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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Spain in America

Edward Gaylord Bourne

in the
Barnes & Noble edition,
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p3  Chapter I
Preliminaries of Discovery

The historic life of the ancient world was grouped about the Mediterranean Sea, and that body of water invited the early spirit of adventure and exploration. Its broad bosom was the highway of arms and of commerce, and the channel by which the elements of culture were transmitted from one people to another. As the world of ancient civilization expanded, its activities radiated from this centre; and during the Middle Ages the life of Europe and western Asia was still grouped about the Mediterranean. Consequently, of all the changes which mark the transition from ancient and mediaeval to modern history, none is so profound as that which has regrouped human life about the Atlantic as a new and grander central sea.

The initial steps in this great change must be indicated briefly before the main story is taken  p4 up.1 Prior to the invention of the mariner's compass, geographical discovery did not advance beyond the range of land travel and of coasting voyages. The nearest approach to the unlocking of the secrets of the sea of darkness that was made without the guiding needle was accomplished by the fearless sailors of the North, who found Iceland in 867, colonized Greenland in 985,2 and reached the shores later to be known as America, at a time when western Europe had hardly begun to recover what had been lost by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the decay of ancient knowledge.

Yet the distance was so great, the voyage so precarious, and the returns so slight that these ventures were discontinued; and northern enterprise remained content with the establishment of scattered settlements on the western shores of Greenland, which for three centuries were the remote outposts of Christendom in the west, obscure precursors of the future expansion of Europe and Christianity.3

Of more consequence were the later ventures in the south, which, beginning with the isolated attempts of the Vivaldi brothers, of Genoa, in 1291,4 to reach  p5 India by sailing round Africa, were continued by other stray Italian voyages to the African islands; they culminate in the fifteenth century in the systematic promotion of geographical discovery by the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. His career and its results, the indispensable preparation in Europe for the discovery of the New World, naturally belong to the opening volume of this series. All that can be done here is to emphasize the importance for American history of creating a body of fearless ocean navigators; of breaking down the old imaginary barrier of a flaming zone in the tropics; of setting in train a range of activities which in little more than a century revealed a new world, encompassed the globe, and opened to Europe not only a broad field for its expanding energies, but also a new and more spacious home for its people.5

Near the end of Prince Henry's life the results attained under his leadership were incorporated in a map by the Venetian geographer, Friar Mauro, which records, in the part devoted to Asia, all the additions made to geographical knowledge by Marco Polo, John of Pian de Carpine, William of Rubruk, and other mediaeval travellers. In addition, Friar Mauro, by a bold conjecture, relying upon the indications afforded by the voyages down the east and west coasts, depicted South Africa as circumnavigable, and confidently affirmed his belief that  p6 one could sail from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.6

After the death of Prince Henry, his nephew Alfonso V, prosecuted the work of exploration only intermittently, yet with some significant results. His reign is signalized by the first project of exploring the Atlantic to the west. Alfonso V, in January, 1474, granted to Fernam Tellez, who had rendered distinguished services in the African voyages, any islands he might discover in the ocean sea not in the region of Guinea.7 Not quite two years later this privilege was extended to cover inhabited as well as uninhabited islands, and the Seven Cities are mentioned by name as the object of his explorations. On the map of Graciosus Benincasa, 1482,8 the island of Antilia, with the names of the Seven Cities inscribed, is placed about as far west of the Madeiras as they are distant from Spain. Of the results of Tellez's efforts nothing is known. The positive achievement of Alfonso's reign was the actual crossing of the equator, demonstrating that the torrid zone was not uninhabitable or uninhabited.

Alfonso's successor, John II, took up with energy the work of Prince Henry. During his reign of fourteen years (1481‑1495) the west  p7 coast of Africa was explored, until in 1487 Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Storms, renamed by the king Good Hope. Owing in part to ill health, King John made no further effort in that direction. To the possibilities in the west he had not been indifferent, although he rejected the proposals of Columbus, for in 1486 he granted to Ferdinand Dulmo, a captain of the island of Terceira, in the Azores, any island or islands or main-land that he might discover in the Atlantic. Dulmo sailed in 1487, equipped for a voyage of six months, but he lighted neither upon the fabled Seven Cities nor the hidden islands of the west.9 This good-fortune was not to crown a century of exploration by the hardy seamen of the western kingdom of the peninsula, but was to be won by a countryman of Doria and the Vivaldi brothers, whose first venture had anticipated Prince Henry by more than a century.

The Author's Notes:

1 Cf. Cheyney, European Background of American History (American NationI).

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2 Errera, L' Epoca delle Grandi Scoperte Geografiche, 360.

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3 The best account of the Norse voyages is to be found in J. Fischer, The Discoveries of the Norsemen in America.

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4 Pertz, Der Aelteste Versuch zur Entdeckung des Seeweges nach Ostindien im Jahre 1291, p10; in English in Major, The Life of Prince Henry the Navigator, 99, 100.

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5 Cheyney, European Background, chap. IV.

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6 Zurla, Il Mappamondo di Fra Mauro, 63; Errera, L' Epoca delle Grandi Scoperte Geografiche, 200; see map, p14.

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7 Ramos-Coelho, Alguns Documentos, 38, 41.

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8 Kretschmer, Atlas, plate 4.

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9 Ramos-Coelho, Alguns Documentos, 58.

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Page updated: 23 Jan 08