Discovery (Part I)

The Cape of Good Hope / theora.com

The Cape of Good Hope / theora.com

The Crusades had not achieved very much, had cost a great deal in money and lives, but had at least one merit: they introduced the idea of travel abroad; the fine feeling of leaving your own shores or borders and visiting other countries. Even so, few were the brave souls who ventured from Britain or France, say, to exotic places of renown like Venice or Copenhagen.

  In the 13th century A.D. two brothers called Polo, who actually came from Venice, had the courage and the resources to wander across the huge Mongol desert, and climb high mountains; at last they found themselves in the Court of the Great Khan at Cathay (which they had thought of as a myth). They even met the Emperor of China without having their hats nailed to their heads. This great adventure was written up by one of their sons, Marco, and it covered a period of around twenty years. Young Marco wrote about a mysterious group of islands on the edge of the world called (by him) Zipangu. We would call this breathlessly beautiful place Japan. But even then, though people wished to Go East, where there are spices and jewels and gold, few made the effort because world travel was dangerous. So they stayed at home, where life was only moderately so.

  Most dangerous of all was overland travel, because of robbers and wild beasts, but there was always the sea. Island races were used to the sea, but it was not popular in the Middle Ages, which for purposes of debate we shall call the eleventh to the fourteenth century. Ships were much too small, and desperately uncomfortable. The navigator Magellan made his journey round the world in ships no bigger than a modern forty-two foot yacht. The crew was too numerous – perhaps fifty men – not able to stand upright anywhere below the deck, in filthy conditions. The food was dreadful, as the galley or ship’s kitchen kept mostly pickled herring and dried fish. Once out of sight of land there were no fresh vegetables or fruits. Drinking water was kept in small wood barrels and after a few days tasted of rotting wood and rust from the iron bands. The water itself was replete with small, slimy things which moved. Many crews died of typhoid fevers if they were not killed by pirates. In 1519 two hundred and fifty sailors left Sevilla with Magellan bound west this time. Only eighteen of them returned. Even in the seventeenth century, during a period of busy trade between Western Europe and the Indies, it was nothing to encounter a mortality rate of 40%, on a return journey from Amsterdam to Batavia.

  The sea, therefore, was no attraction for the best of men. Travellers like Magellan, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama captained crews mostly composed of ex-convicts. And then there were the ‘ships’ themselves. Not exactly luxury cruisers. They leaked, the rigging, spars, sheets and ropes were clumsy and often rotten. They had the advantage of the compass, since around 1250 when the first arrived from China by way of Arabia, and of course the Crusades. But charts were inaccurate and usually incorrect. They had to navigate by guesswork, the moon, stars and position of the sun. If fortune was with them they returned home after a voyage of two or three years without wife or sweetheart.

  In the 14th and 15th centuries these navigators were really only trying to accomplish one thing: a safe and charted route to Cathay (or China), or to Zipangu (or Japan), or to find and place on the chart those mysterious islands where the spices grew which the crusaders brought back to Europe in small bags. A sprinkling of pepper or nutmeg kept meat and fish fresh for a much longer time than without it.

The great interior ocean of the Mediterranean had been explored by the Vikings, the Venetians and the Genoese. The coasts of the huge Atlantic had been mapped by the Portuguese and the Spanish, who were imbued with the energy their timeless struggle against the Moors had imposed. In the 14th century the Portuguese had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and taken possession of Ceuta, opposite the Arab city of Ta’Rifa (in Arabic meaning ‘inventory’, in English ‘tariff’ or customs duty) as well as Mohammedan Tangiers.

  Things started moving faster when Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator made preparations for the exploration of north-western Africa. Only the Phoenicians and the Norsemen had roamed up and down this hot and sandy coast. The Navigator visited the Canary Islands, re-discovered Madeira, charted the Azores (only vaguely known by both Spain and Portugal), made a sighting of the mouth of the Senegal river, telling everyone it was the western mouth of the Nile! On they went and saw the Cape Verde Islands which, though they were ignorant of the fact, lay half way between Spain and Brazil.

In 1486 Bartholomew Diaz reached the most southerly point of Africa, which he called ‘The Storm Cape’ because of the strong contrary winds that prevented him from continuing the voyage east. Later some navigators from Lisbon looking for the water route to India sailed round the tip despite the storms and re-named it The Cape of Good Hope.

  A year or two later Pedro de Covilham, financed by the House of Medici commenced an extraordinary mission by land. He crossed the Mediterranean to Egypt, and then moved southwards, reaching Aden. From there he navigated the waters of the Persian Gulf, only seen by Alexander the Great and his armies nearly twenty centuries earlier, and got to Goa and Calicut on the coast of India. Here he heard a lot about a vast island known to locals as ‘The Island of the Moon’ (Madagascar), supposedly lying half way between Africa and India. Full of new-found knowledge, he returned, but not before paying a secret visit to Mecca and Medina, crossing the Red Sea – and in the year 1490 discovering at last the magic realm of Prester John. This mysterious personage was a mythical Christian priest supposedly the ‘Emperor’ of a vast Eastern Empire. Tales had spread about Prester John since the beginning of the twelfth century. The riddle was finally solved by de Covilham, who found The Black Negus, or King of Abyssinia, whose ancestors had adopted Christianity in the fourth century A.D., some seven hundred years before Christian missionaries had found their way to Scandinavia.

  These perilous voyages convinced the Spanish and Portuguese navigators, cartographers and geographers that a journey to the Indies by an eastern sea-route was possible but not at all easy. Thus arose the Great Argument: most people wanted to continue and open up exploration east of the Cape of Good Hope. But others, perhaps more adventurous, said they must sail across the frightening Atlantic Ocean, whereupon they would find Cathay. Among these was the son of a wool merchant from Genoa. He had studied at the University of Pavia, where he had specialized in geometry and mathematics. His name was, variously, Cristoforo Colón or Colombo or in English Christopher Columbus.

(Part II will shortly be posted)

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