The Age of Exploration, part two

Christopher Columbus knew that the world is round. So did all the other educated Europeans of his time. More than a thousand years earlier, Greek mathematicians in the Roman Empire had demonstrated the shape of the world and had also measured its size quite accurately by comparing the length of shadows in different cities at high noon. Sailors five hundred years ago knew that the world is round. They did not fear falling off the edge of the world; they feared a journey that would take them so far from land that they would run out of drinkable water and edible food. A ship had only so much room for basic supplies; they had to stop and renew food and water regularly to keep the sailors alive. Traveling from Europe to Asia across the ocean, given the knowledge and abilities they had then, meant death from dehydration and starvation.

But Columbus thought the trip was manageable. He thought that Asia was bigger than it is. He also thought that the world is not round like a sphere (as it is), he suggested that it is round like an egg, bigger from top to bottom than from side to side. For one thing, Columbus argued, God the Creator would not have wasted so much of the earth’s surface on empty ocean.

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain funded Columbus’ search for a shortcut to Asia. Columbus, of course, happened upon islands in the Caribbean Sea. Based on his calculations, he figured that he had missed Japan and China and reached the islands between China and India, those that today make up the country called Indonesia. Therefore, he called the Taino residents of the Caribbean islands “Indians,” and the name stuck. Other mapmakers distinguished the Asian islands from the Caribbean islands by calling them, respectively, the East Indes and West Indes.

Columbus never admitted, in writing, that he had made a mistake and discovered lands previously unknown to Europeans. He made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, insisting that he was visiting
Asia each time. Other Europeans quickly realized what Columbus had found. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ initial voyage, the governments of Spain and Portugal signed a treaty drawing a line between the land Spain could explore and colonize and the land Portugal could explore and colonize. The line was later extended across the Pacific to circle the Earth. In theory, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Spain the right to claim the New World, or western hemisphere, while Portugal had similar rights in Asia and the south Pacific. But, because the terms of the treaty were not carefully researched, Portugal ended up getting a part of South America, and Spain ended up getting Pacific islands near Europe. This is why Brazilians speak Portuguese and Filipinos speak Spanish.

Only Spain and Portugal signed the treaty. They both financed further voyages of discovery, but England and France and the Netherlands also sent out explorers, claiming parts of North America and the Caribbean, as well as lands in Asia and the Pacific. Sometimes, the “colonies” were mere trading posts, places where merchants interacted with the local inhabitants. Sometimes they were full-out invasions, taking over land from earlier inhabitants. Attitudes toward the original dwellers of the New World varied wildly—some treating them as animals to be exploited, while others considered them equal beings with full human rights. The former attitude is mentioned more often today and is rightly condemned. But many of the explorers, colonists, and missionaries who traveled to these distant lands valued the inhabitants of those lands as fellow human beings who deserved respect, consideration, and any benefits that European civilization could offer.

European exploration increased the development of what recently has been labeled “Globalization.” Already, the Silk Roads linked multiple nations and cultures in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Similar trade patterns linked many cultures in the western hemisphere. Even in the Pacific, occasional voyages connected people of southern Asia, the Indonesian islands, Australia, and New Zealand with further distant cultures from Hawaii to Easter Island—possibly even to the western shores of South America. New connections made the exchange of salable products—and of people, ideas, and diseases—more prevalent, as the many nations of the world grew closer and more dependent upon one another. J.

Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.