Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Discovery of America

A merry-go-round week has passed, and now, twelve days after leaving Southampton, we are in the very near neighbourhood of the West Indies. The island of Barbados is in sight, but yonder shore is a few miles farther away than it looks. Whilst we are getting into port there will be time for me to remind you of the circumstances which led to the discovery of the New World, and brought about a stirring series of events in connection with the portion thereof which is known as the Spanish Main. The West Indian islands have played an important part in the Panama Canal enterprise; and we shall soon be sailing along the coast of the Spanish Main, which was the scene not only of many famous exploits in the history of Spanish America, but of the discovery of a new ocean which gave birth to the idea of a Panama Canal. So I am sure you will agree with me that there could be no more suitable opportunity than we now have for a chat about Columbus and the far-reaching effects of his explorations.

Cristovalo Colon, popularly known as Christopher Columbus, was born at Genoa in, or about, the year 1435. From his infancy he showed a passion for the sea, and quite an extraordinary taste for geometry, astronomy, and everything connected with navigation. He was sent to a school in Pavia, and there, at the express desire of his parents, he was allowed to devote most of his time to the subjects which particularly interested him. At the early age of fourteen he went to sea. After having made several voyages, both in the Mediterranean and the Northern Seas of Europe, he went, in 1470, to live at Lisbon, which was then the most famous European centre for naval exploration.

For more than half a century the little kingdom of Portugal had been winning renown as the pioneer in naval improvements, the discoverer of new lands, and the searcher for new sea routes. For this distinction it was indebted to Prince Henry of Portugal, a nephew of King Henry IV. of England, Prince Henry was entrusted with the administration of Portugal's naval affairs in the early part of the fifteenth century. He continued to burn the midnight oil over the study of mathematics and geography; mixed with the Moorish merchants of Africa in order to get as much information as possible from them; made numerous improvements in the art of shipbuilding; fired his countrymen with an enthusiastic appreciation of the mariner's compass, and taught them how to reckon latitude and longitude by the help of the stars; gathered around him naval adventurers from all parts of the world; founded the town of Sagrez, and, in 1418, fitted out in that port the first exploring expedition that ever sailed from a European base. Owing to his able administration as a sea-lord Portugal discovered Madeira and the Azores.

Columbus married the daughter of one of Prince Henry's most distinguished captains, and his wife brought him a rich dowry in the form of her father's journals and charts. He studied these fascinating documents until he thoroughly understood them, made several voyages to Madeira and the Portuguese settlements in Western Africa, and gradually won fame as the greatest navigator of the age.

From his early youth he had been bent on discovering a sea route to India. All the great sailors in those days had that same ambition at heart, but from the moment the Portuguese passed Cape Verde and found the coast of Africa bending eastwards, general opinion favoured the belief that the sea route to India had already been partly tracked. Hence nearly all naval adventurers wanted to follow round the coast of Africa, for they were convinced that this was the most direct way into the Indian Ocean. But Columbus thought differently. His idea was that the shortest route to India would be found by steering westwards. The idea, which came to him when he was a child, originated in his belief that the world was round, and was fostered by the legends of ancient geographical writers, who had very exaggerated notions about the size of India. As the child developed into the man, a pet fancy became a haunting conviction. Mature thought and considerable seafaring experience made Columbus feel so positive that he could quickly reach the East by sailing to the West, that at last he could no longer resist the desire to seek practical proof of his theory. His patriotic heart prompted him to give his own country the first chance of reaping the benefits that would result from the discovery of a new trade route. He journeyed to Genoa and put his idea before the Senate. But as he could not arouse sufficient enthusiasm in his native land to obtain the help he needed for fitting out an expedition, he went back to Lisbon and laid his project before the King of Portugal. Prince Henry and his royal master and father, King John I., had now been dead for some years, but the new King, John II., was vigorously pursuing their naval policy. Under his patronage the explorer Bartholomew Diaz had just discovered the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus had every reason to believe that King John II. would, in the name of Portugal, jump at the chance of being his patron, too. But the King argued that the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope went far towards proving that a way could be found round Africa to the East; that by encouraging further explorations on the old plan, which had produced a considerable amount of evidence to support the belief that it was practicable, Portugal might very soon have India within its grasp; that Columbus's scheme, on the other hand, was purely speculative, although it sounded plausible and was very interesting.

Columbus next sought help in Spain, which country was just realizing the new power it had acquired by the union of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. Ferdinand and his courtiers scoffed at the great navigator's theory; but Isabella, who took a keen interest in the maritime enterprise of the age, and who was anxious that all the honour and profit from discoveries should not go to Portugal and Italy, came to the conclusion that Columbus's prospects of success were sufficiently good to justify her in making the private speculation of fitting out a small expedition for him. That decision, due to Isabella's ambition, enlightened outlook, and generosity, was the origin of the vast, rich and powerful possessions which Spain acquired in the New World, and of Spain's famous career as an Empire-builder. If Isabella had not been so keenly alert to Spain's interests, the British Empire might now include a considerable portion of South America. For before starting for Spain Columbus sent his brother to England to put before King Henry VII. the scheme for tracking a western passage to the East, and there is reason to believe that Henry was giving the project favourable consideration at the time Isabella actually determined to support it with funds from her private purse.