Sunday, December 06, 2020

Did The Portuguese Discover the Americas Before Columbus?


One of my favorite historical topics is the European voyages of discovery.  Not only were they pivotal in laying the foundations for the modern world, the writings of those who participated in these voyages provide us with eyewitness accounts, marred though many of them are by the writers biases and misunderstandings, of different peoples and cultures around the world as they were centuries ago.

Recently, a book caught my eye that I decided to read, Before 1492: The Portuguese Discovery of America, by a John Irany.  Apart from the Vikings reaching Newfoundland around the year 1000, I have often wondered if it was possible other European voyages reached the Americas before Columbus that remain unknown to us for a variety of reasons.

Irany argues that the Portuguese had explored the Americas before Columbus, and that the evidence for it is a map of the world from 1507 (see above) by a Martin Waldseemuller which features the continents of North and South America with Pacific Ocean coastlines, including the narrow isthmus connecting Central America with the South American continent.  The mystery of the map is how it could have represented the Pacific Coast with such uncanny accuracy when the first known European explorer to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean was Vasco de Balboa in what is today Panama in 1513.  Irany is of the opinion that the Waldseemuller map incorporates information the mapmaker received from Portuguese voyages that had over time explored the coastline of South America all the way around the southern tip and up the Pacific coast, because Portugal was the only kingdom at the time that could conceivably have the ability to conduct such voyages.

While the way the Americas are depicted in the Waldseemuller map is definitely interesting, I don't think Irany quite makes his case.  I do believe that it is possible that Portuguese navigators may have accidentally stumbled upon either the Brazilian coastline and/or one or more islands in the Lesser Antilles in the years before Columbus first voyage across the Atlantic.  For the better part of the 15th century, the Portuguese had been gradually working their way down the coast of Africa with the intent to eventually sail around it and across the Indian Ocean to India and the Spice Islands.  After rounding the West African bulge and reaching the Gulf of Guinea, they encountered the Benguela Current, which flowed counterclockwise and made it virtually impossible to proceed further down the coast.  To overcome it, the Portuguese developed an ingenious technique called a "volta do mar" which involved sailing westward with the current into the Atlantic and then following it as the current turned south and then east.  One can picture it as a series of loops.  It was in this way that Bartolomeu Dias was able to round the Cape of Good Hope and find the Indian Ocean.  While Christopher Columbus wins the lion's share of the fame for discovering the Americas, if one looks at it objectively, the voyage of Dias was far more impressive in terms of the sheer distance he sailed.

If you look at a map, you can see that the present day African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia are not that far across the Atlantic from the easternmost Brazilian state of Paraiba.  It is not inconceivable that one or more Portuguese navigators conducting a "volta do mar" sailed far enough to the west to make landfall on or at least see the Brazilian coast, which the Portuguese monarchy wanted to keep secret upon learning about it when the sailors returned home.  Irany also cites in his book a handful of instances from Columbus's later voyages where they encountered tantalizing traces of possibly earlier European contact with the natives, such as a native who had a crossbow.

I have some questions though which I would love to ask Irany if I had the opportunity, and which I will set forth here.

If the Portuguese were really engaged in the long term exploration of the Americas that provided the information for the Waldseemuller map, then why were there no permanent Portuguese settlements in the Americas that were extant at the time Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493?  While it is understandable that the Portuguese may have wanted to keep any information about the discovery of the Americas a trade secret in the late 15th century while they focused on their primary objective of sailing into the Indian Ocean to have access to the riches and goods of Asia, there was nothing to stop them from establishing settlements that would have served as way stations.  It certainly would have strengthened their position in the negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Tordesillas if they could say "Hey, we already know about this place and we have had our people living there for years!"

Even in the absence of permanent or even temporary settlements, one should reasonably expect that any Portuguese voyages to the Americas that predated Columbus would have left padraos, which are stone pillars Portuguese explorers would erect at places they made landfall along the Atlantic coast of Africa in the late 15th century.  If the Portuguese were also frequenting the coast of South America, then why were padraos not placed at various harbors or landing points there as well?   Had the South American coastline been dotted with padraos dating to the late 15th century, it would be strong evidence to support Irany's claim.  That they do not exist, in my opinion, seriously undermines his case.

Lastly, even if some Portuguese navigators had at a bare minimum sighted some part of the Americas in the years before Columbus, it had no impact on the course of history.  It wasn't just that Columbus discovered the Americas, but that its discovery was made known to the rest of Europe, and resulted in what historians have come to call the Columbian Exchange.  

I imagine that Irany would reply that one still has to explain the Waldseemuller Map.  I have to admit that I can't explain it.  One could, as have some have done, chalk it up to a lucky guess.  We don't know why Waldseemuller represented the Americas in the way that he did to anticipate a western coastline.  However, I am not prepared to make the leap to the belief that the information provided to him was compiled by decades of Portuguese naval expeditions sailing in secret all the way around Cape Horn and then up the Pacific Coast of the Americas all the way up to the Pacific Northwest.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

The Curious Contradictions of Trump Supporters on Coronavirus


The guy who inspired my previous post about his desire to execute all Democrats for treason appeared in the comments section of the Facebook post above, which shares a sentiment I have heard expressed often, which is that the Coronavirus epidemic we have been experiencing is due to deliberate biological warfare waged by the People's Republic of China.

Let's pretend for the sake argument that it is true, China did this to us on purpose.  Then, if you are a die-hard America First Trump supporter, wouldn't it make absolute sense to do everything possible to limit the spread of virus so that it infects fewer Americans?   Like wear masks?  Engage in social distancing?  

For example, for reasons not entirely clear to me, motorcyclists are often represented as stalwart patriots who love America more than the average America citizen.  I don't know why, maybe because they like to sport American flag patches or fly flags on their motorcycles?  Wouldn't it be expected then that they would want to be in the vanguard of combating the "Chinese Virus"?  One way they could do that would be to agree to cancel the annual motorcycle rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota, where tens of thousands of them converge every year from all across the country, so as to prevent the state from turning into a coronavirus hot spot and then carry the virus back with them to their hometowns.  Nah, who am I kidding?  Many thousands of them decided it was more important to celebrate their freedumb, excuse me, freedom, by attending the gathering this past August.  A look at the graph chart below illustrates better than words could what happened next.

If memory serves, the rally ran from August 9 to August 21, and as you can see, not long after that, South Dakota's daily new COVID cases exploded.  And it was all preventable if the so-called patriots of America had exercised some self-restraint to fight the Chinese Virus.

Another contradiction I see from Trump supporters on Facebook is that on the one hand, they argue that concerns about Coronavirus are overblown because only 1% of people who catch it die from it, or they latch onto the misinterpretation of the findings that 94% of COVID deaths were from people who were already in ill health from other diseases, etc., but on the other hand they claim that Trump's China travel ban saved the lives of millions of American citizens.  But wait a second, if the mortality rate is so low, then even in the absence of a travel ban, hardly any more people should have died from it then did so with the travel ban.

Apparently Trump being consistently wrong about Coronavirus hasn't shaken their faith in him either.  Here is a comment dating sometime late March or early April from a Trump supporter who frequently comments on one of my anti-Trump friends Facebook posts.  This guy clearly only believed it at the time because it echoed what Trump was saying at the time, and because this guy would often claim "I trust Trump."

And here are Trump's classic "it may not come back at all in the fall" comments from the April 22 White House Coronavirus briefing.

In the same briefing, Doctor Fauci insisted that it would come back in the fall.  As I like to say, one of them ended up being right and the other one ended up catching Coronavirus in the fall and having to go to the hospital for treatment.  Of course, Trump supporters still stand by their president and deride Fauci as an idiot.  Go figure.

Friday, December 04, 2020

There's No Reasoning With These People

I took the screenshot of an exchange of comments I had in someone's Facebook post (and which will be the subject of a separate post on this blog).  As you can see, the commenter declared that "every Democrat should be executed."

I was curious to see if he meant Democratic politicians or anyone who is a registered Democrat, and in reply to my query, he made it clear that he meant all of them.  So, this psycho believes that tens of millions of Americans should be murdered for their political affiliation.  And I am sure he is not the only one who feels that way.

Personally, I have been registered as a non-affiliated voter for the better part of the last two decades, though before that I was a registered Republican who tended to vote for Libertarian candidates when they were on the ballot.  However, after George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, I have voted for Democratic candidates in every presidential race from 2004 to the present.

While the political divide has always existed in America, what the Trump presidency, and in particular, this last presidential election, has exposed is that there is a fair number of people in this country who view many of their fellow Americans as an enemy to be eradicated.  

One of my operating theories about ardent Trump supporters is that he is their vicarious instrument for hurting the people they hate.  For example, when California suffers from devastating wildfires, Trump threatens to withhold federal aid because of some apparent failure to rake the forests, and Trump supporters are okay with that, because after all, California is home to left wing Hollywood supporters that they hate.  Egging on self-stylized civilian militias in Michigan to liberate their state, which emboldened some of them to plot to kidnap the state's governor, is not a deal breaker for them.

And then there is the prevalent view among them that the election was stolen from Trump and that Biden is an illegitimate president, even though Biden ended up amassing more than seven million votes than Trump.

I have long considered myself to be an optimist, but I am starting to fear for my country.