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(AVIGATION, like other arts, has been per
fected by degrees. It is not easy to conceive that any age or nation was without some vessel, in which rivers might be passed by travellers, or lakes frequented by fishermen; but we bave no knowledge of any ship that could endure the violence of the ocean before the ark of Noah.
As the tradition of the deluge has been transmitted to almost all the nations of the earth; it must be supposed that the memory of the means by which Noah and his family were preserved, would be continued long among their descendants, and that the possibility of passing the seas could never be doubted.
What men know to be practicable, a thousand motives will incite them to try; and there is reason to believe, that from the time that the generations of the postdiluvian race spread to the sea shores, there were always navigators that ventured upon the sea, though perhaps, not willingly beyond the sight of land.
* A collection of Voyages and Travels, selected from the writers of all nations, in twenty small pocket volumes, and published by Newbery; to oblige whom, it is conjectured that Johnson drew up this curious and learned paper, which appeared in the first volume, 1759.
Of the ancient voyages little certain is known, and it is not necessary to lay before the Reader such conjectures as learned men have offered to the world. The Romans by conquering Carthage, put a stop to great part of the trade of distant nations with one another, and because they thought only on war and conquest, as their empire increased, commerce was discouraged; till under the latter emperors, ships seem to have been of little other use than to transport soldiers.
Navigation could not be carried to any great degree of certainty without the compass, which was unknown to the ancients. The wonderful quality by which a needle or small bar of steel, touched with a loadstone or magnet, and turning freely by equilibration on a point, always preserves the meridian, and directs its two ends north and south, was discovered according to the common opinion in 1299, by John Gola, of Amalfi, a town in Italy.
From this time it is reasonable to suppose that navigation made continual, though slow improvements, which the confusion and barbarity of the times, and thie want of communication between orders of men so distant as sailors and monks, hindered from being distinctly and successively recorded.
It seems, however, that the sailors still wanted either knowledge or courage, for they continued for two centuries to creep along the coast, and considered every headland as unpassable, which ran far into the sea, and against which the waves broke with uncommon agitation.
The first who is known to have formed the design of new discoveries, or the first who had power to
execute his purposes, was Don Henry the fifth, son of John, the first king of Portugal, and Philipina, sister of Henry the fourth of England. Don Henry having attended his father to the conquest of Ceuta, obtained by conversation with the inhabitants of the continent, some accounts of the interior kingdoms and southern coast of Africa; which, though rude and indistinct, were sufficient to raise his curiosity, and convince him, that there were countries yet unknown and worthy of discovery.
He therefore equipped some small vessels, and commanded that they should pass as far as they could along that coast of Africa which looked upon the great Atlantic ocean, the immensity of which struck the gross and unskilful navigators of these times with terrour and amazement. He was not able to communicate his own ardour to his seamen, who proceeded very slowly in the new attempt; each was afraid to venture much farther than he that went before him, and ten years were spent before they had advanced beyond cape Bajador, so called from its progression into the ocean, and the circuit by which it must be doubled. The opposition of this promontory to the course of the sea, produced a violent current and high waves, into which they durst not venture, and which they had not yet knowledge enough to avoid by standing off from the land into the open sea.
The prince was desirous to know something of the countries that lay beyond this formidable cape, and sent two commanders, named John Gonzales Zarco, and Tristan Vaz, in 1418, to pass beyond
Bajador, and survey the coast behind it. They were caught by a tempest, which drove them out into the unknown ocean, where they expected to perish by the violence of the wind, or perhaps to wander for ever in the boundless deep. At last, in the midst of their despair, they found a small island, where they sheltered themselves, and which the sense of their deliverance disposed them to call Puerto Santo, or the Holy Haven.
When they returned with an account of this new island, Henry performed a publick act of thanksgiving, and sent them again with seeds and cattle; and we are told by the Spanish historian, that they set two rabbits on shore, which increased so much in a few years, that they drove away the inhabitants, by destroying their corn and plants, and were suffered to enjoy the island without opposition.
In the second or third voyage to Puerto Santo (for authors do not agree which), a third captain called Perello, was joined to the two 'former. As they looked round the island upon the ocean, they saw at a distance something which they took for a cloud, till they perceived that it did not change its place. They directed their course towards it, and, in 1419, discovered another island covered with trees, which they therefore called Madera, or the Isle of Wood.
Madera was given to Vaz or Zarco, who set fire to the woods, which are reported by Souza to have burnt for seven years together, and to have been wasted, till want of wood was the greatest inconveniency of the place. But green wood is not very apt to burn, and the heavy rains which fall in
these countries must surely have extinguished the conflagration, were it ever so violent.
There was yet little progress made upon the southern coast, and Henry's project was treated as chimerical by many of his countrymen. At last Gilianes, in 1433, passed the dreadful cape, to which he gave the name of Bajador, and came back to the wonder of the nation.
In two voyages more, made in the two following years, they passed forty-two leagues farther, and in the latter, two men with horses being set on shore, wandered over the country, and found nineteen men, whom, according to the savage manners of that age, they attacked; the natives having javelius, wounded one of the Portuguese, and received some wounds from them. At the mouth of a river they found seawolves in great numbers, and brought home many of their skins, which were much esteemed.
Antonio Gonzales, who had been one of the associates of Gilianes, was sent again, in 1440, to bring back a cargo of the skins of seawolves. He was followed in another ship by Nunno Tristam. They were now of strength sufficient to venture upon violence, they therefore landed, and without either right or provocation, made all whom they seized their prisoners, and brought them to Portugal, with great commendations both from the prince and the nation.
Henry now began to please himself with the success of his projects, and as one of his purposes was the conversion of infidels, be thought it necessary to impart his undertaking to the pope, and to obtain