From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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THE fifteenth century in Spain (the point from which the discovery of America emanated) was marked by the cessation of the Crusades, by treaties, made between the Moors and Christians of Spain and France, the Porte and Venice, of amity and commerce. Asiatic arts and luxury, Asiatic idols, and Asiatic valor, had made deep and sensible impressions upon Christendom. The schools of Cordova, the chivalry of Grenada, the galleys of Fez, the grandeur of the Soldan, exercised a moral despotism throughout Europe. What Russian power and Russian pretensions are to Europe to-day, the Ottoman empire was to the Christian Europe of Columbus' youth.

The exact sciences were, as yet, in a rude and chaotic state. Astrology, alchemy, and both magics had professors and postulants. Medicine was little better than herbal traditions, or a litany of incantations. Amulets blest by conjurers were worn, and the stars believed in by the highest intellects. It was then,—when star-gazers advised kings to peace or war, when brazen heads were fabricated by Albertus Magnus and Friar Bacon, when Aldrovandus had to dissect his own child, fearing to touch another human body,—with Fatalism enthroned in Asia, and Credulity in Europe,—it was then, that Columbus turned his piercing vision towards the West.

Domestic slavery existed very generally through Europe. The lords of the soil exacted the services, lives, and the very honor, of their serfs. The serf was chained to his district and predestined to his profession. There was no freedom of will, or mind, among the populace. A few trading towns had, indeed, wrung chartered privileges from their sovereigns, but these privileges were confined to the class of master workmen, who held in servitude the great body of the citizens and apprentices.

Chivalry had lost its charm, and was obsolete. The age of Commerce, which was felt to be approaching, was looked for exclusively in the East; so that, even in the knowledge of its own wants, Europe was in error.

Two great facts of this century precede Columbus, and only two. The science of government was being studied carefully in Italy, France, and Spain, and the science of reasoning in the great colleges, since called universities. The fall of Constantinople, in 1453, sent the learned of the East for refuge into Italy, and new classic schools began to assume a regular existence at Home and Florence, Bologna and Ferrara.

While these mental possessions were beginning to accumulate in Europe, in the wisdom of Providence, a New World was about to become a sharer in their diffusion.

Let us be just to the European thinkers of those days. With much that seems absurd in the "schoolmen," and much that was ephemeral, there is combined the vital principle of all human history,—Does man, under God, suffice for himself? Can he justify his own intellect?—can he self-govern his own life?—this was their great problem through all their studies. Doubtless, they did not know whither their own theories ultimately led; doubtless, they, too, attempted to set limits to faith and to science; but, with all that can be said against them, there they stand,—the ferrymen plying between ancient and modern civilization, bringing over to us the most precious products of distant times, and teaching us how to start in our new career.

The long and painful preparatory efforts of Columbus to interest the old world in his project, would seem almost to be permitted, in order to prove the inefficiency of the age he was to electrify on his return from the first voyage.

He besought Genoa and Venice for a ship or two, to find his world, and they refused him; he petitioned the wise kings of Portugal and England, and they refused to risk a single sail in such a quest; he sojourned long about the courts of France and Spain, appealing to the wisdom of the wise, the judgment of the learned, the ambition of the brave, and the avarice of the acquisitive; but he argued, appealed, petitioned in vain! No one believed in his theory, or hoped in his adventure. Nay, the wise smiled scornfully, the learned laughed in their academic sleeves, and even the brave had no stomach for battling the tempest, or for planting their banners in the wide sea-field.

Besides, was he not a common sailor? He had, indeed, commanded some merchant ships, and had an uncle an admiral. His name, some said, was noble; but of this there was no proof. The age that believed in the Divine right of the blood royal, and the sovereign inheritance of the blood noble, could not conceive of a mere sailor achieving a conquest, which princes and grandees could not so much as imagine, after all his arguments.

Where, then, did Columbus and his theory find believers? Who were his first converts and first assistants? A woman, a sailor, and a monk, are the three by whom the curtain of the Atlantic is raised, and America pointed out afar off. Before the dense curtain of that grandest scene of all human history, they stand,—the woman, the sailor, and the monk. Columbus converted the prior of La Rabida, the prior converted the queen of Castile, and so the armament did sail, after all, in quest of the New World in the West.

That is a noble group, and deserves long contemplation. The woman personifies gentleness, the monk, faith, the sailor, courage. Faith, gentleness, and courage are thus confederated to find the New World, and claim it for their own!

Columbus sailed, and, except by a very few, was soon forgotten. The prior may have prayed for him; the queen may have sometimes asked news of him; Paulo Toscanelli, the map-maker, in his Florentine study, may have cast his eye over the conjectural track of the two Spanish carvels, to the ideal shore of Saint Brendans, land; but great, gross Europe sleeps, eats, and drinks, just as if no apostle of the Future was laboring through the shoreless ocean. The capture of Grenada, with its half million Moors, no doubt, seemed to all the wise heads of Europe incomparably the greatest act that century could see. The Genoese sailor and his New World are hidden, for the time, by that cloud of turbans, with its pale, disastrous crescent still visible, though eclipsed.

What a month that must have been in Europe, when Columbus returned with his plants and minerals, and his men, red and naked as the sun! The telegraph of rumor proclaimed his success from Lisbon to Madrid, and from Madrid to Rome, Venice, Antwerp, Paris, and London. What wild tales are told and swallowed,—what a crying curiosity thrusts out its ears from every corner of Europe,—what sudden new light breaks in on the learned,—what passion for ocean adventure seizes on the brave,—what visions of mountains of gold and valleys of diamonds drive away sleep from the couches of the avaricious!

In this age of inferior "excitements," we can hardly imagine what Europe felt in that day; though, if the "sensation" can be imagined anywhere, 'tis here. It must have been something incomparably more intense than the "California fever." "A New World found!" was the trumpet-blast which rung from end to end of Europe. Europe, that yesterday considered the fall of Grenada the greatest of facts, has already almost forgotten Grenada! Europe, that began to smile at the crusade, grasps again the banner of the Cross, to plant it, not on Saint Sophias, or Mount Calvary, but to plant it on the further verge of the ocean, bordered with illimitable lands! Europe, in the hour of Columbus' arrival, attained her majority, began to act and think for herself, and, ceasing to be a child, to cast away the things of her childhood.

On the authentication and details of the discovery there is no need to pause. On the names of the new chivalry of the ocean we need not linger. Cabot, Cartier, Americus, Verrazzini, Hudson, Raleigh, Drake, Balboa, Cortez, Pizarro,—America knows them all. They developed the idea of the great sailor. They found the western way to India. They demonstrated the rotundity of the earth. They are the true experimental philosophers, to whom Bacon, Descartes, Linnaeus, and Gassendi, were but the amanuenses. They will be forever honored among men,—the graduates of the universe!—the alumni of the ocean!

When Columbus, ill-requited by Spain, and weary of life, felt his end approach, he desired, as his last request, that it might be engraven on his tomb, "Here lieth Christopher Columbus, who gave to Castile and Arragon a New World." If this was meant as a reproach to Ferdinand, it was a magnificent reproach. If it was meant as a lasting definition of his own act, it is miserably deficient. What he actually did, is, indeed, insignificant, compared to what he was the cause of being done; but, even from his death-bed, that clear-sighted man must have foreseen that not to Fedinand and Isabella was his New World given; not to Spain, nor even to Europe; but rather that it was given to all humanity, for the remainder of time to come.

Three hundred years and more have passed over the grave of Columbus. In his cathedral tomb, at Havana, he sleeps within the circle of the greatest exploit of modern men,—the civilization of America,—which he most heroically began. All the races of Europe have contributed workmen to the work, who, amid much "confusion of tongues," are rearing it heavenward, day by day, in hope and harmony, and, let us trust, with all due reverence and humility of spirit.

Columbus has been justified; so has Spain. The shares of France, England, Holland, Sweden, and Germany, in civilizing America, have been all recorded, in the works of sympathetic and laborious historians.

And now, also, Ireland advances her claim to respect and remembrance as a contributor to this world's work. She also has helped to reclaim the land from barrenness, and to liberate it from oppression. Her sons have made many a clearing, found many a ford, worked out many a noble plan, fighting stoutly for their new country, on land and sea, when so required. Ireland, which has furnished actors to every great act of civilization, since Dathi died at Sales, following in the track of Brennus and Alaric, was also, as we shall see, represented here, from the beginning, by able and useful men. It is of these Irish settlers in America, this book is written; and, while looking over its brief chapters, I cannot suppress a sigh, that much greater books have been written of men who did not deserve the honor one half so well.

The following pages, dear reader, were filled up after many interruptions and under many distractions; therefore, have mercy in your judgment of the work. I venture it into print with the hope that the whole subject may come, ere long, under the hands of a master, who can make of it a story both Europe and America would love to listen to.

Boston, Saint Patrick's Day, 1851.

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