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Why didn't those crazy kids get together earlier?
November 27, 2011 5:43 PM   Subscribe

If the flat earth theory was unpopular in Europe, why did so few of them try to sail west before 1492?

The idea that people feared that Columbus was going to sail off the edge of the world seems to be a widely discredited elementary school "fact". The Greeks had done a fair job of estimating the circumference of the earth, and maps weren't great but they did exist. The technology to get over there seems to have existed from at least ~1000.

So why weren't there more voyages west from Europe? What did an educated European think was between England and Japan in the 15th century? How about a sailor? Why didn't anyone talk about sailing that way between Leif Ericson and Columbus?

(I'm focusing on Europe in this question because my knowledge of history ends at whatever point I was able to drop it in my USian high school, as you might be able to tell, so I know very little about what was going on elsewhere at around that time. Any answers involving Asian, African, Middle Eastern, or American societies would also be welcomed.)
posted by tchemgrrl to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because even if the world was known to be round, there was still enormous investment needed to explore westbound, no actual knowledge of what did lie to the west between Europe and Asia, and zero guarantee of a profitable or meaningful reason to make the exploration in the first place.

We know today that Jupiter has moons with interesting atmospheres, and we technically have the technology to get to them, at least in robot form if not in person, and yet we don't go. Why not?
posted by anildash at 5:48 PM on November 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


Europe had well-established trade routes between the middle and far east through much of the middle ages. Why risk life and limb sailing on unwieldy, non-seaworthy boats to explore the great unknown when you can travel thousands of miles over land and have an adventure?
posted by dfriedman at 5:48 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Following up anildash:

...not to mention the hardships required to succeed at such a venture. Crossing the ocean was insanely dangerous, just as it would be to cross the solar system now.
posted by Heretical at 5:50 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Columbus had at least partial knowledge of the trade winds that would take him to Asia and back home. This was at that time "a closely held fact."
posted by Knappster at 5:52 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hopefully someone who isn't cramming for an organic-chemistry exam will come along to substantiate/discredit this, but I believe I recall that while the Greeks had indeed accurately predicted the circumference of the Earth, Columbus was convinced that their numbers were wrong and that the planet was actually rather smaller. Thus, he thought the journey would be easier than most of his peers thought it would be.

This also goes some way to explaining why he thought he was in India when he originally landed. He thought the Earth was smaller, and was expecting to find it right about there. Also, if there *hadn't* been an unexpected continent halfway through his intended journey, he'd never have made it. The distance would have been too far and he'd have run out of provisions.
posted by Scientist at 5:53 PM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Remember, part of why Columbus wanted to sail west was because he thought that the earth was smaller than it really was. He hypothesized that the Greeks were wrong, but he was essentially mistaken.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:55 PM on November 27, 2011


What did an educated European think was between England and Japan in the 15th century? How about a sailor?

Brasil, and they seemingly tried to sail there.
posted by Jehan at 6:00 PM on November 27, 2011


Two interesting tidbits gleaned from Christopher Columbus' Wikipedia entry:

• "Under the Mongol Empire's hegemony over Asia (the so-called Pax Mongolica, or Mongol peace), Europeans had long enjoyed a safe land passage, the so-called "Silk Road", to China and India, which were sources of valuable goods such as silk, spices, and opiates. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the land route to Asia became much more difficult and dangerous." (So, that would take care of the years until 1453.)

• "[P]art of the argument that he submitted to the Spanish Catholic Monarchs when he sought their support for his proposed expedition to reach the Indies by sailing west was based on his reading of the Second Book of Esdras (see 2 Esdras 6:42, which Columbus took to mean that the Earth is made of six parts of land to one of water)." (Remember, 1492 is not just the year Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue - it was also the year that Al-Andalus fell to the "Catholic monarchs." Spain was no longer a Muslim country. The rulers may have been especially susceptible to religious arguments at that time.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:01 PM on November 27, 2011


They didn't think the Earth was flat. Everyone knew it was round.

The problem was that there were two extant figures for how large the Earth was. One was determined by Pythagoras. The other came much later, and was a lot smaller.

Columbus believed the smaller number, and if it was true then it would be possible for the ships of the day to reach Japan by going west. The Portugese refused to fund him because they believed the larger number was correct, and if so the ships of the day couldn't carry enough supplies to last that long.

Turns out the larger number was the correct one. The only reason Columbus and his crew didn't end up dead is that they lucked into finding an entirely new landmass just as their supplies were running out.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:04 PM on November 27, 2011 [6 favorites]




Europeans weren't crazy-good navigators, and generally poor sailors.
(Compare with Europeans being bewildered at pacific islanders merrily sailing between islands, without even compasses - which Europeans were only just using to full potential).

Boats had a tendency of sinking, even when you weren't that far out of sight of land. Navigation pretty much relied on being close to the coast.

There's a little bit here: Wikipedia - Maritime Age of Discovery

But basically, at least a few boats had *gone* that way, and, they'd disappeared (sunk?).
Not exactly a tempting prospect.
posted by Elysum at 6:07 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


By the way, there is strong suspicion that there really were a lot more trips to the west before Columbus than are commonly believed. In particular, there's some reason to believe that some European fishermen had discovered the Georges Bank, which put them right off the coast of New England.

But they mostly kept it secret because it was commercially valuable.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:08 PM on November 27, 2011


Oops... actually it was the Grand Banks they are suspected of having found, not the Georges Bank. Same difference, though.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:09 PM on November 27, 2011


Also, the ship types CC used became available in Europe not long before.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:18 PM on November 27, 2011


Same difference, though.

Sorta, though they probably didn't go as far south and west as New England but remained off the Maritimes.
posted by Miko at 6:22 PM on November 27, 2011


I'm doing it backwards, reading 1493 first, but if Charles Mann's 1491 is anywhere as good as the sequel, you'll find it interesting.
posted by mimi at 6:45 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


they probably didn't go as far south and west as New England but remained off the Maritimes.

Just to nitpick, Newfoundland is not a Maritime province; it's part of Atlantic Canada. The Maritimes are Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick.
posted by Dasein at 6:56 PM on November 27, 2011


The technology to get over there seems to have existed from at least ~1000.

Not really. Not in Europe anyway. Sure, hull-building for blue-water fleets had been around since around then, but sailing was--and is!--a pretty dangerous business even without access to modern navigational techniques, which weren't really perfected until the nineteenth century. Remember the Spanish Armada? In 1588? About half of it was destroyed by storm, independent of enemy action, almost a century after Columbus did his bit. The loss ratio for long-distance ocean sailing was in double digits until the introduction of iron hulls and steamships. As a matter of fact, the modern insurance industry traces its roots to Lloyds of London, a syndicate created to permit investors to spread around the considerable risk of loss to wooden-hulled trading ships. The risk of loss to any particular ship was so great and the consequences of such a loss were so high that no single investor could usually afford to retain said risk, and insurance contracts were created to spread that risk around.

Navigation is a tricky, tricky thing. It requires good maps, which didn't exist and had to be painstakingly added to over time, and even if you have good maps, you need to have fine instruments, namely a sextant and compass, if you want to be able to tell where you are on the map. Even today, knowing that there really is something over the horizon, successfully taking a modern, powered vessel across the Atlantic without electronic position-finding equipment is almost as hard as it was five hundred years ago, and using dead reckoning to describe anything like a straight line over nautical distances is still regarded as a significant feat.

So while some of the technologies for long-distance blue-water sailing did exist really as early as the Roman period--a ship that can cross the Mediterranean can probably cross the Atlantic--the full collection of technologies required to make such trips even remotely practical, i.e. navigation, the compass, and ideally enough optics to permit the production of telescopes, did not exist until well after the fifteenth century.

One might well then ask "Why not?" There isn't really a good answer there. Why didn't the Romans develop steam power? The Greeks had described the basic principles, and the first steam engine didn't really use any materials the Romans didn't have. But the first commercially-viable steam engine wasn't produced until the early eighteenth century. Similarly, why didn't the Romans use steel plows? They certainly knew how to make steel, but the first one doesn't seem to have been used until John Deere introduced it in the mid nineteenth century. A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why certain technological advances took so long to come about, and no one seems to have come up with a satisfactory answer.
posted by valkyryn at 7:01 PM on November 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


Just to nitpick, Newfoundland is not a Maritime province; it's part of Atlantic Canada. The Maritimes are Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick.

Noted and understood - they did seem to get as far south as NS that early, though.
posted by Miko at 7:03 PM on November 27, 2011


And Georges Bank is much farther south than that.
posted by Miko at 7:03 PM on November 27, 2011


If I did the calculations correctly, Lisbon westward to Tokyo is 18000 miles (at a minimum, i.e. along a great circle, actually starting southwestward). That would be maybe six months at sea, with no known ports, nowhere to pick up fresh water and other necessities, etc., even if they knew exactly where they were going (which they didn't).

Columbus made it about a month out, and totally lucked out that he happened to run into something unexpected at that time; his crew was near mutiny, and for good reason. Columbus went only because he thought the world was a lot smaller than it actually is (and smaller than his contemporaries thought it); it seems unlikely that a European of the time would have thought that one of their ships could make it six months on the open ocean.
posted by Flunkie at 7:05 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm doing it backwards, reading 1493 first, but if Charles Mann's 1491 is anywhere as good as the sequel, you'll find it interesting.
Fascinating, but not terribly relevant. 1491 is all about the technology and culture of North and South American prior to Columbus' arrival. Not many words are spent on the European Discovery process.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:09 PM on November 27, 2011


Europeans weren't crazy-good navigators, and generally poor sailors.

Scandanavians wee quite accomplished navigators and sailors - but the political and cultural centres of Europe to the south weren't really interested in their opinions.

But I'll nth the conditions on 15th century boats as used by the major nations of the time. Even in the 17th century I have biographies of notable explorers and pirates of the era when going between Europe and North America had become rather more routine which explain captains would budget on one third of the crew being too ill, malnourished, or injured to be any use for most of the voyage.

And it was unpleasant: consider that a large naval vessel of the era crammed 1300 people into an 11m x 70m floorplan; Columbus' flagship was less than one third the size.
posted by rodgerd at 7:26 PM on November 27, 2011


Why? Well, food supply for extended voyages was a problem, and would remain a problem.

And note that the Canaries were 'discovered' by Europeans only around 1400, and the Azores around 1430. That is, even relatively close landfalls weren't reliably within reach until the 15th century.

Anybody with the capital to build a sea-going vessel - and shipbuilding was an expensive undertaking - was probably averse to sending it out into emptiness, and would prefer to use it for trade that had some sort of chance of making a return-on-investment

The Atlantic is BIG.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:28 PM on November 27, 2011


It's worth noting Heyerdahl sailed across the pacific on a balsa raft and then sailed across the Atlantic on a papyrus boat, using pharaonic-era drawings as a blueprint (I don't remember if they were from old or middle kingdom, though, and wikipedia does not say). It took him two tries with the papyrus boat but the first was a failure because he misinterpreted the drawings and none of the crew were sailors, but he did have a compass and a simple sextant. His main idea was that a papyrus boat blown off course would be able to accidentally get to the Americas, which would explain a number of peculiar cultural similarities.

The actual sailing part isn't that impossible with a fairly simple technology.

I think it's stranger that Vikings went as far as the new world and people certainly knew about that in Greenland, and Greenland had a more or less stable communication with Norway at the time, and yet it never occurred to anyone there that hey, maybe we should take a further look-see, and maybe beat the arrogant spaniards to it by oh I don't know, only half a millenia or so.
posted by rainy at 7:34 PM on November 27, 2011


Oh, and it's also odd that Greenlanders did not try explore further southward. Imagine you basically discovered America and you say, "bah.. I think I'll just stay here on a tiny, barely habitable part of Greenland, and wither away and die out within a few hundred years; that continent over there is probably worthless anyway."
posted by rainy at 7:38 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Note that it took royal sponsorship to make this happen. John Q. Merchant wasn't taking this risk.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:55 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sailing in the open sea was not really mastered till the early 1400s. The Portuguese were busy exploring, at the instigation of Prince Henry the Navigator, but their focus was on exploring down the coast of Africa, trying to reach the known sources of gold in West Africa.

In addition to Columbus's underestimate of the size of the globe, he also overestimated the size of Asia. That is, educated opinion held that China was way too far to reach by any reasonable westward voyage.

As for the Vikings, they did reach the mainland, but they were at the end of their supply chain and the inhabitants were fierce, and yet evidently not rich enough to make it worthwhile to raid them in force.
posted by zompist at 8:00 PM on November 27, 2011


There wasn't really a need to try an unknown route to Asia until the middle part of the 15th century. Once the Turks took Constantinople, however, the Eastern Mediterranean became an Ottoman lake. Thus, trade with Asia became dependent on a single, unfriendly power.

Portugal started working on a new route around Africa. Spain, late to the game (in part because it was only recently unified), tried its hand going West.

But for most of the period between the Norse voyages and Columbus, Europe would have found it easier to use the ancient sailing routes to the Levant.
posted by spaltavian at 8:26 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ferdinand and Isabella did a lot of stuff to bolster support from wherever they could get it. Along comes this Italian guy with an off the wall theory about the size of the Earth. It's a not too big gamble on a long shot to win. If he's right and he makes it back - Jackpot! If he's wrong and dies horribly, meh.

The Wikipedia Voyages of Christopher Columbus article goes into this pretty deeply.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:38 PM on November 27, 2011


Suppose that you live in China, near the Himalayas, and although the route to the cities of Tibet is mapped out, pretty much all the rest of the mountains are assumed to be unpopulated.

You own a jeep. Do you:
1. Build a business making local deliveries.
2. Start a risky but potentially highly profitable export trade with Tibet.
3. Start a trucking business to known Chinese cities.
4. Start driving off-road through the Himalayas, hoping to find some wonderful business opportunities.

Your odds of success at #4, BTW, are not remarkably lower than Columbus' were. He got lucky. Don't forget that he was completely wrong about everything except that there was land to the West.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:12 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wonder if, a thousand years from now, our descendants will similarly wonder why it took so long for us to colonize Mars.
posted by fragmede at 3:25 AM on November 28, 2011


Abu Bakr II of Mali is said to have sent a large fleet westward in the early 14th century; it's extremely unlikely they wound up anywhere but the bottom of the ocean, but a few fringe scholars (like Ivan van Sertima) claim they actually reached the New World. It's certainly a thought-provoking event, and the presumed fate of the expedition illustrates the difficulty of making the voyage successfully. You have to know a lot about winds and currents, as others have said above.
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on November 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thanks everyone! A few notes:

In re: space travel; that's just the thing, a lot of people are discussing the advantages and risks even if it's not happening. I was wondering if there was an equivalent conversation happening in that era. Looks like there was, at least in terms of differing theories of the distance, possible islands, etc.

there's some reason to believe that some European fishermen had discovered the Georges Grand Bank

Kind of amazing that they never told their drinking buddies about that.

I'm doing it backwards, reading 1493 first

Me too! That's what got me thinking about this.

Imagine you basically discovered America and you say, "bah.. I think I'll just stay here on a tiny, barely habitable part of Greenland, and wither away and die out within a few hundred years; that continent over there is probably worthless anyway."

I read the book The Far Traveler a while back that talks about that era; one gets the sense that they thought Vinland was boring.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:29 AM on November 28, 2011


I read the book The Far Traveler a while back that talks about that era; one gets the sense that they thought Vinland was boring.

If killing a bunch of natives and then having a substantial number of your buddies killed by them in turn and then barely escaping back to Greenland with your lives was considered boring by their standards, then it was a real yawn-fest!
posted by rainy at 7:45 AM on November 28, 2011


Oh, and it's also odd that Greenlanders did not try explore further southward. Imagine you basically discovered America and you say, "bah.. I think I'll just stay here on a tiny, barely habitable part of Greenland, and wither away and die out within a few hundred years; that continent over there is probably worthless anyway."

Pre-Columbian America was inhabited, by very sophisticated cultures of (what would seem to a European of the time) vast population. The Scandinavians did try to set up a colony a few times in the Americas that we know of, and assuredly more times that are lost to the vagaries of time. They got their asses whooped by the locals in every instance. Greenland was too small and under-resourced to wage war from, and Iceland too far away, and without smallpox, it's not clear they would have been the least bit successful, steel or not. The Native Americans of the time were pretty well versed in the Viking-style of hit-and-run warfare, and could defend against it with runners and fast-moving war bands. This is pretty much what happened to Thorvald Ericson's expedition - he ambushed and looted a trading party, and the runner escaped, then went and got reinforcements to keep the invaders bottled up in their fort until they left.

It wasn't until the introduction of smallpox, and the unimaginable death toll it leveled, that the Europeans were able to make any headway colonizing the mainland.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:50 AM on November 28, 2011


The Scandinavians did try to set up a colony a few times in the Americas that we know of, and assuredly more times that are lost to the vagaries of time.

That's possible, but as far as we do know, they only explored the Northern coast. They apparently did not realize how large the new landmass is, and as far as anyone in Norway knew, nothing beyond relatively cold, small (in habitable lands) islands like Iceland and Greenland were known to have been discovered. If Norway knew something on the scale of Europe was discovered, that would have certainly made a splash, obstinate natives or not.

I think the likelihood is that when they failed to settle, they gave up on exploration right away.
posted by rainy at 8:13 AM on November 28, 2011


Kind of amazing that they never told their drinking buddies about that.

That was quite intentional. Fishing was key to empire building, because it represented a steady source of dietary protein for peasant and early industrial classes as well as ever-more essential slaves in early colonies. The abudant cod in the North Atlantic was the ideal protein food: it was easy to catch in those days, preserved well when salted and dried, and would last years in transshipping to the colonies. Knowing where to catch cod was a profound competitive advantage, so fishermen (and their investors, sponsors, and political leaders) who had found productive grounds did their best to keep it under their hats. The prevalence of fishing boats on the North Atlantic grounds off North America grew gradually and quietly throughout the 1400s and early 1500s but had become well known by the late 1500s, spurring new and wider interest in setting up permanent colonies in North America.
posted by Miko at 8:32 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


You would be surprised at the number of people who simply don't travel.

I've met Northern Americans who have never visited Canada. I've met Brummies who have never been to London. I know English people who have never left the island.

These things can all be done today for less than $200 and only take a few hours at most.
posted by srboisvert at 9:06 AM on November 28, 2011


Flunkie above described some of the skepticism that Columbus faced. Just about everyone involved knew the Earth was round. They knew the approximate size of the Earth, the approximate speed of their ships, and how much food and water they could carry. Columbus's estimate of 2,400 miles to the Indies was dubious, even by the standards of 15th-century astronomy and navigation.

The biggest problem skeptics had with Columbus was that he'd run out of food and water long before he reached Asia. And it turns out, they were entirely right. Columbus was lucky to reach the Caribbean with his ships and management.

Looking at Vinland, European colonies in the Americas required a ton of one-way trade, capital, and manpower before many of them succeeded. Many of the first attempts failed due to a lack of support from Europe, difficulties adapting agriculture to new climates, bad relationships with locals, disease, and sometimes stupid leadership. The Vikings at the time were also putting a lot of work into consolidating as kingdoms, and there's apparently little they could transport from Vinland that they couldn't get from adventures in England, Ireland, France, and Russia.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:53 AM on November 28, 2011


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