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hardy Vikings of the North, and to all those into whose passionate ardor of discovery Columbus entered with an equal mind, the fact remains he was
"the first that ever burst Into that silent sea."
And on this four hundredth anniversary of his successful enterprise our cannon cannot roar too loud, our pageants be too brave, our speech too eloquent, our various celebration too magnificent, for the proportions of his great career.
The event we celebrate abounds in the most various suggestions for the imagination and the heart. It is four centuries old; and yet, in its relation to the events preceding it and following it, it is really wonderful in its confirmation and its illustration of that evolutionary science which is the latest born of time. Columbus was, as I have said,
"the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea."
But, if he hadn't spoken quick, he would have lost his chance. For those were times when the kingdom of discovery was suffering violence, and the violent were taking it by force. It was a time when the human spirit was reaching out on every side after things new and strange. Find, if you can, a better abstract and brief chronicle of that doing, daring time than in the account Othello gives the duke of his whole course of love. In that account we not only breathe the air of Venice, thick-spiced with Eastern gums, but the air that blew Columbus over-seas, the air of brave adventure that blew everywhere in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the revival of learning, in the discovery of America, in the Copernican astronomy, in the sculpture and the painting of the Italian Renaissance, in the Protestant Reformation, in Shakspere's lofty mind. The discovery of America by Columbus was the most characteristic incident of this live and stirring time. Looking somewhat more narrowly, it was an incident of that search for the Indies of which the utmost achievement before the sailing of Columbus had been effected by Bartholo
mew Diaz, who in 1487 rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed up the eastern coast of Africa some six hundred miles. Here was a voyage back and forth of thirteen thousand miles, but it did not complete the discovery of the Eastern route to India. That was left for Vasco da Gama ten years further on.
To turn back from the threshold of success and seek another way, that is the method of genius and of the loftiest courage. This was the method of Columbus. That the success of Bartholomew Diaz might lack nothing of impres siveness for him, his own brother, Bartholomew Columbus, was a sailor on the Diaz fleet; and it is a capital proof of Columbus's possession by his idea of a western route that, after his brother had shared in what was almost the discovery of the other, he could so inoculate him with his own madness as to persuade him to go posting off to England to see Henry VII., and get him to be the patron of a Western expedition. But the evolution of discovery is not more confirmed and illustrated by the relation of Columbus's discov ery to those discoveries that had preceded it than by its relation to those that succeeded and made up the discovery of America in the broader sense, the discovery of the Western Continent, and the proportions and the relations of its various parts. Until this discovery was completed America was still "the undiscovered country," from whose bourne the travellers who returned told stories strangely mixed of various yarn, not to say yarns, the true and false together. But before entering on the history of this process let us notice one or two of the parables that are hidden for us in the facts.
Sometimes the preacher can with difficulty find one text for his sermon. I could find a dozen easily for this. One of them might be, "Because of his importunity." He was like "the fellow in the parable," as our friend Robert Collyer calls him, "who would have three loaves." He would have three ships and provisions for twelve months, and would take nothing less, and so went from capital to capital, from court
to court, offering for these advantages a new route to the Indies, as he thought, but, in fact, a whole new world. because of his importunity he at last got what he wanted, and in this respect he bore a very close resemblance to almost all the great discoverers and inventors. They have all been heard at last because of their importunity. Their cry at midnight has been heard at last, and they have got their three loaves, their three ships, their attraction of gravitation, their oxygen, their new planet, their spectroscope, their conservation of energy, their natural selection, and so on. Theirs is what Robert Browning called "the glory of going on." "The man who lays the first shovelful upon the earth," said Confucius, "and goes on, that man is building the mountain."
Yet, whatever may be said for importunity, for the indomitable will, for the unconquerable hope, "still clutching the inviolable shade," it may not be denied that there is an element of accident and chance in human life.
"Oh, the little more, and how much it is,
This is the theme of Hawthorne's "David Swan," of Mr. Hardy's "Tess" and his "Return of the Native"; and those powerful novels get the utmost keenness of their tragic edge from their dealings with this theme, and their recognition of the part the corresponding element plays in the shaping of our lives. A few miles one way or the other, and Columbus might have been the discoverer of North America. A little to the left or right, and we who make shipwreck of our lives upon some barren island or some lonely reef might reach the fortunate isles. But without a longer life than that which he enjoyed and suffered hardly could Columbus have convinced himself that there was another continent.
"Midmost the beating of the steely sea."
The ability of a preconception to keep men off from the discovery of some splendid fact or law was never more curi
ously exemplified than by the history of opinion as to the
that the new land was a part of Asia — was too much for the more scholarly and scientific apprehension. A reaction set in, so resolute that, even when the general outline of South America had been pretty well made out, the parts of North America that had been discovered were still joined on to Asia by ligaments the most ingenious and absurd. Even when the immense extent of North America from north to south had been discovered, there was for a long time no apprehension of its corresponding breadth, and the hope could not be given up that it was only a narrow barrier in the way of that real discovery which was still the ultimate goal. We commonly imagine Hendrick Hudson's sailing in the "Halfmoon up our beautiful river as a most satisfactory business for that stout sea-sailor. It was a most unsatisfactory business. The river would keep on narrowing, when he wanted it to widen out again and let him through into the Indian Sea. Every river mouth upon our eastern coast was entered and explored with the same hope of getting through the barrier. The arctic explorations seeking a north-west passage, in our own time, are but the latest of a series which, in its beginning, rested on the inexpugnable preconception that North America was a part of Asia or a narrow string of islands lying off its coasts. Shooting down the La Chine rapids just above Montreal, the traveller does not always know that La Chine means simply China, and that the name commemorates the hope that China had been reached at last, or the irony of those who sought for it that way in vain.
And in all this what a parable we have of human thought and life! How often do men's preconceptions keep them from the higher knowledge! Is not the history of thought,
discovery, and invention, in good part the history of such obstruction and defeat?—the sad rhyme of those who cling to their first fault and perish in their pride, yet not always in the way of Browning's voyagers. For they set up their "shapes of lucid stone upon the barren rocks, when, as it proved, the isles they had set out to reach were close at hand,
"Like cloudlets faint at evening sleeping."
Too often we refuse, and seek to pass as a mere barrier, the possibility which is incomparably better than our dream. We want some fresh nuance with the old order or the old creed or the old life; and we will not see that what God has prepared for us is a new order, a new creed, a new life, which is infinitely better than the old,—so much better that, if we were wise, we should burn our ships, as Cortez did, and push on into the heart of the new country, and conquer it, and make its high-built towns splendid treasures all our own.
Columbus discovered America in 1492. From this teaching of our childhood we are not going to vary,—not in “the estimation of a hair." This is true, but something else is true. He was the brave forerunner of the swarm of voyagers that went sailing westward in the last years of the fifteenth century and the first years of the sixteenth; and, remembering the proverb, "It is the first step that costs,' and remembering, too, how much that step cost him of faith and patience, importunity and disappointment and despair, we shall not be disposed to rob his laurel chaplet of one leaf for any other brow, or to give it leaf by leaf to all of those into whose labors he entered or who entered into his. Hardly would there be enough to go round in such a distribution. And what need? For every one has his own wreath, plucked-at some time by envious hands, but never wholly spoiled; not even Vespucci's, for whom - Amerigo, Americus, America — the continent, is named, by no fault of his, for he had as little notion as Columbus that he had discovered a new continent.
Columbus discovered America. He did, and he did not.