The Hoax

Columbus Day is upon us again, celebrating the achievements of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. The discovery of America was in fact a fortuitous accident, brought about by Columbus’s misinterpretation of practically everything: the ocean area of our planet, which he thought to be one seventh of the total surface of the earth, as written in the fourth book of Esdras, the notion set out by Aristotle that “between the end of Spain and the beginning of India the sea was small and navigable in a few days”, and his conversion errors of the Arab sea mile.

Not one of these mistakes is really forgiveable because, to a large extent, the science was already there. Columbus had lived in Portugal for a number of years, and was at one point married to the daughter of Bartolomeu Perestrello, governor of the island of Porto Santo. All sorts of nonsense surrounds the story of Columbus, and the mystery only consolidates the legend. The notion that while he was in the archipelago of Madeira a lost Spanish ship arrived from the west and provided critical information seems flawed. Returning to Madeira from the west in a sailing vessel, tacking against the NE trades all the way, and fighting the North Equatorial Current, seems a challenge indeed.

Churchill defined a stubborn man as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Columbus was adamant to his deathbed that he had in fact reached the Indies. On his first trip, and subsequently, he brought back indigenous people for the court to gawk at, a common practice at the time. In The India Road, the Perfect Prince comments wryly:

“Columbus brought back very little gold. His natives are copper colored, naked, and uneducated.” The king had received a report from Lisbon sent by Ruy de Pina earlier in the day. “Furthermore,” he added with a twist of irony, “although Christovam calls them Indians, that is wishful thinking.”

The men laughed.

“Could these be the sages who transmitted the value of pi to the Arabs, correct to three decimal places?” The king’s wit caused general mirth.

The notion that the admiral was in fact a Portuguese Jew, and that he was a spy of the Perfect Prince, King John II of Portugal, is even more far-fetched. The idea that he was sent to Spain to throw the Spaniards off the scent, and mislead them with a western endeavour, is bizarre to say the least, given the main preoccupation of the Catholic Kings was with the liberation of Granada from the Moors. At least as bizarre are some interpretations of Portuguese history.

Since the web is not peer-reviewed, there is no triage, which means absolute freedom to publish opinion uncontaminated by fact. Or to be economical with the truth. That’s one of the reasons Wikipedia should never be considered a primary source, although it is undoubtedly a valuable resource.

But how do you reconcile that in a book, edited by a respectable publisher, and reviewed in the New York Times? I suggest you begin by reading the review of a book entitled Holy War, written by Nigel Cliff and published by Harper Collins. I don’t shock easily, but three things shocked me to the core, based on the material presented in the review: how a writer can apparently be so factually ignorant (or deliberately deceitful), how a publisher can let such a crock of lies go to press in a so-called history book, and how a critic for the New York Times is able to review in this fashion.

I think with hindsight it was for all these people that I wrote my account of the road to India. Yes, it qualifies as historical fiction, but the fictionalized part could easily be removed. Ninety percent of the book would remain, but it would become an arid read. My hope was that the more casual reader might get to the end, perhaps driven in part by a touch of sex and skullduggery, and come away richer from the underlying truth. Maybe that ambition is both unrealistic and arrogant.

So let’s quickly deconstruct and destroy some of the statements in the review of Mr. Cliff’s book. But first I note, in fairness to the NYT, that they have now published an errata at the end of the text. I read the review in China, prior to those added notes, and was as stunned as when I was presented with my first dish of yak’s penis. Hard to swallow.

Despite the corrections, the article should really be withdrawn altogether.

It is insane to describe Columbus as Gama’s great seafaring rival. When you speak of rivalry, it is competition among equals: Scott and Amundsen, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Newton and Leibnitz. Columbus was an explorer, albeit a pretty bad one. Vasco da Gama, like many captains of his day, was not an experienced sailor. He was chosen for his leadership qualities. For the technical aspects, he had on board his chief pilot, Pêro de Alenquer.

The pilot was probably the best in the world at that time. This factual quote from my book

Alenquer stood out from the others; a favorite of the king, he had been granted the right to wear silk and to carry his pilot’s whistle on a gold chain around his neck.

attests to the respect the Perfect Prince had for this remarkable man. A pilot who had in fact been aboard Dias’s vessel in 1487 when the Cape of Good Hope was first rounded. Before that it was called the Cape of Storms, where, according to the poet Camões, who wrote the history of the discoveries in verse, the legendary giant Adamastor lived. The monster was reputed to push his hand down on the hapless caravels, sending the sailors to the bottom of the ocean.

The legendary giant Adamastor, depicted in tiled panel art from Portugal

The great XXth century poet Fernando Pessoa wrote about the giant. Because the verses are so good, and because they pay tribute to the Perfect Prince, I’ve transcribed and attempted to translate the last six lines of the poem “O Mostrengo“, The Monster.

«Aqui ao leme sou mais do que eu:
Sou um povo que quere o mar que é teu;
E mais que o mostrengo, que me a alma teme
E roda nas trevas do fim do mundo,
Manda a vontade, que me ata ao leme,
D’ El-rei D. João Segundo!»

The helmsman, scared to death, is being challenged by the monster, in a preamble to sinking the ship. He replies, in the closing lines of the poem:

«Here at the helm, far more than me,
Stands a nation that wills to own your sea,
Beyond the monster’s hideous realm,
Which fills with endless dread my soul,
Rules he who ties me to this helm,
King John the Second of Portugal!»
Perhaps the most outrageous of Mr. Cliff’s alleged assertions is the notion that ‘He sailed blindly, virtually by instinct, without maps, charts or reliable pilots, into unknown oceans.’
Let’s get real. Gama sailed the SE trades, in the company of Pêro de Alenquer, the best pilot of his day, in a downwind run west across the South Atlantic, helped by the South Equatorial Current. Near Brazil, he pointed his prow south, following the Brazil current to the higher latitudes. At forty degrees south he caught the roaring forties, which pushed him east toward Sta. Helena. His ships were (all but the smallest) square-rigged with “pano redondo”, or round cloth, prepared not for a tack but a run. The route he pioneered was still in use by the tea clippers in the nineteenth century.
Without maps or charts? The map below, which shows up as part of Cantino’s planisphere in 1502, was drawn up from information collected by Dias and others. It was made by the Portuguese Jorge de Aguiar, and sits in the Beinecke library at Yale University.

Detail from Jorge de Aguiar's late XVth century map, which precedes the Cantino planisphere by a decade. The area around Ghana and Sierra Leone is clearly visible, with detailed place names (click to zoom). All the harbors were cartographed by Portuguese navigators such as Bartolomeu Dias, Diogo Cão, and Gil Eanes, well before Gama sailed in 1497.

 As a final note, Gama was well aware that the Indian Ocean circulation is driven by an alternating monsoon. The Perfect Prince sent his spy Pêro da Covilhã overland to India in 1487, fully ten years before Gama weighed anchor, to provide intelligence on the route. Vasco da Gama knew that he should take on board an Arab pilot when the expedition arrived on the African east coast. When Gama made port in Malindi, he didn’t request a pilot to go to India. His specific requirement was to go to Calicut. The Portuguese already knew where they wanted to go.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


2 Responses to “The Hoax”

  1. Ben Hughes Says:

    I read the Times review, and I read Mr. Cliff’s Holy War. It seems that you have imputed ignorance and even deliberate deceit to an author without reading a single page of his book. You say: “Perhaps the most outrageous of Mr. Cliff’s assertions is the notion that ‘He sailed blindly, virtually by instinct, without maps, charts or reliable pilots, into unknown oceans.’” This is the assertion of Dr. Ormsby, the Times reviewer, and not of Mr. Cliff, who provides a detailed account of the voyages preceding da Gama’s. He in fact echoes much of what you say above. Since you noted that the Times printed a correction of several misstatements in Dr. Ormsby’s review, you should have been alive to the need to read the original and not confuse the reviewer’s opinions with the author’s. As it is, your stated intention to “destroy” Mr. Cliff seems motivated by pure, uniformed malice.

    • Peter Wibaux Says:

      I take Mr. Hughes’ general point – my comments are based on the materials presented in the review. As a consequence I have made some changes to the posted text. However, given the standing of the New York Times, and of the book’s publisher, the fact that only that part of the text is refuted in the NYT erratum suggests the rest is accurate. If it is not, then certainly others are to blame and not Nigel Cliff. However, in that case, and given the review is now three weeks old, either the author or the publisher should have moved for its complete withdrawal, and at the very least an apology. Contrary to what Mr. Hughes states, I didn’t comment on the reviewer’s opinions, but on clear statements of fact such as the assertion that Gama sailed blindly without maps. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that such statements emerge from the book. Addtionally, given the standing of the newspaper presenting the review, it is equally reasonable to assume that at least factually, the review reflects the original’s content. The Kansas City Star also reviews the book, stating that in 1498 (rather than 1497, the correct date) D. Manuel sent Gama to circumnavigate the southern tip of Africa. The Star, like the NYT, also refers the paltry gifts carried by the expedition as some kind of surprise. The reason the Portuguese went, just like the Dutch and British after them, was not to stimulate peaceful, bilateral commerce, but to secure economic and political advantage through hostile trading. Kirkus book reviews also refers Pêro da Covilhã as King Manuel’s spy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Covilhã presented his report on navigation in the Indian Ocean, and a variety of other topics, in Cairo in early 1489, to two Portuguese envoys of King John II: José Sapateiro and Rabbi Abraham of Beja. According to the definitive biography of Covilhã written in the late XIXth century by Conde de Ficalho, based on the letters of a Jesuit priest who travelled in Abyssinia at the turn of the XVth century, King John’s spy had not been allowed to leave the kingdom of Prester John by the ruler himself. Finally, Harper Collins themselves refer on their website to Columbus and Gama as “archrivals”. I would imagine there is either a conspiracy of reviewers and publishers afoot, or else perhaps where there’s smoke there’s fire. A quick “Look Inside” on Amazon at the book itself reveals a lively account of the first stages of the journey, with emphasis on vomiting, foul smells, and even “reading books”, but it also speaks of Gama’s “bold move” of using the cyclonic gyre in the south Atlantic as if half a century of astronomy, cartography, and exploration had not previously informed it. Mr. Cliff also refers on page 187 that Gama’s expedition was the first to sail into the Indian Ocean. Dias reached the Great Fish River, near Port Elizabeth, about 10 years earlier. That is well to the east of Cape Agulhas, the start of the Indian Ocean. There is no malice in my words, only regret.

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