Post-classical history

Chapter 4
Brave new worlds

In 1482 a printing press in the German town of Ulm published a new edition of Ptolemy’s Geography. Its world map captured what the world looked like to Europe’s 15th-century ruling elite. Ptolemy wrote his Geography in Alexandria in the 2nd century ad. Arabic scholars had preserved and revised the text prior to its translation into Latin by the end of the 14th century. Medieval Christian geography had been limited to schematic maps, known as mappae mundi, which were religious symbols of the Christian understanding of creation. They placed Jerusalem at their centre, with little or no attempt to understand or represent the wider world. Ptolemy’s Geography transformed 15th-century perceptions of the shape and size of the earth. His text listed and described over 8,000 places, as well as explaining how to draw regional and world maps. The geometrical grid of latitude and longitude that Ptolemy threw across the known world provided the template used by the 15th- and 16th-century voyages of trade and discovery, which began to shape today’s modern image of the globe, and which form the basis of this chapter.

For a late 15th-century ruler or merchant, the Ulm version of Ptolemy provided a reasonably accurate representation of the world of the time. ‘Europa’ and the Mediterranean, ‘Affrica’ and ‘Asia’ are all recognizable. What seems erroneous to us today is the omission of the Americas, Australasia, the Pacific, the bulk of the Atlantic


12. Ptolemy’s world map from one of the new printed editions of his classical text Geography, published in Ulm in 1482

Ocean, and the southern tip of Africa (without which the Indian Ocean is represented as a giant lake). Ptolemy’s world centred on the eastern Mediterranean and central Asia, on cities like Constantinople, Baghdad, and Alexandria. These locations represented the predominant international reality of educated people from the 2nd century ad right down to the close of the 15th century.

The Geography was owned by princes, clerics, scholars, and merchants eager to display their own awareness of geography and travel through possession of expensive manuscript copies of Ptolemy. However, working maps that survive from the 14th century show the mixed cultural traditions that shaped the Renaissance world. The anonymous Maghreb chart, dated around 1330, is a practical example of the so-called ‘portolan’ charts used by merchants and navigators to move across the Mediterranean. The ‘rhumb’ lines that criss-cross the map aid compass bearings and allow navigators to sail reasonably accurate courses. Produced in either Granada or Morocco, it demonstrates the circulation of geographical knowledge, navigation skills, and trade between Christian and Muslim communities. Of its 202 place names, 48 are of Arabic origin, the rest Catalan, Hispanic, or Italian. Based on the expertise of Arab, Jewish, and Christian navigators and scholars, it was practical charts such as these that enabled the first tentative seaborne voyages beyond the bounds of Europe.

Rounding the Cape

In 1415 the Portuguese captured the Muslim city of Ceuta in Morocco. The victory gave Portugal a springboard for expansion down the West African coast. Taking advantage of its geographical location facing out into the Atlantic, the Portuguese crown sought to break into the trans-Saharan trade routes, circumventing the need to pay crippling tariffs that burdened overland and seaborne trade routes via North Africa back into southern Europe. As the


13. This sea chart, or ‘portolan’, the ‘Maghreb chart’, was drawn in North Africa around 1330 and shows how shared knowledge shaped Mediterranean navigation

Portuguese crown claimed Madeira (1420), the Azores (1439), and the Cape Verde Islands (1460s), the trade in basic materials like timber, sugar, fish, and wheat became more important than the glamorous search for gold. This led to a redefinition of the aims of seaborne discovery and settlement on the part of the Portuguese crown.

Once they had settled the Azores, the Portuguese were sailing south into uncharted territories, or what was labelled on Ptolemy’s map ‘Terra Incognita’. Having reached the limit of Mediterranean traditions of navigation and map-making, the Portuguese employed the services of Jewish scholars to develop solar tables, star charts, astrolabes, quadrants, and cross staffs to calculate latitude according to the position of the sun, moon, and stars. By the 1480s these scientific developments were so successful that the Portuguese had rounded Sierra Leone and established trading posts (or feitoria) along the Guinea coast.

The commercial encounters that stemmed from these developments had a noticeable impact upon the culture and economy of communities in West Africa, Portugal, and the rest of mainland Europe. The mingling of people led to the creation of autonomous mixed-race communities in West Africa, referred to as lançados. Copper, horses, and cloth were also traded for gold, pepper, ivory, and ebony. By the end of the 15th century the gold shipped back to Lisbon allowed Portugal to issue its first national gold coin, the crusado, and embark on an ambitious public building programme that fused classical, Mughal, and Persian motifs, and which even today can be seen as far afield as Lisbon, Goa, and Macau.

In December 1488 Bartolomeu Diaz returned to Lisbon to announce that he had sailed around the southernmost tip of Africa. A contemporary Portuguese geographer recorded that Diaz realized ‘that the coast here turned northwards and north-eastwards towards Ethiopia under Egypt and on to the Gulf of Arabia, giving great hope of the discovery of India’. As a result Diaz ‘called it the “Cape of Good Hope”’. The news rendered printed maps still reproducing Ptolemy’s view of the world increasingly obsolete. From now on, European voyagers really were sailing into ‘terra incognita’, a whole New World where they could no longer rely on classical authority.

East is east

One observer who was particularly impressed by these discoveries was the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, who was present at the Portuguese court when Diaz returned with news of his circumnavigation of the Cape. It was Columbus’s observation of the practical achievements of the Portuguese navigators and his immersion in classical geography that led him to make a fateful decision. Columbus accepted Ptolemy and Marco Polo’s massive overestimation of the size of Asia. But he also realized that, if Ptolemy’s estimate of the circumference of the world were correct, then a voyage to Asia that sailed westwards from Europe would be much shorter than the south-eastern route followed by the Portuguese. Columbus calculated that the westward distance between Japan and the Azores was 3,000 miles. It was in fact over 10,000 miles. Ptolemy’s calculations on both the size of Asia and the globe were wrong. If Columbus had known this, he might never have embarked on his voyage in 1492.

Columbus first proposed the idea to the Portuguese court in 1485, but his plan was rejected because of Lisbon’s success in pursuing the sea route to the east via southern Africa. So Columbus took his proposal to the Castilian crown. Castile was in financial trouble due to its ongoing struggle against the Iberian Muslims. The possibility of cornering the market in spices and gold from the east was too good to miss, and they offered Columbus financial backing. On 2 August 1492, Columbus finally departed on his first voyage from Palos in southern Spain, in command of 90 men in three ships.

After nearly two months sailing westwards across the Atlantic, on Thursday, 10 October, Columbus sighted the Bahamas, where he landed and encountered locals, who ‘were all very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces’, and were also perceived to be ‘good servants and of quick intelligence’. Columbus was impatient ‘to leave for another very large island, which I believe must be Cipangu [Japan], according to the signs which these Indians whom I have with me make; they call it “Colba”’. Columbus was convinced that he was on the verge of reaching Japan. ‘Colba’ turned out to be Cuba. He skirted the coast of Cuba and Haiti, before wrecking his flagship and heading home with small traces of gold and several kidnapped ‘Indians’.

Columbus’s return to Europe caused a diplomatic storm. This was not because he had discovered a ‘New World’ – he still clung to the belief that he had reached the east by sailing west. Portugal objected that the Castilian-backed expedition broke the terms of an earlier agreement that guaranteed the Portuguese monopoly on all discoveries ‘beyond Guinea’. But the ambiguity of this phrase, and the intercession of a sympathetic Spanish pope, granted the new discoveries to Castile under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). The treaty also stipulated that a map be drawn up with a line of partition defining the relative spheres of interest of the two crowns. The delegates agreed that ‘a boundary or straight line be determined and drawn’ running down the Atlantic, ‘at a distance of three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands’. Everything to the west of this line belonged to Castile, everything to the east (and south) belonged to Portugal. Castile got what it believed was a new route to the east, while the Portuguese protected their African possessions and passage to the east via the Cape of Good Hope.

The jewel in the crown

Columbus’s initial ‘discovery’ of America was seen as a failure. He appeared to have discovered a new territorial obstacle blocking the path to a shorter, commercially lucrative route to the east. The Portuguese, delayed in their attempt to capitalize on Diaz’s discovery of the Cape by Columbus’s voyage and the subsequent diplomatic dispute, dispatched another expedition round the Cape with the explicit aim of reaching India. In July 1497 Vasco da Gama left Lisbon with 170 men in a fleet of four heavy ships, each carrying 20 guns and a variety of trade goods. As he rounded the Cape, da Gama found himself in completely uncharted waters. Even worse, Portuguese navigational aids based on astronomical calculations were useless in the unfamiliar skies of the Indian Ocean.

Landing in Malindi, da Gama hired the services of an Arab navigator-astronomer, reputed to be one of the finest pilots of his time:

Vasco da Gama, after he had a discussion with him, was greatly satisfied with his knowledge: principally, when he [the pilot] showed him a chart of the whole of the coast of India drawn, in the fashion of the Moors, that is with meridians and parallels . . . And when da Gama showed him a large astrolabe of wood which he had with him, and others of metal with which he measured the altitude of the sun, the pilot expressed no surprise, saying that some navigators of the Red Sea used brass instruments of triangular shape and quadrants with which they measured the altitude of the sun and principally of the Pole Star which they most commonly used in navigation.

These techniques were completely unknown to European navigators. Jewish astronomical expertise had taken the Portuguese as far as the Cape. Now Islamic navigational skill would finally help them reach India.

Not only did the Arabic pilot provide da Gama with the navigational expertise required to sail across the Indian Ocean. He also unwittingly disclosed just how extensive the development of Arabic science and astronomy had become. Just as Ptolemy’s classical textson geography and astronomy had been transmitted from Alexandria to Constantinople, Italy, Germany, and Portugal, so they had also circulated eastwards via Damascus, Baghdad, and Samarkand. Mehmed the Conqueror’s patronage of Ptolemy’sGeographyrepresented just one dimension of the vigorous tradition of Islamic astronomy and geography. In 1513 the Ottoman naval commander known as Piri Reis issued a world map that its author claimed ‘is based mainly on twenty charts and mappa mundi, one of which is drawn in the time of Alexander the Great, and is known as dja’grafiye’. This was a reference to Ptolemy’s Geography. Piri Reis also consulted ‘new maps of the Chinese and the Indian Seas’, plus ‘one Arab map of India, four new Portuguese maps drawn according to the geometrical methods of India and China, and also the map of the western lands drawn by Columbus’. The Ottoman court in Istanbul was clearly keeping a close watch on developments in the western Atlantic.

Only the western portion of Piri Reis’s map survives, but its detail suggests that the representation of the Indian Ocean would have been equally comprehensive in incorporating new Portuguese maps into the astronomical and navigational expertise of Islamic, Hindu, and Chinese pilots and scholars. Piri Reis’s comments emphasize the extensive level of cultural exchange and circulation of knowledge that underpinned the Age of Discovery. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians were all trading information and ideas in an attempt to capture the political and commercial initiative.

Navigationally speaking, da Gama and his expedition believed that they were sailing into a new world. They soon discovered that culturally they were entering a surprisingly familiar world in which they were seen as dirty, violent, and technologically backward. Da Gama reached Calicut on the southern coast of India in May 1498, but the gifts that he had brought were more appropriate for trade in Guinea than ceremonial presentation to the elegant court of the Samorin of Calicut. When the local merchants saw da Gama’s


14. Piri Reis’s world map (1513) shows how geographical information circulated between east and west

motley presentation of cloth, coral, sugar, oil, and honey, ‘they laughed at it, saying it was not a thing to offer to a king, that the poorest merchant from Mecca, or from any other part of India gave more’. This inability to present suitable gifts produced political tensions and restricted the Portuguese to limited bartering. Nevertheless, the small but precious cargo of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, drugs, and precious stones and woods that da Gama presented upon his return to Lisbon in September 1499 convinced the Portuguese court that they had finally broken into the spice trade.

Portugal’s entry into the trading emporium of the Indian Ocean was no more than a drop in the ocean. The region’s ritualized patterns of trade and exchange and the sheer magnitude and diversity of its commodities dwarfed the supply and demand of the early Portuguese fleets. The Portuguese responded with a pragmatic accommodation and acceptance of different methods of exchange, exploitation of political differences between Hindu and Muslim communities, and the use of gunpowder in establishing limited commercial footholds throughout the region. However, back in Europe maps, books, and diplomatic exchanges reported da Gama’s voyage as establishing Portugal’s monopolization of the Asian spice trade.

The effect of the Portuguese commander’s voyage was to transform the political map of the Renaissance world. Venice immediately attempted to sabotage discussions with Indian spice merchants who had arrived in Lisbon to discuss Portugal’s role in the trade, and opened talks with both the Ottomans and the Egyptian Mamluks with the intention of using both diplomatic and military force to defend their commercial interests. In 1511 Portugal responded by negotiating with the Persian ruler Shah Ismail for a joint military attack on Egypt, that would strangle Venice’s spice supply and help Ismail in his war with the Ottomans. As so often in the Renaissance, when trade and wealth were at stake, religious and ideological oppositions melted away.

Global ventures

By 1502, the first major phase of seaborne travel had reached its climax. Ptolemy’s world picture had been shattered and a recognizably modern image of the world had started to emerge. The Portuguese had rounded Africa, reached India, accidentally discovered Brazil en route to the east (1500), and were pushing on to Malacca (1511), Hormuz (1513), China (1514), and Japan (1543). To the west Columbus’s three voyages to the Americas had established a thriving trade in gold, silver, and slaves. In four voyages between 1497 and 1502, Amerigo Vespucci proved that Columbus had discovered a new continent. Disseminating his discoveries via the printing press, Vespucci ensured that it would be him and not Columbus who became synonymous in the European imagination with this new continent, America. Castile now had a separate continent to claim as its own, and an empire to build that could rival its Iberian neighbour.

With the revision of the European geographical imagination came a transformation in the texture of everyday life. The spices that flowed back into Europe affected what and how people ate, as did the influx of coconuts, oranges, yams, and bananas (from the east) and pineapples, groundnuts, papayas, and potatoes (from the Americas). The term ‘spices’ could also refer to a dizzying array of drugs (including opium, camphor, and cannabis), cosmetics, sugar, waxes, and cosmetics. Silk, cotton, and velvet changed what people wore, and musk and civet altered the way that they smelt. Dyes like indigo, vermilion, lac, saffron, and alum made Europe a brighter place, while porcelain, amber, ebony, sandalwood, ivory, bamboo, and lacquered wood all transformed the public and private domestic interiors of wealthy individuals. Tulips, parrots, rhinoceroses, chess sets, sexual appliances, and tobacco were just some of the more esoteric but prized goods that reached Europe from east and west. Lisbon itself was transformed into one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, where it was possible to buy virtually anything. Princes displayed jewels, armour, statues, paintings, bezoar stones, and even parrots, monkeys, and horses in cabinets of curiosity, and Albrecht Dürer enthusiastically listed his acquisition of African salt cellars, Chinese porcelain, sandalwood, parrots, and Indian coconuts and feathers.

In 1513 the Portuguese finally reached the Moluccas, a small collection of islands in the Indonesian archipelago that provided the sole supply of cloves. This discovery provoked a serious political crisis. Since the Treaty of Tordesillas Portugal had pursued its commercial interests to the east, while Castile had concentrated on expansion to the west. This was fine when plotted on a flat map of the type obviously used under the terms of Tordesillas. But the discovery of the Moluccas posed the question of where such a line would fall in the eastern hemisphere if it were drawn all the way round the world on a globe.

Enter the Portuguese pilot, Fernão de Magalhães, better known today as Ferdinand Magellan. He suspected that a western passage to the Moluccas would be shorter than the Portuguese route via the Cape of Good Hope. However, in reviving Columbus’s original idea of reaching the east by sailing west, Magellan faced the problem of Portuguese opposition to such a plan, so he offered the scheme to the Castilian king and future Habsburg Emperor Charles V. It was an ambitious commercial proposition that required investment in a long-distance voyage, a typical example of the motivation for so many Renaissance voyages of ‘discovery’. Magellan’s aim was not to circumnavigate the globe. His proposal was for a voyage that sailed westwards to the Moluccas, then came back via South America. This would claim the Moluccas for Castile on the basis of diplomatic and geographical precedent, cutting off Portugal’s supply of top-quality spices and diverting Lisbon’s wealth to Castile. Magellan’s successful pitch for financial support was based on global thinking. He arrived in Seville in 1519 with ‘a well-painted globe showing the entire world, and thereon traced the course he proposed to take’. Globes, not maps, were now the objects that most accurately captured the political and commercial geography of the 16th-century world.

Magellan quickly convinced Castile. He set sail in September 1519. Sailing down the coast of South America, Magellan had to suppress mutiny, and lost two ships searching for a way through the strait at the tip of South America that now bears his name. He spent weeks sailing across a Pacific Ocean that was larger than his maps suggested. The fleet finally reached Samar in the Philippines in April 1521, where Magellan got embroiled in a petty local conflict, and was killed alongside forty of his men. The remnants of the fleet set sail again and finally reached the Moluccas where they loaded cloves, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, and sandalwood. Unable to face the planned return journey through Magellan’s Strait, the crew agreed to return via the Cape of Good Hope, running the risk of capture by patrolling Portuguese ships. Their decision made global history. On 8 September 1522 just 18 of the original crew of 240 arrived back in Seville, having completed the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe.

The news of Magellan’s voyage caused diplomatic uproar. Charles V immediately interpreted the voyage as a justification for claiming that the Moluccas lay within his half of the globe. His advisers began to build a diplomatic and geographical case for possession. The Castilians cleverly used classical authority to support their claim. Ptolemy’s overestimation of the size of Asia played into their hands. By repeating the inaccurate width of Asia in their maps, Castile pushed the Moluccas further east, and thus into their half of the globe. The Castilians submitted maps and globes where ‘the description and figure of Ptolemy and the description and model found recently by those who came from the spice regions are alike . . . therefore Sumatra, Malacca and the Moluccas fall within our demarcation’.

As the two crowns sat down for their final attempt to resolve the dispute at Saragossa in 1529, Castile employed the Portuguese cartographer Diogo Ribeiro to make a series of maps and globes that placed the Moluccas within the Castilian half of the globe. This was the moment at which the Renaissance world went global in a recognizably modern sense. The consequences of Magellan’s voyage meant that terrestrial globes became far more convincing representations of the shape and scope of the world.

While such globes did not survive, Ribeiro’s world map dated 1529 remains as testimony to the manipulation of geographical reality that characterized the dispute. Ribeiro placed the Moluccas 172 and a half degrees west of the Tordesillas line – just seven and a half degrees inside the Castilian sphere. The map gave Charles V the negotiating power he needed. He sold his rights to the island back to the hapless Portuguese. Charles had in fact realized that short-term cash was preferable to a long-term commercial investment, because of the formidable cost and logistics of establishing a western trade route to the Moluccas. Ribeiro established himself as Castile’s most respected cartographer, guessing that his geographical sleight of hand would never be discovered, because without an accurate method for calculating longitude, it would be impossible to ever fix the exact position of the Moluccas.

New worlds, old stories

With Columbus’s discovery of America, the gold and silver that had started to flow back into the coffers of Charles’s Habsburg Empire began to dwarf the revenue of the eastern spice trade. Where Portugal had established trading posts throughout the east, which demanded new mechanisms of trade and exchange, Spain used its military power to turn America into one large slave and mining colony.

In 1521 Hernando Cortes reached Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City), the capital of the Aztec Empire; this he systematically destroyed, killing most of its inhabitants in the process, including its emperor, Montezuma. In 1533 the adventurer Francisco Pizarro


15. Diogo Ribeiro’s 1529 Planisphere manipulated geographical knowledge to place the Moluccas Islands in the Habsburg half of the globe

led a handful of conquistadores and horses in the occupation of Cuzco (now in modern Peru), the capital of the Incan Empire. The indigenous population had little commercial or military power to oppose the violent depredations of the Spaniards, who imposed a quasi-feudal arrangement upon conquered regions, known as encomienda. This involved the division of small local communities amongst Spanish overseers, who provided a brutally exploitative ‘livelihood’ (in effect exacting unpaid hard labour) and Christian education.

Conservative estimates calculate that, of a world population of approximately 400 million in 1500, roughly 80 million inhabited the Americas. By 1550, the population of the Americas was just 10 million. At the start of the 16th century Mexico’s population has been estimated at 25 million. In 1600, it had been reduced to one million. European diseases such as smallpox and measles wiped out most of the indigenous population, but warfare, slaughter, and terrible treatment accounted for many fatalities. The romance of discovering piles of gold and silver had quickly turned into a dirty, murderous business of mining and enslavement.

The Spanish exploitation of the Americas had a direct impact on the economy of Europe. Initially, gold flowed back into Europe from Hispaniola and Central America. However, the conquests of Mexico and Peru soon tipped the balance in favour of silver mining. Between 1543 and 1548 silver deposits were found at Zacatecas and Guanajuato north of Mexico City; in 1543 the Spaniards discovered the infamous sugarloaf mountain of silver at Potosí in Bolivia. The decisive breakthrough came in 1555 with the discovery of the mercury amalgamation process, which allowed the creation of much purer silver through the smelting of silver ore with mercury. The result was a massive influx of silver into Europe. By the end of the 16th century over 270,000 kg of silver and approximately 2,000 kg of gold were reaching Europe every year, compounding the rise in inflation, and thereby contributing to what economic historians have called a ‘price revolution’, as wages and the cost of living soared, providing the framework for the long-term development of European capitalism.

The American mines and estates required workers, and the decimation of the local population soon meant that the Spanish needed another source of labour. Their solution was slaves. In 1510 King Ferdinand of Castile authorized the export of 50 African slaves, to the mines of Hispaniola. Alonso Zuazo wrote from there to Charles V in 1518, concerned at the work rate of the Indians. He recommended the ‘import of negros, ideal people for the work here, in contrast to the natives, who are so feeble that there are only suitable for light work’. Between 1529 and 1537 the Castilian crown issued 360 licences to carry slaves from Africa to the New World. Thus began one of the most ignominious features of the Renaissance, as African slaves, kidnapped or bought for 50 pesos each by Portuguese ‘merchants’ in West Africa, were crammed into boats and shipped to the New World. There they were sold for double their purchase price and set to work in mines and on estates. Between 1525 and 1550 approximately 40,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas, enriching Europe but devastating African communities.

Not all Spaniards endorsed the slaughter and oppression that took place in the Americas. The Franciscan Fray Motolinia believed that ‘if anyone should ask what has been the cause of so many evils, I would answer: covetousness’. Bartolomé de Las Casas similarly argued, ‘I do not say that they want to kill them [Indians] directly, from the hate they bear them; they kill them because they want to be rich and have much gold’. Philosophically, the discovery of a New World also transformed European understanding of its own cultural superiority. In ‘On the Cannibals’, published in his Essays of 1580, the humanist Michel de Montaigne claimed to have spoken at length with several Brazilian Indians. He concluded ‘there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything that he is not accustomed to’. Montaigne developed a highly sceptical and relativistic approach to perceptions of ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’, arguing that ‘we can indeed call those folk barbarians by the rules of reason but not in comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarism’.

The discovery of America revolutionized Renaissance Europe’s world picture. It had confounded deeply entrenched classical philosophical and religious beliefs that simply could not accommodate the existence of the culture, language, and belief systems of the indigenous inhabitants. It was partly responsible for defining Europe’s shift from a medieval world to a more recognizably modern world. However, the discovery of America brought together a volatile fear of the new and the unknown with a desire for unlimited wealth that ignored the incredible suffering and oppression inflicted upon indigenous people and slaves in the Americas. Its legacy can be seen in the poverty and political instability of much of South America today, and the inequalities of wealth and opportunity that characterize so much of the modern global economy.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!