The India Road – Part II

The article below is the continuation of the three-part series that began last week on the background and historical research for The India Road. The full text was published by the British Historical Society of Portugal in its annual report for 2013, released in June 2014.

The India Road

Portugal in the last quarter of the fifteenth century

Peter Wibaux

Part II – The Four Pillars of Discovery

The main events leading to Gama’s voyage (1497-99) are given in Table 2.

Table 2. Significant events for the maritime discovery of India during the reign of King John II.

Date Event Notes
1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas The Perfect Prince
1481 Construction of the Elmina fortress (São Jorge da Mina) D. João II, crowned in 1481
1483-84 Discovery of the Congo (13oS) Diogo Cão
1487-88 Cape of Good Hope Bartolomeu Dias
1487-89 Land expedition to India Pêro da Covilhã
1491 Death of Crown Prince Afonso, only legitimate heir Riding accident, aged 16
1492 Expulsion of the Jews (Spain) Tomáz Torquemada
1492 Discovery of America Christopher Columbus
1494 Treaty of Tordesillas D. João II

The pillar of exploration, including shipbuilding, with the development of the naval yard at Ribeira das Naus, in downtown Lisbon, and the policy of shipping condemned men aboard the ‘naus’ rather than executing them, is well established―clearly exploration requires explorers.

But D. João II understood the need for a political context, without which any Portuguese discoveries would be worthless. Two years before he became king he negotiated a peace with Spain on behalf of his father, following the battle of Toro, a town near Zamora.

The treaty, signed in Alcáçovas, a village east of Alcácer do Sal, betrothed the Perfect Prince’s only legitimate son Afonso to Princess Isabel of Castile, daughter of the Catholic Kings, and divided the unknown world into two halves: any lands above the 28th parallel belonged to Spain, below it to Portugal. The latitude line crossed the Fortunate Islands (Canaries), which were a Spanish possession―the islands would later become a base for Columbus, who kept both a house in Las Palmas and a mistress[1]at La Gomera[2].

John planned a strong expansion to the south, ultimately leading to the voyage across the Indian Ocean to Calicut―the Perfect Prince enforced the treaty with characteristic ruthlessness[3].

«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»[4]

With the political context secure, the Perfect Prince devoted his energies to developing his plan to reach India by sea. To promote navigational science King John set up his Mathematical Junta, an eclectic group of scientists, versed in medicine, mathematics and cosmography. These included the legendary Abraham Zacuto, a Sephardi Jew who had escaped the purges of Tomáz Torquemada, chief inquisitor of the Catholic Kings in neighbouring Castile.

Cover pages of the ‘Tratado da Spera do Mundo’ (left), and the ‘Regimento do Astrolábio’ (right). Images from the facsimile edition of the Regimento do estrolabío de Évora, 1913, J. Bensaúde.

Fig. 4. Cover pages of the ‘Tratado da Spera do Mundo’ (left), and the ‘Regimento do Astrolábio’ (right). Images from the facsimile edition of the Regimento do estrolabío de Évora, 1913, J. Bensaúde.

John welcomed the Sephardi scientists from Spain, in exodus from learning centres such as Salamanca and the Balearics, and thereby surrounded himself with men of great wisdom. Zacuto had in 1478 written the Almanach Perpetuum, containing tables of the declination of the sun (Fig. 4), together with the ephemerides—the paths of the planets and stars. The combined power of the two elements meant a huge improvement in navigational accuracy. A copy of this tome sailed with Gama, and his chief pilot Pêro d’Alenquer, to India in 1497, two years after the death of King John II.

On the Mathematical Junta sat Jewish exiles such as Ibn Verga of Seville, José Vizinho, Zacuto’s disciple and physician to the king, and for a time Martin Behaim[5].It was this group of advisors that rejected the plans of Columbus to sail west to the Indies.

Columbus endorsed the writings of Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly―in his book, Imago Mundi, the cardinal supports the 4th book of Esdras, in which God determined the ocean be gathered into a 7th part of the earth. Columbus believed China was 4000 miles away from Western Europe (Fig. 5), and subscribed to Toscanelli’s view that the distance between Western Europe and the Indies was 600 leagues[6]. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea additionally confused the Italian sea mile with the Arab mile, a further 30% underestimation.

Fig. 5. The world view of Christopher Columbus. Cipango (Japan) is in the Atlantic Ocean, and Cathay (China) is glued to California (Casa de Colón Museum, Las Palmas).

Fig. 5. The world view of Christopher Columbus. Cipango (Japan) is in the Atlantic Ocean, and Cathay (China) is glued to California (Casa de Colón Museum, Las Palmas).

In December 1488, Columbus was in Lisbon to hear Bartolomeu Dias address the court on his conquest of the Cape of Storms―in his margin notes, the Genovese estimates the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope as 45oS, when in reality it is 11o less. Four years later, sailing under the Spanish flag, Columbus reported the latitude of Cuba (23oN) as 42oN, the coordinates of Boston.

[1] Beatriz de Bobadilla, who apparently also found favor with Ferdinand, the philandering half of the Catholic Kings

[2]As a consequence of the treaty of Alcáçovas, the whole first voyage of Columbus in 1492, after sailing west from the Fortunate Islands, together with his landfall at Guanahani (Bahamas), and all territory discovered, technically belonged to the crown of Portugal. The journey took place in Portuguese waters―the 28th parallel goes through Orlando, Florida.

[3]King John II killed (or had killed) over 80 people, mainly from the House of Braganza (his wife Leonor’s family) in consolidation of his throne. The list includes his brother-in-law, the Duque of Viseu, who the king stabbed to death in 1484 for conspiring to overthrow him.

[4]“Cast the crew into the sea so they may naturally perish, and that they be not brought back to this kingdom or elsewhere.”(The India Road, p. 196, abridged from the Portuguese original).

[5]Celebrated in Ravenstein, E.G., 1908. Martin Behaim, his life and his globe. George Philip & Son.

[6] A maritime league is nominally 5.5 km; the distance would be 3300 km. The Atlantic Ocean is about 5600 km wide at the latitude of Lisbon-Washington (39oN).

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

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

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