Discovery of Madeira, Cape de Verd Islands, the Azores, Congo, and Guinea—Bartholomew Diaz—Cabot and Labrador—The geographical and commercial tendencies of the middle ages—The erroneous idea of the distance between Europe and Asia—Birth of Christopher Columbus—His first voyages—His plans rejected—His sojourn at the Franciscan convent—His reception by Ferdinand and Isabella—Treaty of the 17th of April, 1492—The brothers Pinzon—Three armed caravels at the port of Palos—Departure on the 3rd of August, 1492.

The year 1492 is an era in geographical annals. It is the date of the discovery of America. The genius of one man was fated to complete the terrestrial globe, and to show the truth of Gagliuffi's saying,—

Unus erat mundus; duo sint, ait iste; fuere.

The old world was to be entrusted with the moral and political education of the new. Was it equal to the task, with its ideas still limited, its tendencies still semi-barbarous, and its bitter religious animosities? We must leave the answer to these questions to the facts that follow.

Between the year 1405, when Béthencourt had just accomplished the colonization of the Canary Islands, and the year 1492, what had taken place? We will give a short sketch of the geographical enterprise of the intervening years. A considerable impetus had been given to science by the Arabs (who were soon to be expelled from Spain), and had spread throughout the peninsula. In all the ports, but more especially in those of Portugal, there was much talk of the continent of Africa, and the rich and wonderful countries beyond the sea. "A thousand anecdotes," says Michelet, "stimulated curiosity, valour and avarice, every one wishing to see these mysterious countries where monsters abounded and gold was scattered over the surface of the land." A young prince, Don Henry, duke of Viseu, third son of John I., who was very fond of the study of astronomy and geography, exercised a considerable influence over his contemporaries; it is to him that Portugal owes her colonial power and wealth and the expeditions so repeatedly made, which were vividly described, and their results spoken of as so wonderful, that they may have aided in awakening Columbus' love of adventure. Don Henry had an observatory built in the southern part of the province of Algarve, at Sagres, commanding a most splendid view over the sea, and seeming as though it must have been placed there to seek for some unknown land; he also established a naval college, where learned geographers traced correct maps and taught the use of the mariner's compass. The young prince surrounded himself with learned men, and especially gathered all the information he could as to the possibility of circumnavigating Africa, and thus reaching India. Though he had never taken part in any maritime expedition, his encouragement and care for seamen gave him the soubriquet of "the Navigator," by which name he is known in history. Two gentlemen belonging to Don Henry's court, Juan Gonzales Zarco, and Tristram Vaz Teixeira had passed Cape Nun, the terror of ancient navigators, when they were carried out to sea and passed near an island to which they gave the name of Porto-Santo. Sometime afterwards, as they were sailing towards a black point that remained on the horizon, they came to a large island covered with splendid forests; this was Madeira.

Prince Henry of Portugal—'The Navigator.'
Prince Henry of Portugal—"The Navigator."

In 1433, Cape Bojador, which had for long been such a difficulty to navigators, was first doubled by the two Portuguese sailors, Gillianès and Gonzalès Baldaya, who passed more than forty leagues beyond it.

Encouraged by their example, Antonio Gonzalès, and Nuño Tristram, in 1441, sailed as far as Cape Blanco, "a feat," says Faria y Souza "that is generally looked upon as being little short of the labours of Hercules," and they brought back with them to Lisbon some gold-dust taken from the Rio del Ouro. In a second voyage Tristram noticed some of the Cape de Verd Islands, and went as far south as Sierra Leone. In the course of this expedition, he bought from some Moors off the coast of Guinea, ten negroes, whom he took back with him to Lisbon and parted with for a very high price, they having excited great curiosity. This was the origin of the slave-trade in Europe, which for the next 400 years robbed Africa of so many of her people, and was a disgrace to humanity.

In 1441, Cada Mosto doubled Cape Verd, and explored a part of the coast below it. About 1446, the Portuguese, advancing further into the open sea than their predecessors, came upon the group of the Azores. From this time all fear vanished, for the formidable line had been passed, beyond which the air was said to scorch like fire; expeditions succeeded each other without intermission, and each brought home accounts of newly-discovered regions. It seemed as if the African continent was really endless, for the further they advanced towards the south, the further the cape they sought appeared to recede. Some little time before this King John II. had added the title of Seigneur of Guinea to his other titles, and to the discovery of Congo had been added that of some stars in the southern hemisphere hitherto unknown, when Diogo Cam, in three successive voyages, went further south than any preceding navigator, and bore away from Diaz the honour of being the discoverer of the southern point of the African continent. This cape is called Cape Cross, and here he raised a monument called a padrao or padron in memory of his discovery, which is still standing. On his way back, he visited the King of Congo in his capital, and took back with him an ambassador and numerous suite of natives, who were all baptized, and taught the elements of the Christian religion, which they were to propagate on their return to Congo.

A short time after Diogo Cam's return in the month of August, 1487, three caravels left the Tagus under the command of Bartholomew Diaz, a gentleman attached to the king's household, and an old sailor on the Guinea seas. He had an experienced mariner under him, and the smallest of the three vessels freighted with provisions, was commanded by his brother Pedro Diaz. We have no record of the earlier part of this expedition; we only know, from Joao de Barros, to whom we owe nearly all we learn of Portuguese navigation, that beyond Congo he followed the coast for some distance, and came to an anchorage that he named "Das Voltas" on account of the manner in which he had to tack to reach it, and there he left the smallest of the caravels under the care of nine sailors. After having been detained here five days by stress of weather, Diaz stood out to sea, and took a southerly course, but for thirteen days his vessels were tossed hither and thither by the tempest.

As he went further south the temperature fell and the air became very cold; at last the fury of the elements abated, and Diaz took an easterly course hoping to sight the land, but after several days had passed, and being in about 42° south latitude, he anchored in the bay "dos Vaquieros," so named from the numbers of horned animals and shepherds, who fled inland at the sight of the two vessels.

At this time Diaz was about 120 miles east of the Cape of Good Hope, which he had doubled without seeing it. They then went to Sam Braz (now Mossel) bay, and coasted as far as Algoa bay and to an island called Da Cruz where they set up a padrao. But here the crews being much discouraged by the dangers they had passed through, and feeling much the scarcity and bad quality of the provisions, refused to go any farther. "Besides," they said, "as the land is now on our left, let us go back and see the Cape, which we have doubled without knowing it."

Diaz called a council, and decided that they should go forwards in a north-easterly direction for two or three days longer. We owe it to his firmness of purpose that he was able to reach a river, 75 miles from Da Cruz that he called Rio Infante, but then the crew refusing to go farther, Diaz was obliged to return to Europe. Barros says, "When Diaz left the pillar that he had erected, it was with such sorrow and so much bitterness, that it seemed almost as though he were leaving an exiled son, and especially when he thought of all the dangers that he and his companions had passed through, and the long distance which they had come with only this memorial as a remembrance: it was indeed painful to break off when the task was but half completed." At last they saw the Cape of Good Hope, or as Diaz and his followers called it then, the "Cape of Torments," in remembrance of all the storms and tempests they had passed through before they could double it. With the foresight which so often accompanies genius, John II. substituted for the "Cape of Torments," the name of the "Cape of Good Hope," for he saw that now the route to India was open at last, and his vast plans for the extension of the commerce and influence of his country were about to be realized.

On the 24th of August, 1488, Diaz returned to Angra das Voltas, where he had left his smallest caravel. He found six of his nine men dead, and the seventh was so overcome with joy at seeing his companions again that he died also. No particular incident marked the voyage home; they reached Lisbon in December, 1488, after staying at Benin, where they traded, and at La Mina to receive the money gained by the commerce of the colony.

It is strange but true, that Diaz not only received no reward of any kind for this voyage which had been so successful, but he seemed to be treated rather as though he had disgraced himself, for he was not employed again for ten years. More than this the command of the expedition that was sent to double the cape which Diaz had discovered, was given to Vasco da Gama, and Diaz was only to accompany it to La Mina holding a subordinate position. He was to hear of the marvellous campaign of his successful rival in India, and to see what an effect such an event would have upon the destiny of his country.

He took part in Cabral's expedition which discovered Brazil, but he had not the pleasure of seeing the shores to which he had been the pioneer, for the fleet had only just left the American shore, when a fearful storm arose; four vessels sank, and among them the one that Diaz commanded. It is in allusion to his sad fate that Camoens puts the following prediction into the mouth of Adamastor, the spirit of the Cape of Tempests. "I will make a terrible example of the first fleet that shall pass near these rocks, and I will wreak my vengeance on him who first comes to brave me in my dwelling."

In fact it was only in 1497, maybe five years after the discovery of America, that the southern point of Africa was passed by Vasco da Gama, and it may be affirmed that if this latter had preceded Columbus, the discovery of the new continent might have been delayed for several centuries. The navigators of this period were very timorous, and did not dare to sail out into mid-ocean; not liking to venture upon seas that were but little known, they always followed the coast-line of Africa, rather than go further from land. If the Cape of Tempests had been doubled, the sailors would have gone by this route to India, and none would have thought of going to the "Land of Spices," that is to say Asia, by venturing across the Atlantic. Who, in fact, would have thought of seeking for the east by the route to the west? But in truth this was the great idea of that day, for Cooley says, "The principal object of Portuguese maritime enterprise in the fifteenth century was to search for a passage to India by the Ocean." The most learned men had not gone so far as to imagine the existence of another continent to complete the equilibrium and balance of the terrestrial globe. Some parts of the American continent had been already discovered, for an Italian navigator Sebastian Cabot had landed on Labrador in 1487, and the Scandinavians had certainly disembarked on this unknown land. The colonists of Greenland, too had explored Winland, but so little disposition was there at this time to believe in the existence of a new world, that Greenland, Winland, and Labrador were all thought to be a continuation of the European continent.

The main question before the navigators of the fifteenth century was the opening up of an easier communication with the shores of Asia. The route to India, China, and Japan (countries already known through the wonderful narrative of Marco Polo), viâ, Asia Minor, Persia, and Tartary, was long and dangerous. The transport of goods was too difficult and costly for these "ways terrestrial" ever to become roads for commerce. A more practicable means of communication must be found. Thus all the dwellers on the coasts, from England to Spain, as well as the people living on the shores of the Mediterranean, seeing the great Atlantic ocean open to their vessels, began to inquire, whether indeed this new route might not conduct them to the shores of Asia.

The sphericity of the Globe being established, this reasoning was correct, for going always westward, the traveller must necessarily at last reach the east, and as to the route across the ocean, it would certainly be open. Who could, indeed, have suspected the existence of an obstacle 9750 miles in length, lying between Europe and Asia, and called America?

We must observe also that the scientific men of the Middle Ages believed that the shores of Asia were not more than 6000 miles distant from those of Europe. Aristotle supposed the terrestrial globe to be smaller than it really is. Seneca said "How far is it from the shores of Spain to India? A very few days' sail, should the wind be favourable." This was also the opinion of Strabo. So it seemed that the route between Europe and Asia must be short, and there being such places for ships to touch at as the Azores and Antilles, of which the existence was known in the fifteenth century, the transoceanic communication promised not to be difficult. This popular error as to distance had the happy effect of inducing navigators to try to cross the Atlantic, a feat which, had they been aware of the 15,000 miles of ocean separating Europe from Asia, they would scarcely have dared to attempt.

We must in justice allow that certain facts gave, or seemed to give, reason to the partisans of Aristotle and Strabo for their belief in the proximity of the eastern shores. Thus, a pilot in the service of the King of Portugal, while sailing at 1350 miles' distance from Cape St. Vincent, the south-western point of the Portuguese province of Algarve, met with a piece of wood ornamented with ancient sculptures, which he considered must have come from a continent not far off. Again, some fishermen had found near the island of Madeira, a sculptured post and some bamboos, which in shape resembled those found in India. The inhabitants of the Azores also, often picked up gigantic pine-trees, of an unknown species, and one day two human bodies were cast upon their shores, "corpses with broad faces," says the chronicler Herrera, "and not resembling Christians."

These various facts tended to inflame imagination. As in the fifteenth century men had no knowledge of that great Gulf-stream, which, in nearing the European coasts, brings with it waifs and strays from America, so they could only imagine that these various débris must come from Asia. Therefore, they argued, Asia could not be far off, and the communication between these two extremes of the old continent must be easy. One point must be clearly borne in mind, no geographer of this period had any notion of the existence of a new world; it was not even a desire of adding to geographical knowledge which led to the exploration of the western route. It was the men of commerce who were the leaders in this movement, and who first undertook to cross the Atlantic. Their only thought was of traffic, and of carrying it on by the shortest road.

The mariner's compass, invented, according to the generally received opinion, about 1302, by one Flavio Gioja of Amalfi, enabled vessels to sail at a distance from the coasts, and to guide themselves when out of sight of land. Martin Béhaim, with two physicians in the service of Prince Henry of Portugal, had also added to nautical science by discovering the way of directing the voyager's course according to the position of the sun in the heavens, and by applying the astrolabe to the purposes of navigation. These improvements being adopted, the commercial question of the western route increased daily in importance in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, countries in which three-quarters of the science is made up of imagination. There was discussion, there were writings. The excited world of commerce disputed with the world of science. Facts, systems, doctrines, were grouped together. The time was come when there was needed one single intelligence to collect together and assimilate the various floating ideas. This intelligence was found. At length all the scattered notions were gathered together in the mind of one man, who possessed in a remarkable degree genius, perseverance, and boldness.

Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus.

This man was no other than Christopher Columbus, born, probably near Genoa, about the year 1436. We say "probably," for the towns of Cogoreo and Nervi dispute with Savona and Genoa, the honour of having given him birth. The date of his birth varies, with different biographers, from 1430 to 1445, but the year 1436 would appear to be the correct one, according to the most reliable documents. The family of Columbus was of humble origin; his father, Domenic Columbus, a manufacturer of woollen stuffs, seems, however, to have been in sufficiently easy circumstances to enable him to give his children a more than ordinarily good education. The young Christopher, the eldest of the family, was sent to the University of Pavia, there to study Grammar, Latin, Geography, Astronomy, and Navigation.

At fourteen years of age Christopher left school and went to sea; from this time until 1487, very little is known of his career. It is interesting to give the remark of Humboldt on this subject, as reported by M. Charton; he said, "that he regretted the more this uncertainty about the early life of Columbus when he remembered all that the chroniclers have so minutely preserved for us upon the life of the dog Becerillo, or the elephant Aboulababat, which Haroun-al-Raschid sent to Charlemagne!" The most probable account to be gathered from contemporary documents and from the writings of Columbus himself, is that the young sailor visited the Levant, the west, the north, England several times, Portugal, the coast of Guinea, and the islands of Africa, perhaps even Greenland, for, by the age of forty "he had sailed to every part that had ever been sailed to before." He was looked upon as a thoroughly competent mariner, and his reputation led to his being chosen for the command of the Genoese galleys, in the war which that Republic was waging against Venice. He afterwards made an expedition, in the service of René, king of Anjou, to the coasts of Barbary, and in 1477, he went to explore the countries beyond Iceland.

This voyage being successfully terminated, Christopher Columbus returned to his home at Lisbon. He there married the daughter of an Italian gentleman, Bartolomeo Munez Perestrello, a sailor like himself and deeply interested in the geographical ideas of the day. The wife of Columbus, Dona Filippa, was without fortune, and Columbus, having none himself, felt he must work for the support of himself and his family. The future discoverer, therefore, set to work to make picture-books, terrestrial globes, maps, and nautical charts, and continued in this employment until 1481, but without at the same time abandoning his scientific and literary pursuits. It seems probable even, that during this period he studied deeply, and attained to knowledge far beyond that possessed by most of the sailors of his time. Can it have been that at this time "the Great Idea" first arose in his mind? It may well have been so. He was following assiduously the discussions relative to the western routes, and the facility of communication by the west, between Europe and Asia. His correspondence proves that he shared the opinion of Aristotle as to the relatively short distance separating the extreme shores of the old Continent. He wrote frequently to the most distinguished savants of his time. Martin Béhaim, of whom we have already spoken, was amongst his correspondents, and also the celebrated Florentine astronomer, Toscanelli, whose opinions in some degree influenced those of Columbus.

Imaginary view of Seville
A Spanish Port.

At this time Columbus, according to the portrait of him given by his biographer Washington Irving, was a tall man, of robust and noble presence. His face was long, he had an aquiline nose, high cheek bones, eyes clear and full of fire; he had a bright complexion, and his face was much covered with freckles. He was a truly Christian man, and it was with the liveliest faith that he fulfilled all the duties of the Catholic religion.

At the time when Christopher Columbus was in correspondence with the astronomer Toscanelli, he learnt that the latter, at the request of Alphonso V., King of Portugal, had sent to the king a learned Memoir upon the possibility of reaching the Indies by the western route. Columbus was consulted, and supported the ideas of Toscanelli with all his influence; but without result, for the King of Portugal, who was engaged at the time in war with Spain, died, without having been able to give any attention to maritime discoveries. His successor, John II., adopted the plans of Columbus and Toscanelli with enthusiasm. At the same time, with most reprehensible cunning, he tried to deprive these two savants of the benefit of their proposition; without telling them, he sent out a caravel to attempt this great enterprise, and to reach China by crossing the Atlantic. But he had not reckoned upon the inexperience of his pilots, nor upon the violence of the storms which they might encounter; the result was, that some days after their departure, a hurricane brought back to Lisbon the sailors of the Portuguese king. Columbus was justly wounded by this unworthy action, and felt that he could not reckon upon a king who had so deceived him. His wife being dead, he left Spain with his son Diego, towards the end of the year 1484. It is thought that he went to Genoa and to Venice, where his projects of transoceanic navigation were but badly received.

Columbus knocks at a convent door
Columbus knocks at a convent door.

However it may have been, in 1485 we find him again in Spain. This great man was poor, without resources. He travelled on foot, carrying Diego his little son of ten years old, in his arms. From this period of his life, history follows him step by step; she no more loses sight of him, and she has preserved to posterity the smallest incidents of this grand existence. We find Columbus arrived in Andalusia, only half a league from the port of Palos. Destitute, and dying of hunger, he knocked at the door of a Franciscan convent, dedicated to Santa Maria de Rabida, and asked for a little bread and water for his poor child and for himself. The superior of the convent, Juan Perez de Marchena, gave hospitality to the unfortunate traveller. He questioned him, and was surprised by the nobleness of his language, but still more astonished was he, by the boldness of the ideas of Columbus, who made the good Father the confidant of his aspirations. For several months the wandering sailor remained in this hospitable convent; some of the monks were learned men, and interested themselves about him and his projects; they studied his plans; they mentioned him to some of the well-known navigators of the time; and we must give them the credit of having been the first to believe in the genius of Christopher Columbus. Juan Perez showed still greater kindness; he offered to take upon himself the charge of the education of Diego, and he gave to Columbus a letter of recommendation addressed to the confessor of the Queen of Castille.

This confessor, prior of the monastery of Prado, was deep in the confidence of Ferdinand and Isabella; but he did not approve of the projects of the Genoese navigator, and he rendered him no service whatever with his royal penitent. Columbus must still resign himself to wait. He went to live at Cordova, where the court was soon to come, and for livelihood he resumed his trade of picture-seller. Is it possible to quote from the lives of illustrious men an instance of a more trying existence than this of the great navigator? Could ill-fortune have assailed any man with more cruel blows? But this indomitable, indefatigable man of genius, rising up again after each trial, did not despair. He felt within him the sacred fire of genius, he worked on unceasingly, he visited influential persons, spreading his ideas and defending them, and combating all objections with the most heroic energy. At length he obtained the protection of the great cardinal-archbishop of Toledo, Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, and thanks to him, was admitted into the presence of the King and Queen of Spain.

Christopher Columbus must have imagined himself now at the end of all his troubles. Ferdinand and Isabella received his project favourably, and caused it to be submitted for examination to a council of learned men, consisting of bishops and monks who were gathered together ad hoc in a Dominican convent at Salamanca. But the unfortunate pleader was not yet at the end of his vicissitudes. In this meeting at Salamanca all his judges were against him. The truth was, that his ideas interfered with the intolerant religious notions of the fifteenth century. The Fathers of the Church had denied the sphericity of the earth, and since the earth was not round they declared that a voyage of circumnavigation was absolutely contrary to the Bible, and could not therefore, on any logical theory, be undertaken. "Besides," said these theologians, "if any one should ever succeed in descending into the other hemisphere, how could he ever mount up again into this one?" This manner of arguing was a very formidable one at this period; for Christopher Columbus saw himself, in consequence, almost accused of heresy, the most unpardonable crime which could be committed in these intolerant countries. He escaped any evil consequences from the hostile disposition of the Council, but the execution of his project was again adjourned.

Building a caravel
Building a caravel.

Long years passed away. The unfortunate man of genius, despairing of success in Spain, sent his brother to England to make an offer of his services to the king, Henry VII. But it is probable that the king gave no answer. Then Christopher Columbus turned again with unabated perseverance to Ferdinand, but Ferdinand was at this time engaged in a war of extermination against the Moors, and it was not until 1492, when he had chased the Moors from Spain, that he was able again to listen to the solicitations of the Genoese sailor.

This time the affair was thoroughly considered, and the king consented to the enterprise. But Columbus, as is the manner of proud natures, wished to impose his own conditions. They bargained over that which should enrich Spain! Columbus, in disgust, was without doubt ready to quit, and for ever, this ungrateful country, but Isabella, touched by the thought of the unbelievers of Asia, whom she hoped to convert to the Catholic faith, ordered Columbus to be recalled, and then acceded to all his demands.

Columbus was in the fifty-sixth year of his age when he signed a treaty with the King of Spain at Santa-Feta on the 17th of April, 1492, being eighteen years after he had first conceived his project, and seven years from the time of his quitting the monastery of Palos. By this solemn convention, the dignity of high admiral was to belong to Columbus in all the lands which he might discover, and this dignity was to descend in perpetuity to his heirs and successors. He was named viceroy and governor of the new possessions which he hoped to conquer in the rich countries of Asia, and one-tenth part of the pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, provisions, and merchandise of whatever kind, which might be acquired in any manner whatsoever, within the limits of his jurisdiction, was of right to belong to him.

All was arranged, and at length Columbus was to put his cherished projects in execution. But let us repeat, he had no thought of meeting with the New World, of the existence of which he had not the faintest suspicion. His aim was "to explore the East by the West, and to pass by the way of the West to the Land whence come the spices." One may even aver that Columbus died in the belief that he had arrived at the shores of Asia, and never knew himself that he had made the discovery of America. But this in no way lessens his glory; the meeting with the new Continent was but an accident. The real cause of the immortal renown of Columbus was that audacity of genius which induced him to brave the dangers of an unknown ocean, to separate himself afar from those familiar shores, which, until now, navigators had never ventured to quit, to adventure himself upon the waves of the Atlantic Ocean in the frail ships of the period, which the first tempest might engulf, to launch himself, in a word, upon the deep darkness of an unknown sea.

The preparations began, Columbus entering into an arrangement with some rich navigators of Palos, the three brothers Pinzon, who made the necessary advances for defraying the expenses of fitting out the ships. Three caravels, named the Gallega, the Nina, and the Pinta, were equipped in the port of Palos. The Gallega was destined to carry the admiral, who changed her name to the Santa-Maria. The Pinta was commanded by Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and the Nina by his two brothers, Francis Martin, and Vincent Yanez Pinzon. It was difficult to man the ships, sailors generally being frightened at the enterprise, but at last the captains succeeded in getting together one hundred and twenty men, and on Friday, August 3rd, 1492, the admiral crossing at eight o'clock in the morning the bar of Saltez, off the town of Huelva, in Andalusia, adventured himself with his three half-decked caravels upon the Atlantic waves.