Discovery of New Worlds - M. B. Synge

Follow the Leader

"Go from the east to the west, as the sun and the stars direct thee;

Go with the girdle of man, go and encompass the earth,

Not for the gain of the gold—for the getting, the hoarding, the having—

But for the joy of the deed, but for the Duty to do."


Once Columbus had led the way to the New World, it was easy enough for others to follow. He had resolutely plunged across the unknown Sea of Darkness and found land beyond. There is a story told of him that shows that he, too, knew how great had been the plunge.

He was sitting at dinner when a Spaniard, somewhat jealous of his fortune, suggested that if he—Columbus—had not found the new country, some other Spaniard might easily have done so. Columbus said nothing, but taking an egg, he asked if any one present could make it stand. All tried, but in vain. Then Columbus took the egg, and having cracked one end on the table, he stood it up. All saw his meaning. Once the thing was done, it was no hard matter to do it again.

Columbus had just returned from his discovery of land across the Atlantic—though he had not found the mainland of the new world—when John Cabot started off, full of enthusiasm, for a voyage across the ocean.

Like Columbus, he was an Italian by birth, and, like him, Cabot had applied to the two Courts of Portugal and Spain for ships and money. But finally he was sailing from England. Bristol, the chief seaport of England at this time, traded with Venice and Lisbon, and her merchants had already ventured some distance out into the broad Atlantic. It was from Bristol that John Cabot and his son Sebastian sailed one bright May morning in the famous year 1497, a year which they were to make yet more famous by their further discoveries. They sailed with one small ship and only eighteen sailors, and soon found themselves tossing on the yet dimly known ocean. By the end of June they had fallen in with land. It was really New-foundland, off the coast of North America, but they thought it was China—the land of the Great Khan.

Never since the old Viking days had white men been seen on these shores, and they had left no trace. By July the Cabots were home again, telling the King of England, Henry VII., of their good fortune. It is amusing to find the thrifty king bestowing on "him that found the new isle" the famous grant of 10! But other honours were heaped upon him. He was called the Grand Admiral, and dressed in silk; and we hear further that "the English ran after him like madmen." Again and again after this Sebastian Cabot sailed to North America, ever bringing back news of fresh lands discovered and fresh wonders seen; but as yet no colonists felt tempted to settle in the bleak north. The inhospitable shores of Labrador offered no attraction, and it was a long time before any use was made of these discoveries.

Neither did Cabot himself ever know the value of them, but he died, as his great leader had died, still thinking that he had found the coast of China, the golden Cathay of Marco Polo.

The story of Amerigo Vespucci, who also followed his leader to the new country, is curious, for it was named after him America. He had made several voyages to the West, while Columbus was yet going backwards and forwards to his newly discovered lands. He had sailed under a Spaniard through the Dragon's Mouth between Trinidad and the mainland of South America, had found a village—forty-four large houses built on huge tree-trunks and connected by bridges: it was like the Italian Venice rising out of her lagoons, and is known to-day as Venezuela or little Venice.

But it was not till after the death of Columbus, after Amerigo Vespucci had been many times to the West and coasted down the east coast of South America, much farther than Columbus had ever done, that the idea began to dawn on men that this land was neither Asia nor Africa, that it was not the land of the Great Khan nor the India of Vasco da Gama, but a new continent altogether.

"It is proper to call it a new world," says Amerigo Vespucci. "And why? Because these lands were unknown to the men of old. They said over and over again that there was no land south of the equator. But this last voyage of mine has proved them wrong, since in southern regions I have found a country more thickly inhabited by people and animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa."

Thus he wrote privately to a friend in Italian. It was translated into Latin, printed and published in Paris as a little four-leaved tractlet, and eagerly read. Amerigo Vespucci had discovered another world beyond the equator, they said. It was not the land of Columbus, but altogether something new and strange.

For the first time the vague idea of a new continent began to take shape in the public mind.

Vespucci's voyages were widely read; and in the year 1507 we find these words in a little old geography book written at this time to tell people all that was known about the world. The earth was divided into three parts, says the little old book. "But now," it goes on, "these parts have been more thoroughly explored, and another fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci; wherefore," adds the author, "I do not see what is rightly to hinder us from calling it America—the land of Americus—after its discoverer Americus."

The name was taken up, and in the maps of the time we find a vague piece of land somewhere away in the Atlantic Ocean called America.

It was left for others to discover that the land of Columbus, of Cabot, and of Amerigo Vespucci, were one and the same.