History, Seriously

The texts that follow were printed as an article in the 2013 Annual Report of the British Historical Society of Portugal. The Society generously invited me to speak at their Annual General Meeting in June 2013, and subsequent to that I was asked to develop the talk into an article for publication.

Mr Clive Gilbert, President of the BHSP, generously offered his valuable time to proof-read and correct a number of errors in the original draft.

If you’ve read The India Road, you will enjoy this weekly series of three short texts—they put the book in perspective, by explaining the factual aspects that form its core. You will also see some of the illustrations that are an integral part of my talk.

If you read my chronicles regularly, which I sincerely thank you for, you know I travel frequently—I will, for instance, be in Finland all next week. If you’re involved with books, or history, or both, perhaps by way of a club or society, and would be interested in organizing a talk on this subject, please get in touch with me.

It might take a year before I’m in your neck of the woods, but you never know.

If you haven’t read The India Road, and are a scholar of history, perhaps the series to be published over the next three weeks will interest you in a different way. First, because this is not disguised with literary artifice. Second, because footnotes support points of scholarship where appropriate. Third, because the text is fully referenced.

Whichever camp you belong to, please note that what you read below is the egg that bore the chicken, and not the reverse.

The India Road

Portugal in the last quarter of the fifteenth century[1]

Peter Wibaux

Part I – The Knowledge

Introduction

This is the story of a story.

I wrote The India Road[2] during a one-year sabbatical leave from university. A sabbatical is often spent at a laboratory overseas, or in my line of work, oceanography, on a research cruise to the Antarctic, or perhaps the Bohai Sea. The alternative is to write a book.

Since my undergraduate days, I was struck by the role that the surface circulation of the world ocean must have played in the Portuguese discoveries. My initial intention was to develop this reasoning as a research question, and analyse the first voyage of Vasco da Gama from that perspective.

Fig. 1. John II of Portugal, known as the Perfect Prince. Isabella of Castile called him simply El Hombre.

Fig. 1. John II of Portugal, known as the Perfect Prince. Isabella of Castile called him simply El Hombre.

However, I found that the preparation and planning that led to Gama’s journey was two decades in the making, and that it was propelled by the visionary thinking of King John II of Portugal[3]. By the time Gama sailed in 1497, John II (1455-1495) was dead, allegedly poisoned by his wife through the administration of arsenic trioxide (white arsenic), a popular toxin[4] known as the widow-maker.

John II, the Perfect Prince, became king of Portugal in 1481, and unlike his father Afonso V, cast his eye not on North Africa, but much further afield.

Over a millennium before, the Romans, who had mastered the Mediterranean, describing it as Mare Nostrum, sailed west through the Pillars of Hercules[5] in order to explore the African coast. The square-rigged Roman galleys took advantage of the northeast trades, and the Canaries current, which flows south along the Iberian coast towards Africa.

The challenge came when the galleys attempted to return, with strong headwinds and opposing currents, in square-riggers that were almost unable to tack. The Atlantic became known as the Mare Clausum, a closed sea from which there was no return.

Table 1. Early milestones in the maritime route to India.

Date Event Notes
1427 Discovery of the Azores Diogo de Silves; (1439 – 7 islands)
1434 Cape Bojador (26oN) Gil Eanes; square-rigged barque; offshore navigation
1441 Cabo Branco (21oN) Tristão & Gonçalves; lateen-rigged caravel
1444 River Senegal

& Cape Verde (16oN)

Diniz Dias
1450s Cape Verde Islands Greater emphasis placed on cartography
1450s Development of trade First ‘cruzado’ coins minted with West African gold
1460 Death of Infante

D. Henrique

West African coast explored to Sierra Leone
1471 Discovery of Elmina,

Ghana (5oN)

João de Santarém & Pêro Escobar

By the mid-fifteenth century, Portugal already had a substantial record of exploration in the Atlantic Ocean (Table 1), largely due to the work of Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), having discovered and colonised both Madeira and the Azores, and more importantly rounded Cape Bojador, on the NW coast of Africa, and gradually progressed south as far as Guinea. In 1471, a decade after Henry’s death, Portuguese ships reached Elmina, in Ghana.

The route back to Iberia was thus discovered by the Portuguese well before the Perfect Prince was crowned, and became known as the ‘Volta da Mina’, ‘Torna Viagem’, or ‘Volta da Guiné’ (Fig. 2). Instead of fighting the trade winds and the Canaries current, ships would sail northwest, taking advantage of both the NE trades and the westward-flowing North Equatorial Current.

On the western side of the Atlantic, the North Equatorial Current becomes the Gulf Stream, which flows north along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and turns east at Cape Hatteras, on the North Carolina coast, beginning its progress to Europe as the North Atlantic Drift. This anticyclonic wind-driven current pattern is the North Atlantic Gyre―by heading NW from the African Coast, the Portuguese vessels were able to reach the North Atlantic Drift at the latitude of the Roaring Forties, west of the Azores, and then proceed to Lisbon on a downwind run.

Fig. 2. The Volta da Mina entailed sailing northwest in order to catch the Westerlies at around forty degrees latitude, and then sailing the parallel east (easting) for the return to Portugal (figure courtesy J.M. Malhão Pereira).

Fig. 2. The Volta da Mina entailed sailing northwest in order to catch the Westerlies at around forty degrees latitude, and then sailing the parallel east (easting) for the return to Portugal (figure courtesy J.M. Malhão Pereira).

Once the Portuguese ships began sailing offshore, line of sight navigation was no longer possible, and astronomical knowledge became a key part of any pilot’s training.

Since longitude could not be accurately determined until precision shipboard timepieces were manufactured in the mid-eighteenth century[6], pilots relied on the compass, then called the Genovese needle, and on two methods for determining latitude at sea:

(i) The height of the sun at midday, which when corrected by means of declination tables, provided a latitude position. An astrolabe was used for measurement, usually suspended at waist height. The Portuguese mariners called it ‘pesar o sol’, weighing the sun, an allusion to the conventional method for weighing produce in the market;

(ii) At night, the height of the pole star (Polaris, a) above the horizon was used to determine latitude, but the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor, was also used to tell the time, by noting the progress of Kochab (b) as it rotated anticlockwise[7] around Polaris. The Little Dipper was called the ‘buzina’, or horn, by the sailors―an instrument the Portuguese are still manifestly fond of.

 

Fig. 3. The ‘Wheel of the North’, used to measure ‘ladeza’, or latitude. The spokes correspond to the position of Kochab during the nightly period (see text for explanation) .

Fig. 3. The ‘Wheel of the North’, used to measure ‘ladeza’, or latitude. The spokes correspond to the position of Kochab during the nightly period (see text for explanation) .

Much of the astronomical and cartographic knowledge [8] imparted to the Portuguese came from Arab and Jewish scientists―a good part of the mathematical support for the calculations originated in Ancient Greece, and was then transported to India by Alexander the Great. In Pataliputra (Patna), the Surya Siddhanta Varahamihisa, or Knowledge of the Sun, was written by Indian sages between 505 and 587 A.D[9].

The knowledge of the Brahmins then made its way west during the reign of Harun Al-Rashid, of Arabian Nights fame, as the Sindhind. The Arab diaspora to Iberia, during the days of the Caliphate (Al Andaluz) ensured that this information was available in Southwestern Europe by the time Henry the Navigator set up his famous school in Sagres.

[1]This text is developed from a talk given at the British Historical Society of Portugal’s AGM, June 19th 2013.

[2] Website at theindiaroad.com with links to amazon.com or amazon.co.uk where the book is available.

[3]See Adão e Silva, L., 2007. D. João II. Circulo dos Leitores.

[4]The Romans, particularly Nero, used arsenic as a poison on a regular basis.

[5] Strait of Gibraltar

[6]The lunar distance method was also an alternative, proposed many years after the Portuguese discoveries. See Dava Sobel’s excellent book ‘Longitude’ (Walker & Co.) for a review.

[7]The use of words such as ‘clockwise’ in dialogue in The India Road required research on whether clocks already existed in the second half of the XVth century (they did).

[8] «Quando esto quisieres saber para mientes á alguna de las estrellas que son acerca del polo septentrional de las que no se ponen so tierra en essa vila, assi cuemo qualquiera de alfarcadeyn, ó la estrella que dizen algedi, que es en cabo de la cola de la ossa menor…. et toma la su altura della la mas alta que puede seer, et guárdala. Et desende toma la sua altura la mas baja que puede seer, et ayunta amas à dos las alturas que tomaste et toma la mitad dellas. et lo que fuer, será la ladeza de la villa.»

Libro II del Astrolabio llano (XIIIth century).

[9]Among many other materials, the book contains a definition of pi (p) accurate to four decimal places: Add 4 to 100, multiply by 8, add 62000. The result is the approximate value of a circumference when the diameter is 20000. Gives p = 3.1416

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

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

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