Chapter 7

“That Sea of Blood”

Columbus and the Transatlantic Link

October 12: Columbus lands in the New World.

The story is incredible but irresistible. As Ferdinand and Isabella rode into Granada, only one of the followers who thronged their camp was unable to enjoy the triumph. After years of striving for the monarchs’ patronage, Christopher Columbus had just learned that a committee of experts had rejected his proposal for an attempted crossing of the western ocean. He turned his back on the celebrations and rode off disconsolately, knowing that his suit had finally failed.

After a day on the road, a royal messenger overtook him and demanded his immediate return to the royal tent outside the fallen city. A change of heart had come suddenly, like all the best miracles. Columbus made the first leg of his transatlantic journey on the back of a mule, bound for Granada.

It sounds like a romanticized version of the real story. But history has all the best stories, which fiction can never excel. What really happened to Columbus is far more interesting than any of the heroic myths his life has generated.

Columbus’s proposal was unoriginal. Several attempts were made during the fifteenth century to explore Atlantic space, but most doomed themselves to failure by setting out in the belt of westerly winds, presumably because explorers were anxious for a guaranteed route of return. You can still follow the tiny gains in the slowly unfolding record on rare maps and stray documents. In 1427, an otherwise unknown voyage by a Portuguese pilot called Diogo de Silves was recorded on a map: Silves established for the first time the approximate relationship of the islands of the Azores to one another. Between 1452, when the westernmost islands of the Azores were discovered, and 1487, when the Fleming Ferdinand van Olmen was commissioned to seek, like Columbus, “islands and mainlands” in the ocean, at least eight Portuguese commissions survive for voyages into the recesses of the Atlantic. None, however, is known to have made any further progress. They departed from the Azores, where the westerlies beat them back to base. In 1492 in Nuremberg, Martin Behaim’s friends and supporters were advocating the same point of departure for their own dreamed-of Atlantic crossing, which never materialized.

Not only was an Atlantic crossing impracticable, to judge from these precedents; until very recently, it had also seemed unlikely to be profitable. Until the 1480s, exploitation of the Atlantic yielded few returns, outside Madeira, which became a major contributor of taxation to the Portuguese crown thanks to sugar planting in the mid–fifteenth century. Explorers’ hope of establishing direct contact with the sources of West African gold proved illusory, though access to gold at relatively low prices improved as a result of increased trade with native kingdoms. This trade produced other salable articles for European markets—especially, from 1440, increasing numbers of slaves, whom Portuguese desperadoes also obtained by raiding. But even for these, markets were limited, because great slave-staffed plantations of the sort later familiar in parts of the Americas hardly existed in Europe, where slaves’ roles were still largely in domestic service. The Canary Islands, meanwhile, attracted a good deal of investment because they produced large amounts of natural dyestuffs and seemed potentially exploitable for sugar: but their inhabitants fiercely resisted European encroachments, and the conquest was long and costly.

In the 1480s, however, the situation changed. The sugar trade of Madeira boomed, carried by sixty or seventy ships in a single year. Meanwhile, in 1484, sugar refining began in the Canary Islands. In 1482, thanks to the new port at São Jorge da Mina, on West Africa’s underbelly, large amounts of gold now began to reach European hands. In the same decade, Portuguese contact with the kingdom of Kongo began; voyages toward and around the southernmost tip of Africa encountered unremittingly adverse currents, but they also showed that there were westerly winds in the far South Atlantic, which might at last lead to the Indian Ocean. For the same decade, the port records of Bristol in England show an increasing throughput of North Atlantic commodities, including salt fish, walrus ivory, and products of whaling. English and Flemish merchants in Bristol and the Azores became alert to the investment opportunities. By the end of the decade it was obvious that Atlantic investment could yield dividends. Now it became easier to raise money for new enterprises, chiefly among Italian bankers in Lisbon and Seville.

But if the business climate was increasingly favorable to a new assault on the problems of Atlantic navigation, it was hard to find the right man for the job. Only a foolhardy or greenhorn explorer could make headway in Atlantic navigation. To get much beyond the Azores, you had to take a risk no previous adventurer had been willing to face: you had to sail with the wind at your back.

One of the extraordinary facts about the history of maritime exploration is that most of it has been done against the wind. To modern sailors it seems so strange as to be counterintuitive, but it made perfect sense for most of the past—simply because explorers of the unknown needed to be sure of their route home. An adverse wind on the outer journey promised a passage home. To break the mold and sail outward with the wind, an explorer would need to be very ignorant or very desperate.

Christopher Columbus was both. He was a Genoese weaver’s son with a large, clamorous, and exigent family. The Catalan, French, Galician, Greek, Ibizan, Jewish, Majorcan, Polish, Scottish, and other increasingly silly Columbuses concocted by historical fantasists are agenda-driven creations, usually inspired by a desire to arrogate a supposed or confected hero to the cause of a particular nation or historic community—or, more often than not, to some immigrant group striving to establish a special place of esteem in the United States. The evidence of Columbus’s origins in Genoa is overwhelming: almost no other figure of his class or designation has left so clear a paper trail in the archives. The modesty of his background makes his life intelligible. For what motivated him to become an explorer was a desire to escape from the world of restricted social opportunity in which he was born.

Only three routes of upward mobility were available to socially ambitious upstarts such as Columbus: war, the Church, and the sea. Columbus probably contemplated all three: he wanted a clerical career for one of his brothers, and fancied himself as “a captain of cavaliers and conquests.” But seafaring was a natural choice, especially for a boy from a maritime community as single-minded as that of Genoa. Opportunities for employment and profit abounded.

Columbus’s reading helped to put plans for seaborne adventure in his mind. The geographical books his biographers usually dwell on played little or no part. Columbus hardly began reading geography until he was middle-aged, and most evidence of his perusal of geographical texts dates from after he had begun exploring. Instead, as a young man and during the formative years of his vocation as an explorer, he read the fifteenth-century equivalent of pulp fiction: seaborne knightly romances and some of the more sensational saints’ lives. The saints’ lives included the old tale of St. Brendan the Navigator, who set out in his curragh from Ireland and found the earthly paradise, and the legend of St. Eustace, who suffered nobly while searching the seas for his sundered family. The typical chivalric story line started with a hero down on his luck—which was just how Columbus depicted himself in the self-indulgent pleas for sympathy that streamed from his pen. Usually the hero was the victim of some unfair derogation—a royal foundling or a noble scion stripped of his birthright. Columbus’s frequent fantasies about noble ancestors whom he imagined for himself and his absurd claim that “I am not the first admiral of my line” 1 recall the tradition.

In many chivalric romances popular at the time, the hero’s escape route into the world of acceptance was by way of seaborne derring-do, in the course of which he would sail to exotic lands, find an island or a remote realm, battle for it against giants and monsters and pagans, and become its ruler. The usual fade-out featured the hero marrying a princess. Cervantes satirized the tradition in Don Quixote when he made Sancho Panza ask the Don to make him “governor of some island, with, if possible, a little bit of the sky above it.” 2

Real lives sometimes reflected this kind of art. Earlier in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese prince the infante Dom Henrique, whom we inappropriately call Henry the Navigator, even though he never made more than a couple of short trips by sea, was a reader of chivalric and astrological literature—a combination fatal to a rational self-perception. He was a cadet of his dynasty but longed to be a king, and he assembled, at a cost he could ill afford, an entourage of lowlifes and desperadoes, whom he called his “knights and squires.” They sustained their way of life mainly by piracy, at first, and increasingly by slave raiding along the African coast, where they called their adversaries “wild men of the woods”—the savage, hairy creatures who typically opposed knights in chivalric stories, paintings, and sculptures. They made repeated but always unsuccessful efforts to conquer a kingdom for Dom Henrique in the Canary Islands, most of which at the time remained in the hands of pelt-clad, goat-herding aboriginals, whose way of life was tribal and whose only weapons were literally sticks and stones. Through these shabby endeavors, Dom Henrique’s followers kept up a chivalric pantomime, affecting such names from romance as Lancelot or “Tristram of the Isle,” exchanging vows, and sometimes achieving admission to the order of chivalry, the Order of Christ, of which their leader was Grand Master, appointed by the Portuguese king.

The thug who called himself Tristram of the Isle was a paladin of the island of Madeira, which had been the mise-en-scène of a popular chivalric love story for about a hundred years before Dom Henrique ordered his men to colonize it. There Tristram lived the romance implied by his Arthurian name, exacting oaths of vassalage from the cutthroats who came to his island. No incident better captures the tenor of his life than a curious abuse of chivalric conventions in 1452. Diogo de Barrados, a knight of Henry’s service, had been exiled to Madeira, where he served Tristram in his household like a knightly retainer, performing “honor and vassalage.” Ever since Arthur and Lancelot, lords had tended to encounter sexual trouble with their ladies and household knights. In the present case, Diogo abused his status to seduce Tristram’s daughter. The scene—laconically recounted in a royal pardon—in which Tristram chopped off the offender’s pudenda and flung him into a dungeon, takes us into a strange world of mingled chivalry and savagery.

Among Henrique’s followers, Bartolomeo Perestrello was one whose real life followed the trajectory of a chivalric novel. His grandfather was a merchant-adventurer from Piacenza, who followed the sort of advice that flowed from how-to business gurus in the Italy of his day. “Go west, young man,” the career consultants of the day advised—to the underdeveloped, burgeoning Iberian Peninsula. Once established in Portugal, the Perestrello family climbed to the court when Bartolomeo’s elder sisters clambered into the bed of the archbishop of Lisbon, who kept both of them as mistresses simultaneously. Service in Dom Henrique’s household led Bartolomeo to a seaborne career and captaincy of the uninhabited little island of Porto Santo, near Madeira, which Henrique colonized, partly as a base for his operations in Africa and the Canaries, and partly in the hope of developing sugar plantations. To be “governor of some island” was, perhaps, not much of a career path from the margins of social acceptability in Portugal. But it brought Bartolomeo status in his own little world and nominal membership in the nobility.

Columbus knew Bartolomeo’s story well, because he married his daughter. In the 1470s, Columbus was working as a sugar buyer for a family of Genoese merchants, shuttling between the eastern Mediterranean and the African Atlantic. When he frequented the island of Porto Santo, he picked up gleanings from the world of Dom Henrique, and he met Doña Felipa—who was probably one of the few noblewomen poor enough, marginal enough, and, by the time of their marriage, sufficiently aging to contemplate such a miserable match. At the same time, Columbus made the acquaintance of the winds and currents of the African Atlantic. He acquired enough experience of Atlantic sailing to know two key facts: there were easterly winds in the latitude of the Canaries, and westerlies to the north. The makings of a successful round trip were therefore available.

If one discounts legends spun after his death, and his own self-aggrandizing account, it becomes possible to reconstruct the process by which Columbus formulated his plan. There is no firm evidence that he had any sort of plan before 1486; only pious deference to unreliable sources makes most historians date it earlier. Nor was the plan ever very clear in his own mind. Like any good salesman, he changed it according to the proclivities of his audience. To some interlocutors, he proposed a search for new islands; to others, a quest for an “unknown continent” presumed, in some ancient literature, to lie in the far Atlantic; to others, he argued for a short route to China and the rich trades of the Orient. Historians have got themselves into a tangle trying to resolve the contradictions. Really, however, the solution to the “mystery” of Columbus’s proposed destination is simple: he kept changing it. The tenacious certainty most historians attribute to him was a myth he created and his earlier biographers enshrined. The adamantine Columbus of tradition has to be rebuilt in mercury and opal.

Indeed, what mattered to Columbus was not so much where he was going as whether, in a social sense, he would arrive. When he wrote—as we would now say—to “confirm the terms of his contract” with his patrons, he was clear about the objectives that mattered to him:

so that from thenceforth I should be entitled to call myself Don and should be High Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor in perpetuity, of all the islands and mainland I might discover and gain, or that might thereafter be discovered and gained in the Ocean Sea, and that my elder son should succeed me and his heirs thenceforth, from generation to generation, for ever and ever.3

The Sancho Panza syndrome, the pursuit of vainglory in imitation of chivalric fiction, resounds in these lines. Outrageous claims for noble status and lavish rewards accompanied his negotiations with potential princely patrons for leave and means to make an attempted Atlantic crossing.

Social ambition crowded out other objectives. There was little room for the motives biographers have traditionally assigned him—scientific curiosity and religious fervor. He did show—not much at first, and hardly at all before his first voyage, but increasingly as he got older—some pride in how experience acquainted him with facts inaccessible from books. This is hardly evidence that he prefigured the empirical values of modern science; rather, it shows the effects of his tussles with learned skeptics who dismissed his generally wild theories about geography. Religion grew on him. The extraordinary, grueling experiences of transatlantic exploration turned him—as traumas often do—toward God. And he found refuge from the embitterment and disillusionment that overcame him later in life in prophecy, mysticism, and such extremes of affected piety as appearing at court in chains and in the rough habit of a friar. But the young Columbus evinced no particular religiosity. His head was hard and full of calculations.

He did come under the influence of the Franciscan friars who befriended him at their house in Palos, on Castile’s Atlantic coast. They belonged to the so-called spiritual wing of the order, valuing the spirit of St. Francis more than the order’s rules and regulations. Their eagerness to evangelize and their urgent belief, which drove their vocation, that the world would soon come to an end planted growing notions in Columbus’s mind. By the early 1490s, Columbus was beginning to incorporate one or two of their favorite images into his own rhetoric in support of his schemes. He began to advocate encounter with and conversion of pagan peoples as part of the purpose of Atlantic exploration. And—if his later recollections were right—he suggested to Ferdinand and Isabella that the profits of his proposed voyage could be diverted to the conquest of Jerusalem, which, according to the Franciscans’ prophecies, would be the work of the “Last World Emperor” and one of the events with which God would prepare the world for the apocalypse. The monarchs, he said, smiled when he said it. Historians have usually supposed that theirs was a smile of skepticism, but really it was a smile of pleasure. Ferdinand, as heir to the apocalyptic prophecies that had surrounded the kings of Aragon for centuries, rather fancied himself as the Last World Emperor.

Going to sea made a critical difference to Columbus’s religious life. To medieval people, the sea was God’s arena, where the winds were his breath and the storms were his bolts and arrows. In the midst of the ocean, Columbus was, like St. Francis in his poverty, utterly dependent on God. His references to religion then began to take on a solemnity and profundity they never had before. Until then, Columbus seems rather to have exploited other people’s religiosity than to have felt it himself.

In the late 1480s, his failure to attract patronage was not solely the result of his egregious demands. None of the objectives he advocated seemed convincing to most experts. New Atlantic islands might well exist. So many had been found that it was reasonable to suppose that others might await discovery. But new islands remoter than the Canaries and Azores would be less profitable to exploit, even supposing that they were suitable for the cultivation of sugar or of some other product in high demand. The possibility of finding an unknown continent—the Antipodes, as geographers called it—seemed remote. The balance of antique geographical lore was against it. And even if it existed, it was hard to see what good could come of it, compared with explorations that opened a new route to the rich pickings of Asia and the eastern seas. Finally, the idea that ships could reach Asia by crossing the Atlantic seemed strictly impossible. The world was too large. Ever since Eratosthenes had worked out the math around the end of the third century BC, savants in the West had known roughly how big the world is. Asia was so far from Europe by the westward route that no ship of the day would be capable of making the journey. Supplies would be exhausted and drinking water would go foul while many thousands of miles remained to be traversed.

Yet during the 1470s and 1480s a minority of experts began to entertain the possibility that Eratosthenes was wrong and that the earth was a smaller planet than previously supposed. Readers will recall the story of Martin Behaim, the Nuremberg cosmographer who, in 1492, made the world’s oldest surviving globe to capture the smallness of the world. And among his circle of correspondents was Paolo Toscanelli, whose reputation as a cosmographer shone in his native Florence, and who wrote to the Portuguese court urging an attempt to reach China via the Atlantic. Antonio de Marchena, a Franciscan astronomer who was prominent at the Castilian court, and who became one of Columbus’s best friends and supporters, shared the opinion.

Under the influence of these theorists, Columbus began to turn from the fiction of chivalry to scour geographical books for evidence that the world is small. By misreading much of the data and misrepresenting the rest, he came up with a fantastically small estimate: at least 20 percent smaller than in reality. He also argued that the eastward extent of Asia had traditionally been underestimated. It would be possible, he concluded, to sail from Spain to the eastern rim of Asia “in a few days.” 4

So, after many failures and shifts of pitch, the project he eventually succeeded in selling was for a westward voyage to China, possibly breaking the journey at Japan, or “Cipangu,” as people called it then, which Marco Polo had located, with exaggeration, some fifteen hundred miles into the ocean beyond China. According to his own account of the final negotiations with his patrons, he stressed historical evidence that long-past rulers of China—whom he called by the title of “Grand Khan” affected by a dynasty dethroned in 1368—had written to the popes expressing interest in Christianity. Piety cloaked the promise of the commercial and political advantages Columbus advertised at other times. Using “India” to mean “Asia,” according to the usage of the time, he went on:

And Your Highnesses decided to send me…to the said regions of India to see the said princes and their peoples and lands and how they were disposed and the manner whereby their conversion to our holy faith might be effected; and you ordered that I should not travel eastwards by land, as is customary, but rather only by way of the west, where, to this day, as far as we know for certain, no one has ever gone.5

Did Ferdinand and Isabella go along with this scheme? No document committed them to the goal Columbus set for himself. His commission referred only to “islands and mainlands in the Ocean Sea.” The monarchs gave him letters addressed vaguely to “the most Serene Prince our dearest friend,” which Columbus firmly intended to present to the ruler of China. The monarchs were, however, anxious about the gains Portugal was making as a result of Atlantic exploration. Portugal had access to gold from beyond the Sahara and was investigating routes into the Indian Ocean. Castile had gained no new offshore resources beyond the Canary Islands. When it became apparent that Columbus’s project could be financed at no direct cost to the king and queen (the old nonsense about Isabella pawning her jewels to meet Columbus’s costs is another myth), there seemed no reason not to let Columbus sail and see what would happen.

The key investors in the voyage—a group of Italian bankers in Seville and court officials in Castile and Aragon—had already collaborated in financing a series of expeditions of conquest in the Canary Islands, and were in a position to monitor the improving yields of Atlantic enterprise. The three little ships and the men to crew them came from the port of Palos, thanks to the collaboration of the local fixer Martín Alonso Pinzón, who was, in effect, Columbus’s co-commander and potential rival on the voyage. Martín Alonso commanded the Niña; his brother, Vicente Yáñez, was captain of the Pinta, leaving the flagship, Santa María, to Columbus—who henceforth rather grandiloquently called himself “the Admiral.” By fitting the Niña with an all-square rig to match the other two vessels, the leaders of the expedition demonstrated their confidence that they would sail with following winds throughout the journey ahead.

They chose the Canaries as their point of departure. The reasons—though Columbus never explicitly declared them—are obvious. The archipelago included the port of San Sebastián de la Gomera, the most westerly harbor at the disposal of a Spanish fleet. The latitude matched what most cartographers estimated to be that of Guangzhou, the most famed port in the Chinese world. From Gomera, on September 6, they set their course due west. The plan was to keep going until they struck land.

It was more easily said than done. In the Northern Hemisphere, practiced navigators could maintain their course by celestial navigation with the naked eye, keeping the noon sun by day and the Pole Star by night at a constant angle of elevation. Columbus claimed to be able to do this himself—but he was routinely, mendaciously self-congratulatory, and it would be rash to believe any of his claims. A story that probably originates in one of his own accounts of his exploits captures the way he used navigational instruments. On September 24, after a series of phony landfalls, malcontents among the crew murmured to each other that it was “great madness and self-inflicted death to risk their lives to further the crazy schemes of a foreigner who was ready to die in the hope of making a great lord of himself.” 6 If crewmen did think that, they were right. “To be a great lord” was Columbus’s driving force. Some of them argued that “the best thing of all would be to throw him overboard one night and put it about that he had fallen while trying to take a reading of the Pole Star with his quadrant or astrolabe.” The story brilliantly evokes the outlandish boffin, practicing in ungainly isolation his newfangled techniques while struggling on a rolling deck with unmanageable astronomical gadgets.

In principle, quadrant and astrolabe are easy to use to establish latitude. You fix on the Pole Star through a narrow sighting on a rod linked to an armature and read your latitude from the corresponding point on the attached scale. In practice, the technique is maddeningly unreliable on an unstable surface. Defeated—like everyone else at the time who tried to use navigational instruments—by the pitch and roll of the ship, Columbus never used his precious technology accurately. Instead, he relied on a less glamorous and more traditional way of keeping his course. He had a copy of a common navigator’s almanac, which tabulated latitude according to hours of daylight. He kept track of time at night by a traditional method, observing the passage around the Pole Star of the Guard Stars in the constellation of the Little Bear. On September 30, for instance, he counted nine hours for the duration of the night, which gave him a figure of fifteen hours of daylight. He then plucked the corresponding latitude from his table. Over the voyage as a whole, the errors he recorded exactly matched misprints in the table. The instruments were mere flummery, wielded like a conjurer’s wands, to distract his audience from what was really going on.

An engraving illustrating one of the earliest editions of the first printed report of Columbus’s voyage captures the image he wanted to convey: he appears alone on his ship, manipulating the rigging, as if there were no one else there to share his burden; he represents the epitome of solitary, friendless heroism, and a triumph of self-generated resource. Columbus was prey to anxieties about isolation, and fears—verging on paranoia—of the perfidy of those around him. He was an outsider in all company, a foreigner excluded from the almost ethnic loyalties that divided his crews: the Basques, who rioted together; and the men of Palos, who owed allegiance to the Pinzón clan.

Four further themes dominated Columbus’s later memories of the voyage: phony landfalls, which undermined the men’s morale; fear, as the winds carried them westward, that they would never find a wind to take them home; increasing tension between co-commanders and between commanders and crew; and Columbus’s own barely perceptible doubts, which afflicted him increasingly as the expedition spent longer and longer out of sight of land.

He searched for signs—the swirl and fall of songbirds—and began implicitly to liken the journey to the voyage of Noah’s ark, recording or perhaps imagining visits of “singing landbirds” to his ship. The biblical allusions multiplied. On September 23 he reported “a high sea, the like of which was never seen before except in the time of the Jews when they fled from Egypt behind Moses.” 7 Columbus’s growing conviction that he had a sort of personal covenant with God was beginning to emerge; by the time he got back to Spain he had become a visionary, subject to periodic delusions in which a divine voice addressed him directly.

Columbus soon half-revealed to himself his own doubts of the distance to the Indies: a few days out from Gomera, he began to falsify the log, undercutting the number of miles in the figures he passed on to his men. Since his approximations of distance tended to be overestimates, the false log was more accurate than the one he kept for himself. His weakness for wishful thinking and his assumption that the ocean must be strewn with islands constantly excited hopes of land in the offing. The slightest indication—a chance shower, a passing bird, a supposed river—aroused expectations doomed to be dashed. On September 25 he declared himself certain he was passing between islands. He did not feel confident enough to turn aside to look for them, but he inscribed them on his chart. Meanwhile, he grew so alarmed at the crew’s anxieties that he was glad of an adverse wind. “I needed such a wind,” he wrote, “because the crew now believed that there were winds in those seas by which we might return to Spain.”8

By the end of the first week in October, when patience must have been at a premium throughout the fleet, Columbus and Pinzón met for an acrimonious interview. They ought to have found land by now, if Columbus’s calculations were right. Martín Alonso demanded a change of course to the southwest, where he expected Japan to lie. At first, Columbus refused on the grounds that it was “better to go first to the mainland.” But his resistance was short-lived. On October 7, attracted by those standbys of lost sailors—the flight of birds and the forms of clouds—or deflected, perhaps, by fear of mutiny, he altered course for the southwest. By October 10, the men “could endure no more.” That very night the crisis passed. The following day sightings of flotsam multiplied, and as night fell everyone seems to have been excitedly anticipating land. During the night, Columbus later claimed, he “had it for certain that they were next to land. He said that to the first man to call that he had sighted land he would give a coat of silk without counting the other rewards that the king and queen had promised.” 9

At two o’clock on the morning of Friday, October 12, five weeks into their journey, a seaman straining from the rigging of Martín Alonso’s ship set up the cry of “Land!” The agreed signal—a shot from a small cannon—rang out, and all three ships answered with praises to God. To the presumed chagrin of the lookout, Columbus claimed the reward for himself on the grounds that he had seen a light from land the previous night. Cupidity can hardly explain this stunningly unfair egotism. Columbus—in his self-appointed role as chivalric type—had to be the first to spy land, like the model hero of a Spanish version of the Alexander romance, in which Alexander sails to India and “Thus spake Alexander, the first of all his crew, / That he had seen the land ahead ere any seaman knew.” 10

What with unrecorded drift, the distortions of magnetic variation, and the untrustworthiness of the surviving fragments of his log, it is impossible to reconstruct Columbus’s course with absolute confidence. Therefore, we do not know exactly where he made landfall. His descriptions of places and courses generally are too vague and too riven with contradictions to be reliable. His accounts of his travels are highly imaginative—almost poetic—and readers who take them literally crucify themselves in struggling to make sense of them. All that is certain about the first island he touched when he reached the Caribbean is that it was small, flat, fertile, dotted with pools, and largely protected by a reef, with what Columbus calls a lagoon in the middle, and a small spit or peninsula on the eastern side: this formed an exploitable natural harbor. It could have been almost any of the islands of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The natives, according to Columbus, called it Guanahani. He christened it San Salvador. The island now called Watling is the least-bad match for his description.

To judge from the surviving materials, what impressed Columbus most were the natives. This does not necessarily reflect his own priorities, for his first editor, whose extracts from Columbus’s papers are almost all we have of the explorer’s account of his first voyage, was obsessed with the “Indians” of the New World. He selected what concerned them and, perhaps, left out much that did not. Four themes emerge from the narration of the encounter as we have it.

First, Columbus stressed the nakedness of the people he confronted. For some readers at the time, nakedness had negative connotations, rather as it might in the United States today, where it seems inseparable from lurid fears of sexual excess. Some late-medieval clerics were obsessed by fears of heretics whom they called “Adamites” and who supposedly believed that they were in a permanent state of innocence, which they signified by going naked, at least in their own congregations, where they were said to practice orgies of promiscuity. The sect seems to have existed only in overexcited minds. Hang-ups of this kind were not, however, as common then as they are now. Most of Columbus’s contemporaries would have thought well of nakedness. For classically inclined humanists, it signified the sort of sylvan innocence ancient poets associated with the “age of gold.” For Franciscans, who were the source of the most marked religious influences on Columbus, nakedness was a sign of dependence on God: it was the state to which St. Francis himself stripped to proclaim his vocation. Most readers at the time would probably have inferred that the people Columbus met were “natural men,” free of the accomplishments and corruptions of civilization.

Second, Columbus repeatedly compared the islanders with Canarians, blacks, and the monstrous humanoid races that were popularly supposed to inhabit unexplored parts of the earth. The purpose of these comparisons was not so much to convey an idea of what the islanders were like as to establish doctrinal points: the people were comparable with others who inhabited similar latitudes, such as Canarians and black Africans, in conformity with a doctrine of Aristotle’s; they were physically normal, not monstrous, and therefore—according to a commonplace of late-medieval psychology—fully human and rational. This qualified them as potential converts to Christianity.

Third, Columbus insisted on their natural goodness. He portrayed them as innocent, unwarlike creatures, uncorrupted by material greed—indeed, improved by poverty—and with an inkling of natural religion undiverted into what were considered “unnatural” channels, such as idolatry. By implication, Columbus’s “Indians” were a moral example to Christians. The picture was strongly reminiscent of a long series of exemplary pagans in medieval literature, whose goodness was meant to be a reproach to wicked Christians.

Finally, Columbus was on the lookout for evidence that the natives were commercially exploitable. At first sight, this seems at odds with his praise of their moral qualities, but many of his observations cut two ways. The natives’ ignorance of warfare establishes their innocent credentials but also makes them easy to conquer. Their nakedness might evoke an idyll, but, to skeptical minds it could also suggest savagery and similarity to beasts. Their commercial inexpertise showed that they were both uncorrupted and easily duped. Their rational faculties made them both identifiable as humans and exploitable as slaves. Columbus’s attitude was ambiguous but not necessarily duplicitous. He was genuinely torn between conflicting ways of perceiving the natives.

Columbus spent the period from October 15 to October 23 reconnoitering small islands. His observations of the natives show that he felt—or wanted to convince himself—that they were, in his eyes, becoming more civilized or, at least, more astute. In one place, they knew how to drive a bargain. In another, the women wore a sketchy form of dress. In another, the houses were well and cleanly kept. Through sign language, or interpreted from the utterances of the natives, indications multiplied of mature polities, headed by kings. Though we cannot know where to place these islands on a map of the Caribbean, they occupy an important place in the map of Columbus’s mind: serially aligned, leading onward toward the imagined “land which must be profitable.” In Columbus’s imagination, the first big piece of gold reported to him, on October 17, became an example of the coinage of some great prince.

The same tension of mounting expectations affected Columbus’s perceptions of the natural world. He claimed to see hybrid plants that cannot have existed. He noted the abundance of mastic where none grew. He speculated about dyes, drugs, and spices, which, he admitted, he could not identify. He got around the Caribbean by kidnapping or cajoling native guides to accompany his vessels. The islands were linked by canoe-borne trade, and the local navigators had complete mental maps at their disposal, which some of them supplemented, on a later voyage, by laying out a scheme for Columbus, using beans and pebbles.

From Columbus’s point of view, however, the trading prospects seemed desperately unpromising. One of the engravings accompanying his first printed report shows what he was after: in the lee of one of his island discoveries, a rich merchant galley lies, while merchants in oriental headgear and robes exchange rarities with natives onshore. The scene was fantastic, but Columbus was hoping to find such prospects opening in reality before his eyes, as proof that he was close to the prosperous economies of Asia. Instead, it seemed he had stumbled on a Stone Age obstacle course, where no one produced anything for which he would be able to find a market.

In his own mind at least, Columbus was approaching civilized lands and profitable trades. As he approached Cuba on October 24, he assumed he was about to find Japan or China. When he got there, he took refuge in vague descriptions unrelated to reality. Everything was of the sweetest and fairest. As it became increasingly obvious that the inhabitants were poor and improbable trading partners, he began to advocate their evangelization as an alternative justification for his enterprise. He adumbrated a vision of a purified Church peopled by unsullied innocents. Alternatively, the thought that the people could be enslaved to make up for the lack of other marketable goods kept obtruding. This was typical of Columbus, who never found it hard to simultaneously entertain incompatible thoughts.

Dissatisfied with Cuba, he tried to get away from the island, but adverse winds frustrated several attempts. Martín Pinzón, however, succeeded in making off on his own, and remained out of touch until the expedition was almost over. True to form, Columbus suspected his co-commander of disloyalty and seeking private gain. On December 4, Columbus at last escaped from Cuba and stumbled upon Hispaniola. For two reasons, it was the most important island he was ever to find. In the first place, it produced fair quantities of gold. This was the making of Columbus’s mission; without it, he would almost certainly have returned home to ridicule and obscurity. Second, the island housed an indigenous culture of sufficient wealth and prowess to impress the Spaniards. With some of the natives, Columbus could establish friendly relations—or so he thought—and fix in their territory the intended site of a future colony.

In what survives of his account, Columbus made little mention of the superior material civilization of the islands. But the elaborate stonework and woodwork, the ceremonial spaces, the stone-lined ball courts, the stone collars, pendants, and stylized statues, the richly carved wooden thrones, the elaborate personal jewelry all combined to convince him that Hispaniola was his best find so far, with the most promising environment and the most ingenious inhabitants. “It only remains,” he wrote to the monarchs, “to establish a Spanish presence and order them to perform your will. For…they are yours to command and make them work, sow seed, and do whatever else is necessary, and build a town, and teach them to wear clothes and adopt our customs.” 11 In Columbus’s changed perceptions of the people, all the agonies of Spain’s future in the New World were foreshadowed. A long-term colonial vision crowded out the quick pickings he formerly imagined—the exotic products, the commercial gain. In the unequal Arcady he now envisaged, the natives would be “civilized” in the Spaniards’ image, and the colonists would be teachers as well as masters. The Spaniards could suck like leeches, build like bees, or spread an inclusive web like spiders. Neither Columbus nor any of his successors ever resolved the contradictions.

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Natives’ nudity and timidity symbolize innocence, while the King of Spain beholds Columbus’s landfall. From a versified version of Columbus’s report (1493).
Giuliano Dati, Lettera delle isole che ha trovato il re di Spagna (Florence: Morigiani and Petri, 1493).

To understand the febrile mental condition that now overtook him, a leap of imagination is needed: what must it have been like to be isolated on what he called “that sea of blood,” thousands of miles from home, surrounded by unknown perils, baffled by an unfamiliar environment, for which neither reading nor experience equipped Columbus or any of his men, and surrounded by the unintelligible babble and gestures of captive guides? Not surprisingly in these circumstances, his grip on reality wavered. At first, for instance, he was disinclined to believe the natives’ stories of how they were hunted by cannibal enemies (though those stories were, in essence, true). Within a few weeks, however, he was entertaining far more bizarre fantasies: of islands populated respectively by Amazon women and bald men, of the enmity of Satan, “who desired to impede the voyage,” of the proximity of the fabled Prester John (according to medieval legend, a Christian potentate, dwelling supposedly in the depths of Asia, who longed to join a Western crusade).

In these circumstances, he claimed to have a sudden revelation. On Christmas Eve, his flagship ran aground. At first he was inclined to blame the negligence of a lazy seaman, who, against orders, left a boy in charge of the tiller. On reflection, the next day he saw the outcome rather differently, as the result of treachery by “the men of Palos,” who had begun by giving him a dud ship and ended by failing to ease it off the rocks. The wickedness of the crew seemed providentially ordained, as surely as that of Judas. “It was a great blessing,” he wrote, “and the express purpose of God that the ship should run aground there.” The event obliged him to leave some of his men behind—a garrison, which, he hoped, would become the kernel of a colony. The debris of the ship and the dregs of the crew would supply the needs of the moment. As if by a miracle, the ruin of the ship provided “planks to build the fort with and stocks of bread and wine for more than a year and seed to sow and the ship’s boat and a caulker and a gunner and a carpenter and a cooper.” 12

The disaster turned Columbus’s thoughts homeward. He had collected many samples of gold, pods of pungent chili, rumors of pearls, and some human specimens in the form of kidnapped natives to show off back at court. He had discovered the pineapple, tobacco—“some leaves which must be highly esteemed among the Indians,” 13 though he did not yet know what it was for—the canoe, and the hammock, a gift of Caribbean technology to the rest of the world and to seamen in particular. If he had not reached China or Japan, he had, he reflected, at least found “a marvel”—the realm of Sheba, perhaps, or the land from which the Magi bore their gifts of gold and aromatics.

On January 15, he encountered a fair wind for home. Curiously, he began by setting a course to the southeast, but he quickly reverted to what had surely always been his plan: heading north, combing the ocean in search of the westerlies familiar to him from his early experiences of Atlantic navigation. All went fairly well until February 14, when he ran into a terrible storm, which provoked the first of a long series of intense religious experiences that recurred at every major crisis of Columbus’s life. He expressed a sense of divine election so intense that nowadays it would be regarded as evidence of suspect sanity. God had spared him for divine purposes; he had saved him from the enemies who surrounded him; “and there were many other things of great wonder which God had performed in him and through him.” 14 After taking refuge in the Azores he arrived home, congratulating himself on a miraculous deliverance, via Lisbon. There he had three interviews with the king of Portugal—a curious incident that has aroused suspicions of his intentions. Martín Pinzón, from whom the storm had parted him, arrived at almost the same time, exhausted by the exertions of the voyage. He died before being able to present a report to the monarchs. Columbus had the field to himself.

Opinion was divided on Columbus’s achievement. One court cosmographer called it a “journey more divine than human.” But few other commentators endorsed Columbus’s opinions. Columbus had to insist he had reached or approached Asia: his promised rewards from the monarchs depended on his delivering on his promises in that respect. In the opinion of most experts, however, he clearly could not have reached Asia, or gotten anywhere near it: the world was too big for that. Most likely, Columbus had just encountered more Atlantic islands, like the Canaries. He might have stumbled on “the Antipodes”—an opinion many humanist geographers entertained with glee. “Lift up your hearts!” wrote one of them, “Oh, happy deed! That under the patronage of my king and queen the disclosure has begun of what was hidden from the first creation of the world!” 15

As it turned out, this was close to the truth: there really was a formerly unknown hemisphere out there. On a subsequent voyage, Columbus realized that he had indeed found what he called “another world.” But his contract with the monarchs was linked to his promise of a short route to Asia, and he was obliged to insist he had delivered on that promise, in order to claim his rewards. The explorers who followed up his voyages later in the decade proved that his route led to a vast area of continuous land without any of the characteristics, peoples, or products Europeans expected to find in Asia. But they went on looking for a westward route to the East. Maps of the sixteenth century generally underestimated the breadth both of the Americas and of the Pacific Ocean. Only very gradually in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did their true dimensions emerge.

Most of the gifts Columbus brought home had a certain exotic allure—captive natives, parrots, specimens of previously unknown flora—but no obvious exploitability. He did, however, have a small quantity of gold obtained from the natives by trade. And he claimed to have got near to its source. That alone made a return voyage worthwhile from the monarchs’ point of view. He departed on September 24, 1493.

Columbus’s course this time led sharply south of his former track to Dominica in the Lesser Antilles, along what proved to be the shortest and swiftest route across the Atlantic. Once he was back in the Caribbean, his picture of his discoveries crumbled. First, the stories of cannibals proved gruesomely true when the explorers stumbled on the makings of a cannibal feast on the island Columbus named Guadalupe. Then, more grisly still, he found on arrival on Hispaniola that the natives had massacred the garrison he left there; so much for the innocuous, malleable “Indians.” Then, as he struggled to build a settlement, the climate proved deadly. What Columbus had praised as ideally salubrious turned out to be unbearably humid. His men grew first restive, then rebellious. There were reports—or were they later embellishments?—of ghostly wailings by night and of shadowy processions of headless men grimly greeting the famished colonists in the streets.

The disappointments masked a stunning achievement. Between them, Columbus’s ocean crossings of 1492–93 established the most practical and most exploitable routes back and forth across the Atlantic, linking the densely populated belt of the Old World, which stretched from China cross southern and southwestern Asia to span the Mediterranean, with the threshold of the richest and most populous regions of the New World.

Other explorers rushed to exploit the opening. In consequence, the 1490s were a breakthrough decade in Europe’s efforts to reach out across the ocean to the rest of the world. In 1496 another Italian adventurer, backed by merchants in Bristol and the English crown, discovered a direct route across the North Atlantic, using variable springtime winds to get across and the westerlies to get back: his route, however, was imperfectly reliable and remained little developed, except for access to the cod fisheries of Newfoundland, for over a hundred years. Meanwhile, Portuguese missions to the Indian Ocean by traditional routes investigated whether that ocean was genuinely landlocked. In 1497–98, a Portuguese trading venture, commissioned by the crown and probably financed by Florentine bankers, attempted to use the westerlies of the South Atlantic to reach the Indian Ocean. Its leader, Vasco da Gama, turned east too early and had to struggle around the Cape of Good Hope. But he managed to get across the Indian Ocean anyway and reach the pepper-rich port of Calicut. The next voyage, in 1500, used the direct route without a serious hitch. Meanwhile, despairing of Columbus’s increasingly erratic behavior, Ferdinand and Isabella repudiated his monopoly and opened Atlantic navigation to his rivals. In 1498 Columbus effectively demonstrated the continental nature of his discoveries; before the decade was over, follow-up voyages by competitors confirmed the fact and traced the coastline of the New World from the narrows of the Central American isthmus to well south of the equator—probably at least to about thirty-five degrees south.

This breakthrough of the 1490s, which opened direct, long-range routes of maritime trade across the world between Europe, Asia, and Africa, seems sudden; but it is intelligible against the background of the slow developments in European technology and knowledge, and the acceleration of the benefits of Atlantic exploration in the previous decade. Was there more to it than that? European historians have long sought to explain it by appealing to something special about Europe—something Europeans had that others lacked, which would explain why the world-girdling routes, which linked the Old World to the New and the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, were discovered by European enterprise and not by that of explorers from other cultures.

Technology is inescapably an area to search. It would, for instance, have been impossible for explorers to remain long at sea or return home from unfamiliar destinations without improved water casks and suitable navigational techniques. Most of the technical aids of the period, however, seem hopelessly inadequate to these tasks. Navigators relied on the sheer accumulation of practical craftsmanship and lore to guide them in unknown waters. Columbus’s failure with the quadrant and astrolabe suggests a further conclusion: if such technology had been decisive, Chinese, Muslim, and Indian seafarers, who had access to similar tools centuries earlier, would have got farther faster than any of their counterparts from Europe.

The shipwright’s was a numinous craft, sanctified by the sacred images with which ships were associated: the ark of salvation, the storm-tossed bark, and the ship of fools. In partial consequence, it was a traditional business, in which innovation was slow. Little by little, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Atlantic and Mediterranean schools of shipbuilding exchanged methods of hull construction. Atlantic and northern shipwrights built for heavy seas. Durability was their main criterion. Characteristically, they built their hulls plank by plank, laying planks to overlap along their entire length and then fitting them together with nails. Mediterranean shipbuilders preferred to begin with the frame of the ship. Planks were then nailed to it and laid edge to edge. The Mediterranean method was the more economical. It demanded less wood and far fewer nails: once the frame was built, most of the rest of the work could be entrusted to less-specialized labor. Frame-first construction therefore spread all over Europe until by the sixteenth century it was the normal method everywhere. For ships expected to bear hard pounding, however, in wars or extreme seas, it remained worthwhile investing in the robust effect of overlapping planks.

The ships that carried the early explorers of the Atlantic were round-hulled and square-sailed—good for sailing with the wind, and therefore for tracing the routes outward from Iberia with the northeast trades and back via the Azores with the westerlies of the North Atlantic. Gradual improvements in maneuverability helped, as a result of tiny incremental improvements in rigging. In the fifteenth century, ships with at least one triangular sail appeared in the African Atlantic with increasing frequency—and sometimes with two or three, suspended on long yards attached by ropes to masts raked at an acute angle to the deck. These craft, usually called caravels, could sail close to the wind, tacking within much narrower confines than a conventional vessel when trying to beat their way across the path of the trade winds without being forced too far to the south: typically, caravels could maintain a course only thirty degrees off the wind. They were useful along the African coast but made no contribution to transatlantic sailing. Columbus scrapped the triangular rig of one of his ships in favor of the traditional square sails.

If technology cannot explain what happened, then most of the cultural features commonly adduced remain unhelpful, either because they were not unique to the western European seaboard, because they are phony, or because they were not around at the right time. The political culture of a competitive state system was shared with Southeast Asia and with parts of Europe that contributed nothing to exploration. The explorers of the modern world operated among expanding states and emulous competitors in every continent. Christianity was less conducive to commerce than Islam or Judaism, among other religions that value the merchant life as a means to virtue. The tradition of scientific curiosity and empirical method was at least as strong in Islam and China in what we think of as the late Middle Ages (though it is true that a distinctive scientific culture did become discernible later in Europe and in the parts of the Americas settled from Europe). Missionary zeal is a widespread vice or virtue, and—though most of our histories ignore the fact—Islam and Buddhism both experienced extraordinary expansion into new territories and among new congregations, at the same time as Christianity, in what we think of as the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Imperialism and aggression are not exclusively white vices. We have seen evidence of only one feature of European culture that did make the region peculiarly conducive to breeding explorers. They were steeped in the idealization of adventure. Many of them shared or strove to embody the great aristocratic ethos of their day—the “code” of chivalry. Their ships were gaily caparisoned steeds, and they rode the waves like jennets.

The Atlantic breakthrough is part of a huge phenomenon: “the rise of the West,” “the European miracle”—the elevation of Western societies to paramountcy in the modern history of the world. Thanks to the displacement of traditional concentrations of power and sources of initiative, the former centers, such as China, India, and parts of Islam, became peripheral, and the former peripheries, in western Europe and the New World, became central. Yet Europeans’ leap into global maritime prominence was not, it seems, the outcome of European superiority, but of others’ indifference and the withdrawal of potential competitors from the field. The Ottoman seaborne effort was stunning by the standards of the day. But straits stoppered it in every direction. In the central Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea, access to the oceans was through narrow channels easily controlled by enemies.

In other parts of the world to which we must now turn, opportunities were limited or neglected. Russia—overwhelmingly and inevitably in the face of an icebound ocean, despite the heroism of monks who colonized islands in the White Sea in the fifteenth century—was focused on expanding to landward. Chinese naval activity was aborted in the fifteenth century, probably as a result of the triumph at court of Confucian mandarins, who hated imperialism and despised trade. Civilizations in most other parts of the world had reached the limits of seaborne travel with the technology at their disposal, or were pinioned by winds or penned by their own diffidence. To understand Europe’s opportunity, we have to explore potentially rival regions. We can start by following Columbus’s imaginary trajectory, to China and the world of the Indian Ocean, and see what was happening there in and around 1492.

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