The Roaring Forties

I travel to goodreads a couple of times a week, and this text gets mirrored there. It’s my only concession to social networks so far—digital ones, that is.

The main instrument for sharing books is boca a boca, word of mouth, unless you opt for an advertising strategy. That costs a lot of money, and has little guarantee of success—a good review in the New York Times or The Guardian can do much more for a book.

An opinion piece by Anne Applebaum in Thursday’s NYT was all it took for me to buy her history of the Gulag—the first few pages are seriously scary. In time, I’ll review it on goodreads, and perhaps that’ll be useful for others.

One of my readers there was kind enough to note that The India Road

does an excellent job of putting a human face on the Portuguese maritime explorations; a topic that is usually approached in dry, fact-heavy works of non-fiction.

Since that was one of the main motivations for writing the book, I hope his review will pique the curiosity of others.

Life is non-linear, a fact that is very poorly understood by politicians, and the way a book becomes popular, or a video turns viral, are both good examples of that.

Or to put it another way, you only need Adam and Eve to generate the six billion people on earth today. At current rates, it would take a little over two thousand years, and we would all truly be brothers and sisters.

I used a very simple model for this calculation, and then I wondered whether the creationists had ever used the same approach to date the earth. If you subscribe to the theory of divine creation, then some simple math could let you work backward to genesis.

Turns out those calculations exist. I had fun reading the analysis, including the fact that their evaluation is based on Noah’s Ark, not the Garden of Eden. But I think the ‘where are all the people’ discussion is disingenuous.

It’s historically documented that human populations remained stable, or decreased, over long periods—in the late fifteenth century, Portugal had 1.2 million people, compared to eleven million today. This doesn’t mean near-extinction, just exogenous control.

As for the bodies, bones may take a century to decompose, but they surely will. Added to that, geological evidence of massive sea level changes, as well as predation, support the notion that we wouldn’t expect a gigantic boneyard, as creationists claim. In any case, the same arguments could be made for all other vertebrates.

Mortality rates on board the early maritime expeditions are just one example of the challenges to survival and successful reproduction.

The commanders of these fleets were well aware of the risks, and eager to be compensated for their achievements. In Portugal, the rewards might typically be a title of nobility, and a lifetime right to levy taxes in your domain, or otherwise receive a ‘rent’.

At the time, no man was more intent on compensation than Columbus. The admiral was desperate to have his feats recognized, and lobbied the Reyes Católicos for the right to one tenth of the bounty to be discovered, and for the title of viceroy.

The correspondence of Columbus, part of the Cervantes digital library.

The diaries and correspondence of Columbus, part of the Cervantes digital library.

Three factors could be expected to play a part in this negotiation: the contracting party, the explorer himself, and what was actually found. Monarchs were notoriously fickle, and a promise today might well become a threat tomorrow.

The bigger the promise, the greater the danger—powerful men have short memories.

The relaciones y cartas de Cristóbal Colon provide a wonderful history of the admiral’s achievements and misadventures. Columbus begins the diary of his first journey by explaining that the Catholic Kings had expelled the Jews from Spain, and earlier in 1492 conquered Granada and ended the Moorish caliphate.

The diary contains his definition of the sea mile, four miles to the league—Colon used the Italian mile, three-quarters of the Iberian one.

Contrary to the diary of Alvaro Velho, which provides no indication of the distance traveled by Vasco da Gama, except through hagiography, Columbus keeps a careful record of his journey west. I have no doubt that either Pêro de Alenquer, Gama’s chief pilot, or Gama himself, will have kept a diary, but in all likelihood it will have perished in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Since the western passage to India was estimated to take three or four days, with the so-called Antilles (the ante-ilhas, or before-islands) not too far west of Madeira, it’s educational to estimate the progress of Columbus, as written by the man himself.

As you know, the journey took much longer than that—next week I’ll tell you how those numbers turned out.

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

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



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