Columbus - The Voyage
On the 2d of August, 1492, Columbus and all his companions marched in solemn procession to the monastery of Rabida to confess their sins, obtain absolution, and implore the blessing of God on their expedition. The account of this deeply-interesting voyage may be best given in the elegant language of Robertson:
On Friday, the third day of August, in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two, Columbus set sail, a little before sunrise, in presence of a vast crowd of spectators, who sent up their supplications to Heaven for the prosperous issue of the voyage, which they wished rather than expected. Columbus steered directly for the Canary Islands, and arrived there (August 13) without any occurrence that would have de served notice on any other occasion. But in a voyage of such expectation and importance, every circumstance was the object of attention. The rudder of the Pinta broke loose the day after she left the harbor; and that accident alarmed the crew, no less superstitious than unskillful, as a certain omen of the unfortunate destiny of the expedition. Even in the short run to the Canaries, the ships were found to be so crazy and ill appointed, as to be very improper for a navigation which was expected to be both long and dangerous. Columbus refitted them, however, to the best of his power; and having supplied himself with fresh provisions, he took his departure from Gomera, one of the most westerly of the Canary Islands, on the sixth day of September.
Here the voyage of discovery may properly be said to begin; for Columbus, holding his course due west, left immediately the usual track of navigation, and stretched into unfrequented and unknown seas. The first day, as it was very calm, he made but little way; but on the second, he lost sight of the Canaries; and many of the sailors, dejected already and dismayed, when they contemplated the boldness of the undertaking, began to beat their breasts and to shed tears, as if they were never more to behold land. Columbus comforted them with assurances of success, and the prospect of vast wealth in those opulent regions whither he was conducting them. This early discovery of the spirit of his followers taught Columbus that he must prepare to struggle not only with the unavoidable difficulties which might be expected from the nature of his undertaking, but with such as were likely to arise from the ignorance and timidity of the people under his command; and he perceived that the art of governing the minds of men would be no less requisite for accomplishing the discoveries which he had in view, than naval skill and undaunted courage. Happily for himself, and for the country by which he was employed, he joined to the ardent temper and inventive genius of a projector, virtues of another species, which are rarely united with them. He possessed a thorough knowledge of mankind, an insinuating address, a patient perseverance in executing any plan, the perfect government of his own passions, and the talent of acquiring an ascendency over those of other men. All these qualities, which formed him for command, were accompanied with that superior knowledge of his profession which begets confidence in times of difficulty and danger. To unskillful Spanish sailors, accustomed only to coasting voyages in the Mediterranean, the maritime science of Columbus - the fruit of thirty years' experience, improved by an acquaintance with all the inventions of the Portuguese - appeared immense. As soon as they put to sea, he regulated everything by his sole authority; he superintended the execution of every order and allowing himself only a few hours for sleep, he was at all other times upon deck. As his course lay through seas which had not formerly been visited, the sounding line, or instruments for observation, were continually in his hands. After the example of the Portuguese discoverers, he attended to the motion of tides and currents, watched the flight of birds, the appearance of fishes, or seaweeds, and of everything that floated on the waves; and entered every occurrence with a minute exactness in the journal which he kept. As the length of the voyage could not fail of alarming , sailors habituated only to short excursions, Columbus endeavored to conceal from them the real progress which they made. With this view, though they ran eighteen leagues on the second day after they left Gomera, he gave out that they had advanced only fifteen; and he uniformly employed the same artifice of reckoning short during the whole voyage. By the fourteenth of September, the fleet was above two hundred leagues to the west of the Canary Islands, at a greater distance from land than any Spaniard had been before that time. There they were struck with an appearance no less astonishing than new. They observed that the magnetic needle in their compasses did not point exactly to the polar star, but varied towards the west; and as they proceeded, this variation increased. This appearance, which is now familiar - though it still remains one of the mysteries of nature, into the cause of which the sagacity of man hath not been able to penetrate - filled the companions of Columbus with terror. They were now in a boundless and unknown ocean, far from the usual course of navigation; nature itself seemed to be altered, and the only guide which they had left was about to fail them. Columbus, with no less quickness than ingenuity, invented a reason for this appearance, which, though it did not satisfy him self, seemed so plausible to them, that it dispelled their fears or silenced their murmurs.