American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt

Christopher Columbus


[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt
all these stories, foolish as they may seem, proved in the end a good thing. They kept the people wide awake, and on the look out for any new discovery far away upon the mysterious ocean.

By and by, there was born in the little village of Genoa, Italy, a baby boy who was destined to do more than guess and dream about the land beyond the sea. He was really to go and explore it and bring back proofs of its existence.

This baby boy, as every American school-child knows, was Christopher Columbus, the man whom now we are proud to honor as the discoverer of America.

Living as he did in this little sea-port town, he was generally, when not at school, to be found standing about the wharves watching the great ships come in, and listening to the marvellous stories that the sailors told.

Genoa at this time was a very rich town, and it sent ships to all parts of the known world. The little boy, eagerly drinking in all the wonderful stories the sailors were so fond of telling, thus learned much of the far away countries—much that was true and much also that was purely imaginary.

"I shall be a sailor!" he would say to himself as he listened; and then, like all other small lads, he longed to grow big and strong and old. "When I'm a man, I shall be a sailor! When I'm a man I shall go to all these wonderful countries and gather these beautiful things and bring home ships loaded with silver and gold."

The parents of Columbus were poor people. His father was a wool comber; but they were wise, and they tried to give their boy a good education. He was taught to read and write; and when, by and by, he was old enough to know what he should most enjoy, his father sent him away to a school where he could study arithmetic and drawing and geography.

To Columbus there was no study so fascinating as geography. He had listened eagerly to the sailors' stories in his very early boyhood; and so now he eagerly devoured every book and drank in every story he could find about the wonderful countries so far away.

And he would say to himself, "I must be a sailor! I must be a sailor!"

One day his good father said to him, "My boy, I have watched you for a long time; and since you have made up your mind to be a sailor, and since you like best those studies that have to do with navigation, I am willing to send you to the University of Pavia where, I am told, geography, astronomy, map-drawing and navigation are wisely taught."

Columbus was a happy boy, you may be sure. "Now indeed I may be a sailor!" cried he—"A wise one! An explorer and a discoverer perhaps!" And seizing a book, he ran down to the wharf to watch the ships and dream of the happy time when he should have learned all the wonders of navigation and be able to guide for himself one of these great ships.

Columbus improved every hour of his term at the University, learning so fast and showing so much eager interest and real thoughtfulness, that the teachers were very proud of him and predicted a great future for their pupil. But even they had little idea of how great that future was to be.

Columbus was only fourteen years old when he made his first voyage out upon the great blue sea with some traders bound for the East Indies. From that time on his life was like that of all sailors, I suppose, full of adventures, narrow escapes, and marvellous experiences.

When he was thirty-five years old he went to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. He was a quiet, dignified, thoughtful man now—his hair already white,—and here and there on his face were lines of care and trouble. For Columbus' life had not been an easy one; neither had he been satisfied to drift along contented with whatever he had been taught, whatever he had heard and read.

The stories of the great flat earth borne upon the back of an elephant or upon the shoulders of a great giant, the tales of the sea-gods and wind-gods,—all of which were believed in those early days,—had long since ceased to amuse or satisfy him. "They are not reasonable," he would say to himself. "They are like the stories one tells little children. There must be something different from all this."

And so, year after year, Columbus pondered and pondered upon these questions. He read every account of travels, every story of adventure, every theory of the earth's size and shape that he could find. But none satisfied him. "It's easy enough to guess and to guess about these things," he would say; "but there must be some natural law, some real fact, that, if discovered, would give us the truth."

On account of the smallness of the ships, together with the superstitious fears the sailors had of the unknown sea with its angry and revengeful gods, no one had ever sailed very far out upon the ocean, and so had little thought of what might be found far out beyond the horizon.

"There may be land away out there," Columbus would say; "at any rate, I am convinced that this earth is round, and that by sailing straight out to the westward, we should come to the East Indies, a much easier and more speedy route than we now have."

"Hear him! hear him!" the people would say. "He is crazy! he dares say the earth is round, when we and all our ancestors before us have known  that the earth is flat." "Ha, ha," laughed others; "let him sail westward as far as he pleases. When he has reached the end of the great sea and the sea-gods have cast him over, then he will learn how foolish he is, and Portugal will be well rid of him!"

But John II., then King of Portugal, was convinced that these notions of Columbus, as the people were pleased to call them, were not so absurd as they seemed. "The man knows what he is talking about, I believe," said he; "I will get his plans from him, pretend to favor them, pretend to be willing to aid him—then—then—well, we'll see who will have the honor of the first expedition, Columbus, the Genoese wool-comber's son, or John II., King of Portugal!"

And so this mean king led Columbus on to tell his plans and his reasons for believing the earth to be round. The king was wise enough to see that there was sound common sense and reason in these plans. Then when he had learned all, and had obtained the maps and charts which Columbus had made, he secretly sent out a vessel and ordered the captain to follow closely the route Columbus had marked out.

This was a mean trick, and I am glad, and you will be, that it did not succeed. No sooner was the vessel out of sight of land than the ignorant captain and the superstitious sailors began to be frightened.

"We are surely sailing off the edge of the earth!" cried they. "What shall we do when the sea-gods learn that we have dared come out of our home into their sacred waters!"

Then a great storm arose; the waves rolled and tumbled and broke above them mountains high. The thunder rumbled and the lightning flashed. Terror-stricken, the sailors turned the vessel homeward. "The gods are angry with us! They are punishing us for our boldness!" cried the ignorant sailors.

A more frightened and miserable crew never sailed back into Lisbon harbor than this one sent out by King John II.

And when Columbus heard of it, angry and disgusted with the meanness of the king, he would have no further talk with him; but, taking his little son Diego with him, he left the country and went to Spain.

Friendless and without money, Columbus with the little Diego travelled from place to place, always seeking some one who would understand and help him to an audience with the king or queen of Spain. If only somewhere a person of wealth could be found who would fit out for him a fleet, Columbus had not a doubt or a fear but that he could return with news of new lands or, at least, of a short route to India.

Years and years rolled by; and Columbus had gained nothing but a world-wide name of being a fool or an insane man. Men sneered at him, boys hooted at him in the street. Surely it was a brave man who could endure all this for the sake of right. But it is always so; as you grow older and read larger histories than these, you will find that seldom has a great man or woman brought to the world any great new truth, that ignorant and superstitious people did not scoff at it and make the life of the brave discoverer one of wretchedness and persecution.

"I will go to France," said Columbus at last, "and see if I can get the help of the French king." And he started with his little son, Diego, to walk the long distance.

One day, while on the road, Columbus stopped at the gate of a great gray convent in the town of Palos and asked for food.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


As the gate-man brought them bread, one of the monks passed by. Struck with the dignity and the courteous, refined appearance of Columbus, he said to himself, "Whom have we here? This is no ordinary beggar. I will speak with him."

So, going up to Columbus, he saluted him kindly and asked him to stop and rest. Glad enough were both Columbus and Diego to accept this hospitality, and together they entered the great halls of the convent.

Now the monk was a man of great learning for those days. More than that, he was a man who thought and who was always ready to accept any new theories, providing they seemed reasonable and honest proofs of their truth could be presented with them.

The intelligence and conversation of Columbus attracted the monk at once. "This man knows what he is talking about," thought he. "Surely I must bring him to Queen Isabella. She, if any one, will give him patient and intelligent hearing."

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


At that time the Spanish king and queen were busy with a great war against the Moors, so that it was a long time before either could listen to Columbus; but after long weeks of delay, he was summoned before them. There, before the king and queen and a large body of "wise men," as they called themselves, Columbus told his story.

All listened attentively. It was like a wonderful dream or a grand fairy story; and people were very fond of wonder stories of any kind in those days. But when the "wise men" were asked their opinion of the story as one at all likely to be true, they roared with laughter.

"The earth round!" cried they. "It is absurd! If a fleet were sent out upon the ocean it would certainly sail over the edge and fall down—down into unknown space."

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


"And if the earth were  round," said others, "and if this crazy man could sail down and stand upon his head on the other side of the sphere, how, pray, could he ever get back again? Has he learned to sail up hill?"

This was indeed unanswerable, so they all thought. Of course he could not, and of course he was a fool to think of such a thing. And so Columbus was sent away in disgrace, while the "wise men" entertained their friends for days after with the absurd story the crazy Genoese had told them.

"I will go to France," said Columbus to the good monk, when, discouraged and weary at heart he returned to the convent with the story of his defeat. "There is no hope for me in Spain."

"Wait, wait," said the monk. "I myself will go to the queen. I cannot bear that this honor should pass into the hands of the French. I will go to Isabella and beg her again to give you a hearing."

And so it was that once more Columbus waited and was led at last into the presence of the only one in all Spain who seemed to be kind enough at heart and to be far sighted enough to know that Columbus was neither foolish nor crazy.

After long hesitation—for it was not an easy matter in those days to fit out a fleet, nor was it a politic thing for Isabella to move in opposition to all the advice of her countrymen, she sent this word to Columbus: "I will undertake this enterprise for my own kingdom of Castile; and I will pledge my jewels, if need be, to raise the funds."