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.

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