Reconnaissance: The New Continents and Their Place in the World
Reconnaissance: The New Continents and Their Place in the World
The Italian Connection. The Iberian maritime powers, Spain and Portugal, spearheaded European expansion in the era of Columbus, and the French and English crowns soon followed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with colonization attempts of their own. Yet many of the earliest voyages commissioned by the monarchs of these western European states were actually headed by Italian captains. Although his voyages laid the foundations for a Spanish overseas empire, for example, Christopher Columbus had originally come from the Italian city of Genoa. Similarly another Genoese sailor, John Cabot, led a 1497 expedition to the North American coast in the name of English king Henry VII. In addition Renaissance Italy’s cultural and intellectual capital, Florence, produced two mariners who headed other significant early voyages of exploration in the service of foreign monarchs. Amerigo Vespucci sailed alternatively in the service of Spain and Portugal, and his compatriot Giovanni da Verrazano made a 1524 voyage in the service of French king Francis I along the eastern coast of North America. The prevalence of Italians among the early European explorers was no mere coincidence. Italy had after all been Europe’s center of geographical thought and speculation throughout the fifteenth century. Moreover the Italians also held an interest in maintaining a prominent place in European commerce even as the continent’s economic center of gravity was shifting away from their native Mediterranean and toward the Atlantic seaboard.
The Naming of America. Although our popular culture today credits Columbus with the “discovery” of America, he did not receive the honor of having the two continents of the New World named after him; that distinction fell instead upon Vespucci. The naming of the two continents of the western hemisphere North and South “America” rather than North and South “Columbia” aroused heated controversy in the years following the deaths of Columbus and Vespucci in 1506 and 1512, respectively. For instance, the famous Spanish clergyman Bartolomé de las Casas, who admired Columbus greatly even as he criticized the cruel treatment of Caribbean natives by Spanish settlers, angrily charged that Vespucci had unjustly stolen the honor that rightly pertained to Columbus. Vespucci was a wealthy and well-educated man who worked for the powerful Medici banking family. In 1492 he was sent to Spain to oversee Medici business interests there. Between 1499 and 1502 Vespucci made several voyages across the Atlantic exploring the Caribbean region visited by Columbus as well as the coast of mainland South America. On these trips Vespucci gradually came to the conclusion that these lands were nowhere near Asia but instead constituted what he called a previously unknown “New World.” His detailed account of his experiences was translated into nearly all major European languages, published in various editions, and circulated throughout early-sixteenth-century western and central Europe. In short the attribution of his name to the newly found continents instead of Columbus’s had a great deal to do with superior public relations. Contrary to Las Casas’s accusations, however, Vespucci himself appears to have played no direct, personal role in the application of his own name to the new continents. Instead that connection was first made without Vespucci’s knowledge by a group of mapmakers headed by Martin Waldseemüller at the monastery of St. Die in France. The 1507 map drawn by this group placed the name America only on the South American continent. The mapmakers justified the appellation by claiming that it was Vespucci and not Columbus who had first recognized these lands for what they actually were: a new continent. The landmark 1538 world map of the famous cartographer Gerardus Mercator first extended the usage of the name America to the North American continent.
Passages to Asia. The gradual realization that Columbus’s voyages had not reached Asia but rather had accidentally bumped into a New World previously unknown to Europeans did not stop European states from continuing their search for a convenient oceanic trading route to Asia. A 1497–1499 expedition headed by Vasco da Gama finally brought to a successful completion the long Portuguese search for a route around Africa’s southern tip to the lucrative markets of India. In the years following da Gama’s visit to India, the Portuguese gradually built a commercial empire that included fortified trading posts on the African coast as well as along the shore of India itself. The Portuguese later expanded this commercial empire to include fortified posts in Malaysia near the Spice Islands of Indonesia. As a result of their efforts the Portuguese had finally broken the long-standing Muslim and Venetian stranglehold on Asian trade, and Portugal replaced Venice as Europe’s capital of overseas commerce.
Magellan. With substantially less-successful results the Spanish also managed to find their own all-water route to Asia through a 1519–1522 expedition led ironically by a Portuguese captain working for the Spanish crown, Ferdinand Magellan. His expedition pioneered a southwesterly route to Asia by passing through the perilous straits (later named the Straits of Magellan) near South America’s southern tip. From there the expedition proceeded directly across the Pacific Ocean to East Asia. Magellan himself died in a 1521 skirmish with some natives of the Philippine Islands. Led by the expedition’s senior surviving officer, Juan Sebastian del Cano, the surviving crew members then struggled across the Indian Ocean and around the southern tip of Africa, finally returning to Spain in 1522. In the process del Cano and his crew became the first expedition to circumnavigate the entire globe. This achievement was by itself noteworthy. Their three-year trip, however, had proven deadly for the majority of the crew. Of an original expedition contingent of 4 ships and some 250 men, only 1 ship and 18 surviving crew members managed to complete the journey. Their news that there existed a navigable southwesterly passage to Asia also aroused some excitement, but the dangerous Antarctic waters of South America’s southern tip proved too treacherous to provide a practical path for regular trade with Asia.
Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Vintage, 1983);