- Historic Sites
Was America Discovered Before Columbus?
This nautical chart, lost for five centuries, gives evidence that Portuguese captains had found the New World by 1424
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
He then turns to the island of Antilia, and with painful thoroughness proves conclusively that the 1424 chart is the first document known in which the name or representation of Antilia appears. In itself, this gives the map immense historical value.
Whether Antilia was a real or mythical island has been argued by historians for generations. There is a whole literature on the subject, for, if real, it could only be the New World. There is nothing else west of the A/ores. Professor Cortesão believes Antilia did represent a real island, and his study, in essence, is an attempt to prove that it got onto the 1424 chart, and all others following it, as a real island because it had been seen by some unknown Portuguese navigators.
In the first chapter of his famous Historia de lax Indias , begun about 1527, Bartolomé de Las Casas, doughty “Apostle of the Indians,” wrote: “In the seacharts made in times gone by, were depicted several islands in those seas and parts, especially the island called Antillia, and they placed it a little over two hundred leagues west of the Canary Islands and the Azores.” Antilia, indeed, had been appearing on maps since the middle of the Fifteenth Century, usually as a large rectangle in a group of four islands far out in the western reaches of the Atlantic. The other three islands (Satanazes, Saya, Ymana) changed their names from map to map and are believed to be a representation of Greenland, or of mythical islands reported in the legends of the Irish and Norsemen.
Antilia provides the historian with more substance. Usually it was shown with the names of seven cities, and was considered either an island or large land mass to which seven Portuguese bishops and their flocks fled by boat in 734 A.D. when the Moors overran the Iberian Peninsula. The legend of the bishops and the seven cities they founded gained strength during the late Middle Ages and persisted in the fancies of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores long alter Columbus, finally dying hard in the modest Indian pueblos of New Mexico which Coronado had fervently expected would turn out to be the fabled cities of the bishops, now plated in gold and hung with jewels.
Many navigators of the Fifteenth Century knew about Antilia and, fanciful or real, attempted to find it. There is documentary evidence of a letter patent of Alfonso V of Portugal, dated November 10, 1475, granting to Fernão Teles “the Seven Cities or some other islands” that he might find in the western Atlantic. A similar grant was issued by João II in 1486 to Ferdnand van Olm, a Fleming who had settled in the Azores and was known as Fernão Dulmo. Columbus firmly believed that Antilia was a real island, with shores of gold-flecked sand, on the route to the Indies. He based much of his thinking on a letter said to have been written in 1474 by a Florentine physician, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, who wrote that a route to China passed by the island of Antilia “which is known to you.” And, among others, Martin Behaim who drew a famous globe in 1492 prior to the news of Columbus’ discovery noted that Antilia had been seen by mariners as early as 1414, information he supposedly acquired in the Azores where he lived during the 1480’s.
There still remains no documentary proof of a real landfall, and Professor Cortesão must build his case on circumstantial evidence. He commences with a detailed study of what knowledge we have of early Phoenician navigations as far back as 1500 B.C. The ancients credited the Phoenicians with long open-sea voyages that took them certainly to the Canary Islands and possibly to lands beyond. Their discoveries, though carefully guarded for commercial reasons, crept into the historiccal works of the Greeks and Romans, and such writers as Plato, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Herodotus and Pliny willed to the Middle Ages a vast heritage of Atlantic islands and lands across the ocean that supposedly had been found by Phoenician sailors.
The art of navigation died during the Dark Ages. but the tradition of faraway isles, once known to the ancients, persisted. New ones, spun from the myths and fables of Irish seafarers, the Norsemen and Arab cosmographers, found their places on maps until the outer borders of medieval charts were as crowded with islands as the Florida Keys. Reality began to creep in again with the rise of the Italian, Majorcan and Portuguese navigators late in the Thirteenth Century. As the art of nautical science revived, and mariners with the encouragement of Prince Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese kings pushed out into the unknown, legendary islands began to disappear from the maps, and real ones appeared. At this juncture, in 1424, Antilia, as the newly discovered Phillips map reveals, suddenly showed up on a sea chart for the first time.