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European maritime adventures: 1402-1460

Until the end of the Middle Ages the most westerly region known to Europeans is the Canary Islands. The islands are visited in about 40 BC by seafarers from Mauretania, a client kingdom of Rome in northwest Africa. An account of this expedition is known in the next century to Pliny the Elder. He explains that the islands are called Canaria because they have so many large dogs (canes).

In the 2nd centurythe westernmost island, Ferro, the nearest known point to the setting sun, is chosen by the geographer Ptolemy as his prime meridian of longitude - the role now occupied by Greenwich.

If Pliny's great dogs existed in the Canaries, they belonged to the aboriginal inhabitants. Known as the Guanches, these people seem to have been Cro-Magnon in type. They have found their way to the islands at some unkown time long before their discovery in Roman times. They remain largely undisturbed until Adventurers from France arrive in 1402 - beginning almost a century of dispute and warfare.

By the 1430s European settlement begins also on two island groups further out in the Atlantic. Unlike the Canaries, Madeira and the Azores are previously uninhabited. Their colonization by Portuguese settlers is part of the great programme of exploration associated with Prince Henry the Navigator.

Madeira features on an Italian portolan chart of 1351 but an accidental sighting by a Portuguese navigator, blown off course in 1418, is regarded at the time as a discovery. Returning in 1420, the navigator (João Gonçalves Zarco) finds the island uninhabited and lush. Prince Henry immediately despatches colonists both for Madeira and its smaller companion, Porto Santo. The forests are slashed and burned. Rich land is brought into cultivation, mainly for sugar cane and vineyards.

The productivity of the islands soon comes to depend on another aspect of Portugal's new seafaring activities - the African slave trade, which results from Prince Henry's later expeditions.

A group of islands much further into the ocean is sighted by a Portuguese ship in 1427. Prince Henry sends settlers to the Azores from 1432.

The practical use of these islands is not yet obvious. But with the European discovery of America in 1492, and of the sea route round Africa to India in 1498, the Azores become an invaluable landfall almost in the middle of the north Atlantic. They are particularly well placed, in later centuries, for ships on the long curving ocean route between Europe and the Cape of Good Hope. As yet these future advantages are unknown to Henry the Navigator, whose ambitions now centre on Africa.

Down the African coast: 1434-1460

Many and varied motives lie behind Prince Henry's African expeditions. In part they are pure voyages of discovery, driven by a longing to know what new places, people, animals or plants may lie beyond the next forbidding headland. Partly they are a straightforward quest for Africa's gold. Then there is the hope of colonizing new lands for Portugal. There is the desire to spread Christianity and frustrate Islam. There is even the fanciful dream of coming across a fabulous Christian ruler, Prester John.

But the overriding purpose is to discover a sea route round Africa to the east, with its rich promise of trade in valuable spices.

Ocean-going ships are improving at this period (the era of the caravel), but the sheer difficulty faced by the sailors is well suggested by the long struggle to get round Cape Bojador - a promontory only about 150 miles south of the Canaries. Prince Henry sends out fourteen expeditions to attempt this feat before at last one is successful, in 1434.

In the 1440s progress is quicker. Caravels sail round Cape Verde in 1444 and Cape Roxo in 1446, bringing them to the northern part of what is later Portuguese Guinea. By the time of Prince Henry's death, in 1460, navigators have explored as far south as Sierra Leone. They have also discovered the uninhabited Cape Verde islands.

Dias and the Cape of Good Hope: 1487-1488

The two most significant Portuguese voyages of exploration take place a generation after the death of Henry the Navigator. In the first, in 1487-8, Bartolomeu Dias proves that there is a sea route round the southern tip of Africa. In the second, ten years later, Vasco da Gama demonstrates that this route leads to India.

Dias is already a veteran navigator along the coast of northwest Africa when he sets off from Lisbon, in August 1487, with two caravels and a storeship. Two or three months later he passes Cape Cross - reached in the previous year by Diogo Cam, and as yet the furthest point south of any Portuguese expedition.

Dias abandons his depleted store ship somewhere south of Cape Cross. At Angra Pequena he pauses to erect a stone pillar, declaring that the king of Portugal is the overlord of this region. These pillars, and this claim, have by now become the standard practice of the Portuguese expeditions whenever new territory is reached. Diogo Cam, the immediate predecessor of Dias, has erected four - at the mouth of the Congo, at Cape Santa Maria, at Cape Negro and Cape Cross.

From Angra Pequena the two caravels of Dias sail due south. They see no land for thirteen days. Dias turns northeast.

He makes landfall at Mossel Bay in February 1488. The coastline here runs east and west. Dias, whose crew are becoming restless, continues to the east. At Cape Padrone, where he sets up a second pillar, his officers insist that they have achieved enough. They should set sail for Portugal. He persuades them to continue a little further until the northeast trend of the coastline becomes unmistakable. This seems indeed to be the case by the time they have reached the Great Fish river. The two ships turn home.

On the way back Dias erects a third stone pillar at the Cape of Good Hope - a magnificent acquisition for the king of Portugal, previously missed because of the long seaward loop on the journey out.

Dias and his ships reach Lisbon in December 1488. They have been away for sixteen months. They have sailed round more than 1200 miles of previously undiscovered coastline. They have not reached India, but their rounding of the Cape is considered proof that this longer journey is possible.

When the next major attempt is planned, Dias is put in charge of building the two main caravels. But the command of the expedition is given to a younger man, Vasco da Gama. The ships leave Lisbon in 1497. Dias is allowed to accompany them, but only as far as the Cape Verde Islands - a mere hop for a navigator of his distinction.

Columbus and the Catholic monarchs: 1492

In Santa Fe, a royal encampment from which the siege of Granada is conducted, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella debate whether to accept a proposal put to them by a visionary explorer, Christopher Columbus.

For eight years Columbus has been pestering European courts, particularly those of Portugal and Spain, to sponsor him in an undertaking which obsesses him. The Portuguese explorers have had notable success in their attempts to sail east round Africa towards India and China, but Columbus has become convinced that he can achieve the same more easily by sailing west.

It has long been the accepted view, deriving from Ptolemy, that nothing but sea separates Europe from India and China round the back of a spherical world. During the 15th century the notion has developed that the unseen distance by sea is much less than the known distance between Europe and China by land.

Columbus believes that he has found mathematical proof of this in an apocryphal text of the Old Testament where the prophet Esdras states that the earth is six parts land to one part sea. Columbus argues, first to the king of Portugal in 1484 and then to the Spanish monarchs, that India is therefore within reach of a caravel sailing west from the Canaries.

The Portuguese court rejects his argument. The Spanish monarchs delay for years while a commission investigates his claims. Finally, in the camp near Granada, they accept his somewhat exorbitant terms regarding the honours which will be heaped upon him if he reaches India or China, and his share of whatever is found.

Once agreement is reached, after so many years, Columbus moves fast. With his partners (brothers from a Spanish ship-owning family named Pinzón) he prepares vessels for the great adventure.

Santa Maria, Pinta and Niña: 1492-1493

On 3 August 1492 a little fleet of three vessels sets sail from the small Spanish harbour of Palos. Columbus is in command of the largest, the Santa Maria; the captains of the other two, the Pinta and the NiÑa, are the brothers Martin Alonso and Vicente Yañez Pinzón.

Three weeks are spent loading stores in the Canaries until, on September 6, the three ships sail west into the unknown. During the next month there are several sightings of coastlines which turn out to be illusions. At last, on October 12, a look-out on the Pinta spies real land.

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