Post-classical history


AFTER COLUMBUS returned from the first voyage in early 1493, there was no con- sensus on where he had been and little practical information in circulation to support a particular interpretation. Although his letter to Luis de Santángel had been published in April, it contained precious little geographic data. Columbus estimated distances along and around the main islands of Española and Juana but offered no crucial distance for his discoveries in longitude or leagues west of either Europe or the known Atlantic islands. Of latitude, he only allowed: “[I]t is true that the sun is very fierce there, although it is twenty-six degrees north of the equator.” He gave no indication of which of his landfalls the latitude of 26° north applied to. And there was no map of his landfalls in circulation, nor would there be during Columbus’s lifetime.

Surely the Spanish court was given some idea of where he had been in order to secure the papal bulls of 1493. Yet Isabel herself had to prod Columbus to provide more concrete details. “Right away send me the navigation chart that you were supposed to make, if it is finished,” she wrote him from Barcelona on September 5, 1493, a few weeks before the second voyage’s departure. As Isabel also informed him: “No agreement has been made on the business of Portugal.”

Spain was deep into the negotiations that would turn the rights secured through Alexander VI’s inelegant and confusing bulls into a formal treaty with Portugal that would divide the world, discovered and undiscovered, along a meridian far out in the Ocean Sea. The bulls had granted Spain territories beginning at a meridian placed one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verdes and/or the Azores. Portugal wanted to divide the undiscovered world between the two nations along a meridian much farther west than that. Without an accurate chart of Columbus’s discoveries, the Spanish were negotiating in the dark and at risk of giving away what he had already found.

We have no idea if Columbus managed to provide the chart Isabel requested before he departed in September 1493. Rather incredibly, Fernando and Isabel nevertheless proceeded to conclude the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas without essential information from Columbus. Las Casas in his narrative of the third voyage would note how Columbus in his now-lost journal “mentions how the Sovereigns sent for him that he should be present at the meetings in regard to the partition” but that a grave illness contracted while exploring Cuba prevented him from returning to Spain from Española. This excuse seems dubious, as Columbus did not leave on that expedition until April 25, 1494. Still, without any direct input from Columbus, the treaty was signed on June 7, 1494. On August 16, Fernando and Isabel were still trying to get details out of Columbus on his latest discoveries—discoveries he had made in their name almost a year earlier in the Leeward Islands. He had sent back reports with the Torres flotilla that reached Spain in March 1494, but information obviously was lacking.

“Having seen all that you wrote to us, it is a great joy and delight to read [your letters] because you talk about things at such great length,” Fernando and Isabel wrote. “Nevertheless, we desire that you write something more about how many islands have been found up to now. Of those islands you have named, what name has been given to each, because in your letters you give the names of some but not all of these, the names that the Indians call them, how far it is from one to the another.”

Tordesillas at least was less ambiguous than the problematic bulls that inspired it. Portugal agreed to limit its territorial claims in the Ocean Sea to the east side of a meridian that it had been able to persuade Spain to shift to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verdes. (The treaty also eliminated the problematic inclusion of the Azores in the papal bulls of 1493.) The third voyage’s narrative would relate Columbus’s understanding that João II suspected profitable lands lay somewhere to the south and west of the Cape Verdes. Portugal’s demand to move the meridian so far west has long raised suspicions that it already knew South America, particularly Brazil, was out there and that much of it would fall within its territory. In any event, any lands to the west of the meridian would be left to Spain.

Although the 1493 bulls strongly implied that the rights granted to Spain applied only to waters south of the Canaries as per Alcáçovas of 1479 and the bull of 1481, Portugal and Spain agreed in Tordesillas to cleave the world between themselves from pole to pole along the defining meridian. But all the challenges of determining the location of the dividing meridian remained.

Determining a degree of longitude accurately was so far beyond the abilities of mariners, geographers, and astronomers that cartographers could place new discoveries on whichever side of this dividing meridian suited a monarch’s purposes, as proving otherwise was next to impossible. Fernando and Isabel sent a copy of the treaty to Columbus with the August 16, 1494, letter, asking him or his brother Bartolomé—who had recently joined him at Española—to mark the position of the dividing meridian on a chart for them. “It seems to us that line, or border, that is to be made is an extremely difficult matter requiring great wisdom and trust.”

Spain plainly had agreed to the Portuguese insistence that the crucial meridian be shifted to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verdes without actually knowing precisely where it would end up in relation to Columbus’s finds, especially his most recent ones. In the hands of enterprising Portuguese cartographers, the meridian would continue to shift westward toward Columbus’s Caribbean discoveries. And far to the north, Cabot’s finds soon would create a new frontier of dispute over who had a right to a novel shore, based on the meridian along which Spain and Portugal had agreed to divide the undiscovered world.

THE TREATY OF TORDESILLAS called for a joint Spanish-Portuguese surveying expedition to depart from the Cape Verdes within ten months of the treaty’s signing in order to agree on the meridian’s location. There is no evidence that any such expedition took place, although the Portuguese could have sent out vessels of their own to investigate Columbus’s finds. Columbus meanwhile truly did his utmost to keep the details of his discoveries to himself.

His published and widely circulated letter to Santángel addressed his suspicion that Cuba, which he called Juana, was the mainland, but on balance he seemed satisfied that it was in fact an island, as he went on to write in that letter: “I can say that this island is larger than England and Scotland together.” But before leaving on the second voyage, he had decided Cuba was a peninsula of the mainland. Pietro Martire wrote to Ascanio Sforza in Milan on September 13, 1493, shortly before Columbus departed Cadíz, and in sharing news of the original discoveries he referred to the Golden Chersonese, or Malay Peninsula. Martire’s letter was the first indication that Columbus was advancing Cuba as this peninsula. A year later, Martire firmly made Cuba the Golden Chersonese in an October 20, 1494, letter to Giovanni Borromeo, based on Columbus’s own conclusions: “[Columbus] declares that he has pushed his way from Española so far toward the West that he has reached the Golden Chersonese, which is the farthest extremity of the East.”

Most of the sailors who accompanied Columbus on his coasting of the south shore of Cuba on the second voyage thought he was wrong in insisting that the apparent island was part of the mainland, according to Michele da Cuneo, who was along for that cruise. Nevertheless, to enforce his views, Columbus made the participating sailors, masters, and pilots swear aboard the Niña on June 12, 1494, that Cuba was indeed part of the mainland. Recorded the notary Fernand Perez de Luna: “I placed them under a penalty of 10,000 maravedis and the cutting out of the tongue for every time that each one hereafter should say contrary to what they should now say: and if it shall be a ship’s boy or a person of such condition, that he should be given one hundred lashes and have his tongue cut out.”

But Columbus could not control the minds or tongues of learned men back in Spain (and elsewhere in Europe) or relieve the widely held skepticism that had greeted his scheme before he had even sailed in August 1492. Martire captured that persistent skepticism in a letter written on October 1, 1493, to the Archbishop of Braga, Petro Inghirami.

A certain Columbus has sailed to the Western Antipodes, even, as he believes, to the very shores of India. He has discovered many islands beyond the Eastern ocean adjoining the Indies, which are believed to be those of which mention has been made among cosmographers. I do not wholly deny this, although the magnitude of the globe seems to suggest otherwise, for there are not wanting those who think it but a small journey from the end of Spain to the shores of India; however this may be, they declare that a great thing has been accomplished.

Drafting the first volume of his Decades, which he may have begun working on as soon as the following month, Martire (who otherwise admired and celebrated Columbus’s achievements) was firmer in his own skepticism. “He [Columbus] says that he has discovered the Island of Ophir,” a source of Solomon’s adornments for the temple of Jerusalem, according to the Old Testament’s Kings III; in Columbus’s time, Ophir was considered to be in the Indian Ocean, south of the Ganges. However, Martire cautioned, “if we take into account the teachings of the cosmographers, those islands are the Antillas and other adjacent ones.”

Columbus did his best to dictate the geographic lexicon. In a letter drafted November 20, 1493, while he was at Puerto Rico, en route to Española on the second voyage, he called the series of islands he had just discovered the “East Indies.” Columbus’s term “Indies” would endure (albeit as the West Indies), but “Antilla” had momentum of its own. The Leeward Islands chain that he had just sailed through also would become known as the Lesser Antilles, and Cuba, Jamaica, Española, and Puerto Rico the Greater Antilles. Even in some Spanish commercial records of 1497, the Indies discoveries were called las islas de Antilla. Columbus was officially referred to in one Spanish document in 1497 as almirante del mar oceano de las yndias de Antilla (Admiral of the Ocean Sea of the Indies of Antilla).

In her letter to Columbus of September 5, 1493, Isabel had more indulgently called him “her admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy and governor of the islands newly found in the Indies.” Fernando and Isabel may not have believed he actually had reached the Indies, as he claimed, but it didn’t matter, so long as whatever he had found teemed with its own promised riches and provided a base for a trading station on the edge of the Orient. Columbus persisted in arguing that his discoveries were where he said they were. By early 1494, however, the first hard intelligence of the actual location of his finds began to leak out. Not only did it suggest that he had not reached the Indies as claimed; it indicated that some other enterprising individual could still find them.

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE for Columbus to suppress all details of his discoveries after twelve of the 1493 armada’s seventeen ships and an untold number of its estimated twelve hundred participants returned to Spain in March 1494, while he remained behind in the Indies. Even so, surprisingly little seemed to escape into the wider world—and his own monarchs would be begging for details the following August.

Over the next year or two, a few gleanings of useful if occasionally confused geographic data emerged. It was understood from the published Santángel letter that Columbus’s finds involved an observation of latitude 26° north but, as noted, the letter did not explain what specific discovery fell along this line. The more critical issue was how far west his finds lay, above all if there was any reason to believe that he had sailed as far as the Indies.

Giambattista Strozzi, who was probably a merchant from the Florentine Strozzi family, wrote a letter from Cadíz on March 18, 1494, a surviving copy of which ended up at the court of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua. Florentine interest in the Indies went beyond a curiosity in travelers’ tales. Florence was where Toscanelli wrote his crucial letter and drew his (lost) map in 1474. It was also where Conti’s true Indies experiences were set down by the papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini in 1439 and were published in 1492, in a volume dedicated to Pietro Cara, who was departing on a journey of his own to India by traveling east as Conti had done along the Muslim trade routes.

The Torres flotilla had arrived at Cadíz on March 7, and Strozzi had availed himself of the usual commodities of Columbian hyperbole. “They brought with them gold worth about 30,000 ducats, according to what they say; much cinnamon, but white like Arabian ginger; pepper in pods like the broad bean, very strong but not substantial like that from the Levant; logs which they say are sandalwood, but white; parrots like falcons and red like pheasants.” The gold and the parrots were the only authentic items the flotilla would have possessed.

Noting the ships had returned from “the said islands of the Antilles,” thus reiterating the general wisdom of where Columbus had actually been, he then wrote: “They place the said island[s] more than forty-three degrees [west], [from] 26 degrees to/within 31 degrees, below the Equator, according to report.”

Strozzi’s latitude figures were perhaps the result of deliberate disinformation. But his mention of “more than 43 degrees” can be only a westward measure of longitude. A span of forty-three degrees of longitude west of the Cape Verdes (which was in the process of being adapted exclusively as the reference point for Tordesillas) is an excellent result for Española. The accuracy is a testament to the skills of pilots of this era in dead reckoning, by which progress was measured by observing compass course and estimating ship speed with a trailing log line. By the time this information reached Strozzi at Cadíz, there had been five separate ship crossings (three there, two back) in 1492–93 and twenty-nine more crossings (seventeen there, twelve back) in 1493–94: a tremendous amount of dead-reckoning data that pilots could compare.

On December 29, 1494, Pietro Martire touched on the dimensions and location of Española in a letter to his friend Polonius Laetus. By then Martire had received a letter from Columbus, which must have been carried home on a supply flotilla that returned that November.

“This island of Española is in shape like the leaf of a chestnut tree: it is situated in twenty-six degrees of latitude on its northern side and twenty-one on its southern,” Martire wrote. Those figures were off by several degrees. Latitude 26° it would turn out was an excellent result for Columbus’s initial landfall in the Bahamas, but the north coast of Española lay along latitude 20°, and the south coast around latitude 18°. Martire also said the island was 49 degrees west of Cadíz. The latter measure brings to mind Strozzi’s “more than 43 degrees,” but Columbus would never have said Española was as close to Cadíz as 49 degrees. Apart from being significantly wrong—the actual span is more than 70 degrees—the figure would have seriously undermined Columbus’s claim to having sailed about one-third of the way around the world in reaching the Indies. Martire’s mention that the figure came from “those who have accurately measured it” suggests that his sources were mariners returning on one of the flotillas. The number Martire had offered also was likely inspired by Tordesillas and actually referred to a distance in degrees west of the Cape Verdes.

The apparent accuracy of the Strozzi and Martire longitude measures west of the Cape Verdes was a problem for Columbus. The figures indicated that Española was not much farther than one-sixth of the way around the world. Little surprise that so many believed Columbus had only reached Antilla.

To resolve the debate, a way to more directly determine degrees of longitude was needed. It wouldn’t matter then how large or small the circumference of Earth was and how far around it men thought they’d sailed in leagues based on dead reckoning. If it could be shown that two places on Earth were separated by 120 degrees of longitude, for example, then they were separated by one-third of Earth’s circumference, regardless of the actual leagues involved.

As it happened, when Martire wrote his friend Polonius Laetus in late December 1494, Columbus had recently conducted the most scientific effort yet to determine the longitude of Española. The solution to the problem probably had already struck the astronomical experts soon after Columbus returned from the first voyage; they just needed the celestial opportunity to apply it.

BECAUSE THE WORLD ROTATES once every twenty-four hours, every degree in 360 degrees of longitude is equal to four “clock minutes” of rotational time. Thus when Columbus wrote in July 1503 of having sailed westward for “nine hours” in reaching Cuba in 1494, he was referring to total longitude covered. The distance across the Ocean Sea to the Indies, he was arguing, spanned 135 degrees of longitude from Portugal’s Cape St. Vincent, or three-eighths of the way around the globe.

The rotating Earth is also a kind of clock that allows local times to be used to calculate differences in longitude. Astronomers understood that if a celestial event is observed from two different locations, and the local times of the event are precisely recorded, the time difference could be converted into the separation in longitude of the places of observation. If an event occurs at 1:00 P.M. local time in one place and at 7:00 P.M. in another, the six hours of difference for an event observed simultaneously translates into 360 minutes of time, or 90 degrees of longitude. The observers are one-quarter of the way around the world from each other.

But few celestial events were available to a late fifteenth-century observer that could be seen without a telescope (which would not exist for more than a century) and also occurred frequently enough for coordinated observations in two widely separated locations to be readily made. A person also had to be able to predict an event so that observations could be planned and coordinated. Fortunately, the Nürnberg astronomer and mathematician Regiomontanus (Johann Müller) had published in 1474 his Kalendarium, which provided tables of unprecedented accuracy forecasting eclipses until 1525. Using the Kalendarium’s data, which predicted dates and times of eclipses in Europe (with a table of time adjustments for different cities), Columbus could work out a longitude based on a single observation in the Indies, although a precise observation in Europe as well would be needed to confirm the result.

With no useful solar eclipse forecast, the only alternative was a lunar eclipse, which takes place when Earth passes between the sun and a full moon, casting the moon into shadow. The Kalendarium had predicted one for April 1, 1493, and that night, with Columbus en route from Seville to Barcelona for his audience with Fernando and Isabel, the full moon turned a rusty crimson in the Spanish night sky. If the lunar eclipse solution had not occurred already to Spain’s astronomers, then it surely came to mind as Columbus arrived at court in Barcelona to report on where he had been on the first voyage.

The Kalendarium promised two lunar eclipses in 1494, on March 21 and September 14; there would not be another one until January 18, 1497. With Columbus preparing to return to the Indies in September 1493, the 1494 eclipses presented timely opportunities to settle the matter of how far around Earth, toward the presumed location of the Indies, Columbus’s discoveries actually lay.

Columbus appears to have made sure he was at La Isabella on March 21 to observe the first 1494 eclipse, pausing there between a twenty-nine-day overland expedition he had made on Española in search of gold and embarking on his survey of the south coast of Cuba on April 25. But the eclipse was of no use because it began shortly before seven in the evening at La Isabella, as the moon rose from the sea to the east; the shadow’s initial appearance would have been impossible to see at dusk. The next eclipse, September 14, 1494, would be the last chance to attempt a longitude fix by celestial observation for more than two years.

Columbus had just inspected the entirety of the south coast of Cuba and had also visited Jamaica for the first time, where the reception had been hostile and his men killed about two-dozen Arawaks with crossbows and lombards. As the eclipse forecast by Regiomontanus approached, Columbus found himself a place of observation: an island on the southeastern tip of Española. He made a gift of it to Michele da Cuneo, naming it La Bella Saonese in honor of Cuneo’s home of Saona; today it is known as Isla Saona. Cuneo extravagantly claimed the island had thirty-seven settlements and at least thirty thousand inhabitants. He went ashore and busied himself making improvements, clearing brush and cutting down trees, erecting a cross as well as a gallows as symbols of his righteous authority. After playing at being lord of La Bella Saonese on this cruise, Cuneo would never see it again.

Columbus left Cuneo to his feudal fantasies and waited for his eclipse. Timing the precise moment of its beginning, or of its full state, would have been a terrific challenge. A Nürnberg locksmith, Peter Henlein, had invented in 1490 the coiled mainspring, which allowed the introduction of small tabletop clocks for portable timekeeping, but the minute hand would not appear until 1577 in a clock created for astronomer Tycho Brahe. Once the eclipse began its own clockwork motion, however, Columbus would have recognized that his ability to insist Española was anywhere close to the edge of the Indies mainland was in an astronomical race against time.

If Española was one-third of the way around the world and it could be successfully observed in darkness, then the start of the eclipse would not be observable back home, as an eight-hour difference in the local time of observation meant the sun by then most likely would be up and the moon would have sunk below the western horizon. If, however, observers in Spain or Portugal could see the start of the eclipse—before daybreak, before the moonset—then Española had to be much closer to Spain than Columbus contended if he too witnessed it. By the same token, if the eclipse did not start early enough at Saona, Columbus would know, based on the event’s predicted time for Europe, that he was far closer to Spain than he had been arguing.

On September 14, the full moon began to rise from the Caribbean Sea virtually due east on the horizon from Isla Saona shortly before 6:00 P.M. Twilight gathered; the moon continued to climb. Ten minutes before midnight, Earth’s satellite began to dim from the upper left quadrant, and by 2:00 A.M. it was in full eclipse. It was not the result Columbus was hoping for.

In the manuscript of religious writings that would be published long after his death as his Book of Prophecies, he wrote that the eclipse told him the difference between Isla Saona and Portugal’s Cape St. Vincent was cinco oras y más de media—five and more than one-half hours of longitude. Las Casas would give this as precisely five hours and thirty-three minutes. That was about 25 percent larger than the actual measure of about four and a half hours, but it nevertheless placed eastern Española less than one-quarter of the way around the world.

Using the data in Regiomontanus’s published eclipse predictions, Columbus worked out his five-and-a-half-hour estimate of the longitudinal separation on the spot. He could not expect the result to improve in his favor through an observation in Spain: The eclipse had started too late at Saona for it to have been visible at home if he was anything like one-third of the way around the world.

As pilots in relief flotillas refined their dead-reckoning results, Columbus could not continue to defend the idea that Española was on the far side of the world. His initial solution was to grossly exaggerate the east–west dimension of Española, stretching the island like saltwater taffy in order to extend his discoveries farther west, beyond Isla Saona and in particular La Isabella, where the ships called. The Martire letter of December 29, 1494, said the island spanned 19 degrees of longitude, when it actually covers less than 7.

But as Española became better known to mariners and colonists, a wild inflation of its westerly dimensions could not be sustained. Columbus instead had to grossly exaggerate Cuba’s westerly sprawl, in order to extend net progress toward the Asian landmass while continuing to defend his portrayal of Cuba as a large peninsula of that landmass.

Columbus doubtless suppressed his observational result of the eclipse at Isla Saona. Michele da Cuneo recounted how Columbus actually prevented a cleric who disagreed strongly with his geographic views from returning to Spain with Cuneo in early 1495. The man was “an abbot of Lucena, a very knowledgeable and very rich man who came alone to these regions for his pleasure, to see new things. This man is a good astronomer and cosmographer.” The abbot disagreed that Cuba was mainland and said it was “a very big island. The majority of us, considering the course of our voyage, agreed with this opinion. For this reason the lord admiral did not want to let him return to Spain with us, since if he were asked his opinion by his majesty the king, he might with his answer cause the king to abandon the enterprise. The admiral will keep him there.”

The abbot appears to have accompanied Columbus and Cuneo on the controversial coasting of Cuba’s southern shore, which led directly to the lunar observation at Saona Island. If the abbot was as capable an astronomer and cosmographer as Cuneo asserted, he would have been one of those men who assisted in—or actually conducted—the observation (for as the Genoese notary Antonio Gallo wrote in 1506, Columbus’s eclipse calculation was made possible “by the observation of his men”) and would have been additionally dangerous to Columbus as an eyewitness to the results. Columbus could hardly threaten such a man with the loss of his tongue, but he could prevent the cleric from leaving the Caribbean and loosing his tongue in Fernando and Isabel’s presence.

In 1506, Gallo would further state: “[Columbus] said that, by the observation of his men, when an eclipse appeared in the month of September, in the year of our Lord 1494, it had been seen in Hispaniola four natural hours earlier than in Seville. From this computation, one can gather that the island is four hours distant from Cadíz in Spain.” Columbus had at some point compared his Saona data with an actual observation in Spain and achieved a more accurate result that was even more damning when it came to his claims that he had reached the Indies.

As the moon, glowing orange as if burning from within, sank from view in the west on September 15, 1494, a new day dawned in Seville. The ruling council of the city gathered. Within hours of the eclipse that held an essential truth about Columbus’s discoveries, these leading citizens hired “Johan Caboto, Venetian, inhabitant of this city,” to build a new bridge across the Guadalquivir to its maritime district of Triana.

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