Columbus started his working life travelling in his father’s business. The first long trip was to Chios in the eastern Mediterranean, but he also sailed to London. It is not certain if he was simply a member of the crew, or the captain of the ship, but in February, 1477, if we are to believe his own word, he went to Iceland. Most historians do not give this tale much credence, and think he got as far as the Faroes, and why not? In winter the Faroes are as cold as Iceland anyway. What is important is that Columbus met and talked with descendants of the Vikings who had settled in Greenland in the 9th and 10th centuries, as well as the eastern coast of North America – and had tales to tell.
One of these tales was that of Thorfinn Karlsefne, who had actually founded a colony in North America, discontinued because of the natives’ hostility. Norse settlers had also stayed in Greenland, but nothing was heard about them until 1440. Perhaps the Black Death eliminated the settlers, just as it had killed nearly half the population of Norway.
Columbus listened to the tales of fishermen in the northern Scottish islands before going to Portugal, where he furthered his knowledge even more by marrying the daughter of one of Prince Henry the Navigator’s captains. It was 1478, and Christopher Columbus had devoted every minute to planning a voyage west, always west – to carry his ship to the Indies. He made plans and sent them to the royal Courts of Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese imagined they held a monopoly of the eastern routes and paid no attention. In Spain the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabel were busy kicking the Moors out of Granada. These two, rulers of Aragon and Castilia respectively, had married, thus helping towards the unification of Spain. They needed all their resources to pay their soldiers and buy supplies.
As everybody knows, the man from Genoa struggled gamely on and on, trying to persuade someone rich enough to pay for his adventures, but progress was horribly slow. Then at last the Moors surrendered Granada at the beginning of January, 1492. In April, Columbus made a contract with Fernando and Isabel and by the 3rd August (this seems almost unbelievable) he was able to leave Palos in command of three tiny ships and a crew of eighty-eight men, mostly criminals who had been offered a pardon if they joined the expedition. By the 12th of October they found land. On 4th January the commander said goodbye to the forty men who stayed behind in a small fortress called La Navidad. None of these would be seen again alive.
Columbus sailed homewards and reached the Azores, where the less-then-charming Portuguese said they would throw him in jail. It was the middle of February, but by the 15th March he had solved his argument and returned to Palos – accompanied by the ‘Indians’ he had brought with him, convinced they were natives of India, though they were not the right colour, being redder of complexion than the usual native of India. Off he went to Barcelona anxious to tell his patrons of his success, and inform them that the road to the gold and silver of Cathay and Zipangu would now be at their disposal.
Now we are not certain if Columbus ever really knew the truth. On his fourth expedition, when he reached the coast of South America he might well have suspected that something was wrong with his calculations and his idea. It is quite likely that this man, probably the most important explorer of them all, died in the firm belief that no solid continent existed between Europe and Asia, and that he had indeed found the direct route to China.
BUT, the Portuguese, sticking to their eastern route, had more luck. In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached the coast of Malabar, and returned to Lisbon with a vast load of spices on board. In 1502 he did it again. Meanwhile others had carried on with the western idea but with little success. In 1497 the brothers John and Sebastian Cabot had tried to find the way to Japan but all they saw was the snow-white coasts of Newfoundland, first spotted by the Vikings five centuries before. A man from Florence called Amerigo Vespucci explored the Brazilian coast but couldn’t find the Indies. He did however give his name to the new continent.
Seven years after the death of Columbus (1513) the truth at last dawned upon the map-makers of Europe. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had navigated safely the Isthmus of Panama, climbed up the famous peak of Darien, and seen an enormous stretch of calm blue sea which more than suggested the existence of another vast ocean.
In 1519 a small fleet of five ships under the command of the Portuguese navigator Fernando Magellan sailed westward (though the eastern route seemed to be the exclusive province of the Portuguese at that time). He crossed the perilous Atlantic in those tiny ships between Africa and Brazil and then sailed southwards. He reached a narrow channel between the southernmost part of Patagonia (which means the land of people with big feet) and a place called by his sailors ‘Fire Island, Tierra del Fuego‘, because of bonfires on it which showed the existence of natives. For a little more than a month Magellan’s ships battled against the appalling storms and blizzards which are the curse of these straits. There was a mutiny, put down severely by Magellan, but at last the winds reduced and the crew calmed down, the channel broadened and they at last entered a new ocean, which he perhaps optimistically named ‘The Peaceful Sea’, ‘Mare Pacifico’ or Pacific Ocean. They then sailed onwards for a hundred days without a sight of land. Rats infested the ships and his crew were dying of hunger and thirst, reduced to eating the rats and bits of canvas from broken sails. But in March, 1521 they saw land, which they called the Land of the Thieves (Ladrones) because the natives stole everything they could lay hands on. On they went, and found what we now call the Philippines, named after Felipe II, then the son of the Emperor Charles V. Here Magellan tried his cannon on the natives to help convert them to Christianity so they killed him and most of his captain and sailors. The survivors of this terror continued their voyage and found the Moluccas – the Spice Islands!. Then they sighted Borneo and reached Tidor. By now only one ship was left, the Victoria, under the command of a famous Spanish name – Sebastian del Cano. They must have crossed the Indian Ocean, missing the northernmost part of Australia (not discovered until the first half of the 17th century), and after a last voyage of hardship and misery at last got back to Spain. The circuit of the world had taken three years and many lives. It established the fact that the planet Earth was round, and that new lands disovered by Columbus were not a part of the Indies but a separate continent.
Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) obligingly divided the world into two equal parts by a line of demarcation following the fiftieth degree of longitude west of Greenwich (England). This was the Division of Tordesillas, 1494: the Portuguese were supposed to establish their colonies to the east of this line, and the Spanish had everything to the west. This accounts for the fact that the entire American continent (except Brazil) became Spanish, and that all of the Indies and most of Africa were Portuguese. English and Dutch colonists, governments, soldiers and sailors showed no respect for the papal decisions of the Borgia Pope however, and swept away all these possessions during the 17th and 18th centuries.