- 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
Was it the result of an actual landfall? Returning to the Phoenicians, Professor Cortesão believes that their vessels might easily have been carried—either deliberately or by accident—by the northeast trades and currents from the Canaries to the Caribbean area, and then back to the Azores by the strong westerly winds farther north. Although this theory is opposed by Professor Morison, among others, Professor Cortesão draws on seafaring literature for reported cases of ships being driven across the Atlantic, and concludes the same could have happened to Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Portuguese vessels sailing between the Canaries and Madeira. Certainly, he observes, Portuguese mariners know of the Sargasso Sea far west of the Azores prior to Columbus’ day, and there is no reason to believe they had not been through and beyond it.
Professor Cortesão adds another argument. Quite often, he points out, early maps showed Atlantic islands which some believe were mythical but which actually were in positions corresponding to real islands discovered much later. Madeira, for example, was officially discovered by Portuguese mariners in 1418-19, and the Azores in 1427, but sea charts from as far back as 1370 showed faithful representations of those islands, leading to the conclusion that navigators had reached them at that time and conveyed their knowledge to some chart-maker friend.
The same holds true, he concludes, in the case of Antilia. Somebody found the island prior to 1424, and while others, deliberately or by accident of wind and current, may also have seen it, the “official” discovery didn’t come until Columbus’ court-sponsored undertaking of 1492. Dr. Cortesão believes the true discoverer or discoverers were Portuguese because the map, though made by a Venetian, is in the Portuguese language. Moreover, Professor Cortesão points out that the name Antilia is composed of two Portuguese words, ante or anti (before) and illa , an archaic form of ilha (island), which might possibly mean “the island before” or “the island facing” Europe, or the continent just to its west which was assumed to be Asia.
If all this is accepted, the final step is easy: Antilia, the only land west of the Azores, must have been the island forefront or the eastern mainland of America, and the navigators who found it were the true discoverers of the New World. Their importance, above that of the Norsemen, Professor Cortesão says, was that the cartographical representation of what the Portuguese found, such as that shown by the 1424 chart, accelerated the Age of Discovery and gave inspiration and inducement to more aggressive explorers and exploiters like Columbus.
Since the completion of Dr. Cortesão’s study, the map has been purchased from Messrs. Robinson by the University of Minnesota Library and has become one of the prized possessions of its famous James Ford Bell Collection. The collection became part of the library in 1953 with funds provided by Mr. Bell, former board chairman of General Mills, and includes rare books and charts relating to the history of exploration and discovery. Some of the earliest accounts of the opening of new trade and travel routes among European nations and between Europe and distant lands are in the group, including the only known copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller globe map using the word “America” for the first time.
As the first representation of the real or fancied island of Antilia, bearing the parent name of the Caribbean Antilles of today, the 1424 Chart is a “find” of great historical importance, and a worthy addition to the Bell Collection. It is questionable, however, whether Dr. Cortesão’s conclusions concerning the map’s evidence of a pre-Columbian discovery of America will be generally accepted. He recognizes that, without the documentary proof of a specific voyage, the subject will ever remain in the realm of speculation and contention—“I know it only too well, alas,” he says. But the proof may yet show up, for the chart itself is impressive evidence that the final word on history is never written.