Setting the Stage for Columbus


Portuguese mariners sail down the coast of West Africa and find a way to return against foul winds.


      In 1484 Columbus presented to King John II of Portugal his astonishing proposal to reach the Indies by sailing westward. The idea had not come to him out of the blue.  Behind it lay several sources of inspiration, not least the voyages of exploration that all during his lifetime the Portuguese had been sending out to probe ever further down the west coast of Africa.

      Phoenician mariners were the first to venture into the waters along that coast.  Perhaps as early as the thirteenth century B.C. they mastered the western Mediterranean, and then thrust through the Strait of Gibraltar, heading both north and south.  Tradition had it that, as early as the eleventh century B.C., they founded the town of Lixus (modern Larache) on the Moroccan coast about 60 miles down from the strait.  They certainly founded it before the seventh century B.C. because excavation of the site has uncovered remains dating back that far; later levels show that the town was continuously occupied right into the Roman period.  Even more striking are the finds from the islet of Mogador some 250 miles further down the coast.  They include sherds of pottery from Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Ionia that, like the remains at Lixus, date to the seventh-sixth century B.C.

    No walls of houses were uncovered, just floors of stone and pounded clay; it looks as if the settlement was a seasonal stop for ships plying the coastal waters.  After half a century or so of such existence, the place was abandoned.  The next level of remains, rich and varied, reveal that around the time of Augustus, the end of the first century B.C. and the beginning of the first century A.D., a new town was established there which flourished--it boasted even a seven-room Roman villa embellished with mosaics--up to Byzantine times.

      Was the settlement of Mogador the furthest point along the coast that the ancients reached?  Not according to a number of tales that have survived.  There is the story of Sataspes, for example, that Herodotus tells.  Sataspes, cousin of Xerxes, the celebrated king of Persia who invaded Greece in 480 B.C., created a scandal at court.  The punishment for this was impaling, but the king let Sataspes' mother talk him into sending the culprit off to circumnavigate Africa, no doubt assuming that the sea would furnish as sure a death as the stake.  Sataspes set sail from Egypt, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, "headed south, and after crossing the open sea for many months, since there was always more to cross, turned around and went back . He reported to Xerxes that, at the furthest point reached, he sailed past little men who used palm leaves for clothing."  It sounds as if he got as far as tropical Africa, some coastal area where bushmen or similar peoples were living.  Xerxes heard him out and then, more concerned with family propriety than exotic exploration, since Sataspes hadn't completed his mission, went ahead with his execution.

      Another story offers more detail.  The opening sentence reads:  "Report of the voyage of Hanno, King of the Carthaginians, along the part of Libya [Africa] beyond the Pillars of Heracles [Strait of Gibraltar], which he set up as a memorial in the temple of Kronos."  He must have had it inscribed on a bronze or stone plaque.  The version we have is not in Punic, Hanno's native language, but Greek; presumably it is a translation made by some visitor to the temple.  Hanno is generally dated around 500 B.C., so his expedition took place shortly before Sataspes' venture.
      Commanding a fleet of sixty 50-oared galleys and no doubt other craft, Hanno coasted along Morocco's Atlantic shore dropping off batches of colonists to establish settlements.  At some point, probably near the mouth of the Draa River, he picked up a number of locals as interpreters and with these pressed further.
After sailing for more than ten days he came to a "deep and wide river which was infested with crocodiles and hippopotami."  The only possible candidate is the Senegal River.  Further on he took two days to pass an area marked by high wooded mountains; this could well have been Cape Verde.  After a week more of sailing he arrived at a great gulf, which according to the interpreters was called the Western Horn:

 In it lay a large island, and in the island a  marine lake containing another island.  Landing on  this, by day we could see only forest, but by night  many fires being kindled, and we heard the noise of  pipes and cymbals and a din of tom-toms and the shouts  of a multitude.  Fear gripped us, and our soothsayers ordered us to leave the island.  We left in a hurry and coasted along a country with a fragrant smoke of blazing timber, from which streams of fire plunged into the sea.  The land was unapproachable because of the heat.  So we sailed away in fear, and coasting along for four days saw the land ablaze by night.  In the center a leaping flame towered above the others and appeared to reach the stars.  By day it was revealed to be a mountain of tremendous height; it was called the Chariot of the Gods. Sailing by the rivers of fire for three further days, we reached a gulf named the Souther Horn.  In a  recess lay an island like the previous one:  it had a lake and within this was another island.  This was full of savages, of whom by far the greater number were women with hairy bodies.  Our interpreters called them "gorillas."  We gave chase tot he men but could not catch any, for they scampered up the cliffs and held us off by throwing stones.  We did catch three of the women, who bit and scratched and resisted as we led them off.  However, we killed and flayed them and brought the hides to Carthage.  We sailed no further, owing to lack of provisions.

      Most commentators are convinced that Hanno succeeded in making his way a considerable distance down the coast.  They point to phenomena he records that today are commonplace in nineteenth-century explorers' accounts of journeys to Africa:  the jungle, the beating of tom-toms, the enormous grass fires that natives kindle to burn off stubble and help the following year's crop, the ubiquitous monkeys.  What his interpreters called "gorillas" must be some kind of large ape, but hardly what we know by that name; his men were tough but not up to going after gorillas barehanded, even females.  Chimpanzees or baboons have been suggested.  (It was an American missionary, Thomas Savage, who in 1847 applied Hanno's term to the mighty apes that now bear it.)

      Exactly how far did he get?  Conservative commentators think that he stopped short of the calms and heat of the Gulf of Guinea and pushed no further than Sierra Leone, that the Western Horn is Bissagos Bay, that the Chariot of the Gods is Mount Kakulima in French Guinea that, although relatively low (ca. 3,000 feet), stands out in the midst of low-lying ground, and that the Southern Horn is Sherboro Sound.  Others, more bold, take him as far as the Cameroons, arguing that the Chariot of the Gods is better identified with Mount Cameroon, the tallest peak in West Africa (13,370 feet) and a volcano to boot.

      Finally, there are the skeptics who feel that Hanno actually got only a short way down the coast and that the part of the voyage during which his dramatic experiences took place - the river full of crocodiles, the Western Horn with a fiery zone that extended all the way to the Southern Horn, the flame that seemed to reach the stars - was added by armchair geographers writing centuries later who attributed to Hanno their own fantasies about the shape and nature of Africa incognita.

      One reason for skepticism is the problem Hanno - or any sailor who ventured down the west coast of Africa - would have had in getting back.  Wind and current are both favorable for the outbound voyage--which means they are foul for the return:  Hanno would have been able to raise sail and speed along on his way out but, heading home, he would have had to douse sail, run out the oars, and keep his rowers straining at them for days on end in scorching heat.  They would have had a particularly difficult ime pulling against the strong current that runs down the channel between the Canaries and the continent.

      But if not they, at least some ancient mariners got as far as the Canaries.  Juba, the learned monarch of Morocco from ca. 25 B.C. to 25 A.D., in connection with his geographical studies investigated reports that a group of islands called "the Fortunate Isles" lay off the coast of his kingdom.  He was supplied with enough information to draw up a description that fits the Canaries perfectly.  And recent discoveries have further proof positive:  off the coast of Lanzarote, northernmost of the Canaries, divers have found at least two amphoras - big shipping jars - that date to the third century A.D.  Did they come from a vessel that had been accidentally blown there?  Or from one that regularly called there?  In any event, for the next thousand years the islands were lost to geographical knowledge; a Genoese
expedition under Lancilotto Malocello rediscovered them in 1270.

      Now, if the ancients knew the Canaries, could they have gotten back home the way the Portuguese in later times did, by making two long tacks, the first from the Canaries to the Azores, the second from the Azores to home?  Only if they knew the Azores, and that is still an open question despite some provocative recent research.

      In 1749, a Swedish savant claimed to have discovered a hoard of Carthaginian coins in the ruins of an abandoned building on the island of Corvo in the Azores.  He published a description of them along with good illustrations--and then the coins somehow disappeared.  Ever since, controversy has raged:  can the story be believed?  Were the coins left by some ancient inhabitant of Corvo?  There was another tantalizing clue:  in a book published in 1567, a Portuguese historian told of a stone statue of a horseman that the Portuguese had found on the island.  The Carthaginians often represented gods as horsemen; could the statue - inevitably now lost - have been set up by Carthaginians living on Corvo?

      All this was so intriguing that, in June 1983, B. Isserlin of the University of Leeds mounted an archaeological expedition to see whether amy ancient remains could be found on Corvo.  The first three sites he tried produced nothing.  He moved to a fourth, and here his hopes rose:  it yielded a batch of pottery fragments, of which some, judging by their looks, could well have been ancient.  But, after subjecting them to all sorts of tests, he was left hanging.  In every case there was a margin of uncertainty:  they could have been Carthaginian, but they could also
be of much later times.  Until the archaeologists have better luck, we must continue to assume that the Azores unknown up to 1418, when one of Henry the Navigator's ships, blown off course, landed there.

      Henry, Prince of Portugal, was dedicated to discovering a way for his county's traders to get to the Indies by sailing
around Africa.  From about 1430 on he tirelessly promoted voyages down the west coast, pressing his captains to go past the Canaries, furthest point that had been reached by that time.  To do so, Henry had to overcome two obstacles.  The first was their conviction that, once they neared the Equator, they would run into boiling water, a marine hazard they wanted no part of.  The other was the same that must have confronted the ancients:  how were they to return home in the face of northern winds and adverse currents?  The problem was even more acute in their case than in Hanno's since their ships, unlike his, had no oarsmen and depended on sail alone.

      Portuguese shipwrights came up with an answer to the second obstacle:  a new type of vessel.  The sail that was standard on all seagoing craft, and had been from ancient times right up to the period that we are discussing, was the squaresail.  It operated poorly when the wind was foul but splendidly when it was fair, and in those unhurried days skippers about to set off on a long crossing simply waited until the wind turned fair.  Another kind of sail was also available, a triangular type called the lateen.  This produced much better results than a squaresail against a foul wind, although it was not as good when the wind was fair.  It was favored for small boats since seamen generally used these for short runs in all directions and needed a sail that could produce headway no matter where the wind was blowing

      The craft that the Portuguese developed for their voyages along the west coast of Africa was called the caravel.  It was relatively small and light and hence fast.  But its key feature was its rig:  it had three masts, each carrying a lateen sail; the caravel was thus equipped to make the best possible headway against a foul wind.  Two of Columbus's ships - the Pinta and his favorite, the Nina - were caravels, and they give us an idea of the modest size of these vessels; the Pinta was about 69 feet long and the Nina 55, no bigger than the yachts many a wealthy sportsman today maintains for cruising or fishing forays.  Using caravels, Portuguese seamen were able to sail down to the Canaries with the wind and work their way back against it.  In 1434 one of Henry's captains, Gil Eanes, commanding a caravel, dared to enter the hitherto untried waters past Cape Bojador; he not only disposed of the boiling water myth but was able to demonstrate that a sailing ship could get back by the volta do mar largo "turn on the open sea," a long slant from the Canaries to the Azores and a second long slant from there to Lisbon, both against the wind.  Once Eanes had shown the way, progress was swift.  Two years after his pioneering voyage, Alfonso Gonsalves reached the Rio del Oro on the Tropic of Cancer.  By the time of Henry's death around 1460, his ships had passed Cape Verde and were within ten degrees of the Equator.

      In 1469, Alfonso V of Portugal granted a Lisbon merchant a monopoly on trade with the Guinea coast on condition that he explore one hundred leagues further every year.  By 1474 Portuguese ships had managed to cross the Gulf of Guinea, despite its heat and calms, and land on the island of Fernando Po, where the coast again runs southward.  By 1484 Diogo Cao had gotten as far as the mouth of the Congo; we can follow his progress for, at given intervals along the coast, he set up stone pillars, which have survived, and on a rock face some 100 miles up the Congo he carved an inscription announcing that "thus far did the ships of the illustrious King John of Portugal come."  Then, in the winter
of 1487-88, Bartolomeu Dias doubled the Cape of Good Hope.  The west coast of Africa, all of it, was finally added to the map of the world - and a new sea route to India, south to the tip of Africa and then northeast across the Indian Ocean, lay open.

      In 1484, Christopher Columbus was granted a hearing by Portugal's King John II.  Armed with charts and calculations about the circumference of the earth, he put before the king a daring plan - "to go and discover the Isle Cypango [Japan] by this Western Ocean," i.e., by sailing due west across the Atlantic to come upon Japan and the lands that lay beyond it:  China, the Indies, and India.  The plan was referred to the royal maritime advisory committee and was rejected.  Columbus turned to Queen Isabella of Spain; she too referred it to a committee, which unhurriedly debated it while they years passed, years that Columbus spent on tenterhooks.  Finally, in early 1488, he wrote to King John asking for another hearing; he received a cordial reply with an invitation to come - and arrived in Lisbon in time
to see Dias's three caravels sail into port after monumental voyage. That was the end of Portugal's interest in Columbus's enterprise.  He had one hope left - the Queen of Spain.

by  Lionel Casson in  "Archaeology" (May/June 1990, pp. 50-55)