The twentieth year of the sixteenth century was a fraught and febrile one for the continent of Europe. In the spring of the year, Leonardo da Vinci, the man destined to become his posterity’s personification of the Renaissance Man, died in Amboise, France, an event which provides as good a symbolic marker as any for the end of the High Renaissance. In the summer, the next historical period, the one that people would come to refer to as the era of the Reformation, was well and truly ushered in in Leipzig, Germany, where Martin Luther defended his heretical opinions about certain practices of the Catholic Church in a public debate with a traditionalist theologian named Johann Eck; baited and triggered by the smooth-talking Eck and a jeering, partisan crowd, Luther emerged from the debate more radicalized than ever, ready to precipitate a great schism that would set Western Europe’s Christians at one another’s throats for centuries to come. And then, in the fall, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met Moctezuma II, the leader of the vast and wealthy Aztec Empire; that meeting would lead to the downfall of the Aztecs within a scant few years, as an era of European empire and genocide kicked into high gear alongside the one of internecine religious strife.

Europeans of the time could readily recognize that these events were significant, even if they lacked the perspective to see just how earthshaking they would prove, or why. But another event, equally earthshaking in its way, passed unremarked in most European councils of the good and the great. At dawn on Tuesday, September 20, 1519, a small flotilla of ships prepared to depart from the tiny village of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the Spanish coast at the extreme southwestern tip of Europe, the same spot from which Christopher Columbus had sailed 21 years earlier on his third trip to the New World. These ships planned to undertake a much longer, even more daring voyage of exploration.

Not that you’d know it by looking at them. These were not the sleek clippers of a later age of sail, but tubby, chubby three-masted carracks, a design which looks to our eyes more like an overgrown bathroom toy than a vehicle of adventure and derring-do. Even in their day, these ships were far from the cutting edge of naval technology. The thick coat of jet-black paint that had been applied to them served to make their bulbous hulls look even more beetle-like, whilst doing little to hide the wear and tear of the years of hard service they already had behind them. They were as mismatched in size as they were uniform in their basic design, ranging in unladen weight from 75 to 120 tons and in length from 50 to 65 feet (15 to 20 meters). Only through their names did the ships provide a hint of what they would come to mean to the world. For these were ship names that would become place names in a globalized future: Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago.

The ships were sailing from a Spanish port under a Spanish flag; unsurprising, then, that most of their crews were made up of Spaniards. Still, there was a healthy smattering of others nationalities — Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Flanderiens, Norwegians, Irishmen, Austrians — among the 239 souls aboard. These men had no idea that they were about to affect the course of history. Indeed, most of them had little concept of a thing called history at all, beyond the teachings of their priests about an Eden and a Fall and a Flood in the distant past and a Judgment Day that the world still awaited. They were mostly illiterate men, who had signed on for what they knew would be an unusually long and hazardous voyage simply because they stood to earn an unusually large amount of money from it in comparison to a sailor’s usual meager pay.

Four of the ships’ captains were Spaniards. They and their officers had a somewhat better understanding of what they were about to attempt, but their motivations were no less mercenary. The goal was to sail west — farther west than Columbus, farther west than anyone had ever sailed before, not because the West was there and humanity was possessed of a noble drive to explore the unknown or any other such sentimental drivel, but because they wanted to find  a new, easier way to reach the exotic riches of East Asia and bring some portion of them back to Europe in their cargo holds. In doing so, they would make an end run around Portugal, Spain’s greatest rival in the early overseas-empire sweepstakes, whose ships were currently reaching Asia in ever-increasing numbers by sailing southward along the western coast of Africa, passing around its southern tip, sailing northward again well up its eastern coast, and only then striking out across the Arabian Sea to India and lands beyond. Surely there had to be a less roundabout way. If Spain could find one, it would mean a huge leg-up against Portugal in a game of Asian empire that the latter was winning at the moment.

This goal was rather ironic, given that the captain of the fifth ship, the Trinidad, was himself Portuguese; in fact, he was the expedition’s captain general, its supreme commander. His name was Ferdinand Magellan, and he was not a stereotypically commanding presence. He was short and stocky and swarthy, with an unruly black beard that hid most of his face apart from his eyes — his most arresting feature, large and lively and thoughtful. Pugnacious in body and mind, he tramped the decks with a pronounced limp, thanks to an enemy lance that had once pierced his knee in Africa. He had no talent for inspiring speeches, but believed strongly in the value of discipline, which he was prepared to enforce with the lash if necessary. That said, unlike some captains of his day, he administered the law of the sea fairly, evincing no love of violence for its own sake. Honor was incredibly important to him, but his code was not the patriotic one of a slightly later era of nationalism; he was, after all, working without shame for his homeland’s biggest rival. In his personal code of ethics, duty to his religion of Catholic Christianity and duty to his noble bloodline came well before any obligation he felt to the budding nation-state of Portugal. He was absolutely committed to both, in ways that we creatures who have been reared on secularism and egalitarianism may find hard to fathom.

But none of this prevented the Spanish officers who served under him from viewing him with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. They held not only his nationality against him but also his lack of experience in their domain; although no one could deny that he was a tough old sod, he was more of a soldier than a sailor, having never commanded even a single ship before, much less a fleet of them. They liked still less the man he called Enrique, a dark-skinned slave he had insisted on bringing along, who seemed always to be glowering inscrutably at them over his shoulder, daring them to make a move against his master. Ah, well… he was only one man. The other captains comforted themselves with the thought that, if the pair became too troublesome, they could always pitch them into the ocean once the fleet was well underway, confident that no one would be the wiser when they returned home. What happened at sea generally stayed at sea.

In the meantime, there was the frisson of nerves and excitement that accompanies the start of any grand enterprise such as this one, the almost surreal sensation of its finally becoming a lived reality after months of planning and preparation. The tension eased when Magellan gave the word to initiate departure, sending the crew of the Trinidad into an intricate dance whose steps they all knew by heart.

All but one of the several anchors were raised out of the water by strong bodies, the rat-tat-tat of the turning capstan and the heave-hos of lusty voices filling the dawn stillness with their rhythmic music. Two lithe young apprentice sailors climbed the foremast. “Ease the rope of the foresail!” rang out the voice of Magellan, before intoning a prayer of departure: “In the name of the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons in one single true God — that they may be with us and give us good and safe voyage, and carry us and return us safely to our homes!” The apprentices, working in efficient tandem with the men on the deck below, unfurled the sails. The clean, fresh canvas snapped taut in the breeze, even as the capstan clicked into action once again, hauling up the last of the anchors. And on that ringing note the Trinidad moved off, followed by the other ships, the wind at their backs and the limitless ocean ahead of them, changing from black to gray to a glittering azure as the sun climbed higher in the sky above. It was a beautiful morning to be sailing.

Fewer than one-third of the men onboard the five ships would ever see home again.

A quick note from the author before we begin: I encourage you to follow along with this tale of globe-spanning adventure on a real globe, of the sort that you can usually find for a pittance at flea markets and thrift stores everywhere. It’s the best geographical investment you can make. Trust me when I say that no two-dimensional map, whether viewed on paper or on a screen, can give you so undistorted an image of the real shape of our world.

Many people yearn to be remembered by history, but no one attains that rare privilege by force of will or smarts alone. Circumstance — also known as raw luck — always decides the matter in the end. For even the intrinsically greatest of history’s proverbial great men had to be born in a time and place that could make maximal use of their talents. Ferdinand Magellan was a member of the lucky minority who have met this prerequisite, being born in Portugal in about 1480. Before we can understand the life of the man, we must take some time to understand that of the age into which he was born, the same one that made it possible for him to achieve the only form of immortality that our species can ever know.

Portugal found itself in a difficult position in the fifteenth century, facing challenges that would become the impetus behind a Portuguese empire that belied its mother country’s small size. After centuries of churn and ferment, involving not only Christian kingdoms but Muslim ones, the part of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula that lay beyond the borders of Portugal was rapidly coalescing into the single country of Spain, well over five times the size of its smaller neighbor. It was only down to an accident of history or perhaps of Portuguese bloody-mindedness that Portugal itself didn’t end up becoming a part of Spain; nothing about its language or culture or religious sensibilities set it obviously apart from the rest of Christian Iberia. Nonetheless, the Portuguese proved unique in managing to avoid assimilation.

With nowhere else to turn, Portugal looked to the sea for relief from the constant pressure of the growing colossus on its land borders. Fortunately or unfortunately, its only coastline looked away from all of the known, settled regions of the world, toward the uncharted Atlantic Ocean. So be it. These sea lanes of myth and dread would have to be Portugal’s escape valve.

The father of Portuguese sea exploration — in many ways, the father of the entire European Age of Exploration — was one Prince Henry, who was born in 1394 as the third legitimate son of King John I of Portugal. Seeing it was unlikely that he would be called upon to take the throne himself, Henry looked for other ways to serve his kingdom. He settled upon seaborne exploration and trade, thus earning his posthumous epithet “the Navigator.” He never went to sea himself, but he planned and equipped many expeditions led by others. These early voyages began to raise the veil of ignorance and superstition surrounding everything that lay beyond the 10 percent or so of the world’s surface area that he and his fellow Europeans knew reasonably well.

Prince Henry the Navigator was lucky enough to be, like Ferdinand Magellan after him, born in the right time and place to leave his mark on history. The technologies that could make long-distance ocean travel feasible were starting to fall into place in the early fifteenth century. The compass was one of them, an invention either borrowed from the Chinese, who possessed it at least a couple of hundred years earlier, or independently devised by Europeans.

The other vital innovations were those that were occurring in the field of shipbuilding. Prince Henry himself may have contributed to the design of Portuguese caravels, which were widely regarded throughout Europe by the middle of the fifteenth century as “the best ships that sailed the seas”: not overly large in comparison to the square-rigged barques that plied the Mediterranean, but more maneuverable, more amenable to the vagaries of both treacherous inland waterways and the open ocean, thanks to their shallower drafts and their slanting, triangular “lateen” sails.

Model of a Portuguese caravel. (PHGCOM)

Henry the Navigator was a supremely practical sort of dreamer. Rather than looking west across the tractless unknown of the Atlantic, he mostly looked south from Portugal, toward Africa, a continent whose existence was a well-established fact even if its extent was not. This was, he thought, the most prudent direction in which to explore, for that reason as well as a couple of other ones. While there existed no reliable means of fixing longitude at sea, sailors could estimate their latitude — i.e., their distance north of the Equator — by seeing how far Polaris, the North Star, rose above the horizon at night. Thus Henry’s sailors always preferred to strike out southward when they sailed into uncharted waters, since they could see how far they had gone and, even more importantly, how far they had to sail in the opposite direction to reach home again. Then, too, ships could hug the coastline of the African continent as they went to ensure that they stayed on course. Getting lost on the open ocean and running out of food and water was the stuff of every sailor’s nightmares.

So, Prince Henry sent expedition after expedition down the northwestern coast of Africa. In 1434, the explorer Gil Eanes reached Cape Bojador in the Western Sahara, 830 miles (1340 kilometers) from Portugal’s southwestern tip. In comparison to later voyages of discovery, this was hardly any distance at all, but it was a stupendous feat in the context of the times. In 1445, Dinis Dias rounded the Cape Verde Peninsula, the westernmost point of Africa; the Portuguese discovered the Cape Verde Islands two years later. With the exception only of Morocco to the immediate south of Portugal, western Africa above these landmarks was (and is) mostly desert, of little obvious economic value to the Portuguese, such that Prince Henry had to beg for the funds to continue his program of exploration. Below it, however, the land was lusher and more populous. A rich trade started in gold, ivory, and pepper, the last of which was an exotic delicacy for the European palate, known as the “Grain of Paradise.” The Portuguese often paid for these pieces of paradise in nearly valueless baubles, when they didn’t simply seize what they wished at gunpoint. Yet more ominously, a trade in slaves started as well, inaugurating a shame and sin that would persist for 400 years.

Prince Henry’s death in 1460 brought a slight slackening of the drive to sail ever further southward, but his grandnephew, who ascended to the throne of Portugal as John II in 1481, redoubled his kingdom’s efforts to penetrate all the way down to the southern limit of Africa, if such a thing existed. These efforts were complicated by the fact that, once ships had crossed the Equator, they could no longer use the North Star to estimate their latitude. Nevertheless, Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo River in 1482. Soon after, Portuguese navigators began to employ a new invention, the portable astrolabe, which let them determine their latitude with more accuracy than ever before from any spot on the surface of the Earth, by using the position of the noonday Sun rather than Polaris as their yardstick.

As so often happens, the moment which Portugal had been working toward for decades arrived in an unexpected and almost anticlimactic way. In January of 1488, an expedition led by Bartolomeu Dias was blown well out to sea by a storm. When they blundered their way back to the shoreline again, they were confused and then thrilled to see it appear on their left rather than their right; they had accidentally rounded the southern tip of Africa.

This was a momentous achievement, not just for its own sake but because it opened up the possibility of sailing all the way to the Indian subcontinent, or eventually even China. In earlier centuries, those impossibly distant lands had been connected to Europe by the Silk Road, a tenuous assemblage of traders and trading posts through which sought-after luxury goods like the silk that gave it its name reached the marketplaces of Christendom. A select few adventurous Europeans — most famously the Venetian Marco Polo — dared to travel personally down its length, returning with reports of wonders that defied the imagination. But in the years since Marco Polo had written a book about his travels at the end of the thirteenth century, overland trade and communication between East and West had all but ended, thanks in large measure to the obstacle posed by the fearsome Muslim Turks, who had shocked all of Europe by conquering the grand old Christian capital of Constantinople in 1453. The European upper crust sorely missed the fragrant spices and rich fabrics of East Asia. If a Silk Road trade could be reconstituted by sea, hopefully in a more prolific and reliable way, the financial rewards to its facilitators would be enormous.

As it happened, when Dias returned to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon to report his unexpected rounding of Africa, a Genoese sea captain named Christopher Columbus was there already, trying to convince King John that the best way to reach India was to sail boldly into the unknown west rather than trying to creep around an African continent which, he argued, might very well extend all the way to the South Pole anyway. Dias’s triumphant return put the lie to that assertion and stole Columbus’s thunder completely, causing Portugal’s resolve to blaze a trail to East Asia around Africa to flare up more strongly than ever.

Having thus failed in Lisbon, Columbus took his proposal to Spain, which now filled the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula, excepting only stubborn little Portugal and a last tiny Muslim enclave in Granada which was not long for this world. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the power couple whose matrimony had effected the last stage of the Spanish unification, were eager to upstage the Portuguese, and this caused them to listen to the enthusiastic Italian’s highly speculative scheme with more interest than they might otherwise have shown. The Portuguese had the East Asian trade in their sights thanks to almost a century’s worth of methodical, gradual technological development and ocean- and land-based surveying. The Spanish were about to fire a wild, one-time shot in the dark in the hope of reaching the same destination. It would pay off for them in spades, albeit not quite in the way they had anticipated.

To appreciate Christopher Columbus’s argument for a westerly route to India, we have to reckon with Europeans’ conception of the world’s size and geography at the time. As early as the third century before Christ, the Alexandrian astronomer Eratosthenes had estimated the size of the Earth by measuring the position of the Sun at noon on the same day of the year in Alexandria and in Aswan, which were separated from one another by 500 miles (800 kilometers) from north to south. He found that there was a difference of 7.2 degrees. Given that 7.2 degrees is 2 percent of a full 360 degrees, he extrapolated that the distance between the two Egyptian cities must represent 2 percent of the total distance around the Earth. Therefore, he reckoned, the Earth must have a circumference of 24,850 miles (40,000 kilometers) — a calculation, we now know, that falls within one quarter of one percent of the real figure.

Four centuries later, another Alexandrian astronomer did the geographers that would follow him one great service and one great disservice. Claudius Ptolemy codified a system of latitude and longitude for identifying any position on the surface of the Earth, the same system in the broad strokes that we have continued to use to this day. But he also rejected, for reasons that aren’t really clear, Eratosthenes’s amazingly accurate estimate of the size of the Earth, writing in his tome Geography that its circumference was only about 70 percent of the real figure. Following its rediscovery at the dawn of the Renaissance, this same book, as well as the other works of Ptolmey — the most famous or infamous of these being the Almagest, with its insistence that the Sun orbited the Earth rather than vice versa  — were taken as gospel truth by Europeans, the inherited wisdom of the infallible ancients. By no means should it have been beyond the Europeans of that period or a little later to duplicate the observations of Eratosthenes; indeed, they would have had a considerably easier time of making them, having at their disposal precision instruments such as the astrolabe that Eratosthenes had not. But Ptolemy and a handful of other ancient authorities were regarded as virtual demigods, such that few thought — or dared — to question them. The ruthlessly skeptical empirical discipline that we call science was still a century or two in the future. In its absence, arguments from authority — especially hallowed ancient authority — still reigned supreme in many fields.

Ptolemy’s shrunken image of the Earth was a comfort for anyone who dreamed of reaching East Asia by sailing west from Europe, in that it made that voyage seem much more feasible than it otherwise would have. Europeans knew well from the reports of overland explorers like Marco Polo that Asia stretched a crazily far distance to the east of their own continent. Given the vast swath of land that lay between here and there, combined with the size which they thought they knew the entire world to be, it surely couldn’t be that huge of a distance to bridge by sailing west. To this argument we can add the power of wishful thinking: with the sanguine confidence of the true believer, Columbus arbitrarily knocked another 10 percent off of Ptolemy’s estimation of the size of the Earth before he presented his proposal to Ferdinand and Isabella. As every American and European schoolchild of today knows, they bought his argument and provided him with ships with which to prove it to everyone — most deliciously, to the self-satisfied Portuguese.

Columbus’s voyage was not a terribly difficult one in terms of the seamanship it required. His biggest difficulty was that of asserting his will over his crew; it is hard to overstate the dread that accompanied the idea of going westward into the unknown among sailors, thanks to there being no practical way of measuring their longitudinal position beyond crude dead-reckoning. Columbus’s men were poised on a mutinous knife’s edge on the early morning of October 12, 1492, when, after 36 nerve-wracking days out of sight of land, with food and water stores now desperately short, the lookout spotted a shoreline ahead of them. It was not, of course, a part of Asia, but rather the Bahamian island of Guanahani, the first harbinger of not one but two brand-new continents whose existence absolutely no one had anticipated.

Such sweeping paradigm shifts as this one can be as hard to navigate as the most deadly sea shoals. Christopher Columbus, for one, never did manage it, continuing to insist through three follow-up voyages across the Atlantic and right up to his death that he had reached some uncharted outskirt of Asia, whose inhabitants he blithely dubbed “Indians,” creating a linguistic confusion that has dogged us right up to the present day. He was certain that he was knocking on the very doorstep of India and China, that reaching their riches was only a matter of getting past some pesky offshore islands, and he refused to budge from this position even as those around him began more and more to question it. Among other things, his intransigence on this point cost him the chance to lend his name to the two prodigious continents he had discovered but refused to acknowledge.

That honor went instead to a Florentine adventurer named Amerigo Vespucci, a born opportunist and by all indications something of a fabulist. While it is hard to separate fact from fiction in his accounts, it does appear that he was a part of at least two westerly expeditions that followed in the wake of Columbus, one mounted by Spain and one by Portugal. (Vespucci himself claimed to have been a part of four such expeditions in all, but there is no surviving evidence to corroborate the other two.) Wherever he did or didn’t go personally, he was one of the first to make the mental leap from seeing these lands as an outgrowth of Asia to a whole new continent or continents. In 1503 and 1505, he published two short books about his exploits, in which he became the first European to refer to the lands to Europe’s west as the New World, describing this virgin territory almost as a second Eden, or perhaps the rediscovered original. In addition to smiling native peoples who seemed still to be in a pre-Fall state of grace, he waxed effusive over “the multitude of wild animals, the abundance of pumas, of panthers, of wildcats; of so many wolves, red deer, monkeys, and marmosets of many kinds, and many large snakes.” It was, he said rather blasphemously, enough to make him doubt the story of Noah and the Flood, for how could such a dizzying variety of fauna have possibly fit into one ark? Blasphemous or not, the books became bestsellers, making Amerigo Vespucci’s name far better known throughout Europe than that of Christopher Columbus.

His fame was such that, when a German clergyman named Martin Waldseemüller published a book of his own about the known and unknown world in 1507, he mistakenly assumed that Amerigo Vespucci had been the one who had actually discovered this New World of his. “Inasmuch as both Europe and Asia received their names from women,” Waldseemüller wrote, “I see no reason why anyone should object to calling this part the land of Amerigo, or America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability.” Waldseemüller’s book also became a bestseller, and the name caught on. He was eventually informed of his error, and tried to retract the christening. But it was to no avail; as is amply illustrated by the ongoing presence of American “Indians” in many linguistic circles, a name is damnably hard to change once the public at large has taken it to heart. Meanwhile poor Christopher Columbus died in 1510 in relative obscurity, not to get his due — or perhaps more than his due — until after the United States became an independent country in 1776, and took this Italian who had never set foot on any of the land that made up the new nation to its bosom as a sort of patron saint.

While the west-to-Asia camp had been scratching its collective head over this unexpected obstacle it had encountered on its way to the riches of the East, Portugal had continued its long-running project of reaching East Asia by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. King Manuel I, who took the throne in 1495, was as devoted to the cause as his predecessor and cousin John II had been. Early in his reign, the project came to a sudden fruition. On May 22, 1498, a wily Portuguese sailor and diplomat named Vasco da Gama completed a one-year journey over perfidious waters, a trip that in terms of sheer seamanship and hardship made Columbus’s comparatively straightforward five-week voyage across the Atlantic seem like child’s play. He made landfall in India near Kozhikode, then sailed home again after a stay of three months, carrying with him tales of wealth and splendor to make Marco Polo blush. This opening of India to sea travel was greeted with far more excitement in Europe than Columbus’s vague reports of having encountered some previously unknown hinterland of Asia. To be sure, the trip around Africa and then east to India was a perilous one; only 55 of the 170 men who had set out with Gama returned alive. But it had been proven possible, and experience would slowly make it safer.

This, then, was the time and place into which Ferdinand Magellan was born. It was a time of change and competition, of globalization and empire, all too soon of conquest and genocide. There was ample opportunity in such a time for a young gentleman of ambition and ability to make a name for himself. Magellan had these attributes, plus the tenacity of a bulldog. He would need all three to write his name not only into the annals of his own time but into those of history.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

17 Comments for "Chapter 1: East to Asia, West to Asia"

  • Ilmari Jauhiainen

    Great read! Still, I might suggest rephrasing the sentence “Nonetheless, the Portuguese proved unique in their stubborn resistance to assimilation”. Considering the Basque and Catalonian independence movements this sounds a bit too strong claim, since the struggle against Castilian assimilation has continued to this very day.

    • Jimmy Maher

      I reworked that slightly. Thanks!

  • Leo Vellés

    Excellent start to a series that surely will be amazing! I’m specially curious if there is any story of interest when this expedition was travelling alongside the coast of what is now Argentina, my country

  • John

    Just a little note that Cortez would have preferred to capture Tenochtitlan intact rather than destroy it. Unfortunately for him, five hundred Spaniards had no hope of conquering tens of thousands of angry Mexica (Aztecs) and the Spaniards were driven out of the city. It subsequently took five hundred Spaniards and a large force comprised of all the Mexica’s angry and resentful neighbors to conquer the city, which was destroyed in the process.

  • Krsto

    Thank you Jimmy for great opening chapter of another great book in making.
    Forgive me if this question is out of place, but I’m interested do you plan to add Bibliography section in a Sistine chapel book?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, it’s still coming. It just takes a bit of time to put together. Look for it in two to three weeks…

  • Apollonius

    Just wanted to mention a related novel that you might find interesting called “The Mapmaker”, by Frank G. Slaughter, which deals with the fascinating use of the navigation technology called the “Al Kemal” .

    Disclaimer, the book is somewhat “a product of the times”, with some Edgar Rice Burroughs vibes with the protagonist. But, despite that, the historical aspects really resonated with me.

    Looking forward to this series!

  • Mark Piccirelli

    Your first paragraph about events of the spring, summer, and fall of the 20th year of the 16th century doesn’t line up with the dates in Wikipedia. Wikipedia says da Vinci died in 1519, the Diet of Worms was January-May 1521, and Cortes at Tenochtitlan was May-August 1521.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Ouch. How embarrassing, especially considering I just wrote so much about Martin Luther and the Reformation. (Things that seem old hat tend not to get fact-checked so thoroughly around here…)

      I mixed up the Diet of Worms with Luther’s debate with Johann Eck, and Cortés’s first meeting with the Aztecs with their conquest at his hands. Thanks so much!

  • Sirona Aldri

    I’ve quite enjoyed these series – been reading them through from the start for the last few months.

    This is an excellent and compelling start – I’m excited for the little narrative of adventure you’ve settled on here – but two suggestions. Firstly, the Aztec Empire was situated in North America (or Central America, if you’d like) in modern-day Mexico City, not South America. Secondly, the word “Moorish” was certainly used a lot back then but has a lot of negative connotations now – I’m not sure it’s one I’d pick if I were writing this piece.

    Thank you for all your work, though – I’ve loved the work you’ve done outside my quibbles, certainly enough to read it all in so short a span!

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks so much! Corrections made.

  • Doug Orleans

    I think that “confidant” should be “confident”.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Alexey Romanov

    > names that most definitely do not bring to mind the provincial Old Europe which the ships were about to leave in their wake: Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago.

    I initially wanted to write that it’s hard to find a name bringing to mind Old Spain in particular _more_ than Santiago, but really this applies to the other religious names as well. Maybe a bit less to Victoria.

    > a calculation, we now know, that falls within one quarter of one percent of the real figure.

    My understanding is that we don’t know which unit of length he used. It’s called “stadium”, but there were a lot of different versions, just like for modern “mile”. So we also don’t know how large the error was See, for example,

    >> It’s most likely that he calculated 250,000 stadia, but that the figure got “rounded” to 252,000 so as to give a tidy figure of 700 stadia per degree of the earth’s circumference (360° × 700 = 252,000). More importantly, Ptolemaic methods for surveying long distances were very inexact — not nearly as good as Roman measures, for example — and, to boot, there were many variants of the stadion ranging from ca. 157 metres to ca. 262 metres.

    And the follow-up in, concluding:

    >> We’re left with the metrological stadion, of 177–192 m. Using that standard, Eratosthenes’ figure of 5000 stadia for the distances Alexandria–Syene and Syene–Meroë is too high. 5000 stadia is between 890 and 960 km; the real distances, as the crow flies, are 840 km and 800 km respectively; the north-south separation, ignoring the different longitudes, is 790 km for both distances.

    >> That puts Eratosthenes’ figure for the earth’s circumference between 44,680 km (stadia of 177.3 m) and 48,460 km (stadia of 192.3 m). The traditional reckoning of 8 stadia = 1 Roman mile (1480 m) gives 46,620 km. The earth’s true polar circumference is 40,008 km. Eratosthenes’ result is between 11.7% and 21.1% too high; the traditional reckoning is 16.5% high.

    • Jimmy Maher

      I softened the language slightly on the subject of the names of the ships.

      On the subject of Eratosthenes, it’s certainly true that there’s a fair amount of conjecture in all of this, as it is true that there were several standards for the stadion floating around. However, it seems far more likely to me that Eratosthenes would have been using the “walking” rather than the “meteorological” stadion. The former was used by the royal pacers, distance measurers trained to walk with perfectly consistent steps, who would have been the ones assigned the task of measuring the distance between Alexandria and Aswan. A walking stadio was 517 feet, or 157 meters. Employing it yields the figures I used.

  • Sam

    Your “Next Chapter” link takes me to the bibliography for the Sistine Chapel, which I assume isn’t intended, but possibly a publish date issue?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Ah, yes. I’ll look at it as soon as I have a chance. Thanks!


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