Atlantis Revisited: European Maritime Discoveries in the 14th Century

The article speaks about the beginning of the "Age of Discovery": initial routes of European ships in the Atlantic and the discovery of the Canary Islands.
Beyond the Pillars of Hercules

The concept of the world ocean was not alien to medieval people. According to Brunetto Latini, an Italian philosopher and Dante’s guardian, this boundless water body forms an ultimate frontier of the known world, and its numerous seas, named after surrounding lands are branched together:

"The land is encircled and surrounded by sea… this is the great sea, which is called Ocean, from which derive all other seas that there are around the world. And these are, as it were, branches of it."

What made this "rim" worth studying was the chance of discovering new islands.

The maritime expansion of European powers into the Atlantic throughout the late 13-14th centuries hallmarked what can be dubbed "Age of Discovery". The Mediterranean became suspiciously narrow and cramped for bold navigators who attempted to unlock new ocean lanes beyond the Strait of Gibraltar leading either to the north as far as Flanders and England or to the south, along the Moroccan coast. This exploration of the Western Sea transferred the prophetic vision of poets and philosophers into the sober experience of European seafarers and merchants.

Not in vain worldly-wise sailors, accustomed to plying the trade routes of the "wine-dark sea", would take a deep breath each time they had to pass a narrow stretch of water between the Pillars of Hercules, two outstanding rocks, frowning at each other across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The Mediterranean had served a bridge connecting all surrounding saltwater nations since bygone times. However, it could not provide enough training for shipping into Atlantic with its high tides, deep mists, gusty winds, low clouds, heavy rains, treacherous shoals, puzzling undercurrent, and other hazards to navigation. Freshmen had to pay the highest toll of being swallowed up by the sea. That happened to Vivaldi brothers who endeavored to double Cape Non on the way to mysterious India. That occurred to Jaime Ferrer who attempted to reach the mouth of the fabled River of Gold on the West African coast.

The Atlantic instilled awe in the hearts of pathfinders who seemed to approach a culmination in a horror-stricken thriller. A cocktail of admiration and fear sounds in the name of Finisterre ("the land’s end"), a cape on the Galician coast, which tunes with "the edge of the world". It splashed concerns about the ill fate in Inferno ("the hell"), the title of a newly discovered island of the Canarias archipelago. It spells trouble featuring statues of twin giants hanging over across the Strait of Gibraltar on a nautical chart of Pizzigani brothers as a warning for daring pilots to stay away from perilous waters of "the vile sea which sailors cannot navigate".

The Ocean spelled trouble, and the Pillars of Hercules marked the "red line" of seafaring, the threshold of the unknown. The sailing in the Western Sea was destined to superheroes who could find their comfort on the Fortunate Islands, the earthly paradise with eternal spring, abundant with birds and fruit, though, according to Pliny the Elder, unfairly traumatized by "putrefying bodies of monsters, which are constantly thrown up by the sea".

Arab travelers issue a similar caution. A catchphrase of Al-Idrisi defines the Atlantic "the sea of perpetual gloom" and describes its western part as "evil-smelling, ridden with reefs and with very little light". Muslim swashbucklers from Lisbon had to turn away from its mortal waters. Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian historian, in the preface to his book on world history, emphasizes the difficulty in plying the All-Encompassing Sea without any reliable marine charts: "ships do not enter it, because, were they to lose sight of shore, they would hardly be able to find their way back".

Another reason is heavy mist which fills the hearts with paralyzing fear: "The air of the Surrounding Sea and its surface harbors vapors that hamper ships on their courses".

And yet, according to "Lo compasso da navigare", a practical manual for safe navigation composed in the second half of the 13th century, European traders could haggle over prices with their partners not only in the Mediterranean ports but also on the Atlantic seaboard, on a beaten track from Cape St. Vincent, Portugal to Safi, Morocco. They could travel days without visiting ports or hugging the coasts.

They did not sail blindly. Each vessel that valued its reputation used marine charts which offered a safety net providing vital information about how to reach a port of destination. A drawing and a written instruction served as heads and tails; both needed the same combination of intellectual effort and foresight to ply in the open water.

Moreover, from the late 1270s, Genoese and Catalan vessels would regularly travel to busy harbors of Antwerp, Bruges and London. This northern maritime route from the Mediterranean to the Narrow Seas boosted the development of Atlantic ports of call such as Seville, Cadiz, Lisbon, and La Rochelle.

This voyage offered a cheap and relatively fast delivery of bulk commodities such as alum, a color fastener, for Flemish and English wool production. The remaining space was filled with small amounts of spices and other oriental goods. The return ship carried vast quantities of wool for emerging Italian textile industry and a limited number of quality cloths from Flanders, Brabant or England.

The Atlantic coast of Morocco also became less hostile for European sailors up to Cape Chaunar. Known as Cabo de la Nao (Cape Non) on Portuguese charts, this promontory, which plunges its tusk into the sea, was considered the point of no return i.e., the farthest spot that a vessel could reach without running a risk of losing its track.

The Revelation of Fortunate Isles or Islands

Even this limit was crossed in 1291. The same fatal year, when Acre, the last crusader stronghold in the Holy Land, fell into Muslims’ hands, two Genoese captains were sent on a reconnaissance mission to find a sea passage to India. The Genoese annals, recorded three years later, emphasize the novelty of this enterprise: "an expedition which no one up to that time had ever attempted… truly astonished those who witnessed them as well as those who heard of them".

Vadino (sometimes Guido or Vandino) and Vivaldi equipped two galleys, Sanctus Antonius and Alegranzia, with all sorts of necessities and merchandise while two Franciscan monks provided spiritual guidance. The explorers had vanished after passing Cape Non. Their disappearance further confirmed the notorious reputation of this promontory as the gateway to a naval cemetery. The brothers failed to report of any striking discovery. What strikes us most is the fact that even at the dawn of ocean navigation there were "crazy" people ready to risk their lives and money to prove the precarious theory of the circumnavigation around Africa.

This uncompleted voyage paved the way to the legend of the rediscovery of the Fortunate Islands. Petrarch in his philosophical treatise "The Life of Solitude", created between 1346 and 1356, recollects a visit of Genoese battleships to the fabled land as a bygone event which occurred "within the memory of our fathers". According to this account, the Isles of the Blessed are "situated outside the world". Their remoteness from civilization accounts for a solitary life of the savages. However, it is a seclusion of wild beasts and flocks caused rather by a "natural instinct" than a conscious solitude of a noble European philosopher who makes a "rational choice".

The Genoese captain, Lancelotto Malocello was the first explorer who made a successful landing on Lanzarote which still bears his name. On most Portolan charts of the 14th century, a red cross of St. George on a lime white field, a symbol of proud Genoa, was imposed on the island to confirm the priority of discovery. The date of the historic voyage is unknown. I side with those who place it in the early 1330s.

The first evidence comes from naval maps. I assume that mapmakers would avidly grasp every piece of information concerning geographic advances. The closest to the proposed date is the map of Angelino Dalorto drawn in 1325 or even 1330 where the Isles of the Blessed are located off Ireland, arranged in a circle, and carry Latin names. They are still part of phantom lands of medieval Cosmography, as real as horrible sea snakes or pretty mermaids. The next in line is the chart drawn by Angelino Dulcert of Majorca in 1339; it features four islands of the Canary Archipelago off the Cape Non. The two of them carry easily recognizable names of Lanzarote and Fuerte Ventura Fuerteventura. Lanceloto’s name enjoys indisputable reputation concerning the detection of only one island. The rest should be linked to another expedition.

The testimony of this second voyage appears in the letter of Afonso IV of Portugal to Clement VI of Avignon, dated 1445. The king replied to the Pope’s appeal to support the enterprise of Louis de la Cerda, the admiral of France to conquer the islands. The monarch voiced a protest against granting a French nobleman the jurisdiction over the newly discovered territory. The sender was amazed that such noble mission had been entrusted on a novice while he, the initiator of this project found himself passed over. The author explained that he had confided himself to sending a small expedition to the islands intending to dispatch a great fleet later. However, the plan had to be put off due to dangerous political developments on the Iberian Peninsula: two consecutive wars with Castile and the Moors. The confrontation between Iberian powers was taking place between 1336-1339 where the Portuguese squadron was indeed enacted and bitterly defeated. Therefore, the maiden voyage of Lusitanians could have occurred before 1336 leaving enough time for the rumors of the rediscovery to circulate across Europe and stick to the chart.

If Clement VI had used a map created in the Dalorto tradition when giving a grant to Don Luis and honoring him the Prince of Fortune, we could understand the indignation of English diplomats at Avignon who mistook the plan of the conquest for a right to invade Great Britain and Ireland: "It gave such umbrage to the English ambassadors…that they immediately dispatched an express to their court to prevent this conveyance, imagining there were no other Fortunate Islands than those of Great Britain: such was the ignorance of those times".

Nevertheless, the papal grant speaks about eleven islands calling them by Roman names borrowed from Pliny, including Canaria.

Afonso IV dubbed the Brave could not lie to such authority as the Pope. However, the king did not find it necessary to tell the whole truth. There was a large expedition sent to the same destination in 1341, the year after defeating Muslim forces in the Battle of Rio Salado. The author of the letter seems to ignore his own enterprise. He doesn’t correct the obvious mistakes in the grant concerning the location of the islands, their number and actual names.

Though the information about this voyage was conscientiously concealed from the general public, it became known from the letter of Florentine merchants, based in Seville, sent to Italy and edited by Boccaccio.

Afonso IV kept his word and sent a large expedition to "rediscovered" western islands. The king equipped three ships dispatching them on a fact-finding, military, and commercial mission. Led by Florentine and Genoese captains, the search party was manned by an international crew of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese sailors. The first part of the mission was a success. The expedition reached the Canaries just in five days and stayed for five months having mapped 13 islands, inhabited and uninhabited. However, no island was conquered due to concerns about possible strong resistance of Guanches, local residents. Although the visitors possessed horses and war machines, they did not dare to land in populated areas and confront native warriors confining themselves to looting. They brought back goods having a limited commercial value (animal skins, dyestuffs, fish products) and hardly covered their expenses. They also took captive four young people, maybe the first in a long line of African slaves.

Unlike Petrarch, the author of this account describes the captives in favorable tones. They were fine-looking, rather intelligent, cared about each other. The young men spoke incomprehensible language in the same manner as Italians, knew how to dance like the French, and were obviously more civilized than many Spaniards. None of them was either aware of gold or drank wine.
Published: 7/4/2013
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