Christopher Columbus and the New World by Filson Young - HTML preview

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The writing of historical biography is properly a work of partnership, to which public credit is awarded too often in an inverse proportion to the labours expended. One group of historians, labouring in the obscurest depths, dig and prepare the ground, searching and sifting the documentary soil with infinite labour and over an area immensely wide. They are followed by those scholars and specialists in history who give their lives to the study of a single period, and who sow literature in the furrows of research prepared by those who have preceded them. Last of all comes the essayist, or writer pure and simple, who reaps the harvest so laboriously prepared. The material lies all before him; the documents have been arranged, the immense contemporary fields of record and knowledge examined and searched for stray seeds of significance that may have blown over into them; the perspective is cleared for him, the relation of his facts to time and space and the march of human civilisation duly established; he has nothing to do but reap the field of harvest where it suits him, grind it in the wheels of whatever machinery his art is equipped with, and come before the public with the finished product. And invariably in this unequal partnership he reaps most richly who reaps latest.

I am far from putting this narrative forward as the fine and ultimate product of all the immense labour and research of the historians of Columbus; but I am anxious to excuse myself for my apparent presumption in venturing into a field which might more properly be occupied by the expert historian. It would appear that the double work of acquiring the facts of a piece of human history and of presenting them through the medium of literature can hardly ever be performed by one and the same man. A lifetime must be devoted to the one, a year or two may suffice for the other; and an entirely different set of qualities must be employed in the two tasks. I cannot make it too clear that I make no claim to have added one iota of information or one fragment of original research to the expert knowledge regarding the life of Christopher Columbus; and when I add that the chief collection of facts and documents relating to the subject, the 'Raccolta Columbiana,'—[Raccolta di Documenti e Studi Publicati dalla R. Commissione Colombiana, etc. Auspice il Ministero della Publica Istruzione. Rome, 1892-4.]—is a work consisting of more than thirty folio volumes, the general reader will be the more indulgent to me. But when a purely human interest led me some time ago to look into the literature of Columbus, I was amazed to find what seemed to me a striking disproportion between the extent of the modern historians' work on that subject and the knowledge or interest in it displayed by what we call the general reading public. I am surprised to find how many well-informed people there are whose knowledge of Columbus is comprised within two beliefs, one of them erroneous and the other doubtful: that he discovered America, and performed a trick with an egg. Americans, I think, are a little better informed on the subject than the English; perhaps because the greater part of modern critical research on the subject of Columbus has been the work of Americans. It is to bridge the immense gap existing between the labours of the historians and the indifference of the modern reader, between the Raccolta Columbiana, in fact, and the story of the egg, that I have written my narrative.

It is customary and proper to preface a work which is based entirely on the labours of other people with an acknowledgment of the sources whence it is drawn; and yet in the case of Columbus I do not know where to begin. In one way I am indebted to every serious writer who has even remotely concerned himself with the subject, from Columbus himself and Las Casas down to the editors of the Raccolta. The chain of historians has been so unbroken, the apostolic succession, so to speak, has passed with its heritage so intact from generation to generation, that the latest historian enshrines in his work the labours of all the rest. Yet there are necessarily some men whose work stands out as being more immediately seizable than that of others; in the period of whose care the lamp of inspiration has seemed to burn more brightly. In a matter of this kind I cannot pretend to be a judge, but only to state my own experience and indebtedness; and in my work I have been chiefly helped by Las Casas, indirectly of course by Ferdinand Columbus, Herrera, Oviedo, Bernaldez, Navarrete, Asensio, Mr. Payne, Mr. Harrisse, Mr. Vignaud, Mr. Winsor, Mr. Thacher, Sir Clements Markham, Professor de Lollis, and S. Salvagnini. It is thus not among the dusty archives of Seville, Genoa, or San Domingo that I have searched, but in the archive formed by the writings of modern workers. To have myself gone back to original sources, even if I had been competent to do so, would have been in the case of Columbian research but a waste of time and a doing over again what has been done already with patience, diligence, and knowledge. The historians have been committed to the austere task of finding out and examining every fact and document in connection with their subject; and many of these facts and documents are entirely without human interest except in so far as they help to establish a date, a name, or a sum of money. It has been my agreeable and lighter task to test and assay the masses of bed-rock fact thus excavated by the historians for traces of the particular ore which I have been seeking. In fact I have tried to discover, from a reverent examination of all these monographs, essays, histories, memoirs, and controversies concerning what Christopher Columbus did, what Christopher Columbus was; believing as I do that any labour by which he can be made to live again, and from the dust of more than four hundred years be brought visibly to the mind's eye, will not be entirely without use and interest. Whether I have succeeded in doing so or not I cannot be the judge; I can only say that the labour of resuscitating a man so long buried beneath mountains of untruth and controversy has some times been so formidable as to have seemed hopeless. And yet one is always tempted back by the knowledge that Christopher Columbus is not only a name, but that the human being whom we so describe did actually once live and walk in the world; did actually sail and look upon seas where we may also sail and look; did stir with his feet the indestructible dust of this old Earth, and centre in himself, as we all do, the whole interest and meaning of the Universe. Truly the most commonplace fact, yet none the less amazing; and often when in the dust of documents he has seemed most dead and unreal to me I have found courage from the entertainment of some deep or absurd reflection; such as that he did once undoubtedly, like other mortals, blink and cough and blow his nose. And if my readers could realise that fact throughout every page of this book, I should say that I had succeeded in my task.

To be more particular in my acknowledgments. In common with every modern writer on Columbus—and modern research on the history of Columbus is only thirty years old—I owe to the labours of Mr. Henry Harrisse, the chief of modern Columbian historians, the indebtedness of the gold-miner to the gold-mine. In the matters of the Toscanelli correspondence and the early years of Columbus I have followed more closely Mr. Henry Vignaud, whose work may be regarded as a continuation and reexamination—in some cases destructive—of that of Mr. Harrisse. Mr. Vignaud's work is happily not yet completed; we all look forward eagerly to the completion of that part of his 'Etudes Critiques' dealing with the second half of the Admiral's life; and Mr. Vignaud seems to me to stand higher than all modern workers in this field in the patient and fearless discovery of the truth regarding certain very controversial matters, and also in ability to give a sound and reasonable interpretation to those obscurer facts or deductions in Columbus's life that seem doomed never to be settled by the aid of documents alone. It may be unseemly in me not to acknowledge indebtedness to Washington Irving, but I cannot conscientiously do so. If I had been writing ten or fifteen years ago I might have taken his work seriously; but it is impossible that anything so one-sided, so inaccurate, so untrue to life, and so profoundly dull could continue to exist save in the absence of any critical knowledge or light on the subject. All that can be said for him is that he kept the lamp of interest in Columbus alive for English readers during the period that preceded the advent of modern critical research. Mr. Major's edition' of Columbus's letters has been freely consulted by me, as it must be by any one interested in the subject. Professor Justin Winsor's work has provided an invaluable store of ripe scholarship in matters of cosmography and geographical detail; Sir Clements Markham's book, by far the most trustworthy of modern English works on the subject, and a valuable record of the established facts in Columbus's life, has proved a sound guide in nautical matters; while the monograph of Mr. Elton, which apparently did not promise much at first, since the author has followed some untrustworthy leaders as regards his facts, proved to be full of a fragrant charm produced by the writer's knowledge of and interest in sub-tropical vegetation; and it is delightfully filled with the names of gums and spices. To Mr. Vignaud I owe special thanks, not only for the benefits of his research and of his admirable works on Columbus, but also for personal help and encouragement. Equally cordial thanks are due to Mr. John Boyd Thacher, whose work, giving as it does so large a selection of the Columbus documents both in facsimile, transliteration, and translation, is of the greatest service to every English writer on the subject of Columbus. It is the more to be regretted, since the documentary part of Mr. Thacher's work is so excellent, that in his critical studies he should have seemed to ignore some of the more important results of modern research. I am further particularly indebted to Mr. Thacher and to his publishers, Messrs. Putnam's Sons, for permission to reproduce certain illustrations in his work, and to avail myself also of his copies and translations of original Spanish and Italian documents. I have to thank Commendatore Guido Biagi, the keeper of the Laurentian Library in Florence, for his very kind help and letters of introduction to Italian librarians; Mr. Raymond Beazley, of Merton College, Oxford, for his most helpful correspondence; and Lord Dunraven for so kindly bringing, in the interests of my readers, his practical knowledge of navigation and seamanship to bear on the first voyage of Columbus. Finally my work has been helped and made possible by many intimate and personal kindnesses which, although they are not specified, are not the less deeply acknowledged.

September 1906.