Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Lectures on the Harvard Classics
  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Voyages and Travel
IV. The Era of Discovery
By Professor W. B. Munro
WITH the close of the fifteenth century the Dark Ages came to an end. The great mediæval institution of feudalism was everywhere losing its hold, for the growth of monarchical power and the rise of standing armies made the feudal system no longer necessary. Small states were being consolidated into nations—Castile and Aragon had become the kingdom of Spain; the various provinces of France were now welded together under the House of Bourbon; while England had settled her internal quarrels and was now safely unified under the dominant Tudor dynasty. With this consolidation and unity came national consciousness and a desire for territorial expansion. The revived study of geography, moreover, and the adaptation of the compass to marine use were features which led mariners to proceed more boldly away from the shores, so that when the Turkish conquests shut off the old trade routes between the Mediterranean ports and the Orient, the time was ripe for venturesome voyages out into the western ocean.  1

  It was altogether appropriate that the first successful expedition of discovery into the New Hemisphere should have been under the guidance of a Genoese navigator in the service of the Spanish crown. Genoa was one of the first commercial cities of the Mediterranean; Spain was one of the most powerful and progressive among European monarchies. Columbus had the maritime skill and daring of his own race together with the financial backing of a nation which from its location had much to gain from western discoveries. The story of his thirty-three-day voyage to the new Indies, his reception by the natives, and his glowing accounts of the new lands are known to every American schoolboy; but never can it be better recounted than in the discoverer’s own words. 1 It is true that the honor of having been the first to touch upon the shores of the New World has been claimed by others. Nearly four centuries before Columbus set sail from Palos, some Norse navigators under the leadership of Leif Ericson, son of Eric the Red, are said to have sailed from the Norse colony in Greenland and to have reached the coasts of Wineland the Good. Whether this Wineland was Labrador or Nova Scotia or New England is something upon which historians have never agreed; but the general drift of opinion at present is that Leif and his followers in all probability never came south of Labrador, if, indeed, they proceeded so far. 2 But in any event these Norse forays never led to any permanent colonization; the planting of a new nation was reserved to those who followed where Columbus led the way.
  The return of Columbus with his news concerning the wealth and resources of Hispaniola made a profound impression upon the imagination of all Europe. The Spanish Court hastened to follow up its advantage by sending Columbus on further voyages in order that the entire fruits of the discovery might be monopolized. The navigators of other nations also bestirred themselves to get some share of the New World’s spoil. Among these was the Florentine sea captain Amerigo Vespucci, who made his way across the Atlantic in 1497, and on his return presented the geographical information which led the map makers of Europe to name the new continent after him. 3 Likewise the Cabots, father and son, sailed from Bristol in the same year under the auspices of King Henry VIII, and by their explorations along the Labrador coast laid the basis of later English claims to great regions of North America. 4 France, for her part, sent Jacques Cartier on his errands of discovery and in due course established French claims to the valley of the St. Lawrence in this way.  3

  But to get secure possession of the new territories it was necessary that European nations should do more than discover. They must make settlements and colonize. Spain, being first in the field, directed her energies to those regions which seemed to constitute the largest prize, that is to say, the West Indies, Central America, and the western slopes of the South American continent. In the Indies there was a fertile soil which could be made to yield its increase without much labor; on the mainland there were great areas of gold and silver ore. Portugal, coming hard on the heels of her peninsular neighbor, went still further to the south and took as her patrimony the sea coast of Brazil, a region which also promised a rich tribute in precious metals. England, being rather slow to follow up the beginnings made in her behalf by John and Sebastian Cabot, was forced to be content with territories north of the Spanish claims—the coast from Florida to the Bay of Fundy—where there were no great stores of mineral wealth to attract the adventuresome. In the long run, however, this selection proved to be the most prudent of them all. France, coming last into the field, found herself pushed still farther northward to the regions of Acadia, the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. Other countries of Europe, Sweden, and the Netherlands, were also in the race and both managed to get a precarious foothold in the new territories, the former on the Delaware and the latter on the Hudson. But both were in due course dislodged and these colonies passed into English hands. So did the territories of France after a century of conflict.

  In the region along the Atlantic seaboard which England claimed for her own, two settlements were made at dates not far apart. Early in 1607 a group of about one hundred settlers established at Jamestown in Virginia the first permanent Anglo-American colony, and through the inevitable hardships of a pioneer community managed to hold the settlement on its feet. With them they had brought a royal charter couched in the legal diction of the time, and in due course established their own system of local self-government with its boroughs and its House of Burgesses reproducing in miniature the old English administrative system. 5 Farther to the north unsuccessful attempts to found settlements had been made near the mouth of the Kennebec as early as 1607; but it was not until 1620 that the Mayflower Pilgrims made their landing at Plymouth and laid the foundations of New England. The Pilgrims had gone first from England to Holland, but finding that they were being drawn into the vortex of an alien environment, reached a decision to set forth for a new land where they could create their own surroundings. Before they went ashore the Pilgrims made a political compact among themselves whereby they created a “civil body politick” and covenanted each with each to enact just laws for the welfare of the new community. 6 The early years of this settlement were passed in great hardship and the population grew very slowly. Ten years after the disembarkation at Plymouth Rock it numbered but three hundred in all. The first economic and social system was communistic, but in due course this was abandoned and by dint of persistent effort the colony rounded the corner on the road to prosperity.
  A more important settlement in New England, however, was that made by John Winthrop and his followers on the shores of Massachusetts Bay. In 1630 Winthrop brought to Salem a body of nearly a thousand settlers, and these, during the ensuing two years, founded a half-dozen towns, including Boston. The colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay continued a separate existence for more than a half-century after their foundation; in 1690 they were amalgamated into the province of Massachusetts.  6
  By 1630, therefore, Englishmen had firmly established their outposts on the Atlantic seaboard both to the north and to the south; their next enterprise was to dominate the interval between. From Massachusetts the settlers, driven forth in some cases because of their refusal to observe stringent religious requirements, moved southward into the Rhode Island and Connecticut territories. William Penn, Lord Baltimore, and others proved ready to undertake colonization as a private enterprise and, being favored by the Crown in their ambitions, laid the foundations of Pennsylvania and Maryland. The Swedes on the Delaware and the Dutch on the Hudson were overpowered and their lands brought under English control. Then having possessed herself of the whole region from Virginia to Massachusetts it was England’s next task to expel France from her menacing position still farther above.  7

  This colonizing movement went hand in hand with the exploration of the interior. During the seventeenth century the Great Lakes and the Mississippi were traversed by the French voyageurs, while the hinterlands of the New England colonies were penetrated by the English fur traders. Missionaries followed in the footsteps of the traders and in due course the two chief colonizing powers of North America were using both as agents for enlarging their respective spheres of influence. Even before the earliest settlements were made to the westward of the Alleghenies, the initial skirmishes of a long struggle for the possession of these territories were taking place. The French colonists, though inferior in numbers and in material resources, were far more daring, more enterprising as explorers and as coureurs-des-bois, and more persevering than their southern neighbors—that is why the task of securing and enlarging the English frontiers proved so difficult. But in the end sheer numerical superiority determined the issue, and England, for the time being, became master of the whole area from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. 7
Note 1. The letter of Columbus to Luis de Sant Angel announcing his discovery, in Harvard Classics, xliii, 21–44. [back]
Note 2. The Voyages to Vinland, H. C., xliii, 5–20. [back]
Note 3. Amerigo Vespucci’s Account of his First Voyage, H. C., xliii, 28–44. [back]
Note 4. John Cabot’s Discovery of North America, H. C., xliii, 45–48. [back]
Note 5. First Charter of Virginia, H. C., xliii, 49–58. [back]
Note 6. The Mayflower Compact, H. C., xliii, 59. [back]
Note 7. For a sketch of the subsequent movements, see section on History: V. “Territorial Development of the United States,” by Professor F. J. Turner, in this course. [back]


Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.