Europeans Enter Another HemisphereIn the vocabulary of the maritime explorers of the fifteenth century there was one word of particular significance: Antilha . Though there is some difference of opinion among scholars about the derivation of the word, it was probably a compound Portuguese word meaning “‘island in the distance”.
Year in, year out, Portuguese seamen sailed from Lisbon to search the seas beyond the Azores for Antilha. In 1486, King John made to one of his lords a grant of Antilha for his own use, provided he discovered it within two years. In the documents drawn up, it was described as “a great isle, or isles, or continental coast”.
It was not considered to be part of the Asiatic mainland, but a land-mass halfway between Europe and Asia, which would make it a most valuable staging-post when the route from west to east had been discovered. This being so, the finding of it represented the first step in the achievement of the western passage.
By the middle of the fifteenth century geographical knowledge had completely revealed the Old World to Europeans with one or two exceptions. These included the north and north-eastern coasts of Europe and Asia from Norway’s North Cape as far as northern China, and including North Russia and Siberia; and the shape of South-east Africa, though the former could be fairly accurately deduced, and Bartolomeo Diaz was to reveal the other by his discovery of the Cape of Good Hope before the century closed.
The main preoccupation of the maritime explorers of this great period of the Age of Discovery was the finding of a route to the east via the west. The Portuguese were not the only searchers. With the same persistence with which their seamen set out from Lisbon in search of Antilha, English seamen sailed from Bristol, taking a more northerly route. John Cabot, who reached Labrador and Newfoundland, passing by or near to Iceland, sailed with the object of finding “Brazil Island”, his conception of the halfway staging-post between West and East.
There was among the sailors of the King of Portugal, however, a certain Columbus who did not regard the discovery of Antilha in the same light as his contemporaries. He believed that the reason why no land had been found by the many explorers was because they were obsessed by the concept of Antilha. When they sailed far to the west without sighting land, sooner or later they began to believe that they had passed Antilha by unseen, and thereupon they would turn about, perhaps changing course a little to the northward or southward, but still without result.
This led him to the conviction that if any discovery at all was to be made, the idea of Antilha and Brazil must be abandoned and it must be assumed that no land lay between Europe and Asia. This meant that there was nothing that an explorer could do but cross the Atlantic on as direct a course as possible for Asia.
Since there was no means of knowing how great the distance was that separated the two continents, any expedition based on this hypothesis must be prepared for a voyage of twelve months at least. The cost of financing and equipping such a voyage would be considerable.
Christopher Columbus and his brother Bartholomew had been born in Genoa, one of the great maritime powers of Europe. Both, however, as very young men had made their way to Portugal and enlisted in the service of the king of Portugal. Christopher took a Portuguese wife, and if either of them thought of nationality at all, both regarded themselves as citizens of their adopted country.
Christopher had found regular employment on the run to Portuguese Guinea, and he had also made voyages to Bristol, from where he had once embarked on an expedition to Iceland. Of all Portuguese sailors, therefore, he was familiar with the navigation of the Atlantic from the Arctic Circle to the equator.
When he had become seized with the idea of an expedition to discover a west-east sea-route direct to Asia, it was natural that he should turn first for patronage and aid to the Portuguese monarch. By this time, however, Diaz had discovered the Cape of Good Hope, and though the pursuit of a route via the Cape was for the time being in abeyance, there was no one who did not accept its subsequent opening as inevitable.
The opening of such a route would give the Portuguese a virtual monopoly of trade by sea with the East, for the route could easily be defended against intruders. Besides, the results of expeditions that had already made the attempt to find a transatlantic route all seemed to point to the fact that even if such a route were discovered, the distance would be so great as to make it uneconomical. The King of Portugal, therefore, declined the honour of underwriting Columbus’s venture.
Undaunted, Columbus next turned to Genoa, his birthplace, and when he met the same arguments and a similar refusal there and in Venice, whose interests were to preserve the overland route, he sent his brother to England to seek the aid of Henry VII, while he approached Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile.
Columbus’s idea of approaching England and Castile simultaneously was to make capital of the rivalry which existed between the two countries. He would play off one against the other.
However, accidents, delays and circumstances of one kind or another hampered both his own and Bartholomew’s negotiations, but by degrees he began to win over the rulers of Castile. At the same time Bartholomew made progress with Henry, and when at last he sent a message to Christopher summoning him urgently to a conference in London, Christopher had to reply that shortly before the message arrived he had virtually committed himself to Ferdinand and Isabella.
The news that Henry was interested clinched the matter with the Castilian monarchs, and on 17 April, 1492, signatures were set to a contract which gave Columbus not only the customary privileges accorded in such undertakings, but the additional personal rewards of the dignity of Admiral of Castile and Viceroy of any islands and continental provinces to which he would lay claim on behalf of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The preparations for the voyage were immediately put in hand, and on 3 August he set sail from Palos. Making first for the Canaries, he left the roadstead of Gomera on 6 September, in his flagship the Santa Maria, a vessel of 120 tons, and accompanied by the Pinto and the Nina, both of which were smaller.
Initially making little headway on account of feeble and contrary winds, on the third day out the convoy had some good fortune, for the winds veered to favourable and became fresh. This, however, did not entirely solve his difficulties, for his crews displayed signs of emotional upset.
In the biography of Columbus, allegedly written by his natural son Ferdinand, the author describes how, having “completely lost sight of land, many sighed and wept for fear that they would not see it again for a long time. The Admiral comforted them with great promises of lands and riches. To sustain their hope and dispel their fears of a long voyage he decided to reckon fewer leagues than they actually made, telling them they had covered only fifteen leagues that day when they had actually covered eighteen. He did this that they might not think themselves so great a distance from Spain as they really were, but for himself he kept a secret accurate reckoning.”
At midnight on 13 September, by which time the expedition had run six hundred miles to the westward, an interesting and important discovery was made. The compass needles were found to vary half a point to the north-west, and on the following morning a little more than half a point to the north-east. From this Columbus concluded “that the needle did not point to the north star, but to some other fixed and invisible point. No one had ever noticed this variation before, so he had good reason to be surprised by it.” Three days later, and four hundred and fifty miles farther on, he was even more surprised to find at midnight that the needles varied a whole point to the north-west, while in the morning they again pointed directly to the pole star.
On 18 September, the Pinta, which had gone on ahead, for she was very fast, lay to and waited for the Santa Maria to come up. Her captain then reported to the Admiral that that morning he had seen a great flight of birds moving westward, and took this as a sign that land was near. In fact land was sighted at sundown some forty-five miles to the north, but Columbus refused requests to search in that direction, because it was not the place where his calculations made him expect to find land.
So the three caravels ran on before the wind, and as each day passed the sailors grew more and more frightened and disgruntled by being so long without sighting land. They held meetings in the holds of the ships, and were convinced that the Admiral in his mad fantasy proposed to make himself a lord at the cost of their lives. They had already tempted fortune as much as their duty required, so why should they work their own ruin by going further, especially as provisions were beginning to run short.
The grumbling and plotting went on day after day, until at last Columbus decided that he must take note of it. So he assembled them on deck, spoke to them sharply and threatened to punish severely any who prevented him from carrying out his plans. Somehow he managed to quieten their fears, and to bolster their morale he reminded them of the reward which the first to sight land was to receive.
There were one or two false alarms; what looked like land in the distance turned out to be storm clouds. This did not help matters at all, and by 10 October the anxiety of the crews and their desire to sight land had reached such a pitch that no sign that they were approaching land, of which there were now many, would satisfy them.
On the following day, however, there were clear indications that that land could not be far off. First the flagship’s crew saw a green branch float by near to the ship, and within a short time the crew of the Pinta fished out of the water a finely carved stick, while the Nina’s crew saw other signs of the same kind.
“These signs,” writes Ferdinand Columbus, “and his own reasoning, convinced the Admiral that land must be near. That night, therefore, after they had sung the Hail Mary as seamen are accustomed to do at nightfall, he spoke to the men of the favour Our Lord had shown them by leading them so safely and prosperously with fair winds and a clear course, and by comforting them with signs that daily grew more abundant. And he prayed them to be very watchful that night, reminding them that in the first article of the instructions issued to each ship at the Canaries he had given orders to do no night-sailing after reaching a point seven hundred leagues (2,100 miles) from those islands, but that the great desire of all to see land had decided him to sail on that night. They must make amends for this temerity by keeping a sharp look out, for he was most confident that land was near; and to whomsoever sighted it first he would give a velvet doublet in addition to the annuity of 10,000 maravedis for life, that their Highnesses had promised.”
About two hours before midnight, as Columbus stood on the bow deck, he saw a light, but it was so uncertain that he did not dare to announce it as land. He called to him Pedro, the King’s butler, and asked him if he saw the light, and when he said that he did, they called Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia to have a look, but he took such a time that when he arrived it was too late.
They held on their course, and about two o’clock in the morning the Pinta, which was in her usual position ahead, fired the signal indicating that land had been sighted. A sailor named Rodrigo de Triana first sighted it when the Pinta was still six miles off. Triana, however, did not receive the reward, but Columbus, who had first seen the light.
The remainder of the night was spent impatiently awaiting the coming of the day, and when at last dawn broke they saw an island about forty-five miles long, “Very level, full of green trees and abounding in springs, with a large lake in the middle, and inhabited by a multitude of people who hastened to the shore, astounded and marvelling at the sight of the ships, which they took for animals”.
Both the islanders and the sailors were anxious to know what manner of men each was. Their desire was soon satisfied, for as soon as anchor had been dropped, Columbus went ashore with an armed boat, displaying the royal standard of Castile. Alongside him went the captains of the other two ships, each carrying the banner of the expedition, on which were depicted a green cross with an F on one side, and crowns in honour of Ferdinand and Isabella on the other.
Arrived on land, they knelt, kissed the ground and recited a prayer of thanksgiving. This done, the Admiral stood up and announced that he named the place San Salvador, and claimed possession of it in the name of “the Catholic Sovereigns with appropriate ceremony and words”.
Thus the first Europeans put foot in the New World. They had reached the Bahamas, and the spot where they first made the shore has been commonly identified as Watling Island, which in 1926 was officially renamed San Salvador. The inhabitants, a mild folk, received the visitors very hospitably.
After a brief stay, Columbus explored some of the other islands in the group, including Cuba, where his flagship was wrecked. Leaving forty of his crew to garrison the island of Espanola, afterwards known as San Domingo, he returned to Spain with two ships, reaching there on 15 March, 1493.
Satisfied that he had reached the eastern extremity of Asia, and bringing products of the New World, Columbus was received with acclamation at the Court. Later in the same year he returned with a larger fleet and fifteen hundred men to what was henceforward to be known as the West Indies.
He made two other voyages after this, but none increased his knowledge of the New World much, except that on his last voyage he touched the coast of South America. He proved an inefficient Governor, however, and in 1500 he was recalled to Spain. He made one last voyage in 1502, and in 1506 he died, still ignorant of the great continent that lay between his discoveries and the Asia he sought.