Chapter 5


Did you ever set out, in the dark, to walk with your little brother or sister along a road you did not know much about or had never gone over before? It was not an easy thing to do, was it? And how did your little brother or sister feel when it was known that you were not just certain whether you were right or not? Do you remember what the Bible says about the blind leading the blind?

It was much the same with Columbus when he set out from Palos to sail over an unknown sea to find the uncertain land of Cathay. He had his own idea of the way there, but no one in all his company had ever sailed it, and he himself was not sure about it. He was very much in the dark. And the sailors in the three ships were worse than little children. They did not even have the confidence in their leader that your little brother or sister would probably have in you as you traveled that new road on a dark night. It was almost another case of the blind leading the blind, was it not?

Columbus first steered his ships to the south so as to reach the Canary Islands and commence his real westward voyage from there. The Canary Islands, as you will see by looking in your geography, are made up of seven islands and lie off the northern corner of Africa, some sixty miles or so west of Morocco. They were named Canaria by the Romans from the Latin canis, a dog, “because of the multitude of dogs of great size” that were found there. The canary birds that sing so sweetly in your home come from these islands. They had been known to the Spaniards and other European sailors of Columbus’s day about a hundred years.

At the Canaries the troubles of Columbus commenced. And he did have a lot of trouble before his voyage was over. While near the island called the Grand Canary the rudder of the Pinta, in which Captain Alonso Pinzon sailed, somehow got loose, then broke and finally came off. It was said that two of the Pinta’s crew, who were really the owners of the vessel, broke the rudder on purpose, 5.1because they had become frightened at the thoughts of the perilous voyage, and hoped by damaging their vessel to be left behind.

But Columbus had no thought of doing any such thing. He sailed to the island of Gomera, where he knew some people, and had the Pinta mended. And while lying here with his fleet the great mountain on the island of Teneriffe, twelve thousand feet high, suddenly began to spit out flame and smoke. It was, as of course you know, a volcano; but the poor frightened sailors did not know what set this mountain on fire, and they were scared almost out of their wits’ and begged the Admiral to go back home. But Columbus would not. And as they sailed away from Gomera some sailors told them that the king of Portugal was angry with Columbus because he had got his ships from the king and queen of Spain, and that he had sent out some of his war-ships to worry or capture Columbus.

But these, too, Columbus escaped, although not before his crews had grown terribly nervous for fear of capture. At last they got away from the Canaries, and on Sunday, the ninth of September, 1492, with a fresh breeze filling their sails, the three caravels sailed away into the West. And as the shores of Ferro, the very last of the Canary Islands, faded out of sight, the sailors burst into sighs and murmurings and tears, saying that now indeed they were sailing off—off—off—upon the awful Sea of Darkness and would never see land any more.

When Columbus thought that he was sailing too slowly—he had now been away from Palos a month and was only about a hundred miles out at sea—and when he saw what babies his sailors were, he did something that was not just right (for it is never right to do anything that is not true) but which he felt he really must do. He made two records (or reckonings as they are called) of his sailing. One of these records was a true one; this he kept for himself. The other was a false one; this he kept to show his sailors. So while they thought they were sailing slowly and that the ocean was not so very wide, Columbus knew from his own true record that they were getting miles and miles away from home.

Soon another thing happened to worry the sailors. The pilots were steering by the compass. You know what that is—a sort of big magnet-needle perfectly balanced 5.2and pointing always to the north. At the time of Columbus the compass was a new thing and was only understood by a few. On the thirteenth of September they had really got into the middle of the ocean, and the line of the north changed. Of course this made the needle in the compass change its position also. Now the sailors had been taught to believe so fully in the compass that they thought it could never change its position. And here it was playing a cruel trick upon them. We are trapped! they cried. The goblins in this dreadful sea are making our compass point wrong so as to drag us to destruction. Go back; take us back! they demanded.

But Columbus, though he knew that his explanation was wrong, said the compass was all right. The North Star, toward which the needle always pointed, had, so he said, changed its position. This quieted the sailors for a while.

When they had been about forty days out from Palos, the ship ran into what is marked upon your maps as the Sargasso Sea. This is a vast meadow of floating seaweed and seagrass in the middle of the Atlantic; it is kept drifting about in the same place by the two great sea currents that flow past it but not through it.

The sailors did not know this, of course, and when the ships began to sail slower and slower because the seaweed was so thick and heavy and because there was no current to carry them along, they were sure that they were somewhere near to the jumping-off place, and that the horrible monsters they had heard of were making ready to stop their ships, and when they had got them all snarled up in this weed to drag them all down to the bottom of the sea.

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