22) Discovery

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Navigating a Spherical Earth

Where No Man Had Gone Before

De sphaera mundi
De sphaera mundi
By the 4th Century, educated Church clergy, like Saint Augustine were beginning to embrace the works of the ancient philosophers Eratosthenes and Lucretius, when considering the spherical nature of the earth. Augustine accepted a spherical earth (possibly half a sphere) but argued against the existence of Antipodes (men who walk upside down on the bottom of the earth), as he believed travel to the bottom of the earth would have been "absurd".

However, in much of medieval Christian Europe, scripture was understood to be the literal word of God. Therefore, all elements of knowledge and philosophy had to, in some way, be tied in to either the Old or New Testaments. By the 8th century, the monk Bede (c. 672-735) argued in his treatise "The Reckoning of Time" the earth to be "...not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembling more a ball". Bede goes on to theologically justify his argument, stating the earth is referred to as "the orb of the world" in Holy Scripture [Isaiah 40:22: "God sits above the circle of the earth"].

The Erdapfel
Early in 1492, before Columbus sailed for the New World, Martin Behaim of Germany created the "Erdapfel", the first terrestrial globe. It lacked the Americas as well as the Pacific Ocean, but remains impressive as the first three-dimensional representation of Earth.

By the High Middle Ages, there was considerable support for a spherical earth amongst Europe's intelligentsia, which included university professors, informed nobility and august clergy. Still, after being especially hard hit by the Black Death (covered earlier), the post-plague Church had hastily recruited new ranks of clergy, most lacking the traditional, formal Latin and Greek classical education available only in the Church and Universities. Many of these priestly recruits were illiterate. Consequently, intellectual post-plague support from clergy was greatly reduced, if not eliminated.

This unintentional dummying-down of Church clergy only supported the broader opinion of the predominantly illiterate laity, who found the notion of a spherical earth to be laughable. Included in those uneducated masses were the sailors who would have to man the ships captained by Columbus and Magellan.

Nevertheless, local exploration would eventually lead to longer voyages abroad. Improved shipbuilding and the magnetic compass would promote confidence with each new discovery. African waters would continue to be the ever-expanding boundary and training ground from which 15th century seaman would develop an appetite for further exploration.

Africa, the First Frontier 

The Wall of Islam

Moor Rule of Granada Emirate
North African Berbers (Muslim Moors) began their conquest of the Christian Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE. Consequently, Moors controlled most of the peninsula for more than 300 years and in southern Granada for 781 years. Eventually, Islam would be forced into a southern retreat towards Africa. Only after the Treaty of Granada, in 1492, at the close of the Reconquista (the Western Crusade) would Christians once again take full possession of the peninsula.

However, even before the rise of Islam, going back to the beginning of recorded history, North Africa and Europe's destinies had been intertwined. From a religious standpoint, North Africa was sited within the scriptures of the Talmudic Old Testament. Pharaoh’s Egypt and Hannibal’s Carthage played important roles in the development of ancient Europe. After Islamic conquests by the Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th Century, Christian centers like Alexandria, though initially tolerated by Muslims, eventually began islamic. Crusader wars in the Holy Land and the Iberian Peninsula would later permeate enmity and polarization between the two religious groups.

Catalan Atlas
Detail of Catalan Atlas
Consequently, by the Middle Ages, all that remained of Africa was what European perceived to be a wall of Islam, extending west from the Atlantic Ocean, just south of Spain, eastward towards the frontiers of India. What lay further south remained a mystery. The Greeks, as far back as 200 BCE (i.e.: Eratosthenes, the Father of Geography), knew of Somalia and its Horn of Africa but lacked knowledge of anything beyond that.

Subsequently, Abraham Cresques' Catalan Atlas of 1375 (6 panel map of Atlantic Ocean to China), which included Muslim regional knowledge, rapidly became the key source of Europe's cartographical information.

The 14th Century saw significant improvement in European shipbuilding. They had advanced beyond the limitations of the Cog ship, designed after earlier offshore Viking vessels, to the larger Caravel ship (similar to Columbus' Niña and the Pinta). The Caravel led to the development of the larger, more stable Carrack (Santa Maria class) open-sea ship. The Carrack had the crew, supply and lodging capacity to explore what lay south of Islam.

Shipbuilding Progress of the 15th Century
Shipbuilding Progress of the 15th Century

Ignorance and Superstitions

Sea Monsters
Sea Monsters

Henry the Navigator
The 13th and 14th Centuries saw Islamic North Africa in control of West African gold as well as East Asian spices and silk. North Africa's chief trading partners were the Italian republics of Genoa and Venice.  By the 15th Century, Prince Henry of Portugal, known as 'Henry the Navigator', was navigating southward along the west coast of Africa, beyond Islamic occupied territories. Additional Portuguese explorers would follow. By 1488, Bartolomeu Dias and pilot Pêro de Alenquer reached the southern most tip of Africa. Upon returning to Portugal, it was named the "Cape of Good Hope".

Beyond Africa

The southern most tip of Africa was well beyond Christendom. Yet, it had still been reached without incurring any divine wrath. Now Europe began to focus on a route toward the silks and spices of the orient.  Europeans began to feel confident of their seamanship. In 1497, Vasco da Gama circled Africa's Cape of Good Hope and headed north across the Indian Ocean. In August of that year, King Manuel of Portugal informed Pope Alexander VI that Portugal had reached India. The Age of Exploration had arrived.

Timeline of Spherical Travel

Proving the Earth Round

In 1492, the 781-year Reconquista crusade against the North African Moors concluded with Moorish relinquishment of the Emirate of Granada. That same year, Columbus discovered the New World, or what he believed until his death (1506) to be eastern islands of India or the "East Indies".  In Columbus's mind, he'd circumnavigated a much smaller earth, absent the Americas and Pacific Ocean, to arrive in India.

In 1493, the year after Columbus' landing in the New World and the Castilian victory in Grenada, Pope Alexander VI formally divided contested territories of Portugal and Spain (crowns of Castile and Aragon), with his papal bull "Inter caetera".

Over the years 1497 and 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first European explorer to travel to India from Portugal, circling Africa's Cape of Good Hope. He sailed via the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, for a distance of over 10,000 nautical miles.

Magellan Circumnavigates the Globe
Magellan Circumnavigates the Globe


Between 1519 and 1522, Ferdinand Magellan became the first explorer to circumnavigate the entire globe, traveling over 43,000 nautical miles. This was only 27 years after Columbus had first landed in the Bahamas and later South America. The earth had finally been proven spherical. Science had been vindicated and superstitions vanquished.

Islam's Influence upon Christian Discoveries

For Europe, Muslim occupation of North Africa and the Holy Land became the driving force behind 15th and 16h Century exploration. European traders had been forced to deal with the Islamic monopoly to obtain silks or spices from the East or Gold from Africa. Columbus had set out on what he believed to be a new route to India. Impatient for Columbus to uncover existing trade ports in India, Vasco da Gamma circled Africa and became the first European to actually make landfall in India. Not only had a new trade route been established but a New World had been (accidentally) discovered. However, the identification of the Americas as new continents would not occur until Magellan circumnavigated the globe and confirmed Balboa's earlier discovery of the Pacific Ocean (1513) and the new land masses.



Star Trek Space Travel
At one time or another, we've all felt the attraction of science fiction, where we explore the universe one world at a time. Beginning in the late 15th Century, Europeans did just that. However, instead of spacecrafts, they traveled in sea vessels barely tested for lengthy trips on uncharted waters. In some respects, the allure was the same as today's quest for space exploration. However, to the early explorers it wasn't as certain or technology driven as a Star Trek voyage.

Today's concept of space travel doesn't come close to the giant leap these early sea voyages represented. The very idea of traversing the globe went against most religious, superstitious and physical beliefs held at that time. Doubtless, there were crew members who felt they were risking their eternal souls as well as their lives, as they might very well end up falling off a corner of the earth into some bottomless abyss or even into the jaws of some horrid sea demon.

These early voyages spanned greater distances than any travels previously recorded in history or religious scripture. Subsequently, early explorers presented a unique and original form of courage, driven by a curiosity that was in league with the scientists of their day. Their scientific contemporaries would intellectually embrace travel logs and proof positive artifacts of their exploits as confirming evidence of emerging schools of thought, proof that would transform embattled theories into revolutionary articles of fact.

Go to: Chapter 23) Slavery and Expansion

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