Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

haired Britons, some of whom were paddling their coracles, or boats, which were made of osiers, covered with the hides of oxen, and in which they seldom ventured far from the shore.

Although it was not until centuries after this period that the Compass was known in Britain, the Greeks and Romans were aware, long before the time of Cæsar, that an island celebrated for its tin lay somewhere on the north or northwest of Europe. The Greeks made many attempts to discover the Cassiterides, or islands of tin, as they called them. It appears, however, that they kept along the coast of Normandy and France, and were afraid to venture across our stormy channel, for they had no magnet to steer by. The Phenicians, who were the earliest traders that visited England, baffled all inquiries that the Greeks made as to the situation of these celebrated islands, and had for centuries all the traffic in tin to themselves. It was in vain that the Greeks sent out ships to discover where these early Phænician voyagers landed ; the latter ran their vessels ashore on the coast of France, and would not steer across the English Channel until the Greeks had departed; nor does the secret of the Phænicians appear to have been discovered until Julius Cæsar invaded Britain.

It will be readily perceived, by referring to a map of Europe, that the magnet was not necessary as a guide from the coast of France to England, as, on a clear day, our white island-cliffs may be seen from the opposite shore, and a few hours would be sufficient to cross the narrow sea which divides the two countries. Until the galleys ventured over, they would therefore keep in sight of the shore, and glide safely from headland to headland as they crept along the opposite coast.

In those early times chance or accident, no doubt, led to the discovery of more distant countries. A vessel might be borne along by a heavy wind, and in dark, cloudy, or tempestuous weather, when the sun did not appear, these early mariners would neither be able to distinguish the east from the west, nor

the north from the south ; thus they would be com pelledto sail along for days, ignorant of what latitude they were in, until they at last reached land; nor would they then be able to tell in what quarter lay the country they had left behind. Hundreds, no doubt, were lost, who were thus driven out into these unknown and perilous seas without either map or chart, or any guide by which to steer to the right or left. Backwards and forwards would they be carried by the winds and currents, and when the sun shone not, and no star appeared upon the blue front of Heaven, they might as well have been launched upon the immensity of space where profound silence ever reigns, for it would have been a hopeless task for them to find their way back again over those unknown and mastless seas.

The magnet, or loadstone—that invisible bridge which spans from continent to continent, and makes the path over the ocean plain as a broad highway-is a dark greyish looking mineral, that possesses the property of attracting towards itself anything that has either iron or steel in its composition, and is likewise capable of communicating the same power of attraction to either of these metals. These qualities of the magnet were well-known to the ancient Greeks, who, Pliny tells us, gave the name “ Magnet” to the rock near Magnesia, a city of Lydia, in Asia Minor; and the ancient poet Hesiod also makes use of the term “ magnet stone."

At what period that more important property of the mag. net, “polarity,” or its disposition to turn to the north and south poles of the earth, was first discovered, is not known. The Greeks and Romans were, alike, ignorant of it; and thus, the more distant portions of the globe remained unknown to these enterprizing nations. Among the Chinese, however that strange people who, like the monuments in eastern climes, seem to remain for ages unchanged either in aspect or character—the magnet appears to have been well understood from a very remote date; and to have been used for

the purposes of direction, in most of the leading countries of Asia, including Japan, as well as China, India, and even Arabia. And it is not very unlikely that the leading knowledge of it in Europe, like the art of medicine, was first derived from the Moors; for we find a vague and uncertain acquaintance with it about two centuries after their attacks upon the Goths in Spain.

The earliest notice of the magnet, in the Chinese records, relates to a period of 2634 years before the birth of our Saviour. This is a questionable date ; yet, though we cannot fix the circumstance alluded to with any certainty, there can be no doubt but that the native accounts refer to very ancient times. The Jesuit missionaries, who went to China in the seventeenth century, were rigorous investigators of its claims to such high antiquity; and the celebrated German scholar, Klaproth, as well as Mr. Davis, have both given translations of the passage in which the first application of the magnet is mentioned.

No further notice of the compass is found in the books of China, so far as they have come to the knowledge of Europeans, until about the close of the third century of the Christian era, where, in the dictionary of Poi-wen-yeu-fou, it is stated, " that ships were then directed to the south by the needle.”

Many circumstances contribute to the impression that the Mariner's Compass was first made known in Europe through the communication of the Moorish invaders of Spain, although the knowledge of it has been brought direct from China; first through Marco Polo himself, the celebrated traveller in Cathay, and afterwards by Dr. Gilbert, the physician to Queen Elizabeth. In 1718 a book was published in Paris by Eusebius Renandof, which gives an account of the journey of two Mahommedan travellers in Syria in the ninth century. This book is translated from an Arabic manuscript, which is said to bear all the marks of authenticity; in this it is stated, that at that time the Chinese traded in ships to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea ;

and it is hardly possible that they could have constantly performed such long voyages without the aid of a compass. Among the Arabs it was chiefly used by the explorers of new countries in tracking their way across the sandy deserts, or over the unknown prairie ; and we may readily picture to ourselves the turbaned merchant of the olden time, with stout heart and enterprising spirit, sallying forth from his city home, and finding, after a few days' journey, nothing but an apparently endless plain stretching far before him, across which, with the aid of his compass, he would boldly prepare to take his way with his attendants and his camels, in the sure hope of reaching the distant city to which he was journeying.

The following description, translated from the Arabic manuscript alluded to, gives a certain intimation of the knowledge of the properties of the magnet on the eastern seas long before it was generally used in Europe :

“ The captains who navigate the Syrian sea, when the night is so dark as to conceal from view the stars which might direct their course, according to the position of the four cardinal points, take a basin full of water, which they shelter from the wind by placing it in the interior of the vessel. They then drive a needle into a wooden peg or corn stalk, so as to form the shape of a cross, and throw it into the basin of water prepared for the purpose, on the surface of which it floats. They afterwards take a loadstone about the size of the palm of the hand or even smaller, bring it to the surface of the water, give to their hands a rotatory motion towards the right, so that the needle turns round, and then suddenly and quickly withdraw their hands, when the two points of the needle face the north and the south."

An attempt has been made by Professor Hansteen to establish the knowledge of the polarity of the magnet, and its use, among the Norwegians, in the eleventh century; but the work which he quotes in support of his opinion, although unques

tionably of ancient date, appears to have been tampered with, and the passage on which he relies is not to be found in three of the manuscript copies. There are, indeed, doubts whether the book itself is of older date than the fourteenth century. The compass is, however, minutely described in the satire entitled “ La Bible,” which was written by Guyot de Provins, and appeared about the year 1190; but it is evident, from the terms used by him, that it was an instrument but little known, and which had only lately been introduced into Europe. Cardinal Vitrey, and Vincent de Beauvais, who were attached to the French army in the crusades, both speak of the compass as a great curiosity which they had seen in the East. De Provins was a minstrel; and as he wrote only some twenty or five-and-twenty years before the cardinal, there is great probability that he obtained his knowledge of the polarity of the magnet, and its application to the purposes of direction, from the same part of the world. It is indeed just such a discovery as was likely to emanate from Arabian genius; and as one reads the statements of these old chroniclers, they carry the mind back to the day of glaive and helm, and the imagination pictures the wild scenery of a Syrian landscape, where a party of bewildered travellers, composed of such as the three persons we have mentioned, are seated by the side of some outpouring fount, which, as it wells through the green sward, reflects in its crystal surface the rich hues of an eastern clime. Around are scattered the towering and broken hills, clad with the scanty foliage of climbing shrubs, and now and then, a dark luxuriant cedar of mighty growth. There, seated beneath a lofty rock, with its rude broken front stained by the hues of centuries, and here and there green with vegetation, are the three individuals who first gave authentic information to Europe of that invention which was destined to set at nought utterness of darkness, and fog, and wind, and rain, and unite as it were together the most distant families of the earth. There sits the

« ForrigeFortsæt »