Every circumstance relating to the discovery and settlement of America is an interesting object of inquiry, especially to the great and growing nations of this hemisphere, who owe their existence to those arduous labors. Yet it is presumed that many persons, who might be entertained with a poem on this subject, are but slightly acquainted with the life and character of the hero whose extraordinary genius led him to discover the continent, and whose singular sufferings, arising from that service, ought to excite the indignation of the world.
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa about the year 1447, when the navigation of Europe was scarcely extended beyond the limits of the Mediterranean and the other narrow seas that border the great ocean. The mariner’s compass had been invented and in common use for more than a century; yet with the help of this sure guide, and prompted by a laudable spirit of discovery, the mariners of those days rarely ventured from the sight of land.
They acquired wonderful applause by sailing along the coast of Africa, and discovering some of the neighboring islands; and after pushing their researches with great industry for half a century, the Portuguese, who were the most fortunate and enterprising, extended their voyages southward no farther than the equator.
The rich commodities of the East had, for several ages, been brought into Europe by the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; and it had now become the object of the Portuguese to find a passage to India by sailing round the southern extremity of Africa, and then taking an eastern course. This great object engaged the general attention, and drew into the Portuguese service adventurers from the other maritime nations of Europe. Every year added to their experience in navigation, and seemed to promise some distant reward to their industry. The prospect however of arriving at India by that route was still by no means encouraging. Fifty years perseverance in the same track having brought them only to the equator, it was probable that as many more would elapse before they could accomplish their purpose.
(from the Introduction)
Joel Barlow: The Columbiad (1809)