Chapter 8, The Age of Discovery
(Author’s note: It’s not my fault that it took so long to discover stuff, but it did result in a longer than usual chapter, so I broke it down into three parts. By so doing, I hope that my readers will not be more than usually annoyed.)
By Patrick F. Cannon
In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
It took so long, it must be said
That his crew would often wish him dead
He finally reached land, but found no gold
While others got rich, he just got old.
Because Christopher Columbus (or Cristiforo Columbo as he was known to his proud parents) “discovered” the Americas, he has become the best known of the explorers who changed the face of the world between 1450 and 1550 (more or less). This is particularly true in the United States, which would not exist were it not for Columbus. Of course, in China no one has ever heard of him.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After all, Columbus just didn’t wake up one day and decide he’d like to discover new continents.
For thousands of years, people had looked at the heavens and wondered who and where they were. After language was discovered, they pretty much knew who they were, as names became quite common. The smarter among them, Aristotle for example, noticed that the Sun and Moon seemed to be round, and that when the Earth got between the two of them (what we now call an eclipse), it cast a curved shadow. He thus supposed that the earth was round too.
While everyone considered Aristotle a smart fellow for figuring this out, it didn’t seem to make much difference in their daily lives. While rich Greeks might take a boat ride across the Mediterranean to see the pyramids, that was about as far as they wanted to go. Frankly, while they might agree with Aristotle in public (even now, Greeks stick together), they had a nagging suspicion that if they traveled too far they might fall off and end up in Hades or some such place.
We now know this was nonsense. They actually would have ended up in the Sudan, which was bad enough and has often been called a “hell on earth.”
Some Greeks, Alexander the Great for example, were more adventuresome. He went as far as modern Kashmir before turning back. Because he had been a student of Aristotle, he probably was aware that if he just kept going east he would eventually end up back in Greece. While he admired his former teacher, he probably thought: why take the chance? And who can blame him? He had already met his share of Pakistanis and Indians and might have wondered what else might be in store.
Several hundred years later, Claudius Ptolemy was born to a mixed marriage. Because he was half-Roman and half-Egyptian, he was shunned by his schoolmates so had plenty of time for reflection. One of the first “geeks,” he became proficient in astronomy and mathematics and soon had the earth pretty much figured out. Not only did he know it was a sphere, but he knew where all the continents were. He also decided that the place he lived was on the top half of the sphere (human nature at work), which he called North.
Even a lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, for it turns out Ptolemy was a little deficient in geometry. He calculated that the earth’s circumference was 18,000 miles, when we now know that it’s almost twice that. As we’ll see, this was to cause a good deal of trouble.
Long before the Portuguese and Spanish began their explorations, legend tells us that the Vikings and the Irish may well have discovered North America. We know that Eric the Red and his relatives and friends settled what are now Iceland and Greenland and may well have pushed further on to Nova Scotia. While their homelands were pretty cold, Iceland and Greenland were even colder, so Eric might have concluded these new areas weren’t really an improvement, especially considering the voracious Polar Bears wandering around. The evidence of their explorations is fairly convincing, but as they didn’t leave any signs behind saying “Eric the Red was here,” some historians have been skeptical.
Ancient Irish sagas tell stories of similar explorations, but are a bit vague, much as your typical Irishman is after a long night at the pub. While they apparently didn’t leave any convincing evidence, no one has ever adequately explained why there are so many Irish in Boston.
(Next week – Henry begins navigating!)
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon