It was late in the history of the world before Europe and America became known to each other. During the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era Europe was unaware of the vast continent which lay beyond the sea. Asia had ceased to influence her. Africa had not begun. Her history was waiting for the mighty influence which America was to exercise in her affairs through all the future ages.
Men had been slow to establish completely their dominion over the sea. They learned very early to build ships. They availed themselves very early of the surprising power which the helm exerts over the movements of a ship. But, during many ages, they found no surer guidance upon the pathless sea than that which the position of the sun and the stars afforded. When clouds intervened to deprive them of this uncertain direction, they were helpless. They were thus obliged to keep the land in view, and content themselves with creeping timidly along the coast.
But at length there was discovered a stone which the wise Creator had endowed with strange properties. It was observed that a needle brought once into contact with that stone pointed ever afterwards steadfastly to the north. Men saw that with a needle thus influenced they could guide themselves at sea as surely as on land. The Mariners’ Compass untied the bond which held sailors to the coast, and gave them liberty to push out into the sea.
Just when sailors were slowly learning to put confidence in the mariners’ compass, there arose in Europe a vehement desire for the discovery of unknown countries. A sudden interest sprang up in all that was distant and unexplored. The strange fables told by travellers were greedily received. The human mind was beginning to cast off the torpor of the Middle Ages. As intelligence increased, men became increasingly eager to ascertain the form and extent of the world in which they dwelt, and to acquaint themselves with those unknown races who were their fellow-inhabitants.
Portugal and Spain, looking out upon the boundless sea, were powerfully stirred by the new impulse. The Courts of Lisbon and Madrid swarmed with adventurers who had made discoveries, or who wished the means to make them. Conspicuous among these was an enthusiast, who during eighteen years had not ceased to importune incredulous monarchs for ships and men that he might open up the secrets of the sea. He was a tall man, of grave and gentle manners, and noble though saddened look. His eye was gray, “apt to enkindle” when he spoke of those discoveries in the making of which he felt himself to be Heaven’s chosen agent. He had known hardship and sorrow in his youth, and at thirty his hair was white. He was the son of a Genoese wool-comber, and his name was Christopher Columbus. In him the universal passion for discovery rose to the dignity of an inspiration.
No sailor of our time would cross the Atlantic in such ships as were given to Columbus.
The revelation by Columbus of the amazing fact that there were lands beyond the great ocean, inhabited by strange races of human beings, roused to a passionate eagerness the thirst for fresh discoveries. The splendours of the newly-found world were indeed difficult to be resisted. Wealth beyond the wildest dreams of avarice could be had, it was said, for the gathering. The sands of every river sparkled with gold. The very colour of the ground showed that gold was profusely abundant. The meanest of the Indians ornamented himself with gold and jewels. The walls of the houses glittered with pearls. There was a fountain, if one might but find it, whose waters bestowed perpetual youth upon the bather. The wildest romances were greedily received, and the Old World, with its familiar and painful realities, seemed mean and hateful beside the fabled glories of the New.
Europe then enjoyed a season of unusual calm – a short respite from the habitual toil of war – as if to afford men leisure to enter on their new possession. The last of the Moors had taken his last look at Granada, and Spain had rest from her eight centuries of war. In England, the Wars of the Roses had ceased. After thirty years of hard fighting and huge waste of life and property, the fortunate English had been able to determine which branch of a certain old family was to rule over them. Henry VII., with his clear, cold head, and his heavy hand, was guiding his people somewhat forcibly towards the victories of peace. Even France tasted the joy of repose. The Reformation was at hand. While Columbus was holding his uncertain way across the great Atlantic, a boy called Martin Luther was attending school in a small German town. The time was not far off, but as yet the mind of Europe was not engrossed by those religious strifes which were soon to convulse it.
The men whose trade was fighting turned gladly in this idle time to the world where boundless wealth was to be wrung from the grasp of unwarlike barbarians. England and France had missed the splendid prize which Columbus had won for Spain. They hastened now to secure what they could. A merchant of Bristol, John Cabot, obtained permission from the King of England to make discoveries in the northern parts of America. Cabot was to bear all expenses, and the King was to receive one-fifth of the gains of the adventure. Taking with him his son Sebastian, John Cabot sailed straight westward across the Atlantic. 1497 A.D. He reached the American continent, of which he was the undoubted discoverer. The result to him was disappointing. He landed on the coast of Labrador. Being in the same latitude as England, he reasoned that he should find the same genial climate. To his astonishment he came upon a region of intolerable cold, dreary with ice and snow. John Cabot had not heard of the Gulf Stream and its marvellous influences. He did not know that the western shores of northern Europe are rescued from perpetual winter, and warmed up to the enjoyable temperature which they possess, by an enormous river of hot water flowing between banks of cold water eastward from the Gulf of Mexico. The Cabots made many voyages afterwards, and explored the American coast from extreme north to extreme south.
The French turned their attention to the northern parts of the New World. The rich fisheries of Newfoundland attracted them. A Frenchman sailed up the great St. Lawrence river. After some failures a French settlement was established there, and for a century and a half the French peopled Canada, until the English relieved them of the ownership.
Spanish adventurers never rested from their eager search after the treasures of the new continent. An aged warrior called Ponce de Leon fitted out an expedition at his own cost. He had heard of the marvellous fountain whose waters would restore to him the years of his wasted youth. He searched in vain. The fountain would not reveal itself to the foolish old man, and he had to bear without relief the burden of his profitless years. But he found a country hitherto unseen by Europeans, which was clothed with magnificent forests, and seemed to bloom with perpetual flowers. He called it Florida. He attempted to found a colony in the paradise he had discovered. But the natives attacked him, slew many of his men, and drove the rest to their ships, carrying with them their chief, wounded to death by the arrow of an Indian.
Ferdinand de Soto had been with Pizarro in his expedition to Peru, and returned to Spain enriched by his share of the plunder. He did not doubt that in the north were cities as rich and barbarians as confiding. An expedition to discover new regions, and plunder their inhabitants, was fitted out under his command. No one doubted that success equal to that of Cortes and Pizarro would attend this new adventure. The youth of Spain were eager to be permitted to go, and they sold houses and lands to buy them the needful equipment. Six hundred men, in the prime of life, were chosen from the crowd of applicants, and the expedition sailed, high in courage, splendid in aspect, boundless in expectation. 1539 A.D. They landed on the coast of Florida, and began their march into the wilderness. They had fetters for the Indians whom they meant to take captive. They had bloodhounds, lest these captives should escape. The camp swarmed with priests, and as they marched the festivals and processions enjoined by the Church were devoutly observed.
From the outset it was a toilsome and perilous enterprise; but to the Spaniard of that time danger was a joy. The Indians were warlike, and generally hostile. De Soto had pitched battles to fight and heavy losses to bear. Always he was victorious, but he could ill afford the cost of many such victories. The captive Indians amused him with tales of regions where gold abounded. They had learned that ignorance on that subject was very hazardous. De Soto had stimulated their knowledge by burning to death some who denied the existence of gold in that country. The Spaniards wandered slowly northwards. They looked eagerly for some great city, the plunder of whose palaces and temples would enrich them all. They found nothing better than occasionally an Indian town, composed of a few miserable huts. It was all they could do to get needful food. At length they came to a magnificent river. European eyes had seen no such river till now. It was about a mile in breadth, and its mass of water swept downward to the sea with a current of amazing strength. It was the Mississippi. The Spaniards built vessels and ferried themselves to the western bank.
There they resumed their wanderings. De Soto would not yet admit that he had failed. He still hoped that the plunder of a rich city would reward his toils. For many months the Spaniards strayed among the swamps and dense forests of that dreary region. The natives showed at first some disposition to be helpful. But the Spaniards, in their disappointment, were pitiless and savage. They amused themselves by inflicting pain upon the prisoners. They cut off their hands; they hunted them with bloodhounds; they burned them at the stake. The Indians became dangerous. De Soto hoped to awe them by claiming to be one of the gods, but the imposture was too palpable. “How can a man be God when he cannot get bread to eat?” asked a sagacious savage. It was now three years since De Soto had landed in America. The utter failure of the expedition would no longer conceal, and the men wished to return home. Broken in spirit and in frame, De Soto caught fever and died. His soldiers felled a tree and scooped room within its trunk for the body of the ill-fated adventurer. They could not bury their chief on land, lest the Indians should dishonour his remains. In the silence of midnight the rude coffin was sunk in the Mississippi, and the discoverer of the great river slept beneath its waters. The Spaniards promptly resolved now to make their way to Cuba. They had tools, and wood was abundant. They slew their horses for flesh; they plundered the Indians for bread; they struck the fetters from their prisoners to reinforce their scanty supply of iron. They built ships enough to float them down the Mississippi. Three hundred ragged and disheartened men were all that remained of the brilliant company whose hopes had been so high, whose good fortune had been so much envied.
For many years European adventurers continued to resort to the American coast in the hope of finding the way to immediate wealth. Some feeble attempts had been made to colonize. Here and there a few families had been planted, but hunger or the Indians always extinguished those infant settlements. The great idea of colonizing America was slow to take possession of European minds. The Spaniard sought for Indians to plunder. The Englishman believed in gold-mines and the north-west passage to India. It was not till America had been known for a hundred years that men began to think of finding a home beyond the Atlantic.
The courage and endurance of the early voyagers excite our wonder. Few of them sailed in ships so large as a hundred tons burden. The merchant ships of that time were very small. The royal navies of Europe contained large vessels, but commerce was too poor to employ any but the smallest. The commerce of imperial Rome employed ships which even now would be deemed large. St. Paul was wrecked in a ship of over five hundred tons burden. Josephus sailed in a ship of nearly one thousand tons. Europe contented herself, as yet, with vessels of a very different class. A ship of forty or fifty tons was deemed sufficient by the daring adventurers who sought to reach the Land of Promise beyond the great sea. Occasionally toy-ships of twenty or twenty-five tons were used. The brother of Sir Walter Raleigh crossed the Atlantic in such a ship, and perished in it as he attempted to return to England.
It was not a pleasant world which the men and women of Europe had to live in during the sixteenth century. Fighting was the constant occupation of the Kings of that time. A year of peace was a rare and somewhat wearisome exception. Kings habitually, at their own unquestioned pleasure, gathered their subjects together, and marched them off to slay and plunder their neighbours. Civil wars were frequent. In these confused strifes men slew their acquaintances and friends as the only method they knew of deciding who was to fill the throne. Feeble Commerce was crushed under the iron heel of War. No such thing as security for life or property was expected. The fields of the husbandman were trodden down by the march of armies. Disbanded or deserted soldiers wandered as “masterless men” over the country, and robbed and murdered at their will. Highwaymen abounded – although highways could scarcely be said to exist. Epidemic diseases of strange type, the result of insufficient feeding and the poisonous air of undrained lands and filthy streets, desolated all European countries. Under what hardships and miseries the men of the sixteenth century passed their days, it is scarcely possible for us now to conceive.
The English Parliament once reminded James I. of certain “undoubted rights” which they possessed. The King told them, in reply, that he “did not like this style of talking, but would rather hear them say that all their privileges were derived by the grace and permission of the sovereign.” Europe, during the sixteenth century, had no better understanding of the matter than James had. It was not supposed that the King was made for the people; it seemed rather to be thought that the people were made for the King. Here and there some man wiser than ordinary perceived the truth, so familiar to us, that a King is merely a great officer appointed by the people to do certain work for them. There was a Glasgow professor who taught in those dark days that the authority of the King was derived from the people, and ought to be used for their good. Two of his pupils were John Knox the reformer, and George Buchanan the historian, by whom this doctrine, so great and yet so simple, was clearly perceived and firmly maintained. But to the great mass of mankind it seemed that the King had divine authority to dispose of his subjects and their property according to his pleasure. Poor patient humanity still bowed in lowly reverence before its Kings, and bore, without wondering or murmuring, all that it pleased them to inflict. No stranger superstition has ever possessed the human mind than this boundless medi?val veneration for the King – a veneration which follies the most abject, vices the most enormous, were not able to quench.
But as this unhappy century draws towards its close, the elements of a most benign change are plainly seen at work. The Bible has been largely read. The Bible is the book of all ages and of all circumstances. But never, surely, since its first gift to man was it more needful to any age than to that which now welcomed its restoration with wonder and delight. It took deep hold on the minds of men. It exercised a silent influence which gradually changed the aspect of society. The narrative portions of Scripture were especially acceptable to the untutored intellect of that time; and thus the Old Testament was preferred to the New. This preference led to some mistakes. Rules which had been given to an ancient Asiatic people were applied in circumstances for which they were never intended or fitted. It is easy to smile at these mistakes. But it is impossible to over-estimate the social and political good which we now enjoy as a result of this incessant reading of the Bible by the people of the sixteenth century.
In nearly all European countries the King claimed to regulate the religious belief of his subjects. Even in England that power was still claimed. The people were beginning to suspect that they were entitled to think for themselves – a suspicion which grew into an indignant certainty, and widened and deepened till it swept from the throne the unhappy House of Stuart.
A little way into the seventeenth century America became the refuge of those who would not receive their faith at the bidding of the King. The best part of American colonization resulted from the foolish and insolent oppressions of Europe. At the beginning, however, it was not so. It was from an impulse of vagrant blackguardism that the first American colony sprang.
Sir Walter Raleigh spent a large fortune in attempting to colonize Virginia. He succeeded in directing the attention of his countrymen to the region which had kindled his own enthusiasm, but his colonies never prospered. Sometimes the colonists returned home disgusted by the hardships of the wilderness. Once they were massacred by the Indians. When help came from England the infant settlement was in ruins. The bones of unburied men lay about the fields; wild deer strayed among the untenanted houses. Once a colony wholly disappeared. To this day its fate is unknown.
Sir Walter was enduring his long captivity in the Tower, writing his “History of the World,” and moaning piteously over the havoc which prison-damps wrought upon his handsome frame. The time had now come, and his labours were about to bear fruit. The history of Virginia was about to open. It opened with meagre promise. 1606 A.D. A charter from the King established a Company whose function was to colonize – whose privilege was to trade. The Company sent out an expedition which sailed in three small vessels. It consisted of one hundred and five men. Of these one-half were gentlemen of broken fortune; some were tradesmen; others were footmen. Only a very few were farmers, or mechanics, or persons in any way fitted for the life they sought. Morally the aspect of the expedition was even more discouraging. “An hundred dissolute persons” were on board the ships. The respectable portions of the expedition must have gone into very little room.
But, happily for Virginia, there sailed with these reprobate founders of a new empire a man whom Providence had highly gifted with fitness to govern his fellow-men. His name was John Smith. No writer of romance would have given his hero this name; but, in spite of his name, the man was truly heroic. He was still under thirty, a strong-limbed, deep-chested, massively-built man. From boyhood he had been a soldier – roaming over the world in search of adventures, wherever hard blows were being exchanged. He was mighty in single combat. Once, while opposing armies looked on, he vanquished three Turks, and, like David, cut off their heads, and bore them to his tent. Returning to England when the passion for colonizing was at its height, he caught at once the prevailing impulse. He joined the Virginian expedition; ultimately he became its chief. His fitness was so manifest, that no reluctance on his own part, no jealousies on that of his companions, could bar him from the highest place. Men became Kings of old by the same process which now made Smith a chief.