Was America Discovered Before Columbus?


The last issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE reported the publication in Europe of an ancient map giving evidence that the Western Hemisphere was discovered by Portuguese explorers before Columbus. This map, whose history and meaning are discussed in the following article, is here reproduced in color for the first time in the United States.


Every American schoolboy knows that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. But did he? Save for the Norsemen who in 1,000 A.D. came and left, leaving neither imprint nor impress to alter world history, did anyone reach America before Columbus, and, if so, when, and what is the proof?

Almost twenty years ago, Professor Samuel Eliot Morison pointed out to his fellow North Americans that Portuguese and Brazilian historians had been asserting for half a century that what American schoolboys believe is not so. Leading schools and universities in those countries taught, and still teach, that Columbus was a come-lately who capitalized on the unpublicized achievement of an earlier discoverer, and educated Portuguese and Brazilians accept it as fact.


Not without a little national pride, the pre-Columbians believe that the true discoverer of the New World was a Portuguese navigator. Who he was or when he made the first dramatic landfall they cannot say. From time to time, they thought they had their man (Pedro de Velasco in 1452, João Vaz Corte-Real in 1472), but each time they abandoned the claim under sharp questioning by Columbus’ defenders. Through the years, however, by persistent reasoning, deductions and diligent research, their basic theory has managed to make subtle progress toward acceptance—enough so that, today, most historians, including some of the stoutest champions of Columbus, have come to admit that Portuguese navigators before 1492 did suspect or even know of lands lying west of the Azores, and that Portuguese navigators were sailing out through the misty reaches of the great Ocean Sea looking for those lands, and might—just might—have found something. There agreement ends, and the burden has been left with the Portuguese to unfold more about their mysterious navigators and what they did.


Recently, there came to light in England an aged nautical chart of 1424, showing what an outstanding Portuguese cartographical expert, Armando Cortesão, asserts is a representation of the New World made almost seventy years before Columbus’ first voyage, and possibly proving therefore that someone, perhaps unknown Portuguese navigators, had reached America by that time.

The history of this document is almost as intriguing as what appears on it. It came from the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps who, during the first three-quarters of the Nineteenth Century, amassed the biggest library of old vellum manuscripts the world has ever known. When Sir Thomas died in 1872, his great, bulging collection of some 60,000 parchment manuscripts and maps, many of them still uncatalogued, represented a fabulous storehouse of unsuspected historical treasures. Odd lots were sold oil at different periods, and in 1946 the still-considerable remainder was bought by William H. Robinson, Ltd., a distinguished London firm dealing in rare books and manuscripts, in reputedly the largest single purchase ever made by a dealer.

It was impossible for the purchaser to know what was in the prize without dipping into it, piece by piece. Alter eight years, it is still not all unpacked, and it will be years more before it ceases to disclose valuable surprises. The well-preserved sea (hart of 1424 was one of the first items revealed. It was numbered 25,924 in the Phillipps Collection, but cataloguing of the library had stopped on Sir Thomas’ death with Number 23,-837, and there was no clue concerning the background of the map, where Sir Thomas found it or anything else about it.

The document was tested at once for authenticity and found to be entirely genuine; there was no doubt that the date and writing were of the early Fifteenth Century. Upon the recommendation of scholars at the British Museum, Professor Cortesão, a Portuguese representative at UNESCO and one of the world’s acknowledged authorities on Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century maps and charts, was then invited to make a study of it. He was delighted with the opportunity, especially after noting quickly no less than 23 Atlantic islands on the map, including a conspicuous red rectangle with the legend, “ista ixola dixeno antilia,” a combination of old Portuguese and Venetian, meaning “This island is called Antilia,” an isle or representation of mainland which has played a key role in the Portuguese theory of pre-Columbian discovery.

Professor Cortesão’s study took five years to complete, the results being recently published in English by the University of Coimbra in Portugal. A foreword, to the 123-page book by Professor Maximino Correia, Rector Magnificus of the University, refers to the work, not unexpectedly, as part of “this really national task” of securing proper recognition for the early Portuguese navigators.

Professor Cortesão’s theme is built slowly and carefully. He is unable definitely to identify the cartographer of the map. The original name was erased, another one written in, that one also erased, and a third one, “Zuane Pizzi,” finally inserted. By a series of tests, he concludes tentatively that the author was named Zuane Pizzigano, a previously unknown member of a family of Venetian cartographers who were well-known a century earlier.