THE discovery of America was the greatest accident in history. Four times Christopher Columbus sailed to find the spice shores of the Orient, with their cinnamon and clove, finery, nutmeg and peppers, silk and cashmere—the gorgeous East of Marco Polo's unbelievable tale, with its gold, pearls and diamonds. He found instead the barbarous islands of the West Indies. Although he spoke of having come upon "another world" in one of his later voyages, probably he died without knowing that he had indeed stumbled upon a new world—a hemisphere.
Nevertheless, history gives Columbus alone the high title of discoverer of America, and rightly. To discover means to uncover, to disclose, which the Norse voyagers five hundred years before did not do.
The Old World had not yet discovered itself and had no need of a new in the year 1000, when Leif Ericsson rowed his Viking ship into an American harbor. With the coming of gunpowder to put an end to private warfare, Europe had her first breathing spell since the crashing of the Roman empire. Straightway she began to look about her to see what kind of world she was in. The invention of printing from type came to whet her curiosity, and soon the Renaissance burst forth in its glory.
In that same pregnant era, Constantinople fell, and the newly risen Turkish empire made more difficult the ancient caravan trails of commence. New nations sprang up by the Atlantic. These were ambitious to find trade routes of their own over the great ocean that washed their shores, where they would be free from dependence on Italian carriers and financiers, who monopolized the old routes overland.
Through ages Europe had stood shudderingly on the brink of that "Sea of Darkness." As she watched ships sail away to the Azores and other islands, she had seen them go down a watery hill. No man had dared follow that hill to the bottom, and Columbus was the first to take the risk.
The favorite epic of America is the finding of genius and greatness in humble disguises. The first of the "self-made" men who abound in the national biography was this Italian weaver, who was born in such obscurity that Genoa still has to dispute with sixteen other towns for the honor of being his birthplace, and historians differ by fifteen years as to the date of his birth.
To the Portuguese, Columbus first proposed the finding of a short cut to the Orient across the Atlantic. They preferred to gain the goal by what proved to be the truer route around Africa, which their Vasco da Gama was to open only six years following the discovery of America.
After haunting the court of the King of Portugal until his hair turned prematurely white, the Genoese dreamer left Lisbon. Appealing to the less water wise Spanish, he finally succeeded in infecting them with his now fanatical delusion. From Queen Isabella of Spain he received the necessary authority and a contribution toward his expenses. The total cost of the expedition totaled only $7,200 but that meant perhaps as much as $100,000 in the money of our day.
Columbus had what the Norsemen lacked five hundred years earlier: a compass for his guidance when sun and stars were hidden. No navigator in all the years since has found a better course than he steered in 1492, when he piloted the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta, with their company of ninety men, over three thousand two hundred miles of an uncharted sea in thirty-five days.
When the voyager sighted his first speck of land in the Bahamas, probably Watling Island, he was sure that he had come to the Orient, instead of being, as he really was, off the coast of Florida. He cruised among the squalid islands and their wondering inhabitants, looking for the splendid capital of the Great Khan. For he had brought letters of introduction to that monarch, just such as were carried back to Europe from America four hundred and thirty-five years afterward by the first sailor to navigate an airplane between the two mainlands. And all the gold Columbus saw was in the ringed noses of the tribal chiefs!
Again the pursuer of the phantom east came the new year in quest of the mouth of the River Ganges and found it not. A third time he returned and coasted Venezuela. While he was crossing the mouth of the Orinoco, one of his sailors lowered a bucket over the side of the ship and brought up fresh water. They were in the current of a river so great that it must flow from nothing less than a continent. But the commander reckoned that this new-found continent lay somewhere below China and that the earth, after all, was not round, but shaped like a pear!
From that voyage the baffled seeker for the Orient was sent home in chains, under orders of a jealous governor of the Spanish colony that had already settle San Domingo. Arrived in Spain, he prostrated himself before Isabella in the Alhambra, and the Queen wept at the sight of him sobbing at her feet. A fourth voyage followed that bottle humiliation, when he tried to find a strait through the isthmus of Central America. Everywhere he was thwarted by a stubborn land which would not let him pass either around it or through it to the East that he sought. Nor would it yield to his sad, deluded mind the secret that it was a great new world, which would everlastingly acclaim him its discoverer.
Within two years of his return from that last seemingly bootyless voyage, while virtually a homeless pauper, this pathetic and glorious failure breathed out his unhappy life.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 4, 1927