The Isles of Beauty Beyond the Seas
The 12th of October, 1492, ranks very high among the important dates in the history of the world. For on that day men from Europe, then the centre of civilization, first gazed on a rich new land beyond the seas, a great virgin continent, destined to become the seat of flourishing civilizations and to play a leading part in the later history of the world. Little did Columbus and his companions, when they saw before them on that famous morning a beautiful island, rising like a pearl of promise from the sparkling tropical sea, dream of what time held in store for that new-found land, foreordained to become the "New World" of the nations, the hope of the oppressed, and the pioneer dwelling-place of liberty and equality.
But we are here concerned with only what they saw, and this was a green and populous island, so covered with fresh verdure that it seemed to their eyes like a continual orchard. An orchard it was, for many of the trees were laden with new and strange fruits, of rare color and attractive form. Never had they breathed air more pure and fresh, and never had they beheld seas of such crystal clearness or verdure of more emerald hue; and it is not surprising that their eyes sparkled with joy and their souls were filled with wonder and delight as they gazed on this entrancing scene after their long and dreaded journey over a vast and unknown ocean.
Not less strange to the new-comers were the people who flocked in numbers from the woods and ran to the shore, where they stood gazing in simple wonder on the ships, winged marvels which had never met their eyes before. No clothing hid their dusky, copper-colored skins, of a hue unknown to their visitors, and they looked like the unclad tenants of some new paradise. Their astonishment turned into fright when they saw boats leave these strange monsters of the deep, in them men clad in shining steel or raiment of varied color. Their white faces, their curling beards, their splendid clothing, as it appeared to these simple denizens of the forest, and especially the air of dignity of their leader, with his ample cloak of scarlet, added to their amazement, and they viewed the strangers as divine visitors, come to them from the skies.
Not less was their surprise when they saw the wonderful strangers kneel and kiss the soil, and then uplift a great and gleaming banner, of rich colors and designs that seemed magical to their untaught eyes. And deep was their delight when these strange beings distributed among them wonderful gifts,—glass beads, hawk's bells, and other trifles,—which seemed precious gems to their untutored souls. They had nothing to offer in return, except tame parrots, of which they had many, and balls of cotton-yarn; but the eyes of the Spaniards sparkled with hope when they saw small ornaments of gold, which some of them wore. Happy had it been for all the natives of the New World if this yellow metal had not existed among them, for it was to bring them untold suffering and despair.
Such was the island of San Salvador, as Columbus named this first-seen land; but, leaving it, let us go with him in his voyage through that island-sprinkled sea, and use his eyes in taking in the marvels with which it was sown. Familiar as these islands have become to many of us, to him they were all new, beautiful, and strange, a string of tropic pearls or rare emeralds spread out along those shining waters of the South.
On leaving San Salvador, the Spaniards, their hearts elate with joy and pride in their discovery, hardly knew whither to go. They seemed drawn to the right and the left alike. They found themselves in an archipelago of beautiful islands, green and level, rising on all sides and seemingly numberless. To us they are the great green cluster of the Bahamas, but to Columbus, who fancied that he had reached the shores of Asia, they were that wonderful archipelago spoken of by Marco Polo, in which were seven thousand four hundred and fifty-eight islands, abounding with spices and rich in odoriferous trees and shrubs.
On went the Spanish caravels, sailing over bright and placid waters scarce ruffled by the gentle breeze, and touching at isle after isle, each of which seemed to the voyagers more beautiful than the last. Resting under the shade of warm and verdant groves, while his men sought to fill their water-casks from the purest and coolest springs, the admiral found the scene around him entrancing to his vision, "the country as fresh and green as the month of May in Andalusia; the trees, the fruits, the herbs, the flowers, the very stones, for the most part, as different from those of Spain as night from day."
One isle, which he honored with the name of Isabella, after his patron, the Spanish queen, surpassed in charm all he had yet seen. Like them all, it was covered with rich vegetation, its climate delightful, its air soft and balmy, its scenery so lovely that it seemed to him "as if one would never desire to depart. I know not where first to go, nor are my eyes ever weary of gazing on the beautiful verdure."
Fresh water was abundant, and he ordered all the casks of the ships to be filled. He could not say enough in praise of what he saw. "Here are large lakes, and the groves about them are marvellous, and in all the island everything is green, and the herbage as in April in Andalusia. The singing of the birds is such that it seems as if one would never wish to leave this land. There are flocks of parrots which hide the sun, and other birds, large and small, of so many kinds, and so different from ours, that it is wonderful; and besides, there are trees of a thousand species, each having its particular fruit, and all of marvellous flavor, so that I am in the greatest trouble in the world not to know them, for I am very certain that they are each of great value. "
As he approached this island, he fancied that the winds bore to his senses the spicy odors said to be wafted from the islands of the East Indian seas. "As I arrived at this cape," he said, "there came off a fragrance so good and soft of the flowers or trees of the land that it was the sweetest thing in the world."
Not only were the islands the homes of birds of brilliant plumage and flowers of gorgeous hue, but the very seas seemed to their new visitors like tropical gardens, for the fish with which they abounded rivalled the birds and flowers in brilliancy of color. The scales of some of them glittered like precious stones, and gleams of gold and silver seemed to come from them as they swans around the ships, while the dolphins taken from the water changed color like the chameleon.
The natives who had been taken on board the ships made signs which seemed to indicate that more wonderful islands were yet to be seen, with cities and kings and queens, and abundance of gold and gems; or, at least, the Spaniards understood this from their signs, as they pointed to the south when gold was shown them and they were asked where it could be found. Far to the south was a great island which they named Cuba, and another which they called Bohio. Cuba, as their signs appeared to show, was of vast extent and abounded with gold, pearls, and spices, and Columbus determined to sail for it, hoping there to find the wealth which he and his companions so ardently craved. It cannot be said that the natives wished to deceive them, but no doubt they willingly agreed to all they were asked, with the innocent desire of pleasing their wonderful new friends. Columbus, full of the idea that he was near the shores of India, hoped to reach the city of Quinsai, which Marco Polo had said was one of the most magnificent in the world, and there deliver the letter of his sovereigns to the Grand Khan of the Indies and bring back his reply to Spain. Inspired by this enticing hope, he left the Bahamas and turned the prows of his small fleet towards the isle of Cuba.
It was on the morning of October 28 that the shores of this noble island first met the eyes of the eager mariners. As the small fleet swept along its coast the admiral was struck with its size and grandeur; its high and airy mountains, like those of Sicily; its long and sweeping plains, and the fertile valleys of its broad rivers; its far-reaching forests and many green headlands, which led them on and on into the remote distance. They anchored at length in a beautiful river, whose waters were transparent and deeply shaded with overhanging trees. Here Columbus had himself rowed up the stream, which seemed to grow more enchanting with every mile, forests of lofty and spreading trees crowding down to its banks, some in fruit, some in flower, some bearing fruits and flowers at once. These woods swarmed with birds of brilliant plumage,—the scarlet flamingo, the rich-hued parrots and woodpeckers, the tiny and sparkling humming-birds, which flitted on rainbow wings from flower to flower, and which no European had ever before seen. Even the insects were beautiful, in their shining coats of mail. Though most of the birds were silent, the charms of song were not wanting, and the excited fancy of Columbus detected among them notes like those of the nightingale. Ever open to the charms of nature, Cuba seemed to him an elysium, "the most beautiful island that eyes ever beheld."
He was sure there must here be mines of gold, groves of spices, rivers and seas that bore pearls. The houses, though simple in structure, were well built and clean, roofed with palm-leaves and shaded by spreading trees. Led on still by his excited fancy, he hoped soon to find great cities and rich settlements, but none such greeted his gaze. Assured that the capital of the Grand Khan could not be far away, he sent two ambassadors, with presents, to the interior, in a direction pointed out by the people. But after going many miles they found only a village of fifty houses, like those seen on the coast. There was no gold or silver, no spices, none of the things they so ardently sought. The only thing new to their eyes was a fashion seen among the people, who rolled up certain dried and aromatic leaves, and, lighting one end, put the other in their mouths, and exhaled the smoke. This was the first ever seen by white men of that remarkable American plant, called by the natives by a name like tobacco, which has since grown to be a favorite throughout the world, in palace and hovel alike.
Sailing onward along the Cuban coast, the imagination of Columbus was continually aroused by the magnificence, freshness, and verdant charm of the scenery, which he could not praise too highly. A warm love of nature is frequently displayed in the description of the country which he wrote out for Ferdinand and Isabella, of Spain. Of one place, named by him Puerto Santo, he said: "The amenity of this river, and the clearness of the water, through which the sand at the bottom may be seen; the multitude of palm-trees of various forms, the highest and most beautiful that I have met with, and an infinity of other great and green trees; the birds in rich plumage, and the verdure of the fields, render this country, most Serene Princess, of such marvellous beauty, that it surpasses all others in graces and charm, as the day doth the night in lustre. For which reason I often say to my people, that, much as I endeavor to give a complete account of it to your Majesties, my tongue cannot express the whole truth or my tongue describe it; and I have been so over-whelmed at the sight of so much beauty that I have not known how to relate it."
One more island he was yet to see in this marvellous series of discoveries,—the one called by the natives Bohio or Babeque, now known as Hayti, one of the most beautiful islands in the world in the splendor of its tropical vegetation. Columbus and his men could describe it only by comparison with the most beautiful provinces of the country from which they came, and in consequence he named the island Hispaniola, or "Little Spain."
Here he found the people as innocent and simple in their habits as those of San Salvador, living in huts built of the palm-branches, wearing no clothing, for the air was always warm and balmy, and passing life in a holiday of indolence and enjoyment. To the Spaniards their life seemed like a pleasant dream, their country a veritable Lotus land, where it was "always afternoon." They had no wants nor cares, and spent life in easy idleness and innocent sports. They had their fields, but the food plants grew bountifully with little labor. The rivers and sea yielded abundance of fish, and luscious tropical fruits grew profusely in their forests. Thus favored by nature, they spent much of the day in repose, while in the evenings they danced gayly in their fragrant groves with songs or the rude music of their drums. After the coming of the Spaniards the clear tinkle of the hawk's bells as they danced gave them the deepest delight, and for those musical toys they were ready to barter everything they possessed.
In Hispaniola gold seemed more plentiful than the Spaniards had yet seen, but they were still lured on to distant places, with the illusive hope that this precious metal might there be found in quantities. Yet Columbus felt forced to cease, for a time, the quest of the precious metal, and sail for home with the story of the new world he had found. One of his vessels had deserted him; another had been wrecked: if he should lose the third he would be left without means of return and his great discovery might remain unknown.
Moved by this fear, on the 4th of January, 1493, he spread the sails of the one caravel left to him, and turned its prow towards Europe, to carry thither the news of the greatest maritime discovery the world had ever known. Thus ended in success and triumph the first voyage of Columbus to the "New World."