The two prime movers of the Age of Discovery are Prince Henry of Portugal, who started the
intellectual fire for systematic exploration (1415); and Christopher Columbus who
– overcoming titanic obstacles – proved to Europe (1492) that exploration was the next big thing.
That’s the nugget. The story is:
Prince Henry was born in 1394 in Portugal during the latter part of the Reconquista (the “reconquest”).
Muslims had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years
the Catholics of Europe fought and won back that land. Portugal was one of the reclaimed territories.
As you might expect, Prince Henry was fiercely Catholic and nationalistic, but he was something more.
He was an intellectual, fascinated with the advancement of knowledge, with geography and exploration.
One event launched him into action: In 1415 he participated in an assault on Ceuta
(a city on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar) from which Muslims were
impeding Portugal’s access to the Mediterranean. There Henry learned that the Muslims
had established a vast trading network to the Gold Coast and various other parts of Africa.
Africa’s lucrative potential gave Henry the justification he needed to pursue his intellectual passion.
At Sagres, on the very southernmost tip of Portugal, he created an institute for geographical studies,
with the practical goal of mapping Africa and finding a route around it to the far East. Henry was not in
line for the throne; this let him devote his full energy – and the full resources of the royal family --
to building a world-class geographical brain trust. He brought together scholars (even Jews!), navigators,
and cartographers from all over the world. For the next 35 years he sent exploring expeditions down the
coast of Africa and recorded what they learned in ever-more-extensive and accurate maps.
By Henry’s death in 1460, he had established Portugal as the world’s foremost explorers. But, more
important, he had introduced the idea of systematic maritime exploration into the culture of Europe.
The year Henry died, Christopher Columbus was about nine years old, and living near Genoa, Italy.
Columbus was a young sailor, perhaps 25, from Genoa when his trading vessel was attacked by pirates off
the coast of Portugal in 1476. Literally clinging to wreckage, he reached shore at Lisbon. There he
joined the community of navigators and earned a place as a respected part of the intellectual/geographical
culture Prince Henry had established. Columbus became as an expert cartographer and navigator. He taught
himself Latin. He studied the works of Ptolemy, and and found himself agreeing with the Italian geographer
Toscanelli and Pierre d’Ailly of France, who had concluded that the world was a sphere. Furthermore, Columbus
was convinced – using what he calculated as the most plausible distance estimates -- that even with current
technology, it would be possible to reach Cipango (Japan) by sailing West.
He took his proposal to the King of Portugal in 1484, but was rejected. Portugal was occupied with fighting
Muslims and reaching the East via Africa. England, France, and Germany were all for various reasons incapable
of supporting such an enterprise. So he went to Spain. Queen Isabella was intrigued, but King Ferdinand,
a macho lug, couldn’t care less: he was all wrapped up driving the remaining Muslims out of Granada.
Ferdinand handed Columbus over to the Council of Salamanca, who judged Columbus’s plan “not practical.”
But Columbus was persistent. In 1492 when Granada was Muslim-free and the Reconquista was over, he revived
his suit. This time Isabella and Ferdinand backed him.
Now Columbus faced a new problem. No sailors wanted to go on what was seen as a suicidal voyage on what
the Muslims called, “the green sea of darkness.” After all, in the common Biblically indoctrinated mind,
the earth was still flat. So Columbus got the monarchs to pardon jailed criminals if they’d go on his
expedition. A voyage into the green sea of darkness was a better bet than certain death by hanging or a
lifetime in a dungeon. And if the criminals made it back alive, they’d be free.
Columbus set off on August 4th, 1492. To avoid mutiny, Columbus kept two different logs. The log he showed
the crew indicated they were not too far from home and had nothing to worry about. The other one showed
his much greater and more accurate estimates of the distances traveled. The Sargasso Sea with its dense,
clogging seaweed was terrifying and discouraging. But on October 11, Columbus’s ships spotted campfires
in the Bahamas. On October 12, Columbus landed.
Instead of the anticipated Japanese culture, they found naked, childlike natives. Columbus tried other
nearby islands. He found corn, cotton, tobacco, but no Cipango. Still, when they returned to Spain
with novel plant life and human souvenirs, there was plenty to prove to Europe that the journey west
was more than worthwhile.
On his second voyage Columbus found Jamaica. On his third, he landed on the coast of South America and
noticed the mouth of a huge river, the Orinoco. He reasoned that a huge river implies a huge continental
landmass, and concluded he’d discovered a new continent. His fourth voyage took him to Nicaragua,
but after that the big political and commercial interests pushed Columbus out of the exploring business
and in 1506 he died impoverished and forgotten.
You’d think that would be the saddest, most unjust end the story could have. But it’s not. Today
“enlightened” history teachers pooh-pooh Columbus’s role because he was a European. They point out
that Incas and Aztecs and Cherokees and Cheyennes had lived in America for centuries before 1492;
they credit the Viking oaf Leif Erikson, for stumbling upon a piece of North America, running away,
and doing nothing with his “discovery.”
Such teachers misunderstand what the word “discover” means. There is a difference between
blundering onto something, and discovering its nature, grasping its order and significance.
Farmers in ancient fields had experienced mass and momentum. But we don’t say they discovered
Newtonian physics. To discover is not merely to encounter, but to comprehend and reveal,
to apprehend something new and true and deliver it to the world.