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An Abridged History of Canada
Chapter I.—Discovery of America—To 1497


Ancient Traditions—The Norsemen colonize Greenland and discover America in the Ninth Century—874. Diaz discovers the Cape of Good Hope—1486. Efforts of Columbus to organize an Expedition; baffled for ten years—He sets sail August 3rd, and discovers San Salvador, October 11th—1492. Amerigo Vespucci gives his name to the Continent—De Gama reaches India by way of the Cape of Good Hope—1498.

From very ancient times there were traditions of the existence of a western world. Allusions in the Greek and Latin writers to the fabled island of Atlantis and the Gardens of the Hesperides have been doubtfully supposed to refer to the continent of America. Both Phoenician and Carthagenian voyagers are said, on slender evidence, to have-crossed by way of the Azores to some unknown land beyond the western sea. Little credence can be given to similar stories concerning the Irish and the Welsh

On much better ground rest the claims of the Norsemen to the discovery of America. There is evidence that Iceland, eight hundred and fifty miles from Norway, was colonized from that country over a thousand years ago. Icelandic sagas record that Greenland was soon after discovered and settled, and that for four hundred years it remained a see of Rome, with a succession of seventeen Christian bishops. The sagas further record that, in the year one thousand, Leif Erikson wintered about the latitude of Boston, in a newly-discovered country which, from the abundance of wild grapes, he called Vinland. He is said also to have visited and named Markland (Nova Scotia), and Helluland (Newfoundland). Soon after, several colonies, it is recorded in the sagas, settled in Yinland; but they were eventually expelled by the natives or wasted by famine and disease.

But, even though the alleged facts be true, they do not lessen the glory of Columbus for his re-discovery of the western continent. His was no less the commanding genius that wrested its secret from the bosom of the sea, and revealed to the astonished eyes of Europe a new world. He lived in a period of remarkable maritime adventure. The rich commerce with the East in gold and silver and precious stones, in ivory, silks, and costly spices, had stimulated the desire to find a shorter way of access to India—the land of those coveted treasures—than the tedious caravan route through the Syrian deserts. The invention of the Mariners' Compass, and the increased knowledge of astronomy and navigation, encouraged the efforts to seek this distant land by sea. With this design, the Portuguese had extended their voyages along the African coast, till at length, in 1486, Bartolommeo Diaz reached the southern part of that continent, which was named, as an augury of the long-sought discovery, the Cape of Good Hope.

Christopher Columbus, a Genoese mariner, had in the meanwhile conceived the idea of reaching India by sailing directly westward around the world. Possibly he may have heard, in a voyage which he made to Iceland, traditions of the former discovery of a land beyond the Atlantic. He was confirmed in his convictions by the writings of learned men, and by the strange products of unknown countries cast upon the shores of Europe by western gales. For twenty years he cherished his grand design, and for ten years he went from court to court—to Genoa, Portugal, and Spain—seeking to inspire confidence like his own, and to obtain an outfit for the enterprise. After many disheartening rebuffs, delays, and broken promises, when impoverished and almost despairing, the generous Isabella of Castile became his patroness, pledging even her crown jewels for the support of his project. But the means furnished were strangely inadequate for the magnitude of the task—only three small vessels and one hundred and twenty men. With a lofty faith in what he believed to be his providential mission, Columbus claimed the office of admiral of all the lands to be discovered, and one-tenth of the profit of all their merchandise.

After solemn religious rites, on Friday, August 3rd, 1492, Columbus and 'his companions sailed on their memorable voyage. Leaving the Canary Islands on the 6th of September, they sailed steadily westward for five and thirty days. The mysterious trade winds seemed to the sailors to waft them remorselessly onward to some dread unknown. The appalling distance they had travelled, the alarming variations of the compass which occurred, the strange portents of a sea of weeds that almost prevented their progress, and of a fierce storm that followed, aroused in the disaffected crews dark conspiracies and turbulent mutinies. At length, on the night of October the 11th, lights were seen moving amid the darkness, and the joyous cry of "Land! land!" rang from vessel to vessel. With the dawn of the morning the New World lay revealed to European eyes. With devout prayers and hymns of praise, Columbus took possession of the new-found territories in the name of God, and of his sovereign mistress, Isabella of Castile.

The land proved to be one of the Bahama islands, and was reverently named San Salvador. After visiting several of the neighbouring islands, designated, in accordance with his erroneous geographical theory, the West Indies, Columbus returned to Spain, to proudly lay at his sovereigns' feet the dominion of a new world. He was crowned with the highest honours, and the naval resources of the kingdom were placed at his disposal. With seventeen ships and fifteen hundred men, he speedily sailed again to prosecute his discoveries in these unknown lands. In successive voyages he explored the West Indian archipelago and the adjacent mainland. But calumny, envy, and malice pursued him, and the discoverer of a new world was dispossessed of his authority, and sent back in chains to the ungrateful country which, beyond the dreams of avarice, he had enriched. Broken in health, bowed in spirit, impoverished in estate, stricken with the weight of seventy years, neglected by the sovereign whom he had so faithfully served —his noble benefactress, Isabella, no longer lived to protect him—this great man died at Seville, May 20th, 1506. As if his remains could find a fit resting-place only in the new lands which he had discovered, they were conveyed in 1536 to the island of Santo Domingo, and in 1796, with great pomp, to Havana, within whose cathedral they now repose.

Amerigo Vespucci, a private adventurer, who wrote an exaggerated account of his explorations succeeding those of Columbus, by giving his name to the new-found continent, has defrauded of that honour the rightful claimant.

In 1497-98,. the Portuguese navigator, Vasco de Gama, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, reached the coast of India —the chief object of the adventurous voyages of discovery of this period.


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