Monday, April 23, 2012

The Men Who Discovered America

Some readers have written to say they appreciate posts on Brazilian history. But this one, in terms of scope, is more ambitious than any that preceded it. So, after having written it once, I re-wrote it, simplified it, and included a number of links for those of you who would like to know more.
Here goes:
In my youth, if you’d have asked any little girl in the United States who discovered the New World, she would have told you it was a Spanish crew, under a Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus, and many could have added a date: October 12th, 1492.

These days, of course, we know that the European's discovery of North America should actually be credited to the Norwegians, who established short-lived colonies there in the earliest years of the eleventh century.
Similarly, most Brazilian schoolchildren will tell you their country was discovered by Pedro Alvarez Cabral. It may be true (more on that subject at the end of this post) but, even if it is, it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for three of Cabral’s predecessors – and a fortuitous accident.
Here’s the story:

It all started with this guy, the third son of John the First of Portugal and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster. They baptized him Henry, and we know him today as Henry “the Navigator”.
In fact, he never navigated anything. But he did have an intense interest in the art and science that it entailed, and he patronized many voyages. In Henry’s day, exploration of the coast of Africa hadn’t gone much further than Cape Bojador, located a little over a hundred nautical miles south of the Canary Islands.
But Henry, obsessed with finding the legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John and also getting his country’s hooks into the West African gold trade, commissioned the construction of caravels.

These were newer and lighter ships better-suited to long-range exploration than the heavy Mediterranean vessels that preceded them. And he encouraged his captains to strike ever further southward.
Henry died without ever having learned that there was a way around the tip of Southern Africa. But his work, supported by the kings who followed, continued. And, in 1488, twenty-eight years after Henry’s death, the Portuguese achieved a striking success.

Bartolomeo Dias rounded what he called the Cape of Storms and was able to turn the bow of his ship northward.
Dias wanted to continue on to India, but his crew refused to go further and he was forced to turn back. Upon his return to Lisbon, John II, renamed the place the Cape of Good Hope, because of the promise it offered of a sea route to the East. But, European concerns caused the Portuguese to suspend their explorations for the next ten years. And it wasn’t until July of 1497 that the next fleet set sail.
This time, under the command of this fellow:

Vasco da Gama.
After many privations and adventures Gama returned, two years later, to report that he’d managed to make it all the way to India. And he was heaped with rewards and honors by King Manuel I.

Enter Pedro Alvarez Cabral, the next man up.
Cabral set sail with a fleet of thirteen ships at noon, on the ninth of March, 1500. The object of his undertaking was to return with valuable spices and to establish trade relations in India—bypassing the monopoly on the spice trade then in the hands of Arab, Turkish and Italian merchants.
It was the custom, in those days, to appoint a member of the nobility to command the fleets, but they were often men without maritime experience (as in this case) so decisions of a nautical nature were left to more-experienced captains and pilots, most of them commoners.
By that time, the Portuguese navigators had already become aware of the trade winds that prevail in the Atlantic, and they sailed west, to take advantage of them, before turning south and then eastward again toward the Indian subcontinent.
They did not, however, have an accurate system for measuring longitude.

That was a development that came about only two-and-a-half centuries later, with the development of the marine chronometer.
So they wound-up sailing too far. And, on the twenty-second of April, less than seven weeks after having first set sail, they bumped into Brazil and claimed it for Portugal.

And that remains the official history as far as most Brazilians are concerned.
But is it true?
Well, maybe.
But some historians claim that Duarte Pacheco Pereira got there first, maybe as early as November of 1498.

And others think it was Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, who might have arrived just three months before Cabral did.
Ah, for the good old days. When it was all so simple.
Leighton - Monday


  1. I keep thinking of the courage, and determination it took to make these journeys. I'm sure that the rewards were great, but these boats were exactly the Queen Mary. I also wonder-which I should look up- what happened to the Portuguese who did so much exploring. Lovely post.

  2. In the old days we actually had geography books that were independent of our history books. The term "social studies" was not yet in use.

    We learned about Prince Henry the Navigator and the search for Prester John and we were, of course, fascinated by the idea of a lost kingdom. (That was just as fascinating as the mystery behind the disappearance of the settlers on Roanoke Island including Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born on Roanoke Island which is now part of North Carolina). Vasco Da Gama and Bartholomeu Dias were also held up as heroes.

    This is not surprising in that I attended a Catholic school. The motives for exploration were somewhat cynically given as "God, Gold, and Glory". The period of exploration occurred before the Reformation so the Catholic rulers of Spain and Portugal got the blessing of the pope for setting out to find souls to convert. God got top billing but
    gold and glory were the real motivators.

    These men were undoubtedly courageous as they sailed into the unknown. The astronauts were tethered to earth by the voices coming from Cape Canaveral.

  3. My God, we're lucky Cabral did not have GPS or Brazil still might not have been discovered. Viva the bad sense of direction!

  4. If it helps your curiosity, first sea great travelers were not nordics but mediterraneans. Then 'New World' has a meaning, Christopher Columbus which the right name to pronounce is 'Cristobal Colon' has another meaning, besides this he was not Genovese, not even the crew was spanish. By the way, Petrus Nonius de Salacia presented well detailed world maps with an accuracy that today GPS are not able to perform, maps where Australia, North and SOuth pole, Pacific coast, Indic coast as others coasts are well indicated. You may star the quest. Cheers.

  5. Thank you for this comment, Bartolomeu. I am sorry to say that the author of this blog post, our dear colleague Leighton Gage passed away just a little over a year ago.

    As for me, I find it astonishing that those early cartographers were able to make accurate maps at all, since they could not even calculate longitude. What courage! What skill and determination!

    1. Dear Annamaria Alfieri, I address my condolences about Mr Leighton Gage departure from our world, as well I wish all his colleagues a happy and enrichment lifetime.

      Petrus Nonius (Pedro Nunes in portuguese), graduated in Medicine by Salamanca University, teacher of Kings and Popes in astronomy, astrology, cosmology, math, logic, ethic...among other disciplines, calculated not only accurate distances and produced detailed maps, as well he changed the way the world was seen since Ptolemy, he even helped Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler by correcting some of their studies. His teachings still in use today by air, sea and space traffic and cruisers.
      It's not a well known name among historians, even his personal life stills mysterious, only his books and studies are spread all over the world, as well the measure scale called Nonio (latin derivation of his name, worldwide called Vernier Scale...which is curious once Vernier presented his study more than 100 years after Nunes).

      If any of you have the chance to visit Jeronimus Monastery in Lisbon with eyes able to the invisible (not as tourists), it would be a great opportunity to clarify your doubts about what we know as "Discoveries", once there's a lot of the world history made and encrypted in stone.

      ps: Phoenicians were great sea travelers, probably greater than the tribes from Pacific islands...from what we know till now.