The Age of Discovery, Part Two

The Age of Discovery, Part Two

By Patrick F. Cannon

(Those of you who read Part One of my unique history of discovery were no doubt disappointed that Part Two was somewhat delayed by other matters. Now, I also find I must apologize for the somewhat longer length of this conclusion. I can only blame the Portuguese, who took their own sweet time!)

The record of discovery becomes clearer in the 15th Century, when the remarkable Prince Henry the Navigator appears on the stage. He was the son of King John of Good Memory of Portugal. His father got this name because he never forgot who owed him money, thus making Portugal one of the most prosperous countries in Europe.

If you get your atlas out, you’ll see that Portugal is a long, skinny country. Its coast faces both west and south. Being at the very edge of Europe, its people were forced to look either out to sea or towards Spain. Since mountains obscured the view to a country they didn’t much like anyway, the average citizen preferred the ocean view.

Since his father took care of the money, Prince Henry was at leisure to dream of what lay beyond his narrow domain. To make things easier, he built a castle right at the bottom corner of his country so he could, on alternate nights, dream west then south.

Everyone, of course, knew that Africa existed to the south, but didn’t have a clue how far south it might extend. It did seem a better bet for exploration, since one could hug the coast rather than sailing off into the unknown (except for the Vikings, but they had lost the wanderlust by then). Somewhat complicating Henry’s ambition was the indisputable fact that the further south you sailed, the hotter it got.

The timid felt that if you got too far south, the water would start to boil. While this might permit mariners to catch already-cooked fish, it could also melt their ships caulking, putting the crew “in the soup” as it were.

They also thought, with some logic, that you might turn black. Because the natives were sometimes spotted gawking from the shore, the Portuguese knew that the peoples who lived in what came to be called the “dark” continent were black or at least dark brown. The Portuguese had long done a lively trade in wine with the English, who were very fair skinned. Since they knew that the Sun rarely if ever shone there, and that they were darker than the English because it often did in Portugal, it just seemed sensible to assume that the further south they went, the darker they would become. Would their friends and relatives even recognize them when they returned?

But as he stood on his lofty battlements, it occurred to Henry that these were risks worth taking, particularly since he could afford to send someone else. As it happened, two young worthies named John Concalves and Tristan Vaz came looking for work.

Being careful not to mention the boiling water and black skin theories, Henry convinced them that riches awaited them along the African coast. So off they went, only to be blown west by a storm, ending up in what is now known as Madeira. Deciding to leave well enough alone, they returned. Henry, it must be said, was a trifle disappointed, but decided to make a virtue out of necessity. He sent them back to colonize, thinking to make the island a way station for future explorations.

They took various seeds along, including grapes. Had they not, the now famous phrase “Have some Madeira, my deara” would not have entered the lexicon.

Henry might well have been known as the “Persistent” as well as the “Navigator” (had not the rules been so strict about such things) for he didn’t give up his dream of exploring the African coast.

Each year, his minions set forth, slowly advancing along the African coast. When they reached the farthest west point of the continent, they discovered that the currents met there and created the turbulence that the ignorant had thought was boiling water. This could easily be avoided. Nor did they turn black, although some of them got nasty sunburns.

When they landed along the coast, they found many of the natives trusting and welcoming. As so often happens in history, they turned this trust to their advantage. Luring the natives on board their ships with the promise of an afternoon’s sail, they promptly put them in chains and brought them back to Portugal as slaves. Needless to say, they didn’t turn white.

While Henry was pleased with this new source of income, what he really wanted to find out was whether, if he finally got around Africa, he could go east and find the Indies.

He knew that the Indies existed and were a source of the spices that Europe craved. Had not Marco Polo traveled over land as far as China?  Had not others retraced his steps and set up the famous Spice Roads that permitted him to have his favorite breakfast, cinnamon toast?  But had not the crafty Turks closed the roads to Europeans, creating a monopoly for themselves?

In 1488, Bartholomew Dias actually reached the tip of Africa, which he called the Cape of Storms; later changed to the Cape of Good Hope by later tourism authorities. He wanted to press forward, but his crew had had enough and convinced him to turn back. The fits and starts method of exploration continued until 1498, when Vasco de Gama (bloody leg in English) finally got to India. The place he landed was later called Goa, since he left a few men behind to create a settlement, saying: “We goa back, you stay.”

Now that we have established a route to India, we can return to Christopher Columbus, who thought he had a better way. Looking at Ptolemy’s map as he often did, he decided it was foolish to go all the way around Africa, when it would be much faster to simply sail west and arrive at the same place.

Being a proud Italian, he tried selling the idea to the local princes first, but most were short of money as they were continually fighting among themselves and having their portraits painted. He then went to France, but soon discovered that the French felt they had already found heaven and couldn’t imagine why anyone would wish to go anywhere else. Columbus pressed on to Spain, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were just about to toss the last Moors out of their country. With the booty they had taken from their retreating enemies, they were flush with cash and looking for new worlds to conquer. Timing is everything and Columbus rang the castle bell just when the monarchs were in a good mood.

They provided cash for three ships and crews, with the understanding that any lands discovered would be theirs, along with most of the gold, jewels and spices. Columbus figured that his share would be more than enough to greatly improve his standard of living, so he was content.

He set sail on August 3, 1492, full of confidence. “If we just keep going west,” he told his crews, “we’re bound to bump into something, most likely Japan.” “OK,” they responded prudently, “just as long as we get paid.”

We have to remember that in those days people who got on ships generally expected them to arrive somewhere other than their port of departure. Nowadays, of course, we’re perfectly content to sail around aimlessly for a week or two and arrive back where we started, just so long as we’re fed five times a day.

As the weeks went by with no sight of land, the crews became understandably concerned, particularly since the late night buffet consisted mainly of hard biscuits and even harder salt pork, washed down with water that was, to put it nicely, a bit cloudy.

When they expressed their misgivings to Columbus, he invariably replied: “Sail on.” This soon became tiresome, and mutinous mutterings became the order of the day. In the event, Columbus was saved, when on October 11 land was sighted. It was an island Columbus called San Salvador. He planted the flag of Spain on the beach, watched warily by a group of naked natives, who wondered why anyone would wear heavy clothes in such a climate.

Columbus himself was somewhat confused at the nakedness of his greeters, having assumed that the Japanese wore clothes just like everyone he had met heretofore. Perhaps Marco Polo had failed to mention it? He asked the natives if he could look around for gold. They didn’t seem to mind, although one must assume that their Spanish was minimal.

No gold was found, so Columbus began wandering around the area. He planted so many flags that the crew was soon busy making new ones. Before he ran out of fabric, he has discovered what is now Cuba (which he thought was China) and Hispaniola. The natives there actually had a few bits of gold, and told Columbus (using sign language?) that the gold was found up in the hills, where it has largely been found ever since.

But fate intervened (as it almost always does) and the Santa Maria was wrecked before they reached the gold. Columbus decided they would need a lot more people and shovels if they were to get at the gold, so he decided to return to Spain, leaving behind 39 men to hold the fort (which they first had to build).

When he returned with many more ships, some empty to hold the expected gold, he discovered that the natives had wised up and killed his men. Setting a precedent that held true for hundreds of years, he enslaved the natives and set them to work digging for gold. They didn’t find much, but did discover that the Europeans returned with a variety of diseases, both venereal and funereal.

The hapless Columbus never gave up; traveling back and forth from Spain to what he continued to think was the Indies. He finally died in 1506, still claiming that he had found the Indies. By then, sadly, he was commonly known as Crazy Chris. Although he never set foot in what is now called the United States, in recognition of his dogged determination, that country established October 11 as Columbus Day. While many are happy to celebrate it as a welcome day off, others believe Columbus should be condemned at a gold-happy native killer. So far, the day off has prevailed.


Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon


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