In those far-off times besides the Vikings of the North other daring sailors sailed the seas. But all their sailings took them eastward. For it was from the east that all the trade and the riches came in those days. To India and to far Cathay sailed the merchant through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, to return with a rich and fragrant cargo of silks and spices, pearls and priceless gems.
None thought of sailing westward. For to men of those days the Atlantic Ocean was known as the Outer Sea or the Sea of Darkness. There was nothing to be gained by venturing upon it, much to be dreaded. It was said that huge and horrible sea-dragons lived there, ready to wreck and swallow down any vessel that might venture near. An enormous bird also hovered in the skies waiting to pounce upon vessels and bear them away to some unknown eyrie. Even if any foolhardy adventurers should defy these dangers, and escape the horror of the dragons and the bird, other perils threatened them. For far in the west there lay a bottomless pit of seething fire. That was easy of proof. Did not the face of the setting sun glow with the reflected light as it sank in the west? There would be no hope nor rescue for any ship that should be drawn into that awful pit.
Again it was believed that the ocean flowed downhill, and that if a ship sailed down too far it would never be able to get back again. These and many other dangers, said the ignorant people of those days, threatened the rash sailors who should attempt to sail upon the Sea of Darkness. So it was not wonderful that for hundreds of years men contented themselves with the well-known routes which indeed offered adventure enough to satisfy the heart of the most daring.
But as time passed these old trade-routes fell more and more into the hands of Turks and Infidels. Port after port came under their rule, and infidel pirates swarmed in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean until no Christian vessel was safe. At every step Christian traders found themselves hampered and hindered, and in danger of their lives, and they began to long for another way to the lands of spice and pearls.
Then it was that men turned their thoughts to the dread Sea of Darkness. The less ignorant among them had begun to disbelieve the tales of dragons and fiery pits. The world was round, said wise men. Why then, if that were so, India could be reached by sailing west as well as by sailing east.
Many men now came to this conclusion, among them an Italian sailor named Christopher Columbus. The more Columbus thought about his plan of sailing west to reach India, the more he believed in it, and the more he longed to set out. But without a great deal of money such an expedition was impossible, and Columbus was poor. His only hope was to win the help and friendship of a king or some other great and wealthy person.
The Portuguese were in those days a sea-faring people, and their ships were to be found wherever ships dared go. Indeed Prince Henry of Portugal did so much to encourage voyages of discovery that he was called Henry the Navigator. And although he was by this time dead, the people still took great interest in voyages of discovery. So at length Columbus determined to go to King John of Portugal to tell him of his plans, and ask for his aid.
King John listened kindly enough, it seemed, to what Columbus had to say. But before giving him any answer he said that he must consult his wise men. These wise men looked upon the whole idea of sailing to the west to reach the east as absurd. So King John refused to give Columbus any help.
Yet although most of King John's wise men thought little of the plan, King John himself thought that there was something in it. But instead of helping Columbus he meanly resolved to send out an expedition of his own. This he did, and when Columbus heard of it he was so angry that he left Portugal, which for more than ten years he had made his home. He was poor and in debt, so he left the country secretly, in fear of the King, and of those to whom he owed money.
When Columbus thus fled from Portugal, penniless and in debt, he was a man over forty. He was a bitterly disappointed man, too, but he still clung to his great idea. So he sent his brother Bartholomew to England to beg King Henry VII to help him, while he himself turned towards Spain. Bartholomew, however, reached England in an evil hour for his quest. For Henry VII had but newly wrested the crown from Richard III, and so had no thought to spare for unknown lands. Christopher also arrived in Spain at an unfortunate time. For the Spaniards were carrying on a fierce warfare against the Moors, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had little thought or money to spare for any other undertaking. Therefore, although Ferdinand listened to what Columbus had to say, for the time being he could promise no help.
So years passed. Columbus remained in Spain. For in spite of all his rebuffs and disappointments he did not despair. As the court moved from place to place he followed it, hoping always that the day would come when the King and Queen would listen to him, and believe in his great enterprise.
Meanwhile he lived in want and misery, and just kept himself from starvation by making and selling maps. To the common people he seemed a madman, and as he passed through the streets in his worn and threadbare garments children jeered and pointed fingers of scorn at him.
Yet in spite of mockery and derision Columbus clung to his faith. Indeed it burned in him so strongly that at length he made others share it too, and men who were powerful at court became his friends.
At last the war with the Moors ended victoriously for Spain. Then these friends persuaded Queen Isabella to listen again to what Columbus had to say. To this the Queen consented, and when she heard how poor Columbus was she sent him some money, so that he might buy clothes fit to appear at court.
When Columbus heard the good news he was overjoyed. As quickly as might be he bought new clothes, and mounting upon a mule he rode towards Granada. But when Columbus arrived he found the court still in the midst of rejoicings to celebrate victory. Among the light-hearted, gaily dressed throng there was no one who had a thought to spare for the melancholy, white-haired dreamer who passed like a dark shadow amidst them. With his fate, as it were, trembling in the balance, Columbus had no heart for rejoicing. So he looked on "with indifference, almost with contempt."
But at length his day came. At length all the jubilation was over, and Ferdinand and Isabella turned their thoughts to Columbus. He came before them and talked so earnestly of his great project that they could not but believe in it. The day was won. Both King and Queen, but more especially the Queen, were willing to help the great enterprise. Now however Columbus himself all but wrecked his chances. He had dreamed so long about this splendid adventure, he was so filled with belief in its grandeur, that he demanded conditions such as would hardly have been granted to the greatest prince in the land.
Columbus demanded that he should be made admiral and viceroy of all the lands he might discover, and that after his death this honour should descend to his son and to his son's son for ever and ever. He also demanded a tenth part of all the pearls, precious stones, gold, silver and spices, or whatever else he might gain by trade or barter.
At these demands the grandees of Spain stood aghast. What! This shabby dreamer, this penniless beggar aspired to honour and dignities fit for a prince! It was absurd, and not to be thought of. If this beggarly sailor would have Spain assist him he must needs be more humble in suit.
But not one jot would Columbus abate of his demands. So the Council broke up, and Columbus, with anger and disappointment in his heart, mounted his mule and turned his face towards the Court of France. All the seven long years during which he had waited, and hoped, and prayed, in Spain had been wasted. Now he would go to the King of France, and make his last appeal there.
But Columbus had left friends behind him, friends who had begun to picture to themselves almost as vividly as he the splendours of the conquest he was to make. Now these friends sought out the Queen. In glowing words they painted to her the glory and the honour which would come to Spain if Columbus succeeded. And if he failed, why, what were a few thousand crowns, they asked. And as the Queen listened her heart beat fast; the magnificence of the enterprise took hold upon her, and she resolved that, come what might, Columbus should go forth on his adventure.
Ferdinand, however, still looked coldly on. The war against the Moors had been long and bitter, his treasury was empty. Whence, he asked himself, was money forthcoming for this mad scheme? Isabella, however, had done with prudence and caution. "If there is not money enough in Aragon," she cried, "I will undertake this adventure for my own kingdom of Castile, and if need be I will pawn my jewels to do it."
While these things were happening Columbus, sick at heart, was slowly plodding on the road to France. But he only went a little way on his long journey. For just as he was entering a narrow pass not far from Granada, where the mountains towered above him, he heard the thud of horses' hoofs.
It was a lonely and silent spot among the hills, where robbers lurked, and where many a man had been slain for the money and jewels he carried. Columbus, however, had nothing to dread: he carried with him neither gold nor jewels. He went forth from Spain a beggar, even as he had come. But if fear he had any, it was soon turned to incredulous joy. For when the horsemen came up they told Columbus that his friends had won the day for him, and that he must return.
At first Columbus hesitated. He found it hard to believe that truly at last he had his heart's desire. When, however, the messenger told him that the Queen herself bade him return, he hesitated no longer. Joyfully turning his mule he hastened back to Granada.
At last Columbus had won his heart's desire, and he had only to gather ships and men and set forth westward. But now a new difficulty arose. For it was out upon the terrible Sea of Darkness that Columbus wished to sail, and men feared to face its terrors.
Week after week went past and not a ship or a man could Columbus get. He persuaded and implored in vain: no man was brave enough to follow him to the unknown horrors of the Sea of Darkness. Therefore as entreaty and persuasion proved of no avail, Columbus sought help from the King, who gave him power to force men to go with him.
Even then all sorts of difficulties were thrown in the way. Columbus, however, overcame them all, and at length his three ships were ready. But it had taken many months. It was February when he turned back so gladly to Granada; it was the third of August before everything was in order.
Before dawn upon the day he sailed Columbus entered the church, in the little sea-faring town of Palos where his ships lay at anchor. There he humbly confessed his sins, received the Sacrament, and committed himself to God's all-powerful guidance. The crew, wild, rough fellows, many of them, followed his example. Then Columbus stepped on board his ship, the Santa Maria, and turned his face westward.
He was filled with exaltation. But all Palos was filled with gloom, and upon the shore a great crowd gathered to bid a last farewell to these daring adventurers. And as the ships spread their sails and sped forth in the morning light the people wept and lamented sorely, for they never thought again to see their loved ones, who were about to adventure forth upon the terrible Sea of Darkness.