Tag Archives: age of discovery

“The Discoverers” by Daniel J. Boorstin


Book #100!

An ambitious title – the history of “discovery,” which can really be interpreted in many ways. I liked the stuff about calendars, clocks, maps and exploration. However, the sections on medicine and sociology in the latter third or so of the book was a bit of a slog. Each chapter is almost like a standalone essay, but they do flow well … until the end, which ends quite abruptly. (It discusses atomic theory; perhaps setting up Einstein’s quote “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible” in order to sum up the whole book.)

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff here; I’ll share some of the best bits I learned from reading.

  • The origins of our calendar are in the lunar cycle, which provided a ~30 day month. This didn’t quite mesh with the solar year, which the Egyptians determined quite accurately to be 365 1/4 days long. The origin of the seven day week is unknown, perhaps the sun + moon + five known planets? Twenty-four hours in a day comes from the Babylonians, who had a 12-based counting system. While 10-based seems logical to use due to 10 fingers, 12 is also not a stretch — it’s the number of knuckles on one hand (excluding thumb), which were counted off using the opposing hand’s thumb.
  • Clocks are known as “mother of machines.” In order to make them work, medieval craftsmen had to discover mechanisms of transferring mechanical energy. Once this was figured out for clocks, the same principles were applied to many other things, and here we are today with Iphones. Any, the key to clocks were the verge escapement and pendulum. There was a positive driving force behind developing clocks from the Church: they needed to ring the bells at different times of day for Catholic prayers. (Why didn’t Muslims make clocks first? Was it because they used only verbal calls to prayer?)
  • Originally, the hour was a division of daylight into equal partitions. This is fine I guess if you really have no way to accurately measure time, but rather tricky to automate such timekeeping with a clock, since amount of daylight varies per location on the globe and differs from day to day. Early clock makers tried to follow this with complicated systems that required almost constant and setting calibration before simplifying things to the current system. It was the right thing to do — later the discovery of an accurate way to measure longitude depended on clocks. What you do is set your clock at high noon at a known location, then go sailing and check your clock at “high noon” wherever you happen to be (when the sun is directly overhead). The difference your clock says from noon is the difference in longitude you have traveled. It’s no coincidence that degrees of longitude (and latitude) are subdivided into minutes and seconds. (How to tell latitude? Just get a stick with a weighted string on the end. Point it to the North Star and measure the angle of the string.  There you go, that’s latitude.)
  • On the other hand, mapmaking and geography suffered negatively from the Church’s influence. Reasonably accurate physical maps and a latitude/longitude-like grid system inherited from the Greeks and Romans were discarded in favor of an overly-literal Biblical layout: rough circle with Asia taking up one half, Europe and Africa the other, with Jerusalem in the middle and all 3 continents separated by the Mediterranean.
  • Prince Henry the Navigator is kind of a new hero for me after reading this book. He focused on mapmaking, new ship design (caravel), and setting up conditions for “incremental discovery” — kind of like an early research institute. One major obstacle to the early Portuguese was Cape Bojador in West Africa. It was the ends of the earth to them – difficult to circumvent, both logistically and psychologically. But once they did, it was almost like an attitude of “hey, that wasn’t so bad! And look at all this cool new stuff!” (Some of the “cool stuff” to them was slaves … Portuguese quickly became big slave traders. Not so cool from our perspective.) Year by year, the explorers ventured further and further until Gama rounded the Cape and was on to India. There’s an early Portuguese saga, Camoens‘ “Lusiads,” which is about this golden age of Portuguese exploration; it stuck out to me because Burton who I just read about was very interested in Camoens and this period as well.
  • Modern-day denizens are astounded by the brutality of the times. When Gama came a second time to India, this time in conquistador-mode, he rounded up several random Indians without cause, killed them, cut off their hands and heads, and sent it on to persuade Calicut’s ruler to surrender. Needless to say, resistance was brief. Gama is a Portuguese hero.  And, while the barbarism of the Vikings is not unknown, it’s horrifying that one Norseman was renowned for his gentleness, since he refused to impale small children, a typical way for Vikings to unwind at the end of a long day of pillaging. (Presumably, this gentle Viking had no qualms about whatever he did to the parents!)
  • The origin of the term “America” – Columbus always insisted that he had reached Asia. Later, Amerigo Vespucci went down S. America coast and publicly speculated that it was an entirely new land. The secrecy of Spain and Portugal regarding their discoveries (the nuclear secrets of the age) meant the outside world didn’t hear of everything right away. Vespucci came later than Columbus, but his accounts became more widespread earlier. A mapmaker in France heard of Vespucci and put his name on the new world, and it stuck.
  • Linnaeus – the whole genus-species naming convention happened basically all at once, largely by him. Latin names don’t necessarily describe the organism, just a way to remember and categorize the organism and define it across language boundaries.

“Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen

This is the exciting account of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan.  Actually Magellan himself died along the way, as did many of his men.  Out of the original five-ship “Armada de Moluccas” commissioned to find a western water route to the spice islands, only the Victoria and a handful of sailors (about 10% of those who started the voyage) made it back to Spain three years later.

Magellan was from Portugal, but after years of failing to win the support of the Portugese king to back his expedition, he turned to Portugal’s arch-rival, Spain.  (Little did Magellan know that Portugal already had a highly secretive trading network in the spice islands, and was busy establishing a trade monopoly.  No wonder the king cared little for Magellan’s plan.)  When King Charles agreed to sponsor the expedition, there was somewhat of a diplomatic incident given the recently signed Treaty of Tordesillas and mutual suspicion between the nations.  When the going got tough during the voyage, it was easy for the Spanish captains and crew to assume Magellan was really a Portugese spy intent on their destruction.

Indeed, mutiny did break out during the winter at Port Saint Julian in Patagonia.  When three out of the five ships mutinied against their Captain General, the outnumbered Magellan displayed some guts by dividing and conquering the rebel ships and then having the leaders drawn and quartered.  He also marooned one of the rebellious Spanish captains and a priest, which caused big problems for his reputation when word got back to Spain.  But Magellan himself was dead by then…

The fleet, minus one wrecked ship and another that returned to Spain, eventually found the Strait of Magellan and crossed the Pacific Ocean.  Arriving at the Phillipines, they quickly strayed from their commercial mission and became involved in local politics and religious conversion.  Establishing an alliance with the first friendly king they met, Magellan decided to strengthen the ties by attacking a rival tribe.  Overestimating the advantage of their superior technology, namely plate armor and primitive, widely inaccurate and slow firearms, Magellan and some of his crew were overwhelmed by the sharpened bamboo sticks of 1500 warriors on the island of Mactan.

In a very interesting display of the two sides to every coin, today at Mactan harbor there is a monument with two inscriptions.  “Here on 27th April 1521 the great Portugese navigator Hernando de Magallanes, in the service of the King of Spain, was slain by native Filipinos.”  On the reverse side, “Here on this spot the great chieftain Lapu Lapu repelled an attack by Ferdinand Magellan, killing him and sending his forces away.”  The historical record tells nothing more about Lapu Lapu than this incident, but evidently he’s a Filipino national folk hero of sorts simply for this lone act of defiance against the western invaders.

Magellan’s demise reminded me of Cook’s death in Hawaii about 260 years later.  In fact, I was struck by a lot of similarities between the voyages.  Even in the long time span between them, the challenges of exploration via sailing ship and the strangeness and hazards of the alien cultures they encountered seemed very similar.  The each had a gifted chronicler – Magellan had Antonio Pigafetta and Cook had Joseph Banks.  I wonder if today we wouldn’t celebrate these two explorers quite as much without the records these scribes left behind.  Never underestimate the value of a good journal!  Makes me wonder if there is some unknown explorer from the Age of Discovery that is unknown simply because no one ever took notes during the trip…

The other thing that struck me about the expedition was the incredible diversity of the cultures Magellan and his crew encountered.  It’s amazing to think that there was a time when virtually whole continents of people knew so little about each other.  The mutual discoveries, interaction and even altercations that resulted shaped our world today and make the study of history oh so interesting.