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Christopher Columbus and the New World
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Wanderings With An Idea
The man to whom Columbus proposed to address his request for means with which to
make a voyage of discovery was no less a person than the new King of Portugal.
Columbus was never a man of petty or small ideas; if he were going to do a thing at all,
he went about it in a large and comprehensive way; and all his life he had a way of going
to the fountainhead, and of making flights and leaps where other men would only climb
or walk, that had much to do with his ultimate success. King John, moreover, had shown
himself thoroughly sympathetic to the spirit of discovery; Columbus, as we have seen,
had already been employed in a trusted capacity in one of the royal expeditions; and he
rightly thought that, since he had to ask the help of some one in his enterprise, he might
as well try to enlist the Crown itself in the service of his great Idea. He was not prepared,
however, to go directly to the King and ask for ships; his proposal would have to be put
in a way that would appeal to the royal ambition, and would also satisfy the King that
there was really a destination in view for the expedition. In other words Columbus had to
propose to go somewhere; it would not do to say that he was going west into the Atlantic
Ocean to look about him. He therefore devoted all his energies to putting his proposal on
what is called a business footing, and expressing his vague, sublime Idea in common and
The people who probably helped him most in this were his brother Bartholomew and
Martin Behaim, the great authority on scientific navigation, who had been living in
Lisbon for some time and with whom Columbus was acquainted. Behaim, who was at
this time about forty eight years of age, was born at Nuremberg, and was a pupil of
Regiomontanus, the great German astronomer. A very interesting man, this, if we could
decipher his features and character; no mere star-gazing visionary, but a man of the
world, whose scientific lore was combined with a wide and liberal experience of life. He
was not only learned in cosmography and astronomy, but he had a genius for mechanics
and made beautiful instruments; he was a merchant also, and combined a little business
with his scientific travels. He had been employed at Lisbon in adapting the astrolabe of
Regiomontanus for the use of sailors at sea; and in these labours he was assisted by two
people who were destined to have a weighty influence on the career of Columbus—
Doctors Rodrigo and Joseph, physicians or advisers to the King, and men of great
academic reputation. There was nothing known about cosmography or astronomy that
Behaim did not know; and he had just come back from an expedition on which he had
been despatched, with Rodrigo and Joseph, to take the altitude of the sun in Guinea.
Columbus was not the man to neglect his opportunities, and there can be no doubt that as
soon as his purpose had established itself in his mind he made use of every opportunity
that presented itself for improving his meagre scientific knowledge, in order that his
proposal might be set forth in a plausible form. In other words, he got up the subject. The
whole of his geographical reading with regard to the Indies up to this time had been in the
travels of Marco Polo; the others—whose works he quoted from so freely in later years