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We are on the eve of the consummation of five centuries of effort to find or make a direct westerly route from Europe to the Orient. The task which the oldest kingdoms of Christendom essayed and failed to accomplish, is nearing its completion at the hands of the youngest of nations. When, a few years hence, the Panama Canal shall be opened to the fleets and the merchant marine of the world, the dream of Columbus to sail from Spain to Cathay, with his prow ever pointing into the eye of the setting sun, will have become a possibility.
Among the ancient Greeks the theory was entertained that the shores of Asia might be reached by a comparatively short sail to westward from the mainland of Europe. But it was not until the fifteenth century that navigators and the sovereigns, upon whom they necessarily depended for the means and permission to make distant expeditions, were sufficiently impressed with the idea to put its truth to the test. Columbus was only one of many who, in his time, believed that the lands visited by Marco Polo could be arrived at by a voyage to the west, and that an open passageway lay between them and the countries of Christendom. Columbus alone, however, among the adventurers of his day, seems to have had the courage of his conviction. His ideas on the subject were very vague and faulty, being derived from the rude maps of the day and from the wild conjectures of others, and often based upon mere imagination. His conception of the size of the world was widely at variance with the truth and, like the ancients, he imagined the distance between Europe and Asia to be several thousand miles less than it actually is. When, after having persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to support his venture, he embarked on his first voyage to America, it was with the confident expectation of gaining the eastern shores of the Old World in less than two weeks' time. The discovery of one after another of the islands of the West Indies did not disconcert him nor dampen his ardor. He took it for granted that they were outposts of the mainland which he sought. He describes them as “ the Islands discovered in the Indian Sea," in his report of the voyage to his royal patrons. The developments of the second voyage only confirmed and amplified these delusions, from which the great explorer was never freed. Cuba, along the southern coast of which only he sailed, was readily accepted by him and by his officers as a part of the mainland of Asia, and, when his next expedition touched the shores of South America, near the delta of the Orinoco, the land was unhesitatingly pronounced to be another portion of the same continent. This self-deception Columbus sustained and increased by his too-ready habit of confusing the names of places mentioned by the Caribbean Indians with those referred to by Marco Polo in his account of his Oriental travels. Columbus set out upon his last and fourth voyage with the design of discovering a strait which should enable him to pass through Terra Firma, as he had named the mainland of South America, to India. And here was the first nebulous idea of the Panama Canal. Accord