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Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the 20th-century author and explorer, famously described exploration as a meaningless pursuit. How could anyone claim to have discovered new territories when, with the exception of Antarctica and possibly the northern Arctic islands, humans had already walked, at one time or another, over every landmass on the globe? 'The great tales which we are able to present are those of rediscovery,' he wrote. 'Our very best stories are lucky when they are no worse than second-best.' Theoretically he was correct. Yet the history of exploration is not just that of people breaking new ground; it is also that of people writing about breaking new ground. With no means to describe their experiences, how could explorers explain what they had seen and where they had been? Without the written word, they were trees falling in the forest, unheard and unseen. The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, for example, plunged Europe into a limbo: fragments of knowledge survived in monastic libraries, but for more than half a millennium it was as if the intellectual slate had been wiped clean. It was this very absence of records that gave birth to a surge of discovery which started inapproximately the 14th century AD and did not abate for another 600 years.
There had been explorers and geographers aplenty in the past. In the 4th century BC, the Greek traveller Herodotus wrote a description of the world, drawing partly on his own voyages through the Mediterranean and partly on those of traders whom he had encountered en route. (For his trouble he was dubbed 'The Prince of Liars'.) In 340 BC another Greek, Pytheas of Massilia, claimed to have travelled beyond the Arctic Circle, and although he may have reached Iceland his reports of a land even further north called Ultima Thule, where there was constant ice and the sun shone 24 hours a day, were probably fabricated. In 980 AD the Vikings (who had trading links with Greece and the Middle East) found a place that fitted Pytheas's description of Ultima Thule when they landed in Greenland. Twenty years later Leif Ericsson and other Greenland colonists accidentally discovered North America. Their discoveries survived in oral tradition, later to be transcribed as the Icelandic sagas. To most Europeans, however, it was as if none of this had happened. So complete was the collapse of knowledge following the demise of Rome, and so restricted the availability of information during the Dark Ages, that they had only the haziest notion of what lay beyond their borders.
Information arrived slowly and in dribbles. For a short time during the 13th century the Mongol conquests made it possible for travellers to cross the overland routes to China in relative safety. Men like the French cleric William of Rubruk and the Venetian merchant Marco Polo spent several years in the Far East, returning with astounding tales of the wealth it contained. But with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire the Far East became inaccessible, and for more than a hundred years Europe's only recourse was conjecture. The reports of travellers like Polo (themselves of dubious accuracy) were greeted with the same approval as those of Sir John Mandeville, whose fictitious 14th-century Travels described men with heads in their chests and eyes in their foreheads. In an age of hypothesis nothing could be ruled out.
By the dawn of the 15th century Europe occupied a position of unique geographical ignorance. Islamic merchants had already established colonies as far afield as Madagascar and China, using maps and navigational instruments far more advanced than those in Europe. The Chinese, in turn, thanks to a series of expeditions under Admiral Zheng He during the early 1400s, had created a maritime network that extended from Japan (and possibly America) to East Africa, across which they sailed in the largest, most sophisticated ships in the world. To these two civilizations the concept of exploration was, if not exactly meaningless, something that did not concern them overmuch, for the simple reason that they knew, more or less, where everything was and where to obtain the goods they needed. In the grand scheme of things Europe was a crude and impoverished outpost of the known world - a fact of which its rulers and merchants were painfully aware. It was this sense of combined inferiority and frustration that made 'discovery' a peculiarly European phenomenon.
The first problem European explorers faced was a basic one: where were they? Navigators had mapped the Mediterranean, the coasts of northern Europe and the Black Sea, using compasses to produce surprisingly accurate charts intersected by rhumb lines. Of the lands beyond these shores, however, they had minimal information. Where the rhumb lines stopped theology started, giving rise to mappaemundi, or 'maps of the world', that had nothing to do with cartography and everything to do with the Bible. Typically they followed a T-O pattern, the O being the circle of the globe, within which swam three continents: Asia (at the top), with Europe and Africa lying beneath it. The T was the waterways that separated them: the upright, between Europe and Africa, was the Mediterranean; the crosspieces were the rivers Nile and Don. Each of the continents was supposed to belong to one of Noah's three sons and, to reinforce the point, Asia was often portrayed with a mountain atop which balanced a tiny ark. The schematic simplicity fooled nobody: Europe's captains recognized that the earth was spherical and that if one sailed beyond a certain distance one would not fall off the edge. But for all they knew about their place in the world, they might as well have relied on the mappaemundi. It was commonly held, for example, that anyone venturing south of the equator would be boiled alive.
Europe's notion of discovery was tightly focused. Its rulers were intrigued by the theories of mapmakers and by reports of travellers such as Polo and Mandeville, but they had no particular desire to find new lands; what they wanted to do was reach the old; all they wanted from them was spice. A trader's handbook of the time listed more than 288 luxury substances, ranging from silk and cotton to sugar and wax, precious stones, dyes and perfumes, but it was spice that commanded the highest premium - and not because it was a luxury but because it was an essential. Thanks to a shortage of winter fodder, Europeans had to kill most of their livestock before Christmas and, despite salting, the carcases soon became putrid. Spices were necessary to disguise the meat's rank flavour, Indian pepper being the most basic requirement, followed by mace from Ceylon and cinnamon, mace and nutmeg from the Moluccas, in present-day Indonesia. These things were available from Venice and Genoa, which had a monopoly on trade with Egypt; Egypt, in turn, controlled all trade from the Far East. The mark-up was incredible: spices that sold for 3 Venetian ducats in India fetched 68 in Cairo and twice that much by the time it reached Venice. If mariners could bypass the middlemen and take a short-cut to China their fortunes were assured. All they had to do was find where that short-cut was.
Surprisingly, the answer was supplied by the Middle East. For centuries the repository of classical learning, in 1406 or thereabouts it divulged Ptolemy's Geography. A geographer of the second century A D, Claudius Ptolemaeus - to give him his Latin name - had not only drawn a map of the known world but had given it a scale, flattening the globe into a series of east-west lines (latitude) and north-south lines (longitude). His map was accurate within the Mediterranean but fuzzy thereafter; and although navigators could follow his latitude, they had no means of calculating the longitude. Nevertheless, armed with his map, Europe saw ways of avoiding the Muslim stranglehold. They were threefold: one could sail north over the Pole; west across the Atlantic; or east via a point where Africa might or might not end. Following the Aristotelian argument that 51 per cent of the world's surface had to be above water to stop it from sinking, and that a southern landmass must therefore exist to keep the globe in balance, Ptolemy had connected Africa to a continent that reached to the South Pole. While accepting everything else Ptolemy said, Europeans were sceptical about his view of Africa. They agreed that a southern continent might exist, but they preferred that it be separate and that Africa be a large blob, extending not very far south, around which they could sail to China, avoiding the 'torrid zones' below the equator. One nation in particular thought the African route held promise: Portugal.
In the 15th century Portugal was one of the smallest, most impoverished countries in Europe. It had barely one million inhabitants, of whom only 200 or so could be called educated. Yet it had a seafaring tradition and, above all, rulers of vision. Prince Henry the Navigator, and later Kings John II and Manoel I, pursued a policy of expansion that made it, for a while, the world's greatest mercantile nation. Portuguese trading stations sprouted along the coast of Africa, west, south and east; they flourished in Arabia, India and, above all, the spice islands of the East Indies, disrupting the Muslim monopoly that had hitherto prevailed. The wealth that accrued was unbelievable. Pepper, for example, sold in Lisbon for 40 times its price in India, and up to 2,900 tons of the stuff arrived every year. However, fortune came at a cost: roughly half the 2,400 men who sailed annually for the east died either along the way or from tropical diseases once they had arrived. By some calculations, a tenth of the country's population - or more than half its able-bodied workforce - perished in the quest. But the potential gain was worth the risk. According to the feudal system that operated not only in Portugal but in the whole of Iberia, a man had little chance of obtaining land unless he was an eldest son or a court favourite. For those favoured neither by birth nor position, the colonies were the only escape.
While benefiting from spices, Portuguese merchants also instigated a less palatable trade in slaves. Seized in Africa, they were auctioned locally before being transported either to Portugal or to one of its overseas possessions. At first they were deposited on Madeira to work the island's sugar plantations; but after the discovery and colonization of Brazil they were shipped to the other side of the Atlantic. Even hardened travellers were upset by the process. One man wrote vividly of the way in which families were divided to suit the tastes and wallets of prospective bidders: 'As often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them.' But abhorrence could not be allowed to stand in the way of profit. From 1448, when the first group of 200 Africans came under the hammer, Portugal's imperial and domestic economy relied on slave labour for almost 400 years. Other nations followed suit, Britain, France and Spain in particular making free use of Africa's population. It was not until the 1800s, by which time sailors could smell a slave ship long before they saw it, that popular revulsion brought the trade to an end.
Spain, no less than Portugal, was determined to reach China, but it chose a different route. In 1492 Christopher Columbus took one of the greatest risks ever: he sailed west across the Atlantic. To explorers of every nationality, Arab and European alike, the Atlantic was horrible - the 'green sea of darkness', it was called. Using Ptolemy's map, and his own calculations, Columbus decided that China could be no more than a few weeks' journey from Spain. He found instead the West Indies - which he thought was an offshoot of Japan. Revered today as the discoverer of America, Columbus was in fact nothing of the sort. The nearest he came to the mainland was when he saw, from a distance, the mouth of the Orinoco. The true discoverers were the hundreds of conquistadores who came in his wake: men like Cortés in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, De Soto and Coronado in Texas and Louisiana, who surged inland in search of gold and silver.
The Spanish conquest of America was swift, brutal and extremely profitable. It was also never-ending and, to some, frankly tiresome. As one 16th-century chronicler wrote, 'Oh God, what excessive labours for a life as short as man's!' But God smiled upon the conquistadores because, as they thought, they were doing His work. Their aims - and those of Europe as a whole - were encapsulated by Bernal Díaz, a conquistador who wrote openly about the reasons he went to America: 'to serve God and His Majesty, to give light to those who were in the darkness, and to grow rich, as all men desire to do'. Here was the be-all and end-all of exploration: to make money and to spread the word.
Evangelism was pronounced in the Americas, large tracts of land being handed to missionaries from one of the many Holy Orders in which Europe abounded, but it was no less urgent elsewhere. In the 12th century a letter had reached the Pope, purporting to come from a Christian ruler named Prester John. Without explaining precisely where his kingdom was, other than somewhere to the east, John wrote that he commanded a powerful army and was willing to combat the Muslim threat. It was a hoax, emanating probably from a Greek or Byzantine cleric, but it pandered artfully to Europe's sense of insecurity. One of the first signs of Europe's rebirth came in the 12th century, when its rulers formed an alliance to seize the Holy Land for Christianity. Initially they were successful, conquering the entire eastern Mediterranean seaboard. But the occupation of Outremer, as they called it, was short-lived. Bit by bit, the Muslims regained control of the lost territory until, by the time Marco Polo left for China in 1271, there was only one small Crusader kingdom clinging to Jerusalem; when he returned in 1295 that too had been overwhelmed. The loss was not easily forgotten: every captain who sailed east thereafter did so in the hope of finding Prester John. When Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, for example, he was asked why he had made the long journey. 'We come,' he replied, 'in search of Christians and spices.' But Prester John was not to be found in India or Asia. In the end, with some disappointment, explorers decided that the only possible candidate was the king of Ethiopia, who was indeed a Christian, although an impoverished and powerless one. They gave the puzzled man a medal to confirm his status and let the matter drop.
Iberia's successes left northern Europe at a disadvantage. Excluded by papal decree from encroaching on either the West or East Indies, England, Holland and France sought their own routes to China. Three possible avenues presented themselves: the first, and shortest, was to sail directly over the North Pole, following the widely held belief that it comprised an open, temperate sea surrounded by ice. Should the pack ice prove impenetrable (as it did), there remained two other possibilities: to follow its southern fringes either east or west. The North-East Passage, running above Siberia, was for a while considered the most promising. After several disastrous attempts, however, navigators and merchants went in search of the North-West Passage. This too eluded them, but it produced an unexpected side benefit: the colonization of North America. In 1609, after a remarkable journey in search of both the North-East and North-West Passages, the English navigator Henry Hudson claimed the future New York for his Dutch paymasters. His discovery prompted others to sail west, among them Sir Walter Raleigh, who established a colony on the east coast at a place he named Virginia. The colony failed, but it was soon replaced by others. In the interim Europe was transformed by exotic plants - tobacco, pumpkins and potatoes - that Raleigh had transplanted from the New World. After a while northern Europeans gave not a fig for the papal decree that had split the world between Spain and Portugal. They went forth and conquered. Soon it was hard to distinguish between explorers and buccaneers, men like Sir Francis Drake not only circumnavigating the world but shelling every Iberian settlement and ship they encountered.
Excerpted from OFF THE MAP by FERGUS FLEMING Copyright © 2004 by Fergus Fleming. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 30, 2011
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