III. MAGELLAN AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE EARTH

The exploration of the earth progressed more rapidly than the charting of the skies, and with almost as disturbing influences on religion and philosophy. Geology advanced least, for the Biblical theory of creation was put beyond question by belief in its divine authorship. “If a wrong opinion should obtain regarding the creation as described in Genesis,” said the Italian-English reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, “all the promises of Christ fall into nothing, and all the life of our religion would be lost.”49 Aside from Leonardo’s scattered suggestions, the most significant work in geology in the first half of the sixteenth century was done by Georg Agricola. Note this passage from De ortu et causis subterraneorum (Basel, 1546) on the origin of mountains:

Hills and mountains are produced by two forces, one of which is the power of water, the other the strength of the wind; we must add the fire in the interior of the earth.... For the torrents first of all wash out the soft earth, next carry away the harder earth, and then roll down the rocks, and thus in a few years they excavate the plains or slopes.... . By such excavation to a great depth through many ages there arises an immense eminence.... Streams... and rivers effect the same result by their rushing and washing; for this reason they are frequently seen flowing either between very high mountains, which they have created, or close by the shore which borders them.... . The wind produces hills and mountains in two ways: either... it violently moves and agitates the sand, or also when, after having been driven into the hidden recesses of the earth... it struggles to burst out.50

Agricola’s De natura fossilium (1546) was the first systematic treatise on mineralogy; his De re metallica included the first systematic stratigraphy, and gave, as we have seen, the first explanation of ore deposits.

Ethnography produced two major works: the Cosmographia universalis (1544) of Sebastian Münster, and the Descriptio Africae (1550) of “Leo Africanus.” Al-Hasan ibn-Muhammad al-Wazzan was a Moor from Granada; he traveled through Africa, and south to the Sudan, with the avidity of Ibn-Batuta; he was captured by Christian pirates and sent to Rome as a present to Leo X, who, impressed by his scholarly attainments, freed and pensioned him. He responded by accepting Christianity and Leo’s name. During the next thirty years he composed his book, first in Arabic, then in Italian. Before it came from the press he returned to Tunis; and there he died in 1552, apparently in the faith of his fathers.51

It was an exciting age for geography. Reports poured in from missionaries, conquistadores, navigators, travelers, adding immensely to Europe’s knowledge of the globe. The Spanish who in this period conquered Mexico, California, Central America, and Peru were first of all adventurers, tired of poverty and routine at home, and facing with pleasure the perils of distant and alien lands. Amid the hardships of their reckless enterprise they forgot civilized restraints, frankly adopted the morality of superior guns, and accomplished an act of continental robbery, treachery, and murder forgivable only because here and there—if an interested party may judge—the ultimate result was a gain for civilization. Yet there is little doubt that the conquered were at the time more civilized than their actual conquerors. Think of the Mayan culture found in Yucatán by Hernández de Córdova (1517), and the Aztec Empire of the Montezumas conquered by Hernando Cortes (1521), and the socialistic civilization of the Incas destroyed in Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru (1526-32). We cannot know into what forms, noble or ignoble, these civilizations would have developed had they possessed the weapons to defend themselves.

The geographical revelation proceeded. Sebastian Cabot, under a Spanish flag, explored Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. De Soto crossed Florida and the Gulf States into Oklahoma. Pedro de Alvarado discovered the empire of Texas, and Francisco de Coronado moved through Arizona and Oklahoma to Kansas. The mines of Potosi in Bolivia began to send their silver to Spain (1545). Year by year the map of the New World was charted in gold, silver, and blood. The English and French lagged behind in the great raid, because those parts of North America which the Spanish and Portuguese left to them were poor in precious metals, and forbidding in forests. John Rut sailed along the coast of Newfoundland and Maine. Giovanni da Verrazano was sent by Francis I to find a northwest passage to Asia; he landed on North Carolina, entered New York harbor (which remembers him with a statue at the Battery), and rounded Cape Cod to Maine. Jacques Cartier, under the flag of France, sailed up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, and established a French claim to Canada.

The most impressive adventure in this second generation of transoceanic exploration was the circling of the globe. Fernāo de Magalhāes was a Portuguese who shared actively in many Portuguese voyages and forays, but, falling into disfavor with his government, he passed into the service of Spain. In 1518 he persuaded Charles I (V) to finance an expedition that would seek a southwest passage to Asia. The young King was not yet rich, and the five ships allotted to Magellan were so weatherbeaten that one captain pronounced them unseaworthy. The largest was of 120 tons burden, the smallest, of seventy-five. Experienced sailors were loath to enlist; the crews had to be made up in large part of water-front riffraff. On September 20, 1519, the fleet sailed out of the Guadalquivir at San Lucar. It had the advantage of sailing from summer in the North Atlantic into summer in the South Atlantic; but in March 1520, winter came, and the vessels were anchored while the crews spent five weary months in Patagonia. The giant natives, averaging over six feet in height, gave the comparatively short Spaniards a condescending friendliness; nevertheless the hardships were so endless that three of the five crews mutinied, and Magellan had to wage war against his own men to compel their continuance in the enterprise. One ship stole away and returned to Spain; another was shattered on a reef. In August 1520, the voyage was resumed, and every bay was eagerly looked into as possibly the mouth of a transcontinental waterway. Or November 28 the search sueceeded; the reduced fleet entered the Straits that bear Magellan’s name. Thirty-eight days were spent in the 320-mile passage from sea to sea.

Then began a dreary crossing of the seemingly endless Pacific. In ninety-eight days only two small islands were seen. Provisions ran dangerously low, and scurvy plagued the crews. On March 6, 1521, they touched at Guam, but the natives were so hostile that Magellan sailed on. On April 6 they reached the Philippines; on the seventh they landed on the island of Cebu. There Magellan, to assure supplies, agreed to support the local ruler against neighboring enemies. He took part in an expedition against the island of Mactan, and was killed in battle there on April 27, 1521. He did not circumnavigate the globe, but he was the first to realize Columbus’ dream of reaching Asia by sailing west.52

The crews were now so reduced by death that they could man only two ships. One of these turned back across the Pacific, probably seeking American gold. Only the Victoria remained. Juan Sebastián del Cano took command, and guided the little vessel, of eighty-five tons burden, through the Spice Islands, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the west coast of Africa. Hungry for supplies, the crew anchored the ship off one of the Cape Verde Islands, but they were attacked by the Portuguese, and half of them were jailed. The remaining twenty-two managed to get away; and on September 8, 1522, the Victoria sailed up to Seville, with only eighteen men (the rest were Malays) of the 280 who had set out from Spain almost three years before. The ship’s log recorded the date as September 7; Cardinal Gasparo Contarini explained the discrepancy as due to the westward direction of the voyage. The enterprise was one of the bravest in history, and one of the most fruitful for geography.

It remained for the geographers to catch up with the explorers. Giambattista Ramusio, the Italian Hakluyt, made the task easier by collecting, through thirty years, the accounts brought home by voyagers and other travelers; he translated and edited them, and they were published in three volumes (1550-59), thirteen years after his death. The progress made by the geographers in a decade becomes visible in comparing the 1520 globe preserved in the Germanisches National Museum at Nuremberg—which shows the West Indies but no American continent, and skips over a narrow ocean to Asia—with the three maps drawn up (1527-29) by Diogo Ribeiro, which show the coasts of Europe, Africa, and southern Asia with great accuracy, the east coast of the Americas from Newfoundland to the Straits of Magellan, and the west coast from Peru to Mexico. Probably copied from Ribeiro is the beautiful “Ramusio Map” (Venice, 1534) of the Americas in the New York Public Library. In the same alma mater is an early and faulty map by Gerhadus Mercator (1538), in which North and South America were first so named. (“Mercator’s Projection” belongs to 1569.) Peter Apian (1524) furthered the science by attempting to reduce geographical distances to precise measurements.

The effects of these explorations were felt in every phase of European life. The voyages of 1420-1560 nearly quadrupled the known surface of the globe. New fauna and flora, gems and minerals, foods and drugs, enlarged the botany, zoology, geology, menu, and pharmacopoeia of Europe. People wondered how representatives of all the new species had found room in Noah’s ark. Literature was transformed: the old tales of chivalry gave way to stories of travel or adventure in distant lands; the search for gold replaced the quest of the Holy Grail in unconscious symbolism of the modern mood. The greatest commercial revolution in history (before the maturing of the airplane) opened the Atlantic and other oceans to European trade, and left the Mediterranean in a commercial—soon, therefore, in a cultural—backwater; the Renaissance moved from Italy to the Atlantic states. Europe, possessing better ships and guns, a hardier, more acquisitive and adventurous population, conquered—sometimes colonized—one after another of the newly discovered lands. Native populations were put to unwontedly steady and arduous work producing goods for Europe; slavery became an established institution. The almost-smallest continent became the richest; that Europeanization of the globe began which has been so sharply reversed in our time. The mind of Western man was powerfully stimulated by the distance, immensity, and variety of the new lands. Part of Montaigne’s skepticism would root in the fascination of exotic ways and faiths. Customs and morals took on a geographical relativity that sapped old dogmas and certainties. Christianity itself had to be viewed in a new perspective as the religion of a minor continent amid á world of rival creeds. As humanism had discovered a world before Christ, and Copernicus had exposed the astronomic insignificance of the earth, so exploration and the commerce that followed it revealed vast realms beyond and ignoring Christianity. The authority of Aristotle and the other Greeks was damaged when it appeared how little of the planet they had known. The Renaissance idolatry of the Greeks declined, and man, swelling with Renaissance pride at his new discoveries, prepared to forget his lessened astronomic size in the expansion of his knowledge and his trade. Modern science and philosophy rose, and undertook the epochal task of reconceiving the world.

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