The Ocean Sea
On a raw January day in 1492 a somewhat eccentric figure might have been spotted riding slowly through the Andalusian countryside on muleback. Tall and pale-eyed, the forty-year-old Christopher Columbus was making his way to the Franciscan convent of Santa Mar’a de la R‡bida, near Seville, where he had befriended a number of friars. He had just visited Granada, a Moorish city for the best part of eight centuries, which had surrendered on 2 January to the reconquering Spanish monarchs, Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon, whom Columbus hoped to persuade to support his proposed plan to sail to India across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the monarchs were too busy with more pressing priorities after such a momentous victory, so Columbus, with years of royal pleading weighing heavily on his shoulders, decided to make his way back to the relative comfort afforded by his Franciscan friends.
His path to the court of Isabel and Fernando was a long and circuitous one. Adventuring, trading and moneymaking were in his blood. His native Genoa had long been one of Europe's most dynamic, most influential city states, establishing an extensive network of centres of production and exchange throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean. In particular, Genoa's dominance of the Iberian and North African sea routes gave it an unrivalled stake in the burgeoning trade between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ports. When, some fifty years later, Sebastian MŸnster published his Cosmographia, he famously portrayed the republic of Genoa as an imposing, muscular male figure standing on two worlds, with a Janus face, holding a luscious bunch of grapes in his right hand and a huge key in his left. The image was a clear attempt to link the medieval legend associating the name of Genoa with that of Janus - or Ianos, its alleged Trojan founder - with a more recent notion of Genoa as the door - ianua in Latin - to the Pillars of Hercules. This was the very place that for centuries had served as a warning to sailors to venture no further - non plus ultra.
For all the imposing size of MŸnster's figure, the source of Genoese strength was, paradoxically, to be found in its comparative weakness. Genoa had none of the characteristics that we have come to associate with a state, let alone an empire. Genoese traders prospered on the basis of their adaptability and family solidarity. They were happy to seek the patronage of foreign princes, so long as it did not erode the ties of friendship and kinship with their own countrymen. This was not, of course, a uniquely Genoese characteristic, but as in the example of the Turkish city of Galata, the Genoese had a distinctive ability to reproduce their city wherever they went. This made them particularly adaptable not only to different environments but also to widely diverse types of trade, from the slaves of the Black Sea, the alum of Phocaea and the grain of Cyprus and the Danube plains, to the mastic of Chios and the spices channelled by the Venetians through Alexandria and Beirut.
This adaptability was just as well. In 1453 the Genoese route - and, by extension, the European route - to the lucrative markets of Asia was abruptly severed by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the great Eurasian city on the Bosphorus. Not only did the Ottomans now pose a military threat to Christendom, but they had also ripped through the supply lines - the 'silk roads' - on which so much Genoese trade depended, for it had transported everything from sugar and exotic textiles to alum, the dye-fixer so vital to the European cloth industry. This, in turn, brought to an end the former commercial pre-eminence of Caffa, the Genoese colony in Crimea. Genoa had to look elsewhere for trade. Soon, Sicily and the Algarve began to produce good-quality silks and sugar under the guidance of Genoese merchants, and the kingdom of Granada - the one remaining Islamic enclave in Spain - began to prove especially enticing for Genoese merchants, not only for its silk, saffron, sugar and citrus fruits, but also for its privileged access to the Maghreb (north-west Africa) and the much-coveted supplies of gold from beyond the Sahara. In short, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople led merchants and traders throughout Christendom to turn their gaze decidedly westwards. At their forefront were the Genoese, who found a welcome home from home in Portugal.
In the fifteenth century, Portugal would come to play a role that can be compared to that played by Genoa and Venice in the twelfth and Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. When the great depression that followed the Black Death in the fourteenth century forced Venice and Genoa to divert their interests to the land and to finance respectively, Lisbon remained a mercantile and maritime centre linking the Mediterranean to England and northern Europe. Great Italian merchant families like the Bardi of Florence and the Lomellini of Venice vied with entrepreneurs from Flanders and Catalonia in a race to set up a base in Lisbon. The city's preponderance turned Portugal into Europe's pre-eminent economic and maritime centre of the age. It became a key ally of England during the Hundred Years' War. The Anglo-Portuguese victory against Spain at Aljubarrota in August 1385 was brilliantly captured in the laborious construction of the great monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory in Batalha, roughly halfway between Lisbon and Coimbra, with its exuberant imagery of cables and anchors, corals, shells and waves. Here was an emphatic visual confirmation that Portugal had inherited the legacy of Italy. Soon, the Venetian Greek possessions of Chios and Crete would become the models for Madeira and the Canaries. In addition, the diplomatic alliance between England and Portugal agreed at the Treaty of Windsor in May 1386 would give English merchants, those based in Bristol in particular, ample experience of long voyages and a close connection to a country that had established itself as the most extensive seaborne empire of the age.
Starting in the 1420s, under the leadership of Prince Henry 'the Navigator', the kingdom of Portugal had sponsored expeditions down the west African coast with the aim of establishing a direct maritime trade in gold, ivory and slaves from sub-Saharan kingdoms, thus bypassing the need to rely on the trans-Saharan caravan routes dominated by Arab traders. By the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese had charted the whole west coast of Africa as far as the Cape of Good Hope, in the process colonizing Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. Their enterprise was infectious. Far to the north, merchants in the English port of Bristol were launching Atlantic expeditions of their own. Although the bulk of their trade was with Ireland and Bordeaux, it was contact with Portugal that had piqued their interest. They could hardly muscle in on Portugal's own explorations, of course, but there was nothing to stop Bristolians from exploring 'lost' lands of their own. They knew about Iceland and Greenland, with which England had traded liberally during the Viking era. Earlier in the fifteenth century, with Denmark - now effectively Iceland's ruler - showing little interest in the north Atlantic, Bristol had re-established contact with Iceland, exchanging European goods for the air-dried cod known as 'stockfish', mostly during the summer months when trade with Bordeaux and Portugal, which consisted mostly of wine, olive oil and fruits, was at its lowest intensity. As the sailing prowess of Bristol's merchants matured, so their horizons grew. The island of Brazil, believed to be to the west of Ireland, was the subject of much speculation among Europe's communities of merchant-adventurers. Mentioned by Catalan and Italian cartographers, it was described by the Basque chronicler Lope Garc’a de Salazar in 1470 not only as a real island but also as the burial place of King Arthur, no less. Here was the fifteenth century in all its bewildering glory, imagining the island of Brazil as a place of expansionist dreams, of hard-headed ambitions, of the foundational chivalric myth-histories that underpinned the identity of Christendom itself.
So, when a youthful Columbus moved from his native Genoa to the Portuguese port city of Lisbon in the mid-1470s, he was following a path already well-trodden by his countrymen. Attracted by the exploration of the west coast of Africa, many of Columbus's compatriots began to take up jobs in Portugal, a trend that reached a peak during the reign of the energetic Jo‹o II (1481-95), whose commitment to Atlantic exploration was often used by Columbus as an example to put the Spanish monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, to shame. Columbus was driven by more than the simple desire to make money. He was on a quest of his own - and Lisbon suited him just fine.
Columbus was already an experienced sailor. He knew the Tyrrhenian sea - that part of the Mediterranean bounded by the coastlines of Provence, western Italy and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily - like the back of his hand. In Lisbon he quickly found work and participated in sailing expeditions to Madeira in order to buy sugar as part of a business transaction with the prosperous Genoese Centurione firm. He also got to know the well-worn trade routes with the Canaries and the Azores. These three archipelagos, far to the west of the European mainland and - in the case of the Canaries - off the north-west coast of Africa, were part of a wide circle of Atlantic trade. By the 1470s, they had turned into jumping-off points for more adventurous and ambitious sailors, traders and explorers. Columbus himself claimed to have gone 'a hundred leagues beyond' Iceland on one trip from Bristol, via Galway in Ireland; later he had gone as far south as the recently founded fort of S‹o Jorge da Mina, in what is nowadays Ghana, where the Portuguese gold trade in Africa was concentrated. For Columbus, as for many of his fellow sailors, the Atlantic - the 'Ocean Sea' as it was known at the time - was becoming a compulsion.
The great bullion famine of the fifteenth century, which drove explorers to seek the support of cash-strapped monarchs across Europe, went hand in hand with a race for wonders and novelties. Adventurers took a keen delight in challenging received wisdom with fresh empirical knowledge. The Portuguese explorations down the 'Gold coast' of Africa, for example, had shown all ancient preconceptions about the alleged impenetrability of the 'torrid zone' for the nonsense that they were. Columbus was obviously influenced by such speculations and they might have played a part in his growing conviction that it was possible to sail to India across the Atlantic, but there is no evidence that this was in his mind during his time in Portugal. In any case, the interests of Jo‹o II were far too focused on the African coast and the possibility of reaching India via the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus's transatlantic project began to take clearer shape in the early 1480s. By this time he was preoccupied with supporting his son Diego, born in 1479, around the time of Columbus's marriage to the Portuguese noblewoman Filipa Moniz Perestrelo. This took him to Andalusia where he came across the convent of La R‡bida sometime in the mid-1480s. There he found something far more interesting than a place to shelter and educate his young son, for one of the leading astronomers and cosmographers of the period was living there at the time. He was Friar Antonio de Marchena, and he warmed at once to the Genoese explorer.
It was Marchena who persuaded Columbus that the Antipodes and the Amazons mentioned in various classical sources might indeed be real. He also encouraged him to read the second-century Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who had argued that the world was a perfect sphere, containing one continuous land mass stretching from the west of Europe to the east of Asia. Columbus was naturally enthusiastic about this theory, but he remained stubbornly unpersuaded by the Alexandrian's view that the known world comprised exactly half the globe. If this was the case, then crossing the Atlantic was beyond the capabilities of any contemporary vessel. This was something that Columbus simply did not care to imagine. His 'solution' was astonishing as much for its naivety as for its assuredness. First, he dismissed Ptolemy's calculation on the basis of the theories of one Marinus of Tyre - a figure who, in a delicious irony, had only survived because Ptolemy had taken the trouble to dismiss his patently erroneous calculation. Second, he used the evidence provided by the thirteenth-century Venetian traveller Marco Polo - in a book written at the request of the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan - to argue that all the descriptions he found in the Venetian's account pointed well beyond Ptolemy's proposed limits. As far as Columbus was concerned, Ptolemy was wrong: the 'Ocean Sea' was much smaller than most of his contemporaries supposed.
Marco Polo's writings fuelled Columbus's imagination in other ways. He inhaled their exotic evocation of thousands upon thousands of islands beyond the continent of Asia, including 'Cipangu' with its gilded and watered gardens, allegedly 1,500 miles off the coast of China. The marginal annotations found in his copy of the book suggest that Columbus read it not so much as a source of facts as of marvels and wonders. The same is true of the similarly detailed annotations found in his copy of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Even Pierre d'Ailly's Ymago Mundi and the Historia rerum ubique gestarum by Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini (Pope Pius II), both of which attracted Columbus's more scholarly interests, were plundered by him for what they revealed about Asia's gold, silver, pearls, amber and 'manifold marvels'. Columbus dreamed big: and he dreamed of untold and fabulous riches - fabulous, that was, until he led the expedition that turned these stories into reality.
But how would he, in turn, realize his own ambitions? Such adventuring was unfeasible without the support of a powerful patron. Money alone was not enough. A private venture, funded by rich sponsors, would instantly falter in the event that the expedition in question discovered a new territory, for it would have no authority with which to lay claim to it. To make such a claim of ownership - or what in those days was referred to as dominium - and, just as importantly, to defend that claim against hostile foreign princes, explorers needed the backing, as well as the funds, of a powerful sovereign state. Royal patronage, Columbus knew, was of the essence.
In later life he would claim that the choice of Castile had been entirely providential - a 'miracle' brought about by God's 'manifest hand' against competing offers from Portugal, France and England to sponsor him. The reality was rather different, for there is no evidence of any interest in Columbus's plans, let alone offers of sponsorship by those other monarchies. Even in Castile, the progress he made proved frustratingly slow. It is true that Andalusia was showing great potential from Columbus's perspective. His own compatriots had been settling there in such droves that, by the late fifteenth century, more than half the nobility of Seville had Genoese surnames. Isabel and Fernando had not been slow to take advantage of this regional dynamism. Since the mid-1470s they had been issuing licences to Andalusian privateers, seeking to encourage them to break into the lucrative Portuguese monopoly of trade in the Gulf of Guinea. A flurry of activity ensued during which the wealth of the Canaries proved increasingly enticing. In 1483 Andalusian privateers, among whom the Genoese of Seville and C‡diz were especially conspicuous, conquered Grand Canaria. La Palma and Tenerife (respectively conquered much later, in 1493 and 1496) would have followed swiftly, had Isabel and Fernando not been distracted by more pressing priorities in the mainland.