Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

The Great Discoveries

But Now That People Had Broken Through the Bonds of Their Narrow Mediaeval Limitations, They Had to Have More Room for Their Wanderings. The European World Had Grown Too Small for Their Ambitions. It Was the Time of the Great Voyages of Discovery

T HE Crusades had been a lesson in the liberal art of travelling. But very few people had ever ventured beyond the well-known beaten track which led from Venice to Jaffe. In the thirteenth century the Polo brothers, merchants of Venice, had wandered across the great Mongolian desert and after climbing mountains as high as the moon, they had found their way to the court of the great Khan of Cathay, the mighty emperor of China. The son of one of the Polos, by the name of Marco, had written a book about their adventures, which covered a period of more than twenty years. The astonished world had gaped at his descriptions of the golden towers of the strange island of Zipangu, which was his Italian way of spelling Japan. Many people had wanted to go east, that they might find this gold-land and grow rich. But the trip was too far and too dangerous and so they stayed at home.


Marco Polo

Of course, there was always the possibility of making the voyage by sea. But the sea was very unpopular in the Middle Ages and for many very good reasons. In the first place, ships were very small. The vessels on which Magellan made his famous trip around the world, which lasted many years, were not as large as a modern ferryboat. They carried from twenty to fifty men, who lived in dingy quarters (too low to allow any of them to stand up straight) and the sailors were obliged to eat poorly cooked food as the kitchen arrangements were very bad and no fire could be made whenever the weather was the least bit rough. The mediaeval world knew how to pickle herring and how to dry fish. But there were no canned goods and fresh vegetables were never seen on the bill of fare as soon as the coast had been left behind. Water was carried in small barrels. It soon became stale and then tasted of rotten wood and iron rust and was full of slimy growing things. As the people of the Middle Ages knew nothing about microbes (Roger Bacon, the learned monk of the thirteenth century seems to have suspected their existence, but he wisely kept his discovery to himself) they often drank unclean water and sometimes the whole crew died of typhoid fever. Indeed the mortality on board the ships of the earliest navigators was terrible. Of the two hundred sailors who in the year 1519 left Seville to accompany Magellan on his famous voyage around the world, only eighteen returned. As late as the seventeenth century when there was a brisk trade between western Europe and the Indies, a mortality of 40 percent was nothing unusual for a trip from Amsterdam to Batavia and back. The greater part of these victims died of scurvy, a disease which is caused by lack of fresh vegetables and which affects the gums and poisons the blood until the patient dies of sheer exhaustion.

Under those circumstances you will understand that the sea did not attract the best elements of the population. Famous discoverers like Magellan and Columbus and Vasco da Gama travelled at the head of crews that were almost entirely composed of ex-jailbirds, future murderers and pickpockets out of a job.

These navigators certainly deserve our admiration for the courage and the pluck with which they accomplished their hopeless tasks in the face of difficulties of which the people of our own comfortable world can have no conception. Their ships were leaky. The rigging was clumsy. Since the middle of the thirteenth century they had possessed some sort of a compass (which had come to Europe from China by way of Arabia and the Crusades) but they had very bad and incorrect maps. They set their course by God and by guess. If luck was with them they returned after one or two or three years. In the other case, their bleached bones remained behind on some lonely beach. But they were true pioneers. They gambled with luck. Life to them was a glorious adventure. And all the suffering, the thirst and the hunger and the pain were forgotten when their eyes beheld the dim outlines of a new coast or the placid waters of an ocean that had lain forgotten since the beginning of time.


How the World Grew Larger

Again I wish that I could make this book a thousand pages long. The subject of the early discoveries is so fascinating. But history, to give you a true idea of past times, should be like those etchings which Rembrandt used to make. It should cast a vivid light on certain important causes, on those which are best and greatest. All the rest should be left in the shadow or should be indicated by a few lines. And in this chapter I can only give you a short list of the most important discoveries.

Keep in mind that all during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the navigators were trying to accomplish just one thing—they wanted to find a comfortable and safe road to the empire of Cathay (China), to the island of Zipangu (Japan) and to those mysterious islands, where grew the spices which the mediaeval world had come to like since the days of the Crusades, and which people needed in those days before the introduction of cold storage, when meat and fish spoiled very quickly and could only be eaten after a liberal sprinkling of pepper or nutmeg.

The Venetians and the Genoese had been the great navigators of the Mediterranean, but the honour for exploring the coast of the Atlantic goes to the Portuguese. Spain and Portugal were full of that patriotic energy which their age-old struggle against the Moorish invaders had developed. Such energy, once it exists, can easily be forced into new channels. In the thirteenth century, King Alphonso III had conquered the kingdom of Algarve in the southwestern corner of the Spanish peninsula and had added it to his dominions. In the next century, the Portuguese had turned the tables on the Mohammedans, had crossed the straits of Gibraltar and had taken possession of Ceuta, opposite the Arabic city of Ta'Rifa (a word which in Arabic means "inventory" and which by way of the Spanish language has come down to us as "tariff,") and Tangiers, which became the capital of an African addition to Algarve.

They were ready to begin their career as explorers.

In the year 1415, Prince Henry, known as Henry the Navigator, the son of John I of Portugal and Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt (about whom you can read in Richard II, a play by William Shakespeare) began to make preparations for the systematic exploration of northwestern Africa. Before this, that hot and sandy coast had been visited by the Phoenicians and by the Norsemen, who remembered it as the home of the hairy "wild man" whom we have come to know as the gorilla. One after another, Prince Henry and his captains discovered the Canary Islands—re-discovered the island of Madeira which a century before had been visited by a Genoese ship, carefully charted the Azores which had been vaguely known to both the Portuguese and the Spaniards, and caught a glimpse of the mouth of the Senegal River on the west coast of Africa, which they supposed to be the western mouth of the Nile. At last, by the middle of the Fifteenth Century, they saw Cape Verde, or the Green Cape, and the Cape Verde Islands, which lie almost halfway between the coast of Africa and Brazil.

But Henry did not restrict himself in his investigations to the waters of the Ocean. He was Grand Master of the Order of Christ. This was a Portuguese continuation of the crusading order of the Templars which had been abolished by Pope Clement V in the year 1312 at the request of King Philip the Fair of France, who had improved the occasion by burning his own Templars at the stake and stealing all their possessions. Prince Henry used the revenues of the domains of his religious order to equip several expeditions which explored the hinterland of the Sahara and of the coast of Guinea.

But he was still very much a son of the Middle Ages and spent a great deal of time and wasted a lot of money upon a search for the mysterious "Prester John," the mythical Christian Priest who was said to be the Emperor of a vast empire "situated somewhere in the east." The story of this strange potentate had first been told in Europe in the middle of the twelfth century. For three hundred years people had tried to find "Prester John" and his descendants. Henry took part in the search. Thirty years after his death, the riddle was solved.

In the year 1486 Bartholomew Diaz, trying to find the land of Prester John by sea, had reached the southernmost point of Africa. At first he called it the Storm Cape, on account of the strong winds which had prevented him from continuing his voyage toward the east, but the Lisbon pilots who understood the importance of this discovery in their quest for the India water route, changed the name into that of the Cape of Good Hope.

One year later, Pedro de Covilham, provided with letters of credit on the house of Medici, started upon a similar mission by land. He crossed the Mediterranean and after leaving Egypt, he travelled southward. He reached Aden, and from there, travelling through the waters of the Persian Gulf which few white men had seen since the days of Alexander the Great, eighteen centuries before, he visited Goa and Calicut on the coast of India where he got a great deal of news about the island of the Moon (Madagascar) which was supposed to lie halfway between Africa and India. Then he returned, paid a secret visit to Mecca and to Medina, crossed the Red Sea once more and in the year 1490 he discovered the realm of Prester John, who was no one less than the Black Negus (or King) of Abyssinia, whose ancestors had adopted Christianity in the fourth century, seven hundred years before the Christian missionaries had found their way to Scandinavia.

These many voyages had convinced the Portuguese geographers and cartographers that while the voyage to the Indies by an eastern sea-route was possible, it was by no means easy. Then there arose a great debate. Some people wanted to continue the explorations east of the Cape of Good Hope. Others said, "No, we must sail west across the Atlantic and then we shall reach Cathay."

Let us state right here that most intelligent people of that day were firmly convinced that the earth was not as flat as a pancake but was round. The Ptolemean system of the universe, invented and duly described by Claudius Ptolemy, the great Egyptian geographer, who had lived in the second century of our era, which had served the simple needs of the men of the Middle Ages, had long been discarded by the scientists of the Renaissance. They had accepted the doctrine of the Polish mathematician, Nicolaus Copernicus, whose studies had convinced him that the earth was one of a number of round planets which turned around the sun, a discovery which he did not venture to publish for thirty-six years (it was printed in 1548, the year of his death) from fear of the Holy Inquisition, a Papal court which had been established in the thirteenth century when the heresies of the Albigenses and the Waldenses in France and in Italy (very mild heresies of devoutly pious people who did not believe in private property and preferred to live in Christ-like poverty) had for a moment threatened the absolute power of the bishops of Rome. But the belief in the roundness of the earth was common among the nautical experts and, as I said, they were now debating the respective advantages of the eastern and the western routes.

Among the advocates of the western route was a Genoese mariner by the name of Cristoforo Colombo. He was the son of a wool merchant. He seems to have been a student at the University of Pavia where he specialised in mathematics and geometry. Then he took up his father's trade but soon we find him in Chios in the eastern Mediterranean travelling on business. Thereafter we hear of voyages to England but whether he went north in search of wool or as the captain of a ship we do not know. In February of the year 1477, Colombo (if we are to believe his own words) visited Iceland, but very likely he only got as far as the Faröe Islands which are cold enough in February to be mistaken for Iceland by any one. Here Colombo met the descendants of those brave Norsemen who in the tenth century had settled in Greenland and who had visited America in the eleventh century, when Leif's vessel had been blown to the coast of Vineland, or Labrador.

What had become of those far western colonies no one knew. The American colony of Thorfinn Karlsefne, the husband of the widow of Leif's brother Thorstein, founded in the year 1003, had been discontinued three years later on account of the hostility of the Esquimaux. As for Greenland, not a word had been heard from the settlers since the year 1440. Very likely the Greenlanders had all died of the Black Death, which had just killed half the people of Norway. However that might be, the tradition of a "vast land in the distant west" still survived among the people of the Faröe and Iceland, and Colombo must have heard of it. He gathered further information among the fishermen of the northern Scottish islands and then went to Portugal where he married the daughter of one of the captains who had served under Prince Henry the Navigator.


The Great Discoveries, Western Hemisphere

From that moment on (the year 1478) he devoted himself to the quest of the western route to the Indies. He sent his plans for such a voyage to the courts of Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese, who felt certain that they possessed a monopoly of the eastern route, would not listen to his plans. In Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose marriage in 1469 had made Spain into a single kingdom, were busy driving the Moors from their last stronghold, Granada. They had no money for risky expeditions. They needed every peseta for their soldiers.


The Great Discoveries, Eastern Hemisphere

Few people were ever forced to fight as desperately for their ideas as this brave Italian. But the story of Colombo (or Colon or Columbus, as we call him,) is too well known to bear repeating. The Moors surrendered Granada on the second of January of the year 1492. In the month of April of the same year, Columbus signed a contract with the King and Queen of Spain. On Friday, the 3rd of August, he left Palos with three little ships and a crew of 88 men, many of whom were criminals who had been offered indemnity of punishment if they joined the expedition. At two o'clock in the morning of Friday, the 12th of October, Columbus discovered land. On the fourth of January of the year 1493, Columbus waved farewell to the 44 men of the little fortress of La Navidad (none of whom was ever again seen alive) and returned homeward. By the middle of February he reached the Azores where the Portuguese threatened to throw him into gaol. On the fifteenth of March, 1493, the admiral reached Palos and together with his Indians (for he was convinced that he had discovered some outlying islands of the Indies and called the natives red Indians) he hastened to Barcelona to tell his faithful patrons that he had been successful and that the road to the gold and the silver of Cathay and Zipangu was at the disposal of their most Catholic Majesties.

Alas, Columbus never knew the truth. Towards the end of his life, on his fourth voyage, when he had touched the mainland of South America, he may have suspected that all was not well with his discovery. But he died in the firm belief that there was no solid continent between Europe and Asia and that he had found the direct route to China.


The World of Columbus

Meanwhile, the Portuguese, sticking to their eastern route, had been more fortunate. In the year 1498, Vasco da Gama had been able to reach the coast of Malabar and return safely to Lisbon with a cargo of spice. In the year 1502 he had repeated the visit. But along the western route, the work of exploration had been most disappointing. In 1497 and 1498 John and Sebastian Cabot had tried to find a passage to Japan but they had seen nothing but the snowbound coasts and the rocks of Newfoundland, which had first been sighted by the Northmen, five centuries before. Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who became the Pilot Major of Spain, and who gave his name to our continent, had explored the coast of Brazil, but had found not a trace of the Indies.

In the year 1513, seven years after the death of Columbus, the truth at last began to dawn upon the geographers of Europe. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had crossed the Isthmus of Panama, had climbed the famous peak in Darien, and had looked down upon a vast expanse of water which seemed to suggest the existence of another ocean.

Finally in the year 1519 a fleet of five small Spanish ships under command of the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand de Magellan, sailed westward (and not eastward since that route, was absolutely in the hands of the Portuguese who allowed no competition) in search of the Spice Islands. Magellan crossed the Atlantic between Africa and Brazil and sailed southward. He reached a narrow channel between the southernmost point of Patagonia, the "land of the people with the big feet," and the Fire Island (so named on account of a fire, the only sign of the existence of natives, which the sailors watched one night). For almost five weeks the ships of Magellan were at the mercy of the terrible storms and blizzards which swept through the straits. A mutiny broke out among the sailors. Magellan suppressed it with terrible severity and sent two of his men on shore where they were left to repent of their sins at leisure. At last the storms quieted down, the channel broadened, and Magellan entered a new ocean. Its waves were quiet and placid. He called it the Peaceful Sea, the Mare Pacifico. Then he continued in a western direction. He sailed for ninety-eight days without seeing land. His people almost perished from hunger and thirst and ate the rats that infested the ships, and when these were all gone they chewed pieces of sail to still their gnawing hunger.



In March of the year 1521 they saw land. Magellan called it the land of the Ladrones (which means robbers) because the natives stole everything they could lay hands on. Then further westward to the Spice Islands!

Again land was sighted. A group of lonely islands. Magellan called them the Philippines, after Philip, the son of his master Charles V, the Philip II of unpleasant historical memory. At first Magellan was well received, but when he used the guns of his ships to make Christian converts he was killed by the aborigines, together with a number of his captains and sailors. The survivors burned one of the three remaining ships and continued their voyage. They found the Moluccas, the famous Spice Islands; they sighted Borneo and reached Tidor. There, one of the two ships, too leaky to be of further use, remained behind with her crew. The "Vittoria," under Sebastian del Cano, crossed the Indian Ocean, missed seeing the northern coast of Australia (which was not discovered until the first half of the seventeenth century when ships of the Dutch East India Company explored this flat and inhospitable land), and after great hardships reached Spain.


A New World

This was the most notable of all voyages. It had taken three years. It had been accomplished at a great cost both of men and money. But it had established the fact that the earth was round and that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not a part of the Indies but a separate continent. From that time on, Spain and Portugal devoted all their energies to the development of their Indian and American trade. To prevent an armed conflict between the rivals, Pope Alexander VI (the only avowed heathen who was ever elected to this most holy office) had obligingly divided the world into two equal parts by a line of demarcation which followed the 50th degree of longitude west of Greenwich, the so-called division of Tordesillas of 1494. The Portuguese were to establish their colonies to the east of this line, the Spaniards were to have theirs to the west. This accounts for the fact that the entire American continent with the exception of Brazil became Spanish and that all of the Indies and most of Africa became Portuguese until the English and the Dutch colonists (who had no respect for Papal decisions) took these possessions away in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

When news of the discovery of Columbus reached the Rialto of Venice, the Wall street of the Middle Ages, there was a terrible panic. Stocks and bonds went down 40 and 50 percent. After a short while, when it appeared that Columbus had failed to find the road to Cathay, the Venetian merchants recovered from their fright. But the voyages of da Gama and Magellan proved the practical possibilities of an eastern water-route to the Indies. Then the rulers of Genoa and Venice, the two great commercial centres of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, began to be sorry that they had refused to listen to Columbus. But it was too late. Their Mediterranean became an inland sea. The overland trade to the Indies and China dwindled to insignificant proportions. The old days of Italian glory were gone. The Atlantic became the new centre of commerce and therefore the centre of civilisation. It has remained so ever since.

See how strangely civilisation has progressed since those early days, fifty centuries before, when the inhabitants of the Valley of the Nile began to keep a written record of history. From the river Nile, it went to Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. Then came the turn of Crete and Greece and Rome. An inland sea became the centre of trade and the cities along the Mediterranean were the home of art and science and philosophy and learning. In the sixteenth century it moved westward once more and made the countries that border upon the Atlantic become the masters of the earth.

There are those who say that the world war and the suicide of the great European nations has greatly diminished the importance of the Atlantic Ocean. They expect to see civilisation cross the American continent and find a new home in the Pacific. But I doubt this.

The westward trip was accompanied by a steady increase in the size of ships and a broadening of the knowledge of the navigators. The flat-bottomed vessels of the Nile and the Euphrates were replaced by the sailing vessels of the Phoenicians, the AEgeans, the Greeks, the Carthaginians and the Romans. These in turn were discarded for the square rigged vessels of the Portuguese and the Spaniards. And the latter were driven from the ocean by the full-rigged craft of the English and the Dutch.

At present, however, civilisation no longer depends upon ships. Aircraft has taken and will continue to take the place of the sailing vessel and the steamer. The next centre of civilisation will depend upon the development of aircraft and water power. And the sea once more shall be the undisturbed home of the little fishes, who once upon a time shared their deep residence with the earliest ancestors of the human race.

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