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Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 24049

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Columbus supposed to have sailed beyond Iceland, 1477.

There is, in the minds of some inquirers into the early discovery of America, no more pivotal incident attaching to the career of Columbus than an alleged voyage made to the vicinity of what is supposed to have been Iceland, in the assigned year of 1477. The incident is surrounded with the confusion that belongs to everything dependent on Columbus's own statements, or on what is put forth as such.

Our chief knowledge of his voyage is in the doubtful Italian rendering of the Historie of 1571, where, citing a memoir by Columbus himself on the five habitable zones, the translator or adapter of that book makes the Admiral say that "in February, 1477, he sailed a hundred leagues beyond the island Tile, which lies under the seventy-third parallel, and not under the sixty-third, as some say." The only evidence that he saw Tile, in sailing beyond it, is in what he further says, that he was able to ascertain that the tide rose and fell twenty-six fathoms, which observation necessitates the seeing of some land, whether Tile or not.

Inconsistencies in the statement.

There is no land at all in the northern Atlantic under 73°. Iceland stretches from 64° to 67°; Jan Mayen is too small for Columbus's further description of the island, and is at 71°, and Spitzbergen is at 76°. What Columbus says of the English of Bristol trading at this island points to Iceland; and it is easy, if one will, to imagine a misprint of the figures, an error of calculation, a carelessness of statement, or even the disappearance, through some cataclysm, of the island, as has been suggested.


[From Dr. Brenner's Essay.]

Humboldt in his Cosmos quotes Columbus as saying of this voyage near Thule that "the sea was not at that time covered with ice," and he credits that statement to the same Tratado de las Cinco Zonas Habitables of Columbus, and urges in proof that Finn Magnusen had found in ancient historical sources that in February, 1477, ice had not set in on the southern coast of that island.


Speaking of "Tile," the same narrative adds that "it is west of the western verge of Ptolemy [that is, Ptolemy's world map], and larger than England." This expression of its size could point only to Iceland, of all islands in the northern seas.

There are elements in the story, however, not easily reconcilable with what might be expected of an experienced mariner; and if the story is true in its main purpose, there is little more in the details than the careless inexactness, which characterizes a good many of the well-authenticated asseverations of Columbus.

The Zeni's Frisland.

Again the narrative says, "It is true that Ptolemy's Thule is where that geographer placed it, but that it is now called Frislande." Does this mean that the Zeni story had been a matter of common talk forty years after the voyage to their Frisland had been made, and eighty-four years before a later scion of the family published the remarkable narrative in Venice, in 1558? It is possible that the maker of the Historie of 1571, in the way in which it was given to the world, had interpolated this reference to the Frisland of the Zeni to help sustain the credit of his own or the other book.

A voyage undertaken by Columbus to such high latitudes is rendered in all respects doubtful, to say the least, from the fact that in 1492 Columbus detailed for the eyes of his sovereigns the unusual advantages of the harbors of the new islands which he had discovered, and added that he was entitled to express such an opinion, because his exploration had extended from Guinea on the south to England on the north. It was an occasion when he desired to make his acquaintance seem as wide as the facts would warrant, and yet he does not profess to have been farther north than England. A hundred leagues, moreover, beyond Iceland might well have carried him to the upper Greenland coast, but he makes no mention of other land being seen in those high latitudes.

Thyle and Iceland.

Thyle and Iceland are made different islands in the Ptolemy of 1486, which, if it does not prove that Iceland was not then the same as Thyle in the mind of geographers, shows that geographical confusion still prevailed at the north. It may be further remarked that Mu?oz and others have found no time in Columbus's career to which this voyage to the north could so easily pertain as to a period anterior to his going to Portugal, and consequently some years before the 1477 of the Historie.

The English in Iceland.


The Zeni.

A voyage to Iceland was certainly no new thing. The English traded there, and a large commerce was maintained with it by Bristol, and had been for many years. A story grew up at a later day, and found expression in Gomara and Wytfliet, that in 1476, the year before this alleged voyage of Columbus, a Danish expedition, under the command of the Pole Kolno, or Skolno, had found in these northern regions an entrance to the straits of Anian, which figure so constantly in later maps, and which opened a passage to the Indies; but there seems to be no reason to believe that it had any definite foundation, and it could hardly have been known to Columbus. It is also easy to conjecture that Columbus had been impelled to join some English trading vessel from Bristol, through mere nautical curiosity, and even been urged by reports which may have reached him of the northern explorations of the Zeni, long before the accounts were printed. But if he knew anything, he either treasured it up as a proof of his theories, not yet to be divulged,-why is not clear,-or, what is vastly more probable, it never occurred to him to associate any of these dim regions with the coasts of Marco Polo's Cathay.


There was no lack of stories, even at this time, of venturesome voyages west along the latitude of England and to the northwest, and of these tales Columbus may possibly have heard. Such was the story which had been obscurely recorded, that Madoc, a Welsh chieftain, in the later years of the twelfth century had carried a colony westerly. Nor can it be positively asserted that the Estotiland and Drogeo of the Zeni narrative, then lying in the cabinet of an Italian family unknown, had ever come to his knowledge.

There are stories in the Historie of reports which had reached him, that mariners sailing for Ireland had been driven west, and had sighted land which had been supposed to be Tartary, which at a later day was thought to be the Baccalaos of the Cortereals.

Bresil, or Brazil, Island.

The island of Bresil had been floating about the Atlantic, usually in the latitude of Ireland, since the days when the maker of the Catalan planisphere, in 1375, placed it in that sea, and current stories of its existence resulted, at a later day (1480), in the sending from Bristol of an expedition of search, as has already been said.

Did Columbus land on Thule?

Finn Magnusen among the Scandinavian writers, and De Costa and others among Americans, have thought it probable that Columbus landed at Hualfiord, in Iceland. Columbus, however, does not give sufficient ground for any such inference. He says he went beyond Thule, not to it, whatever Thule was, and we only know by his observations on the tides, that he approached dry land.

Bishop Magnus in Iceland.

Laing, in his introduction to the Heimskringla, says confidently that Columbus "came to Iceland from Bristol, in 1477, on purpose to gain nautical information,"-an inference merely,-"and must have heard of the written accounts of the Norse discoveries recorded in" the Codex Flatoyensis. Laing says again that as Bishop Magnus is known to have been in Iceland in the spring of 1477, "it is presumed Columbus must have met and conversed with him"!

A great deal turns on this purely imaginary conversation, and the possibilities of its scope.

The Norse in Iceland.

Eric the Red.


The listening Columbus might, indeed, have heard of Irish monks and their followers, who had been found in Iceland by the first Norse visitors, six hundred years before, if perchance the traditions of them had been preserved, and these may even have included the somewhat vague stories of visits to a country somewhere, which they called Ireland the Great. Possibly, too, there were stories told at the firesides of the adventures of a sea-rover, Gunnbiorn by name, who had been driven westerly from Iceland and had seen a strange land, which after some years was visited by Eric the Red; and there might have been wondrous stories told of this same land, which Eric had called Greenland, in order to lure settlers, where there is some reason to believe yet earlier wanderers had found a home.


Position of Greenland.

Thought to be a part of Europe.

There mightpossibly have been shown to Columbus an old manuscript chronicle of the kings of Norway, which they called the Heimskringla, and which had been written by Snorre Sturlason in the thirteenth century; and if he had turned the leaves with any curiosity, he could have read, or have had translated for him, accounts of the Norse colonization of Greenland in the ninth century. Where, then, was this Greenland? Could it possibly have had any connection with that Cathay of Marco Polo, so real in the vision of Columbus, and which was supposed to lie above India in the higher latitudes? As a student of contemporary cartography, Columbus would have answered such a question readily, had it been suggested; for he would have known that Greenland had been represented in all the maps, since it was first recognized at all, as merely an extended peninsula of Scandinavia, made by a southward twist to enfold a northern sea, in which Iceland lay. One certainly cannot venture to say how far Columbus may have had an acquaintance with the cartographical repertories, more or less well stocked, as they doubtless were, in the great commercial centres of maritime Europe, but the knowledge which we to-day have in detail could hardly have been otherwise than a common possession among students of geography then. We comprehend now how, as far back as 1427, a map of Claudius Clavus showed Greenland as this peninsular adjunct to the northwest of Europe,-a view enforced also in a map of 1447, in the Pitti palace, and in one which Nordenski?ld recently found in a Codex of Ptolemy at Warsaw, dated in 1467. A few years later, and certainly before Columbus could have gone on this voyage, we find a map which it is more probable he could have known, and that is the engraved one of Nicholas Donis, drawn presumably in 1471, and later included in the edition of Ptolemy published at Ulm in 1482. The same European connection is here maintained. Again it is represented in the map of Henricus Martellus (1489-90), in a way that produced a succession of maps, which till long after the death of Columbus continued to make this Norse colony a territorial appendage of Scandinavian Europe, betraying not the slightest symptom of a belief that Eric the Red had strayed beyond the circle of European connections.


[From Nordenski?ld's Studien.]

BORDONE, 1528.

[Greenland is the Northernmost Peninsula of N. W. Europe.]

Made a Part of Asia.

It is only when we get down to the later years of Columbus's life that we find, on a Portuguese chart of 1503, a glimmer of the truth, and this only transiently, though the conception of the mariners, upon which this map was based, probably associated Greenland with the Asiatic main, as Ruysch certainly did, by a bold effort to reconcile the Norse traditions with the new views of his time, when he produced the first engraved map of the discoveries of Columbus and Cabot in the Roman Ptolemy of 1508.

Again made a part of Europe.

It is thus beyond dispute that if Columbus entertained any views as to the geographical relations of Greenland, whic

h had been practically lost to Europe since communication with it ceased, earlier in the fifteenth century, they were simply those of a peninsula of northern Europe, which could have no connection with any country lying beyond the Atlantic; for it was not till after his death that any general conception of it associated with the Asiatic main arose. It is quite certain, however, that as the conception began to prevail, after the discovery of the South Sea by Balboa, in 1513, that an interjacent new world had really been found, there was a tendency, as shown in the map of Thorne (1527), representing current views in Spain, and in those of Fin?us (1531), Ziegler (1532), Mercator (1538), and Bordone (1528-1547), to relegate the position of Greenland to a peninsular connection with Europe.

There is a curious instance of the evolution of the correct idea in the Ptolemy of 1525, and repeated in the same plate as used in the editions of 1535 and 1545. The map was originally engraved to show "Gronlandia" as a European peninsula, but apparently, at a later stage, the word Gronlandia was cut in the corner beside the sketch of an elephant, and farther west, as if to indicate its transoceanic and Asiatic situation, though there was no attempt to draw in a coast line.

Later diverse views.

Later in the century there was a strife of opinion between the geographers of the north, as represented in the Olaus Magnus map of 1567, who disconnected the country from Europe, and those of the south, who still united Greenland with Scandinavia, as was done in the Zeno map of 1558. By this time, however, the southern geographers had begun to doubt, and after 1540 we find Labrador and Greenland put in close proximity in many of their maps; and in this the editors of the Ptolemy of 1561 agreed, when they altered their re?ngraved map-as the plate shows-in a way to disconnect Greenland from Scandinavia.

It is not necessary to trace the cartographical history of Greenland to a later day. It is manifest that it was long after Columbus's death when the question was raised of its having any other connection than with Europe, and Columbus could have learned in Iceland nothing to suggest to him that the land of Eric the Red had any connection with the western shores of Asia, of which he was dreaming.

Discovery of Vinland.

If any of the learned men in Iceland had referred Columbus once more to the Heimskringla, it would have been to the brief entry which it shows in the records as the leading Norse historian made it, of the story of the discovery of Vinland. There he would have read, "Leif also found Vinland the Good," and he could have read nothing more. There was nothing in this to excite the most vivid imagination as to place or direction.

Scandinavian views of Vinland.

Stephanius's map, 1570.

It was not till a time long after the period of Columbus that, so far as we know, any cartographical records of the discoveries associated with the Vinland voyages were made in the north; and not till the discoveries of Columbus and his successors were a common inheritance in Europe did some of the northern geographers, in 1570, undertake to reconcile the tales of the sagas with the new beliefs. The testimony of these later maps is presumably the transmitted view then held in the north from the interpretation of the Norse sagas in the light of later knowledge. This testimony is that the "America" of the Spaniards, including Terra Florida and the "Albania" of the English, was a territory south of the Norse region and beyond a separating water, very likely that of Davis' Straits. The map of Sigurd Stephanius of this date (1570) puts Vinland north of the Straits of Belle Isle, and makes it end at the south in a "wild sea," which separates it [B of map] from "America." Torf?us quotes Torlacius as saying that this map of Stephanius's was drawn from ancient Icelandic records. If this cartographical record has its apparent value, it is not likely that Columbus could have seen in it anything more than a manifestation of that vague boreal region which was far remote from the thoughts which possessed him, in seeking a way to India over against Spain.


Dubious sagas.

Beside the scant historic record respecting Vinland which has been cited from the Heimskringla, it is further possible that Columbus may have seen that series of sagas which had come down in oral shape to the twelfth century. At this period put into writing, two hundred years after the events of the Vinland voyages, there are none of the manuscript copies of these sagas now existing which go back of the fourteenth century. This rendering of the old sagas into script came at a time when, in addition to the inevitable transformations of long oral tradition, there was superadded the romancing spirit then rife in the north, and which had come to them from the south of Europe. The result of this blending of confused tradition with the romancing of the period of the written preservation has thrown, even among the Scandinavians themselves, a shade of doubt, more or less intense at times, which envelops the saga record with much that is indistinguishable from myth, leaving little but the general drift of the story to be held of the nature of a historic record. The Icelandic editor of Egel's saga, published at Reikjavik in 1856, acknowledges this unavoidable reflex of the times when the sagas were reduced to writing, and the most experienced of the recent writers on Greenland, Henrik Rink, has allowed the untrustworthiness of the sagas except for their general scope.

Codex Flatoyensis.

Leif Erikson.

Less than a hundred years before the alleged visit of Columbus to Thule, there had been a compilation of some of the early sagas, and this Codex Flatoyensis is the only authority which we have for any details of the Vinland voyages. It is possible that the manuscript now known is but one copy of several or many which may have been made at an early period, not preceding, however, the twelfth century, when writing was introduced. This particular manuscript was discovered in an Icelandic monastery in the seventeenth century, and there is no evidence of its being known before. Of course it is possible that copies may have been in the hands of learned Icelanders at the time of Columbus's supposed voyage to the north, and he may have heard of it, or have had parts of it read to him. The collection is recognized by Scandinavian writers as being the most confused and incongruous of similar records; and it is out of such romancing, traditionary, and conflicting recitals that the story of the Norse voyages to Vinland is made, if it is made at all. The sagas say that it was sixteen winters after the settlement of Greenland that Leif went to Norway, and in the next year he sailed to Vinland. These are the data from which the year A. D. 1000 has been deduced as that of the beginning of the Vinland voyages. The principal events are to be traced in the saga of Eric the Red, which, in the judgment of Rask, a leading Norse authority, is "somewhat fabulous, written long after the event, and taken from tradition."

Peringski?ld's edition of the sagas.

Such, then, was the record which, if it ever came to the notice of Columbus, was little suited to make upon him any impression to be associated in his mind with the Asia of his dreams. Humboldt, discussing the chances of Columbus's gaining any knowledge of the story, thinks that when the Spanish Crown was contesting with the heirs of the Admiral his rights of discovery, the citing of these northern experiences of Columbus would have been in the Crown's favor, if there had been any conception at that time that the Norse discoveries, even if known to general Europe, had any relation to the geographical problems then under discussion. Similar views have been expressed by Wheaton and Prescott, and there is no evidence that up to the time of Columbus an acquaintance with the Vinland story had ever entered into the body of historical knowledge possessed by Europeans in general. The scant references in the manuscripts of Adam of Bremen (A. D. 1073), of Ordericus Vitalis (A. D. 1140), and of Saxo Grammaticus (A. D. 1200), were not likely to be widely comprehended, even if they were at all known, and a close scrutiny of the literature of the subject does not seem to indicate that there was any considerable means of propagating a knowledge of the sagas before Peringski?ld printed them in 1697, two hundred years after the time of Columbus. This editor inserted them in an edition of the Heimskringla and concealed the patchwork. This deception caused it afterwards to be supposed that the accounts in the Heimskringla had been interpolated by some later reviser of the chronicle; but the truth regarding Peringski?ld's action was ultimately known.


Basing, then, their investigation on a narrative confessedly confused and unauthentic, modern writers have sought to determine with precision the fact of Norse visits to British America, and to identify the localities. The fact that every investigator finds geographical correspondences where he likes, and quite independently of all others, is testimony of itself to the confused condition of the story. The soil of the United States and Nova Scotia contiguous to the Atlantic may now safely be said to have been examined by competent critics sufficiently to affirm that no arch?ological trace of the presence of the Norse here is discernible. As to such a forbidding coast as that of Labrador, there has been as yet no such familiarity with it by trained arch?ologists as to render it reasonably certain that some trace may not be found there, and on this account George Bancroft allows the possibility that the Norse may have reached that coast. There remains, then, no evidence beyond a strong probability that the Norse from Greenland crossed Davis' Straits and followed south the American coast. That indisputable arch?ological proofs may yet be found to establish the fact of their southern course and sojourn is certainly possible. Meanwhile we must be content that there is no testimony satisfactory to a careful historical student, that this course and such sojourn ever took place. A belief in it must rest on the probabilities of the case.

Many writers upon the Norseman discovery would do well to remember the advice of Ampère to present as doubtful what is true, sooner than to give as true what is doubtful.

"Ignorance," says Mu?oz, in speaking of the treacherous grounds of unsupported narrative, "is generally accompanied by vanity and temerity."

Did Columbus hear of the saga stories?

It is an obvious and alluring supposition that this story should have been presented to Columbus, whatever the effect may have been on his mind. Lowell in a poem pardonably pictures him as saying:-

"I brooded on the wise Athenian's tale

Of happy Atlantis; and heard Bj?rne's keel

Crunch the gray pebbles of the Vinland shore,

For I believed the poets."

But the belief is only a proposition. Rafn and other extreme advocates of the Norse discovery have made as much as they could of the supposition of Columbus's cognizance of the Norse voyages. Laing seems confident that this contact must have happened. The question, however, must remain unsettled; and whether Columbus landed in Iceland or not, and whether the bruit of the Norse expeditions struck his ears elsewhere or not, the fact of his never mentioning them, when he summoned every supposable evidence to induce acceptance of his views, seems to be enough to show at least that to a mind possessed as his was of the scheme of finding India by the west the stories of such northern wandering offered no suggestion applicable to his purpose. It is, moreover, inconceivable that Columbus should have taken a course southwest from the Canaries, if he had been prompted in any way by tidings of land in the northwest.

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