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Early Mariners

The law of the universe is progress and expansion, and this little old world was soon discovered to be larger than men thought.

The law of the universe is progress and expansion, and this little old world was soon discovered to be larger than men thought.

Now in Syria—the highway between Babylonia and Egypt—dwelt a tribe of dusky people known as Phoenicians. Some have thought that they were related to our old friends in Somaliland, and that long years ago they had migrated north to the seacoast of that part of Syria known as Canaan.

Living on the seashore, washed by the tideless Mediterranean, they soon became skilful sailors. They built ships and ventured forth on the deep; they made their way to the islands of Cyprus and Crete and thence to the islands of Greece, bringing back goods from other countries to barter with their less daring neighbours. They reached Greece itself and cruised along the northern coast of the Great Sea to Italy, along the coast of Spain to the Rock of Gibraltar, and out into the open Atlantic.

How their little sailing boats lived through the storms of that great ocean none may know, for Phoenician records are lost, but we have every reason to believe that they reached the northern coast of France and brought back tin from the islands known to them as the Tin Islands. In their home markets were found all manner of strange things from foreign unknown lands, discovered by these master mariners—the admiration of the ancient world.



From a bas-relief at Nineveh.

"The ships of Tarshish," said the old poet, "did sing of thee in thy market, and thou wast replenished and made very glorious in the midst of the seas; thy rowers have brought thee into great waters; the east wind hath broken thee in the midst of the seas." All the world knew of the Phoenician seaports, Tyre and Sidon. They were as famous as Memphis and Thebes on the Nile, as magnificent as Nineveh on the Tigris and Babylon on the Euphrates. Men spoke of the "renowned city of Tyre," whose merchants were as princes, whose "traffickers" were among the honourable of the earth. "O thou that art situate at the entry of the sea," cries the poet again, when the greatness of Tyre was passing away, "which art a merchant of the people from many isles.... Thy borders are in the midst of the seas; thy builders have perfected thy beauty. They have made all thy ship-boards of fir trees ... they have taken cedars of Lebanon to make masts for thee. Of the oaks of Basan have they made thy oars.... Fine linen with broidered work from Egypt was that which thou spreadest forth to be thy sail.... The inhabitants of Sidon ...

were thy mariners; thy wise men were thy pilots." As time goes on, early groups round the Euphrates and the Nile continue, but new nations form and grow, new cities arise, new names appear. Centuries of men live and die, ignorant of the great world that lies about them—"Lords of the eastern world that knew no west." England was yet unknown, America undreamt of, Australia still a desolate island in an unknown sea. The burning eastern sun shone down on to vast stretches of desert-land uninhabited by man, great rivers flowed through dreary swamps unrealised, tempestuous waves beat against their shores, and melancholy winds swept over the face of endless ocean solitudes.

And still, according to their untutored minds, the world is flat, the world is very small and it is surrounded by ever-flowing waters, beyond which all is dark and mysterious.

Around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, revealed by the boundless energy and daring skill of the Phoenicians, there were colonies along the coasts of Africa and Europe, though they were not yet called by their names. They have discovered and explored, but they have kept their information to themselves, and they have specially refused to divulge their voyages to the Greeks.

A story is told at a later date than this of a Phoenician shipmaster who was bound for the Tin Islands, when he suddenly discovered that he was being followed by a strange ship evidently bent on finding out where these unknown islands lay.

The Phoenician purposely ran his ship on to a shoal in order to keep the secret of the discovery. When he returned home his conduct was upheld by the State! But though the Phoenicians have left us no record of their travels and voyages, they had been the carriers of knowledge, and it was from them that the Greeks learnt of "the extreme regions of the world" and of the dim "far west." Indeed, it is highly probable that from the Phoenicians they got material for their famous legend of the Argonauts and their adventures in the Black Sea. Though the story is but legendary, and it has been added to with the growing knowledge of the world, yet it gives an idea of the perils that beset the sailors of those remote ages and of their limitations.

And again we must remind ourselves that both the Phoenicians and early Greeks had, like the Egyptians and Babylonians, childish ideas as to the form of the earth. To them it was a circular plane, encircled by the ocean, which they believed to be a broad, deep-running river flowing round and round the world.

Into this ocean stream ran all the rivers and seas known to them. Over the earth was raised a solid firmament of bronze in which the stars were set, and this was supported on tall pillars "which kept the heaven and the earth asunder." The whole delightful story of the Argonauts can be read in Kingsley's "Heroes." It is the story of brave men who sailed in the ship Argo, named after the great shipbuilder Argos, to bring back the Golden Fleece from Colchis in the Black Sea.

Nowhere in all the history of exploration have we a more poetical account of the launching of a ship for distant lands: "Then they have stored her well with food and water, and pulled the ladder up on board, and settled themselves each man to his oar and kept time to Orpheus' harp; and away across the bay they rowed southward, while the people lined the cliffs; and the women wept while the men shouted at the starting of that gallant crew." They chose a captain, and the choice fell on Jason, "because he was the wisest of them all"; and they rowed on "over the long swell of the sea, past Olympus, past the wooded bays of Athos and the sacred isle; and they came past Lemnos to the Hellespont, and so on into the Propontis, which we call Marmora now." So they came to the Bosphorus, the "land then as now of bitter blasts, the land of cold and misery," and a great battle of the winds took place.


Drawn according to the principal classical traditions. The voyage through the ocean which, according to the ancient idea, surrounded the world will be especially noted.

Then the Argonauts came out into the open sea—the Black Sea. No Greek had ever crossed it, and even the heroes, for all their courage, feared "that dreadful sea and its rocks and shoals and fogs and bitter freezing storms," and they trembled as they saw it "stretching out before them without a shore, as far as the eye could see." Wearily they sailed on past the coast of Asia; they passed Sinope and the cities of the Amazons, the warlike women of the east, until at last they saw the "white snow peaks hanging glittering sharp and bright above the clouds. And they knew that they were come to Caucasus at the end of all the earth—Caucasus, the highest of all mountains, the father of the rivers of the East. And they rowed three days to the eastward, while the Caucasus rose higher hour by hour, till they saw the dark stream of Phasis rushing headlong to the sea and, shining above the treetops, the golden roofs of the Child of the Sun." How they reached home no man knows. Some say they sailed up the Danube River and so came to the Adriatic, dragging their ship over the snowclad Alps.

Others say they sailed south to the Red Sea and dragged their ship over the burning desert of North Africa. More than once they gave themselves up for lost, "heartbroken with toil and hunger," until the brave helmsman cried to them, "Raise up the mast and set the sail and face what comes like men." After days and weeks on the "wide wild western sea" they sailed by the coast of Spain and came to Sicily, the "three-cornered island," and after numerous adventures they reached home once more. And they limped ashore weary and worn, with long, ragged beards and sunburnt cheeks and garments torn and weather-stained. No strength had they left to haul the ship up the beach. They just crawled out and sat down and wept, till they could weep no more. For the houses and trees were all altered, and all the faces which they saw were strange; and their joy was swallowed up in sorrow while they thought of their youth and all their labour, and the gallant comrades they had lost. And the people crowded round and asked them, "Who are you that sit weeping here?" "We are the sons of your princes, who sailed away many a year ago. We went to fetch the Golden Fleece and we have brought it back." Then there was shouting and laughing and weeping, and all the kings came to the shore, and they led the heroes away to their homes and bewailed the valiant dead. Old and charming as is the story of the Argonauts, it is made up of travellers' tales, probably told to the Greeks by the Phoenicians of their adventures on unknown seas.

The wanderings of Ulysses by the old Greek poet Homer shows us that, though they seldom ventured beyond the Mediterranean Sea, yet the Greeks were dimly conscious of an outer world beyond the recognised limits. They still dreamt that the earth was flat, and that the ocean stream flowed for ever round and round it.

There were no maps or charts to guide the intrepid mariners who embarked on unknown waters.

The siege of Troy, famous in legend, was over, and the heroes were anxious to make their way home. Ulysses was one of the heroes, and he sailed forth from Asia Minor into the Ægean Sea. But contrary winds drove him as far south as Cape Malea.

"Now the gatherer of the clouds," he says, in telling his story, "aroused the North Wind against our ships with a terrible tempest, and covered land and sea alike with clouds, and down sped night from heaven. Thus the ships were driven headlong, and their sails were torn to shreds by the might of the wind. So we lowered the sails into the hold in fear of death, and rowed the ships landward apace." Throughout all ages Cape Malea has been renowned for sudden and violent storms, dreaded by early mariners as well as those of later times.

"Thence for nine whole days was I borne by ruinous winds over the teeming deep; but on the tenth day we set foot on the land of the lotus-eaters who eat a flowery food." Now ten days' sail to the south would have brought Ulysses to the coast of North Africa, and here we imagine the lotus-eaters dwelt. But their stay was short. For as soon as the mariners tasted the "honey-sweet fruit of the lotus" they forgot their homes, forgot their own land, and only wanted to stay with the "mild-eyed melancholy lotus-eaters." "They sat them down upon the yellow sand, Between the sun and moon upon the shore; And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland, Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar, Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.

Then someone said: 'We will return no more'; And all at once they sang, 'Our island home Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.'" "Therefore," said Ulysses, "I led them back to the ships, weeping and sore against their will, and dragged them beneath the benches. Soon they embarked and, sitting orderly, they smote the grey sea water with their oars. Thence we sailed onward, stricken at heart. And we came to the land of the Cyclops." No one knows exactly where the land of the Cyclops is. Some think it may be Sicily and the slopes of Mount Etna facing the sea.

The famous rock of Scylla and whirlpool of Charybdis, known to the ancients as two sea-monsters, near the Straits of Messina, next claimed his attention. Let us see how Ulysses passed them.

"We began to sail up the narrow strait," he says, lamenting. "For on the one side lay Scylla and on the other mighty Charybdis sucking down the salt sea water.

Like a cauldron on a great fire she would seethe up through all her troubled deeps, and overhead the spray fell on the top of either cliff—the rock around roared horribly, and pale fear gat hold on my men. Toward her, then, we looked, fearing destruction; but Scylla meanwhile caught from out my hollow ships six of my company. They cried aloud in their agony, and there she devoured them shrieking at her gates, they stretching forth their hands to me in their death struggles. And the most pitiful thing was this, that mine eyes have seen of all my travail in searching out the paths of the sea." Some have thought that the terrifying stories of Scylla, Charybdis, and the Cyclops were stories invented by the Phoenicians to frighten travellers of other nations away from the sea that they wished to keep for themselves for purposes of trade.

It would take too long to tell of the great storm that destroyed the ships and drowned the men, leaving Ulysses to make a raft on which he drifted about for nine days, blown back to Scylla and Charybdis and from thence to the island of Ogygia, "in the centre of the sea." Finally he reached his home in Ithaca so changed, so aged and weather-worn, that only his dog Argus recognised him.

This, very briefly, is Homer's world-picture of a bygone age, when those who were seized with a thirst for travel sailed about the Mediterranean in their primitive ships, landing on unnamed coasts, cruising about unknown islands, meeting strange people, encountering strange adventures.

It all reads like an old fairy tale to us to-day, for we have our maps and charts and know the whereabouts of every country and island about the tideless Mediterranean.

Reference book: A Book Of Discovery

Tags: History, Travel, World travel,

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