Empire’s Crossroads by Carrie Gibson – Extract

Empire's Crossroads

Chapter One

A Passage to the Indies

The story of the modern Caribbean does not begin with Christopher Columbus’s famous voyage. It starts, instead, in a small port town in northern North Africa, almost within sight of the Iberian peninsula. On 25 July 1415, the feast day of St James, Prince Henry of Portugal later known as the ‘Navigator’– led a fleet of around 200 ships down the Tagus, which would carry them out of Lisbon and into the Atlantic Ocean. Of an estimated 45,000 soldiers on board, only a handful were aware of their final destination. Rumours had been circulating about the expedition but very few people had actual facts.

Preparing that number of ships and men had been no small operation, and it had attracted some attention. The Portuguese fleet was not sufficient for the plans, whatever they were, so another hundred ships had to be chartered from Castile, Flanders, Brittany, and England. A Castilian agent in Lisbon could not help but notice the ships being readied, and he reported to King Ferdinand I that by his count there were around 5,400 men at arms, 4,900 bowmen, and 9,000 footsoldiers. This was a worrying development for Castile, as both agent and king expected the Portuguese to head for neighbouring Granada, which was the last Islamic foothold in Catholic Iberia. Once a mighty empire that spread almost over the entire peninsula, Islam was now contracting. As the Islamic caliphate was riven by its own internal crises, the Catholics were able to retake their kingdoms, bit by bit. Granada, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, home of the mighty Alhambra palace, was the final – and most highly sought – prize.

Ferdinand I was surprised by the rumours, not so much because of the scale of the operation but because he thought Henry would have known Castile had laid claim to the right to invade and reconquer Granada. Portugal had reconquered its southern Algarve territories in 1249, but the continued Islamic governance of Granada was a Muslim thorn in the side of the Catholic rulers of Castile. Ferdinand I also considered the idea that the vessels could have been heading for Gibraltar, which was still under Muslim control. He was wrong on both counts.

As the ships set sail, details of the plan emerged. The target was the North African port of Ceuta, 150 miles from the Portuguese coast. Most, if not all, of the soldiers on board would have been surprised when they found out where they were going. Ceuta was a small, peninsular outpost in North Africa with a fortress; it was not a dazzling jewel of a city, like Granada. But what it lacked in splendour it made up for in bustling trade. In Henry’s time this port was known for its commerce in wheat and in gold. Ceuta sat at a crucial location; mirrored by the rock of Gibraltar in the north, it was the southern part of the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ – the gateway to the commercial world of the Mediterranean. It was also the exit to the terrifying and mostly unknown waters of the Atlantic. Whatever the reason, Ceuta was a puzzling choice for an attack. The call to arms against the infidel was not a new motivating factor but the target was. Although battling Islam contributed to Prince Henry’s idea for an invasion, it was not his only reason. Gold and wheat loomed large in his mind.

Wheat was a problem for Portugal. The small kingdom had a mountainous interior, and could grow very little, making it dependent on imports. These were too often manipulated by the state of political relations with the Genoese, Dutch, or other exporters of wheat, or more volatile still, the vicissitudes of the climate, which could lead to surpluses in some years and shortages in others. Access to a steady, dependable source of grain could have manifold benefits, and Ceuta was the place to access it. And then there was the matter of gold. Many people believed that Ceuta was the last link in the long supply chain that connected the Mediterranean with the rumoured riches that lay deep in the unknown African interior. When it came to gold, no European ruler could stockpile enough of it. Certainly not Henry, the third of five surviving sons of John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster and raised to expect the courtly splendour of his counterparts in England. But unlike England, Portugal’s population was tiny – only about a million people, most of whom were eking out an existence; taxing them would not raise sufficient revenues. Indeed, Portugal did not even issue its own gold currency. What money there was had to be spent on the ongoing struggle against the growing power of Castile, which had been brought to a temporary halt under a treaty signed in 1411.

Born in Porto on Ash Wednesday, 4 March 1394, Henry was a devout Catholic. He was schooled in the chivalric ways of England, as imparted by his Plantagenet mother, while also being infused with a hatred of the ‘infidel’ Moors by his family. This attack on Ceuta was to be his moment, his stance against Islam, but it was also his chance to improve his own fortunes. This was not unusual. In Castile, the armies that had fought against the Moors were led by noblemen who were allowed to keep some of the spoils of war. Henry was acting within this tradition, but hoping, by extending his geographical reach, to find something more.

Into the mix of grain, gold, and God would also be added the figure of Prester John, a mythical Christian who had travelled to a faraway land (often Ethiopia), where he had become king and had access to enough gold and soldiers to defeat all enemies of Christendom. He had an army strong enough to fend off any rising menace from Islam and the growing power of the Ottoman world. If only Prester John knew what dangers were in store for his Christian brothers, so the thinking went, he would send his armies to defeat the infidels. And, of course, he had a lot of gold. Although Prester John haunted the medieval world, no evidence proves that he actually existed, though he was alive in the minds of Henry and his contemporaries. The account of who Prester John was varies through the centuries, changing with the wishes and anxieties of whoever wrote and talked about him. Henry certainly appeared to believe the story. He thought that by securing Ceuta, the Portuguese would not only have a stronghold in the Muslim Mediterranean and access to wheat supplies, but that they could then penetrate into the hinterland, find Prester John, and share in his riches. Henry was not alone in this desire – the legend of Prester John had existed since the Crusades began more than 300 years earlier, and the story compelled people to search for him and his treasure. Henry’s unwavering belief in Prester John and his desire for gold would have ramifications that would reach well beyond the confines of Ceuta’s fortress.

As Henry’s ships set sail that July across the Straits of Gibraltar, there was an ominous eclipse of the sun. The storm that followed drove the fleet back to Algeciras, on the southern coast of Andalusia, where they had to lie at anchor. Meanwhile, the governor of Ceuta, Salah ben Salah, had received word of the fleet’s arrival and was on the brink of calling in reinforcements when he heard that the would-be attackers had turned away and presumed they had changed their minds. Ben Salah’s assumption would prove to be disastrous. He called off the extra troops, and so was in fora very unpleasant surprise on 21 August when, after a thirteen-hour fight, the Marinid people of Ceuta were defeated.5 In the style of the victorious, the Portuguese troops looted the city, searching everywhere for the fabled gold. They found little precious metal, but in their lust for it, they managed to destroy stocks of valuable spices, ignorant of the fact that these exotic flavourings were often worth their weight in gold.

As the Portuguese settled into occupation and the local inhabitants fled, it soon became clear that the enterprise was an economic failure. Henry’s troops had taken over Ceuta, and the prince established his reputation, but it was a hollow victory. The Muslim traders – the vital conduits of wheat and gold – had left, and no Muslim merchants from the wheat-growing interior would do business with the Portuguese. With such slim economic prospects, no one from the mainland wanted to settle there, and so soldiers were forced to stay in the colony.* The longed-for gold was nowhere to be found. But Henry was not deterred. The search had begun.

Despite his sobriquet, there is little evidence Henry the Navigator ever sailed beyond Ceuta. Instead, it was in his role as a leading ship owner that Henry contributed to the rise of Portugal’s maritime domination in the fifteenth century, which resulted in part from his triumph in Ceuta. Although something of a false victory, Henry and others had tasted overseas conquest – not peninsular reconquest. The prince and fellow elites understood that access to gold was crucial not only to their own personal fortunes, but for overall prosperity, to fund the ongoing struggle against Islam, and to find Prester John. Henry was buoyed by his success, and he pushed Castile to invade Granada in 1419 and 1434, but that battle would be not be fought for decades yet. Around the time of Henry’s foray into North Africa, there were profound changes in maritime techniques in the Mediterranean. Sailing in the fifteenth century was a cumbersome process, as it had been for hundreds of years. Galleys needed oarsmen, which meant they could neither go far nor carry much. Space was needed for the gangs of men on the oars and sufficient water and food for everyone on board. Explorers were limited as well, though the Vikings are believed to have reached parts of North America centuries earlier. But as shipbuilding design changed, some intrepid Portuguese were able to engage in a more systematic exploration of the Atlantic, then known as the ‘Ocean Sea’, well beyond the limits of the known waters of the Mediterranean. The crucial element in this change was the design of the caravel. Many of the earlier ships were cogs, which were Baltic in origin, and had rounded hulls. They were designed to sail using currents, not wind – although they had a square-rigged sail – and could only go relatively short distances. The design of the caravel – which, and it is no coincidence, bears a relation to the Arab dhow – used lateen, or fore-and-aft, sails which allowed the ships to manoeuvre with more ease and sail closer to the wind. The Chinese, too, had used new technologies to travel further, arriving on the African coast in the 1400s. They also had gunpowder and compasses – but that was because they had invented them. And while these discoveries may have seemed very exciting and new to the Portuguese, it was only because Western Europe was so very far behind much of the rest of the world. In the fifteenth century China, the Indian kingdoms and the Islamic world had produced scientific discoveries well ahead of those coming out of a Europe emerging from the Dark Ages. But shifts were happening again, and the combination of Islamic weakness and a European resurgence meant the balance of power in the Mediterranean was changing.

For Portuguese and other European sailors, the switch from manpower to wind power would prove a dramatic one. These ships needed fewer men, and could go further than their predecessors. Around the time of the attack on Ceuta in 1415, the known southern limit of the world was around 27ºN, near Cape Bojador (on the coast of today’s Western Sahara). It was infamous for having a violent current, frequent dense fog, and difficult prevailing winds that could frustrate any attempt to sail back north to Lisbon. Arab geographers were more familiar with this region than the Portuguese and called it the ‘Green Sea of Darkness’. To many sailors and map-makers it marked a true point of no return. But the Portuguese caravels could weather the journey and soon began to round the cape and find they could, with the help of the wind, make their way back. The sailors’ newfound confidence helped override their fear of the blank spots on their maps.

Bit by bit, wave by wave, Portuguese sailors began to make sense of the currents and winds, realizing there were patterns that would allow them to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the unknown, and return in one piece. Using their intuition, logic, and experience, they soon discovered they could bump southwards along Africa’s western coast by harnessing the winds to sail further into the Atlantic and catch the westerlies back home. Ocean currents in the northern hemisphere move in a clockwise direction. Understanding this was the trick – if they sailed too close to the coast on the way back, the northerlies could wreak havoc, as had happened in the past, sending ships into oblivion. By expanding their loop, sailors could catch the winds they needed. Soon mariners saw there was a mostly reliable pattern to these winds. The stars helped, too; after crossing the equator, sailors familiar with navigating using the position of Polaris in relation to the horizon were able to make calculations using different celestial bodies. New realizations dawned on map-makers as well. Some of the earliest known European maps from around the eighth century are called T-O maps, which were symbolic rather than cartographic. They were framed in a circle, with Asia taking up the top half, and the bottom half split between Africa and Europe. The T shape represented the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the River Don in Russia, which separated Europe and Asia.8 Maps were the physical embodiment of a Christianized world, and they became almost devotional objects. They charted spiritual realities, not geographic ones. Jerusalem was usually at the centre, as it was supposed to represent the spiritual heart of the Christian universe. But over time, and fed by reports from sailors, maps began to change shape. Newer maps reflected geographic realities. Portolan charts had emerged by the 1300s as a navigational aid, the maps often looking like spiders’ webs of criss-crossing lines and compass points of sailing routes. The Crusaders had brought back to Europe a physical knowledge of parts of the East, and now sailors were adding to the understanding of the seas outside the Mediterranean. Some places became hubs of cartographic activity, such as the Balearic island of Majorca, which lies close to the port of Barcelona. It had a community of influential Jewish mapmakers, including Abraham Cresques, whose famed and elaborate Catalan Atlas of 1375 marked the location of the elusive River of Gold in Africa.

There were new political realities too, as kingdoms such as Castile and Aragon consolidated into stronger political entities. Port cities throughout Europe were no longer outposts, but increasingly vital commercial and strategic arms of an expanding continent. Combined with the ongoing battle with Islam, a Europe began to emerge that was pushing at the limits of knowledge and of the known world. As commerce now took an ever-increasing role not only in Portugal but also in emerging economies elsewhere, the need for gold and silver, in short supply in Europe, grew.

As the Portuguese sailors, funded by the optimistic Henry and others, made their way along the coast of Africa, they soon encountered the people who lived there. By 1482, when Diogo Cão pushed inland and made contact with the kingdom of Kongo, there was already a good deal of commerce with the people along the coast. These Africans, like the Portuguese, were quite happy to trade, and soon Portuguese sailors had established settlements to trade and continue their hunt for gold. A new age was beginning, reflected even in the language. In Portugal, by 1472, the verb descobrir – to discover – had emerged, and the use of descobrimento – discovery – dates to 1486.11 Sailors based in Lisbon could expect to go to these African outposts as a matter of course, as well as to points further north, such as Bristol, Ireland, and even Iceland, as a young Genoese mariner named Christopher Columbus was said to have done in the 1470s.

Understanding Columbus requires more than just knowing about his maritime record. It means going back to his world; not the ports of Lisbon, nor the courts of Castile, but Genoa, circa 1451–2, the given time of his birth. He was not born with a map in hand and an idea of the New World. Rather, he was the product of a time and a place; a small but significant Ligurian port which sits in the shadow of the Apennine mountains. At first, Genoa appears a simple city. But a closer look reveals a self-contained world, cut off from the rest of the Italian peninsula, with only the sea as an exit. Its cramped streets accelerate into an ever-increasing jumble as they near the docks, with only the coming and going of ships providing an outlet into the wider world. Like its rivals Venice and Pisa, Genoa had prospered during the Crusades, when the Christian soldiers in the Middle East established trade agreements with those ports, using them to their advantage, not only to launch ships and move troops, but also to trade goods with the markets in the Levant. This line of commerce proved lucrative, and soon these city-states grew very wealthy. However, the waters were awash with Muslim ships and pirates ready to plunder, and despite their growing disputes – Genoa, Pisa, and Venice often fought among themselves – these cities were united in the effort to repel them. In these and earlier times, Islam had dominated Mediterranean trade. Muslim sailors had more advanced navigation techniques than Christians, and from the eighth century their piracy was also striking terror into Europeans on sea and land. Their technical prowess and ruthlessness made them a constant worry.

Trade was not only to the Levant, though, and despite the religious animosity, Genoa often made commercial transactions with ports along the coast of North Africa. Venice, in contrast, looked more to the East and became more enmeshed with Byzantium. The East was known as the land of riches, and luxury goods such as silks and spices came up to Europe along the Silk Road, though often in very limited supply, thus commanding the high prices which made them available only to the wealthy.

Although Genoa did not have the same access as Venice to the riches of the East, it prospered and soon became not only a centre for the distribution of goods and the circulation of currency, but also – its tangled streets full of sailors and tall tales – an important place for map-makers, shipbuilders, and adventurers. Perhaps one of the most significant sailors to wash up in Genoa was Marco Polo. The thirteenth-century Venetian explorer had been thrown in a Genoese prison after being captured in a naval battle between the two city-states.

While in prison, he told the story of his amazing (and no doubt exaggerated) travels to the East to his cellmate, a man called Rustichello of Pisa. Rustichello later published this traveller’s tales of meeting and his subsequent service to Kublai Khan and his voyage to Persia and other exotic locales. The work captured the imagination of the public, who were ignorant of but curious about these parts of the world. But the book also mentioned some familiar figures, and even Prester John made an appearance. Soon the work was translated, copied and distributed throughout Western Europe. Although the Silk Road from East to West, along which gold and spices were traded, had long been in operation, Polo’s tales made the splendours of the Far East come alive for the growing number of European readers with descriptions of the Orient. Polo recalled of the palace of Kublai Khan: ‘The walls of the chambers and stairs are covered with gold and silver, and adorned with pictures of dragons, horses, and other races of animals. The hall is so spacious that 6,000 can sit down to banquet; and the number of apartments incredible.’ But more importantly, these tales whetted the appetites of sailors and merchants keen to find an easier route to these treasures. Columbus would have read Polo at some point as his tales were still circulating many decades later. But even putting Polo’s stories aside, Genoa would have provided a cosmopolitan hothouse for the young and ambitious Columbus.

He was the son of a weaver, which put him at a social and economic disadvantage in a town where the wealthy made their fortunes in trading. His family were from the mountains, not the sea. Like most people in Genoa, they were very politicized, and Columbus’s family were linked with anti-Aragonese factions in the city, as the kingdom of Aragon was also a competitor in the world of Mediterranean trade. His education in complex Mediterranean and Iberian politics would later serve him well. Despite Columbus’s humble beginnings, Genoa was still a city in which an eager and willing young man could seek his fortune, and he planned to do so through the sea. Indeed, in his time the city was particularly dynamic, and Genoa had spread its control to Corsica, and indeed as far as the Aegean island of Chios, a place that Columbus may have sailed to around 1474 or 1475, not long before he arrived in Portugal.

This was a period of intense commercial activity in the Mediterranean, one which stretched from Egypt to England. Columbus’s contemporaries would have sailed to Southampton and Alexandria and many points in between. Trading posts were set up as oils, sugar, spices, and cloth circulated. Olive oil and nuts went from Sicily to Egypt.13 Other goods were sent to Flanders and traded for cloth, which would be taken around the Mediterranean. Ships would dock in Spain and trade wool and gold, with the wool going either to Tuscany or to weavers in Genoa such as Columbus’s father. Cities began to fill with traders, and ships were dispatched all over the region. Venetian ships went East; Aragonese ships arrived in Genoa; Pisan ships went to Sicily. There was another, darker trade as well – one in humans. Slavery had long been a part of Mediterranean life. At first, it was the Moorish sailors who brought non-believing captives from other regions of Africa to the Iberian peninsula, where they were traded throughout European kingdoms. But Moors were also captured and sold as slaves, and Columbus no doubt would have seen Moorish slaves in the streets of his native city. The slave trade, however, was not limited to people from the Islamic world. Slaves in this period varied in background – there were Germanic and Slavic people, Tartars from the Black Sea, Saracens, and even Jews. Nor were they all men, to be worked to an early death, but often women. The whiter they were, the higher the price they fetched. The more olive or darker-skinned, the lower their value. A few Africans began to arrive at the ports, too. But unlike what was to come later, they were not sent out to work in fields. Instead, many lived as servants in ports such as Lisbon or Seville.

Most slaves lived in households, and in Genoa they were owned in small numbers, yet there were numerous social restrictions in place. For instance, shopkeepers were not permitted to sell keys to slaves, or to buy gold or silver from them, and slaves in apothecaries were not allowed to sell arsenic. Slaves also needed passes from their owners to leave the city, and masters could chain their property to prevent them from running away. By this point, the Catalan port of Barcelona had also joined the slave trade. The city had grown throughout the 1200s, and it was in a prime location to buy human cargo from the Muslim slave traders of North Africa. At the same time, Sicily was beginning to experiment in the production of sugar, as knowledge of its cultivation spread from east to west, south to north. As this precious food additive moved through Genoa, Antwerp, and Barcelona, a new class of wealthy consumers began to acquire a taste for it. All these developments were disrupted, however, when the Black Death killed tens of thousands of people across the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe in 1348–9.

By the time of Columbus’s birth, Genoa’s fortunes were waning somewhat. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans, it began to decline, soon relinquishing its colonies and settlements. The Turks took outposts in Phocaea and Lesbos, while the Venetians grabbed Cyprus. Chios, however, persisted under Genoese control until 1566. Genoa adapted, and many merchants began to realize that, rather than trading in goods, it was much safer to be in control of the capital that financed expeditions. Many Genoese would later become important financiers of European royal houses and Atlantic expeditions.

The rhythms of trade were also changing. While Genoa and Venice had been active in commerce with the Crusader states, there was a shifting to the north as Catalan ships sailed to Flemish or even English waters, searching for goods such as wool. Genoa could no longer look to the East for trade, and its merchants saw Catalan and Portuguese traders in strong positions. At the same time, the labour dynamics were transformed as the price of slaves more than doubled owing to the fall in supply, and by the 1470s there were fewer than 1,000 slaves in the port. Genoese traders tried to find new slaves from the Balkans, but many of these were Christian women, and there was some concern about enslaving fellow believers, a question that would also later resonate in distant lands. By the time Columbus decided to go to Lisbon, Genoa was not quite the beacon of commerce it had been, but there is no doubt its history left a deep impression – the bustle of the port, the lure of wealth, the normality of slavery, the taste of sugar – on its most famous son’s earliest years.

*

Columbus’s move to Portugal around 1476, whether by design or accident, was an astute one. He had left a port on the decline for one that was not only on the rise, but also on the cutting edge of navigational knowledge. Sailors returned from voyages with tales of coastal Africa and of the Atlantic islands. In addition, the public imagination had been gripped by the growing accounts of these new worlds. Sailors and scholars alike reinvigorated the art of discovery. Ptolemy’s second-century Geographia, and Almagest, which described how the sun rotated around the earth – considered the foundation of the universe until Copernicus shattered the idea in the mid-sixteenth century – were translated into Latin in the twelfth century. Now there was a thirst to revisit this classical knowledge. The boom in navigational work meant many sailors and map-makers were once again keen to read Ptolemy’s ideas, which included dividing the world into latitude and longitude segments. Sailors were also paying attention to the sun and stars, and while on board Columbus learned lessons that would serve him well on later voyages.

In a similar vein, Polo’s tales were once again read with renewed enthusiasm – a 1485 translation into vernacular languages published in Antwerp was popular – but this time they were also infused with possibility. In addition, the development of printing technology allowed for a larger and wider readership. Like many sailors, Columbus would have read these books, or at least discussed their ideas while making tavern small talk about big dreams of what was to be found in the Ocean Sea. The Far East, perhaps, was not so far after all. There is a copy of Polo’s book in Seville that, it is claimed, has Columbus’s annotations in it. If this is the case, he marked a passage about Polo’s arrival in Ciampagu (or Cipango), which is thought to be Japan:

There is gold there in very great abundance, but the monarch does not easily permit it to be taken away from the island, and consequently few traders go there, and rarely do ships from other regions land at its ports. The king of the island has a large palace with a very fine gold roof, in the manner in which we line churches with lead. The windows of this palace are all trimmed with gold, and the paving in the halls and many rooms is covered with slabs of gold, which are two fingers thick . . . There are also many precious stones, and for this reason the island of Ciampagu is marvellously rich.

Later on in the work, Columbus also noted a section that mentions India as having many islands, as Polo claims: ‘The number of islands in India is so numerous that no living being could recount all their qualities. So the sailors and pilots of those regions affirm, and from what is known from the sea charts and from observing the compasses of the Indian sea, there are 1,378 islands at least in the sea, and all, they say, are inhabited.’

Though it is difficult to know if those truly are Columbus’s annotations, it is easy to see how he could be misled. Reading Polo, it was possible to believe that a route to the East was not so hard to find after all, and that when he got there he would find many islands and lots of gold. Yet everyone – including Columbus – knew of the dangers of such dreams. However rapid the changes and developments in navigation, the likelihood of sailing into oblivion was still high. Tales circulated about the daring souls who ventured beyond the known boundaries and did not live to come back, such as Flemish mariner Ferdinand von Olmen, who set out with a commission from the Portuguese crown to find new lands in 1487 and was never heard of again. Sailing, even in the new caravels, was a tough life. The distances were significant – it still took about five days to go from Lisbon to the Gibraltar Straits. And there were persistent fears of attack or capture by Islamic pirates in the Mediterranean. Proper provisioning was also a worry – even if sailors were in a caravel, they needed their daily ration of half a kilogram of sea-biscuit each. Likewise, there needed to be plenty of fresh water and, of course, wine.

Throughout this period, Columbus was becoming not only an experienced mariner, but a very ambitious one. By his calculations, he believed he could navigate a passage to the East – he just had to convince someone to pay for it. After failed attempts elsewhere, he arrived in Seville in 1485 with no money, but with plans to turn to the united crowns of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile and hope they would believe in his vision.

Such an enterprise, however, was far from the minds of the Catholic monarchs. They had married in 1469, and in 1474, after the death of Isabella’s half-brother King Henry IV, began to rule as one the two kingdoms that would give them control of most of the Iberian peninsula, which by this time was made up of the three Christian realms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal. ‘Spain’, such as it was, took its name from the Roman Hispania, and in the Middle Ages the word described the Iberian peninsula, not a country in any modern sense. The monarchs’ concerns were focused on Granada, which remained under Muslim control. The issue that had so bothered Prince Henry more than fifty years before still had not been resolved. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 had not been so long ago, and Christian ascendancy was far from assured in this long-running battle. There had been a distraction, however, as the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella had been followed from 1474–9 by a war of succession over control of the crown of Castile. Had Isabella’s half-sister Joanna la Beltraneja been victorious, Castile would have been united with Portugal, not Aragon. At this point, Castile comprised about 65 per cent of the peninsula’s area, and Aragon about 17 per cent, including Catalonia and Valencia and their crucial ports, as well as Sardinia and Sicily, of which the Aragonese had wrested control by 1409, and Naples.

By late 1481, the Catholic monarchs had started to attack parts of Granada, and by the 1490s they began what would be the final push. They were firm believers in the need to Christianize the world, though at this point the world to them meant the land bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The year 1492 was a landmark one for Ferdinand and Isabella. On 2 January, almost 800 years of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula was brought to an end. They made a triumphant entrance into Granada on 6 January. Not only was there a celebration of the immediate victory, but, like Henry’s victory in Ceuta seventy-seven years earlier, this defeat of Islam marked the arrival of a renewed confidence. The Reconquista, as it was known, was followed by a bloody attempt to rid the peninsula of non-Christians. Ferdinand and Isabella soon demanded that any remaining Muslims convert or leave, and the same applied to Jews, many of whom were forced into exile around Europe. This was not the first time this had happened to the Jews – the pogroms of 1391 had forced many of them to convert or leave, and it was in this period that the seeds of the obsession with limpieza de sangre – purity of blood – were planted.

Although the Portuguese shared the fierce Catholicism of Castile and Aragon, their king realized it was better to tolerate the unconverted – with their capital and mercantile links – than to drive them off the peninsula altogether. Jewish people therefore found a home in Portugal, albeit a short-term one (they were expelled once more in 1497). Many Muslims and Jews, however, opted for conversion, though others felt compelled to leave under the relentless persecution of the Inquisition. These Muslim moriscos and Jewish conversos would play an important part in events on the other side of the Atlantic, though in many cases the Inquisition would give them no respite there either.

Columbus, in his initial forays to find financing for his expedition before coming to Seville, had turned to Portuguese, English, and French investors, all of whom declined to take part in what they thought was a rather unlikely adventure. Many were not persuaded by his calculations. But Columbus did manage to convince two friars in Andalusía, Juan Pérez and Antonio de Marchena, who had the ear of Isabella and could give him credibility in court. With the Reconquista finished, and the expulsion or conversion of non-Christians in progress, the monarchs could once again turn their attention away from domestic affairs.

They were both enticed by the riches of the East, which could also help to recoup the cost of fighting in Granada. They, too, would have known the stories of Marco Polo and of the work of the Jesuit missionaries who had travelled the long route to the East, and later sent reports back to Europe. They would have been delighted at the prospect of their newly united and powerful kingdom of Castile and Aragon making its presence known among other non-believers. It was almost too tempting to resist: the gold and spices of the Orient, as well as new peoples ripe for conversion. Columbus, by this point, had been following the court around the peninsula, using every opportunity to drum up support for his venture. Many of the crown’s advisers, however, were reluctant to believe this unknown Genoese sailor. Although he had made some important connections in Portugal and married well, his relative obscurity did not inspire confidence. Columbus was not unique in wanting to find a sea route to Asia, though he was original in believing that it could be reached from the west, via the Ocean Sea. Some palace advisers checked his calculations and found them lacking. As it turned out, Columbus thought there were 2,400 nautical miles separating Castile from Cipango, when it was closer to 10,600. Still, the queen was intrigued. Perhaps it was the promise of wealth, or the crown’s own spirit of adventure, or simple post-Reconquista confidence. Perhaps, as some historians have argued, Columbus won over the queen for more sentimental reasons – Isabella’s great-grandfather was King John I of Portugal, her grandfather was Prince John, and her great-uncle was Prince Henry. Although Columbus was Genoese, his Portuguese connections did him no harm.

Negotiations began, and Columbus stood firm in many of his demands, not least in the matter of what he would receive for his efforts. He demanded the title of admiral in addition to that of viceroy over any lands he claimed on behalf of the crown, and one-tenth of the profits, including a share of the rights to those lands; perhaps it was greedy, or simply the worldview of a Genoese merchant who, tradition dictated, should receive a share of the spoils. He was also a weaver’s son with ambitions to outdo his father and bequeath his sons not only money but also a title. While the rewards were full of promise, the failure of such a mission would have a high price: humiliation, monetary loss, and perhaps even death. The Ocean Sea was still the great beyond. But the race to the East had been on for some time, inching ever closer to the coveted route: the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Días rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

By 17 April 1492 Columbus had received the backing and the terms he wanted for his voyage. The preparations started in earnest. There were two caravels and a larger ship called a não. The caravels were the Santa Clara, which became known as the Niña after the owner, Juan Niño, and the Pinta, owned by Cristóbal Quintero. Columbus also chartered the Santa María, owned by Juan de la Cosa, which was called La Gallega because it was built in Galicia. Columbus then engaged shipowner Martín Alonso Pinzón, and his brother, Vicente, to raise the crew and take command of the Pinta and Niña. It was a bold mission, and an uncertain one, but the Pinzón brothers still managed to find around ninety men, only three of whom were prisoners. The rest wanted to sail into these unknown waters and were willing to join in the adventure.

Four months later, on 3 August 1492, Columbus set off from Palos, near Huelva, on the Costa de la Luz. It was not quite a launch into the unknown: Columbus stopped at the Canary island of La Gomera along the way. The winds from there gave the ships a solid start. Setting off from La Gomera on 6 September 1492, they caught the north-east trade winds, which blew them west. But after that, the only certainty was Columbus’s obsession with finding the East.

It would be more than a month from La Gomera until the next landfall. They had calm seas and good weather, and were soon sailing through the grasses of the Sargasso Sea, which might have scared them into turning back had Columbus not already been warned about them – in a fortuitous turn – by an old mariner. Columbus and his men then spotted birds, a sign that land must be near. They still had enough water to last for some time, and there was plenty of sea-biscuit and salted meat. On 25 September the Pinta issued a signal that land had been spotted, but it turned out to be a mirage. Despite the smooth sailing and a good stock of provisions, there was a near-mutiny by 6 October as worried sailors on the Santa María wanted to turn back. However, these fears were assuaged, for the time being. Then, six days later, the Pinta signalled yet again that land had been found. As it was almost midnight, crew members did not row ashore until the following morning. When they did, they took a royal banner, with a green cross and the letters F and Y on it, planted it in the sand, and declared the land for the Catholic monarchs. Columbus called the island San Salvador. They had done it. They had made it to Cipango.

When Columbus later recounted the journey he wrote that ‘I found a great many islands inhabited by countless people.’ If this is what he indeed found, it should have raised some alarm in his mind. The overland route to the East was well travelled by Columbus’s time, and although there was every possibility that there indeed were islands in the Indian Ocean, as Polo claimed, the story Columbus began to tell does not add up to anything approximating Japan, India, or the East at all.

This landing must have been the most confusing moment of Columbus’s life. No one can know the expanse of his fecund imagination, fed by stories of Oriental splendour. Whatever he dreamt the East looked like, to be certain it did not match what he saw. There was no gold, there were no palaces. He spoke with some of the Amerindians on this island but soon decided to keep looking. So on he sailed, certain that there must be something, anything. Columbus had encountered the islands of the Caribbean, and it was not what he had bargained for. So he was going to make his dream come true in quite a literal way. Desire would triumph over reason.

After meeting a few people, and realizing there was little to trade, and little sign of gold, Columbus continued to push the ships to explore the area, landing in Cuba, which he gave the short-lived name of Johanna, later incorrectly remarking that ‘I can say that the island is bigger than England and Scotland taken together.’ Before long they founda much larger island, which they christened Hispaniola, although its aboriginal name is thought to have been Quisqueya (meaning ‘mother of all lands’) and also Ayti (meaning ‘mountainous lands’). Once they arrived in Hispaniola, Columbus later noted, he saw that ‘its inhabitants (and those of all the other islands that I saw or learned of) always go naked as the day they were born, except that some women cover their private parts with a leaf or a spray of foliage, or a piece of common cloth which they make for the purpose’. This might have been another clue that he had not landed in the Orient: given that silks came from there, that he had landed among people who wore no cloth at all might be considered a significant fact. But despite all evidence to the contrary, Columbus insisted he was in the East.

He faced a considerable problem when the Santa María ran aground and was no longer seaworthy. With the support of one of the local rulers, known as Guacanagarí, Columbus decided to leave thirty-nine of his men to erect a settlement he called – it was close to Christmas – La Navidad. He charged the men with setting up a gold mine and left Hispaniola.

He then decided to return to Europe on 16 January 1493 with the few nuggets of gold he had managed to find, tropical produce, colourful parrots, and some Lucayo people they had baptized and whom Columbus wanted to show to Ferdinand and Isabella as proof of his success. The native people, he wrote, were convinced ‘that I have come down from heaven’. Whether or not they were frightened by this, Columbus managed to persuade, no doubt with force, some of them into his ship. He said of these captives, ‘whenever we made landfall, some of them [called] to the rest, “Come, come and see the men from heaven”. Historian Matthew Restall has pointed out that the word for heaven in Spanish is the same as sky: cielo. There is, of course, no way of knowing what native word Columbus heard, or whether cielo is correct in the first place. But the ambiguity means that Columbus and his men could have been described as coming from the sky, or as gods from heaven, the latter having much more serious implications. The Europeans were quick to attempt to communicate, and try to find native peoples to act as interpreters. It is impossible to know what was understood or lost in translation, but Columbus claimed that ‘in a short time we got to understand them, and they us, by combination of sign-language and words’, though no one could really answer the question ‘Where is the gold?’ quite to the admiral’s satisfaction. They would need a return voyage to work that out, by which time the islanders would not be so quick to welcome these strange-looking men in their large boats.

The ease of the journey out was not matched on the return. Although the Caribbean current snakes up from the south through to the west, Columbus and his men only had a limited notion of the trade winds, and had yet to understand how to harness the west-to-east flow of the Gulf Stream. It was a slow trip. There were terrible storms and problems with the ships. They had to land in the Azores on 18 February to make repairs. They set off again, and were separated through bad weather. The Niña, with Columbus on board, finally limped into Palos after being forced to stop near Lisbon, while the Pinta had washed up to the north, in Bayona, Galicia, before returning to the southern port. Despite the difficult journey back, to say nothing of the fact that the East he had discovered bore no resemblance to any East ever written about, Columbus was triumphant. He showcased the products and people he found in this New World, and all of Europe was enthralled. He brought with him ‘Indians’, as well as gold, plants and animals. The public was mesmerized.

Word spread across Europe, to Rome, Paris, Antwerp, and Basel, aided by the rapid circulation of a copy of Columbus’s letter to the Spanish monarchs. This correspondence was said to have been translated from the original Castilian to Latin by Leandro de Cosco in 1493. It was so popular it went through nine printings in that year alone. Even a German version was published. There is no way of knowing or measuring exactly how far the story of the voyage spread, but the tales of Columbus’s crossing into the unknown and his discovery of another world must have captured the imagination of thousands. Soon, Columbus’s exploits were enshrined in verse, when a Florentine priest named Giuliano Dati turned the letter into a poem, Lettera delle isole nuovamente trovate. Columbus also kept his own journal of the trip, which was lost but is alleged to have resurfaced in the sixteenth century.

In many ways, Europe’s initial encounter with the Caribbean was more accident than destiny, and Columbus was a stubborn egotist rather than navigational genius. He never admitted he had found something other than the East. But his journey, its consequences for better or worse, emerged out of a Europe in flux, a Christianized world gaining ground against its more advanced rivals. Europe’s trade and commerce were growing, and its people were developing new ideas about the world, and the things (and people) that could be bought and sold within it. Meanwhile, sailors were going further and understanding winds and tides with more scientific precision. Within decades, Europe, Africa, the Americas, and the Far East would be connected by the sixteenth century’s superhighway: the sea. And for decades to come, satisfying the desire to see these new places would entail a long, arduous, and dangerous journey, but the number of people who took to the seas never diminished. The New World was the missing link. It is here that the development of the Caribbean and its slavery and sugar fields begins. However, there were a few more places between the Old World and the New that were crucial in linking their fortunes: the islands of the Atlantic.


Excerpted from Empire’s Crossroads by Carrie Gibson. Copyright © 2014 by Carrie Gibson.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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