How to discover a new continent

The period before 1500 saw a transformation in the the way that Europeans understood the shape of the world. They set foot for the first time on the Canary Islands, Azores and Americas, and wrote about what they saw. They viewed these new sights through European eyes. Having grown up in European society they were used to thinking in terms of European ways of life, and their own ways of understanding religion, economy, warfare, food, clothing, language, entertainment.  They were not used to thinking about things outside this framework. So they brought a lot of mental baggage to the new world. One of my favourite weeks at university was spent looking into this, and trying to find out what the European accounts of the discoveries can tell us.

There are, of course, accounts of confused Europeans, unable to come to terms with the societies that they encountered. They continued to think about the world in the same way that they always had, and simply fed these new experiences into their European mental processes. This led to some odd results. For example, Europeans tried to make their  discoveries fit into a Christian framework. The bible states (Matthew 28:19) that the disciples had visited all the continents, so there was a strong motivation for trying to find evidence of Christianity in the discovered territories. The explorer Vasco da Gama, in Mombassa, mistook a temple with a panoply of Gods for Christian saints, and believed a statue of Khrishna being suckled by his mother to depict Mary and Christ. Writing in 1498, Pané attempted to reconcile the religious beliefs of the Hispaniola islanders with awareness of a single (Christian) creator God, but soon gave up and turned to denouncing their idolatry and superstition.

But it’s unfair to focus on these stories. When the expectations of explorers and what they encountered did not match up, they tried to make sense of things and came out with new understandings. This is what discovery is about. European ideas about the world beyond Europe were a dialogue between received wisdom and experience, played out in the minds of the explorers.

Hereford Mappa Mundi, c. 1300, public domain image.

Maps were transformed by the discoveries. They were previously more to do with religious attitudes than geographic realities. They were devotional documents, produced to glorify God’s harmonious creation – the c.1300 Hereford Map (see above) once adorned an altar, for example. The T-O structure of medieval maps was based on Noah’s division of the world between his descendents and was a religious, rather than an empirical, perception of space. Medieval maps were littered with religious references with no geographical grounding: the Hereford Map included the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, the Gog and Magog tribes, and betrayed a classical influence by depicting twenty monstrous creatures.

World maps gradually shifted from being devotional documents to being more useful for navigation. An unpublished Genoese map from 1403 boasted that its details had been verified by sailors, and in 1448 the Genoese mapmaker Andrea Bianco devoted himself to recording the latest Portuguese discoveries in the Atlantic. But this was a story of interaction between old and new ideas, not a simple dismissal of existing ways of thinking in favour of a new empirical worldview. In the 1330s, Bishop Jordan travelled to China. He found no mythical animals, but instead of dismissing their existence entirely, he simply relocated them to another unknown area: Africa. The 1375 Catalan Atlas incorporated newly-discovered islands in the East, yet also included giants and the tribes of Gog and Magog. Andrea Bianco’s 1448 map detailed new discoveries but also included mythical islands: they were simply relocated away from the discovered islands.

Columbus was convinced that he was finding a route to China, and tried to make everything he saw fit with this preconception. In one particularly odd episode in 1494 he made his sailors swear that Cuba was part of the Chinese mainland. The blending of observation and expectation is apparent in his suspicion, during his third voyage, that he had neared the earthly paradise. Discovery is not just about finding something new; it is about realising that it is something new, and engaging with the novelty and strangeness of it. As David Abulafia (who has written an excellent book on this topic) put it, discovery is a mental process, not the date of first landfall. Amerigo Vespucci was better at coming to terms with the novelty of what he saw than Columbus, and for this reason it makes sense that the continent bears his name.

From Vespucci’s 1505 Mundus Novus

But we can’t criticise Columbus for being slow to lower his tinted spectacles and see the world as it actually was. It’s more complicated than that. We haven’t finished the journey of discovery ourselves. Even today, for example, our maps are not perfectly rational. In fact, that’s an impossibility. Any map is a mental picture, a simplifying, distorting attempt to transcribe geographic reality. No map is a value-neutral reflection of what is on the ground. World maps vary greatly depending on which projection is chosen. Europeans grow up with projections that display Europe as large and central. The location of date lines and lines of latitude and longitude are all products of political circumstance, rather than of some deeper geographical reality. We can chuckle at Columbus’s fixation on China, but we must admit that Europeans grow up with a distorted sense of that region’s size and importance.

More fundamentally, we’re all in the same position as Columbus. We approach new situations with our own preconceptions, and expect things to fit into our mental framework. When what we experience doesn’t fit with how we think the world works, we can get confused and defensive. (This is an important point to remember when engaging in political debate. A 2005-6 Michigan University study found that challenging political partisans with evidence that contradicted their beliefs could in fact lead to them holding their original view more strongly.) So whether you’re discovering the Americas or trying to make sense of something you don’t know much about, take it slow, and be humble. Don’t assume that everything new or confusing is necessarily bad, or that your understanding is so powerful that you can instantly make sense of everything the world can throw at you. Be patient with your own difficulties in thinking beyond what you’ve ever thought before, and maybe you’ll find that this world is a more amazing place than you’d ever imagined.

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