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Events in Portugal relative to Discovery-Propositions of Columbus to the Portuguese Court.
WHILE the design of attempting the discovery in the west was maturing in the mind of Columbus, he made a voyage to the northern seas, to the island of Thule, to which the English navigators, particularly those of Bristol, were accustomed to resort on account of its fishery. He even advanced, he says, one hundred leagues beyond, penetrated the polar circle, and convinced himself of the fallacy of the popular belief, that the frozen zone was uninhabitable. The island thus mentioned by him as Thule is generally supposed to have been Iceland, which is far to the west of the Ultima Thule of the ancients, as laid down on the map of Ptolemy. Nothing more is known of this voyage, in which we discern indications of that ardent and impatient desire to break away from the limits of the old world, and launch into the unknown regions of the ocean.
Several years elapsed without any decided effort on the part of Columbus to carry his design into execution. An enterprise of the kind required the patronage of some sovereign power, which could furnish the necessary means, could assume dominion over the lands to be discovered, and could ensure suitable rewards and dignities to the discoverer.
The cause of discovery had languished during the latter part of the reign of Alphonso of Portugal, who was too much engrossed with his wars with Spain to engage in peaceful enterprises, of great cost and doubtful result. Navigation also was still too imperfect for so perilous an undertaking as that proposed by Columbus. Discovery advanced slowly along the coasts of Africa; and though the compass had been introduced into more general use, yet mariners rarely ventured far out of sight of land; they even feared to cruise far into the southern hemisphere, with the stars of which they were totally unacquainted. To such men, therefore, the project of a voyage directly westward, in quest of some imagined land in the boundless wastes of the ocean, appeared as extravagant, as it would at the present day to launch forth in a balloon into the regions of space, in quest of some distant star.
The time, however, was at hand, that was to extend the power of navigation. The era was propitious to the quick advancement of knowledge. The recent invention of printing enabled men to communicate rapidly and extensively their ideas and discoveries. It multiplied and spread abroad, and placed in every hand, those volumes of information, which had hitherto existed only in costly manuscripts, treasured up in the libraries of colleges and convents. At this juncture, John II. ascended the throne of Portugal. He had imbibed the passion for discovery from his grand uncle, Prince Henry, and with his reign all its activity revived. The recent attempts to discover a route to India had excited an eager curiosity concerning the remote parts of the east, and had revived all the accounts,
true and fabulous, of travellers. Among these, were the tales told of the renowned Prester John, a Christian king, said to hold sway in a remote part of the east, but whose kingdom seemed to baffle research as effectually as the unsubstantial island of St. Brandan. All the fables and dreamy speculations, concerning this shadowy potentate, and his oriental realm, were again put in circulation. It was fancied that traces of his empire had been discerned in the interior of Africa, to the east of Benin, where there was a powerful prince, who used a cross among the insignia of royalty; and John II., in the early part of his reign, actually sent missions in quest of the visionary Prester John.
Impatient of the tardiness with which his discoveries advanced along the coast of Africa, and eager to realize the splendid project of Prince Henry, and conduct the Portuguese flag into the Indian seas, John II. called upon his men of science to devise some means of giving greater scope and certainty to navigation. His two physicians, Roderigo and Joseph, the latter a Jew, who were the most able astronomers and cosmographers of his kingdom, together with the celebrated Martin Behem, entered into a consultation on the subject; and the result of their conferences was, the application of the astrolabe to navigation. This instrument has since been improved and modified into the modern quadrant, of which, even at its first introduction, it possessed all the essential advantages. This invention was one of those timely occurrences which seem to have something providential in them. It was the one thing wanting to facilitate an intercourse across the deep, and to cast navigation loose from its long bondage
to the land. Science had thus prepared guides for discovery across the trackless ocean, and had divested the enterprise of Columbus of that extremely hazardous character which had been so great an obstacle to its accomplishment. It was immediately after this event that he solicited an audience of the King of Portugal, to lay before him his great project of discovery. This is the first proposition of which we have any clear and indisputable record, although it has been strongly asserted, and with probability, that he had made one at an earlier period, to his native country, Genoa.
Columbus obtained a ready audience of King John, who was extremely liberal in encouraging and rewarding nautical enterprise. He explained to the monarch his theory, and proposed, in case the king would furnish him with ships and men, to conduct them by a shorter route to the richest countries of the east, to touch at the opulent island of Cipango, and to establish a communication with the territories of the Grand Khan, the most splendid, powerful, and wealthy of oriental potentates.
King John listened attentively to the proposition of Columbus, and referred it to a learned junto, composed of Masters Roderigo and Joseph, and the king's confessor, Diego Ortiz, Bishop of Ceuta, a man greatly reputed for his learning, a Castilian by birth, and generally called Cazadilla, from the name of his birthplace. This scientific body treated the project as extravagant and visionary. Still the king was not satisfied, but convoked his council, composed of persons of the greatest learning in the kingdom, and asked their advice. In this assembly, Cazadilla, the Bishop of Ceuta, opposed the theory of Colum
bus, as destitute of reason, and indeed evinced a cold and narrow spirit, hostile to all discovery. The decision of the council was equally unfavourable with that of the junto, and the proposition of Columbus was rejected.
Certain of the councillors, and particularly the Bishop Cazadilla, seeing that the king was dissatisfied with their decision, and retained a lurking inclination for the enterprise, suggested a stratagem by which all its advantages might be secured, without committing the dignity of the crown by entering into formal negotiations about a scheme, which might prove a mere chimera. The king, in an evil hour, departed from his usual justice and generosity, and had the weakness to permit their stratagem. These crafty councillors then procured from Columbus, as if to assist them in their deliberations, a detailed plan of his proposed voyage, with the charts by which he intended to shape his course. While
they held him in suspense, awaiting their decision, they privately despatched a caravel to pursue the designated route.
The caravel took its departure from the Cape de Verde Islands, and stood westward for several days. The weather grew stormy, and the pilots having no zeal to stimulate them, and seeing nothing but an immeasurable waste of wild tumbling waves, still extending before them, lost all courage, and put back to the Cape de Verde Islands, and thence to Lisbon, excusing their own want of resolution, by ridiculing the project as extravagant and irrational.
This unworthy attempt to defraud him of his enterprise roused the indignation of Columbus, and, though King John, it is said, showed a disposition