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Discovery of the South Sea.
Geographical Knowledge of the Ancients—Their Ignorance of a
Sea to the East of China—First seen by Marco Polo-Progress of Modern Discovery-Columbus—Papal Bull of PartitionCabral_Cabot_Cortereal_Pinzon—Vasco Nunez de Balboa hears of the South Sea-Its Discovery.
The existence of the vast ocean which separates the continents of Asia and America was never imagined by the ancients; nor, indeed, do they appear to have had
any certain knowledge that Asia on the east was bounded by the sea.
Homer had figured the world as a circle begirt by " the great strength of ocean," and this belief in a circumambient flood long continued to prevail. It was implicitly received by many geographers, and, being carried onwards with the advance of science,
was from time to time reconciled to the varying theories and conjectures of the increased knowledge of succeeding ages. Thus, long after the spherical form of the earth was taught, the existence of its ocean-girdle was credited; and in the geographical systems of Eratosthenes, Strabo, Mela, and others, the waters of the Atlantic were depicted as laving on the one hand the shores of Europe, and encircling on the other the mysterious regions of Scythia and India. Nay, so far had the speculations of philosophy outstripped the rude navigation of the times, that the possibility of crossing this unknown ocean was more than once contemplated. Having formed an estimate of the circumference of the globe, Aristotle conceived that the distance between the pillars of Hercules and India must be small, and that a communication might be effected between them. Seneca with more confidence affirmed, that with a fair wind a ship would sail from Spain to the Indies in a few days. But these notions were far from being universally received. Herodotus had early denied the existence of this circle of waters; and those who maintained the affirmative, reasoned on grounds manifestly hypothetical, and beyond the narrow limits of their knowledge. Of the northern countries of Asia they knew nothing, nor were they acquainted with the extensive regions beyond the Ganges,-a vast space that they filled with their Eastern Sea, which thus commenced where their information stopped, and all beyond was dark. The progress of discovery at length brought to light the existence of lands in those portions of the globe supposed to be covered by the ocean; but, proceeding with undue haste, it was next imagined that
Asia extended eastwards in an indefinite expanse. It was figured thus by Ptolemy, the last and greatest of the ancient geographers. He removed from his map the Atlanticum Mare Orientale (the eastern Atlantic), which had so long marked the confines of geographical research, and exhibited the continent as stretching far beyond the limits previously assigned to it. His knowledge did not enable him to delineate its eastern extremity, or the ocean beyond: he was therefore induced to terminate it by a boundary of “ land unknown.”
With Ptolemy ceased not only the advance of science, but even the memory of almost all that had been formerly known. The long night which succeeded the decline of the Roman empire was now closing in, and a dreary space intervened before its shadows were dispelled by the dawn of a brighter day than the world had yet witnessed.
The first gleam of light came from the East, where the Arabs pursued the study of geography with the utmost ardour. Their systems again revived the belief in a circumambient ocean, which bound the earth like a zone, and in which the world floated like an egg in a basin. That portion of this belt of waters which was imagined to flow round the north-eastern shores of Asia, they called by the name of “ The Sea of Pitchy Darkness.” The Atlantic had by the Greeks been regarded as a fairy scene, where the Islands of the Blest were placed, in which, under calm skies, surrounded by unruffled seas and amid groves of the sweetest odour, the favoured of the gods enjoyed everlasting peace and happiness. This fable found no place among the Arabs, who bestowed on that ocean the name of “ The Sea of Darkness," and filled their imaginations with appalling pictures of its storms and dangers. Xerif al Edrisi, one of the most eminent of their geographers, who wrote about the middle of the twelfth century, ob. serves,—“No one has been able to verify any thing concerning it, on account of its difficult and perilous navigation, its great obscurity, its profound depth and frequent tempests; through fear of its mighty fishes and its haughty winds; yet there are many islands in it, some peopled, others uninhabited. There is no mariner who dares to enter into its deep waters ; or, if any have done so, they have merely kept along its coasts, fearful of departing from them. The waves of this ocean, although they roll as high as mountains, yet maintain themselves without breaking; for if they broke, it would be impossible for a ship to plough them."
But the mystery of this “ Sea of Pitchy Darkness” was at length removed. Towards the end of the thirteenth century, the celebrated Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, succeeded in penetrating across the Asiatic continent, and reached the far. thest shores of China. He brought back to Europe tales of oriental pomp and magnificence far beyond any previous conception. His work exercised the greatest influence on the minds of that age, which, prone to belief in marvellous stories, found unbounded gratification in the glowing descriptions of the wealth of those eastern countries; the extent and architectural wonders of their cities; the numbers and glittering array of their armies ; and, above all, the inconceivable splendour of the court of the great Kublai Khan, his vast palaces, his guards, his gay summer-residences, with their magnificent gardens
watered by beautiful streams, and adorned with the fairest fruits and flowers. Among these vi. sions of immeasurable riches, a prominent place was occupied by the sea which was found to be the eastern boundary of China. He drew a picture of it, widely differing from the gloom and tempests with which the Arabs had invested its waters. He spoke of its extent, so great," that, according to the report of experienced pilots and mariners who frequent it, and to whom the truth must be known, it contains no fewer than seven thousand four hundred and forty islands, mostly inhabited.” As to their products, he told that no trees grew there that did not yield a fragrant perfume. He dwelt on the abundance of their spices and drugs, and summed up the whole by declaring, that "it was impossible to estimate the value of the gold and other articles found in these islands !” But all others were outshone by the more lavish splendours of Zipangu, the modern Japan. There, were to be found abundance of precious stones, and large quantities of pearls, some white, and others of a beautiful pink colour. The inhabitants were of a fair complexion, well made, and of civilized manners.
They have gold,” it is said, “ in the greatest plenty, its sources being inexhaustible; but as the king does not allow of its being exported, few merchants visit the country, nor is it frequented by much shipping from other parts. To this circumstance we are to attribute the extraordinary richness of the sovereign's palace, according to what we are told by those who have access to the place. The entire roof is covered with a plating of gold, in the same manner as we cover houses, or more properly churches,