From John, Fiske, Unpublished Orations: “The Discovery of the Columbia River, and the Whitman Controversy;” The Crispus Attucks Memorial;” and “Columbus Memorial”; The Bibliophile Society; Boston; 1909; pp. 99-119
But I do not propose to take up your time with glittering generalities. The best way to do homage to Columbus, or to show our appreciation 100 of the real grandeur of his achievement, is to try to understand it in its relation to what went before it; and that is a kind of understanding which people surely do not commonly show in speaking or writing on the subject. In order to appreciate the significance of any historical event we must look at in perspective, and the greater the event the more is the need of such perspective.
Now the discovery of America was simply a part of a great and sudden outburst of maritime activity the like of which had never been seen before, and which within the limits of a single century discovered not only America, but nearly all the rest of the world outside of Europe. Down to that time the great wanderings of mankind had been by land; no people except the Northmen had ventured far into the trackless ocean, and the knowledge of civilized Europeans extended but little way beyond their own continent. Perhaps it is not always remembered that the first European ship crossed the equator in 1471, when Columbus was a man grown, and that no European ship ever sailed to the eastern coast of Asia until 1517, after Columbus had been eleven years in the grave. When that great navigator was in his childhood, European knowledge of the surface of our planet was bounded on the south by the Tropic of Cancer, and to the east it was extremely hazy about everything beyond the 101 Caspian Sean and the Persian Gulf. The globe made in 1492 by Martin Behaim, one of the most learned geographers of his time, may still be seen in the Town Hall of Nuremberg. It cuts off two-thirds of Hindustan and puts in place of it an island of Ceylon magnified tenfold. But within half a century after 1492, the Antarctic Ocean had been visited, the earth had been circumnavigated once, the flag of Portugal was supreme in the East Indies, and Spaniards ruled in Mexico and Peru.
It is an interesting question, why should this wonderful outburst of maritime activity have come just at that time? why should the discovery of America by Columbus have happened in the fifteenth century? and why did Europe have to wait until then for such an event? The answer is easy to find; but first we shall do well to ask another question, and then we may answer the two together. There is no doubt that toward the end of the tenth century people from Iceland founded a colony in Greenland, or that ships from Greenland a few years later made voyages along the American coast, chiefly for the purpose of cutting timer, and in all probability came as far south as Massachusetts Bay. Icelandic chronicles have fortunately preserved the story of these interesting voyages, but Europe took no heed of them whatever, and they lapsed into utter oblivion until about the time of Henry 102 Hudson, when the Arctic world began again to be explored, and long after the death of Columbus. Now, why was this? What was the difference between the eleventh century and the fifteenth, such that in the latter case a visit to the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean soon led to the revelation of a new world, while in the former case it did not? The differences between the two ages were many, but the chief difference with which we are concerned is this: in the time of Columbus there was a propelling power at work which in the earlier time was absent, and that propelling power was furnished by a great and unprecedented disturbance of trade between Europe and Asia. That disturbance was caused by the Ottoman Turks. There is one other date in the fifteenth century almost as famous as 1492; that is, 1453, that year of mourning and humiliation when the grandest city of Christendom was captured by the robber bands whose descendants have to this day been allowed to hold it. but for nearly a century before Constantinople fell, the Turks had been strangling trade on the eastern shores and in the eastern waters of the Mediterranean. Their aggressions closed up old routes of trade and forced Europe to seek new routes; and thus, I say, it was chiefly and primarily the Turks that set in motion the current of events that carried Columbus across the Atlantic. Aggressions from Asia as formidable 103 as that of the Ottoman had occurred more than once before, but never had they encountered and displaced anything lie so large a volume of commerce; and never had they been met with so highly developed a spirit of commercial enterprise. The point is very important and observes a few more words of explanation.
Traffic between the Mediterranean and remote parts of Asia had been carried on from very early times, and some of its routes were doubtless in use before the dawn of history. During two thousand years preceding the time of Columbus three principal routes were used. One was through the Black and Caspian Seas, the route associated with the commercial greatness of Constantinople and Genoa; a second was through Syria and the Persian Gulf, a route illustrious for such cities as Antioch, and Damascus, and Bagdad; the third was through Egypt and the Red Sea, especially associated with the glorious days of Alexandrian and of Venice. By such routes as these, after variously changing hands, did the goods of Eastern Asian make their slow way to European seaports — aromatic spices, black pepper, ivory, cotton fabrics, diamonds, sapphires and pearls, silk thread and silkstuffs, richly woven mats and shawls, in exchange for such European commodities as light woolen cloths, linens, coral, blacklead, glass vessels of divers shapes and uses, brass, tin and wrought 104 silver, and Greek and Italian wines. It was probably seldom that the same persons travelled from end to end of the long routes that led toward the rising sun; still fewer were those commercial travellers who wrote an account of their experiences for the general increase of knowledge. So things went on for many generations.
But after the Crusades had brought Western Europe into closer contact with the luxury and refinement of the Eastern Empire, there was a change. The volume of trade with Asia began steadily to increase, and curiosity about Oriental countries and peoples was greatly stimulated. In the thirteenth century the Mongol conquests brought the whole vast territory from China to Poland, from the Yellow Sea to the Euphrates, under the sway of a single monarch; the Mongol policy was liberal to foreigners, and in the course of a hundred years, from 1250 to 1350, a good many Europeans — chiefly merchants and Franciscan monks — visited China. Now came the first step toward the discovery of America. Soon after 1250 it became positively known, as a matter of personal experience, that China was a maritime country with seaports looking out upon an open ocean. By those Europeans who pondered upon this information it was at once assumed that this ocean must be the Atlantic, because of the spherical shape of the earth. Here I must pause for a moment to remark upon a gross 105 historical blunder which vitiates most of the talk and a good deal of the popular writing about Columbus. It is evidently supposed by many people that the spherical shape of the earth was a new idea in his time; some seem to think that he originated it, or that it was opposed and ridiculed by most of his learned contemporaries and especially by the clergy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The globular form of the earth was proved by Aristotle, and after him accepted by nearly all the ancient philosophers; and seventeen hundred years before Columbus, the geographer Eratosthenes declared that it would be easy enough to sail from Spain to India on the same parallel, were it not for the vast extent of the Atlantic Ocean. But that vast extent was all a matter of guesswork, and other ancient writers, such as Seneca, maintained that the distance was probably not so very great, and that with favoring winds a ship might make the voyage in a few days. This question of distance, as we shall see in a few moments, was the main difficulty which Columbus had to meet. Objections arising from a belief in the earth’s flatness were made by ignorant clergymen, as by uneducated people in general; but learned clergymen, familiar with Aristotle and Ptolemy, did not for a moment call in question the roundness of the earth. Knowledge of such scientific points, however, was in those days apt to lie stagnant, and 106 some striking experience was needed to vivify it. When the news of Chinese seaports was first brought to Europe, that farsighted monk, Roger Bacon, in 1267, suggested that a ship might sail westward across the Atlantic to China, and he fortified his opinion by extracts from Aristotle and other ancient writers. There is nothing to show that Columbus ever saw Roger Bacon’s book; but in 1410 a certain Archbishop of Cambrai, named Pierre d’Ailly, wrote a book called “The Image of the World,” which was widely circulated in manuscript and was printed in 1483; and in this very popular book that passage about sailing westward to China was cribbed — or perhaps it would be more amiable to say quoted> — from Bacon. This book was diligently read by Columbus, and his own copy of it, with marginal notes in his own handwriting which show how powerfully it influenced him, may be seen today in the Columbian Library at Seville.
Thus we see that Roger Bacon’s suggestion, though it found no practical response in his own time, was transmitted to Columbus two centuries later and sank deep into his heart. Things changed greatly between the thirteenth century and the fifteenth. So long as Asia was more accessible than ever by the old routes, men had no motive for undertaking the strange and difficult work of finding new ones. Such new and strange work must wait until men were in a 107 measure driven to it. Meanwhile, among the educated Europeans who found their way to the eastern ocean, there was one, the Venetian Marco Polo, who lived in the service of the Mongol emperor for five-and-twenty years and made journeys to and fro in the heart of Asia. In 1299, after his return to Europe, he wrote down his experiences in what is doubtless the greatest book of travels that has ever been written. It carried European thought still farther eastward than the Chinese seaports, for Marco Polo had heard a good deal about Japan, an island kingdom a thousand miles out in the ocean, which he called Cipango, and about which he told things which led many of his readers to set him down as a liar, but which we now know to have been for the most part true.
During the next century Marco Polo’s book was widely read, curiosity about the East was strongly stimulated, and the trade along the old routes was rapidly increasing year by year, when the face of things was somewhat suddenly changed. In 1368 the Mongols were driven out of China, and that country was once more shut up. But that was a small calamity compared to the rise of the Turks, who had entered Europe and taken Adrianople by 1365. Their corsairs swarmed in the Levant waters till the peril and cost of Christian voyages in that direction was increased manifold. The blow fell first and most 108 heavily upon Genoa. which had profited most by the Black sea route; but Venice also suffered gravely, and every town in the Netherlands felt the effects, which presently reverberated from end to end of Europe.
Thus upon men’s minds began to dawn the question whether an outside route, an indirect path over the ocean, could be found to the lands whence silks and spices came. Perhaps civilized mankind had never asked of itself a more startling question. It involved a radical departure in the grooves in which the minds of sailors and merchants had been running every since the days when Solomon’s ship were laden with treasure from Ophir. The age that could propound such a problem was ripe for new ventures in other directions, too — for a renaissance in science, in art and in religion. The man that could solve it will always be remembered as one of the mightiest innovators of all time.
A whole generation passed while the question was gradually getting propounded, and the answer, as with all such great questions, came by slow stages. Portuguese navigators first gave shape to the problem; and here, as throughout the story, we never get far away from the conflict between the Crescent and the Cross. For many generations the kingdoms of the Spanish peninsula had been striving to expel the Moorish invader. Portugal was first to free herself and 109 carry the war into Africa. In suppressing Moorish piracy the Portuguese captains made their first acquaintance with longer and longer stretches of the coast of Africa and heard of Guinea and its mines of gold. A great man arose to the occasion, a man in whom missionary, merchant, statesman, pathbreaker and scientific inquirer were combined after a fashion characteristic of that romantic age. Prince Henry of Portugal, called “The Navigator,” own cousin to our Henry V. of England, was founder of the great school of explorers in which Columbus was the most illustrious disciple. The first object of these mariners was to ascertain whether Africa could be circumnavigated and a route thus found into the Indian Ocean. Upon this question two different opinions were held by learned men, who were wont to settle all disputed points by reference to the wisdom of the ancients. The foremost authority on geography was still Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote in Alexandria in the second century after Christ. Ptolemy held that the southern hemisphere was in great part filled by a huge continent which at one place was joined to Africa and at another place was joined to Asia somewhere near Farther India, on which he had some vague hearsay knowledge. Thus, according to Ptolemy, the Indian Ocean was a land-locked sea with no outlet, and of course if the Portuguese captains had believe this doctrine 110 they would not have tried to sail around Africa. But a different opinion was entertained by Pomponius Mela, a native of the Spanish peninsula, who wrote in the first century or our era a little book that was highly esteemed throughout the Middle Ages, especially by Spaniards. Mela believed in a great continent lying southward of both Africa and Asia, but he believed it to be separated from both these continents by a broad open ocean. Still more, he chopped off the whole of Africa south of Sahara, and maintained that you could sail from the Strait of Gibraltar around into the Indian Ocean without crossing the equator. Such was the theory upon which Portuguese navigators were allowed to feed their hopes until 1471, a few years after the death of Prince Henry. In that year, 1471, a voyage was made, the importance of which I was the first to point out. Portuguese ships had already reached the coast of Upper Guinea, where it runs for several hundred miles from west to east, Here it seemed as if Mela’s opinion was correct, and as it one might go on sailing eastward to the mouth of the Red Sea. But in 1471 two captains, Santarem and Escobar, went on and followed that coast till they found it turning to the south; and on they went till — first of all Europeans — they crossed the equator, and sailed five degrees beyond it, and still the African coast stretched before them steadily southward. It was thus 111 made clear that Mela was mistaken, and it was possible that Ptolemy might be right. For aught they knew, that coast might keep running southwards all the way to the pole, and even if that were not the case, one thing was clear: a route to Asia by sailing around Africa was going to be a much longer route than they had supposed. We can well believe that the prospect was discouraging. It was one of those interesting situations that make men stop and think. Now, if ever, was the natural moment for somebody to ask the question, whether there might not be some better and shorter ocean route to Asian than any that could be found by pursuing the African coast.
Now it was just about this time that Christopher Columbus seems to have found his way to Portugal. Hew as now between thirty and thirty-five, or, as many writers think, not more than twenty-five years old. A dozen or more towns and villages have been claimed as his birthplace, but I see no reason for doubting his own explicit statement, made in a solemn legal documents, that he was born in the city of Genoa. Son of a wool comber in very humble circumstances, he had taken to the sea at an early age, as was natural for a Genoese boy. Somewhere and somehow he had learned Latin and geometry and as much of astronomy as that age knew how to apply to purposes of navigation. He had sailed 112 to and fro upon the Mediterranean in merchant voyages, and had probably taken a hand in scrimmages with Turkish corsairs, which is the foundation for the ridiculous charge of “piracy” sometimes alleged against him by modern dabblers in history. His younger brother, Bartholomew, had led a similar life, and both had won a reputation for skill in map making. In those days when Italian commerce, cut from its eastern roots by Turkish shears, was languishing. Italian skill and talent were apt to drift westward to Lisbon, and so it was with the brothers Columbus. Both were deeply interested in the problem of circumnavigating Africa, both sailed in more than one of the Portuguese voyages on the coast, and Bartholomew was in the first voyage that doubled the Cape of Good Hope in 1487.
Long before this his brother Christopher’s scheme had been fully matured. I said a moment ago that the disappointing voyage of Santarem and Escobar furnished the occasion for asking the question if some better method of getting to Asia could be found. Now observe the eloquence of dates. Those captains returned to Lisbon in April, 1472; and before June, 1474, that question had already been asked by the king of Portugal. The person of whom he asked the question was the greatest astronomer of that century, Paolo Toscanelli, of Florence; and Toscanelli’s reply 113 was, “Can there be a shorter route? Of course there can. It you steer westward straight across the Atlantic, you will find Asia much sooner than by sailing down by Guinea;” and he drew a map, giving his idea of the situation, and sent it to the king of Portugal. Now about the same time Columbus asked the same question of Toscanelli and got the same reply. Some critics have lately tried to make out an interval of six or eight years between the two letters. I have elsewhere argued that it cannot have been more than six or eight weeks. It was probably not later than September, 1474, that Toscanelli sent to Columbus his letter, the tone of which implies that Columbus had done something more than ask a question. he had not only asked about the shorter route, but expressed a desire or intention to undertake it. The astronomer’s reply was full of enthusiasm; he strongly urged the undertaking upon Columbus, and sent him a duplicate of the map which he had sent to the king of Portugal. Columbus kept this map and carried it with him upon his first voyage.
Now the question here at issue, and on which an appeal was made to Toscanelli, was not whether the earth is a sphere. That was assumed by all the parties. The question was simply as to the length of the voyage required to reach the coasts of China or Japan by sailing due west. Here the astronomer’s reply was encouraging. He 114 greatly overestimated the length of Asia. I suppose he must have misunderstood some of Marco Polo’s Chinese measures of distance. At any rate he carried his Chinese seaports so far to the east as to bring them near California. As for Japan, he brought it into the Gulf of Mexico. This gigantic error was of the greatest possible aid to Columbus, as it turned out; but Columbus improved upon it. His theoretical measure of the earth’s circumference was smaller than Toscanelli’s, and when he put that astronomer’s guesswork measure of Asia upon it, he carried Japan eastward even into the Atlantic, and held that you could reach it by sailing about two thousand five hundred miles due west from the Canary Islands. This was not much longer than the voyage from Lisbon to the Guinea coast, and thus there could be no doubt as to the commercial advantage of braving the unknown terrors of the voyage across the open ocean.
Such was the scheme which Columbus had to urge upon his fellow men for eighteen years before he could get the means for carrying it into practical operation. Like many scientific theories, as first formed it was a fairly even mixture of truth and error; but he was peculiarly fortunate in this, that the truth and the error alike helped him. Some of the Lisbon geographers urged against him that his estimate of the length of Asia was excessive. In this they were of course 115 right; but if their wisdom had prevailed, no westward voyage would have been made, and the unknown continent between Portugal and Japan would have remained unknown until some other occasion had been evolved.
There were many elements in the complex character of Columbus beside that of the scientific navigator. The crusading spirit was strong in him. Alike as a Genoese and as a Christian he hated the Turk, and it was quite to his credit that he did so. He was an idealist, a poetic dreamer, a religious fanatic, a man hard for some people to understand. Viewed as a whole, his scheme was somewhat as follows:
God’s kingdom on earth was to come. The bounds of Christendom were to be enlarged, and the unspeakable Turk was to be crushed. Old Crusaders had assailed the Infidel in front; but he would outflank him. He would gain access to the wealth of the Indies by a new and short cut across the Atlantic waves never before ploughed by European keels, and with his share of the profits of this great commercial enterprise he would equip such a vast army as would drive the Turk from Constantinople and set free the Holy Sepulchre.
Such was the noble, disinterested idea of Columbus. His young friend Las Casas, the purest and loftiest spirit of the sixteenth century, so understood it and honored its author; while 116 modern writers, incapable of entering into the mood of a time so remote from our own, peck and carp at details wherein Columbus seems to offend their precious ideas of propriety, and wave him away with a Podsnap flourish which of course always ends the matter. He was weak, we are told; he was selfish and avaricious, and after all he did not accomplish what he undertook to do. After all his fine promises he never set foot on the soil of Asia.
Well, it is part of the irony with which this world is governed, that the bravest and most strenuous spirits are apt to consecrate their lives to some grand purpose, in the pursuit of which they strive and faint and die; and, after all is over, after death has sealed their eyelids and the voice of praise or blame is for them as nothing, it turns out that they have done a great and wonderful thing; but that great and wonderful thing is so far from being he object to which their arduous lives were consecrated, that if they could listen to the praise which posterity lavishes upon the, they would be daft with amazement. Well they would say, “We never dreamt of this. These monuments that are reared to us amid all this pomp and ceremony — we do not comprehend their meaning.”
So might Columbus feel if he could be brought back to earth and witness what is going on today in all parts of this western world. What has 117 has been accomplished, as the result of his voyage of 1492, is something of which he never dreamed. He never meant to discover a New World, and he died without the slightest suspicion that he had made such a discovery. He died in obscurity and disgrace because he had not done the thing which he had set out to do; he had entailed fresh expenses upon his royal patrons instead of guiding them to boundless riches. When he died at Valladolid, on Ascension Day, 1506, the annals of that town, which mention everything of local interest great and small, from year to year, take no heed of the passing away of that great spirit. It was left for the events of greater ages to clothe with adequate significance the events of 1492.
It was not until this western continent became the seat of a high civilization that the significance began to be realized, and to reflect upon the memory of Columbus the glory of which he was defrauded in his lifetime. And it was long before the course of events had taught men this new lesson. A hundred years ago little heed was paid to the anniversary of the discovery of America; but in France, amid the spasms of the Revolution, a few prize essays were written, and what do you think, was their general purport? It was generally agreed that the discovery of America had been an almost unmitigated curse to mankind, because it had led to greater wars — such, for example, as the Seven Years’ War — than had 118 ever been seen before. Only one benefit, said these humanitarians, had come from the discovery, and that was the use of quinine in averting fevers. But stay, said some of the prize essayists, to this general verdict of disparagement we can seem to see dimly one exception. Two or three million of English colonists are scattered along the coast of that unpromising wilderness; they have just won their independence; and in them rests the hope of mankind for the future of the western world. Theirs is the legacy of Columbus if they fulfil the promise with which they have started. Such was the purport of some of these ingenious prize essays a century ago. What will prize essayists or centennial orators a century hence be saying here in Boston?
Fellow-citizens, it rests with us to determine the answer to such a question. When one reads of Saul who went forth to seek his father’s asses and found a kingdom, one thinks of Columbus. But let the parable warn us. To Columbus we owe the fresh soil in which a nationality of the highest type has begun to be developed. Let us never forget that without the steadfast culture of the highest manhood in political life, the richest opportunities are no better than dust and chaff. The extension of God’s kingdom on earth was the object nearest the heart of Columbus. It is our high duty and privilege to accept the legacy and defend it.