Abbildungen der Seite

and interest which belong to such events, as distinguish the lives of the discoverers and conquerors of a new hemisphere, the great navigators and military captains of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I have only wished to adjourn for a season, by no means to disregard, such memorable transactions.

While we read the civil and religious history of Europe in the manner I have supposed, the general facts respecting America and the Indies will present themselves, and may be received without any immediate examination, (nor is this of any material consequence); we may still hasten on. We can easily conceive, what in fact took place, that these vast and unknown regions, when once discovered, would be converted into the great theatres, where enterprise and courage were to be exhibited. We can find no difficulty in supposing, that the woods and morasses of America, however gloomy and inhospitable, would still seem a retreat and a refuge to those, who were exasperated by persecution, or inflamed by religious enthusiasm. We may easily take into our account the effect which would be produced on the minds of men by the novelty of their prospects and situation, on the discovery of a new portion of the globe: all this we may conceive, and in a general manner take for granted, while we read the history of Europe ; and we may afterwards turn back and examine the more particular history of these expeditions, and give them such attention, as on the whole, and in comparison with other objects of reflection, they may appear to deserve.

But bere again, as on all former occasions, we should transport ourselves in imagination back to this distant period and assume, for a time, the opinions and sympathies of those who went before us, the better to understand their merits and to be instructed by their faults; the better to be animated by their history, and improved in our own minds and dispositions, by the spectacle before us; by the images of our common nature placed in scenes so fitted to display all the possible varieties of the human character.

Science has been now advanced, navigation brought to comparative perfection; the winds and currents of other climates and seas, the shores and rocks, the rivers and the harbours of an unknown hemisphere have been now ascertained; and we

travel over the ocean as we journey over the land, expecting at a given time to reach a given place, and with little more fear of miscarriage and disappointment in the one case than in the other; but the situation of mankind at the close of the fifteenth century, in none of these respects resembled ours: the difference is one of the greatest testimonies that can be produced, to the progressive nature of human improvement; and before we open the history of America, we must endeavour to forget, for a season, our present situation and our comparative advantages. After all our efforts, it will scarcely be possible for us properly to comprehend and sympathize with the various strong and contradictory emotions, to which these enterprises gave occasion in the course of their origin, progress, and success.

The work of Dr. Robertson is well known: the whole subject, as far as we need at present consider it, is there fully discussed. To his History of America I must refer you.

In his work we are made acquainted, first, with the progress of navigation anterior to the time of the great Columbus, the discoverer of America; the nature and the fortunes of his enterprise; the fortunes of Columbus himself: the conquest of Mexico, by Cortez; of Peru, by Pizarro: and we have also a very full discussion of a subject so extraordinary, as the situation and nature of whole races of men, that before had never been supposed to exist.

Themes so striking, and so interesting, have not in vain been presented to this accomplished historian. He has formed a narrative and composed a work, of all others the most attractive, that the range of history affords; and along with the other merits which his writings so generally exhibit, this production has another, not so obvious, and surely of very difficult attainment; he is never betrayed into inconsiderate enthusiasm by the splendid nature of his subject; his imagination does not improperly take fire, amid events and characters of a cast so dazzling and so romantic; he is still an historian-he is still calm, deliberative, and precise, While delivering a story, which an epic poet might have been proud to have invented, he never loses for a moment the confidence of his readers by any appearance of exaggeration, or any passion for dramatic representation. Content with the

real interest of his theme, he proceeds with his usual dignified composure, and delivers to posterity those inestimable pages, which may be at once an amusement for the most young and uninformed, and a study for the most grave and enlightened.

Such, I confess, is the general impression which has been made on my own mind, by the perusal of the work of Dr. Robertson, and I think it quite sufficient to refer my readers, for an account of America, to his History of America. This history is, unfortunately for the author, like his other compositions, put into our hands very early in the course of our education, and too soon, before its merits can be properly understood; and it is in general not read again, at a maturer period, because it is supposed, very unreasonably, that it has been already read. This mistake, I must entreat my hearers, not to commit with any of his writings, or indeed any of the great classical works of our literature. The

The pages of Dr. Robertson have not the unwearied splendour of Gibbon, nor the sudden flashes of sagacity which so charm us in the historical writings of Hume; but Robertson is always an historian, with all the important merits which belong to the character.

Mr. Southey, indeed, accuses him of leaning to a system, and of unwarrantably depreciating the character and civilization of the two great nations of America—the Mexicans and Peruvians.

I see not what temptation he could have for doing so, and if the student should turn to Clavigero, and Garcilasso de Vega, to whose accounts Mr. Southey refers, to Clavigero's strictures, and Dr. Robertson's replies to him, I do not conceive that


confidence in our own historian will be at all disturbed.

Once, more, therefore, referring to his history, as perfectly adequate to all the purposes of your entertainment and instruction, I am yet desirous that you should, at the same time, undertake the perusal of some of the original authorities. I will mention such as I think you may read.

The subject teems with striking events and characters, of which too much cannot well be known. Columbus, for instance, seems to have been a man whose merit was above all praise ; whose character, if we consider the very extraordinary energy which it both possessed and exhibited, was yet so tempered and chastised, as to be rendered faultless, to a degree of which there is in history no parallel : of such a man every original notice is invaluable. There is a life of him by his son; it is not long, is easily found, continually referred to by Robertson; and on these accounts I recommend it to your perusal. A translation of it is given in the second volume of Churchill's Voyages. A son of Columbus might, perhaps, have been expected to have said more of such a father; but there is a simplicity in what is said, and an attention to the paramount importance of precision and truth, that render every word of consequence. When men who have communications of real interest to deliver to the world, are not regular writers, their narratives only gain a new interest from the very manner, imperfect and unadorned, in which they are conveyed. On these occasions we want only facts and observations: the facts that occurred, and the observations to which they gave rise at the moment. In original works, the finer the manufacture the more suspicious is the article.

In the five chapters between the fourth and the tenth, of the Life of Columbus, may be traced the manner in which this extraordinary man at last persuaded himself, that the East Indies might be found by sailing westward.

It is surely curious to observe, the wavering and unexpected streams of light that penetrated through the great mass of darkness that lay before the contemplation of Columbus; the strange mixture of ancient authority and of modern report, of fable and fact, of truth and falsehood, out of which this enthusiastic, yet reasonable, projector was to create, as well as he could, conclusions convincing to himself, and, if possible, satisfactory to others.

But it is not only curious, but useful; that we may learn to understand the workings of the human mind in extraordinary situations, surrounded by conjectures and possibilities, fair deductions, and mistaken inferences; and wandering, as it were, alone and unprotected over the doubtful confines of the reason and the imagination.

In this manner we may be taught the respect that is always due to the suggestions and plans, however wild and imperfect

they may at first appear, of schemers and projectors of every description-men often of original and powerful minds, who must be listened to with patience, and soothed and assisted by our calmer reflections, not ridiculed or repelled by indifference and scorn. Every encouragement ought always to be afforded to creative genius ; and amid a world where every thing may be obtained by enterprise, and nothing without it, no chance should be lost for the accommodation of our nature, and the progress of human prosperity.

Reflections like these are but confirmed by the chapters which succeed in the work now alluded to.“ The king of Portugal gave ear,” says the biographer, “ to the adıniral's proposals; but at last resolved to send a caravel privately to attempt what had been proposed to him; and the navigators employed,” says the recital, “after many days wandering upon the sea, turned back to the islands of Cape Verd, laughing at the undertaking, and saying that it was impossible that there should be any land in those seas.”

In this manner were to be treated the elevated views and generous nature of Columbus. When no further hope therefore remained for him in Portugal, and when his plans were, in consequence, submitted to the Spanish court, the observations of those judges who were appointed to decide upon a man like this-a man whom they were totally unworthy to estimate, appear to have been these; I will give them to you, because they are specimens of human reasoning on all such new occasions, and therefore instructive.

“That since, in so many thousand years that had passed since the creation, so many skilful sailors had got no knowledge of such countries, it was not likely that the admiral should know more than all that were then, or had been before.” Others said, “That the world was so prodigious great, that it was incredible three years' sail would bring him to the end of the east;" and Seneca, it seems, was quoted against him. Others argued, " That if any man should sail

“ straight away westward, as the admiral proposed, he would not be able to return into Spain, because of the roundness of the globe.”

The argument that follows, and which I will mention, may appear at first ludicrous, but it should rather serve to show

« ZurückWeiter »