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Columbus, Raleigh and Smith (Part 1)


 THE records will have it that America was discovered in consequence of the desire of Europe to profit by the commerce of Cathay, which had hitherto reached them only by the long and expensive process of a journey due west. One caravan had passed on the spices and other valuables to another until they reached the Mediterranean. It was asked whether the trip could not be more quickly and cheaply made by sea. Assuming, as was generally done, that the earth was flat, why might not a man sail round the southern extremity of Africa, and up the other. side to the Orient? It was true that the extremity of Africa might extend to the Southern ice, in which case this plan would not serve; but the attempt might be worth making. This was the view of Henry of Portugal, a scientific and ingenious prince, whose life covered the first sixty years of the Fifteenth Century. And Portuguese mariners did accordingly 'sail their little ships far down the Atlantic coast of the Dark' Continent; but they did not venture quite far enough until long after good Prince Henry was dead, and Columbus had (in his own belief) pioneered a shorter way.

Columbus was a theorist and a visionary. Many men who have been able to show much more plausible grounds for their theories than he could for his have died the laughingstock of the world. Columbus was a laughingstock for nearly twenty years; but though the special application of his theory was absurdly wrong, yet in principle it chanced to be right; and he was so fortunate as to be empowered to bring it to a practical demonstration. His notion was that the earth was not flat, but round. Therefore the quickest route to the extreme East must be in exactly the opposite. direction; the globe, he estimated, could not be much over fifteen thousand miles in girth; Cathay, . by the land route, was twelve thousand miles or so east of Europe; consequently the distance west could not be more than three thousand. This could be sailed over in a month or two, and the saving in time and trouble would be immense. Thus did he argue-shoving the Atlantic into the Pacific Ocean, subtracting six or seven thousand miles from their united breadth, and obliterating entirely that western continent which he was fated to discover, though he was never to suspect its existence.

The heresy that the earth was a sphere had long been in existence; Aristotle being the earliest source to which it could be traced. Sensible people did not countenance it then, any more than they accept to-day the conjecture that other planets than this may be inhabited. They demonstrated its improbability on historical and religious grounds, and also made the point that, supposing it were round, and that Columbus were to sail down the under side of it, he would never be able . to climb back again. But the Genoese was a man who became more firmly wedded to his opinion in proportion as it met with ridicule and opposition; proofs he had none of the truth of his pet idea; but he clung to it with a doggedness which must. greatly have exasperated his interlocutors. By dint of sheer persistence, he almost persuaded some men that there might be something in his project; but he never brought any of them to ,the pitch of risking money on it.- It was only upon a woman that he was finally able. to prevail; and doubtless the intelligence of Isabella of Castile was less concerned in the affair than was her feminine imagination. Had she known more, she would have done less. But so, for that matter, would Columbus.

Almost as little is known of the personal character of this man as of Shakespeare's; and the portraits of him, though much more numerous than those of the poet, are even less compatible with one another. The estimates and conjectures of historians also differ; some describe a pious hero and martyr, others a dissolute adventurer and charlatan. We are constrained, in the end, to construct his effigy from our own best interpretation of the things he did. Some little learning he had; just enough, probably, to disturb the balance of his judgment. He could read Latin and make maps, and he had ample experience of practical navigation. His life as a mariner got him the. habit of meditation, and this favored the espousal of theories, which, upon occasion, he could expound with volubility or defend . with passion, as his Italian temperament prompted. His imagination was portentous, and the Fifteenth Century was hospitable to this faculty; there was nothing-except plain but unknown facts-too marvelous to be believed; and that Columbus was even more credulous than his contemporaries is proved by the evidence that even facts were not exempt from his entertainment. An ordinary appetite for the marvelous could swallow stories of chimeras dire, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders; but nothing short of the profligate capacity of a Columbus could digest such a proposition as that the earth was round and could be circumnavigated. The type of half-educated fanatics to which he belonged has always been common; there is nothing exceptional or remarkable in this fanatic except the fortune which finally at tended his lifelong devotion to the most improbable hypothesis of his time. It has been our custom to eulogize his courage and his constancy to the truth; but if he had adopted perpetual motion, instead of the rotundity of the earth, as his dogma, he would have deserved our praises just as much. His sole claim to our admiration is that, in the teeth of all precedent and likelihood, he succeeded by one mistake in making another: because he fancied that by sailing west he could find the Indies he blundered upon a land whose identity, he never discovered. Doubtless his blunder was of unspeakable value; but . a blunder not the less it was; while, as to his courage and perseverance, as much has been shown by a thousand other scientific and philosophical heretics, whose names have not survived because the thing they imagined turned out an error.
From another point of view, however, Columbus is specially a creature of his age. It was an age which felt, it knew not why, that something new must come to pass. The resources of Europe were exhausted; men had reached the end of their tether, and demanded admittance to some wider pasturage. It was much such a predicament as obtains now, four hundred years later; we feel that changes-enlargements-are due„ but know not what or whence. The conception of a voyage across the Atlantic; in that age, seemed as captivating, and almost as fantastic, as a trip to the Moon or Mars would to an adventurer of our time. Given the vehicle, no doubt many volunteers would offer for the journey; Columbus could get a ship, but the chances of his arriving at his proposed destination . must have appeared as problematical to him as the Moon enterprise in a balloon would to a world-weary globe-trotter of to-day. It was not merely that the ship was small and the Atlantic large and stormy; there were legends of vast whirlpools, of abysmal oceanic cataracts, of sea monsters, malignant genii, and other portents not less terrifying and fatal. Columbus would not have been surprised at falling in with any of these things; but the physical courage which must have been his most prominent trait, added to incorrigible pride of opinion, brought him through.

But the significant feature of his achievement is, not that he sailed or that he arrived, but that he was impelled, irresistibly as it were, to make the attempt. He made it because it was the one thing left in the, world that seemed worth doing; it was the only apparent way of escape from the despair of the familiar and habitual; it was an adventure charged with all unknown possibilities; once conceived, it must be executed at whatever cost. Columbus was fascinated; the unknown drew him like a magnet; he was the in voluntary deputy of his period to incarnate its yearnings in act. The hour had struck; and with it, as always, appeared the man. So it has ever been in the history of the world; though we, with characteristic vanity, uniformly put the cart before the horse, and declare that it is the man that brings the hour.

Be that as it may, Columbus was fitted out with three boats by the Spanish king and queen, set sail from Spain on the 3d of August, 1492, and arrived at one of the Caribbean islands on the 12th of October 'of the same year. He supposed that he had found an East Indiap archipelago; and with the easy emotional piety of his time and temperament, he fell on his knees and thanked God, and took possession of everything in sight in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The deed had been done, and Columbus had his reward. It would have been well for him had he recognized this fact, and not tried to get more. He, had found land on the other side of the Atlantic; what no other man had believed possible he had accomplished; he had carried his point, and proved his the sisor one so much resembling it that he never knew the difference. This, and not a more sordid hope, had been the real motive power of his career up to this time; ,and the moment when the light from another world gleamed across the water to his hungry eyes had been the h4piest that he had ever known, or would know. A mighty hope had been fulfilled; the longing of an age had been gratified in his triumph; a fresh chapter in the world's history had been begun. The thoughts and emotions that surged through the ardent Italian, as he knelt on that coral beach, were lofty and unselfish: as were, in truth, those of the age whose representative he was, when it saw him depart on his adventure But before the man of destiny had risen from his knees he had ceased to act as the instrument of God, and had begun to think of personal emoluments.. So much he. must make over to Spain; so much he might keep for himself; so much was promised to his shipmates. He would be famous-yes: and rich and powerful too; he would be a great vicegerent; his attire should be of silk and velvet, with a gold chain about his neck, and gems on his hands. So adversity set his name among the stars, and prosperity abased his soul to dust. The remaining years of his life were a fruitless; struggle to secure what he deemed his rightful wages-to coin his immortal exploit into ducats; and his end was sorrowful and dishonored. The proud self-abnegation of the ancient Roman was lacking in the medieval Genoese.

The white-maned horses of the Atlantic once mastered, there came riders enough. During the next thirty years such men as Amerigo Vespucci (who enjoyed the not singular distinction of. having his name associated with the discovery of another man), the Cabots, father and son; Balboa, and Magellan, crossed the sea and visited the new domain. Magellan performed the only unprecedented feat left for mariners by sailing round the earth by way of the South American straits that bear his name; but Vasco da Gama had already entered the Pacific by the Cape of Good Hope. It was by this time beginning to be understood that the new land was really new, and not the other side of the old one; but this only prompted the adventurers to get past or through it to the first goal of their ambition. They had not yet realized the vastness of the scific, and took America to be a mere breakwater protecting the precious shores of Cathay. Later they found that America repaid looting on her own account; but mean while there was set on foot that search for the North west Passage which resulted in the discovery of almost everything except the Passage itself. To the craze for a Northwest Passage is due the exploration of Baffin and Hudson Bays, of the Gulf and River of St. Lawrence, and of the Great Lakes; the establishment of the English and French fur-trading companies, which hastened the development of Canada; and the settlement of Oregon and Washington. It led English and Spanish explorers and freebooters up the California coast, and on to Vancouver and Bering Straits; Alaska was circumvented, and the Northwest Passage was found, though the everlasting ice mocked the efforts of the finders. In short, the entire continent was tapped and sounded with a view to forcing a way through or round it; and by the time the attempt was finally given up, the contour, size, and possible value of America had been estimated much more quickly and accurately, than they would have been had not India lain west of it.

All this time Spain had been having the best of the bargain: She had fastened upon the Nest Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America, and had found gold there in abundance; she bade other nations keep hands off, and was less solicitous than they about the rumored riches of the Orient. Spain, in those days, was held to be invincible on the sea; England's fight with the Spanish Armada was yet to come. But there were already Englishmen of the Drake and Frobisher type who liked nothing better than to capture a Spanish galleon, and "singe the King of Spain's beard"; and these independent sea rovers were becoming so bold and numerous as to put the Spaniards to serious inconvenience and loss. But the latter could not be ousted from their vantage ground; so the English presently bethought themselves that there might be gold in the more northerly as well as in the central parts of the Continent; and they turned to seek it there.

Nothing is more noticeable in every phase of these events than the constant involuntary accomplishment of something other-and in the end better-than the thing attempted. As Columbus, looking for , Indian spices, found America; as seekers of all nations, in their quest for a Northwest Passage, charted and developed the Continent; so Sir-Walter Raleigh and his companions, hunting for gold along the northern Atlantic seaboard, took the first steps toward founding the colonies which were in the sequel to constitute the germ of the present United States.

Queen Elizabeth was on the throne of England; more than ninety, years had passed since Columbus had landed on his Caribbean island. In 1565 a colony of French Huguenots at St. Augustine had, by a characteristic act-of Spanish treachery, been massacred', men, women, and children, at the order of Menendez, and the French thus wiped out of the southern coast of North America forever. While England remained. Catholic, the influence of Papal bulls in favor of Spanish authority in America, and matrimonial alliances between the royal families of Spain and England, had restrained English enterprise in the west. Henry VIII had indeed acted independently both of the Spaniard and of the pope; but it was not until Elizabeth's accession in 1558, bringing Protestantism with her, that England. ventured to assert herself as a nation in the new-found world. Willoughby had attempted, in 1553, the preposterous enterprise of reaching India by sailing round Norway and the north of Asia; but his expedition got no further than the Russian port of Archangel. In 1576 and the two succeeding years, Martin Frobisher went on voyages to Labrador and neighboring regions, at first searching for the Northwest Passage, afterward in quest of gold. The only result of his efforts was the bringing to England of some shiploads of earth, which had been erroneously supposed to contain the precious metal. In 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert had obtained a patent empowering him to found a colony somewhere in the north; his object being rather to develop the fisheries than to find gold or routes to India. He was stepbrother of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the latter started with him on the first voyage; but they were forced to put back soon after setting out. Gilbert went again in 1583, and reached St. John's, where he erected a pillar commemorating the English occupation; but he was drowned in a storm on the way home. Raleigh, who had stayed in England, and had acquired royal favor and a fortune, remained to carry out, in his own way, the designs which Gilbert's death had left in suspense. In 1584 he began the work.

Raleigh perhaps deserves to be regarded as the greatest English gentleman who ever lived. In addition to the learning of his time, he had a towering genius, indomitable courage and constancy, lofty and generous principles, far-seeing wisdom, Christian humanity, and a charity that gave and forgave to the end. He was a courtier and a statesman, a soldier and a sailor, a merchant and an explorer. His life was one of splendid and honorable deeds; he was not a talker, and found scant leisure to express himself in writing; though when he chose to write poetry he approved himself best in the golden age of English literature; and his "History of the World," composed while imprisonment in the Tower prevented him from pursuing more active employments, is inferior to no other produced up to that time. Such reverses as he met with in life only spurred him to fresh efforts, and his successes were magnificent, and conducive to the welfare of the world. He was a patriot of the highest and purest type; a champion of the oppressed; a supporter of all worthy enterprises, a patron of literature and art. Withal, he was full of the warm blood of human nature; he had all the fire, the tenderness, and the sympathies that may sightly belong to a man. The mind is astonished in contemplating such a being; he is at once so close to us,\ and so much above the human average. King James I of England, jealous of his greatness, imprisoned him for twelve years, on a groundless charge, and finally slew him, at the age of sixty-six, broken by disease, and saddened, but not soured, by the monstrous ingratitude and injustice of his treatment. Upon the scaffold he felt of the edge of the ax which was to behead him, and smiled, remarking, "A sharp medicine to. cure me of .my diseases!" Such are the exploits of kings.

Raleigh was the first man who perceived that America was to be the home of a white people: that it was to be a dwelling place, not a mere supply house for freebooters and home traders. He resolved to do his part toward making it so; he impoverished himself in the enterprise; and though, the colony which he planted in what is now North Carolina, but was then called Virginia, in honor of the Queen, who was pleased thus. to advertise her cbastity though this failed (by no fault of Raleigh's) of its immediate object, yet the lesson thus offered bore fruit in due season, and the colonization of the New World, shown to be a possibility and an advantage, was taken up on the lines Raleigh had drawn, and resulted in the settlement whose heirs we are.

In 1585, after receiving the favorable report of a preliminary expedition, Raleigh sent out upward of a hundred colonists under the. command of Sir Richard Grenville, one of the heroic figures of the time, a man of noble nature but fearful passions. They landed on the island of Roanoke, off the mouth of the river of that name, and were well received by the native tribes, who thought they were immortal and divine, because they were without women, and possessed gunpowder. It would have been well had the English. responded in kind; but within a few days, Grenville, angry at the nonproduction of a silver cup which had been stolen from his party during a visit to a village, burned the huts and destroyed the crops; and later, Lane, who had been left by Grenville in command of the colony, invited the principal chief of the region to a friendly conference, and murdered him. This method of procedure would not have been countenanced by.the great promoter of the expedition; nor would he have encouraged the hunt for gold that was presently undertaken. This was the curse of the time, and ever led to disaster and blood. Nor did Lane escape the delusion that a passage could be found through the land to the Indies; the savages, humoring his ignorance for their own purposes, assured him that the Roanoke River (which rises some two hundred miles inland) communicated with the Pacific at a distance of but a few days' journey. Lane selected a party and set hopefully forth to traverse fifty degrees of latitude; but ere long his provisions gave out, and he was forced to go starving back again. He arrived at the settlement just in time to save it from annihilation by the Indians.

But there were able men among these colonists, and some things were done which were not foolish. Hariot, who had scientific knowledge, and was a careful observer, made notes of the products of the land, and became proficient in tobacco smoking; he also tested and approved the potato, and in other ways laid the foundation for a profitable export and import trade. John White, an artist, who afterward was put in charge of another colony, made drawings of the natives and their appurtenances, which still survive, and witness his fidelity and skill. Explorations up and down the coast, and for some distance inland; were made; the salubrity of the climate was eulogized, and it was admitted that the soil was of excellent fertility. In short, nothing was lacking, in the way of natural conditions, to make the colony a success; yet the Englishmen grew homesick and despondent, and longed to return to England and English women. The supplies which they were expecting from home had not arrived; and their situation was rendered somewhat precarious by the growing hostility of the natives, who had come to the conclusion that these godlike white men were not persons with whom it was expedient for them to associate.

At this juncture, down upon the coast suddenly swooped a fleet of over twenty sail with the English flag flying, and no less a personage than Sir Francis Drake in command. He was returning from a profitable pirating expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies, and desired to see for himself how the colony sent out by his friend Raleigh was prospering. Out of his easily got abundance lie generously supplied the needs of the colonists, and presented them with a ship into the bargain, in which they might sail home should circumstances demand it. A couple of his most experienced officers, too, were added to the gift of the generous freebooter; and the outlook was now very different from what it had been a few days before. Yet fate was against them; or, to speak more accurately, they had lost the spirit which should animate pioneers, and when a touch of 'bad luck was added to their indisposition, they incontinently beat a retreat. A storm arose, which wrecked the ship that Drake had given them, and thus deprived them of the means of escape in case other disasters should arrive. They besought Drake to take them home with him; and he, with inexhaustible good humor, agreed to do so. His fleet, with the slack-souled colonists on board, had scarcely lost night of the low shores of Roanoke, when the supply ship that had been so long awaited arrived with all the requisites for subduing the wilderness on board. She found the place deserted, and, putting about, sailed for home again. A fortnight later came Sir Richard Grenville with three ships more; and he, being of a persistent nature, would not consent to lose altogether the fruit of the efforts which had been made; he left fifteen of his men on the island, to carry on until fresh colonists could be brought from England. But before this could be done the men were dead, whether by the act of God or of the savages; and the first English experience in colonizing America was at an end.

The story of the second colony, immediately sent out by Raleigh, ends with a mystery that probably hid a tragedy. Seventeen women and two children accompanied the eightynine men of the party. Having established the fact that the land was habitable and cultivatable, Raleigh perceived that in order to render it attractive also it was necessary that the-colonists should have their helpmeets with them. For the first time in history, therefore, the feet of English women pressed our soil, and the voices of children made music in the woodland solitudes. It had been designed that the more commodious bay of the Chesapeake should be the scene of this settlement; but the naval officer who should have superintended the removal was hungering for a West Indian trading venture, and declined to act. They perforce established themselves in the old spot, therefore, where the buildings were yet standing on the northern end of the little island, which, though deserted now, is for us historic ground. The routine of life began; and before the ship sailed on her return trip to England, the daughter of the governor and artist, John White, who was married to one of his subordinates named Dare, had given birth to a daughter, and called her Virginia. She was the first child of English blood who could be claimed as American; she came into the world, from which she was so soon to vanish, on the 18th of August, 1587. White returned to England with the ship a week or two later. He was to return again speedily with more colonists, and further supplies. But he never saw his daughter and her infant after their farewell in the land-locked bay. He reached England to find Raleigh and all the other strong men of England occupied with plans to repel the invasion that threatened from Spain, and which, in the shape of the Invincible Armada, was to be met and destroyed in the English Channel, almost on the first anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare. Nothing could be, done, at the moment, to relieve the people at Roanoke; but in April of 1588, Raleigh found time, with the defense of a kingdom on his hands, to equip two ships and send them in White's charge to Virginia. All might have been well had White been content to attend with a single eye to the business in hand; but the seas were full of vessels which could be seized and stripped - of their precious cargoes, and White thought it would be profitable to imitate the exploits of-Drake and Grenville, and take a few prizes to Roanoke with him. But he was the ass in the lion's hide. One of his ships was itself attacked and gutted, and with the other he fled in terror back to London. Raleigh could not help him now; his own fortune was exhausted; and it was not until the Armada had come and gone, and the country had in a measure recovered itself from the shocks of war, that succor could be attempted. The charter which had been granted to Raleigh enabled him to give liberal terms to a company of merchants and others, who on their part could raise the funds for the voyage. But' though Raleigh executed this patent in the spring of 1589, it was not until more than a year afterward that the expedition was ready to sail. White went with them, and we may imagine with what straining eyes he scanned the spot where he had last beheld his daughter and grandchild, as the ship glided up the inlet. But no one came forth between the trees to wave a greeting to his long-deferred return; there were no figures on the shore, no smoke of family fires rose heavenward; families and hearths alike were gone. The place was a desert. Little Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony of Roanoke had already passed out of history, leaving no clew to their fate except the single word "CROATAN" inscribed on the bark of a tree. It was the name of an island further down the coast; and had White gone thither, he might even yet have found the lost. But he was a man unfitted in all respects to live in that age and take part in its enterprise. He was a soft, feeble, cowardly and unfaithful creature, yet vain and ambitious, and eager to share the fame of men immeasurably larger and worthier than he. He could draw pictures, but he could not do deeds; and: now, after having deserted those to whom he had been in honor bound to cleave, he pleaded the excuse of bad weather and the lateness of the season for abandoning them once more; and, reembarking on his ship, he went back with all his company to England. It was the dastardly ending of the first effort, nobly conceived, and supported through five years, to engraft the English race in the soil of America.

Tradition hazards the conjecture that the Roanoke colony, or some of them, were cared for by the friendly Indians of Hatteras. There was a rumor that seven of them were still living twenty years after White's departure. But no certain news was ever had of them, though several later attempts to trace them were made. Between the time when their faint-hearted governor had deserted them, and his return, three years had passed; and if they were not early. destroyed by the hostile tribes, they must have endured a more lingering pain in hoping against hope for the white sails that never rose above the horizon. Most of them, if not all, were doubtless massacred by the Indians, - if not at once, then when it became evident that no succor was to be expected for them. Some, possibly, were carried into captivity; and it may be that Virginia Dare her self grew up to become the white squaw of an Indian brave, and that her blood still flows in the veins of some unsuspected red man. But it is more likely that she died with the others, one of the earliest and most innocent of the victims sacrificed on the altar of a great idea:

White disappears from history at this point; but Raleigh never forgot his colony, and five times, at his own expense, and in the midst of events that might have monopolized the energies of a score of ordinary men, he dispatched expeditions to gain tidings of them. In 1595 he himself sailed for Trinidad, on the northern coast of South America, and explored the river Orinoco, nine degrees above the equator. It was his hope to offset the power of Spain in Mexico and Peru by establishing an English colony in Guiana. Wars claimed his attention during the next few years, and then came his long imprisonment; but in 1616, two years before his execution, he headed a last expedition to the southern coast of the land he had labored so faithfully to unite to England. It failed of its object, and Raleigh lost his head. But the purpose which he had steadfastly entertained did not die with him; and we Americans claim him today as the first friend and father of the conception of a great white people beyond the sea.

Continue to Chapter 1 Part 2