the Levant had brought rumors of voyages in the ocean that washed the eastern shores of Africa. These stories from the Orient might well have induced some to speculate that such voyages were but the complements of those of the Portuguese in their efforts to solve the problem of the circumnavigation of the great African continent. It is not, then, surprising that a doughty mariner like Columbus, in life's prime, should have desired to be in the thick of such discussions, and to no other European region could he have turned as a wanderer with the same satisfaction as to Portugal.

Let us see how the great maritime questions stood in Portugal in 1473, and from what antecedents they had arisen.

Portuguese seamanship.

Explorations on the Sea of Darkness.

Marino Sanuto, 1306.

The Portuguese, at this time, had the reputation of being the most expert seamen in Europe, or at least they divided it with the Catalans and Majorcans. Their fame lasted, and at a later day was repeated by Acosta. These hardy mariners had pushed boldly out, as early as we have any records, into the enticing and yet forbidding Sea of Darkness, not often perhaps willingly out of sight of land; but storms not infrequently gave them the experience of sea and sky, and nothing else. The great ocean was an untried waste for cartography. A few straggling beliefs in islands lying westward had come down from the ancients, and the fantastic notions of floating islands and steady lands, upon which the imagination of the Middle Ages thrived, were still rife, when we find in the map of Marino Sanuto, in 1306, what may well be considered the beginning of Atlantic cartography.

The Canaries.

There is no occasion to make it evident that the Islands of the West found by the Ph?nicians, the Fortunate Islands of Sertorius, and the Hesperides of Pliny were the Canaries of later times, brought to light after thirteen centuries of oblivion; but these islands stand in the planisphere of Sanuto at the beginning of the fourteenth century, to be casually visited by the Spaniards and others for a hundred years and more before the Norman, Jean de Béthencourt, in the beginning of the fifteenth century (1402), settled himself on one of them. Here his kinspeople ruled, till finally the rival claims of sovereignty by Spain and Portugal ended in the rights of Spain being established, with compensating exclusive rights to Portugal on the African coast.

The Genoese in Portugal.

But it was by Genoese in the service of Portugal, the fame of whose exploits may not have been unknown to Columbus, that the most important discoveries of ocean islands had been made.


It was in the early part of the fourteenth century that the Madeira group had been discovered. In the Laurentian portolano of 1351, preserved at Florence, it is unmistakably laid down and properly named, and that atlas has been considered, for several reasons, the work of Genoese, and as probably recording the voyage by the Genoese Pezagno for the Portuguese king,-at least Major holds that to be demonstrable. The real right of the Portuguese to these islands, rests, however, on their rediscovery by Prince Henry's captains at a still later period, in 1418-20, when Madeira, seen as a cloud in the horizon from Porto Santo, was approached in a boat from the smaller island.



It is also from the Laurentian portolano of 1351 that we know how, at some anterior time, the greater group of the Azores had been found by Portuguese vessels under Genoese commanders. We find these islands also in the Catalan map of 1373, and in that of Pizigani of the same period (1367, 1373).


[From Major's Prince Henry.]

Robert Machin.

It was in the reign of Edward III. of England that one Robert Machin, flying from England to avoid pursuit for stealing a wife, accidentally reached the island of Madeira. Here disaster overtook Machin's company, but some of his crew reached Africa in a boat and were made captives by the Moors. In 1416, the Spaniards sent an expedition to redeem Christian captives held by these same Moors, and, while bringing them away, the Spanish ship was overcome by a Portuguese navigator, Zarco, and among his prisoners was one Morales, who had heard, as was reported, of the experiences of Machin.

Porto Santo and Madeira rediscovered.

Zarco, a little later, being sent by Prince Henry of Portugal to the coast of Guinea, was driven out to sea, and discovered the island of Porto Santo; and subsequently, under the prompting of Morales, he rediscovered Madeira, then uninhabited. This was in 1418 or 1419, and though there are some divergences in the different forms of the story, and though romance and anachronism somewhat obscure its truth, the main circumstances are fairly discernible.

The Perestrello family.

This discovery was the beginning of the revelations which the navigators of Prince Henry were to make. A few years later (1425) he dispatched colonists to occupy the two islands, and among them was a gentleman of the household, Bartolomeo Perestrello, whose name, in a descendant, we shall again encounter when, near the close of the century, we follow Columbus himself to this same island of Porto Santo.


It is conjectured that the position of the Azores was laid down on a map which, brought to Portugal from Venice in 1428, instigated Prince Henry to order his seamen to rediscover those islands. That they are laid down on Valsequa's Catalan map of 1439 is held to indicate the accomplishment of the prince's purpose, probably in 1432, though it took twenty years to bring the entire group within the knowledge of the Portuguese.

Bianco's map, 1436.

Other maps.

The well-known map of Andrea Bianco in 1436, preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana at Venice, records also the extent of supposition at that date respecting the island-studded waste of the Atlantic. Between this date and the period of the arrival of Columbus in Portugal, the best known names of the map makers of the Atlantic are those of Valsequa (1439), Leardo (1448, 1452, 1458), Pareto (1455), and Fra Mauro (1459). This last there will be occasion to mention later.


In 1452, Pedro de Valasco, in sailing about Fayal westerly, seeing and following a flight of birds, had discovered the island of Flores. From what Columbus says in the journal of his first voyage, forty years later, this tracking of the flight of birds was not an unusual way, in these early exploring days, of finding new islands.


[From Allgem. Geog. Ephemeriden, Weimar, 1807.]

Thus it was that down to a period a very little later than the middle of the fifteenth century the Portuguese had been accustoming themselves to these hazards of the open ocean. Without knowing it they had, in the discovery of Flores, actually reached the farthest land westerly, which could in the better knowledge of later years be looked upon as the remotest outpost of the Old World.

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The African route to India.

There was, as they thought, a much larger cosmographical problem lying to the south,-a route to India by a supposable African cape.

For centuries the Orient had been the dream of the philosopher and the goal of the merchant. Everything in the East was thought to be on a larger scale than in Europe,-metals were more abundant, pearls were rarer, spices were richer, plants were nobler, animals were statelier. Everything but man was more lordly. He had been fed there so luxuriously that he was believed to have dwindled in character. Europe was the world of active intelligence, the inheritor of Greek and Roman power, and its typical man belonged naturally with the grander externals of the East. There was a fitness in bringing the better man and the better nature into such relations that the one should sustain and enjoy the other.


The earliest historical record of the peoples of Western Asia with China goes back, according to Yule, to the second century before Christ. Three hundred years later we find the first trace of Roman intercourse (A. D. 166). With India, China had some trade by sea as early as the fourth century, and with Babylonia possibly in the fifth century. There were Christian Nestorian missionaries there as early as the eighth century, and some of their teachings had been found there by Western travelers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The communication of Ceylon with China was revived in the thirteenth century.


Marco Polo.

It was in the twelfth century, under the Mongol dynasty, that China became first generally known in Europe, under the name of Cathay, and then for the first time the Western nations received travelers' stories of the kingdom of the great Khan. Two Franciscans, one an Italian, Plano Carpini, the other a Fleming, Rubruquis, sent on missions for the Church, returned to Europe respectively in 1247 and 1255. It was not, however, till Marco Polo returned from his visit to Kublai Khan, in the latter part of the thirteenth century, that a new enlargement of the ideas of Europe respecting the far Orient took place. The influence of his marvelous tales continued down to the days of Columbus, and when the great discoverer came on the scene it was to find the public mind occupied with the hopes of reaching these Eastern realms by way of the south. The experimental and accidental voyagings of the Portuguese on the Atlantic were held to be but preliminary to a steadier progression down the coast of Africa.

The African route and the ancients.

The African cape.

Whether the ancients had succeeded in circumnavigating Africa is a question never likely to be definitely settled, and opposing views, as weighed by Bunbury in his History of Ancient Geography, are too evenly balanced to allow either side readily to make conquest of judicial minds. It is certain that Hipparchus had denied the possibility of it, and had supposed the Indian Ocean a land-bound sea, Africa extending at the south so as to connect with a southern prolongation of eastern Asia. This view had been adopted by Ptolemy, whose opinions were dominating at this time the Western mind. Nevertheless, that Africa ended in a southern cape seems to have been conceived of by those who doubted the authority of Ptolemy early enough for Sanuto, in 1306, to portray such a cape in his planisphere. If Sanuto really knew of its existence the source of his knowledge is a subject for curious speculation. Not unlikely an African cape may have been surmised by the Venetian sailors, who, frequenting the Mediterranean coasts of Asia Minor, came in contact with the Arabs. These last may have cherished the traditions of maritime explorers on the east coast of Africa, who may have already discovered the great southern cape, perhaps without passing it.

African coast discovery, 1393.

Navarrete records that as early as 1393 a company had been formed in Andalusia and Biscay for promoting discoveries down the coast of Africa. It was an effort to secure in the end such a route to Asia as might enable the people of the Iberian peninsula to share with those of the Italian the trade with the East, which the latter had long conducted wholly or in part overland from the Levant. The port of Barcelona had indeed a share in this opulent commerce; but its product for Spain was insignificant in comparison with that for Italy.

Prince Henry, the Navigator.

The guiding spirit in this new habit of exploration was that scion of the royal family of Portugal who became famous eventually as Prince Henry the Navigator, and whose biography has been laid before the English reader within twenty years, abundantly elucidated by the careful hand of Richard H. Major. The Prince had assisted King Jo?o in the attack on the Moors at Ceuta, in 1415, and this success had opened to the Prince the prospect of possessing the Guinea coast, and of ultimately finding and passing the anticipated cape at the southern end of Africa.

Cape Bojador.

This was the mission to which the Prince early in the fifteenth century gave himself. His ships began to crawl down the western Barbary coast, and each season added to the extent of their explorations, but Cape Bojador for a while blocked their way, just as it had stayed other hardy adventurers even before the birth of Henry. "We may wonder," says Helps, "that he never took personal command of any of his expeditions, but he may have thought that he served the cause better by remaining at home, and forming a centre whence the electric energy of enterprise was communicated to many discoverers and then again collected from them."


Meanwhile, Prince Henry had received from his father the government of Algaroe, and he selected the secluded promontory of Sagres, jutting into the sea at the southwestern extremity of Portugal, as his home, going here in 1418, or possibly somewhat later. Whether he so organized his efforts as to establish here a school of navigation is in dispute, but it is probably merely a question of what

constitutes a school. There seems no doubt that he built an observatory and drew about him skillful men in the nautical arts, including a somewhat famous Majorcan, Jayme. He and his staff of workers took seamanship as they found it, with its cylindrical charts, and so developed it that it became in the hands of the Portuguese the evidence of the highest skill then attainable.

Art of seamanship.

Seamanship as then practiced has become an interesting study. Under the guidance of Humboldt, in his remarkable work, the Examen Critique, in which he couples a consideration of the nautical astronomy with the needs of this age of discovery, we find an easy path among the intricacies of the art. These complications have, in special aspects, been further elucidated by Navarrete, Margry, and a recent German writer, Professor Ernst Mayer.

Lully's Arte de Navegar.

It was just at the end of the thirteenth century (1295) that the Arte de Navegar of Raymond Lully, or Lullius, gave mariners a handbook, which, so far as is made apparent, was not superseded by a better even in the time of Columbus.


[From a Chronicle in the National Library at Paris.]


Another nautical text-book at this time was a treatise by John Holywood, a Yorkshire man, who needs to be a little dressed up when we think of him as the Latinized Sacrobosco. His Sphera Mundi was not put into type till 1472, just before Columbus's arrival in Portugal,-a work which is mainly paraphrased from Ptolemy's Almagest. It was one of the books which, by law, the royal cosmographer of Spain, at a later day, was directed to expound in his courses of instruction.

The loadstone.

The loadstone was known in western and northern Europe as early as the eleventh century, and for two or three centuries there are found in books occasional references to the magnet. We are in much doubt, however, as to the prevalence of its use in navigation. If we are to believe some writers on the subject, it was known to the Norsemen as early as the seventh century. Its use in the Levant, derived, doubtless, from the peoples navigating the Indian Ocean, goes back to an antiquity not easily to be limited.

Magnetic needle.

By the year 1200, a knowledge of the magnetic needle, coming from China through the Arabs, had become common enough in Europe to be mentioned in literature, and in another century its use did not escape record by the chroniclers of maritime progress. In the fourteenth century, the adventurous spirit of the Catalans and the Normans stretched the scope of their observations from the Hebrides on the north to the west coast of tropical Africa on the south, and to the westward, two fifths across the Atlantic to the neighborhood of the Azores,-voyages made safely under the direction of the magnet.

Observations for latitude.

The astrolabe.

There was not much difficulty in computing latitude either by the altitude of the polar star or by using tables of the sun's declination, which the astronomers of the time were equal to calculating. The astrolabe used for gauging the altitude was a simple instrument, which had been long in use among the Mediterranean seamen, and had been described by Raymond Lullius in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Before Columbus's time it had been somewhat improved by Johannes Müller of K?nigsberg, who became better known from the Latin form of his native town as Regiomontanus. He had, perhaps, the best reputation in his day as a nautical astronomer, and Humboldt has explained the importance of his labors in the help which he afforded in an age of discovery.

Dead reckoning.

It is quite certain that the navigators of Prince Henry, and even Columbus, practiced no artificial method for ascertaining the speed of their ships. With vessels of the model of those days, no great rapidity was possible, and the utmost a ship could do under favorable circumstances was not usually beyond four miles an hour. The hourglass gave them the time, and afforded the multiple according as the eye adjusted the apparent number of miles which the ship was making hour by hour. This was the method by which Columbus, in 1492, calculated the distances, which he recorded day by day in his journal. Of course the practiced seaman made allowances for drift in the ocean currents, and met with more or less intelligence the various deterrent elements in beating to windward.

The seaman's log.

Humboldt, with his keen insight into all such problems concerning their relations to oceanic discoveries, tells us in his Cosmos how he has made the history of the log a subject of special investigation in the sixth volume of his Examen Critique de l'Histoire de la Géographie, which, unfortunately, the world has never seen; but he gives, apparently, the results in his later Cosmos.


It is perhaps surprising that the Mediterranean peoples had not perceived a method, somewhat clumsy as it was, which had been in use by the Romans in the time of the republic. Though the habit of throwing the log is still, in our day, kept up on ocean steamers, I find that experienced commanders quite as willingly depend on the report of their engineers as to the number of revolutions which the wheel or screw has made in the twenty-four hours. In this they were anticipated by these republicans of Rome who attached wheels of four feet diameter to the sides of their ships and let the passage of the water turn them. Their revolutions were then recorded by a device which threw a pebble into a tally-pot for each revolution.


[After an original in the museum at Nuremberg, shown in E. Mayer's Die Hilfsmittel der Schiffahrtskunde.]

From that time, so far as Humboldt could ascertain, down to a period later than Columbus, and certainly after the revival of long ocean voyages by the Catalans, Portuguese, and Normans, there seems to have been no skill beyond that of the eyes in measuring the speed of vessels. After the days of Columbus, it is only when we come to the voyages of Magellan that we find any mention of such a device as a log, which consisted, as his chronicler explains, of some arrangements of cog-wheels and chains carried on the poop.

Prince Henry's character.

Such were in brief the elements of seamanship in which Prince Henry the Navigator caused his sailors to be instructed, and which more or less governed the instrumentalities employed in his career of discovery. He was a man who, as his motto tells us, wished, and was able, to do well. He was shadowed with few infirmities of spirit. He joined with the pluck of his half-English blood-for he was the grandson of John of Gaunt-a training for endurance derived in his country's prolonged contests with the Moor. He was the staple and lofty exemplar of this great age of discovery. He was more so than Columbus, and rendered the adventitious career of the Genoese possible. He knew how to manage men, and stuck devotedly to his work. He respected his helpers too much to drug them with deceit, and there is a straightforward honesty of purpose in his endeavors. He was a trainer of men, and they grew courageous under his instruction. To sail into the supposed burning zone beyond Cape Bojador, and to face the destruction of life which was believed to be inevitable, required a courage quite as conspicuous as to cleave the floating verdure of the Sargasso Sea, on a western passage. It must be confessed that he shared with Columbus those proclivities which in the instigators of African slavery so easily slipped into cruelty. They each believed there was a merit, if a heathen's soul be at stake, in not letting commiseration get the better of piety.

Cape Bojador passed, 1434.

It was not till 1434 that Prince Henry's captains finally passed Cape Bojador. It was a strenuous and daring effort in the face of conceded danger, and under the impulse of the Prince's earnest urging. Gil Eannes returned from this accomplished act a hero in the eyes of his master. Had it ever been passed before? Not apparently in any way to affect the importance of this Portuguese enterprise. We can go back indeed, to the expedition of Hanno the Carthaginian, and in the commentaries of Carl Müller and Vivien de St. Martin track that navigator outside the Pillars of Hercules, and follow him southerly possibly to Cape Verde or its vicinity; and this, if Major's arguments are to be accepted, is the only antecedent venture beyond Cape Bojador, though there have been claims set up for the Genoese, the Catalans, and the Dieppese. That the map of Marino Sanuto in 1306, and the so-called Laurentian portolano of 1351, both of which establish a vague southerly limit to Africa, rather give expression to a theory than chronicle the experience of navigators is the opinion of Major. It is of course possible that some indefinite knowledge of oriental tracking of the eastern coast of Africa, and developing its terminal shape southerly, may have passed, as already intimated, with other nautical knowledge, by the Red Sea to the Mediterranean peoples. To attempt to settle the question of any circumnavigation of Africa before the days of Diaz and Da Gama, by the evidence of earlier maps, makes us confront very closely geographical theories on the one hand, and on the other a possible actual knowledge filtered through the Arabs. All this renders it imprudent to assume any tone of certainty in the matter.


The captains of Prince Henry now began, season by season, to make a steady advance. The Pope had granted to the Portuguese monarchy the exclusive right to discovered lands on this unexplored route to India, and had enjoined all others not to interfere.

Cape Blanco passed, 1441.

In 1441 the Prince's ships passed beyond Cape Blanco, and in succeeding years they still pushed on little by little, bringing home in 1442 some negroes for slaves, the first which were seen in Europe, as Helps supposes, though this is a matter of some doubt.

Cape Verde reached, 1445.

Cape Verde had been reached by Diniz Dyàz (Fernandez) in 1445, and the discovery that the coast beyond had a general easterly trend did much to encourage the Portuguese, with the illusory hope that the way to India was at last opened. They had by this time passed beyond the countries of the Moors, and were coasting along a country inhabited by negroes.

Cadamosto, 1445.

Cape Verde Islands.

In 1455, the Venetian Cadamosto, a man who proved that he could write intelligently of what he saw, was induced by Prince Henry to conduct a new expedition, which was led to the Gambia; so that Europeans saw for the first time the constellation of the Southern Cross. In the following year, still patronized by Prince Henry, who fitted out one of his vessels, Cadamosto discovered the Cape Verde Islands, or at least his narrative would indicate that he did. By comparison of documents, however, Major has made it pretty clear that Cadamosto arrogated to himself a glory which belonged to another, and that the true discoverer of the Cape Verde Islands was Diogo Gomez, in 1460. It was on this second voyage that Cadamosto passed Cape Roxo, and reached the Rio Grande.


Fra Mauro's maps, 1457.


[From Major's Prince Henry.]

Prince Henry dies, 1460.

In 1457, Prince Henry sent, by order of his nephew and sovereign, Alfonso V., the maps of his captains to Venice, to have them combined in a large mappemonde; and Fra Mauro was entrusted with the making of it, in which he was assisted by Andrea Bianco, a famous cartographer of the time. This great map came to Portugal the year before the Prince died, and it stands as his final record, left behind him at his death, November 13, 1460, to attest his constancy and leadership. The pecuniary sacrifices which he had so greatly incurred in his enterprises had fatally embarrassed his estate. His death was not as Columbus's was, an obscuration that no one noted; his life was prolonged in the school of seamanship which he had created.


[From Major's Prince Henry.]

The Prince's enthusiasm in his belief that there was a great southern point of Africa had been imparted to all his followers. Fra Mauro gave it credence in his map by an indication that an Indian junk from the East had rounded the cape with the sun in 1420. In this Mauro map the easterly trend of the coast beyond Cape Verde is adequately shown, but it is made only as the northern shore of a deep gulf indenting the continent. The more southern parts are simply forced into a shape to suit and fill out the circular dimensions of the map.

Sierra Leone, Gold Coast.

La Mina.

Within a few years after Henry's death-though some place it earlier-the explorations had been pushed to Sierra Leone and beyond Cape Mezurada. When the revenues of the Gold Coast were farmed out in 1469, it was agreed that discovery should be pushed a hundred leagues farther south annually; and by 1474, when the contract expired, Fernam Gomez, who had taken it, had already found the gold dust region of La Mina, which Columbus, in 1492, was counseled by Spain to avoid while searching for his western lands.

This, then, was the condition of Portuguese seamanship and of its exploits when Columbus, some time, probably, in 1473, reached Portugal. He found that country so content with the rich product of the Guinea coast that it was some years later before the Portuguese began to push still farther to the south. The desire to extend the Christian faith to heathen, often on the lips of the discoverers of the fifteenth century, was never so powerful but that gold and pearls made them forget it.

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