Christopher Columbus

The best result of Columbus' labors in drawing maps was, that he thereby became acquainted with the small extent of that part of the earth's surface known to geographers and navigators, as compared with the conjectural extent of the whole. This fact appears to have made a deep impression on his mind, and to have been the germ of his future speculations. It was not long, however, before the idea began to assume a more definite shape. Like all the navigators of the time, he was full of the notion of discovering a new route to India, Cathay, or Cipango - the land of gold, and diamonds, and spices - which was supposed to lie in the east of Asia, and respecting which the most gorgeous fancies were entertained. There was this difference, however, between the speculations of Columbus and other navigators as to this imaginary route to India, that while they universally followed Prince Henry in supposing that it was to be sought by sailing round Africa, he was employed in considering the possibility of effecting the same object by sailing due west across the Atlantic. This most original idea was fully formed in Columbus' mind before the year 1474.

The globular form of the earth had been for a considerable time known to all scientific men, and various calculations had been made as to its probable size. On this latter point all were at fault, the general supposition being, that the globe was much smaller than it is. Columbus, in pondering on its imaginary magnitude, arrived at the conviction that the Atlantic was a comparatively narrow sea, and that if any one were to push boldly across it, he would inevitably reach the shores of India. These ideas were confirmed by the various rumors which prevailed of lands existing in the Atlantic to the west of Africa. Plato's fabled island of Atalantis was supposed to be a real country lying in that quarter. There were many traditionary recollections of mariners having been cast upon unknown shores when driven far out to sea by the violence of a storm. There were legends also of adventurers who had embarked in ships in the northern countries of Europe, and gone to seek homes across the Atlantic; and of fugitive bishops and priests, who, to escape persecution in their own country, had committed themselves to the waves, and been conducted by the hand of Providence to fertile and happy islands to the west of the Azores. Moreover, certain circumstances had come within Columbus' own knowledge, which seemed to argue the existence of land in that direction. Martin Vicenti, a pilot in the Portuguese service, had picked up a piece of carved wood floating in the ocean four hundred and fifty leagues west of St. Vincent, which, as the wind was westerly, he concluded must have come from some land opposite to Africa. Columbus' brother-in-law, Pedro Correa, had seen a similar piece of wood, which had drifted across the ocean from the same quarter; and had also heard of large canes seen floating on the waves west of Madeira, apparently resembling the reeds known to be produced in the East Indies. It was likewise reported that, when the wind had blown long from the west, trunks of huge pine-trees were often cast ashore upon the Azores; and that once two dead bodies, evidently the corpses neither of Europeans nor Africans, were driven upon the beach of the island of Flores.

All these and many other arguments convinced Columbus that the East Indies could be reached by sailing westward from Gibraltar, or the western coast of Africa. Every circumstance corroborative of this view which came to his knowledge he diligently noted down; and at last the conviction became so strong, that he conceived himself to be expressly destined by God for the great work of discovering a new world. No doubt or hesitation remained in his mind; and his only wish was to find the means of making the contemplated voyage. Once launched upon the Atlantic, he was absolutely certain that, after having sailed seven or eight hundred leagues to the west of the Canaries, he would come upon Marco Polo's island of Cipango, or the dominions of the great khan of Tartary.

Impressed with these delusive convictions, Columbus was eager to make application to some of the governments of Europe for means to make a voyage of discovery on the Atlantic. He first applied to John II, king of Portugal, who inherited the enterprising spirit of his grand-uncle, prince Henry, and in whose reign the means of finding the latitude at sea had been discovered. Columbus, without much difficulty, obtained an interview with the Portuguese monarch, to whom he explained his scheme of reaching the East Indies, not by the route round Africa, which all other navigators were pursuing, but by a shorter one across the Atlantic. Various accounts are given of the manner in which the proposal was received. John himself was a wise and magnanimous prince, and he appears to have been much impressed by the earnestness of the noble-looking foreigner who addressed him. Naturally cautious, however, of patronising an enterprise which might turn out to be a mere chimera, he referred the matter to some of his counselors, who dissuaded him from en g aging in it. Still, such was the effect of Columbus' representations, that John did not at once dismiss the project. On the contrary, by a piece of meanness not agreeing with his general character, he followed the advice of some of his counselors, and having, on false pretenses, procured from Columbus a detailed plan of his contemplated voyage, with maps and charts to correspond, he secretly despatched a vessel to ascertain the practicability of the intended route. The vessel actually sailed a considerable way beyond the Cape Vend islands; but a storm arising, the crew became afraid to venture farther, and put back, reporting that Columbus' notion was mad and irrational.