Page images
PDF
EPUB

DISCOVERY OF AMERICA.*

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY:

ALTHOUGH I appear before you at the season at which the various religious, moral, and philanthropic societies usually hold their annual meetings to discuss the stirring and contro. verted topics of the day, I need not say to you that the proprieties of this occasion require me to abstain from such subjects; and to select a theme falling, to some extent at least, within the province of a historical society. I propose, accordingly, to attempt this evening, to sketch the history of the discovery and colonization of America and of immigration to the United States. I can of course offer you, within the limits of a single address, but a most superficial view of so vast a subject; but I have thought that even a sketch of a subject, which concerns us so directly and in so many ways, would suggest important trains of reflection to thoughtful minds. Words written or spoken are at best but a kind of shorthand, to be filled up by the reader or hearer. I shall be gratified if, after honoring my hasty outline with your kind attention, you shall deem it worth filling up from your own stores of knowledge and thought. You will forgive me, if, in the attempt to give a certain completeness to the narrative, I shall be led to glance at a few facts, which, however interest. ing, may seem to you too familiar for repetition.

In the last quarter of the fifteenth century, an Italian mariner, a citizen of the little republic of Genoa, who had hitherto

* A lecture originally delivered before the Mercantile Library Association in Boston, and repeated before the New York Historical Society, on the 1st of June, 1853.

gained his livelihood as a pilot in the commercial marine of different countries, made his appearance successively at various courts in the south and west of Europe, soliciting patronage and aid for a bold and novel project in navigation. The state of the times was in some degree favorable to the adventure. The Portuguese had for half a century been pushing their discoveries southward upon the coast of Africa, and had ventured into the Atlantic as far as the Azores. Several conspiring causes, and especially the invention of the art of printing, had produced a general revival of intelligence. Still, however, the state of things in this respect was, at that time, very different from what we witness in the middle of the nineteenth century. On the part of the great mass of mankind, there was but little improvement over the darkness of the middle ages. The new culture centred in the convent, the court, and the university, places essentially distrustful of bold novelties.

The idea of reaching the East by a voyage around the African continent had begun to assume consistency; but the vastly more significant idea, that the earth is a globe and capable of being circumnavigated, had by no means become incorporated into the general intelligence of the age. The Portuguese navigators felt themselves safe as they crept along the African coast, venturing each voyage a few leagues further, doubling a new headland, ascending some before unexplored river, and holding a palaver with some new tribe of the native races. But to turn the prows of their vessels boldly to the west, to embark upon an ocean, not believed, in the popular geography of the day, to have an outer shore, to pass that bourne from which no traveller had ever returned, and from which experience had not taught that any traveller could return, and thus to reach the East by sailing in a western direction,—this was a conception which no human being is known to have formed before Columbus, and which he proposed to the governments of Italy, of Spain, and of Portugal, and for a a long time without success. The state of science was not such as to enable men to discriminate between the improba

ble and untried on the one hand, and the impossible and absurd on the other. They looked upon Columbus as we did thirty years ago upon Captain Symmes.

But the illustrious adventurer persevered. Sorrow and disappointment clouded his spirits, but did not shake his faith nor subdue his will. His well-instructed imagination had taken firm hold of the idea that the earth is a sphere. What seemed to the multitude even of the educated of that day a doubtful and somewhat mystical theory; what appeared to the uninformed mass a monstrous paradox, contradicted by every step we take upon the broad, flat earth which we daily tread beneath our feet;— that great and fruitful truth revealed itself to the serene intelligence of Columbus as a practical fact, on which he was willing to stake all he had, - character and life. And it deserves ever to be borne in mind, as the most illustrious example of the connection of scientific theory with great practical results, that the discovery of America, with all its momentous consequences to mankind, is owing to the distinct conception in the mind of Columbus of this single scientific proposition, - the terraqueous earth is a sphere.

After years of fruitless and heart-sick solicitation, after offering in effect to this monarch and to that monarch the gift of a hemisphere, the great discoverer touches upon a partial success. He succeeds, not in enlisting the sympathy of his countrymen at Genoa and Venice for a brave brother sailor; not in giving a new direction to the spirit of maritime adventure which had so long prevailed in Portugal; not in stimulating the commercial thrift of Henry the Seventh, or the pious ambition of the Catholic King. His sorrowful perseverance touched the heart of a noble princess, worthy the throne which she adorned. The new world, which was just escaping the subtle kingcraft of Ferdinand, was saved to Spain by the womanly compassion of Isabella.

It is truly melancholy, however, to contemplate the wretched equipment, for which the most powerful princess in Christendom was ready to pledge her jewels. Floating castles will soon be fitted out to convey the miserable natives of Africa to the golden shores of America, and towering galleons will be despatched to bring home the guilty treasures to Spain; but three small vessels, two of which were without a deck, and neither of them probably exceeding the capacity of a pilot-boat, and even these impressed into the public service, compose the expedition, fitted out under royal patronage, to realize that magnificent conception in which the creative mind of Columbus had planted the germs of a new world.

No chapter of romance equals the interest of this expedition. The most fascinating of the works of fiction which have issued from the modern press have, to my taste, no attraction compared with the pages in which the first voyage of Columbus is described by Robertson, and still more by our own Irving and Prescott, the last two enjoying the advantage over the great Scottish historian of possessing the lately discovered journals and letters of Columbus himself. The departure from Palos, where a few years before he had begged a morsel of bread and a cup of water for his way worn child; his final farewell to the old world at the Canaries; his entrance upon the trade-winds, which then, for the first time, filled a European sail; the portentous variation of the needle, never before observed; the fearful course westward and westward, day after day and night after night, over the unknown ocean; the mutinous and ill-appeased crew;- at length, when hope had turned to despair in every heart but one, the tokens of land; the cloud-banks on the western horizon; the logs of drift-wood; the fresh shrub floating with its leaves and berries; the flocks of land-birds; the shoals of fish that inhabit shallow water; the indescribable smell of the shore; the mysterious presentiment that seems ever to go before a great event;* and, finally, on that ever memorable night of the 12th of October, 1492, the moving light seen by the sleepless eye of the great discoverer himself from the deck of the Santa Maria, and in the morning the real, undoubted land, swelling up from the bosom of the deep, with its plains, and hills, and forests, and rocks, and streams, and strange, new races of men;

* See above, p. 228.

these are incidents in which the authentic history of the discovery of our continent excels the specious wonders of romance, as much as gold excels tinsel, or the sun in the heavens outshines that flickering taper.

But it is no part of my purpose to dwell upon this interesting narrative, or to follow out this most wonderful of histories, sinking as it soon did into a tale of sorrow for Columbus himself, and before long ending in one of the most frightful tragedies in the annals of the world. Such seems to be the law of humanity, that events the most desirable and achievements the most important should, either in their inception or progress, be mixed up with disasters, crimes, and sorrows which it makes the heart sick to record.

The discovery of America, I need hardly say, produced a vast extension of the territory of the power under whose auspices the discovery was made. In contemplating this point, we encounter one of the most terrible mysteries in the history of our race. “Extension of territory!” you are ready to exclaim; “how could Spain acquire any territory by the fact that a navigator, sailing under her patronage, had landed upon one or two islands near the continent of America, and coasted for a few hundred miles along its shores? These shores and islands are not a desert on which Columbus, like a Robinson Crusoe of a higher order, has landed and taken possession. They are occupied and settled, - crowded, even, with inhabitants, — subject to the government of their native chiefs; and neither by inheritance, colonization, nor as yet by conquest, has any human being in Europe a right to rule over them or to possess a square foot of their territory.” Such are the facts of the case, and such, one would say, ought to be the law and equity of the case. But alas for the native chiefs and the native races! Before he sailed from Spain, Columbus was furnished with a piece of parchment a foot and a half square, by Ferdinand and Isabella, creating him their viceroy and high-admiral in all the seas, islands, and continents which he should discover, his heirs for ever to enjoy the same offices. The viceroy of the absolute monarchs of Aragon and Castile!

« PreviousContinue »