Before the Portuguese

Queen Isabel of Castilla referred to her Portuguese cousin quite simply as El Hombre—The Man. It was Isabel, or Isabella, who backed Columbus on his Indies adventure.

Carnations and roses garland the catholic queen, Isabel. She looks serene, purposeful, and smart.

Carnations, chrysanthemums, and tulips garland the Catholic queen, Isabella of Castile. She looks serene, purposeful, and smart.

The story of Columbus is a recurrent topic of mine—if you search my past writings,  you’ll come across his difficulties with geography and astronomy. Elsewhere, you’ll read about the theory, in my view unsound, that the Admiral of the Ocean Sea was actually a Portuguese Jew, part of a conspiracy hatched by El Hombre to (mis)lead the Spaniards west.

All this and more is recounted in The India Road, including the moment when Columbus returns from the New World in 1493, and arrives not in Spain, but in Lisbon. Of course, the conspiracy buffs see that as clear evidence of the espionage theory—I, on the other hand, find it obtuse that the royal spymaster would find such a crass way to ruin a well-thought plan.

The square where Columbus's house in Las Palmas is located. I found the subtitle sufficiently bizarre to title this article.

The street where Columbus’s house in Las Palmas is located. I found the subtitle sufficiently intriguing to title this article.

King John II of Portugal was anything but stupid, and it’s far more probable that Columbus, spurned by the Mathematical Junta of El Hombre, wanted recognition for the man he knew as the foremost expert on the discoveries.

“From Palos, we sailed south until the butter melted, then I turned the fleet west!” Columbus continued his description, knowing full well he was speaking to a truly appreciative audience; this king knew more of maritime exploration than any of the Spanish backers to whom he would later present his report. The admiral had written as much to King Ferdinand of Aragon, the Catalan half of the Catholic Kings:

“I say miraculously, because I went to Portugal, whose king understood more about discoveries than any other.”

In the darkened room, Abraham the Astronomer listened and smiled, a benign twinkle in his bright blue eyes.

Because the admiral had an intimate relationship with the Canaries, featuring among other things a mistress in La Gomera, the existence of Columbus Street in Las Palmas is unsurprising. The lady in question, Beatriz de Bohadilla, had apparently also found favor with Ferdinand, the philandering half of the Catholic Kings.

But why Antes de los Portugueses? Here we are in the Fortunate Islands, which the Portuguese never occupied. There’s no record of Columbus visiting the archipelago prior to his first journey west, but since he lived in Madeira in the 1480s, and sailed with the Portuguese down to Guinea, he may well have been there.

The Casa de Colón has been converted into a museum, but unfortunately nowhere inside can we find a history of the place itself, and of Columbus’s life there.

The house is of classic Andalucian architecture, a cloister surrounded by ground floor rooms. These open on to the central quadrangle, but also connect internally, unlike the typical modern layout where corridors are used for distribution.

Above the pátio andaluz is the mezzanine, circumnavigating the house, supported by the columns that limit the flagstoned galleries below.

The museum is a wonderful tribute to the confusion that reigned in the mind of Columbus.

The Columbine world. Notice Japan lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, and Cathay glued to California, a hangover after some demented tectonic feast. Oh, and someone seems to have forgotten about Portugal!

The Columbine world. Notice Japan lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, and Cathay glued to California, a hangover after some demented tectonic feast. Oh, and someone seems to have forgotten about Portugal!

There were a number of maps I hadn’t seen before, including the one above, which suggests a continent called Euroasiamerica—Asia and what is now the U.S. west coast are joined at the hip through Cathay; now of course they’re joined through federal government bonds.

There is also what appears to be an original of Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi—a book that, together with Ptolemy’s vision of a world largely covered by land, helped Columbus imagine a three day Atlantic crossing to Asia.

In this Dutch chart, Japan has managed to leapfrog America to the east, but no projection would justify the relative width of the oceans either side of the Americas.

In this Dutch chart, Japan has finally managed to leapfrog America, leaving it to the east, but no projection would justify the relative width of the oceans either side of the Americas. As in many other maps, random islands are liberally cast into the water, in this case circling Cipango.

The good cardinal got it badly wrong, and pictured the universe in the traditional ‘seventh heaven’ model. I’d never seen even a facsimile of his book, and spent some time struggling with the Latin paragraphs on the open page.

I searched for Imago Mundi, the Image of the World, when I was writing The India Road, but unfortunately missed it in my compilation for the Library of Congress. If you’re lucky enough to be in DC and duck into the LOC, registration is fast and friendly (I still have my card), and leafing through this book in the Jefferson Reading Room is an experience you’ll never forget, even if your Latin is limited to hic haec hoc.

Before Copernicus, a wold built in layers, with heaven at the very top. Pierre d'Ailly's vision of geography strongly influenced the judgement of Columbus. These theoretical tomes sharply contrasted with the empiricism of the Portuguese sailors.

Before Copernicus: a wold built in layers, with heaven at the very top. Pierre d’Ailly’s vision of geography strongly influenced the judgement of Columbus. These theoretical tomes sharply contrasted with the empiricism of the Portuguese sailors.

After that, hop into the Tune Inn and grab a burger and a glass of wine, my kind of combination. And if you’re reading this in there, kick up the Latin link above and hic away.

The Casa de Colón is a treasure trove of everything that went wrong with the first expedition of Columbus. Although the Treaty of Alcáçovas is never mentioned, the maps clearly show the admiral’s route and his discoveries fall below the twenty-seventh parallel, supporting the fact that the voyage took place in Portuguese territory, and was therefore illegal.

In mitigation, all the lands discovered could never have been claimed for Spain anyhow, since they were all below the 27º 50′ latitude of the Canaries—which on the other side cuts through Orlando, Florida.

The maps for all four expeditions show Columbus at various locations in the Caribbean, including Venezuela—there is not a single landfall in what is now the United States.

Technically, all that Columbus found belonged to the crown of Portugal until 1494. From that date onward, the Treaty of Tordesillas superseded Alcáçovas. Both were negotiated by the Perfect Prince, King John II of Portugal. Those lands automatically became Spanish, but the Portuguese king won the right to navigate the South Atlantic and sail to India. And to claim a little country called Brazil.

Where the museum falls short is in the explanation of all these things. I had a wonderful time there, and I’m delighted that so much of what I saw supports the ideas in my book about the contrast between the preparation and knowledge supporting the journeys of Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

For that reason I tried to share pictures with you today, and illustrate them with words, rather than the reverse. As for Casa de Colón, it’s like Portuguese road signs: useful only if you already know the way.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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2 Responses to “Before the Portuguese”

  1. Guy Manning Photography Says:

    Googleing for images from D’Ailly’s, “Imago Mundi” I came across your article.

    See “The Diplomatic History of America, Its First Chapter”, by Henry Harrisse. This book deals with the division of the world as defined by the papal bull “Inter Cartera” etc. leading to the later Treaty of Tordesillas. https://archive.org/details/diplomatichist00harrrich

    Reading the first chapter of the book you will discover that Columbus was not violating the Treaty of 1479 since its mention of “Seas as far as the Indians” (Asian Indies) dealt only with spiritual jurisdiction, not political jurisdiction or navigation. You will also read that land sovereignty was granted only in the lands and vicinity of the Azores, Cape Verde Island and Guinea.

    • Peter Wibaux Says:

      Many thanks for your comment. The primary source is the Treaty of Alcáçovas. In it (see http://purl.pt/162/1/brasil/obras/tratado_alcacovas/hg8822/hg8822-HTML/M_index.html) it is clear that this is not a matter of spiritual jurisdiction, but political. The text states that all lands discovered below the Canaries (parallel 28) belong to Portugal, and asserts navigational rights. It does not refer any detail of navigation *along* the parallel, either west or east – implicit is that the treaty applied to all navigation along the parallel. To that effect, King John II of Portugal wrote: «Navios de qualquer gente de Espanha ou doutro qualquer… Tanto que os tais forem tomados, sem outra mais ordem nem figura de juízo, possam logo todos ser, e sejam, deitados ao mar para que morram logo naturalmente e não sejam trazidos a êstes reinos nem a outras algumas partes, para que a êles seja pena por atentarem e quererem fazer uma cousa tão defesa e vedada, e, aos que o ouvirem e souberem, bom exemplo» – in short: If any ships of Spain etc are found below the parallel, cast the crew into the sea so they may naturally perish, and that they be not brought back to this kingdom or elsewhere. Because the treaty did not specify the longitude aspects, the Catholic Kings decided to interpret that as a legitimate excuse to allow western navigation. The Papal Bull was immediately contested and rejected by King John, and it is well to remember the pope was Rodrigo Borja, from Aragon. This dispute, which almost led to a war, was the reason Tordesilhas came about – i.e. to legitimize the western discoveries of Columbus (which were clearly not legitimate in the context of Alcaçovas). Furthermore, the first proposal for the meridian line for Tordesilhas was through the Azores, which would have led to war immediately if enforced. Subsequently it moved 100 leagues west of Cape Verde, and the Portuguese negotiated it in the final treaty to 370 leagues west – with the dual objectives of (a) securing Brazil, which they already knew was there but didn’t have the population to colonize; and (b) securing the main route to India, used until the end of the tea clipper period by British and Americans alike. The details of the treaties, and the nuances of the negotiation, are described in my book ‘The India Road.’ The Columbus House in Las Palmas has a copy of Imago Mundi, if you are interested.

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