The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Voyages and Travel III.

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By Professor W. A. Neilson

AMONG the many manifestations of the spirit of intellectual inquiry which marked the Renaissance in Europe, the new impetus toward geographical exploration is one of the most notable. The discovery of the New World by Columbus in 1492 had given this a fresh start, and not many years had passed before Spain had followed it up by large settlements and annexations of territory, chiefly in Central and South America. Spain was in the sixteenth century the leading Catholic power in Europe, and after England under Elizabeth had definitely and finally broken with Rome, her position as leading Protestant power added a religious motive to that of political ambition to lead her to seek to share with her rival the wealth and dominion of the Americas. Further, there was a powerful commercial interest in this rivalry. The peaceful development of England under the great Queen led to a need for wider markets, and besides the hope of plunder and the settlement of colonies, the Elizabethan merchant adventurers were seeking to build up a large commerce overseas. Curiosity, piety, patriotism, and trade were, then, the leading motives that led these daring "sea dogs" on their perilous voyages to the ends of the earth.


The diversity of routes traversed in these quests is not always realized. It was not merely the Spanish Main to which these men looked for profit and adventure. Seeking a northeastern route to China in 1553, English sailors found themselves in the White Sea and made their way to the Court of the Czar, thus establishing a trade route to Russia which rendered them independent of the Baltic route previously blocked by the jealousy of the Hansa league. They pushed into the Mediterranean, sending expeditions to Tripoli and Morocco, and trading with the Greek Archipelago. Others cultivated intercourse with Egypt and the Levant, and, penetrating Arabia and Persia, carried their samples overland to India, while still others reached the same goal by way of the Persian Gulf or round the Cape of Good Hope. Here they came into competition with the Portuguese; and in 1600 was founded the East India Company, and with it the beginning of the British Empire in India.


But it was in the regions where they came into conflict with the Spaniards that those exploits occurred which most touched the imaginations of their contemporaries, and of which we have preserved the most picturesque accounts. The three voyages of Sir Francis Drake,[1] Sir Humphrey Gilbert's "Voyage to Newfoundland,"[2] and Sir Walter Raleigh's "Discovery of Guiana,"[3] all printed in The Harvard Classics, are good representative records of the manner and results of these expeditions, partly scientific and religious, but more patriotic and piratical. Few narratives are more absorbing than these, with their pictures of courage against terrible odds, of endurance of the most frightful hardships on sea and land, of generosity and treachery, of kindliness and cruelty. Drake was still young when he first voyaged to the west, and in 1572 he made the expedition against Nombre de Dios in which they all but secured the contents of the great King's Treasure House. "By means of this light," says the narrator, "we saw a huge heap of silver in that nether room; being a pile of bars of silver of, as near as we could guess, seventy feet in length, of ten feet in breadth, and twelve feet in height; piled up against the wall, each bar was between thirty-five and forty pounds in weight"—altogether over 360 tons, as it turned out. This vast treasure, with as much more in gold, they left untouched, however, preferring to save the life of their wounded captain.[4] How they plagued the Spaniards in spite of this abstinence may be judged from the summary statement at the close of the narrative: "There were, at this time, belonging to Cartagena, Nombre de Dios, etc., above 200 frigates ... the most of which, during our abode in those parts, we took; and some of them twice or thrice each; yet never burned nor sunk any unless they were made out men-of-war against us, or laid as stales to entrap us."[5]


To the narratives of these adventurers we owe much of our early knowledge of America and its aborigines. The information they give, it is true, is not always to be taken at its face value, and often is more of the nature of travelers' tales than scientific geography. But it has value, and, reflecting as it does the inflamed imagination of the time, vast entertainment. Thus in an account of one of Hawkins's voyages we read of the crocodile: "His nature is ever, when he would have his prey, to cry and sob like a Christian body, to provoke them to come to him; and then he snatched at them! And thereupon came this proverb, that is applied unto women, when they weep, 'Lachrymae Crocodili': the meaning whereof is, that as the crocodile when he crieth goeth then about most to deceive; so doth a woman, most commonly, when she weepeth." The wondrous properties of tobacco are thus described in the same narrative: "The Floridans, when they travel, have a kind of herb dried, who with a cane and a earthen cup in the end, with fire and the dried herbs put together, do suck through the cane the smoke thereof; which smoke satisfieth their hunger, and therewith they live four or five days without meat or drink. And this all the Frenchmen used for this purpose; yet do they hold opinion withal, that it causeth water and phlegm to void from their stomachs." The potato is hardly less glorified: "These potatoes be the most delicate roots that may be eaten; and do far exceed our parsnips or carrots. Their pines be of the bigness of two fists, the outside whereof is of the making of a pine apple, but it is soft like the rind of a cucumber; and the inside eateth like an apple, but it is more delicious than any sweet apple sugared."

Besides descriptions of plants and animals, these stories of travel and conquest contain much interesting information, though colored by fancy, of the native tribes encountered and of their habits of life. Especially is the reader struck by the vast riches in gold and pearls ascribed to the Indians, such description as that of El Dorado, quoted by Raleigh in his account of the Emperor of Guiana,[6] sounding like a fairy tale. Not content with kitchen utensils of gold and silver, the Emperor was believed to have adorned his pleasure gardens with flowers and trees of the same precious metals.


These stories, as the reader is not likely to forget, are all told from the English point of view. Religious animosity and political and commercial rivalry whetted the English hatred of Spain, and produced accounts of Spanish cruelty to the natives and to English prisoners which must be taken with much modification. For the English adventurers themselves were no saints. Many of them were nothing more than pirates, and many were engaged in the slave trade between Africa and the Indies. At times our admiration for their intrepid courage and persistence, and for their loyalty to one another and to the Queen, is overcome by the evidence of their inhumanity in the treatment of their human cargoes, and their lack of all consideration of the rights of negroes as men. They contracted for the delivery of African slaves to the West Indies precisely as if they were cattle or hides, and in case of danger at sea they lightened their ships of these miserable wretches with apparently little less compunction than if they had been mere bales of merchandise.

Yet, amid all the horrors induced by lust of gold and conquest, one finds often enough incidents of striking generosity to enemies, of tender affection to their own people, and of a code of honor and an adherence to the rules of the game as they understood it, which go far to brighten the picture.


Nothing was farther from the minds of the writers of these voyages than the production of literature. The glorification of their captains and their country, the inciting of their fellow citizens against the enemy, and the fondness of the returned traveler for narrating his adventures, these were the main motives which induced them to write; and they told their stories with no thought of style or ornament. They have thus almost the flavor of actual conversation, and reveal, none the less truly because unconsciously, the temper of the writers and the spirit of the time. It was a time of great enthusiasms and boundless ambitions, of undertakings conceived under the influence of an almost fantastic imagination, and carried out with absolute unscrupulousness, but with complete devotion and invincible courage. The modern world has largely outgrown the temptation to many of the vices which beset these buccaneers, but our blood is still stirred by the spectacle of their magnificent energy, and our imaginations are roused by those

heroic hearts,
          Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
          To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

  1. Harvard Classics, xxxiii, 129, 199, 229.
  2. H. C., xxxiii, 263.
  3. H. C., xxxiii, 311.
  4. H. C., xxxiii, 138, 140–141.
  5. H. C., xxxiii, 195–196.
  6. H. C., xxxiii, 318–319.