WHILE Portuguese captains were venturing down the African coast in search of a water route to the East two monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were welding Spain into a nation. The union of the separate kingdoms of Aragon and Castile was but one of the problems that confronted the Spanish rulers. Seven centuries before, hordes of African Mohammedans had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and conquered their way into Europe. The Moors, as they were called, had been thrown back in long and bloody wars. In 1481, the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella moved against Granada, the last stronghold of the infidels. The task was difficult. Not until eleven years had passed were the Spanish arms successful. At last, on January 2, 1492, Granada surrendered and the Moor passed finally out of Europe.
One of those who watched the surrender ceremony was an Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus. Nearly five years before he had first presented to the Spanish court a plan for sailing westward across the unknown ocean to Asia. But the Moorish wars had absorbed the attention and depleted the treasury of the sovereigns and little heed had beeft given to Columbus. Yet he had persisted in his quest. He was familiar with the best thought of the time that the earth was round, and shared in that belief. He was profoundly convinced that great discoveries would follow a voyage westward.
Columbus had been born in Genoa, the son of a weaver. Doubtless, as a boy, along the wharves of the busy Italian port, he had heard from returned sailors strange tales of distant lands. The sea attracted him and when he was but fourteen he was sailing before the mast. Most of the details of the early life of the great navigator are lost in the mists of the past. The origin of the idea that was to dominate his career will probably never be known. When he was twenty-five he made a voyage to England. In February of the following year, according to his own account, he ventured "a hundred leagues beyond the island of Thule [ Iceland]." Perhaps he came into contact with the old Norse tradition of Vinland. In the ports of Portugal and Spain tales of mysterious islands beyond the Canaries were bandied about. The maps of the day gave them form. Perhaps this gossip of the seaboard awakened in the mind of the imaginative Genoese the vision of lands that lay to the west. He had read the travels of Marco Polo; perchance he also might reach Cathay.
The world into which Columbus had been born was full of new thoughts. In the cities of his own Italy had come the Renaissance that was bringing new life to Europe. Men were turning from the cramped philosophy of the Middle Ages to the rich thought of ancient Greece. Freedom and individualism were in the air. Men were exploring the realms of the spirit as well as of the earth. The dreams of Columbus were in harmony with the growth of the age. Others believed in a round world and in lands to the westward, but in the great admiral persistence and fortitude were united with imagination. When he returned from the first voyage, he had broadened immeasurably the horizon of Europe. The Middle Ages had come to an end.