Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation

Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
John Lord

Topics Covered
Marco Polo
His travels
The geographical problems of the fourteenth century
Sought to be solved by Christopher Columbus
The difficulties he had to encounter
Regarded as a visionary man
His persistence
Influence of women in great enterprises
Columbus introduced to Queen Isabella
Excuses for his opponents
The Queen favors his projects
The first voyage of Columbus
Its dangers
Discovery of the Bahama Islands
Discovery of Cuba and Hispaniola
Columbus returns to Spain
The excitement and enthusiasm produced by his discoveries
His second voyage
Extravagant expectations of Columbus
Disasters of the colonists
Decline of the popularity of Columbus
His third voyage
His arrest and disgrace
His fourth voyage
His death
Greatness of his services
Results of his discoveries
The mines of Peru and Mexico
The effects on Europe of the rapid increase of the precious metals
True sources of national wealth
The destinies of America
Its true mission

Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries

A. D. 1446-1506.

About thirteen hundred years ago, when Attila the Hun, called “the scourge of God,” was overrunning the falling empire of the Romans, some of the noblest citizens of the small cities of the Adriatic fled, with their families and effects, to the inaccessible marshes and islands at the extremity of that sea, and formed a permanent settlement. They became fishermen and small traders. In process of time they united their islands together by bridges, and laid the foundation of a mercantile state. Thither resorted the merchants of Mediaeval Europe to make exchanges. Thus Venice became rich and powerful, and in the twelfth century it was one of the prosperous states of Europe, ruled by an oligarchy of the leading merchants.

Contemporaneous with Dante, one of the most distinguished citizens of this mercantile mart, Marco Polo, impelled by the curiosity which reviving commerce excited and the restless adventure of a crusading age, visited the court of the Great Khan of Tartary, whose empire was the largest in the world. After a residence of seventeen years, during which he was loaded with honors, he returned to his native country, not by the ordinary route, but by coasting the eastern shores of Asia, through the Indian Ocean, up the Persian Gulf, and thence through Bagdad and Constantinople, bringing with him immense wealth in precious stones and other Eastern commodities. The report of his wonderful adventures interested all Europe, for he was supposed to have found the Tarshish of the Scriptures, that land of gold and spices which had enriched the Tyrian merchants in the time of Solomon,–men supposed by some to have sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in their three years’ voyages. Among the wonderful things which Polo had seen was a city on an island off the coast of China, which was represented to contain six hundred thousand families, so rich that the palaces of its nobles were covered with plates of gold, so inviting that odoriferous plants and flowers diffused the most grateful perfumes, so strong that even the Tartar conquerors of China could not subdue it. This island, known now as Japan, was called Cipango, and was supposed to be inexhaustible in riches, especially when the reports of Polo were confirmed by Sir John Mandeville, an English traveller in the time of Edward III.,–and with even greater exaggerations, since he represented the royal palace to be more than six miles in circumference, occupied by three hundred thousand men.

In an awakening age of enterprise, when chivalry had not passed away, nor the credulity of the Middle Ages, the reports of this Cipango inflamed the imagination of Europe, and to reach it became at once the desire and the problem of adventurers and merchants. But how could this El Dorado be reached? Not by sailing round Africa; for to sail South, in popular estimation, was to encounter torrid suns with ever increasing heat, and suffocating vapors, and unknown dangers. The scientific world had lost the knowledge of what even the ancients knew. Nobody surmised that there was a Cape of Good Hope which could be doubled, and would open the way to the Indian Ocean and its islands of spices and gold. Nor could this Cipango be reached by crossing the Eastern Continent, for the journey was full of perils, dangers, and insurmountable obstacles.

Among those who meditated on this geographical mystery was a young sea captain of Genoa, who had studied in the University of Pavia, but spent his early life upon the waves,–intelligent, enterprising, visionary, yet practical, with boundless ambition, not to conquer kingdoms, but to discover new realms. Born probably in 1446, in the year 1470 he married the daughter of an Italian navigator living in Lisbon; and, inheriting with her some valuable Portuguese charts and maritime journals, he settled in Lisbon and took up chart-making as a means of livelihood. Being thus trained in both the art and the science of navigation, his active mind seized upon the most interesting theme of the day. His studies and experience convinced him that the Cipango of Marco Polo could be reached by sailing directly west. He knew that the earth was round, and he inferred from the plants and carved wood and even human bodies that had occasionally floated from the West, that there must be unknown islands on the western coasts of the Atlantic, and that this ocean, never yet crossed, was the common boundary of both Europe and Asia; in short, that the Cipango could be reached by sailing west. And he believed the thing to be practicable, for the magnetic needle had been discovered, or brought from the East by Polo, which always pointed to the North Star, so that mariners could sail in the darkest nights; and also another instrument had been made, essentially the modern quadrant, by which latitude could be measured. He supposed that after sailing west, about eight hundred leagues, by the aid of compass and quadrant, and such charts as he had collected and collated, he should find the land of gold and spices by which he would become rich and famous.

This was not an absurd speculation to a man of the intellect and knowledge of Columbus. To his mind there were but few physical difficulties if he only had the ships, and the men bold enough to embark with him, and the patronage which was necessary for so novel and daring an enterprise. The difficulties to be surmounted were not so much physical as moral. It was the surmounting of moral difficulties which gives to Columbus his true greatness as a man of genius and resources. These moral obstacles were so vast as to be all but insurmountable, since he had to contend with all the established ideas of his age,–the superstitions of sailors, the prejudices of learned men, and general geographical ignorance. He himself had neither money, nor ships, nor powerful friends. Nobody believed in him; all ridiculed him; some insulted him. Who would furnish money to a man who was supposed to be half crazy,–certainly visionary and wild; a rash adventurer who would not only absorb money but imperil life? Learned men would not listen to him, and powerful people derided him, and princes were too absorbed in wars and pleasure to give him a helping hand. Aid could come only from some great state or wealthy prince; but both states and princes were deaf and dumb to him. It was a most extraordinary inspiration of genius in the fifteenth century which created, not an opinion, but a conviction that Asia could be reached by sailing west; and how were common minds to comprehend such a novel idea? If a century later, with all the blaze of reviving art and science and learning, the most learned people ridiculed the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, even when it was proved by all the certitudes of mathematical demonstration and unerring observations, how could the prejudiced and narrow-minded priests of the time of Columbus, who controlled the most important affairs of state, be made to comprehend that an unknown ocean, full of terrors, could be crossed by frail ships, and that even a successful voyage would open marts of inexhaustible wealth? All was clear enough to this scientific and enterprising mariner; and the inward assurance that he was right in his calculation gave to his character a blended boldness, arrogance, and dignity which was offensive to men of exalted station, and ill became a stranger and adventurer with a thread-bare coat, and everything which indicated poverty, neglect, and hardship, and without any visible means of living but by the making and selling of charts.

Hence we cannot wonder at the seventeen years of poverty, neglect, ridicule, disappointment, and deferred hopes, such as make the heart sick, which elapsed after Columbus was persuaded of the truth of his theory, before he could find anybody enlightened enough to believe in him, or powerful enough to assist him. Wrapped up in those glorious visions which come only to a man of superlative genius, and which make him insensible to heat and cold and scanty fare, even to reproach and scorn, this intrepid soul, inspired by a great and original idea, wandered from city to city, and country to country, and court to court, to present the certain greatness and wealth of any state that would embark in his enterprise. But all were alike cynical, cold, unbelieving, and even insulting. He opposes overwhelming, universal, and overpowering ideas. To have surmounted these amid such protracted opposition and discouragement constitutes his greatness; and finally to prove his position by absolute experiment and hazardous enterprise makes him one of the greatest of human benefactors, whose fame will last through all the generations of men. And as I survey that lonely, abstracted, disappointed, and derided man,–poor and unimportant, so harassed by debt that his creditors seized even his maps and charts, obliged to fly from one country to another to escape imprisonment, without even listeners and still less friends, and yet with ever-increasing faith in his cause, utterly unconquerable, alone in opposition to all the world,–I think I see the most persistent man of enterprise that I have read of in history. Critics ambitious to say something new may rake out slanders from the archives of enemies, and discover faults which derogate from the character we have been taught to admire and venerate; they may even point out spots, which we cannot disprove, in that sun of glorious brightness, which shed its beneficent rays over a century of darkness,–but this we know, that, whatever may be the force of detraction, his fame has been steadily increasing, even on the admission of his slanderers, for three centuries, and that he now shines as a fixed star in the constellation of the great lights of modern times, not alone because he succeeded in crossing the ocean, when once embarked on it, but for surmounting the moral difficulties which lay in his way before he could embark upon it, and for being finally instrumental in conferring the greatest boon that our world has received from any mortal man, since Noah entered into the ark.

I think it is Lamartine who has said that truly immortal benefactors have seldom been able to accomplish their mission without the encouragement of either saints or women. This is emphatically true in the case of Columbus. The door to success was at last opened to him by a friendly and sympathetic friar of a Franciscan convent near the little port of Palos, in Andalusia. The sun-burned and disappointed adventurer (for that is what he was), wearied and hungry, and nearly discouraged, stopped at the convent-door to get a morsel of bread for his famished son, who attended him in his pilgrimage. The prior of that obscure convent was the first who comprehended the man of genius, not so much because he was an enlightened scholar, but because his pious soul was full of kindly sympathy, showing that the instincts of love are kindred to the inspirations of genius. It was the voice of Ali and Cadijeh that strengthened Mohammed. It was Catherine von Bora who sustained Luther in his gigantic task. The worthy friar, struck by the noble bearing of a man so poor and wearied, became delighted with the conversation of his guest, who opened to him both his heart and his schemes. He forwarded his plans by a letter to a powerful ecclesiastic, who introduced him to the Spanish Court, then one of the most powerful, and certainly the proudest and most punctilious, in Europe. Ferdinand of Aragon was polite, yet wary and incredulous; but Isabella of Castile listened more kindly to the stranger, whom the greatness of his mission inspired with eloquence. Like the saint of the convent, she, and she alone of her splendid court, divined that there was something to be heeded in the words of Columbus, and gave her womanly and royal encouragement, although too much engrossed with the conquest of Grenada and the cares of her kingdom to pay that immediate attention which Columbus entreated.

Columbus at the Court of Spain After the painting by Vaczlav Brozik, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Columbus at the Court of Spain After the painting by Vaczlav Brozik, Metropolitan Museum, New York

I may not dwell on the vexatious delays and the protracted discouragements of Columbus after the Queen had given her ear to his enthusiastic prophecies of the future glories of the kingdom. To the court and to the universities and to the great ecclesiastics he was still a visionary and a needy adventurer; and they quoted, in refutation of his theory, those Scripture texts which were hurled in greater wrath against Galileo when he announced his brilliant discoveries. There are, from some unfathomed reason, always texts found in the sacred writings which seem to conflict with both science and a profound theology; and the pedants, as well as the hypocrites and usurpers, have always shielded themselves behind these in their opposition to new opinions. I will not be hard upon them, for often they are good men, simply unable to throw off the shackles of ages of ignorance and tyranny. People should not be subjected to lasting reproach because they cannot emancipate themselves from prevailing ideas. If those prejudiced courtiers and scholastics who ridiculed Columbus could only have seen with his clearer insight, they might have loaded him with favors. But they were blinded and selfish and envious. Nor was it until Columbus convinced his sovereigns that the risk was small for so great a promised gain, that he was finally commissioned to undertake his voyage. The promised boon was the riches of Oriental countries, boundless and magnificent,–countries not to be discovered, but already known, only hard and perhaps impossible to reach. And Columbus himself was so firmly persuaded of the existence of these riches, and of his ability to secure them, and they were so exaggerated by his imagination, that his own demands were extravagant and preposterous, as must have seemed to an incredulous court,–that he, a stranger, an adventurer, almost a beggar even, should in case of success be made viceroy and admiral over the unexplored realm, and with a tenth of all the riches he should collect or seize; and that these high offices–almost regal–should also be continued not only through his own life, but through the lives of his heirs from generation to generation, thus raising him to a possible rank higher than that of any of the dukes and grandees of Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella, however, readily promised all that the persistent and enthusiastic adventurer demanded, doubtless with the feeling that there was not more than one chance in a hundred that he would ever be heard from again, but that this one chance was well worth all and more than they expended,–a possibility of indefinite aggrandizement. To the eyes of Ferdinand there was a prospect–remote, indeed–of adding to the power of the Spanish monarchy; and it is probable that the pious Isabella contemplated also the conversion of the heathen to Christianity. It is possible that some motives may have also influenced Columbus kindred to this,–a renewed crusade against Saracen infidels, which he might undertake from the wealth he was so confident of securing. But the probabilities are that Columbus was urged on to his career by ambitious and worldly motives chiefly, or else he would not have been so greedy to secure honors and wealth, nor would have been so jealous of his dignity when he had attained power. To me Columbus was no more a saint than Sir Francis Drake was when he so unscrupulously robbed every ship he could lay his hands upon, although both of them observed the outward forms of religious worship peculiar to their respective creeds and education. There were no unbelievers in that age. Both Catholics and Protestants, like the ancient Pharisees, were scrupulous in what were supposed to be religious duties,–though these too often were divorced from morality. It is Columbus only as an intrepid, enthusiastic, enlightened navigator, in pursuit of a new world of boundless wealth, that I can see him; and it was for his ultimate success in discovering this world, amid so many difficulties, that he is to be regarded as a great benefactor, of the glory of which no ingenuity or malice can rob him.

At last he sets sail, August 3, 1492, and, singularly enough, from Palos, within sight of the little convent where he had received his first encouragement. He embarked in three small vessels, the largest of which was less than one hundred tons, and two without decks, but having high poops and sterns inclosed. What an insignificant flotilla for such a voyage! But it would seem that the Admiral, with great sagacity, deemed small vessels best adapted to his purpose, in order to enter safely shallow harbors and sail near the coast.

He sails in the most propitious season of the year, and is aided by steady trade-winds which waft his ships gently through the unknown ocean. He meets with no obstacles of any account. The skies are serene, the sea is as smooth as the waters of an inland lake; and he is comforted, as he advances to the west, by the appearance of strange birds and weeds and plants that indicate nearness to the land. He has only two objects of solicitude,–the variations of the magnetic needle, and the superstitious fears of his men; the last he succeeds in allaying by inventing plausible theories, and by concealing the real distance he has traversed. He encourages them by inflaming their cupidity. He is nearly baffled by their mutinous spirit. He is in danger, not from coral reefs and whirlpools and sunken rocks and tempests, as at first was feared, but from his men themselves, who clamor to return. It is his faith and moral courage and fertility of resources which we most admire. Days pass in alternate hope and disappointment, amid angry clamors, in great anxiety, for no land appears after he has sailed far beyond the points where he expected to find it. The world is larger than even he has supposed. He promises great rewards to the one who shall first see the unknown shores. It is said that he himself was the first to discover land by observing a flickering light, which is exceedingly improbable, as he was several leagues from shore; but certain it is, that the very night the land was seen from the Admiral’s vessel, it was also discovered by one of the seamen on board another ship. The problem of the age was at last solved. A new continent was given to Ferdinand and Isabella.

On the 12th of October Columbus lands–not, however, on the continent, as he supposed, but on an island–in great pomp, as admiral of the seas and viceroy of the king, in a purple doublet, and with a drawn sword in one hand and the standard of Spain in the other, followed by officers in appropriate costume, and a friar bearing the emblem of our redemption, which is solemnly planted on the shore, and the land called San Salvador. This little island, one of the Bahamas, is not, however, gilded with the anticipated splendors of Oriental countries. He finds neither gold, nor jewels, nor silks, nor spices, nor any signs of civilization; only naked men and women, without any indication of wealth or culture or power. But he finds a soft and genial climate, and a soil of unparalleled fertility, and trees and shrubs as green as Andalusia in spring, and birds with every variety of plumage, and insects glistening with every color of the rainbow; while the natives are gentle and unsuspecting and full of worship. Columbus is disappointed, but not discouraged. He sets sail to find the real Cipango of which he is in search. He cruises among the Bahama islands, discovers Cuba and Hispaniola (now called Hayti), explores their coasts, holds peaceful intercourse with the natives, and is transported with enthusiasm in view of the beauty of the country and its great capacities; but he sees no gold, only a few ornaments to show that there is gold somewhere near, if it only could be found. Nor has he reached the Cipango of his dreams, but new countries, of which there was no record or suspicion of existence, yet of vast extent, and fertile beyond knowledge. He is puzzled, but filled with intoxicating joy. He has performed a great feat. He has doubtless added indefinitely to the dominion of Spain.

Columbus leaves a small colony on the island of Hispaniola, and with the trophies of his discoveries returns to Spain, without serious obstacles, except a short detention in Portugal, whither he was driven by a storm. His stories fill the whole civilized world with wonder. He is welcomed with the most cordial and enthusiastic reception; the people gaze at him with admiration. His sovereigns rise at his approach, and seat him beside themselves on their gilded and canopied throne; he has made them a present worthy of a god. What honors could be too great for such a man! Even envy pales before the universal exhilaration. He enters into the most august circles as an equal; his dignities and honors are confirmed; he is loaded with presents and favors; he is the most marked personage in Europe; he is almost stifled with the incense of royal and popular idolatry. Never was a subject more honored and caressed. The imagination of a chivalrous and lively people is inflamed with the wildest expectations, for although he returned with but little of the expected wealth, he has pointed out a land rich in unfathomed mines.

A second and larger expedition is soon projected. Everybody wishes to join it. All press to join the fortunate admiral who has added a continent to civilization. The proudest nobles, with the armor and horses of chivalry, embark with artisans and miners for another voyage, now without solicitude or fear, but with unbounded hopes of wealth,–especially hardy adventurers and broken-down families of rank anxious to retrieve their fortunes. The pendulum of a nation’s thought swings from the extreme of doubt and cynicism to the opposite extreme of faith and exhilaration. Spain was ripe for the harvest. Eight hundred years’ desperate contest with the Moors had made the nation bold, heroic, adventurous. There were no such warriors in all Europe. Nowhere were there such chivalric virtues. No people were then animated with such martial enthusiasm, such unfettered imagination, such heroic daring, as were the subjects of Ferdinand and Isabella. They were a people to conquer a world; not merely heroic and enterprising, but fresh with religious enthusiasm. They had expelled the infidels from Spain; they would fight for the honor of the Cross in any clime or land.

The hopes held out by Columbus were extravagant; and these extravagant expectations were the occasion of his fall and subsequent sorrows and humiliation. Doubtless he was sincere, but he was infatuated. He could only see the gold of Cipango. He was as confident of enriching his followers as he had been of discovering new realms. He was as enthusiastic as Sir Walter Raleigh a century later, and made promises as rash as he, and created the same exalted hopes, to be followed by bitter disappointments; and consequently he incurred the same hostilities and met the same downfall.

This second expedition was undertaken in seventeen vessels, carrying fifteen hundred people, all full of animation and hope, and some of them with intentions to settle in the newly discovered country until they had made their fortunes. They arrived at Hispaniola in March, of the year 1493, only to discover that the men left behind on the first voyage to secure their settlement were all despoiled or murdered; that the natives had proved treacherous, or that the Spaniards had abused their confidence and forfeited their friendship. They were exposed to new hostilities: they found the climate unhealthy; their numbers rapidly dwindled away from disease or poor food; starvation stared them in the face, in spite of the fertility of the soil; dissensions and jealousies arose; they were governed with great difficulty, for the haughty hidalgoes were unused to menial labor, and labor of the most irksome kind was necessary; law and order were relaxed. The blame of disaster was laid upon the Admiral, who was accused of deceiving them; evil reports were sent to Spain, accusing him of incapacity, cruelty, and oppression; gold was found only in small quantities; some of the leading men mutinied; general discontent arose; the greater part of the colonists were disabled from sickness and debility; no gold of any amount was sent back to Spain, only five hundred Indian slaves to be sold instead, which led to renewed hostilities with the natives, and the necessity for their subjugation. All of these evils created bitter disappointment in Spain and discontent with the measures and government of Columbus himself, so that a commission of inquiry was sent to Hispaniola, headed by Aguado, who assumed arrogant authority, and made it necessary for Columbus to return to Spain without adding essentially to his discoveries. He sailed around Cuba and Jamaica and other islands, but as yet had not seen the mainland or found mines of gold or silver.

He landed in Spain, in 1496, to find that his popularity had declined and the old enthusiasm had grown cold. With him landed a feeble train of emaciated men, who had nothing to relate but sickness, hardship, and disappointment. The sovereigns, however, received him kindly; but he was depressed and sad, and clothed himself with the habit of a Franciscan friar, to denote his humility and dejection. He displayed a few golden collars and bracelets as trophies, with some Indians; but these no longer dazzled the crowd.

It was not until 1498 that Columbus was enabled to make his third voyage, having experienced great delay from the general disappointment. Instead of seventeen vessels, he could collect but six. In this voyage he reached the mainland,–that part called Paria, near the mouth of the Orinoco, in South America, but he supposed it to be an island. It was fruitful and populous, and the air was sweetened with the perfumes of flowers. Yet he did not explore the coast to any extent, but made his way to Hispaniola, where he had left the discontented colony, himself broken in health, a victim of gout, haggard from anxiety, and emaciated by pain. His splendid constitution was now undermined from his various hardships and cares.

He found the colony in a worse state than when he left it under the care of his brother Bartholomew. The Indians had proved hostile; the colonists were lazy and turbulent; mutiny had broken out; factions prevailed, as well as general misery and discontent. The horrors of famine had succeeded wars with the natives. There was a general desire to leave the settlement. Columbus tried to restore order and confidence; but the difficulty of governing such a disorderly set of adventurers was too great even for him. He was obliged to resort to severities that made him more and more unpopular. The complaints of his enemies reached Spain. He was most cruelly misrepresented and slandered; and in the general disappointment, and the constant drain upon the mother country to support the colony, his enemies gained the ear of his sovereigns, and strong doubts arose in their minds about his capacity for government. So a royal commission was sent out,–an officer named Bovadilla, with absolute power to examine into the state of the colony, and supplant, if necessary, the authority of Columbus. The result was the arrest of Columbus and his brothers, who were sent to Spain in chains. What a change of fortune! I will not detail the accusations against him, just or unjust. It is mournful enough to see the old man brought home in irons from the world he had discovered and given to Spain. The injustice and cruelty which he received produced a reaction, and he was once more kindly received at court, with the promise that his grievances should be redressed and his property and dignities restored.

Columbus was allowed to make one more voyage of discovery, but nothing came of it except renewed troubles, hardships, dangers, and difficulties; wars with the natives, perils of the sea, discontents, disappointments; and when at last he returned to Spain, in 1504,–broken with age and infirmities, after twelve years of harassing cares, labors, and dangers (a checkered career of glory and suffering),–nothing remained but to prepare for his final rest. He had not made a fortune; he had not enriched his patrons,–but he had discovered a continent. His last days were spent in disquieting and fruitless negotiations to perpetuate his honors among his descendants. He was ever jealous and tenacious of his dignities. Ferdinand was polite, but selfish and cold; nor can this calculating prince ever be vindicated from the stain of gross ingratitude. Columbus died in the year 1506, at the age of sixty, a disappointed man. But honors were ultimately bestowed upon his heirs, who became grandees and dukes, and intermarried with the proudest families of Spain; and it is also said that Ferdinand himself, after the death of the great navigator, caused a monument to be erected to his memory with this inscription: “To Castile and Leon Columbus gave a new world.” But no man of that century needed less than Columbus a monument to perpetuate his immortal fame.

I think that historians belittle Columbus when they would excite our pity for his misfortunes. They insult the dignity of all struggling souls, and make utilitarians of all benefactors, and give false views of success. Few benefactors, on the whole, were ever more richly rewarded than he. He died Admiral of the Seas, a grandee of Spain,–having bishops for his eulogists and princes for his mourners,–the founder of an illustrious house, whose name and memory gave glory even to the Spanish throne. And even if he had not been rewarded with material gains, it was enough to feel that he had conferred a benefit on the world which could scarcely be appreciated in his lifetime,–a benefit so transcendent that its results could be seen only by future generations. Who could adequately pay him for his services; who could estimate the value of his gift? What though they load him to-day with honors, or cast him tomorrow into chains?–that is the fate of all immortal benefactors since our world began. His great soul should have soared beyond vulgar rewards. In the loftiness of his self-consciousness he should have accepted, without a murmur, whatever fortune awaited him. Had he merely given to civilization a new style of buttons, or an improved envelope, or a punch for a railway conductor, or a spring for a carriage, or a mining tool, or a screw, or revolver, or reaper, the inventors of which have “seen millions in them,” and been cheated out of his gains, he might have whimpered over his wrongs. How few benefactors have received even as much as he; for he won dignities, admiration, and undying fame. We scarcely know the names of many who have made grand bequests. Who invented the mariner’s compass? Who gave the lyre to primeval ages, or the blacksmith’s forge, or the letters of the alphabet, or the arch in architecture, or glass for windows? Who solved the first problem of geometry? Who first sang the odes which Homer incorporated with the Iliad? Who first turned up the earth with a plough? Who first used the weaver’s shuttle? Who devised the cathedrals of the Middle Ages? Who gave the keel to ships? Who was the first that raised bread by yeast? Who invented chimneys? But all ages will know that Columbus discovered America; and his monuments are in every land, and his greatness is painted by the ablest historians.

But I will not enlarge on the rewards Columbus received, or the ingratitude which succeeded them, by force of envy or from the disappointment of worldly men in not realizing all the gold that he promised. Let me allude to the results of his discovery.

The first we notice was the marvellous stimulus to maritime adventures. Europe was inflamed with a desire to extend geographical knowledge, or add new countries to the realms of European sovereigns.

Within four years of the discovery of the West India Islands by Columbus, Cabot had sailed past Newfoundland, and Vasco da Gama had doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and laid the foundation of the Portuguese empire in the East Indies. In 1499 Ojeda, one of the companions of Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci discovered Brazil. In 1500 Cortereal, a Portuguese, explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 1505 Francesco de Almeira established factories along the coast of Malabar. In 1510 the Spaniards formed settlements on the mainland at Panama. In 1511 the Portuguese established themselves at Malacca. In 1513 Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Darien and reached the Pacific Ocean. The year after that, Ponce de Leon had visited Florida. In 1515 the Rio de la Plata was navigated; and in 1517 the Portuguese had begun to trade with China and Bengal. As early as 1520 Cortes had taken Mexico, and completed the conquest of that rich country the following year. In 1522 Cano circumnavigated the globe. In 1524 Pizarro discovered Peru, which in less than twelve years was completely subjugated,–the year when California was discovered by Cortes. In 1542 the Portuguese were admitted to trade with Japan. In 1576 Frobisher sought a North-western passage to India; and the following year Sir Francis Drake commenced his more famous voyages under the auspices of Elizabeth. In 1578 Sir Humphrey Gilbert colonized Virginia, followed rapidly by other English settlements, until before the century closed the whole continent was colonized either by Spaniards, or Portuguese, or English, or French, or Dutch. All countries came in to share the prizes held out by the discovery of the New World.

Colonization followed the voyages of discovery. It was animated by the hope of finding gold and precious stones. It was carried on under great discouragements and hardships and unforeseen difficulties. As a general thing, the colonists were not accustomed to manual labor; they were adventurers and broken-down dependents on great families, who found restraint irksome and the drudgeries of their new life almost unendurable. Nor did they intend, at the outset, permanent settlements; they expected to accumulate gold and silver, and then return to their country. They had sought to improve their condition, and their condition became forlorn. They were exposed to sickness from malaria, poor food, and hardship; they were molested by the natives whom they constantly provoked; they were subject to cruel treatment on the part of royal governors. They melted away wherever they settled, by famine, disease, and war, whether in South or North America. They were discontented and disappointed, and not easily governed; the chieftains quarrelled with each other, and were disgraced by rapacity and cruelty. They did not find what they expected. They were lonely and desolate, and longed to return to the homes they had left, but were frequently without means to return,–doomed to remain where they were, and die. Colonization had no dignity until men went to the New World for religious liberty, or to work upon the soil. The conquest of Mexico and Peru, however, opened up the mining of gold and silver, which were finally found in great abundance. And when the richness of these countries in the precious metals was finally established, then a regular stream of emigrants flocked to the American shores. Gold was at last found, but not until thousands had miserably perished.

The mines of Mexico and Peru undoubtedly enriched Spain, and filled Europe with envy and emulation. A stream of gold flowed to the mother country, and the caravels which transported the treasures of the new world became objects of plunder to all nations hostile to Spain. The seas were full of pirates. Sir Francis Drake was an undoubted pirate, and returned, after his long voyage around the world, with immense treasure, which he had stolen. Then followed, with the eager search after gold and silver, a rapid demoralization in all maritime countries.

It would be interesting to show how the sudden accumulation of wealth by Spain led to luxury, arrogance, and idleness, followed by degeneracy and decay, since those virtues on which the strength of man is based are weakened by sudden wealth. Industry declined in proportion as Spain became enriched by the precious metals. But this inquiry is foreign to my object.

A still more interesting inquiry arises, how far the nations of Europe were really enriched by the rapid accumulation of gold and silver. The search for the precious metals may have stimulated commercial enterprise, but it is not so clear that it added to the substantial wealth of Europe, except so far as it promoted industry. Gold is not wealth; it is simply the exponent of wealth. Real wealth is in farms and shops and ships,–in the various channels of industry, in the results of human labor. So far as the precious metals enter into useful manufactures, or into articles of beauty and taste, they are indeed inherently valuable. Mirrors, plate, jewelry, watches, gilded furniture, the adornments of the person, in an important sense, constitute wealth, since all nations value them, and will pay for them as they do for corn or oil. So far as they are connected with art, they are valuable in the same sense as statues and pictures, on which labor has been expended. There is something useful, and even necessary, besides food and raiment and houses. The gold which ornamented Solomon’s temple, or the Minerva of Phidias, or the garments of Leo X., had a value. The ring which is a present to brides is a part of a marriage ceremony. The golden watch, which never tarnishes, is more valuable inherently than a pewter one, because it remains beautiful. Thus when gold enters into ornaments deemed indispensable, or into manufactures which are needed, it has an inherent value,–it is wealth.

But when gold is a mere medium of exchange,–its chief use,–then it has only a conventional value; I mean, it does not make a nation rich or poor, since the rarer it is the more it will purchase of the necessaries of life. A pound’s weight of gold, in ancient Greece, or in Mediaeval Europe, would purchase as much wheat as twenty pounds’ weight will purchase to-day. If the mines of Mexico or Peru or California had never been worked, the gold in the civilized world three hundred years ago would have been as valuable for banking purposes, or as an exchange for agricultural products, as twenty times its present quantity, since it would have bought as much as twenty times the quantity will buy to-day. Make diamonds as plenty as crystals, they would be worth no more than crystals, if they were not harder and more beautiful. Make gold as plenty as silver, it would be worth no more than silver, except for manufacturing purposes; it would be worth no more to bankers and merchants. The vast increase in the production of the precious metals simply increased the value of the commodities for which they were exchanged. A laborer can purchase no more bread with a dollar to-day than he could with five cents three hundred years ago. Five cents were really as much wealth three hundred years ago as a dollar is to-day. Wherein, then, has the increase in the precious metals added to the wealth of the world, if a twentieth part of the gold and silver now in circulation would buy as much land, or furniture, or wheat, or oil three hundred years ago as the whole amount now used as money will buy to-day? Had no gold or silver mines been discovered in America, the gold and silver would have appreciated in value in proportion to the wear of them. In other words, the scarcer the gold and silver the more the same will purchase of the fruits of human industry. So industry is the wealth, not the gold. It is the cultivated farms and the manufactures and the buildings and the internal improvements of a country which constitute its real wealth, since these represent its industry,–the labor of men. Mines, indeed, employ the labor of men, but they do not furnish food for the body, or raiment to wear, or houses to live in, or fuel for cooking, or any purpose whatever of human comfort or necessity,–only a material for ornament; which I grant is wealth, so far as ornament is for the welfare of man. The marbles of ancient Greece were very valuable for the labor expended on them, either for architecture or for ornament.

Gold and silver were early selected as useful and convenient articles for exchange, like bank-notes, and so far have inherent value as they supply that necessity; but if a fourth part of the gold and silver in existence would supply that necessity, the remaining three-fourths are as inherently valueless as the paper on which bank-notes are printed. Their value consists in what they represent of the labors and industries of men.

Now Spain ultimately became poor, in spite of the influx of gold and silver from the American mines, because industries of all kinds declined. People were diverted from useful callings by the mighty delusion which gold discoveries created. These discoveries had the same effect on industry, which is the wealth of nations, as the support of standing armies has in our day. They diverted men from legitimate callings. The miners had to be supported like soldiers; and, worse, the sudden influx of gold and silver intoxicated men and stimulated speculation. An army of speculators do not enrich a nation, since they rob each other. They cause money to change hands; they do not stimulate industry. They do not create wealth; they simply make it flow from one person to another.

But speculations sometimes create activity in enterprise; they inflame desires for wealth, and cause people to make greater exertions. In that sense the discovery of American mines gave a stimulus to commerce and travel and energy. People rushed to America for gold: these people had to be fed and clothed. Then farmers and manufacturers followed the gold-hunters; they tilled the soil to feed the miners. The new farms which dotted the region of the gold-diggers added to the wealth of the country in which the mines were located. Colonization followed gold-digging. But it was America that became enriched, not the old countries from which the miners came, except so far as the old countries furnished tools and ships and fabrics, for doubtless commerce and manufacturing were stimulated. So far, the wealth of the world increased; but the men who returned to riot in luxury and idleness did not stimulate enterprise. They made others idle also. The necessity of labor was lost sight of.

And yet if one country became idle, another country may have become industrious. There can be but little question that the discovery of the American mines gave commerce and manufactures and agriculture, on the whole, a stimulus. This was particularly seen in England. England grew rich from industry and enterprise, as Spain became poor from idleness and luxury. The silver and gold, diffused throughout Europe, ultimately found their way into the pockets of Englishmen, who made a market for their manufactures. It was not alone the precious metals which enriched England, but the will and power to produce those articles of industry for which the rest of the world parted with their gold and silver. What has made France rich since the Revolution? Those innumerable articles of taste and elegance–fabrics and wines–for which all Europe parted with their specie; not war, not conquest, not mines. Why till recently was Germany so poor? Because it had so little to sell to other nations; because industry was cramped by standing armies and despotic governments.

One thing is certain, that the discovery of America opened a new field for industry and enterprise to all the discontented and impoverished and oppressed Europeans who emigrated. At first they emigrated to dig silver and gold. The opening of mines required labor, and miners were obliged to part with their gold for the necessaries of life. Thus California in our day has become peopled with farmers and merchants and manufacturers, as well as miners. Many came to America expecting to find gold, and were disappointed, and were obliged to turn agriculturists, as in Virginia. Many came to New England from political and religious motives. But all came to better their fortunes. Gradually the United States and Canada became populated from east to west and from north to south. The surplus population of Europe poured itself into the wilds of America. Generally the emigrants were farmers. With the growth of agricultural industry were developed commerce and manufactures. Thus, materially, the world was immensely benefited. A new continent was opened for industry. No matter what the form of government may be,–I might almost say no matter what the morals and religion of the people may be,–so long as there is land to occupy, and to be sold cheap, the continent will fill up, and will be as densely populated as Europe or Asia, because the natural advantages are good. The rivers and the lakes will be navigated; the products of the country will be exchanged for European and Asiatic products; wealth will certainly increase, and increase indefinitely. There is no calculating the future resources and wealth of the New World, especially in the United States. There are no conceivable bounds to their future commerce, manufactures, and agricultural products. We can predict with certainty the rise of new cities, villas, palaces, material splendor, limited only to the increasing resources and population of the country. Who can tell the number of miles of new railroads yet to be made; the new inventions to abridge human labor; what great empires are destined to rise; what unknown forms of luxury will be found out; what new and magnificent trophies of art and science will gradually be seen; what mechanism, what material glories, are sure to come? This is not speculation. Nothing can retard the growth of America in material wealth and glory. The splendid external will call forth more panegyrics than the old Roman world which fancied itself eternal. The tower of the new Babel will rise to the clouds, and be seen in all its glory throughout the earth and sea. No Fourth of July orator ever exaggerated the future destinies of America in a material point of view. No “spread-eagle” politician even conceived what will be sure to come.

And what then? Grant the most indefinite expansion,–the growth of empires whose splendor and wealth and power shall utterly eclipse the glories of the Old World. All this is probable. But when we have dwelt on the future material expansion; when we have given wings to imagination, and feel that even imagination cannot reach the probable realities in a material aspect,–then our predictions and calculations stop. Beyond material glories we cannot count with certainty. The world has witnessed many powerful empires which have passed away, and left “not a rack behind.” What remains of the antediluvian world?–not even a spike of Noah’s ark, larger and stronger than any modern ship. What remains of Nineveh, of Babylon, of Thebes, of Tyre, of Carthage,–those great centres of wealth and power? What remains of Roman greatness even, except in laws and literature and renovated statues? Remember there is an undeviating uniformity in the past history of nations. What is the simple story of all the ages?–industry, wealth, corruption, decay, and ruin. What conservative power has been strong enough to arrest the ruin of the nations of antiquity? Have not material forces and glories been developed and exhibited, whatever the religion and morals of the fallen nations? Cannot a country grow materially to a certain point, under the most adverse influences, in a religious and moral point of view? Yet for lack of religion and morals the nations perished, and their Babel-towers were buried in the dust. They perished for lack of true conservative forces; at least that is the judgment of historians. Nobody doubts the splendor of the material glories of the ancient nations. The ruins of Baalbec, of Palmyra, of Athens, prove this, to say nothing of history. The material glories of the ancient nations may be surpassed by our modern wonders; but yet all the material glories of the ancient nations passed away.

Now if this is to be the destiny of America,–an unbounded material growth, followed by corruption and ruin,–then Columbus has simply extended the realm for men to try material experiments. Make New York a second Carthage, and Boston a second Athens, and Philadelphia a second Antioch, and Washington a second Rome, and we simply repeat the old experiments. Did not the Romans have nearly all we have, materially, except our modern scientific inventions?

But has America no higher destiny than to repeat the old experiments, and improve upon them, and become rich and powerful? Has she no higher and nobler mission? Can she lay hold of forces that the Old World never had, such as will prevent the uniform doom of nations? I maintain that there is no reason that can be urged, based on history and experience, why she should escape the fate of the nations of antiquity, unless new forces arise on this continent different from what the world has known, and which have a conservative influence. If America has a great mission to declare and to fulfil, she must put forth altogether new forces, and these not material. And these alone will save her and save the world. It is mournful to contemplate even the future magnificent material glories of America if these are not to be preserved, if these are to share the fate of ancient wonders. It is obvious that the real glory of America is to be something entirely different from that of which the ancients boasted. And this is to be moral and spiritual,–that which the ancients lacked.

This leads me to speak of the moral consequences of the discovery of America,–infinitely grander than any material wonders, of which the world has been full, of which every form of paganism has boasted, which nearly everywhere has perished, and which must necessarily perish everywhere, without new forces to preserve them.

In a moral point of view scarcely anything good immediately resulted, at least to Europe, by the discovery of America. It excited the wildest spirit of adventure, the most unscrupulous cupidity, the most demoralizing speculation. It created jealousies and wars. The cruelties and injustices inflicted on the Indians were revolting. Nothing in the annals of the world exceeds the wickedness of the Spaniards in the conquest of Peru and Mexico. That conquest is the most dismal and least glorious in human history. We see in it no poetry, or heroism, or necessity; we read of nothing but its crimes. The Jesuits, in their missionary zeal, partly redeemed the cruelties; but they soon imposed a despotic yoke, and made their religion pay. Monopolies scandalously increased, and the New World was regarded only as spoil. The tone of moral feeling was lowered everywhere, for the nations were crazed with the hope of sudden accumulations. Spain became enervated and demoralized.

On America itself the demoralization was even more marked. There never was such a state of moral degradation in any Christian country as in South America. Three centuries have passed, and the low state of morals continues. Contrast Mexico and Peru with the United States, morally and intellectually. What seeds of vice did not the Spaniards plant! How the old natives melted away!

And then, to add to the moral evils attending colonization, was the introduction of African slaves, especially in the West Indies and the Southern States of North America. Christendom seems to have lost the sense of morality. Slavery more than counterbalances all other advantages together. It was the stain of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not merely slaves, but the slave-trade, increase the horrors of the frightful picture. America became associated, in the minds of Europeans, with gold-hunting, slavery, and cruelty to Indians. Better that the country had remained undiscovered than that such vices and miseries should be introduced into the most fertile parts of the New World.

I cannot see that civilization gained anything, morally, by the discovery of America, until the new settlers were animated by other motives than a desire for sudden wealth. When the country became colonized by men who sought liberty to worship God,–men of lofty purposes, willing to undergo sufferings and danger in order to plant the seeds of a higher civilization,–then there arose new forms of social and political life. Such men were those who colonized New England. And, say what you will, in spite of all the disagreeable sides of the Puritan character, it was the Puritans who gave a new impulse to civilization in its higher sense. They founded schools and colleges and churches. They introduced a new form of political life by their town-meetings, in which liberty was nurtured, and all local improvements were regulated. It was the autonomy of towns on which the political structure of New England rested. In them was born that true representative government which has gradually spread towards the West. The colonies were embryo States,–States afterwards to be bound together by a stronger tie than that of a league. The New England States, after the war of Independence, were the defenders and advocates of a federal and central power. An entirely new political organization was gradually formed, resting equally on such pillars as independent townships and independent States, and these represented by delegates in a national centre.

So we believe America was discovered, not so much to furnish a field for indefinite material expansion, with European arts and fashions,–which would simply assimilate America to the Old World, with all its dangers and vices and follies,–but to introduce new forms of government, new social institutions, new customs and manners, new experiments in liberty, new religious organizations, new modes to ameliorate the necessary evils of life. It was discovered that men might labor and enjoy the fruits of industry in a new mode, unfettered by the restraints which the institutions of Europe imposed. America is a new field in which to try experiments in government and social life, which cannot be tried in the older nations without sweeping and dangerous revolutions; and new institutions have arisen which are our pride and boast, and which are the wonder and admiration of Europe. America is the only country under the sun in which there is self-government,–a government which purely represents the wishes of the people, where universal suffrage is not a mockery. And if America has a destiny to fulfil for other nations, she must give them something more valuable than reaping machines, palace cars, and horse railroads. She must give, not only machinery to abridge labor, but institutions and ideas to expand the mind and elevate the soul,–something by which the poor can rise and assert their rights. Unless something is developed here which cannot be developed in other countries, in the way of new spiritual and intellectual forces, which have a conservative influence, then I cannot see how America can long continue to be the home and refuge of the poor and miserable of other lands. A new and better spirit must vivify schools and colleges and philanthropic enterprises than that which has prevailed in older nations. Unless something new is born here which has a peculiar power to save, wherein will America ultimately differ from other parts of Christendom? We must have schools in which the heart as well as the brain is educated, and newspapers which aspire to something higher than to fan prejudices and appeal to perverted tastes. Our hope is not in books which teach infidelity under the name of science, nor in pulpits which cannot be sustained without sensational oratory, nor in journals which trade on the religious sentiments of the people, nor in Sabbath-school books which are an insult to the human understanding, nor in colleges which fit youth merely for making money, nor in schools of technology to give an impulse to material interests, nor in legislatures controlled by monopolists, nor in judges elected by demagogues, nor in philanthropic societies to ventilate unpractical theories. These will neither renovate nor conserve what is most precious in life. Unless a nation grows morally as well as materially, there is something wrong at the core of society. As I have said, no material expansion will avail, if society becomes rotten at the core. America is a glorious boon to civilization, but only as she fulfils a new mission in history,–not to become more potent in material forces, but in those spiritual agencies which prevent corruption and decay. An infidel professor, calling himself a savant, may tell you that there is nothing certain or great but in the direction of science to utilities, even as he may glory in a philosophy which ignores a creator and takes cognizance only of a creation.

As I survey the growing and enormous moral evils which degrade society, here as everywhere, in spite of Bunker Hills and Plymouth Rocks, and all the windy declamations of politicians and philanthropists, and all the advance in useful mechanisms, I am sometimes tempted to propound inquiries which suggest the old, mournful story of the decline and ruin of States and Empires. I ask myself, Why should America be an exception to the uniform fate of nations, as history has demonstrated? Why should not good institutions be perverted here, as in all other countries and ages of the world? Where has civilization shown any striking triumphs, except in inventions to abridge the labors of mankind and make men comfortable and rich? Is there nothing before us, then, but the triumphs of material life, to end as mournfully as the materialism of antiquity? If so, then Christianity is a most dismal failure, is a defeated power, like all other forms of religion which failed to save. But is it a failure? Are we really swinging back to Paganism? Is the time to be hailed when all religions will be considered by the philosopher as equally false and equally useful? Is there nothing more cheerful for us to contemplate than what the old Pagan philosophy holds out,–man destined to live like brutes or butterflies, and pass away into the infinity of time and space, like inert matter, decomposed, absorbed, and entering into new and everlasting combinations? Is America to become like Europe and Asia in all essential elements of life? Has she no other mission than to add to perishable glories? Is she to teach the world nothing new in education and philanthropy and government? Are all her struggles in behalf of liberty in vain?

We all know that Christianity is the only hope of the world. The question is, whether America is or is not more favorable for its healthy developments and applications than the other countries of Christendom are. We believe that it is. If it is not, then America is only a new field for the spread and triumph of material forces. If it is, we may look forward to such improvements in education, in political institutions, in social life, in religious organizations, in philanthropical enterprise, that the country will be sought by the poor and enslaved classes of Europe more for its moral and intellectual advantages than for its mines or farms; the objects of the Puritan settlers will be gained, and the grandeur of the discovery of a New World will be established.

“What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas,–the spoils of war?
They sought for Faith’s pure shrine.
Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They’ve left unstained what there they found,–
Freedom to worship God.”


Prescott’s Ferdinand and Isabella; Washington Irving; Cabot’s Voyages, and other early navigators; Columbus, by De Costa; Life of Columbus, by Bossi and Spatono; Relations de Quatre Voyage par Christopher Colomb; Drake’s World Encompassed; Murray’s Historical Account of Discoveries; Hernando, Historia del Amirante; History of Commerce; Lives of Pizarro and Cortes; Frobisher’s Voyages; Histories of Herrera, Las Casas, Gomera, and Peter Martyr; Navarrete’s Collections; Memoir of Cabot, by Richard Biddle; Hakluyt’s Voyages; Dr. Lardner’s Cyclopaedia,–History of Maritime and Inland Discovery; Anderson’s History of Commerce; Oviedo’s General History of the West Indies; History of the New World, by Geronimo Benzoni; Goodrich’s Life of Christopher Columbus.

Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation