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“New Skies And New Stars”

June 2024
4min read

No American ever stands very far from the sea. Back of every one of us there is a long ocean voyage. Except for full-blooded Indians, all of us came here by ship. No matter how far inland we may go or how long we may live there, we carry with us a racial memory of the wonder and peril of the empty sea—the feeling that all certitude has been left behind, and that what lies ahead is incredible wonder and the bright chance of a new world. Probably no single thing in the American consciousness lies deeper than this.

So there is in our heritage—as there is in the heritage of no other people on earth except the Australians, who are quite a bit like us in many ways—a sharp dividing line, a point at which the men and women whose blood we carry cut themselves off from all of the old ways and went west to take a long chance.

On some of the oldest charts of the medieval geographers there are shadowy fabled islands in the western Atlantic, on which are sketched statues with minatory arms raised to bar the way, with the inscription: “Beyond these statues is the vile sea which sailors cannot navigate.”

Well, the vile sea was finally navigated, and that old sense of great mystery and profound danger is gone forever; except that we do have memories that go deeper than we suppose, so that the thought of men sailing west on an unknown sea can still quicken the pulse and set dreams moving. Our own people may have come over in the Mayflower or in a Black Ball packet, in the steerage of a North German Lloyd liner or in the fetid hold of a Yankee slaver. No matter: ahead, for each one, lay something unpredictable, a life that would be lived on a new basis and in a new way, an inner sense of going beyond the unconquerable sea to a world where, in one way or another, a fresh start could be made.

So the story of Christopher Columbus is one of the great legends we live by, a story that is always new and fresh even though we grew up with it in grade school. And the dim hints that drop down from the past, of sailors who made the trip long before Columbus, carry with them a sense of magic, and go to something that lies at the very foundation of our lives as Americans.

It is rather more than a hint that is contained in an important new book, The Nautical Chart of 1424 , by Armando Cortesão, published by the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. For Professor Cortesão asserts flatly that Portuguese sailors reached at least the island fringe of the New World, and possibly the mainland itself, a couple of generations before Columbus, and that there is an authentic cartographic record of their voyagings.

Professor Cortesão devotes his book to an old Venetian chart which came to light recently in the vast collection amassed by Sir Thomas Phillipps, wealthy English scholar and book collector, who died in 1872 and whose enormous library is still yielding rich finds to modern researchers. This chart appears to have been drawn in 1424 by an Italian cartographer, one Zuane Pizigano, and far west in the Atlantic, beyond the Azores and the Canaries and Madeira, it shows a large island and three satellites to which are given the name “Antilia.”

“Antilia,” of course, is the parent name for the Antilles, the great islands of the West Indies. It appears in this chart, apparently, for the first time; and Professor Cortesão is convinced that it represents neither myth nor legend but an authentic discovery—of Haiti, or Cuba, or Jamaica, or perhaps even of the Florida coast. Here, he says, for the first time, is a cartographical representation of the forefront of eastern America, put on parchment nearly seventy years before Columbus made his first voyage.

Medieval legend tells of seven Portuguese bishops who, fleeing from the Moors, took ship and sailed west, to settle their peoples on seven mysterious islands off beyond the sunset. The legend persisted; in 1475 King Alfonso V of Portugal issued letters patent to one venturer, granting these islands to him if he could just rediscover them; Columbus knew of the legend, and indeed throughout the Fifteenth Century Portuguese navigators and geographers knew dimly of the existence of huge land masses far to the west.

And why should they not know? asks Professor Cortesão. Early in the Fifteenth Century, the Portuguese seafarers knew about the Sargasso Sea, whose existence they would not even have suspected if they had not sailed west far beyond the Azores. Prevailing winds and ocean currents, almost certainly, would have carried some venturers even farther, into the Caribbean or up to the American seaboard itself.

Furthermore there is good reason to think that the same thing may have happened two thousand years earlier. The ancient world was full of legends of fortunate isles off beyond the sunset—legends written down by writers ranging all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca and Pliny. These legends, Professor Cortesão believes, stem from actual voyages made by the Phoenicians—who, he remarks, were not merely bold and able sailors but also possessed a genuine science of navigation. The poetry which came down from Greece and Rome describing marvelous lands in the western Atlantic, he thinks, “did not merely see beyond present reality; it was influenced by lingering though vague geographical knowledge.”

He goes on to add:

“History cannot be written in the presence of documents alone. The role of the historian is less to discover and catalog documents than to interpret and explain them; he must try to fill in the gaps left by missing links in the chain of documentary evidence. In order to do this the historian has to seek the help of the study of the natural sciences and the historical sciences as well as that of the study of the history of science itself… We know that there have been many historical events about which no documents are known to exist. Nevertheless, the historian cannot ignore such events; he has to study and interpret them, and this can only be done on the basis of other historical evidence and scientific analysis.”

Such “other historical evidence,” Professor Cortesão believes, exists to buttress his claim that mariners sailed to the New World long before Columbus. It goes far to justify the boast of the Fifteenth Century Portuguese cosmographer, who cried—in words that have an Elizabethan lilt to them, a century and a half before the age of Elizabeth:

“The Portuguese dared to attack the great Ocean sea. They entered it without fear. They discovered new islands, new lands, new seas, new peoples; and furthermore, new skies and new stars. And they so completely lost their fear of it, that neither the great heat of the torrid zone, nor even the terrific cold of the extreme southern parts, with which the writers of yore used to frighten us, could deter them.”

The Nautical Chart of 1424 and the early Discovery and Cartographical Representation of America, by Armando Cortesão. With color plates and maps. 123 pp. The University of Coimbra, Portugal.

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