IN THE fourth century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great, provided a detailed rationale for why the earth should be spherical and not flat or any other configuration. “The sphericity of the earth,” he wrote in his treatise Meteorology, “is proved by the evidence of our senses.” Aristotle supplied several observable truths as evidence, the most compelling being that when mariners at sea sailed towards the shore they always saw first on the horizon the tallest mountains or buildings, or the top masts of other ships, before seeing the lower portions. Conversely, observers on shore saw the top of a ship’s mast first in approaching ships, and last in departing ships, just before they disappeared over the horizon. The ships, therefore, must have been sailing over a curved horizon; if the world was flat, this would not be the case. Aristotle’s simple logic was persuasive, and the idea became part of the intellectual discourse of the age. By Columbus’s time no educated person believed the earth was flat. Regarding the size of the earth, however, there was no agreement, and there had not been for over a thousand years.
Aristotle was convinced that the earth was quite large, with a circumference of 40,000 miles. Another Greek philosopher of the time, Archimedes, suggested a circumference of 30,000 miles. The Athenian philosopher Plato records his contemporary, Socrates, as claiming, “I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Hercules [the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar] and the river Phasis [in the Caucasus] live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions.” Socrates propounded no precise opinion of the earth’s size—only that it was surely larger than most people surmised. The most accurate estimate of the earth’s circumference came from the Hellenic-Egyptian scholar Eratosthenes, using a simple method of calculating the angle of the shadows produced by a wooden pole of a specific height at midday in two locations. Although his equation was considerably more sophisticated than this brief description, his premise was clear and simple and his accuracy quite remarkable: he calculated that the earth was about 25,000 miles in circumference. The correct figure is about 24,862 miles, so Eratosthenes was only off by a mere 200 miles or so. But although he was accurate, his reasoning was not accepted by his peers.
Speculating on the size of the world was one of the most fashionable and popular fields of inquiry for the Greek philosophers, and they collectively produced a great many estimates for the circumference of the earth. With so many subjective and uncontrolled variables to their calculations, it should come as no surprise that most of these ancient estimates were wildly inaccurate. In fifteenth-century Europe and around the Mediterranean, educated people accepted a geography of the world based primarily upon the writings and maps of a single individual: the long-deceased Greek philosopher and geographer Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy produced his Geography in the second century BC during the peak of ancient interest in the size and shape of the earth. For many centuries, however, his information was lost. During the era of political instability that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, scientific inquiry into distant unknown regions of the world was superseded by a preoccupation with the ethical and spiritual world. Maps were no longer an attempt to accurately represent the geographical features of the world, but instead devolved into simplistic, stylized route guides for travellers on pilgrimages. The intellectual regression of the Christian world at that time was a contrast to the flourishing of Islamic culture after the rise of Islam in the late seventh century. During Islam’s expansion throughout the Middle East and North Africa and into Spain, the study of many ancient Greek philosophers was taken up by Arabic scholars, who translated the works for their use and thereby saved them for posterity.
In the early fourteenth century, a monk named Maximus Planudes discovered an Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s Geography in Constantinople and commissioned maps to be constructed from the coordinates given in it. Later in the century a copy was sent to Italy, and it was soon translated into other European languages during the fifteenth century. Elaborate hand-drawn reconstructions of Ptolemy’s world atlas spread throughout western Europe, and the text of the treatise, aided by the development of the printing press in the fifteenth century, became well known to European scholars and collectors. The reintroduction of Ptolemy’s writings, and the rediscovered work of other ancient philosophers, shattered the European medieval world’s intellectual foundation. During the early years of the European renaissance the long-deceased Ptolemy enjoyed an unrivalled and unchallenged position as the world’s foremost geographer and astronomer, for no other reason than that his work survived the intervening centuries while the work of others did not. Thus, for cosmographers and geographers, the world according to Ptolemy became the accepted truth. But Ptolemy’s conceptualization of the world contained a major and fundamental error, an error that was introduced into the European world view of the fifteenth century.
Regarding the size of the earth, Ptolemy preferred the erroneous calculations of one of Eratosthenes’s near-contemporaries, Posidonius, who argued that the earth was only about eighteen thousand miles in circumference—two-thirds of the distance propounded by Eratosthenes. Ptolemy relied exclusively on this smaller figure when he produced the coordinates of his famous atlas, a work that came to define the known world for centuries. The rediscovery of Ptolemy’s ancient global atlas in the mid-fifteenth century, complete with its erroneous depiction of the continents and its vastly smaller estimation of the circumference of the earth, had initially given the idea to cosmographers and cartographers that on a spherical world you could reach the east by sailing west—it was basic common sense. Ptolemy’s chart of the world did not depict the Americas, however; it showed Asia only a short skip across the ocean from Europe.
Unlike the ancient Hellenistic interest in geography and the configuration of the earth, an interest founded on scientific curiosity and a genuine desire to place humanity within the cosmos, the newfound Portuguese interest in geography and cartography was based on greed, power and nationalism. This potent cocktail of narrow interests not only drove the succession of state-sponsored Portuguese voyages around the Horn of Africa and into the Indian Ocean in quest of gold, slaves and spices, but also led to one of the most intriguing voyages in the history of the world.
WHEN THE walls of the ancient city of Constantinople were battered to the ground by the siege cannons of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, the patterns of travel and trade in the Mediterranean that had reigned for centuries rapidly changed. One of the immediate consequences, as long-standing trade routes closed, was the decline of Genoa’s influence and power. Thousands of Genoese seafarers, cartographers and merchants emigrated from their home city seeking a livelihood, and a good many were drawn by the flourishing slave trade south along the African coast.
One of the beneficiaries of this great outpouring of Genoese talent was Portugal, then the pre-eminent maritime nation of Atlantic Europe. Portugal was opening new trade routes in Africa and the western Atlantic islands, secure in its monopoly by papal decree and international treaty. By 1481 there were so many Genoese in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, that King João II’s councillors advised the king to expel them from the country, out of fear that they would steal valuable trade secrets and launch illegal trading voyages. João was too shrewd a king to do this. Portugal was a small country and then had a population of only two million; the wealth of expertise in both trading and sailing brought by the migrating Genoese was far too valuable to the Portuguese seafaring community to be spurned because of xenophobia.
One of the Genoese expatriates, Christopher Columbus, had been washed ashore in 1476, when the five-ship merchant fleet in which he was sailing to Flanders and Britain was attacked and his ship sunk by a combined French-Portuguese fleet. The commonly accepted tale is that the wounded twenty-five-year-old swam the six miles to land by clinging to the shattered stump of a giant oar. He crawled ashore near Lagos in the Algarve, where several decades earlier Prince Henry had first launched caravels south along the African coast and begun importing slaves to Portugal. From Lagos, Columbus made his way north to Lisbon and joined his younger brother Bartolomeo, who had established a small mapmaking business in the Genoese quarter of the city.
Cartography was a thriving endeavour in Lisbon at the time, dominated by experienced Genoese immigrants and fuelled by the economic boom that Prince Henry had created by initiating the exploration of the West African coast. Sailors from around Europe’s Mediterranean and Atlantic shores congregated in Lisbon’s bustling streets. Spices, slaves and African gold, wool, sugar and other commodities crowded the warehouses along the waterfront, while hundreds of ships of all sizes jostled for space in the port. The languages spoken there were as diverse as the cargoes, and the people ranged from deep-black Africans to the palest Scandinavians. The city was perched on the rim of the known world; behind it, to the east, lay the ancient civilization centres of the Mediterranean; to the north lay Britain and Scandinavia, and the Baltic Sea, leading to northern Europe; to the south lay the dangerous and exotic lands of western Africa, yearly becoming more familiar due to the exploration of Portuguese caravels; to the west lay open ocean and the inspiring mystery of the unknown.
Using Portuguese sources and place names, the charts of the late fifteenth century, primarily drawn by Genoese immigrants, were the foundation of the Portuguese industry that was to become so vital in the coming century. Columbus worked with charts in his brother’s business and as a travelling merchant on various Genoese-led trading voyages; it was probably the combination of these professions that initially gave him the idea that there were yet undiscovered islands in the Atlantic, that the world was not yet completely known. He may at this time have started collecting documentary evidence for his great scheme to sail west to the east, as well as acquiring the practical experience of a mariner regarding currents and winds. The idea that sailing west across the Atlantic had to lead somewhere, most likely to Asia, would not have been a unique concept at the time, but it was one that Columbus pursued with the tenacity of a dog seeking a buried bone. He had no specific destination in mind; indeed he seems to have tailored his proposal to meet what he perceived to be the desire of his possible patrons: alternatively, new Atlantic islands, an undiscovered continent or a route to Cathay.
Information about Columbus’s early years, before he arrived in Portugal, is vague and misleading. Many historians speculate that he concealed his heritage out of shame for his humble upbringing. Later in life his self-aggrandizing and belief in his divinely ordained purpose helped to conceal his true family history, and claims such as “I’m not the first Admiral of my line” hint at an attempt to fabricate a myth that he and his family were always part of the upper echelons of society—merely down on their luck, or perhaps unjustly deprived of their rightful place.
Columbus probably was born in 1451, in the same year as Isabella, to a family of five. Both his parents, Domenico and Susanna, probably were weavers. Of his three brothers and one sister, he only ever spoke of Bartolomeo and Diego—the two brothers who, like him, had left home for greater things—and avoided all reference to his parents or to the brother and sister who remained near Genoa. He probably went to sea a young age, as early 1472, when he was twenty-one, but perhaps years earlier. Rumours that he briefly attended the University of Pavia are probably not accurate. One of Columbus’s contemporaries, Andreas Bernáldez, with whom he lodged in Castile while presenting his case to the Spanish monarchs in the early 1490s, reported that he was “a man of great intellect but little education.” His practical skills and knowledge were developed during the five years he sailed on Genoese vessels, touring the commercial world of the Mediterranean and southeast Atlantic.
Tall, red haired and handsome at the time of his shipwreck in 1476, the twenty-five-year-old weaver’s son continued his life at sea during the summer and devoted himself to intense study in the winter. Illiterate when he arrived in Lisbon, he began learning to read and write in Portuguese, the language of navigation and the Atlantic trade; Castilian, the more refined tongue of the upper classes of the Iberian peninsula; and Latin, the tool of scholars. He would need these languages to piece together a scientifically sound (sound, that is, according to the theories and knowledge of the day) proposal for a voyage across the Atlantic. That proposal, combined with an astute reading of the political and economic implications, would be necessary to secure financial backing for an audacious and danger-fraught expedition. Such an expedition, if successful, would provide the surest way for an extremely ambitious man to rise far above his station in an otherwise inflexible social hierarchy.
As a merchant trader, and probably a sugar broker, Columbus sailed as far north as England, Ireland and perhaps Iceland; east to Genoa; and as far south as the newly discovered Portuguese Gold Coast at Mina. He also sailed west into the Atlantic, to the islands at Madeira. Portuguese mariners had discovered and settled the Azores in 1439, the Cape Verde Islands in the 1450s and the Madeira Islands between 1418 and 1420 (the Canary Islands had been discovered in the late thirteenth century) and settled them, conquering and enslaving the indigenous population when they resisted. Wax, dyes and honey—and, later, sugar from slave plantations— were the primary commodities. Columbus was present for the early settlement of some of the Atlantic islands only decades after their discovery. While navigating the Atlantic to these island groups he became familiar with Atlantic winds and currents, as well as with the rumours and growing evidence that land could probably be found farther west. “Columbus would have been impressed,” writes Hugh Thomas in Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, “by how far out both these archipelagos [Madeira and the Azores] were in the ocean: one thousand [miles] and six hundred miles respectively from Lisbon.”
In the heady years of the end of the fifteenth century, many Portuguese voyages were made into the Atlantic, searching for more islands—why should there not be more islands in the Atlantic than those already discovered? Some of the rumours that prompted these voyages came from mariners who had sailed in ships that had been blown off course and who claimed to have seen land far on the western horizon. Drifting plant material periodically washed up on the shores of the islands. There were even unconfirmed claims by some sailors that they had visited them—Antilla and Hy Brasil and the Island of the Seven Cities—legendary places that nevertheless occasionally found themselves represented on maps of the time. Perhaps Columbus had heard the tales of the Norse expeditions west from Greenland, and of the existence of a land of grapes called Vinland, during his voyage to Iceland. There had been Norse settlements on Greenland for centuries; these had only died out in the early fifteenth century, during a period of cold weather known as the Little Ice Age.
COLUMBUS PROSPERED as a merchant seaman, and his ambition, confidence and increasingly educated opinions somehow won him a nobleman’s daughter as his wife in 1477. In his illuminating book 1492: The Year the World Began, the erudite historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto dashes a little cold water on any lingering romantic notions about the marriage: Felípa Perestrello y Moniz, he writes, was “one of the few noblewomen poor enough, marginal enough, and, by the time of their marriage, sufficiently aging to contemplate such a miserable match.” But whatever her personal attributes, she was the daughter of one of the founders of the settlement of the Madeira Islands and sister of the current hereditary governor of Porto Santo, the smaller and less prosperous of the two islands. She introduced Columbus to a more refined circle of acquaintances, including leading merchants, nobles and clerics, giving him the entree into Portuguese society that a footloose Genoese adventurer would have been forever denied.
Living in Lisbon and Madeira made Columbus heir to the decades of experience of earlier Portuguese mariners, while the spirit of the age called for farther and greater voyages. The possibilities seemed endless. Columbus’s career coincided with a remarkable period in history in which technological developments and intellectual currents favoured the prospect of ships taking daring voyages in new directions. Fortunately, the economics of trade now made such an undertaking potentially profitable; by the 1480s Columbus could boast of having sailed to nearly every region of the world then depicted on standard charts, including the grey waters of the Arctic and the blue expanse near equatorial Africa. As a result he was perhaps one of most travelled sailors of his time, and in addition he had a bookish knowledge of maps and evolving cartographic theory.
By the early 1480s, according to the biography written by his son Ferdinand, Columbus “began to speculate that if the Portuguese could sail so far south, it should be possible to sail as far westward, and that it was logical to expect to find land in that direction.” The navigator’s intellectual growth during the 1480s was aided by a close reading of Ptolemy’s Geography, a new edition of which was published in Bologna in 1477. The treatise implied that by sailing west from Europe a ship would encounter Asia, although the sailing distance was unspecified. Columbus also read Marco Polo’s Description of the World, complete with the Venetian traveller’s claims of an archipelago of thousands of islands lying east of the Asian mainland, and his claim that Cipango (Japan) was situated 1,500 miles east of the Asian mainland—a claim that, if true, meshed with Ptolemy’s speculations and placed Asia close to Europe. Could it not be possible that the Madeiras, so distant from the mainland of Africa, were the outlying islands of Asia discussed in Polo’s fanciful travelogue?
Another source read by Columbus at the time was Imago Mundi, written in 1410 by the Frenchman Pierre d’Ailly, a theologian and scholar at the University of Navarre who at one time had been the confessor to the king of France. D’Ailly claimed that the Atlantic Ocean “is not so great that it can cover three-quarters of the globe, as certain people figure it . . . It is evident that this sea is navigable in a few days with a fair wind.” In his own copy of d’Ailly’s work Columbus scribbled a reiteration and a mantra that he would declaim for many years: “There is no reason to believe that the ocean covers half the earth.” He read many other geographical works as well, and in the margins scrawled myriad thoughts that preoccupied him at the time: “All seas are peopled by lands”; “Every country has its east and west”; and “The Ocean Sea is no emptier than any other.” He later claimed, “I have made it my business to read all that has been written on geography, history, philosophy and other sciences.”
Columbus also wrote letters to Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, a respected Florentine physician, mathematician and astronomer who was the head of a large family spice-trading operation with contacts in the east. In 1474 Toscanelli had laid out his theory of a narrow Atlantic Ocean separating Spain from the Indies and had forwarded his views in a letter to the Portuguese king, Afonso V. “The end of the habitable earth towards the Orient and the end of the habitable earth towards the Occident are near enough, and between them is a small sea.” Toscanelli wrote that “the shortest route from here to the islands of the Indies where the spices grow [was] a route shorter than that via Guinea.” Some years later Columbus contacted Toscanelli, who in reply forwarded to Columbus, probably in 1481, a copy of the original letter with a cover note claiming that the emperor of China believed that the distance between Asia and Europe was only 3,400 miles, but that he, Toscanelli, believed it was more likely to be 6,500 miles; however, he was “persuaded that this voyage is not as difficult as is thought.” He concluded by wishing Columbus success in his “great and noble ambition to pass over to where the spices grow.”
It seemed an obvious and logical conclusion that if a ship headed west from Portugal or Spain it would eventually encounter islands or a mainland somewhere. According to Ptolemy, this land had to be Asia. The big question was how long it would take to reach these as-yet-undiscovered regions, and on this, opinions differed. Columbus also collected in his growing academic arsenal supporting his maritime scheme various other observations, speculations and mariners’ anecdotes that seemed to support his claims.
Toscanelli died in 1482, but by then Columbus had what he needed: a letter from the eminent scholar endorsing his own theory. Two years later, in 1484, aided by his wife’s connection to the Portuguese nobility, Columbus sought an audience with King João II, who had ascended to the Portuguese throne three years earlier and was now twenty-four years old. Ruthless and determined, João’s was eager to expand Portuguese maritime interests using the resources of the state. He had already dispatched Diogo Cão on his voyage south along the African coast and was intensely interested in further explorations in Africa, with the object of eventually pioneering a sea route to India.
Supremely confident of his success, Columbus, now a thirty-three-year-old adventurer-turned-courtier, presented an audacious proposal to the king and his newly created maritime committee in Lisbon, the Junta dos Matemáticos. The junta, an august body of specialists knowledgeable in maritime affairs, included respected cartographers, astronomers, navigators and ecclesiastical authorities, several of whom Columbus had already met, and luminaries such as Diogo Ortiz, bishop of Ceuta, and the court astronomer and physician José Viziñho. Brandishing his charts and books, Columbus laid out his technical arguments for the feasibility of a voyage west across the Atlantic Ocean to the fabled land of Cathay, or at least to some new Atlantic islands, or perhaps even an undiscovered continent or a new trade route to the Spice Islands.
According to Bartolomé de Las Casas, one of his early biographers, Columbus promised “that going by way of the West towards the South, he would discover great lands, islands and terra firma, all very prosperous, rich in gold and silver, pearls and precious stones, and an infinite number of people.” He hoped to inspire the committee with Marco Polo’s century-old claims that the land was, in almost the same language Columbus himself used, “most fertile in gold, pearls and precious stones, and they cover the temples and the royal residences with solid gold.” It was not an easy undertaking to arrange financing for such a daring and unprecedented voyage; certainly no merchant would ever gamble on something so speculative and dangerous. Nor would it be easy to raise a crew of greedy (or desperate) mariners. Columbus’s scheme was both expensive and improbable, and even a government would need a lot of coaxing.
Columbus was fairly adept at presenting his case to João II’s council, overestimating the extent of Asia and playing up claims and speculation about the narrowness of the Atlantic. Since scholarly opinions varied wildly, he compiled a selective presentation of the figures of whichever geographer’s or philosopher’s calculations best supported his scheme, which he called the “Enterprise of the Indies.” Columbus’s calculations began with Ptolemy’s universally accepted underestimation of the earth’s circumference and extravagant stretching of the eastern extent of Asia, emphasizing the venerable geographer’s unfounded belief that the earth’s surface was six-sevenths dry land and only one-seventh water. Relying on Marco Polo’s claims that thousands of islands lay between Asia and Europe, Columbus further shrank the width of the Atlantic Ocean that a ship would need to sail before encountering land. From this knowledge base, he required only a few further “adjustments” to produce an astonishing and fanciful picture of the geography of the world, a picture that completely supported his ambitious scheme.
By choosing the erroneous calculations of an Islamic geographer named Alfragan, Columbus then presented the distance of a degree of longitude, theoretically one-360th of the circumference of the earth, a full 25 per cent less than Eratosthenes had calculated, and 10 per cent less than Ptolemy. He then adjusted Alfragan’s calculations by claiming that the speculative geographer had used the shorter Italian mile for his calculations and that therefore the distance was even less because the miles then accepted in Portugal were slightly longer. Finally, Columbus claimed that these figures were based on a degree of longitude at the equator, but since his proposed route across the Atlantic was at 28 degrees latitude, the width of the Atlantic was yet another 10 per cent shorter. In all he produced figures showing that the distance of ocean he would have to cross to reach the Orient would be about 2,400 miles— certainly within the sailing capacity of Portuguese ships at the time. The actual distance, were it possible to sail through the Americas, is about 11,000 miles, more than four times Columbus’s figure.
Although the concept of voyaging across the Atlantic had existed since at least as early as 1474, several things worked against Columbus’s proposal in 1484. The Portuguese court had access to scholars well grounded in the very sources presented by Columbus, as well as in other sources, both ancient and contemporary. With the resources of the state at their disposal, these specialists possessed all the relevant works—far more than a man of Columbus’s means and social standing could ever hope to acquire or to read. with the papacy and the monarchs of Castile and Aragon? João IIalready had invested a lot of money and time in searching for an eastern route to the Indian Ocean and the Orient via Africa. The final consideration, and perhaps the greatest factor working against Columbus, was the exorbitant personal reward he demanded in the event of a successful voyage: nobility for himself and his descendants; the title of Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea; the position of “Perpetual Viceroy and Governor of all the islands and lands which he might discover or which might be discovered by anyone else under his commands”; and “a tenth of all the income accruing to the King from all the gold, silver, pearls, precious stones, metals, spices, and other valuable things, and from every kind of goods brought, exchanged, discovered, or acquired within the region of his admiralty.” The members of the junta were quite sophisticated in the knowledge of the times, and possessed a thorough understanding of cosmography and geography; they were well aware of Columbus’s selective presentation of facts and opinions. They were also capable of assessing the improbability of his success, even though their knowledge was also fatally flawed in being based on the ancient propositions of geography, a world view that did not allow for the existence of continents unknown to the ancients. The members of the junta assumed that the distance across the ocean would be too great for a ship to safely sail without running out of provisions and fresh water.
João II’s scholars, it should be pointed out, were also in the service of the Portuguese crown and not merely a collection of disinterested specialists. The king had no problem with spending state finances to fund voyages that were within their papal monopoly. But why should the Portuguese crown sponsor a voyage that would compete with those already underway, particularly when any new trade route with the Indies would not fall within its established, papal-affirmed monopoly in Africa and would therefore be open to competition or require further diplomatic entanglements Columbus, of course, wanted not only royal consent to his voyage but also complete state funding of the venture. Essentially he wanted to reap the rewards of a private enterprise while being entirely bankrolled by the state. Privately funded voyages were quite commonly given royal sanction but at no cost to the crown, while explorers such as Diogo Cão and Bartolomeu Dias were essentially employees of the state and received no private payback for their activities, however dangerous and glorious they might be.
Columbus wanted the best of both options: to have the government fund his risky venture but to reap the great reward should it succeed. To a man like João II, who had just broken the power of what he considered the excessive, even treasonous, independence of his aristocracy, and who had ruthlessly centralized authority in the crown, this proposal, which would give so much power, authority and wealth to another individual—a foreigner and an upstart, no less—was sure to be an uphill struggle.
But João was a shrewd and perceptive ruler, very interested in world geography as it pertained to increased commerce for Portugal, and Columbus’s plan was much debated among the king and his advisers. Duarte Pacheco Pereira, writing early in the sixteenth century about the state of affairs at the Portuguese court decades earlier, described the two sides of the debate: “There were many opinions in past time among the learned in Portugal as to the discovery of the Ethiopias of Guinea and of India. Some said it was better not to trouble about discovering the sea coast but to cross the ocean until you reached some country in or adjoining India and this would make the voyage shorter; others held that it would be better to discover the coast gradually and learn the routes and landmarks and peoples of each region, so as to have certain knowledge of the country they were seeking . . . It seemed to me that the second opinion, which was followed, was the better.”
When João II declined to fund or authorize Columbus’s grand scheme in 1484, he was heeding the advice of his technical advisers. The official conclusion of the junta was that they “considered the words of Christovao Colom as vain, simply founded on imagination or things like that Isle Cypango of Marco Polo.” They advised— and it seemed prudent at the time—that Portugal should continue with the more conservative and plodding approach of slowly extending its knowledge of Africa, funding each further venture south by establishing trade or seeking out valuable commodities to pay for it. The council informed João that Columbus’s estimate of the size of the world was way too small and offered as counterarguments the numerous examples of other estimates that were all based on equally—that is, unsound and inaccurate—scientific foundations. Even Ptolemy’s base estimate of the earth’s size, grossly and erroneously underestimated though it was, would have made the sailing distance to Asia prohibitively long. Surely, the junta claimed, any ship launched into this vast void would never return. The ship itself would be sunk in a monstrous storm, or more likely, the men would slowly perish from want of provisions and water, wasting away with dehydration and leaving the ship a lifeless barge of skeletons to be driven ashore on some distant rocky promontory.
The scholars did not doubt that Asia lay somewhere west across the vast ocean, but they doubted that the current maritime technology of Portugal was equal to the task of sailing so great a distance. “The Enterprise of the Indies,” they claimed, would surely fail and would be a total waste of the state’s resources—resources that would be better spent on the more assured success of rounding Africa by following the coast. “The Portuguese who rejected Columbus’s project had no choice,” writes Malyn Newitt in A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion. “They did only what might have been expected of any well-ordered government dealing with an adventurer of vast pretensions and meager attainments.” The Portuguese court historian João de Barros wrote that in his presentation to the council, Columbus was “garrulous” and “all puffed up with his own importance, boasting about his abilities and going on about this Cypango island of his with greater fantasy and imagination than substance.” King João II “gave him small credit.” There was greater optimism about the existence of more Atlantic islands, but their locations, so far from the European or African coast, would render their discovery nearly valueless.
Nevertheless, in the years after he turned down Columbus, João II, in an act of treachery or at least unscrupulous self-interest, encouraged at least one other mariner to attempt the same westward voyage to the Indies that Columbus had proposed, based on the information and rationale that Columbus had presented to the Portuguese court. A Flemish-Madeiran captain named Fernão Dulmo tried to sail west from the Azores with two caravels and received a royal grant of any lands he might discover. He was sailing as a private adventurer in caravels owned or leased at his own expense or financed by his backers. The cost to the Portuguese Crown was negligible. The ships were soon buffeted by contrary winds, and a terrifying storm forced them to abandon the quest after only a few days of sailing. João II gave royal consent and donations to several other explorers wishing to sail in pursuit of rumoured islands to the west, but these voyages departed from the Azores, sailing into the winds—a difficult undertaking going forward, but one sure to provide a safe return home. Meanwhile, and more importantly, Portuguese caravels yearly continued to inch south along the African coast.
Although the Portuguese mariners preceded all other Europeans in exploring west into the Atlantic, discovering, conquering and occupying the islands of Madeira and the Azores, Castilians were quick to take advantage of Portuguese expertise and experience. In 1474 Isabella offered state support to Castilian nobles and sea captains eager to check Portuguese expansion, which was progressing unchallenged in the Atlantic. Many years earlier French and Castilian adventurers had located and begun the conquest of another set of Atlantic islands, the Canaries. By 1477 Isabella and Ferdinand acknowledged the precedence of the noble Herrera clan in the conquest of the three smaller islands. A year later they authorized the further assault on the three larger islands by self-financed adventurers who raised mercenary armies to conquer the remaining islands. The battles raged on for years, as the local peoples—descended from the Berbers of North Africa, technologically primitive and isolated from the mainland for generations, and who still maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and dwelt in caves—fought ferociously for their independence. The largest island, Gran Canary, was not subdued until 1483, just after the Treaty of Alcáçovas recognized Spanish sovereignty over the islands, Ferdinand and Isabella’s first colonial venture. The Spanish assault on Palma Island and Tenerife deftly used intertribal rivalries to enlist the natives themselves in the conquest of these islands, which did not occur until 1492 and 1496, respectively. Many of the Canarians were enslaved and others were recruited as mercenaries, and as a result the indigenous population as a distinct, culturally autonomous population was nearly extinguished within a single generation. The Canary Islands, which lie farther south than either the Azores or Madeira Islands and much farther east than the Azores, were ideally situated to take advantage of Atlantic wind patterns that gusted southwestward into the open ocean, providing that a mariner had the courage to sail west without the security of being able to return against the winds along the same route— without, in fact, knowing how to return at all.
When João II and his junta dismissed Columbus, the Genoan surely felt that his prospects in Portugal were over. He had spent his small fortune and his savings in promoting his scheme. By 1485, his wife had died in childbirth and, with his five-year-old son, Diego, he fled Portugal and his hounding creditors by boarding a ship for Spain, departing secretly at night to avoid arrest. Columbus disembarked at Palos in the south of Spain, hiking along the dusty coastal road to the Franciscan monastery of La Rábida and begging for food for his son. At the monastery, there were many men who were knowledgeable and experienced in maritime matters and whose good opinion Columbus cultivated while he learned more about the maritime exploits of Castilian adventurers in the Canaries. Then, with letters of introduction from several influential monks, Columbus was introduced to two powerful Castilian nobles: the dukes of Medina Sidonia and Medinaceli, both of whom were intrigued by his unusual ideas but who realized that an undertaking of this nature needed to be carried out under the auspices of the crown—what if new lands were discovered and sovereignty had to be declared? They suggested that Columbus seek an audience with the king and queen and present his detailed proposal to them, including the tale of how King João was interested but was advised against the scheme by his council of specialists—not because it lacked merit but because the proposed voyage would have veered from the zone of Portuguese monopoly along the African coast.
After depositing his son with his deceased wife’s sister, who was living in nearby Huelva, Columbus made his way inland to Seville and Cordoba to track down the peripatetic court of Isabella and Ferdinand. In Cordoba he established himself within a community of respectable families and continued to nurture his relationships with influential people, regaling them with his tales and ideas. It was here that he was introduced to Isabella’s confessor and other powerful nobles. He also met Beatriz Enríquez de Arana, a young woman of modest means who became his mistress for several years. Throughout the fall of 1485, Columbus kept his eyes on the roving royal court, occasionally following it about the countryside, and in January 1486 he was able to secure his first meeting with the Castilian and Aragonese monarchs to present his case for “the Enterprise of the Indies.”
For Ferdinand and Isabella, now in their mid-thirties and with five children, the five years since the Treaty of Alcáçovas had brought them some time to consolidate their rule and bring stability to the troubled countryside. With the war for succession officially over after the treaty, the royal couple stabilized the internal quarrels of their divided kingdoms by channeling the military fervour and training of the nation’s nobles to foreign conflicts, uniting the erstwhile combatants against a common enemy. Always pious and devout, even for a devout age, they would later be popularly known as “the Catholic Kings,” so obsessed had they become with heresy in the church. This religious fervour, perhaps owing to the years they spent in hope and prayer as their rule was balanced on the outcome of a battle, the loyalty of a powerful noble, the decision of a far-off pope to grant a dispensation, or the whimsy or political expediency of the king of France, led them to a belief that their success could only have been divinely ordained. As an outlet for their gratitude or payment to the Almighty for securing them the throne against their enemies, they made far-reaching decisions that have echoed throughout history: they founded the Spanish Inquisition to purify the practices of the church in Iberia, they began to actively persecute the peninsula’s Jews and they renewed with vigour the military campaign against Granada, the sole remaining Moorish kingdom in Europe.
Henry Kamen sums up this strategy nicely in his book Spain’s Road to Empire. “ When the civil conflicts ended in Spain,” he writes, “the monarchs brought peace by the brilliant strategy of organizing rather than eliminating violence . . . They soon also set the entire south of Spain on a war footing, actively encouraged citizens to keep arms . . . to offset a new threat from the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus.” At the time Granada was a geographically isolated outpost in the southwestern corner of the peninsula with a population of about 500,000. In 1482 a simmering quarrel over its border with Castile, near the town of Alhama, led to the start of Isabella and Ferdinand’s campaign to annex the territory and further unite the Iberian peninsula. “The war was by no means a continuous one,” Kamen writes, “but rather—like most medieval wars—a long-drawn-out series of clashes and encounters, with extended intervals when nothing happened or when quite simply the soldiers went home to rest or to escape the heat of the summer. There were no pitched battles; attention centred on capturing specific towns, and the conflict took the form of skirmishes, raids and sieges. Periods of hostility alternated with periods of normal, peaceful contact.”
Granada was divided by its own internal dynastic squabbling and doomed by international support for Ferdinand and Isabella’s cause, which became a celebrated cause throughout the courts of Europe. The papacy supplied the bulk of the financing, with additional donations coming from across Europe, to what was perceived to be a sort of mini-crusade, a retaliation for the Islamic conquest of Constantinople a few decades earlier and the continuous Ottoman incursions into eastern Europe. Ever an astute statesman and leader, Ferdinand shrewdly emphasized the religious nature of the conflict, declaring that “we have not been moved to this war by any desire to enlarge our realms, nor by greed for greater revenues.” He proclaimed that the war was being waged “to expel from all Spain the enemies of the Catholic faith, and dedicate Spain to the service of God.”
In excess of 75 per cent of the total cost of the ongoing war was supplied by the papacy from a special cruzada levy. Mercenary bands from all over Europe were hired for the conflict, including archers from England, infantry from Switzerland (the most feared and efficient in Europe), Germany and France, and a contingent of heavy artillery from Italy. These great Italian cannons were successful in toppling ancient fortresses and towers, whose masonry could not withstand the assaults of heavy gunpowder weapons, even primitive ones. (Ironically, it was also great cannons that had allowed Mehmet the Conqueror to demolish the ancient walls of Constantinople.) Throughout the 1480s Ferdinand spearheaded a relentless assault that overpowered an ever-increasing number of towns and cities of Granada. His ongoing success was aided by Granada’s own internal fighting, in a sort of civil war over the succession that left the rulers unable to organize a concerted defence of their beleaguered realm. But the outcome of the war was far from a foregone conclusion. There were setbacks; and funding, despite the multiple sources, was always an issue, since war is expensive and uncertain.
In January 1486 Columbus finally secured an audience with Isabella and Ferdinand, who had only agreed to the meeting at the request of the duke of Medinaceli. Attired in expensive fashionable velvet instead of his usual workmanlike clothing, Columbus came to the audience prepared to persuade but with little knowledge of how these new monarchs would respond. He could count on their antipathy towards João II and on their religious fervour and greed, but what did they care about science and geographical curiosity? Columbus, however, was particularly good at tailoring his proposal to the interests of potential sponsors. His pitch to Ferdinand and Isabella hit the right notes with his claim to bring Christianity to pagans and his hints of the opportunity for gold and conquest.
At this time in Isabella’s life, as Nancy Rubin notes, the queen “was serious, decisive, unbending, resolute. She was also straightforward. She did not smile readily, though she had a taste for irony.” She was also intelligent and learned for the times, boasting a personal library of around four hundred tomes—impressive for the day—with many classics in Latin, yet also contemporary works. She encouraged printing presses to operate in her realms by giving them tax-free status and encouraged the import of books from throughout Europe. More knowledgeable and educated than her husband, Isabella was the one who later convened a council of experts to debate and deliberate Columbus’s proposals and to provide her with a professional opinion regarding his likelihood of success, the potential profit from such a venture and the legal ramifications. No doubt she specifically considered the reaction of fiery João II of Portugal and the strained history between them. Isabella was far from ignorant and was certainly concerned with international affairs. Ferdinand was more interested in the Canary Islands but had only really considered them as a beachhead for somehow thwarting the ambitions of João II along the African coast. Once again, Columbus’s proposals were intriguing if outlandish and audacious, and while his grandiose demands for compensation were nearly insulting, the monarchs were still curious. Their country, however, was preparing for war: troops filled the roads displaying their banners and livery, marching to the beat of drums; horsemen congregated in the armies of the nobles; and cartloads of food and supplies trundled south towards the border. In the prescient words of Bartolomé de Las Casas: “When monarchs have a war to deal with, they understand little, and wish to understand little, of other matters.”
Even after seeing the written support of several high-placed nobles and hearing the opinions of the learned monks with whom Columbus had stayed when he first arrived in Castile, the monarchs were hesitant. Though intrigued by the possibility of circumventing the Ottoman blockade of the spice route and getting “to the Spiceries” faster than the Portuguese in their inching south along the African coast, they could not commit to his bold scheme without further evidence. The war with Granada preoccupied them and consumed much-needed state resources.
Ferdinand and Isabella did what governments then as now did when presented with a potentially important proposal or problem they do not want to pass off, yet lack the knowledge to decide on prudently: they called a formal commission of inquiry. Headed by Hernando de Talavera, it was to consist of “people who were most versed in that matter of cosmography, of whom there were, however, few in Castile.” The commission also consisted of experienced sea captains and navigators and generally well-read and educated people. Unlike Portugal, however, Castile boasted few genuine experts in astronomy, cartography and cosmology. Considering Columbus’s patently outrageous manipulation of data to support his theory, the lack of qualified specialists probably worked in his favour. Assembling a committee competent to assess Columbus’s proposal consumed many months. The ongoing war with Granada was a constant disruption. Columbus was awarded a small annual stipend and a position at the court while he waited. But not until 1487 could the committee finally convene in Salamanca, with all parties having conducted such research as they were capable of.
Columbus’s arguments in favour of his voyage were much the same as those he had presented to João II three years earlier, with the same somewhat optimistically tweaked supporting documentary evidence, the same boasting of his seafaring abilities and certain success, and the same demands for lavish remuneration should he succeed. Hardly surprising, really, that the conclusion of the committee was also the same: the world could not possibly be as small as Columbus claimed. The voyage would be doomed to failure, and for the crown to officially support it might be an embarrassing show of ignorance or foolishness. Columbus’s stipend was rescinded, but he was offered one olive branch: when Granada was finally defeated, the monarchs might be willing to reconsider his proposal.
It must have been maddening for Columbus to have been turned down again after years of waiting. Not content to linger in uncertainty, he sent his brother Bartolomeo off to peddle “the Enterprise of the Indies” to the monarchs of England and France. Bartolomeo, however, was captured by pirates and held hostage for two years. In late 1487, Columbus wrote again to King João II of Portugal and requested another chance to present his case, asking for safe conduct from his creditors upon returning to Portugal. Recall that when Columbus had fled Portugal in 1485, he had left many debts behind him; he was in no position to pay them now. Perhaps because of the failed voyage of Fernão Dulmo or the slow progress of his ships along the African coast, João II was again interested in Columbus, who always projected an air of complete confidence in his success. In March 1488, the same year his mistress Beatriz Enríquez de Arana gave birth to their child and his second son, Ferdinand (who would later write his father’s biography), Columbus received a letter from the Portuguese king. João II offered him “warm greetings” and claimed that “we will have great need of your ability and fine talent. Therefore, we would be very pleased if you would come.”
Nearly two years earlier, João had dispatched the three caravels under the command of Bartolomeu Dias in a voyage south along the African coast to search for the sea route to India. Dias had been gone so long that it was believed he and his expedition were lost. Hedging his bets, the Portuguese king probably wanted to bring Columbus back to Portugal to renegotiate the terms for “the Enterprise of the Indies.” By December 1488, Columbus had returned to Lisbon and was reunited with his brother Bartolomeo in the city. They were preparing for an audience with the king when, miraculously, Dias and his weary crew sailed up the Tagus River with their astonishing tale of rounding Africa and sailing into the Indian Ocean.
Portugal’s monopoly over the eastern route to the Indies was now poised to become even more profitable, and Columbus knew his chances with João II were over. Why would the king now support a dubious project that lay outside of his papal monopoly, when Portugal’s success in sailing to the Indies seemed assured? Columbus would not be in Lisbon again until the spring of 1493, and then under an entirely different set of circumstances.
King Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile is shown looking stern and authoritarian in this stylized nineteenth-century engraving, based on fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century paintings.
Looking serene and wise, Queen Isabella is shown in middle age, around the time of Columbus’s voyage, in this nineteenth-century engraving. She defied King Enrique and eloped to marry Ferdinand of Aragon when she was a teenager in 1469, sparking a family feud and civil war in Iberia.
The mournful countenance of Juana, “La Beltraneja,” is depicted in this contemporary sketch of the young daughter of King Enrique of Castile and Juana of Portugal. She was compelled to enter a convent in 1480, after Isabella and Ferdinand defeated the Portuguese invasion led by Afonso V.
One of the portraits believed to be of Prince Henry the Navigator, who was credited for orchestrating the Portuguese naval exploration of the west African coast in the mid-fifteenth century.
King Afonso V, one of Portugal’s famous warrior kings, is shown in this contemporary portrait. Afonso sought for many years to marry the young Isabella of Castile and ordered Portuguese armies to march when his advances were spurned.
This stylized portrayal of one of the famous battles for Granada is depicted by the famous nineteenth-century French illustrator Paul Gustave Doré.
The ancient Roman-Egyptian astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy is shown in this fifteenth-century engraving.
The Ptolemaic world is depicted in this 1482 map by Johannes Schnitzer, compiled according to Ptolemy’s coordinates. Note the non-existence of North and South America and the short sailing distance from western Europe to Asia.
Columbus supplicates himself before Isabella and Ferdinand after his first epochal voyage, in this somewhat fanciful and idealized painting.
The notorious Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, is shown in this painting from the 1490s, by Cristofano dell’ Altissimo. The most famously corrupt of the Renaissance popes, Borgia in 1493 issued the papal bull that divided the world in half.
The title page of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, written in Latin.
The famous Cantino map from 1502 clearly shows the line of demarcation of the Treaty of Tordesillas running down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the coastline of newly discovered lands in South America and the Caribbean.