Builders of Our Country: Book I  by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

Christopher Columbus

His Plan

FROM the days of Marco Polo commerce between the East and the Italian cities grew and flourished. The republics of Genoa and Venice were among the most important of the trade centers.

Genoa sent her cargoes of copper, iron, hides, and wool to India by way of Constantinople and the Black and Caspian seas. Venice sent her vessels by way of Alexandria and the Red Sea.

Neither of these routes was without serious drawbacks. The Venetian ships could go only as far as Alexandria, for the Suez Canal had not yet been made. Then the merchants had to unload, transport their wares across the isthmus, and reship them on the Red Sea. The Genoese had the same trouble in traveling by way of Constantinople. At some point on the Black Sea their goods were taken from the ships and loaded on caravans; then, after braving all the dangers of the sea, the merchants had to face the greater dangers of overland travel. One never knew when a caravan might be overhauled by bandits and all the valuable wares stolen. The merchants were lucky who escaped with their lives from such attacks.

Nor did the strain of these voyages end with reaching India. There the ships and caravans were loaded for the home trip with the riches of that land. And surely the costly diamonds, pearls, ivory, silks and spices of the East could not fail to tempt robbers and pirates as much as did the Italian products.

So it was no easy matter at best for Genoa to trade with India. Still, encouraged by those who succeeded, and trying to forget those who came to grief, the Genoese merchants went back and forth until the middle of the fifteenth century.

Then suddenly their trade route was cut off. Constantinople was captured by the Turks, and the Turks would not allow ships from Genoa to sail into the Black Sea. It was a dreadful blow to the prosperity of the republic. Some new course must be found. But where and by whom?

When this disaster befell Genoa the same questions were continually being asked in other lands than Italy. Portugal was among the most eager of the seekers for a new route to the East. Her hope was to find a passage around the southern part of Africa; and year after year she sent her ships farther and farther down the western coast of that continent searching for a southern passage.

From time to time on such voyages there was to be seen among the Portuguese sailors a tall, handsome, ruddy young seaman with long flowing hair and commanding blue-gray eyes. Christopher Columbus he was called.

Columbus was born in Genoa, probably about the year 1436. He was the son of a wool comber. Until his tenth year Christopher helped his father in his trade. Then he spent four years in the University of Pavia, learning mathematics, reading, writing, and the laws of navigation.

On leaving Pavia he was sent by his father to sea. For some time he sailed up and down the Mediterranean in merchant vessels. But later he went to Portugal, and from there sailed, not only far south along the shores of Africa, but also north even as far as Iceland.

You must remember, however, that a sailor's lot was very different then from what it is now. The Europeans of the fifteenth century had only sailing vessels, and not very large or very strongly built ones at that. As their speed depended entirely upon the strength of the wind, no one could foretell how long any voyage might take.

To be sure, by the time Columbus sailed the seas the compass had come into use. This compass consisted of a magnetized steel bar or needle resting on a pivot. North of the equator the head of a magnetic needle always turns to the north. So no matter how far out on the ocean sailors might be, they could tell at any time which way to turn to get home.

Then, too, the explorers had maps of the world. But many of the maps at that time were very queer and had pictures of dreadful sea serpents and horrible monsters drawn between the countless little islands.

This was due to the stories told by sailors, who were very superstitious. In the dark nights when they were out upon the sea, they would imagine all sorts of creatures moving in the darkness beyond. The spray thrown up by the ship would look like mermaids with great glistening eyes who beckoned them to come to their home in the deep. These stories were fully believed, and wherever a sailor had seen such sights they were put down on the map.

The great trouble was that very few people knew the real facts. Most of them still thought that the earth was a flat surface, surrounded on all sides by a large ocean.

A very few learned men thought differently. These few said that the earth was round, as we know it to be. But even they made mistakes. They believed the world to be much smaller than it really is. They knew nothing about America, and thought that only one ocean—the Atlantic—separated Europe from India and China.

Columbus, after paying close attention to all he could see or hear of such matters on his many trips, came to think the same as the wise men; and this belief opened big possibilities to him. Born in Genoa and sailing under the flag of Portugal, is it any wonder that he was easily fired with the desire to find a route to India as yet untried by anyone? Plans began to form in his mind and fairly to take possession of him.

Once when he was visiting the Azores the inhabitants showed him some bits of curiously carved wood and branches of unknown trees that had been driven ashore by the Western seas. They also told him of two drowned men the waves had washed up, whose appearance was altogether different from any European's. Such things could have come only from a country to the west, reasoned Columbus. And the stories confirmed him still further in his growing belief that to sail west was the way to reach India.

Finally he wrote to a noted astronomer of Florence, named Toscanelli, and asked his advice. Marco Polo's stories of the wealth of China and Japan, and above all what Marco Polo had written about a sea to the east of these lands, had so influenced this Toscanelli that he too had tried to plan some way of reaching them. His plans and those of Columbus proved to be the same. When he answered Columbus's letter he sent with his reply a map of the world made by himself and showing the course that he believed would lead to China.

But like the maps of the other learned men, Toscanelli's map showed only three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa. Where America lies he drew China and Japan. And he too made the distance much too short.

As a rule, of course, mistakes do much harm. However these mistakes of Toscanelli's turned out to be an exception. Bent as he was on reaching China, do you suppose that Columbus would ever have sailed west if he had suspected for a moment that a great continent lay between him and that country?

Some people think that when Columbus visited Iceland he must have heard of the discovery of Vinland. But if he did hear of such a land he could never have understood where it was. He accepted Toscanelli's map as accurate and longed to test this plan of sailing directly west to China.

But Columbus was poor and had not the money to carry out his enterprise. Where could he turn for help? First he tried Genoa and Venice. The people only laughed at his wild plans. They thought he must be mad.

Then he went to Portugal. But neither would the Portuguese listen to him. Instead they ridiculed him and asked whether he really believed that the earth was round and that people on the other side walked with their heads down.

In spite of all this opposition Columbus was not discouraged. He now went to Spain where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reigned. For seven long years Columbus stayed there trying to persuade the King and Queen to give him ships to cross the ocean. At last Queen Isabella consented to furnish the necessary money and promised to pawn her own jewels if Spain could not give him enough.

The First Voyage

ON the 3d of August, 1492, Columbus left the port of Palos with three vessels, the Pinta,  the Niña  and the Santa Maria.  This last was the flagship, and was the only one with an entire deck. Although the largest of the fleet, the Santa Maria  was not over ninety feet long and twenty feet wide.

It had been no easy task to find men to man these ships. When the most learned men were unwilling to aid Columbus, what could be expected of poor ignorant sailors? In order to get men to manage the ships, convicts were taken out of jail and promised their liberty if they would go with Columbus. Others were forced to go by the King.

The vessels arrived at the Canary Islands the 12th of August and stayed there three weeks, as the Pinta  needed repairs.

When they were again out upon the sea and could see no land, the fears of the sailors rose. What horrible monsters would they meet? What if they should fall off the edge of the earth! What if this wind that carried them on so swiftly should prevent their going home!

As the weeks passed and no land appeared, a mutiny threatened to break out. But Columbus, noticing this restlessness and growing fear among the men, encouraged them from day to day with new hope.

After a few weeks they came into a region where the air was soft and balmy. Queer objects were floating out to meet them—sticks carved with strange figures, and once a branch of berries. Now the men were very happy, and all kept a diligent lookout for land.

One evening a sailor spied something dark against the horizon. "Land!" he shouted. When morning came, there, stretched before them, was the New World. Red-skinned natives were running excitedly up and down the shores wondering who these strange white people were.

This was the 12th of October, 1492. The crew went ashore and, falling on their knees, kissed the ground in their great joy. With much ceremony Columbus unfurled the banner he had brought with him and took possession of the country in the name of Spain. He gave the island the name of San Salvador.

"This island must be a little north of Japan," thought Columbus. It was a beautiful spot; but there were certainly no traces of the great palace with the golden roof, of the courtiers of the king laden down with silk and precious jewels, or of the busy wharves crowded with vessels, which Columbus had expected to see when he touched the shores of Japan. Evidently he must sail a little farther before he could see these wonders or deliver the letter he carried from Ferdinand and Isabella to the Khan of China.

Cruising about, still looking for Japan or the coast of China, Columbus discovered the islands of Cuba and Haiti. To the whole group he gave the name West Indies, and so naturally he called the natives Indians.

Early Christmas morning, before it was light, a cry went up from the deck of the Santa Maria.  The flagship had struck on a sand bar just off the coast of Haiti. All efforts to set her free were useless. Soon the waves had broken to pieces the best and largest of Columbus's little fleet.

What if another such accident should happen, and there should be no way to send word back to Spain that he had at least reached the islands near Japan and China! Frightened by this thought, Columbus determined to sail for home. With the largest ship gone, all the sailors could not now be carried. So forty men were left in Haiti, when their commander sailed for Spain.

On the 15th of March Columbus arrived in Palos. As soon as he landed he sent to the Royal Treasurer of Spain a letter in which he told all about his discoveries.

News of Columbus's good fortune soon spread all over Spain and Portugal. Everybody was eager to welcome the great man. They forgot all the mean things they had said about him and were ready to praise him for what he had done.

You can imagine how the King and Queen felt when Columbus presented himself at their court. He told them all about the New World and what he had seen there. He showed them all the curious things he had brought—the wonderful birds, unknown fruits, and, above all, several natives from the new country. Columbus was recognized as a hero. The King gave him the title of "Don" and treated him almost as an equal.

But the great honors lavished upon the successful admiral soon made enemies for him among the jealous courtiers. One day at a dinner given in his honor Columbus was telling about his voyage. Another guest remarked that he did not think there was anything so very wonderful about discovering the West Indies. With quiet dignity Columbus took an egg and, turning to the man, asked, "Can you stand this egg on end?"

Why, no, he couldn't; and neither could any other guest at the table, although they all tried.

When the egg was handed back to Columbus he struck it lightly on the table, cracking the shell just enough to make it stand upright. Then everyone laughed to see how easily it could be done.

"Just so easily anyone could have discovered the West Indies after I had shown the way," said Columbus.

Other Voyages

WHEN in September, 1493, Columbus sailed upon his second voyage, he had no difficulty in getting sailors. Everybody was eager to see the new land and share in its riches. The fleet consisted of seventeen vessels and fifteen hundred men.

This time Columbus landed on the island of Porto Rico. But when the people found no gold lying around, they began to murmur and criticise their leader. Columbus, as always, told them to hope and wait.

When he went back to Spain after nearly three years, most of the men who had come with him stayed on the islands. Columbus still believed he was near the coast of Japan or China, and never during his lifetime did he know that he was the discoverer of America.

But now no royal welcome was given the returning explorer. You see that even from his second trip he had brought back no gold and none of the wealth of the East; and that is what the Spanish people wanted. He was an upstart and a fraud.

However, as Queen Isabella still believed in him and encouraged him, Columbus fitted out six vessels and in 1498 started on his third voyage. This time he sailed farther south and discovered the Orinoco River.

Leaving the Orinoco River, Columbus cruised to the West Indies. There the colonists had turned against him, and when he came among them they put him in chains and sent him back to Spain. Columbus wore his chains with dignity and patience. But when he reached Spain the Queen was so indignant at his treatment that he was immediately released.

In 1502 Columbus made one more voyage. Again he returned without having reached the Chinese Empire and with no gold. Isabella soon died, and the King took no more notice of the great man.

Columbus was now an old man, his health was broken, and he was very poor. In 1506 he died. He had discovered a new world, and all the thanks he received was to be ignored.

Through his efforts, Spain became one of the wealthiest and strongest countries in Europe. She founded great colonies across the ocean, which carried on a wonderful trade with the Old World.

And not Spain alone, but all Europe, profited indirectly by the discoveries of Columbus. Even before his death different nations began sending out explorers to plant their banners on any lands they might find and thus to extend their power in the New World to the west.

You would suppose that our continent would have been named after Columbus. Instead it was called America after a certain Florentine adventurer, Americus Vespucius, who crossed the ocean after Columbus, and who wrote a book about his travels.