12 August 2021

Gleanings from "The European Discovery of America"

When I was in high school in the 1960s, one of my textbooks was "The Growth of the American Republic" by Morison and Commager.  So when I spotted this reference book by the same author in our local library's book sale for a few bucks, I eagerly grabbed it.  It turned out to be well worth it.  A longread, to be sure (700+ pages) extensively annotated and illustrated with photos and maps.  Herewith some interesting excerpts of TYWKIWDBI-type items.
The Norse discoverers of Greenland and Vinland did not use a long Viking ship like the one unearthed at Gokstad and preserved at Oslo.  There is ample evidence that they used the knarr, a beamy type propelled principally by one big square sail... like the long Viking ships she was directed by a steerboard on the right side - hence the word "starboard."

The English [ship]builder, if he does not own an oak forest himself, arranges with another to take out the timber he wants  Oak is preferred, not only for its strength but because limbs growing from the trunk at different angles make natural crooks for the ribs or frames, the knees, and the curbed stem piece.  Builders would carry a wagon-load of templates into the oak grove, match them against standing trees, cut down those they wanted, and shape them with ax and adze.

In 1500 it was anyone's guess which European power would dominate North America.  Eliminating Spain and Portugal, both of whom had little energy left for these supposedly poor and chilly regions of the New World, we have France and England, and anyone estimating their relative power in 1550 would have bet on France.  She had sixfold the population of England... France had a greater extent of ocean-facing territory, as many or more seaports than England, an equally enterprising maritime population, far greater weatlth, and, until her civil wars broke out, a government as much interested in maritime affairs as that of the Tudors.  Why, then, did France not annex all America north of Florida?  The following chapters will provide part of the answer...

Domagaya [a Huron], who had suffered a bad case of scurvy.. appeared to be cured.  What had healed him?  The juice and concoction from a certain tree... "They brought back from the forest nine or ten branches and showed us how to grind the bark and boil it in water, then drink the potion every other day and apply the residue as a poultice to swollen and infected legs."  ... a few bold fellows tried it, felt better at once, and after two or three days were completely cured.  This miraculous tree, a specimen of the common arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) was pulled to pieces by the frenchmen, and every leaf and piece of park consumed in a week by sailors frantic for relief...

David Ingram, an English sailor set ashore with two others in October 1567 on the Gulf coast of Florida... managed to walk by Indian trail all the way to the Maine coast.  After a couple of years' tramping, he hailed a French ship a the mouth of the St. John River, New Brunswick, and returned to Europe.  Once home in England, David made a living telling in sundry taverns the tale of his incredible journey...

Royal officials... are ordered to let [Cartier] recruit fifty convicts from the prisons, provided they had not been condemned for heresy, lese majeste, or counterfeiting coins.  This permission to recruit convicts may mean... that the word had gone around the waterfront that Canada was a lonely, frigid place which gave you nothing but scurvy.  From a sailor's point of view there was far more fun and profit to be had in a fishing voyage to the Grand Bank... Similarly, after Columbus's first voyage, everybody wanted to go to the Indies, but after his second voyage nobody wanted to go, and Spain had to rake the jails to obtain settlers for Hispaniola.  It is difficult for Americans, north or south, to accept the fact that for a century after Columbus's discovery, the ordinary sort of European had to be bribed, drugged, or beaten to go out to this "land of promise, unless to fish."
I'll now donate the book back to the library; it deserves to have an extended life in many homes. 


  1. my library system has this! putting in an ILL request as soon as i finish this.


  2. Volume 2, The Southern Voyages is also well worth reading.


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