Indirect Discoverers of the New World
The American continents were slow to yield their virginity. The all-conquering Romans, a half century after the birth of Christ, expanded their empire northwestward as far as Britain.
America was to be a child of Europe, not of a specific country, such as England.
Christian crusaders must take high rank among the indirect discoverers of America. Whatever their true motives, they were avowedly attempting to wrest the Holy Land from the polluting hand of the Moslem infidel.
By the time the strange-smelling goods reached the Italian merchants at Venice and Genoa, they were so costly that purchasers and profits alike were narrowly limited.
European appetites were further whetted when foot-loose Marco Polo, an Italian adventurer, returned to Europe in 1295, after a stay of nearly twenty years in China.
As the kings gradually subordinated the nobles, the modern national state emerged in Western Europe from the feudalism of the middle ages.
The first nations to unite were the first to flourish as colonial empire builders - Portugal, Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands.
Little Portugal took the lead in discovering what came to be the coveted water route to the Indies. A courageous band of Portuguese navigators, edging cautiously down the pistol-handle coast of Africa, pushed southeasterly in the general direction of Asia.
Columbus Stumbles Upon a New World
Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage, he finally managed after heartbreaking delays, to gain the ear of the Spanish ruler.
Daringly, he spread the sails of his cockshell craft. Winds were friendly and progress rapid, but the superstitious sailors, fearful of sailing over the edge of the world, grew increasingly mutinous.
Columbus's sensational achievement has obscured the fact that he was one of the most successful failures of history.
France was left out in the cold. Her king, deeply annoyed, growled something about wanting to see the clause in Adam's will that bequeathed the earth to his two rivals.
The Spanish Conquistadores
As the realization gradually sank in that the American continents were a rich prize in their own right, Spain became the dominant exploring and colonizing power in the 1500s.
Exploratory beginnings were launched by other adventuresome Spaniards in what was destined to be the United States.
Hernando de Soto, with six hundred armor-plated men, undertook a fantastic gold-seeking expedition during 1539-1542. Floundering through marshes and pine barrens, from Florida westward, he discovered and crossed the majestic Mississippi north of the Arkansas River.
The Spanish conquerors, curiously enough, were indirect founding fathers of the United States. Their phenomenal success excited the envy of Englishmen, and helped spur some of the early attempts at colonization.
The Gilbert and Raleigh...