The New World, of which our country is the most important part, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. When that great man set sail from Spain on his voyage of discovery, he was seeking not only unknown lands, but a new way to eastern Asia. Such a new way was badly needed.

THE ROUTES OF TRADE. - Long before Columbus was born, the people of Europe had been trading with the far East. Spices, drugs, and precious stones, silks, and other articles of luxury were brought, partly by vessels and partly by camels, from India, the Spice Islands, and Cathay (China) by various routes to Constantinople and the cities in Egypt and along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. There they were traded for the copper, tin, and lead, coral, and woolens of Europe, and then carried to Venice and Genoa, whence merchants spread them over all Europe. [1] The merchants of Genoa traded chiefly with Constantinople, and those of Venice with Egypt.

THE TURKS SEIZE THE ROUTES OF TRADE. - While this trade was at its height, Asia Minor (from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean) was conquered by the Turks, the caravan routes across that country were seized, and when Constantinople was captured (in 1453), the trade of Genoa was ruined. Should the Turkish conquests be extended southward to Egypt (as later they were), the prosperity of Venice would likewise be destroyed, and all existing trade routes to the Orient would be in Turkish hands.

THE PORTUGUESE SEEK A NEW ROUTE. - Clearly an ocean route to the East was needed, and on the discovery of such a route the Portuguese had long been hard at work. Fired by a desire to expand Portugal and add to the geographical knowledge of his day, Prince Henry "the Navigator" sent out explorer after explorer, who, pushing down the coast of Africa, had almost reached the equator before Prince Henry died. [2] His successors continued the good work, the equator was crossed, and in 1487 Dias passed the Cape of Good Hope and sailed eastward till his sailors mutinied. Ten years later Vasco da Gama sailed around the end of Africa, up the east coast, and on to India, and brought home a cargo of eastern products. A way to India by water was at last made known to Europe. [3]

COLUMBUS PLANS A ROUTE. - Meanwhile Christopher Columbus [4] planned what he thought would be a shorter ocean route to the East. He had studied all that was known of geography in his time. He had carefully noted the results of recent voyages of exploration. He had read the travels of Marco Polo [5] and had learned that off the coast of China was a rich and wonderful island which Polo called Cipango. He believed that the earth is a sphere, and that China and Cipango could be reached by sailing about 2500 miles due westward across the Atlantic.

COLUMBUS SEEKS AID. - To make others think so was a hard task, for nearly everybody believed the earth to be flat, and several sovereigns were appealed to before one was found bold enough to help him. He first applied to the king of Portugal, and when that failed, to the king and queen of Spain. [6] When they seemed deaf to his appeal, he sent his brother to England, and at last, wearied with waiting, set off for France. Then Queen Isabella of Spain was persuaded to act. Columbus was recalled, [7] ships were provided with which to make the voyage, and on Friday, the 3d of August, 1492, the Santa Maria(sahn'tah mah-ree'ah), the Pinta (peen'tah), and the Niña (neen'yah) set sail from Palos (pah'los), on one of the greatest voyages ever made by men. [8]

THE VOYAGE WESTWARD. - The little fleet went first to the Canary Islands and thence due west across the Sea of Darkness, as the Atlantic was called. The voyage was delightful, but every sight and sound was a source of new terror to the sailors. An eruption of a volcano at the Canaries was watched with dread as an omen of evil. They crossed the line of no magnetic variation, and when the needle of the compass began to change its usual direction, they were sure it was bewitched. They entered the great Sargasso Sea and were frightened out of their wits by the strange expanse of floating vegetation. They entered the zone of the trade winds, and as the breeze, day after day, steadily wafted them westward, the boldest feared it would be impossible to return. When a mirage and flights of strange birds raised hopes that were not promptly realized, the sailors were sure they had entered an enchanted realm. [9]

LAND DISCOVERED. - Columbus, who was above such fear, explained the unusual sights, calmed the fears of the sailors, hid from them the true distance sailed, [10] and steadily pursued his way till unmistakable signs of land were seen. A staff carved by hand and a branch with berries on it floated by. Excitement now rose high, and a reward was promised to the man who first saw land. At last, on the night of October 11, Columbus beheld a light moving as if carried by hand along a shore. A few hours later a sailor on the Pinta saw land distinctly, and soon all beheld, a few miles away, a long, low beach. [11]

THE VOYAGE AMONG THE ISLANDS. - Columbus thought he had found one of the islands of the Indies, as the southern and eastern parts of Asia were called. Dressed in scarlet and gold and followed by a band of his men bearing banners, he landed, fell on his knees, and having given thanks to God, took possession for Spain and called the island San Salvador (sahn sahl-va-dor'), which means Holy Savior. The day was October 12, 1492, and the island was one of the Bahamas. [12]