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Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 58464

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Date of his arrival.


It has been held by Navarrete, Irving, and other writers of the older school that Columbus first arrived in Portugal in 1470; and his coming has commonly been connected with a naval battle near Lisbon, in which he escaped from a burning ship by swimming to land with the aid of an oar. It is easily proved, however, that notarial entries in Italy show him to have been in that country on August 7, 1473. We may, indeed, by some stretch of inference, allow the old date to be sustained, by supposing that he really was domiciled in Lisbon as early as 1470, but made occasional visits to his motherland for the next three or four years.

Supposed naval battle.

The naval battle, in its details, is borrowed by the Historie of 1571 from the Rerum Venitiarum ab Urbe Condita of Sabellicus. This author makes Christopher Columbus a son of the younger corsair Colombo, who commanded in the fight, which could not have happened either in 1470, the year usually given, or in 1473-74, the time better determined for Columbus's arrival in Portugal, since this particular action is known to have taken place on August 22, 1485. Those who defend the Historie, like D'Avezac, claim that its account simply confounds the battle of 1485 with an earlier one, and that the story of the oar must be accepted as an incident of this supposable anterior fight. The action in 1485 took place when the French corsair, Casaneuve or Colombo, intercepted some richly laden Venetian galleys between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent. History makes no mention of any earlier action of similar import which could have been the occasion of the escape by swimming; and to sustain the Historie by supposing such is a simple, perhaps allowable, hypothesis.

Probable arrival in 1473-1474.

Rawdon Brown, in the introduction to his volumes of the Calendar of State Papers in the Archives of Venice, has connected Columbus with this naval combat, but, as he later acknowledged to Harrisse, solely on the authority of the Historie. Irving has rejected the story. There seems no occasion to doubt its inconsistencies and anachronisms, and, once discarded, we are thrown back upon the notarial evidence in Italy, by which we may venture to accept the date of 1473-74 as that of the entrance of Columbus into Portugal. Irving, though he discards the associated incidents, accepts the earlier date. Nevertheless, the date of 1473-74 is not taken without some hazard. As it has been of late ascertained that when Columbus left Portugal it was not for good, as was supposed, so it may yet be discovered that it was from some earlier adventure that the buoyancy of an oar took him to the land.

Italians as maritime discoverers.

This coming of an Italian to Portugal to throw in his lot with a foreign people leads the considerate observer to reflect on the strange vicissitudes which caused Italy to furnish to the western nations so many conspicuous leaders in the great explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, without profiting in the slightest degree through territorial return. Cadamosto and Cabot, the Venetians, Columbus, the Genoese, Vespucius and Verrazano, the Florentines, are, on the whole, the most important of the great captains of discovery in this virgin age of maritime exploration through the dark waters of the Atlantic; and yet Spain and Portugal, France and England, were those who profited by their genius and labors.

It is a singular fact that, during the years which Columbus spent in Portugal, there is not a single act of his life that can be credited with an exact date, and few can be placed beyond cavil by undisputed documentary evidence.

Occupation in Portugal.

It is the usual story, given by his earliest Italian biographers, Gallo and his copiers, that Columbus had found his brother Bartholomew already domiciled in Portugal, and earning a living by making charts and selling books, and that Christopher naturally fell, for a while, into similar occupations. He was not, we are also told, unmindful of his father's distresses in Italy, when he disposed of his small earnings. We likewise know the names of a few of his fellow Genoese settled in Lisbon in traffic, because he speaks of their kindnesses to him, and the help which they had given him (1482) in what would appear to have been commercial ventures.

It seems not unlikely that he had not been long in the country when the incident occurred at Lisbon which led to his marriage, which is thus recorded in the Historie.

His marriage.

During his customary attendance upon divine worship in the Convent of All Saints, his devotion was observed by one of the pensioners of the monastery, who sought him with such expressions of affection that he easily yielded to her charms. This woman, Felipa Mo?iz by name, is said to have been a daughter, by his wife Caterina Visconti, of Bartolomeo Perestrello, a gentleman of Italian origin, who is associated with the colonization of Madeira and Porto Santo. From anything which Columbus himself says and is preserved to us, we know nothing more than that he desired in his will that masses should be said for the repose of her soul; for she was then long dead, and, as Diego tells us, was buried in Lisbon. We learn her name for the first time from Diego's will, in 1509, and this is absolutely all the documentary evidence which we have concerning her. Oviedo and the writers who wrote before the publication of the Historie had only said that Columbus had married in Portugal, without further particulars.

The Perestrellos.

But the Historie, with Las Casas following it, does not wholly satisfy our curiosity, neither does Oviedo, later, nor Gomara and Benzoni, who copy from Oviedo. There arises a question of the identity of this Bartolomeo Perestrello, among three of the name of three succeeding generations. Somewhere about 1420, or later, the eldest of this line was made the first governor of Porto Santo, after the island had been discovered by one of the expeditions which had been down the African coast. It is of him the story goes that, taking some rabbits thither, their progeny so quickly possessed the island that its settlers deserted it! Such genealogical information as can be acquired of this earliest Perestrello is against the supposition of his being the father of Felipa Mo?iz, but rather indicates that by a second wife, Isabel Mo?iz by name, he had the second Bartolomeo, who in turn became the father of our Felipa Mo?iz. The testimony of Las Casas seems to favor this view. If this is the Bartolomeo who, having attained his majority, was assigned to the captaincy of Porto Santo in 1473, it could hardly be that a daughter would have been old enough to marry in 1474-75.

The first Bartolomeo, if he was the father-in-law of Columbus, seems to have died in 1457, and was succeeded in 1458, in command of the island of Porto Santo, by another son-in-law, Pedro Correa da Cunha, who married a daughter of his first marriage,-or at least that is one version of this genealogical complication,-and who was later succeeded in 1473 by the second Bartolomeo.

The Count Bernardo Pallastrelli, a modern member of the family, has of late years, in his Il Suocero e la Moglie di Cristoforo Colombo (2d ed., Piacenza, 1876), attempted to identify the kindred of the wife of Columbus. He has examined the views of Harrisse, who is on the whole inclined to believe that the wife of Columbus was a daughter of one Vasco Gill Mo?iz, whose sister had married the Perestrello of the Historie story. The successive wills of Diego Columbus, it may be observed, call her in one (1509) Philippa Mo?iz, and in the other (1523) Philippa Mu?iz, without the addition of Perestrello. The genealogical table of the count's monograph, on the other hand, makes Felipa to be the child of Isabella Mo?iz, who was the second wife of Bartolomeo Pallastrelli, the son of Felipo, who came to Portugal some time after 1371, from Plaisance, in Italy. Bartolomeo had been one of the household of Prince Henry, and had been charged by him with founding a colony at Porto Santo, in 1425, over which island he was long afterward (1446) made governor. We must leave it as a question involved in much doubt.

Columbus's son Diego born.

The issue of this marriage was one son, Diego, but there is no distinct evidence as to the date of his birth. Sundry incidents go to show that it was somewhere between 1475 and 1479. Columbus's marriage to Do?a Felipa had probably taken place at Lisbon, and not before 1474 at the earliest, a date not difficult to reconcile with the year (1473-74) now held to be that of his arrival in Portugal. It is supposed that it was while Columbus was living at Porto Santo, where his wife had some property, that Diego was born, though Harrisse doubts if any evidence can be adduced to support such a statement beyond a sort of conjecture on Las Casas's part, derived from something he thought he remembered Diego to have told him.

Perestrello's MSS.

The story of Columbus's marriage, as given in the Historie and followed by Oviedo, couples with it the belief that it was among the papers of his dead father-in-law, Perestrello, that Columbus found documents and maps which prompted him to the conception of a western passage to Asia. In that case, this may perhaps have been the motive which induced him to draw from Paolo Toscanelli that famous letter, which is usually held to have had an important influence on the mind of Columbus.

Story of a sailor dying in Columbus's house.

The fact of such relationship of Columbus with Perestrello is called in question, and so is another incident often related by the biographers of Columbus. This is that an old seaman who had returned from an adventurous voyage westward had found shelter in the house of Columbus, and had died there, but not before he had disclosed to him a discovery he had made of land to the west. This story is not told in any writer that is now known before Gomara (1552), and we are warned by Benzoni that in Gomara's hands this pilot story was simply an invention "to diminish the immortal fame of Christopher Columbus, as there were many who could not endure that a foreigner and Italian should have acquired so much honor and so much glory, not only for the Spanish kingdom, but also for the other nations of the world."

Pomponius Mela, Strabo, etc.

Manilius, Solinus, Ptolemy.

It is certain, however, that under the impulse of the young art of printing men's minds had at this time become more alive than they had been for centuries to the search for cosmographical views. The old geographers, just at this time, were one by one finding their way into print, mainly in Italy, while the intercourse of that country with Portugal was quickened by the attractions of the Portuguese discoveries. While Columbus was still in Italy, the great popularity of Pomponius Mela began with the first edition in Latin, which was printed at Milan in 1471, followed soon by other editions in Venice. The De Situ Orbis of Strabo had already been given to the world in Latin as early as 1469, and during the next few years this text was several times reprinted at Rome and Venice. The teaching of the sphericity of the earth in the astronomical poem of Manilius, long a favorite with the monks of the Middle Ages, who repeated it in their labored script, appeared in type at Nuremberg at the same time. The Polyhistor of Solinus did not long delay to follow. A Latin version of Ptolemy had existed since 1409, but it was later than the rest in appearing in print, and bears the date of 1475. These were the newer issues of the Italian and German presses, which were attracting the notice of the learned in this country of the new activities when Columbus came among them, and they were having their palpable effect.

Toscanelli's theory.

His letter to Columbus.

Just when we know not, but some time earlier than this, Alfonso V. of Portugal had sought, through the medium of the monk Fernando Martinez (Fernam Martins), to know precisely what was meant by the bruit of Toscanelli's theory of a westward way to India. To an inquiry thus vouched Toscanelli had replied to Fernando Martinez (June 25, 1474), some days before a similar inquiry addressed to Toscanelli reached Florence, from Columbus himself, and through the agency of an aged Florentine merchant settled in Lisbon. It seems probable that no knowledge of Martinez's correspondence with Toscanelli had come to the notice of Columbus; and that the message which the Genoese sent to the Florentine was due simply to the same current rumors of Toscanelli's views which had attracted the attention of the king. So in replying to Columbus Toscanelli simply shortened his task by inclosing, with a brief introduction, a copy of the letter, which he says he had sent "some days before" to Martinez. This letter outlined a plan of western discovery; but it is difficult to establish beyond doubt the exact position which the letter of Toscanelli should hold in the growth of Columbus's views. If Columbus reached Portugal as late as 1473-74, as seems likely, it is rendered less certain that Columbus had grasped his idea anterior to the spread of Toscanelli's theory. In any event, the letter of the Florentine physician would strengthen the growing notions of the Genoese.

As Toscanelli was at this time a man of seventy-seven, and as a belief in the sphericity of the earth was then not unprevalent, and as the theory of a westward way to the East was a necessary concomitant of such views in the minds of thinking men, it can hardly be denied that the latent faith in a westward passage only needed a vigilant mind to develop the theory, and an adventurous spirit to prove its correctness. The development had been found in Toscanelli and the proof was waiting for Columbus,-both Italians; but Humboldt points out how the Florentine very likely thought he was communicating with a Portuguese, when he wrote to Columbus.

This letter has been known since 1571 in the Italian text as given in the Historie, which, as it turns out, was inexact and overladen with additions. At least such is the inference when we compare this Italian text with a Latin text, supposed to be the original tongue of the letter, which has been discovered of late years in the handwriting of Columbus himself, on the flyleaf of an ?neas Sylvius (1477), once belonging to Columbus, and still preserved in the Biblioteca Colombina at Seville. The letter which is given in the Historie is accompanied by an antescript, which says that the copy had been sent to Columbus at his request, and that it had been originally addressed to Martinez, some time "before the wars of Castile." How much later than the date June 25, 1474, this copy was sent to Columbus, and when it was received by him, there is no sure means of determining, and it may yet be in itself one of the factors for limiting the range of months during which Columbus must have arrived in Portugal.

Toscanelli's visions of the East.

The extravagances of the letter of Toscanelli, in his opulent descriptions of a marvelous Asiatic region, were safely made in that age without incurring the charge of credulity. Travelers could tell tales then that were as secure from detection as the revealed arcana of the Zu?i have been in our own days. Two hundred towns, whose marble bridges spanned a single river, and whose commerce could incite the cupidity of the world, was a tale easily to stir numerous circles of listeners in the maritime towns of the Mediterranean, wherever wandering mongers of marvels came and went. There were such travelers whose recitals Toscanelli had read, and others whose tales he had heard from their own lips, and these last were pretty sure to augment the wonders of the elder talebearers.

Columbus had felt this influence with the rest, and the tales lost nothing of their vividness in coming to him freshened, as it were, by the curious mind of the Florentine physician. The map which accompanied Toscanelli's letter, and which depicted his notions of the Asiatic coast lying over against that of Spain, is lost to us, but various attempts have been made to restore it, as is done in the sketch annexed. It will be a precious memorial, if ever recovered, worthy of study as a reflex, in more concise representation than is found in the text of the letter, of the ideas which one of the most learned cosmographers of his day had imbibed from mingled demonstrations of science and imagination.


The passage westward.

It is said that in our own day, in the first stages of a belief in the practicability of an Atlantic telegraphic cable, it was seriously claimed that the vast stretch of its extension could be broken by a halfway station on Jacquet Island, one of those relics of the Middle Ages, which has disappeared from our ocean charts only in recent years.


Just in the same way all the beliefs which men had had in the island of Antillia, and in the existence of many another visionary bit of land, came to the assistance of these theoretical discoverers in planning the chances of a desperate voyage far out into a sea of gorgons and chimeras dire. Toscanelli's map sought to direct the course of any one who dared to make the passage, in a way that, in case of disaster to his ships, a secure harbor could be found in Antillia, and in such other havens as no lack of islands would supply.

Ferdinand claimed to have found in his father's papers some statements which he had drawn from Aristotle of Carthaginian voyages to Antillia, on the strength of which the Portuguese had laid that island down in their charts in the latitude of Lisbon, as one occupied by their people in 714, when Spain was conquered by the Moors. Even so recently as the time of Prince Henry it had been visited by Portuguese ships, if records were to be believed. It also stands in the Bianco map of 1436.

Fabulous islands of the Atlantic.

There are few more curious investigations than those which concern these fantastic and fabulous islands of the Sea of Darkness. They are connected with views which were an inheritance in part from the classic times, with involved notions of the abodes of the blessed and of demoniacal spirits. In part they were the a?rial creation of popular mythologies, going back to a remoteness of which it is impossible to trace the beginning, and which got a variable color from the popular fancies of succeeding generations. The whole subject is curiously without the field of geography, though entering into all surveys of medi?val knowledge of the earth, and depending very largely for its elucidation on the maps of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whose mythical traces are not beyond recognition in some of the best maps which have instructed a generation still living.

St. Brandan.

To place the island of the Irish St. Brandan-whose coming there with his monks is spoken of as taking place in the sixth century-in the catalogue of insular entities is to place geography in such a marvelous guise as would have satisfied the monk Philoponus and the rest of the credulous fictionmongers who hang about the skirts of the historic field. But the belief in it long prevailed, and the apparition sometimes came to sailors' eyes as late as the last century.

Antillia, or the Seven Cities.

The great island of Antillia, or the Seven Cities, already referred to, was recognized, so far as we know, for the first time in the Weimar map of 1424, and is known in legends as the resort of some Spanish bishops, flying from the victorious Moors, in the eighth century. It never quite died out from the recognition of curious minds, and was even thought to have been seen by the Portuguese, not far from the time when Columbus was born. Peter Martyr also, after Columbus had returned from his first voyage, had a fancy that what the Admiral had discovered was really the great island of Antillia, and its attendant groups of smaller isles, and the fancy was perpetuated when Wytfliet and Ortelius popularized the name of Antilles for the West Indian Archipelago.

Brazil Island.

Another fleeting insular vision of this pseudo-geographical realm was a smaller body of floating land, very inconstant in position, which is always given some form of the name that, in later times, got a constant shape in the word Brazil. We can trace it back into the portolanos of the middle of the fourteenth century; and it had not disappeared as a survival twenty or thirty years ago in the admiralty charts of Great Britain. The English were sending out expeditions from Bristol in search of it even while Columbus was seeking countenance for his western schemes; and Cabot, at a little later day, was instrumental in other searches.

Travelers in the Orient.

Foremost among the travelers who had excited the interest of Toscanelli, and whose names he possibly brought for the first time to the attention of Columbus, were Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, and Nicolas de Conti.


[From Yule's Cathay.

Marco Polo,

It is a question to be resolved only by critical study as to what was the language in which Marco Polo first dictated, in a Genoese prison in 1298, the original narrative of his experiences in Cathay. The inquiry has engaged the attention of all his editors, and has invited the critical sagacity of D'Avezac. There seems little doubt that it was written down in French.


[From Yule's Cathay, vol. i.]


[From an original at Rome.]

There are no references by Columbus himself to the Asiatic travels of Marco Polo, but his acquaintance with the marvelous book of the Venetian observer may safely be assumed. The multiplication of texts of the Milione following upon his first dictation, and upon the subsequent revision in 1307, may not, indeed, have caused it to be widely known in various manuscript forms, be it in Latin or Italian. Nor is it likely that Columbus could have read the earliest edition which was put in type, for it was in German in 1477; but there is the interesting possibility that this work of the Nuremberg press may have been known to Martin Behaim, a Nuremberger then in Lisbon, and likely enough to have been a familiar of Columbus. The fact that there is in the Biblioteca Colombina at Seville a copy of the first Latin printed edition (1485) with notes, which seem to be in Columbus's handwriting, may be taken as evidence, that at least in the later years of his study the inspiration which Marco Polo could well have been to him was not wanting; and the story may even be true as told in Navarrete, that Columbus had a copy of this famous book at his side during his first voyage, in 1492.

At the time when Humboldt doubted the knowledge of Columbus in respect to Marco Polo, this treasure of the Colombina was not known, and these later developments have shown how such a question was not to be settled as Humboldt supposed, by the fact that Columbus quoted ?neas Sylvius upon Cipango, and did not quote Marco Polo.

Sir John Mandeville.

Neither does Columbus refer to the journey and strange stories of Sir John Mandeville, whose recitals came to a generation which was beginning to forget the stories of Marco Polo, and which, by fostering a passion for the marvelous, had readily become open to the English knight's bewildering fancies. The same negation of evidence, however, that satisfied Humboldt as respects Marco Polo will hardly suffice to establish Columbus's ignorance of the marvels which did more, perhaps, than the narratives of any other traveler to awaken Europe to the wonders of the Orient. Bernaldez, in fact, tells us that Columbus was a reader of Mandeville, whose recital was first printed in French at Lyons in 1480, within a few years after Columbus's arrival in Portugal.

Nicolo di Conti.

It was to Florence, in Toscanelli's time, not far from 1420, that Nicolo di Conti, a Venetian, came, after his long sojourn of a quarter of a century in the far East. In Conti's new marvels, the Florentine scholar saw a rejuvenation of the wonders of Marco Polo. It was from Conti, doubtless, that Toscanelli got some of that confidence in a western voyage which, in his epistle to Columbus, he speaks of as derived from a returned traveler.

Pope Eugene IV., not far from the time of the birth of Columbus, compelled Conti to relate his experiences to Poggio Bracciolini. This scribe made what he could out of the monstrous tales, and translated the stories into Latin. In this condition Columbus may have known the narrative at a later day. The information which Conti gave was eagerly availed of by the cosmographers of the time, and Colonel Yule, the modern English writer on ancient Cathay, thinks that Fra Mauro got for his map more from Conti than that traveler ventured to disclose to Poggio.

Toscanelli's death, 1482.

Toscanelli, at the time of writing this letter to Columbus, had long enjoyed a reputation as a student of terrestrial and celestial phenomena. He had received, in 1463, the dedication by Regiomontanus of his treatise on the quadrature of the circle. He was, as has been said, an old man of seventy-seven when Columbus opened his correspondence with him. It was not his fate to live long enough to see his physical views substantiated by Diaz and Columbus, for he died in 1482.

Columbus confers with others.

In two of the contemporary writers, Bartholomew Columbus is credited with having incited his brother Christopher to the views which he developed regarding a western passage, and these two were Antonio Gallo and Giustiniani, the commentator of the Psalms. It has been of late contended by H. Grothe, in his Leonardo da Vinci (Berlin, 1874), that it was at this time, too, when that eminent artist conducted a correspondence with Columbus about a western way to Asia. But there is little need of particularizing other advocates of a belief which had within the range of credible history never ceased to have exponents. The conception was in no respect the merit of Columbus, except as he grasped a tradition, which others did not, and it is strange, that Navarrete in quoting the testimony of Ferdinand and Isabella, of August 8, 1497, to the credit of the discovery of Columbus, as his own proper work, does not see that it was the venturesome, and as was then thought foolhardy, deed to prove the conception which those monarchs commended, and not the conception itself.

Columbus writes out reasons for his belief.

We learn from the Historie that its writer had found among the papers of Columbus the evidence of the grounds of his belief in the western passage, as under varying impressions it had been formulated in his mind. These reasons divide easily into three groups: First, those based on deductions drawn from scientific research, and as expressed in the beliefs of Ptolemy, Marinus, Strabo, and Pliny; second, views which the authority of eminent writers had rendered weightier, quoting as such the works of Aristotle, Seneca, Strabo, Pliny, Solinus, Marco Polo, Mandeville, Pierre d'Ailly, and Toscanelli; and third, the stories of sailors as to lands and indications of lands westerly.

From these views, instigated or confirmed by such opinions, Columbus gradually arranged his opinions, in not one of which did he prove to be right, except as regards the sphericity of the earth; and the last was a belief which had been the common property of learned men, and at intervals occupying even the popular mind, from a very early date.

Sphericity of the earth.

Transmission of the belief in it.

The conception among the Greeks of a plane earth, which was taught in the Homeric and Hesiodic poems, began to give place to a crude notion of a spherical form at a period that no one can definitely determine, though we find it taught by the Pythagoreans in Italy in the sixth century before Christ. The spherical view and its demonstration passed down through long generations of Greeks, under the sanction of Plato and their other highest thinkers. In the fourth century before Christ, Aristotle and others, by watching the moon's shadow in an eclipse, and by observing the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies in different latitudes, had proved the roundness of the earth to their satisfaction; Eratosthenes first measured a degree of latitude in the third century; Hipparchus, in the second century, was the earliest to establish geographical positions; and in the second century of the Christian era Ptolemy had formulated for succeeding times the general scope of the transmitted belief. During all these centuries it was perhaps rather a possession of the learned. We infer from Aristotle that the view was a novelty in his time; but in the third century before Christ it began to engage popular attention in the poem of Aratus, and at about 200 B. C. Crates is said to have given palpable manifestation of the theory in a globe, ten feet in diameter, which

he constructed.

The belief passed to Italy and the Latins, and was sung by Hyginus and Manilius in the time of Augustus. We find it also in the minds of Pliny, Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid. So the belief became the heirloom of the learned throughout the classic times, and it was directly coupled in the minds of Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Strabo, Seneca, and others with a conviction, more or less pronounced, of an easy western voyage from Spain to India.

Seneca's Medea.


Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Pierre d'Ailly.

No one of the ancient expressions of this belief seems to have clung more in the memory of Columbus than that in the Medea of Seneca; and it is an interesting confirmation that in a copy of the book which belonged to his son Ferdinand, and which is now preserved in Seville, the passage is scored by the son's hand, while in a marginal note he has attested the fact that its prophecy of a western passage had been made good by his father in 1492. Though the opinion was opposed by St. Chrysostom in the fourth century, it was taught by St. Augustine and Isidore in the fifth. Cosmas in the sixth century was unable to understand how, if the earth was a sphere, those at the antipodes could see Christ at his coming. That settled the question in his mind. The Venerable Bede, however, in the eighth century, was not constrained by any such arguments, and taught the spherical theory. Jourdain, a modern French authority, has found distinct evidence that all through the Middle Ages the belief in the western way was kept alive by the study of Aristotle; and we know how the Arabs perpetuated the teachings of that philosopher, which in turn were percolated through the Levant to Mediterranean peoples. It is a striking fact that at a time when Spain was bending all her energies to drive the Moor from the Iberian peninsula, that country was also engaged in pursuing those discoveries along the western way to India which were almost a direct result of the Arab preservation of the cosmographical learning of Aristotle and Ptolemy. A belief in an earth-ball had the testimony of Dante in the twelfth century, and it was the well-known faith of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and the schoolmen, in the thirteenth. It continued to be held by the philosophers, who kept alive these more recent names, and came to Columbus because of the use of Bacon which Pierre d'Ailly had made.

The belief in the sphericity of the earth carried with it of necessity another,-that the east was to be found in the west. Superstition, ignorance, and fear might magnify the obstacles to a passage through that drear Sea of Darkness, but in Columbus's time, in some learned minds at least, there was no distrust as to the accomplishment of such a voyage beyond the chance of obstacles in the way.


[From Reusner's Icones.]

The belief opposed by the Church.

It is true that in this interval of very many centuries there had been lapses into unbelief. There were long periods, indeed, when no one dared to teach the doctrine. Whenever and wherever the Epicureans supplanted the Pythagoreans, the belief fell with the disciples of Pythagoras. There had been, during the days of St. Chrysostom and other of the fathers, a decision of the Church against it. There were doubtless, as Humboldt says, conservers, during all this time, of the traditions of antiquity, since the monasteries and colleges-even in an age when to be unlearned was more pardonable than to be pagan-were of themselves quite a world apart from the dullness of the masses of the people.

Pierre D'Ailly's Imago Mundi.

Roger Bacon's Opus Majus.

A hundred years before Columbus, the inheritor of much of this conservation was the Bishop of Cambray, that Pierre d'Ailly whose Imago Mundi (1410) was so often on the lips of Columbus, and out of which it is more than likely that Columbus drank of the knowledge of Aristotle, Strabo, and Seneca, and to a degree greater perhaps than he was aware of he took thence the wisdom of Roger Bacon. It was through the Opus Majus (1267) of this English philosopher that western Europe found accessible the stories of the "silver walls and golden towers" of Quinsay as described by Rubruquis, the wandering missionary, who in the thirteenth century excited the cupidity of the Mediterranean merchants by his accounts of the inexhaustible treasures of eastern Asia, and which the reader of to-day may find in the collections of Samuel Purchas.

Pierre d'Ailly's position in regard to cosmographical knowledge was hardly a dominant one. He seems to know nothing of Marco Polo, Bacon's contemporary, and he never speaks of Cathay, even when he urges the views which he has borrowed from Roger Bacon, of the extension of Asia towards Western Europe.

Any acquaintance with the Imago Mundi during these days of Columbus in Portugal came probably through report, though possibly he may have met with manuscripts of the work; for it was not till after he had gone to Spain that D'Ailly could have been read in any printed edition, the first being issued in 1490.

Rotundity and gravitation.

The theory of the rotundity of the earth carried with it one objection, which in the time of Columbus was sure sooner or later to be seized upon. If, going west, the ship sank with the declivity of the earth's contour, how was she going to mount such an elevation on her return voyage?-a doubt not so unreasonable in an age which had hardly more than the vaguest notion of the laws of gravitation, though some, like Vespucius, were not without a certain prescience of the fact.

Size of the earth.

By the middle of the third century before Christ, Eratosthenes, accepting sphericity, had by astronomical methods studied the extent of the earth's circumference, and, according to the interpretation of his results by modern scholars, he came surprisingly near to the actual size, when he exceeded the truth by perhaps a twelfth part. The calculations of Eratosthenes commended themselves to Hipparchus, Strabo, and Pliny. A century later than Eratosthenes, a new calculation, made by Posidonius of Rhodes, reduced the magnitude to a globe of about four fifths its proper size. It was palpably certain to the observant philosophers, from the beginning of their observations on the size of the earth, that the portion known to commerce and curiosity was but a small part of what might yet be known. The unknown, however, is always a terror. Going north from temperate Europe increased the cold, going south augmented the heat; and it was no bold thought for the naturalist to conclude that a north existed in which the cold was unbearable, and a south in which the heat was too great for life. Views like these stayed the impulse for exploration even down to the century of Columbus, and magnified the horrors which so long balked the exploration of the Portuguese on the African coast. There had been intervals, however, when men in the Indian Ocean had dared to pass the equator.

Unknown regions.

Strabo and Marinus on the size of the earth.

Therefore it was before the age of Columbus that, east and west along the temperate belt, men's minds groped to find new conditions beyond the range of known habitable regions. Strabo, in the first century before Christ, made this habitable zone stretch over 120 degrees, or a third of the circumference of the earth. The corresponding extension of Marinus of Tyre in the second century after Christ stretched over 225 degrees. This geographer did not define the land's border on the ocean at the east, but it was not unusual with the cosmographers who followed him to carry the farthest limits of Asia to what is actually the meridian of the Sandwich Islands. On the west Marinus pushed the Fortunate Islands (Canaries) two degrees and a half beyond Cape Finisterre, failing to comprehend their real position, which for the westernmost, Ferro, is something like nine degrees beyond the farther limits of the main land.

Ptolemy's view.

The belt of the known world running in the direction of the equator was, in the conception of Ptolemy, the contemporary of Marinus, about seventy-nine degrees wide, sixteen of these being south of the equatorial line. This was a contraction from the previous estimate of Marinus, who had made it over eighty-seven degrees.

Toscanelli's view.

Toscanelli reduced the globe to a circumference of about 18,000 miles, losing about 6,000 miles; and the untracked ocean, lying west of Lisbon, was about one third of this distance. In other words, the known world occupied about 240 of the 360 degrees constituting the equatorial length. Few of the various computations of this time gave such scant dimensions to the unknown proportion of the line. The Laon globe, which was made ten or twelve years later than Toscanelli's time, was equally scant. Behaim, who figured out the relations of the known to the unknown circuit, during the summer before Columbus sailed on his first voyage, reduced what was known to not much more than a third of the whole. It was the fashion, too, with an easy reliance on their genuineness, to refer to the visions of Esdras in support of a belief in the small part-a sixth-of the surface of the globe covered by the ocean.


[After D'Avezac.]

Views of Columbus.

The problem lay in Columbus's mind thus: he accepted the theory of the division of the circumference of the earth into twenty-four hours, as it had come down from Marinus of Tyre, when this ancient astronomer supposed that from the eastern verge of Asia to the western extremity of Europe there was a space of fifteen hours. The discovery of the Azores had pushed the known limit a single hour farther towards the setting sun, making sixteen hours, or two thirds of the circumference of 360 degrees. There were left eight hours, or one hundred and twenty degrees, to represent the space between the Azores and Asia. This calculation in reality brought the Asiatic coast forward to the meridian of California, obliterating the width of the Pacific at that latitude, and reducing by so much the size of the globe as Columbus measured it, on the assumption that Marinus was correct. This, however, he denied. If the Historie reports Columbus exactly, he contended that the testimony of Marco Polo and Mandeville carried the verge of Asia so far east that the land distance was more than fifteen hours across; and by as much as this increased the distance, by so much more was the Asiatic shore pushed nearer the coasts of Europe. "We can thus determine," he says, "that India is even neighboring to Spain and Africa."

Length of a degree.

The calculation of course depended on what was the length of a degree, and on this point there was some difference of opinion. Toscanelli had so reduced a degree's length that China was brought forward on his planisphere till its coast line cut the meridian of the present Newfoundland.


We can well imagine how this undue contraction of the size of the globe, as the belief lay in the mind of Columbus, and as he expressed it later (July 7, 1503), did much to push him forward, and was a helpful illusion in inducing others to venture upon the voyage with him. The courage required to sail out of some Iberian port due west a hundred and twenty degrees in order to strike the regions about the great Chinese city of Quinsay, or Kanfu, Hangtscheufu, and Kingszu, as it has been later called, was more easily summoned than if the actual distance of two hundred and thirty-one degrees had been recognized, or even the two hundred and four degrees necessary in reality to reach Cipango, or Japan. The views of Toscanelli, as we have seen, reduced the duration of risk westward to so small a figure as fifty-two degrees. So it had not been an unusual belief, more or less prominent for many generations, that with a fair wind it required no great run westward to reach Cathay, if one dared to undertake it. If there were no insurmountable obstacles in the Sea of Darkness, it would not be difficult to reach earlier that multitude of islands which was supposed to fringe the coast of China.

Asiatic islands.


Spanish and Portuguese explorations.

It was a common belief, moreover, that somewhere in this void lay the great island of Cipango,-the goal of Columbus's voyage. Sometimes nearer and sometimes farther it lay from the Asiatic coast. Pinzon saw in Rome in 1491 a map which carried it well away from that coast; and if one could find somewhere in the English archives the sea-chart with which Bartholomew Columbus enforced the views of his brother, to gain the support of the English king, it is supposed that it would reveal a somewhat similar location of the coveted island. Here, then, was a space, larger or smaller, as men differently believed, interjacent along this known zone between the ascertained extreme east in Asia and the accepted most distant west at Cape St. Vincent in Spain, as was thought in Strabo's time, or at the Canaries, as was comprehended in the days of Ptolemy. What there was in this unknown space between Spain and Cathay was the problem which balked the philosophers quite as much as that other uncertainty, which concerned what might possibly be found in the southern hemisphere, could one dare to enter the torrid heats of the supposed equatorial ocean, or in the northern wastes, could one venture to sail beyond the Arctic Circle. These curious quests of the inquisitive and learned minds of the early centuries of the Christian era were the prototypes of the actual explorations which it was given in the fifteenth century to the Spaniards and Portuguese respectively to undertake. The commercial rivalry which had in the past kept Genoa and Venice watchful of each other's advantage had by their maritime ventures in the Atlantic passed to these two peninsular nations, and England was not long behind them in starting in her race for maritime supremacy.

Sea of Darkness.

It was in human nature that these unknown regions should become those either of enchantment or dismay, according to personal proclivities. It is not necessary to seek far for any reason for this. An unknown stretch of waters was just the place for the resorts of the Gorgons and to find the Islands of the Blest, and to nurture other creations of the literary and spiritual instincts, seeking to give a habitation to fancies. It is equally in human nature that what the intellect has habilitated in this way the fears, desires, and superstitions of men in due time turn to their own use. It was easy, under the stress of all this complexity of belief and anticipation, for this supposable interjacent oceanic void to teem in men's imaginations with regions of almost every imaginable character; and when, in the days of the Roman republic, the Canaries were reached, there was no doubt but the ancient Islands of the Blest had been found, only in turn to pass out of cognizance, and once more to fall into the abyss of the Unknown.

Story of Atlantis.

Land of the Meropes.

Saturnian continent.

There are, however, three legends which have come down to us from the classic times, which the discovery of America revived with new interest in the speculative excursions of the curiously learned, and it is one of the proofs of the narrow range of Columbus's acquaintance with original classic writers that these legends were not pressed by him in support of his views. The most persistent of these in presenting a question for the physical geographer is the story of Atlantis, traced to a tale told by Plato of a tradition of an island in the Atlantic which eight thousand years ago had existed in the west, opposite the Pillars of Hercules; and which, in a great inundation, had sunken beneath the sea, leaving in mid ocean large mud shoals to impede navigation and add to the terrors of a vast unknown deep. There have been those since the time of Gomara who have believed that the land which Columbus found dry and inhabited was a resurrected Atlantis, and geographers even of the seventeenth century have mapped out its provinces within the usual outline of the American continents. Others have held, and some still hold, that the Atlantic islands are but peaks of this submerged continent. There is no evidence to show that these fancies of the philosopher ever disturbed even the most erratic moments of Columbus, nor could he have pored over the printed Latin of Plato, if it came in his way, till its first edition appeared in 1483, during his stay in Portugal. Neither do we find that he makes any references to that other creation, the land of the Meropes, as figured in the passages cited by ?lian some seven hundred years after Theopompus had conjured up the vision in the fourth century before Christ. Equally ignorant was Columbus, it would appear, of the great Saturnian continent, lying five days west from Britain, which makes a story in Plutarch's Morals.

Earlier voyages on the Atlantic.




We deal with a different problem when we pass from these theories and imaginings of western lands to such records as exist of what seem like attempts in the earliest days to attain by actual exploration the secret of this interjacent void. The Ph?nicians had passed the Straits of Gibraltar and found Gades (Cadiz), and very likely attempted to course the Atlantic, about 1100 years before the birth of Christ. Perhaps they went to Cornwall for tin. It may have been by no means impossible for them to have passed among the Azores and even to have reached the American islands and main, as a statement in Diodorus Siculus has been interpreted to signify. Then five hundred years later or more we observe the Carthaginians pursuing their adventurous way outside the Pillars of Hercules, going down the African coast under Hanno to try the equatorial horrors, or running westerly under Hamilko to wonder at the Sargasso sea. Later, the Ph?nicians seem to have made some lodgment in the islands off the coasts of northwestern Africa. The Romans in the fourth century before Christ pushed their way out into the Atlantic under Pytheas and Euthymenes, the one daring to go as far as Thule-whatever that was-in the north, and the other to Senegal in the south. It was in the same century that Rome had the strange sight of some unknown barbarians, of a race not recognizable, who were taken upon the shores of the German Ocean, where they had been cast away. Later writers have imagined-for no stronger word can be used-that these weird beings were North American Indians, or rather more probably Eskimos. About the same time, Sertorius, a Roman commander in Spain, learned, as already mentioned, of some salubrious islands lying westward from Africa, and gave Horace an opportunity, in the evil days of the civil war, to picture them as a refuge.

When the Romans ruled the world, commerce lost much of the hazard and enterprise which had earlier instigated international rivalry. The interest in the western ocean subsided into merely speculative concern; and wild fancy was brought into play in depicting its horrors, its demons and shoals, with the intermingling of sky and water.

Knowledge of such early attempts.

Maps XVth cent.

Genoese voyages, 1291.

It is by no means certain that Columbus knew anything of this ancient lore of the early Mediterranean people. There is little or nothing in the early maps of the fifteenth century to indicate that such knowledge was current among those who made or contributed to the making of such of these maps as have come down to us. The work of some of the more famous chart makers Columbus could hardly have failed to see, or heard discussed in the maritime circles of Portugal; and indeed it was to his own countrymen, Marino Sanuto, Pizignani, Bianco, and Fra Mauro, that Portuguese navigators were most indebted for the broad cartographical treatment of their own discoveries. At the same time there was no dearth of legends of the venturesome Genoese, with fortunes not always reassuring. There was a story, for instance, of some of these latter people, who in 1291 had sailed west from the Pillars of Hercules and had never returned. Such was a legend that might not have escaped Columbus's attention even in his own country, associating with it the names of the luckless Tedisio Doria and Ugolino Vivaldi in their efforts to find a western way to India. Harrisse, however, who has gone over all the evidence of such a purpose, fails to be satisfied.

These stories of ocean hazards hung naturally about the seaports of Portugal.


Galvano tells us of such a tale concerning a Portuguese ship, driven west, in 1447, to an island with seven cities, where its sailors found the people speaking Portuguese, who said they had deserted their country on the death of King Roderigo. This is the legend of Antillia, already referred to.

Islands seen.

Columbus recalled, when afterwards at the Canaries on his first voyage, how it was during his sojourn in Portugal that some one from Madeira presented to the Portuguese king a petition for a vessel to go in quest of land, occasionally seen to the westward from that island. Similar stories were not unknown to him of like apparitions being familiar in the Azores. A story which he had also heard of one Antonio Leme having seen three islands one hundred leagues west of the Azores had been set down to a credulous eye, which had been deceived by floating fields of vegetation.

The Basques.

There was no obstacle in the passing of similar reports around the Bay of Biscay from the coasts of the Basques, and the story might be heard of Jean de Echaide, who had found stores of stockfish off a land far oceanward,-an exploit supposed to be commemorated in the island of Stokafixia, which stands far away to the westward in the Bianco map of 1436. All these tales of the early visits of the Basques to what imaginative minds have supposed parts of the American coasts derive much of their perennial charm from associations with a remarkable people. There is indeed nothing improbable in a hardy daring which could have borne the Basques to the Newfoundland shores at almost any date earlier than the time of Columbus.

Newfoundland banks possibly visited.

Fructuoso, writing as late as 1590, claimed that a Portuguese navigator, Jo?o Vaz Cortereal, had sailed to the codfish coast of Newfoundland as early as 1464, but Barrow seems to be the only writer of recent times who has believed the tale, and Biddle and Harrisse find no evidence to sustain it.

Tartary supposed to be seen.

There is a statement recorded by Columbus, if we may trust the account of the Historie, that a sailor at Santa Maria had told him how, being driven westerly in a voyage to Ireland, he had seen land, which he then thought to be Tartary. Some similar experiences were also told to Columbus by Pieter de Velasco, of Galicia; and this land, according to the account, would seem to have been the same sought at a later day by the Cortereals (1500).

Dubious pre-Columbian voyages.

It is not easy to deal historically with long-held traditions. The furbishers of transmitted lore easily make it reflect what they bring to it. To find illustrations in any inquiry is not so difficult if you select what you wish, and discard all else, and the result of this discriminating accretion often looks very plausible. Historical truth is reached by balancing everything, and not by assimilating that which easily suits. Almost all these discussions of pre-Columbian voyagings to America afford illustrations of this perverted method. Events in which there is no inherent untruth are not left with the natural defense of probability, but are proved by deductions and inferences which could just as well be applied to prove many things else, and are indeed applied in a new way by every new upstart in such inquiries. The story of each discoverer before Columbus has been upheld by the stock intimation of white-bearded men, whose advent is somehow mysteriously discovered to have left traces among the aborigines of every section of the coast.

* * *


[From Reclus's Amérique Boréale.]

Traces of a western land in drift.

There was another class of evidence which, as the Historie informs us, served some purpose in bringing conviction to the mind of Columbus. Such were the phenomenal washing ashore on European coasts of unknown pines and other trees, sculptured logs, huge bamboos, whose joints could be made into vessels to hold nine bottles of wine, and dead bodies with strange, broad faces. Even canoes, with living men in them of wonderful aspects, had at times been reported as thrown upon the Atlantic islands. Such events had not been unnoticed ever since the Canaries and the Azores had been inhabited by a continental race, and conjectures had been rife long before the time of Columbus that westerly winds had brought these estrays from a distant land,-a belief more comprehensible at that time than any dependence upon the unsuspected fact that it was the oceanic currents, rather, which impelled these migratory objects.

Gulf Stream.

It required the experiences of later Spanish navigators along the Bahama Channel, and those of the French and English farther north upon the Banks of Newfoundland, before it became clear that the currents of the Atlantic, grazing the Cape of Good Hope and whirling in the Gulf of Mexico, sprayed in a curling fringe in the North Atlantic. This in a measure became patent to Sir Humphrey Gilbert sixty or seventy years after the death of Columbus.

If science had then been equal to the microscopic tasks which at this day it imposes on itself, the question of western lands might have been studied with an interest beyond what attached to the trunks of trees, carved timbers, edible nuts, and seeds of alien plants, which the Gulf Stream is still bringing to the shores of Europe. It might have found in the dust settling upon the throngs of men in the Old World, the shells of animalcules, differing from those known to the observing eye in Europe, which, indeed, had been carried in the upper currents of air from the banks of the Orinoco.

* * *

Influence of Portuguese discoveries upon Columbus.

Ephemerides of Regiomontanus.

Once in Portugal, Columbus was brought in close contact with that eager spirit of exploration which had survived the example of Prince Henry and his navigators. If Las Casas was well informed, these Portuguese discoveries were not without great influence upon the Genoese's receptive mind. He was now where he could hear the fresh stories of their extending acquaintance with the African coast. His wife's sister, by the accepted accounts, had married Pedro Correa, a navigator not without fame in those days, and a companion in maritime inquiry upon whom Columbus could naturally depend,-unless, as Harrisse decides, he was no navigator at all. Columbus was also at hand to observe the growing skill in the arts of navigation which gave the Portuguese their pre?minence. He had not been long in Lisbon when Regiomontanus gave a new power in astronomical calculations of positions at sea by publishing his Ephemerides, for the interval from 1475 to 1506, upon which Columbus was yet to depend in his eventful voyage.

Martin Behaim.

The most famous of the pupils of this German mathematician was himself in Lisbon during the years of Columbus's sojourn. We have no distinct evidence that Martin Behaim, a Nuremberger, passed any courtesies with the Genoese adventurer, but it is not improbable that he did. His position was one that would attract Columbus, who might never have been sought by Behaim. The Nuremberger's standing was, indeed, such as to gain the attention of the Court, and he was thought not unworthy to be joined with the two royal physicians, Roderigo and Josef, on a commission to improve the astrolabe. Their perfected results mark an epoch in the art of seamanship in that age.



[From Nordenski?ld's Facsimile Atlas.]

Guinea coast, 1482.

The Congo reached, 1484.

It was a new sensation when news came that at last the Portuguese had crossed the equator, in pushing along the African coast. In January, 1482, they had said their first mass on the Guinea coast, and the castle of San Jorge da Mina was soon built under the new impulse to enterprise which came with the accession of Jo?o II. In 1484 they reached the Congo, under the guidance of Diogo Cam, and Martin Behaim was of his company.


These voyages were not without strong allurements to the Genoese sailor. He is thought to have been a participant in some of the later cruises. The Historie claims that he began to reason, from his new experiences, that if land could be discovered to the south there was much the same chance of like discoveries in the west. But there were experiences of other kinds which, in the interim, if we believe the story, he underwent in the north.

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