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COLUMBUS'S VOYAGE TO AMERICA.
DR. ROBERTSON. [William Robertson, D.D., was born at Bothwick, 1721. On the completion of his theological studies at Edinburgh, he was presented (1743) to the living of Gladsmuir, in East Lothian. He soon became distinguished as a preacher, and on the appearance of his "History of Scotland," in 1759, at once took his place among the famous historians of his country. The fame of this work led to rapid preferment and to his being appointed Principal of the University of Edinburgh, and Historiographer Royal of Scotland. His * History of Charles V." (1777), and his still more celebrated “ History of America,” constitute his other principal works. His style is singularly perspicuous, his descriptions graphic; and he has always been admired for the skilful arrangement of his plan. He died 1793.] On Friday the 3rd of August, in the year 1492, Columbus set sail, a little before sunrise, in presence of a vast crowd of spectators, who sent up their supplications to Heaven for the prosperous issue of the voyage, which they wished rather than expected. Columbus steered directly for the Canary Islands, and arrived there without any occurrence that would have deserved notice on any other occasion ; but in a voyage of such expectation and importance every circumstance was the object of attention. The rudder of the Pinta * broke loose the day after she left the harbour, and that accident alarmed the crew, no less superstitious than unskilful, as a certain omen of the unfortunate destiny of the expedition. Even in the short run to the Canaries, the ships were found to be so crazy and ill-appointed as to be very improper for a navigation which was expected to be both long and dangerous. Columbus refitted them, however, to the best of his power, and having supplied himself with fresh provisions, he took his departure from Gomera, one of the most westerly of the Canary Islands, on the 6th day of September.
* The second in point of size of the three vessels which composed the feet of Columbus—the largest being the Santa Maria, and the smallest the Nina.
Here the voyage of discovery may properly be said to begin; for Columbus, holding his course due west, left immediately the usual track of navigation, and stretched into unfrequented and unknown seas.
The first day, as it was very calm, he made but little way; but on the second he lost sight of the Canaries; and many of the sailors, dejected already and dismayed, when they contemplated the boldness of the undertaking, began to beat their breasts, and to shed tears, as if they were never more to behold land. Columbus comforted them with the assurances of success, and the prospect of vast wealth in those opulent regions whither he was conducting them. This early discovery of the spirit of his followers taught Columbus that he must prepare to struggle, not only with unavoidable difficulties which might be expected from the nature of his undertaking, but with such as were likely to arise from the ignorance and timidity of the people under his command; and he perceived that the art of governing the minds of men would be no less requisite for accomplishing the discoveries which he had in view than naval skill and undaunted courage. Happily for himself, and for the country by which he was employed, he joined to the ardent temper and inventive genius of a projector, virtues of another species, which are rarely united with them. He possessed a thorough knowledge of mankind, an insinuating address, a patient perseverance in executing any plan, the perfect government of his own passions, and the talent of acquiring an ascendant over those of other men. All these qualities, which formed him for command, were accompanied with that superior knowledge of his profession which begets confidence in times of difficulty and danger.
To unskilful Spanish sailors, accustomed only to coasting voyages in the Mediterranean, the maritime science of Columbus, the fruit of thirty years' experience, improved by an acquaintance with all the inventions of the Portuguese, appeared immense. As soon as they put to sea, he regulated everything by his sole autho
rity; he superintended the execution of every order; and allowing himself only a few hours for sleep, he was at all other times upon deck. As his course lay through seas which had not formerly been visited, the soundingline, or instruments for observation, were continually in his hands. After the example of the Portuguese discoverers, he attended to the motion of tides and currents, watched the flight of birds, the appearance of fishes, of sea-weeds, and of everything that floated on the waves, and entered every occurrence, with a minute exactness, in the journal which he kept. As the length of the voyage could not fail of alarming sailors habituated only to short excursions, Columbus endeavoured to conceal from them the real progress which they made. With this view, though they run eighteen leagues on the second day after they left Gomera, he gave out that they had advanced only fifteen, and he uniformly ployed the same artifice of reckoning short during the voyage. By the 14th of September the fleet was above two hundred leagues to the west of the Canary Isles, at a greater distance from land than any Spaniard had been before that time. There they were struck with an appearance no less astonishing than new. They observed that the magnetic needle in their compasses did not point exactly to the polar star, but varied towards the west, and as they proceeded this variation increased. This appearance, which is now familiar, though it still remains one of the mysteries of nature, into the cause of which the sagacity of man hath not been able to penetrate, filled the companions of Columbus with terror. They were now in a boundless and unknown ocean, far from the usual course of navigation; nature itself seemed to be altered, and the only guide which they had left was about to fail them. Columbus, with no less quickness than ingenuity, invented a reason for this appearance, which, though it did not satisfy himself
, seemed so plausible to them, that it dispelled their fears or silenced their murmurs.
He still continued to steer due west, nearly in the same latitude with the Canary Islands. In this course
they came within the sphere of the trade wind, which blows invariably from east to west between the tropics and a few degrees beyond them. He advanced before this steady gale with such uniform rapidity, that it was seldom necessary to shift a sail. When about four hundred leagues to the west of the Canaries, he found the sea so covered with weeds, that it resembled a meadow of vast extent, and in some places they were so thick as to retard the motion of the vessels. This strange appearance occasioned new alarm and disquiet. The sailors imagined that they were now arrived at the utmost boundary of the navigable ocean ; that those floating weeds would obstruct their farther progress, and concealed dangerous rocks, or some large tract of land which had sunk, they knew not how, in that place. Columbus endeavoured to persuade them, that what had alarmed them ought rather to have encouraged them, and was to be considered as
sign of approaching land. At the same time a brisk gale arose, and carried them forward. Several birds were seen hovering about the ship, and directed their flight towards the west. The desponding crew resumed some degree of spirits, and began to entertain fresh hopes.
Upon the first day of October, they were, according to the admiral's reckoning, seven hundred and seventy leagues to the west of the Canaries; but, lest his men should be intimidated by the prodigious length of the navigation, he gave out that they had proceeded only five hundred and eighty-four leagues; and, fortunately for Columbus, neither his own pilot nor those of the other ships had skill sufficient to correct this error, and discover the deceit. They had now been above three weeks at sea ; they had proceeded far beyond what former navigators had attempted or deemed possible; all their prognostics of discovery, drawn from the flight of birds and other circumstances, had proved fallacious; the appearance of land, with which their own credulity or the artifice of their commander had from time to time flattered and amused them, had been altogether illusive, and their prospect of success seemed
now to be as distant as ever. These reflections occurred often to men, who had no other object or occupation than to reason and discourse concerning the intention and circumstances of their expedition. They made impression, at first, upon the ignorant and timid, and, extending by degrees to such as were better informed or more resolute, the contagion spread at length from ship to ship. From secret whispers or murmurings they proceeded to open cabals and public complaints. They taxed their sovereign with inconsiderate credulity in paying such regard to the vain promises and rash conjectures of an indigent foreigner, as to hazard the lives of so many of her own subjects in prosecuting a chimerical scheme. They affirmed that they had fully performed their duty by venturing so far in an unknown and hopeless course, and could incur no blame for refusing to follow any longer a desperate adventurer to certain destruction. They contended that it was necessary to think of returning to Spain while their crazy vessels were still in a condition to keep the sea; but expressed their fears that the attempt would prove vain, as the wind which had hitherto been so favourable to their course must render it impossible to sail in the opposite direction. All agreed that Columbus should be compelled by force to adopt a measure on which their common safety depended. Some of the more audacious proposed, as the most expeditious and certain method for getting rid at once of his remonstrances, to throw him into the sea, being persuaded that, upon their return to Spain, the death of an unsuccessful projector would excite little concern, and be inquired into with no curiosity.
Columbus was fully sensible of his perilous situation. He had observed with great uneasiness the fatal operation of ignorance and of fear in producing disaffection among his crew, and saw that it was now ready to burst out into open mutiny. He retained, however, perfect presence of mind. He affected to seem ignorant of their machinations. Notwithstanding the agitation