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  • Why Didn’t Others Try Before Columbus? November 29, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    columbus finally

    Beach has been much struck by two separate accounts that seem to suggest that people from one side of Euro Asia made their way to the other side of that landmass by sea: one of the accounts is Roman and one is early Medieval and Arab. Now there are very simply speaking three possibilities for how this could have happened: all almost impossibly unlikely. First, the voyagers made the great voyage from, say, Europe to China across what is today the Atlantic- Pacific: we know that a continent called America is in the way, but they did not. Second, the ship made its way around the horn of Africa. Third, the boat went around the arctic route and went up Siberia and down Scandinavia.

    Now, make no mistake, the only one of these that is even vaguely possible is the trip around Africa. Yet, it is interesting that the two times we know that Euro-Asians were confronted with the apparent fact of a ship from one side of the world arriving on the other they seem to have gone with the idea that the boat passed around the Arctic route! Africa was ignored because of the idea that no one could pass across the torrid zones. There was also the curious idea that Africa went down and connected with a land mass in the south: this seems to originate in Ptolemy; only the Portuguese managed to disprove it in the late fifteenth century with guts, guile and months at sea.

    But why was there the failure of imagination to think of a trans Atlantic-Pacific crossing before Columbus? Indeed, Columbus seems to have been the first person to seriously suggest a deliberate crossing of that vast sea to reach China. The answer is simple and it is size. It was believed that it was impossible to cross the vast oceans between Europe and the Indies. And, of course, it was. The size of the globe was measured pretty well in Ptolemaic Egypt. This information survived through into the Middle Ages. The Chinese and the Europeans knowing that a great sea the size of the Atlantic and the Pacific lay between them sensibly ignored the back door route. It is important to remember that Columbus only dared because he completely messed up his measurements and thought that the globe was significantly smaller than the world. He was wrong and the experts were right, but happily for Columbus and his men they were both wrong about something else: an intervening continental mass called the Americas. If the Americas had not existed, and we forget this too often in talks about Columbus’ genius (!), Columbus would have disappeared into the waves somewhere about the point that Texas begins… Other thoughts on why no one tried before Columbus: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    29 Nov 2014: BT on wind systems: I agree that any educated man of his time would have known the true circumference of the globe. However, due to Columbus’ early career as sailor/pilot he had traveled from the British Isles to El Mina, give or take, 50 degrees of latitude. This gave him a knowledge of the wind systems of the North Atlantic that very few people of his time had. That and his connections in the various courts of Europe, made him the right man, at the right time, in the right place. Columbus knew that the easterly winds off the Canaries would take him as far as his supplies and ships lasted. He also knew that northwest winds that are consistent beginning around roughly 35 degrees north would bring him home if supplies were starting to run low. Columbus’ knowledge of the Atlantic wind systems were his ace in the hole.’ Thanks BT