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 Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?

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PostSubject: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Sat 05 Jan 2013, 11:32

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue … and fortuitously for him discovered the islands of the Caribbean. His intention had been to get to Japan by sailing west, and to his dying day he remained convinced that this is what he’d done.

The idea of getting to the Far East by sailing westwards was of course nothing new. Classical scholars had long since accepted the evidence for a global world and by Columbus’ time allowance for the Earth’s curvature was built into navigational instruments. So in 15th century Europe the accepted educated stance was that the world was a globe, and there should be no impediment, in theory, to sailing west to get to the East. But Columbus struggled to get any support for his plan. The experts consulted by each potential backer all said the idea wouldn’t work for the simple reason that it was just too far to go and (almost certainly correctly) that no ship was then capable of carrying sufficient supplies to complete the voyage. The true circumference of the Earth is about 40,000 km; a figure established by Eratosthenes in the 2nd century BC after a series of precise measurements, and this was generally accepted at the time. But Columbus, by misinterpreting the calculations of the Persian Alfraganus, argued that the Earth was significantly smaller with a circumference of just 25,255 km. Most scholars then also accepted Ptolemy's (correct) assessment that the terrestrial landmass (for Europeans of the time, comprising Eurasia and Africa) occupied 180 degrees of the terrestrial sphere. Again Columbus went against generally received wisdom by believing in the (incorrect) calculations of Marinus of Tyre, putting the landmass at 225 degrees, leaving only 135 degrees of water.

Thus by greatly shrinking the size of the world and also inflating the eastwards extent of Asia, Columbus claimed a distance from the Canary Islands to Japan of 3,700km. The true distance is 19,600 km - over five times further!

This is from wiki. The world as it is and that according to Columbus' estimation (shown shaded), Columbus's map of course has no Pacific Ocean. Plus (in solid line) the American coastline as mapped in the very first charts drawn after Columbus' and others' first few voyages:




Eventually of course Columbus got nominal backing from the Spanish Crown, not because he had won the academic argument but because they thought that, though his chance of success was slim, the huge potential rewards were worth the minimal cost of three small, aged merchant ships. (And anyway Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t bear all the cost themselves – it was a consortium of bankers that provided the actual money). After leaving the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands, Columbus sailed for 34 days before he bumped into the islands of the Caribbean. The crew was already on the verge of mutiny being worried about the distance they had already gone, and supplies of food and especially fresh water were almost certainly starting to get low. I cannot find out his original estimate for the time of the voyage but since he firmly believed he would reach land at about 3000 to 4000km it is reasonable to think he was approaching the point of no return. And from his character it seems Columbus would have tried to push on to the very end. In short if the Americas had not existed then he and all his crew would probably have perished of thirst or starvation still pushing on westwards or whilst attempting a belated u-turn back to Europe/Africa.

Even given the potential for huge wealth and prestige (things that Columbus certainly coveted) no man willingly commits himself to almost certain death. So why did he take the almost suicidal risk and convince himself against all the professional evidence and advice that he was right and that the distance was just a few thousand km, which it most certainly isn’t?! I wonder then if Columbus did not have some secret information, about the existence of land at about the distance that fitted with his, very selective, reading of the evidence? In short had he obtained information that someone had actually done it before? Or maybe had someone done it just once, eastwards America to Europe/Africa?

That there was a landmass there at northern latitudes was certainly known since norse times, although it may not have been that widely known throughout Europe as a whole. And in the late 15th century fishing boats from Portugal and England may have started visiting the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland even before Cabot’s 1497 voyage - they were certainly fishing there just a few years after Cabot. But this is much, much further to the north than the sub-tropical latitudes where Columbus was intending to sail. The Canary Isles, being quite close in to the coast of North Africa, had been well known since classical times. But both the Azores to the north (on the same latitude as Washington DC), and the Cape Verde Islands to the south (on the latitude of Barbados) are further out into the Atlantic and were probably uninhabited and unknown until discovered by Portuguese navigators in the early 14th century. But I wonder if any ships in classical times had accidentally made a voyage across the Atlantic and back, the reports of which had been either lost or hidden from mainstream knowledge?

This is all speculation of course but it still comes down to the fact that Columbus did not know America was there and that he seems to have chosen to go against all the correct advice based on evidence and calculation, in favour of exaggerating those few bits of information that would prove his voyage feasible, which in truth it most certainly wasn’t. Unless he really did know something else, about which he kept very quiet.


Last edited by Meles meles on Mon 07 Jan 2013, 09:46; edited 2 times in total (Reason for editing : typos)
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Sun 06 Jan 2013, 12:06

An interesting and well presented question.

Fortune played a huge part in even the simplest of voyages at the time - launching oneself into the "great unknown", for Colombus as much as any of his contemporaries and those who followed suit later, only magnified that dependency hugely. Whether his opening of the Americas to European exploitation could be described as fortunate for the inhabitants is a moot point, but then there is good and bad fortune so yes, "dumb luck" certainly played its part here for all concerned.

Regarding Colombus's access to "secret info" I would suggest that there was no such thing at the time. However there was a growing amount of disregarded and ambiguous info accruing concerning what lay due west of Europe. Forty years before Colombus both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been formally named - in the sense that the papacy with Portugal began carving up the atlas with a view to future control of resources and souls - and to do this an agreed nomenclature had evolved and been declared a standard for everyone. At the time there was general agreement that known oceans were distinguished from each other by interposing areas of land, a strong hint therefore that hitherto unknown land lay between these great expanses. The notion that the Pacific and the Atlantic might be the same body of water was never seriously considered - a concession both to this traditional assumption and basic mathematics which suggested that this would therefore be a very big body of water indeed and the likelihood therefore was that some type of landfall must exist within it. The papacy bought this notion too - officially this landfall was called Brasil, though equally officially both it and its Portuguese collaborators reckoned its inaccessibility meant that it served simply as a reference point on a hypothesised part of the globe, at least for the moment. Their agreement was primarily centered on acquisitions along the newly opened maritime routes eastwards to the Indies.

However there were others who thought differently. Many countries in Europe were alarmed at the notion that the pope and Portugal could so blithely carve up future acquisitions between themselves. In Northern Europe in particular there was a long tradition of acceptance that unexploited lands lay far to the west. Amongst sailors this was held as knowledge, not supposition. Logistics might prevent its confirmation but lands west of Thule were a fact in their minds, and discussed as such.

Which is where Colombus came into the picture. In the 1470s, as part of a Genoan convoy which spent a considerable time in Northern European waters, Colombus will have learnt much of what was then known or assumed regarding these lands. What will have impressed him more than anything else would have been how they were not lands described in fantastic terms in ports such as Bristol and Galway, where we know he spent time. And nor will it have escaped him that in Bristol, even in the mid-15th century, the talk was of how best to go about reaching this land in a meaningful way, one which would lend itself to exploitation in other words.

To me, this explains what happened subsequently in Colombus's life rather well, given that we find his own limited accounts undependable. The sailor/navigator in him was convinced that this landfall was a feasible objective. The speculator in him knew that to be first to obtain it was crucial. The businessman in him however floundered with regard to how to acquire the funds to achieve it. The project was akin to raising private funds for a journey to Mars today and it was to be many years before eventually a political rivalry between Spain and Portugal coincided with other exigencies to at last provide him with the patronage he needed. The trick employed to clinch the commission had been to describe this landfall as "the Indies", a word commensurate with fantastic wealth in the minds of royalty and merchant at the time. This was why he misrepresented geometry and geography to his patrons (not all of whom bought into his pitch) - no one knew the eastern extent of "the Indies" and Colombus needed to postulate that what sailors already knew about land lying westward was indeed the gateway to the "lands of spice", and that it was accessible at a price.

His choice of direction when he eventually undertook the voyage also raises questions which are answered if one accepts that Colombus's misrepresentation of the logistics involved was intentional on his part. Latitude was a well understood and calculable skill, and Colombus knew full well that the lands proposed as existing according to what was then common knowledge in Northern Europe lay too far north to be spice islands. However this knowledge also incorporated common acknowledgement that this land's southern extent had never been determined. This brought "Brasil" into the equation as an increasingly realistic possibility, and its hypothesised latitude placed it right in the frame for "spice island" candidacy. This therefore had been the selling point which had ultimately convinced the Spanish court and therefore formed the primary objective of his voyage.

So, to me, there is some truth to the notion that Colombus died thinking he had identified "the Indies" when he landed in the Caribbean. However there is no justification in my view in thinking that he therefore died believing he had travelled halfway round a globe much smaller in his mind than in reality. It was the extent of "the Indies" that he had overestimated, and to the day he died had to continue overestimating to keep Spanish investment coming in. He knew exactly where he was when he landed in the southern Bahamas, and his subsequent voyages confirmed to him that at least the archipelago guess had been correct. He was henceforth in a race to find "Brasil", which legend suggested was the true gateway to Indian wealth and where the investment would eventually pay off.

That was a race that he, and Spain, actually lost through papal intervention. Alexander VI believed as much as the disputants that his arbitrary line gave Portugal that much-coveted gateway at Spain's expense. Colombus, having been in the climes, knew that what he himself had seen with his own eyes suggested that the Alexandrine Line could never delimit either side's access to the Indies anyway. Losing "Brasil" was unimportant - there was huge scope for several "New Brasils" and even more popping up every year. The trick now was to search for these without exciting too much interest from England and France. Hence the reason why the "bad geography" and other misinformation was still rampant from Spanish sources, it bought them short-term advantages in the race to acquire what was being found.

So no "secret info", but certainly a lot of "public misinfo" and blatant lies in circulation at the time. None of which impeded Colombus, and much of which had indeed originated from him!
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Mon 07 Jan 2013, 12:27

You raise some interesting points.

@nordmann wrote:
Forty years before Colombus both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been formally named - in the sense that the papacy with Portugal began carving up the atlas with a view to future control of resources and souls - and to do this an agreed nomenclature had evolved and been declared a standard for everyone. At the time there was general agreement that known oceans were distinguished from each other by interposing areas of land, a strong hint therefore that hitherto unknown land lay between these great expanses. The notion that the Pacific and the Atlantic might be the same body of water was never seriously considered - a concession both to this traditional assumption and basic mathematics which suggested that this would therefore be a very big body of water indeed and the likelihood therefore was that some type of landfall must exist within it.

I’m not sure this is strictly true:

Tha Atlantic was called that since classical times, Herodotus refers to the sea westwards of the Straits of Gibraltar as "Atlantis thalassa" (Sea of Atlas) whilst the southern part of the Atlantic (when discovered by Portuguese) was sometimes referred to as the Ethiopic Ocean, or African Ocean. The Pacific was named such by Magellen during his 1521 circumnavigation of the world. The first person to see the Pacific as a separate ocean from the Atlantic was Balboa who crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. He called it the "Mar del Sur" (South Sea) despite it lying directly to the west of him. Regardless of nomenclature I see nothing to suggest anything other than people naming just “this bit of sea here” rather than making grander ideas as to whether the sea off Spain is the same or separate to that off Japan. The general medieaval concept of Ocean, then still prevalent, was of the "world encircling sea" - which of course is entirely correct, as there is no solid area, be it land or frozen sea, that completely encircles the globe, although no-one then really knew if Africa did or did not extend all the way to the southern pole, or Russia to the northern pole.

But I think is fair to say that, prior to Columbus, the accepted view was that given the vast distance westward between Europe/Africa and Asia, there was likely to be some land there, but where – near, far, north, south, continental or just as islands - was completely unknown.

By “forty years before Columbus” I take it you are referring to the Papal Bulls of 1455 and of 1456. These bulls basically gave the Portuguese trade monopolies in Africa and Asia, and exhort other Christian nations to spread the word of Christ to other unknown lands. The 1479 Treaty of Alcacovas between Castille/Aragon and Portugal, amongst various dynastic settlements, confirmed the Canaries as Spanish, whilst Madeira (discovered in 1419), the Azores (discovered 1427), the Cape Verde Islands (discovered 1456), and Guinea on the African mainland would remain Portuguese. The treaty also gave Portugal exclusive right of navigating, conquering and trading in all the Atlantic Ocean south of the Canary islands. This meant the possession over all “The lands discovered and to be discovered, found and to be found (...) and all the islands already discovered and to be discovered, and any other island which might be found and conquered from the Canary islands beyond toward Guinea.” The Treaty, and the previous Papal Bulls were confirmed in a further 1481 Papal Bull.

In none of this prior to 1493 is there any suggestion of anything between the eastern coasts of Asia and the west of Africa/Europe.

But Colombus' return on 4 March 1493 suddenly made the situation very different. Just two months later on 4 May 1493 the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI decreed in the Bull 'Inter caetera' that all lands west and south of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain. This is the first mention of a longitudinal pole-to-pole demarcation line as opposed to a territorial or a latitudinal line, between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influnce.

It’s not really relevant to this discussion but for completeness: this Bull did not please the Portuguese King (who felt he was losing India, his near term eastward goal, although as yet Portuguese explorers had only reached the east coast of Africa). Inevitably some horse-trading followed eventually resulting in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas which divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and Spain along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. This line of demarcation was about halfway between the Cape Verde Islands (already Portuguese) and the islands discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage (claimed for Spain). These islands are specifically named in the treaty as Cipangu (that is Japan! - so still no understanding of a separate Ocean or a "new" continent) and Antilia (Cuba and Hispaniola). The other side of the world would be divided a few decades later by the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza which specified the antemeridian to the line of demarcation specified in the Treaty of Tordesillas. This arose from the inevitable conflict which startied when expeditions of both kingdoms reached the Pacific Ocean in about 1520, since there was not then a set limit to the east.

Again I say in all the Bulls and Treaties prior to 1493 there are no suggestions of anything between the eastern coasts of Asia and the west of Africa/Europe other than the typical legal catch-all that should anyone ever find anything they should claim it for Christ, but anything "south of the Canaries" or "beyond Guinea towards India" was already bagged by Portugal, although so far they hadn't got further than East Africa.


One other point that has occurred to me though is Columbus’s certain knowledge of the trade winds:

During his first voyage in 1492, the brisk trade winds from the east, commonly called "easterlies", propelled Columbus's fleet quite rapidly for five weeks, from the Canary Islands to Caribbean. To return to Spain against this prevailing wind would have required several months of arduous manoeuvring against the wind during, which food and drinkable water would probably have been exhausted. Instead Columbus returned home by sailing north-east and then following the curving trade winds to the middle latitudes of the North Atlantic where he was able to catch the "westerlies" that blow eastward to the coast of Western Europe. There, in turn, the winds curve southward towards the Iberian Peninsula.

This circular set of winds seems to have been discovered first by the Portuguese earlier in the 15th century, who referred to it as the "Volta do mar" (turn of the sea). To return to Portugal from the Portuguese Atlantic islands ships had first to sail westwards, further out into the Atlantic in order to catch usable winds, and then follow these north-eastwards back to Europe. They had noticed a similar anti-clockwise system operating south of the equator. In the late 15th century knowledge of these wind patterns was still a trade secret of the Portuguese but Columbus certainly had obtained at least a partial understanding of it. This knowledge served him well not only as a means of getting back alive but also in adding confidence to his arguments, since the existence of a circular system of prevailing winds in the Atlantic suggests that there was probably a large land mass somewhere not too far out there to the west of Africa.

And one final point. Columbus was a man of his age, a pious christian with a keen interest in the Bible and in Biblical prophecies and he would often quote biblical texts in his letters and logs. When he submitted his proposal to the Spanish Crown he included as part of his argument his interpretation of the Second Book of Esdras:

"Upon the third day Thou didst command that the waters should be gathered in the seventh part of the earth; six parts hast Thou dried up and kept them, with the intent that some of these, being planted by God and tilled, might serve Thee.”

2 Esdras 6:42,

This Columbus took to mean that the Earth is made of six parts of land to one of water - that is it provided Biblical authority for his claim that Asia extended much further eastwards and that the ocean between Japan and Europe/Africa was much smaller than others claimed. For us it seems a fairly spurious bit of evidence for someone aiming to risk their life in an apparent foolhardy enterprise but Columbus was a devout catholic and just because everyone said he was wrong wouldn’t stop him doing what he presumably firmly believed was God’s will.

And in terms of my original post it is a salutary reminder that one should always look at historical people in the terms of their own time.



Last edited by Meles meles on Mon 07 Jan 2013, 15:21; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : typos)
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Mon 07 Jan 2013, 13:39

You place a lot of trust in what Colombus claimed to believe according to his own words - there are few (and steadily fewer) who do so today, though ironically his very mendacity renders his utterances of some historical value in that they reveal much of the ethos of the day with regard to exploration.

I cannot remember the name of the book (but I will see can I find it) in which the author demonstrates the innate mendacity of "explorers" of the era. One lied to get the commission. One lied to one's crew to get them on board. One lied to one's patrons when one came back, and all lied to everyone else for as long as they could in order to protect their investments. No country helped another or shared information, and even among so-called compatriots flying under the same flag there was little by way of honesty or aid either.

You are right about the Pacific of course. I had meant to say the Indian Ocean. That is the one that the Pope brokered as the officially accepted name of the body of water extending east from the known Indies to which the Portuguese were fast nearing at the time.

PS: Iam seriously hoping that author who wrote so well about the dishonesty of early explorers wasn't bloody Gavin Menzies!

PPS: If Colombus spent any amount of time in Galway he would have had no doubt about the westerlies and how strong they were!

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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Mon 07 Jan 2013, 15:34

Oh I think Columbus sincerely believed, or at least managed to sincerely convince himself, that it was God's will that he lie and cheat and do whatever was necessary, so that he, and he alone, could succeed and, "conquor new lands for Christ, bring light to the heathens ..... but above all find gold, and get rich as all men desire to do!", (that was said by another Conquistador and I'm quoting from memory, and so probably misquoting, but you get my cynical drift).

It's worthy of another thread but they really were an exceedingly arrogant, two-faced, avaricious and mendacious bunch weren't they? Wink
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Wed 09 Jan 2013, 14:31

One thing that can be said for Colombus is that he was uniquely positioned to undertake the venture - in fact it is difficult to imagine anyone else of his time who through sheer "dumb luck" had acquired the necessary business sense from his own upbringing, a comprehensive maritime training through having been blessed with good teachers and by all accounts an ability to learn, and the opportunity to refine both these aspects to his candidature across the entire western European seaboard for some decades before 1492. In that sense your point about "secret info" actually could well apply in that much of the information had simply never been assembled in one mind before and he was canny enough to know what he was in posession of (and to protect it).

The charge of unadulterated greed which can be levelled against his ilk is also one of which he can also be somewhat exonerated (though only relatively). His own business proposition was actually quite pragmatic, at least it would have been had the West Indies proven to be the hoped-for gateway to the East Indies that his plan envisaged. Rather than an aggressive takeover bid of the source materials what he had modestly proposed to his backers was that they invest in trading posts along the route that he would carve out. It was after his second voyage that this plan had to be radically revised, but I suspect the fact that he still had backers at this point suggests that his intentionally understated primary ambition meant that the disappointment of failing in Plan A meant the money men were more amenable to adopting Plan B, a slow assessment and acquisition of whatever profitable resources could be obtained from this newly accessed territory with no promise of a ready return. Had he "promised the world" from the outset the backlash from disappointed patrons would almost certainly have destroyed him. As it was he managed to obtain a status of governor of the new colonies from the crown and sufficient continued investment to continue with Plan B. When a small backlash did indeed occur later and he was stripped of his governorship and incarcerated there were still sufficient patrons on his side (including the crown) who could reinstate him.

Compared to what came later then I would rate Colombus as a rather level-headed and pragmatic man whose innate intelligence and curiosity were not totally corrupted by greed and notions of self-advancement. I'd put him up there therefore with Elcano as a bona fide "explorer" in the sense that discovery of the unknown outweighed baser considerations in their decision making.

The lack of recognition for Elcano is almost criminal. Whereas Magellan gets the credit for the first circumnavigation of the globe he actually died en route and never achieved it himself, and had never intended to push further westwards anyway. It was the Basque Juan Sebastian Elcano who took this decision upon assuming command of the voyage knowing that there was little by way of conquest or acquisition along that route, only kudos for having done something that no one had ever done before. Elcano seemed content to let his late commander receive the historical recognition for his feat, just as Colombus seemed content to step aside and let others compete for the glory of conquest of the territories he had opened up. In both cases, having fulfilled their role as explorers first and foremost, there seems to have been little appetite for the undignified scrap for honours and riches their own achievements had made possible.
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Thu 10 Jan 2013, 03:38

Yes, Magellan seems to have been very lucky to get all the glory for a trip he never completed. I've never quite understood this. I would have no idea who Elcana was, if asked.
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Thu 10 Jan 2013, 23:13

Caro,

as it was under "our" Charles V (Carlos I) for the Spanish, that the trip started. We had even a series on Belgian TV about it.

http://www.nndb.com/people/629/000092353

I read in the sixties a book in old French from the italian author Antonio Pigafetta. Did some research and unbelievable found it back as translated in French in the year IX (1801) after the French revolution:

http://books.google.be/books?id=_PFaAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pigafetta also circumnavigated the world and was among the survivors. As (as learned from another book) was also someone from Bruges Cool...

To answer to Nordmann it was Magellan who made the contract with Charles V and as such was the "official" one. Not to say that Elcano hasn't all the merits to have pushed after the dead of Magellan to sail further back home...that was such a time of "hierarchies"...first the commandant and then the others...

Kind regards and with esteem,

Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Thu 10 Jan 2013, 23:22

Addendum to previous message.

OOPS, Caro, and I forgot to mention Elcano:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Sebasti%C3%A1n_Elcano

And from the wiki I learned that Elcano was honoured by Charles V (Carlos I) and Philip II made his heritants nobles...

Kind regards, Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Fri 11 Jan 2013, 14:56

During his visit to Northern Europe, Columbus may have actually encountered Amerindians who had been accidentally washed ashore in Kinsale in the 1470s.

http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=23043

The Atlantic Ocean according to the map made by Martin Behaim just prior the Columbus' first voyage;

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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Sun 13 Jan 2013, 18:39

If Columbus was privy to "secret info" I think we can be pretty sure that it did not contain any snippets from washed-up AmerIndians in Galway or Kinsale. Having been washed up in both locations myself on several occasions I can vouch for the fact that information overheard in the hostelries in either is not generally of a level of factual reliability sufficient to embark on a major trans-Atlantic voyage, even today. Having also met AmerIndians in both locations I can vouch for the fact that all Christopher might well have learnt from them was how to extract moneys from tourists through the simple expediency of playing monotonous music badly on pan pipes while attired in sombreros and blankets until you are paid to simply go away.

The Behaim globe is not very well represented by the graphic from Wikipedia above. What is exceptional about Behaim's original is the amount of text inserted to explain where fancy has overtaken conjecture and where intelligent conjecture has overtaken fact - and even then I am not aware that a "Sant Brandan" island was ever a graphic component of his original work. The value of Behaim's globus mundi is in fact in the notes written on it rather than the coastlines and places named. They represent more fully the best available knowledge of the day, whereas the coastline delineation would simply serve to sink any mariner who relied on it as a navigational chart. With the modern "interpretation" of Behaim's map above a mariner might not even make it out of port! The same wiki article has links to a much more faithful set of copies which illustrate this point rather well. An even better copy can be seen in the national museum in Rotterdam - a thing of great beauty and with the embedded texts translated from German into English and other languages. Definitely worth a visit at some point in your life.
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Mon 28 Jan 2013, 15:22

An absolutely fascinating thread....

When I'm on historum, I feel like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind, as if I'm more intelligent than most of the posters there, so what's the point? I don't have much to learn there....

But when I come here, the shortfalls of my one eye are exposed when I'm surrounded by posters with two eyes, and some with four....
Cool
Just a few additions of my own....

1) Meles hinted at this earlier, in one of the above posts - gold! Even though Columbus seemed to believe that he was finding a route to India, China and Japan, the over-riding purpose was to find gold, to pay back his backers in Spain, and to send gifts to Ferdinand and Isabella. As a result of these gifts, Columbus was made Admiral of the Indies, or some exorbitant title like that.

2) Did Columbus die believing that he was still in the Indies, or did he accept that he was wrong? His writings at the time seem to indicate that he believed it, when everyone at the time of his death (1506) had come to the conclusion that this was another continent. Maybe Columbus was fooling himself, maybe he was blustering...I guess we'll never know for sure.

3) Christianity - Isabella in particular seemed to obsessed with spreading Christianity among the heathen "Indians", but the Spaniards used this as the excuse to put them into slavery, and rapidly wipe them out in their drive to find gold and silver.

4) "secret info" - it is possible that the Vikings may have found their way to Canada a few centuries before, but it seems doubtful that any information from those voyages were available to Columbus at the time. He seems to have based his theories on those of astornomers and mathematicians of the time.

Interestingly, Columbus never landed on the mainland - all his landfalls were on Caribbean islands. In all, Columbus "discovered" millions of people who already knew they were there, and it was a disaster for them - most of them were wiped out by the Spaniards!
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Mon 28 Jan 2013, 16:09

@shivfan wrote:
Interestingly, Columbus never landed on the mainland - all his landfalls were on Caribbean islands. In all, Columbus "discovered" millions of people who already knew they were there, and it was a disaster for them - most of them were wiped out by the Spaniards!

Yes, the 'discovered' business is one of my pet dislikes also Shiv. Fair enough if the place is uninhabited but it is more than a little Eurocentric to claim a discovery when others are already there. James Cook is another given undeserved credit, imo anyway.
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Mon 28 Jan 2013, 16:32

Well I've just researched and typed out a very detailed answer to a couple of your interesting points Shivfan ..... but it seems "I haven't specified a post". So it's all lost No

So for tonight - stuff it! Grumble, mutter, mutter, huff, sulk! Mad . And sadly I just do not have the time or enthusiasm to try and find all the information and then type it out again. At least not tonight, though maybe tomorrow.... Sorry!

But good to see you around here again. Cheers
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Tue 29 Jan 2013, 10:47

In response to two of the points you raise, Shivfan:

2) As you say Columbus' writings continued to refer to the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola as being part of Cipangu (ie Japan) until his death, through whether he truly believed it or not is moot. He died in 1506 having never actually set foot on either the North or South American mainlands. He did land in Central America on his last voyage whilst nominally attempting to find the strait of Molucca and the route to India - the Moluccan straits of course lying between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. But I wonder also if Columbus' continuing insistence that he had found Japan (or islands off Japan) was not also tied up with his defence of his legal and financial rights.

Before he set out in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had agreed very generous terms with him. If he succeeded (it was a big if) he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he could claim for Spain. He had the right to nominate three persons, from whom the sovereigns would choose one, for any office in the new lands. He would be entitled to 10% of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity ! (which was of course fantastically generous) and also have the option of buying one-eighth interest in any commercial venture. But perhaps crucially the agreement, the "Capitulations de Santa Fe" (only one copy, dated 1493 still exists) refers only to "lands" and "islands", it makes no mention of "Asia" - which one might think odd as it was the intended target. So it might be construed that it was financially in Columbus' favour if the new lands were not actually recognised to be Asia after all.

The Capitulations was never in itself a legally binding document, and once Columbus was dismissed from his posts and arrested in 1500, the Spanish Crown reneged on the agreement. Columbus, and later his heirs, conducted a lengthy series of court cases against the Crown to re-establish their hereditary rights. The Columbus family had some success in their first litigation as the judgment of 1511 confirmed Columbus' son Diego in his position as Viceroy, although with reduced powers. Both sides appealed against this first judgement and so a further ruling was made in in 1512 specifically over whether the jurisdiction of Columbus's heirs extended to the mainland of America (the tierra firme as it was called). So again it might have been a tactic of Columbus to maintain the fiction that his discoveries constituted islands off Asia, rather than Asia itself ... or indeed a whole new continent, and by 1510 it was becoming increasingly clear that this was the case. The dispute between the Spanish Crown and Columbus' heirs rumbled on until 1536, and indeed on other lesser points litigation continued until 1790.


4) Regarding any "secret" information ... by about 1490 Portuguese navigators might well have obtained at least an inkling that there was a big undiscovered landmass out there to the west of Africa. The very nature of the circular wind systems would have suggested the existence of such.

Another interesting point is the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. This Treaty was built on a 1493 Papal Bull which stated that all lands west of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues southwest of the islands of the Azores and of the Cape Verde Islands should belong exclusively to Spain. Successful lobbying by the Portuguese Crown got the line pushed further westwards and the resulting 1494 treaty fixed the demarcation line along a longitudinal meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. Crucially this new line would eventually give virtually the whole of Brazil to Portugual since the South American continent bulges substantially eastwards towards Africa. But in 1494 the existence of South America was still unknown ... or was it?

All such admiralty information whether concerning wind patterns or suspected land-masses was of course of considerable value and the Portuguese State made great efforts to keep such things secret. Unfortunately virtually all the Portuguese Admiralty archives were destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (and subsequent tsunami and catastrophic fire). However I have seen it suggested that maybe some of the pre 1500 records may have been copied and deposited during the 16th century in the Portuguese colonial archive of Goa, and so some documents might still exist somewhere in India.


Last edited by Meles meles on Tue 29 Jan 2013, 18:24; edited 2 times in total (Reason for editing : Typos and clarity)
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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Tue 29 Jan 2013, 13:32

Regarding your first point .... gold:

The Reconquista of Spain, finally completed in 1492 with the liberation of Grenada, had been ruinously expensive, and Ferdinand and Isabella were effectively bankrupt. (Incidentally the "Capitulations de Santa Fe", the agreement which gave such amazingly generous terms to Columbus, was drawn up during the siege of Grenada, the village of Santa Fe being the site of the main Spanish encampment ... so maybe their Catholic Majesties were somewhat distracted at the time). To furnish Columbus with just three, small, rather elderly merchant ships, Ferdinand and Isabella had to carefully jiggle their finances and do some rather creative accounting. But even so, having thoroughly scraped the royal barrel to the limit, they only raised half the money needed and had to open the project up to a consortium of Italian bankers (thereby risking their overall control). So yes the Spanish crown desperately needed gold if they were to continue to project their influence over European affairs.

Gold they needed and gold they eventually got, although not as fast as they'd hoped. But of course it wasn't just gold that was of interest. The whole point of sailing westwards to Japan, China, and India was to get spices, silks and other exotic commodities, rather than just gold. And in this the New World didn't disappoint. As Columbus said in his first report (14 March 1493) "Concerning the Islands Recently Discovered in the Indian Sea" (NB the reference to the Indian Sea):

"I promise this, that if I am supported by our most invincible sovereigns with a little of their help, as much gold can be supplied as they will need, indeed as much of spices, of cotton, of mastic gum which is only found in Chios [that is the Greek island of Chios which was then the sole source of an aromatic resin, literally worth it's weight in gold], also as much of aloes wood, and as many slaves for the navy, as their Majesties will wish to demand."

But it was really only once Cortés had conquered Mexico (1520), and more significantly Pizarro had taken over the Andean Inca Empire (1533), that the gold really started to flow. And silver too - the silver mines of Potosi, in today's Bolivia, are thought to have produced more financial wealth than all the South American gold. The irony though is that this flood of precious metal mostly went into the pockets of the already wealthy, and in Spain fuelled such run-away inflation that it ultimately undermined Spain's industrial and manufacturing base and so destroyed the Spanish economy.

Oh and I've finally found that elusive quote. It's from Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his, "True History of the Conquest of New Spain" (ca. 1570) and it's usually given as:
"... to serve God and His Majesty, to bring light to those who were in darkness, and to grow rich, as all men desire to do".

But in fact he was specifically writing about ordinary Spanish soldiers killed in Mexico, and he actually said:

"Those who died so cruel a death, who rendered such important services to God and to their emperor, and who gave light to those who lived in darkness, ought to have had their names perpetuated in letters of gold; but they were never remunerated! They did not even obtain wealth, although this is the goal of all men!"

... which has a rather different ring to it!

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PostSubject: Re: Columbus – Did he have secret info or was it really just dumb luck ?   Fri 22 Feb 2013, 10:46

Interesting comments, meles, even if you had to re-type them!
Cool
The legal suits with the Columbus family after the death of Chris is particularly interesting, because I believe that the Crown and the Columbus family eventually came to a compromise, where Diego Columbus was given Jamaica as a pay-off. Of course, back then Jamaica was a bit of a backwater, with no gold and silver to mine.

On the subject of the Spanish Crown's obsession with gold, it could well have been the downfall of the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. The acquisition of gold and silver on the American mainland may have given the Spanish Crown ready money to spend, but it contributed little to the wealth of Spain. On the contrary, this increase in money just spiralled inflation over the next century to uncontrollable levels. The Spanish did little to develop serious economic activities in the New World.

A case in point: Jamaica. THe Spanish just used Jamaica as a stop-off point, for their ships to get supplies, salted beef, etc, for the long voyage home with their gold and silver. When the British conquered Jamaica in 1655, they immediately started experimenting with crops, first indigo and tobacco, and when they didn't work, they hit upon sugar cane, and that was worth more than all the gold that Spain mined....

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