Post-classical history



IN 1475 THE forty-three-year-old King Afonso of Portugal married his thirteen-year-old niece, Joan of Castile. It was not a match kindled by true love.

Joan’s mother—Afonso’s sister—was married to King Henry IV of Castile. Henry was also known as the Impotent, and Joan’s real father was widely believed to be a nobleman named Beltrán de la Cueva, a scandal that saddled her for the rest of her life with the nickname La Beltraneja. A large part of the Castilian nobility revolted at the notion of the Beltraneja becoming their queen and threw their support behind Henry’s stepsister Isabella. Isabella had eloped at age seventeen with her cousin Ferdinand, heir to the crown of Aragon, but at least her blood was pure blue. When Henry died in 1474, rival factions proclaimed both Joan and Isabella queen. Joan’s backers hastily arranged her marriage with her uncle, and Afonso proclaimed himself the lawful king of Castile.

War broke out between the neighboring nations and quickly spread to the Atlantic. The Castilians sent their fleets to pillage the African coast, an activity they had anyway been surreptitiously engaged in for some years. Portugal’s warships made short shrift of them, but Afonso’s military maneuvers on land petered out amid an unusually cold Spanish winter, while Joan’s coalition fell apart when the pope, who had initially supported her claim, switched sides and annulled her marriage. Joan took herself to a nunnery; Afonso fell into a deep depression, wrote to his son John abdicating the throne to him, and began to plan a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. John had been king for less than a week when his father, who had changed his mind, returned home, and his official ascension to the throne was postponed until Afonso died in 1481.

If Afonso had embodied one side of his uncle Henry’s character—his Crusading zeal and his love of chivalric tradition—King John II was the apotheosis of Henry’s other side. He was the very picture of a modern Machiavellian ruler: driven by grand ambitions beyond ordinary men’s ken, and not overly fussy about how to fulfill them. As intelligent as he was ruthless, he would become known as the Perfect Prince, though his victims termed him the Tyrant. Many of those victims were prominent aristocrats who had accrued broad powers at the crown’s expense. When the twenty-six-year-old king found his coffers virtually empty, he lost no time in hacking away at their privileges. The outraged nobles plotted to overthrow him, and one by one their heads rolled.

The year before hostilities had erupted with Castile, the crown had taken back control of the discoveries after its brief flirtation with free enterprise. The African trade now promised real profits, and the new king acted quickly to shore up his watery empire. Lisbon rang with the hammer blows of African slaves working forges to make anchors, arms, and ammunition. John ordered his engineers to improve the aim and firepower of the rudimentary cannon that were carried aboard ships, and larger, newfangled models were imported at great expense from Flanders and Germany. The king also set about solving a problem that had bedeviled the fleets since they had neared the equator: the disappearance of the Pole Star, the reference point by which Portugal’s navigators had learned to determine their latitude when out at sea. John immersed himself in the science of cosmography and gathered together a committee of experts. At its head were Joseph Vizinho and Abraham Zacuto, two Jewish mathematician-astronomers who set about redesigning the ships’ simple navigational instruments and preparing tables that allowed sailors to read their latitude from the sun.

Regular fleets set out from Lisbon for Africa, carrying the materials and laborers to build forts along the coast—the first links in the backbone of an empire. Other ships pressed on south. In 1482 a sailor named Diogo Cão reached the delta of the Congo River and set up the first of the padrões—stone pillars topped with a cross bearing the arms of Portugal, the date, and the names of the king and the captain—that from now on would mark the boundaries of the Portuguese discoveries. “In the year 6681 from the Creation of the world and 1482 from the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” read the inscription on the second pillar he erected, “the most high, most excellent and powerful prince King John, second of Portugal, ordered this land to be discovered and these pillars to be put up by Diogo Cão, squire of his household.” Cão was ennobled on his return and he set out again. In 1486 he reached rocky Cape Cross in Namibia, desolate except for its vast breeding colony of Cape Fur seals, and perhaps Whale Bay, a deep harbor protected by a sand spit that would prove an important staging post on the journey farther south. Whale Bay was just five hundred miles from the southern tip of Africa, but Cão’s was not to be the name that history would remember: he died on his way home while trying to explore the Congo.

John II was as keen as his forebears to graft Christianity onto Guinea, not least because baptism made for more reliable allies. Gradually a trickle of Africans volunteered for conversion—or were brought back as hostages, instructed in the faith, and sent home as ambassadors—and they were treated as celebrities for both domestic and international consumption. One deposed Senegalese prince named Bemoi made a great stir by arriving in Lisbon to redeem the king’s promise that he would help restore him to his rightful position if he converted. Bemoi was forty years old, tall, strong, and handsome, with a patriarchal beard and a majestic manner of speaking, and the king and court received him with full honors. He and twenty-four of his companions were baptized amid prolonged festivities that included, on the Portuguese side, tournaments, bullfights, farces, and evening fetes, and on the visitors’ side, spectacular horse-riding stunts. Twenty warships and a large contingent of soldiers, builders, and priests escorted them home, but to John’s fury the commander of the fleet became paranoid that the African was planning treason and stabbed him to death en route.

Even without such rash acts, the pace of proselytization was painfully slow. Then, as Portuguese agents pressed farther into the interior of Guinea, an electrifying piece of intelligence suddenly emerged from deepest Africa.

News had arrived of Prester John.

In 1486 an envoy returned to Lisbon accompanied by an ambassador from the king of Benin. Twenty moons’ march from the coast, he declared, there lived a monarch named Ogané who was revered by his subjects much as the pope was by Catholics. Many African kings visited him to be crowned with a brass helmet, a staff, and a cross, but all anyone had seen of him was his foot, which he graciously proffered to be kissed from behind a silk curtain.

The royal experts pored over their maps and decided it took exactly twenty moons to march from Benin to Ethiopia. The legend beckoned, and the discoveries leaped forward.

John decided on a two-pronged approach to locate Prester John and join forces with him to reach India. He would push ahead with the sea voyages, and at the same time he would step up his search for reliable information by land.

The only way to sort fact from hearsay was to send his own secret agents into the heart of the East.

KING JOHN’S FIRST attempt to send spies in search of Prester John was not encouraging. The two men got as far as Jerusalem, where they were warned they would not last long without speaking Arabic, and turned back for home.

The king sought advice and summoned a more promising pair. Pêro da Covilhã, who was about forty and was the senior of the two, had grown up among the granite crags and ravines of the Serra da Estrela in central Portugal. As a streetwise kid he had bluffed hisway into the service of a Castilian nobleman—not least by naming himself, in the patrician manner, after his birthplace—and he had proved a useful swordsman in the endless cloak-and-dagger brawls between Spanish cavaliers. On his return from Castile he had insinuated himself into the service of King Afonso, first as a valet and later as a squire. King John had taken him on after his father’s death and had sent him to spy on the Portuguese nobles who had fled his executioners to Castile; his information cost at least two lordly rebels their necks. John had subsequently reposted Pêro to Morocco and Algeria to negotiate peace treaties with the Berber kings of Fez and Tlemcen, and the dependable envoy had soon learned Arabic and familiarized himself with Muslim customs. Quick-witted and courageous, possessed of a phenomenal memory, and adept at appearing what he was not, he was an inspired choice for the treacherous mission. The companion chosen for him was Afonso de Paiva, the son of a respectable family from the same hardy mountain stock as Pêro. Afonso was a squire of the royal household, he had proved his loyalty in the Spanish wars, and he also spoke some Arabic.

Amid the utmost secrecy, the two men met in the Lisbon house of John’s clerk of works. Also present were three of the king’s closest advisers: his personal chaplain, who doubled as the bishop of Tangier and was a keen cosmographer; his physician Rodrigo, who was also an astronomer; and the Jewish mathematician Joseph Vizinho. The three men began analyzing maps and plotting the spies’ route.

With the preparations complete, on May 7, 1487, the two men rode out to the palace at Santarém, forty-five miles outside the capital and safely away from the prying eyes of the spies who infested every European court.

Like most grand designs formed in ignorance of the practicalities, John’s orders were simple to state and fiendishly difficult to carry out. The two men were to reach India and learn about the spice trade. They were to find Prester John and forge an alliance with him. They were to discover whether it was really possible to sail around Africa and into the Indian Ocean, and how to navigate once there. Only then were they to come home and make a full report.

The sheer audacity of the task briefly overwhelmed the irrepressible Covilhã, who expressed regret that “his capacity was not greater, so great was his desire to serve His Highness.” He should be more confident, the king told him: fortune had shone on him, and he had proved himself a good and faithful servant.

John’s future heir was also present at the meeting. Manuel was a moon-faced, delicate-looking young man with chestnut hair, greenish eyes, and fleshy arms “which were so long that the fingers of the hands reached below his knees.” The young duke, a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday, handed the two spies the final map drawn up by the three wise men. The king gave them a bag filled with four hundred gold cruzados, purloined from a chest meant for the expenses of the crown estates, and a letter of credentials “for all the countries and provinces in the world.” Before they left they knelt and received the royal blessing.

Carrying around so much money was an invitation to be robbed, or worse. The two men pocketed a handful of coins for their expenses and hastily returned to Lisbon, where they swapped their sack of gold for a letter of credit issued by a powerful Florentine banker.

That done, the two secret agents mounted their horses and rode across Portugal. They crossed the Spanish border and made their way to Valencia, where they cashed in their letter at a branch of the Florentine’s bank, sold their horses, and took a boat along the coast to Barcelona. The bustling port had regular departures to North Africa, France, Italy, and the eastern Mediterranean, and after exchanging their gold for another credit note the pair booked a passage to Naples. After an easy ten-day voyage, they arrived in the sweeping bay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. There were no banks that would welcome their business where they were headed, and they cashed in their check for the last time. Keeping their heavy pouches well hidden, they sailed down the Amalfi Coast, through the Strait of Messina, and across the Aegean Sea to the island of Rhodes, just off the coast of Turkey.

Rhodes was the home of the Knights Hospitaller and the last redoubt of long-spent Outremer. A forbidding constellation of crenellated walls and jutting towers loomed over the harbor. After they were ousted from the Holy Land, the Hospitallers had found new purpose in plundering Muslim shipping; seven years earlier, Mehmet the Conqueror had tried and failed to dislodge these final stubborn Crusaders from their island fortress.

The spies found lodgings in a monastery and set out to seek the advice of two Portuguese Hospitallers. The knights suggested they use their gold to buy a hundred barrels of honey and a new set of clothes. They were headed for Islamic lands, and from now on they were to pose as lowly merchants—though the disguise was not so much aimed at Muslims, who were unlikely to distinguish them from other Europeans, as at Italian merchants who jealously guarded their interests against interlopers.

From Rhodes, the two spies sailed south to Egypt and the ancient port of Alexandria, where their real mission began. From here on, their findings would be of the utmost importance to Vasco da Gama and his fellow seafaring pioneers.

Alexandria had once been the classical world’s greatest metropolis, the hub of trade between Europe, Arabia, and India, and the model for imperial Rome itself. Its Arab conquerors had gasped at the gleaming marble streets lined with four thousand palaces and bathhouses and four hundred theaters, and repelled by such pagan splendor, they had relocated their capital to Cairo. Soon Alexandria had dwindled to a small town built on the hollow foundations of empire. The Great Library was long lost, along with the vast palace of the Ptolemies. Earthquakes had leveled the legendary Pharos, the towering lighthouse whose beam shone thirty-five miles into the Mediterranean, and just seven years earlier the last of its mammoth stone blocks had been recycled to build a harbor fort. “At this time [Alexandria] looks very glorious without,” reported Martin Baumgarten, a wealthy German knight who was overwhelmed with grief at the untimely death of his wife and three children and embarked in 1507, at the age of thirty-two, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; “the walls as they are of a large compass, so they are well built, firm and high, and the turrets upon them are numerous; but within, instead of a city, there’s nothing to be seen but a prodigious heap of stones.”

The ship nosed between the submerged rocks of the harbor, its sails lowered in the usual sign of deference to the sultan, and as soon as it moored officials came on board to search the passengers and crew. Merchants regularly tried to evade taxes by hiding their goods in the strangest places; one group of Christians, a traveler boasted, “sav’d a great part of what we did bring, by hiding it in pork, which they abominate above all things.”

Even as it crumbled Alexandria had carried on a trade in spices, silks, and slaves, and with the fall of Constantinople it had begun to regain its position as a world-class emporium. It was a messy, multilingual port city. On one side of the massive stone mole that once led to the Pharos, Italian warehouses were stacked with Eastern goods awaiting shipment to Europe; on the other side was a separate harbor reserved for Muslims. The two groups sometimes clashed violently, but the mutual search for profits usually sustained an uneasy standoff.

The spies plowed into the noisy streets and found suitably obscure lodgings. Their disguise held up, but they discovered that diseases as well as goods were exchanged in Alexandria’s fetid climate. As they tossed and sweated with Nile fever, the sultan’s deputy gave them up for dead and requisitioned their honey, which was much in demand in North Africa. By the time they recovered he had already sold it, and they retrieved what money they could and quickly left town.

The countryside was low-lying and bare but for the occasional clump of date trees. Fishermen popped up out of fens to extort protection money, and at night the two men slept fitfully on the ground, hugging their remaining belongings. Before dawn they started again, the winds shifting hillocks of sand and obscuring the road ahead. Eventually the minarets of Rosetta rose before them at the head of the Nile, and they hired a felucca, a narrow, lateen-rigged sailboat, to take them upriver. They whiled away the time spotting the crocodiles that lurked in the canes and the mysterious monuments that littered the banks, or watching as Egyptian men and women stripped off their long blue shirts, tied them on their heads, and swam across the river at astonishing speed. At dusk the crew lighted pyramids of lanterns, tied tinkling bells to the sails, and entertained themselves by shooting fiery arrows into the night sky.

As they approached Cairo, the real pyramids reared from the desert like mountains carved by giants. Even then no traveler could leave without paying them a visit. In the sixteenth century an Englishman named John Sanderson went mummy hunting in Egypt; along with several complete corpses he brought home six hundred pounds of broken mummy to sell to London’s apothecaries and “one little hand” for his brother the Archdeacon of Rochester. Accompanied by two German friends, he crawled up to the King’s Chamber in the Pyramid of Cheops, climbed into the lidless sarcophagus, and lay inside “in sport.” Soon afterward an Italian traveler named Pietro della Valle clambered to the top of the pyramid and carved his name and the name of his lover in the stone. Like every foreigner, he was thoroughly taken in by the guides who claimed to be able to decipher the hieroglyphics, a tradition that dated back to classical times.

Cairo—in Arabic al-Qahira, “the Victorious”—astounded Europeans even more than its ancient precursors. The city was vast. “They do positively aver,” recorded Martin Baumgarten, “whether true or false I know not, that there are about twenty-four thousand mosques in it.” Many of the mosques boasted libraries, schools, and hospitals where treatment was free and musicians played to soothe the sick; all were built of white stone, some of it plundered from the pyramids, that dazzled the eyes in the intense light and almost bleached out the intricate vegetal carvings and calligraphic inscriptions that covered every surface. At nightfall, the minarets from which the muezzin, reported Baumgarten, “night and day, at certain hours, make a strange, loud and barbarous noise,” were illuminated with burning torches and lamps. The German’s informant also explained that the city boasted ten thousand cooks, most of whom seemed to ply their trade in the labyrinths of rush-covered alleys, carrying their pots on their heads and dressing their dishes as they went. He added another outsize if less impressive statistic: there were more homeless on the streets of Cairo than there were inhabitants in Venice.

Cairo had grown into the busiest and most advanced city in the Islamic world. Turks, Arabs, Africans, and Indians gathered there. Italian merchants had their own colony, as did Greeks, Ethiopians, and Nubians. Copts, the native Christians of Egypt, worshipped in ancient churches, and thousands of Jews gathered in synagogues. Muslim potentates grazed on banquets spread on rich carpets, while their numerous wives waited upstairs in rooms dripping with silk, fragrant ointments, and perfumes, peeping out through latticework screens at the street life below. The historian Ibn Khaldun lavished accolades on his beloved city: Cairo, he wrote, was the “metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, meeting-place of nations, anthill of peoples, high place of Islam, seat of power.” What we see in dreams, he rhapsodized, “surpasses reality, but all that one could dream of Cairo would not come close to the truth.”

The spies approached on donkeys—only high officials could enter on horseback—and passed under the minaret-topped towers of Bab Zuweila, the soaring main gate. Important visitors were announced with a tattoo beaten by drummers who sat in the loggia above, but the Portuguese pair were given the more common welcome: a shower of dirt, brickbats, and moldy lemons from the boys of Cairo.

The two men followed the jostling crowds down Muizz Street, the congested central artery of the city. Halfway along, amid ornate tomb-mosques built by rich eternity seekers, were the sources of much of Cairo’s wealth: the teeming state spice and perfume markets. The perfume emporia were lined with flasks in which lumps of resin and rock were distilled into deep yellow-brown colognes and balms. The spice shops were heaped with sacks and barrels that stretched back to dark recesses where merchants weighed out the precious substances on finely calibrated scales; in the heat the smell of aromatic leaves, seeds, and roots was almost suffocating.

The visitors struck out into the dusty side streets, dodging the droves of donkeys standing around grazing or being driven to and from the souks. They found modest lodgings—no doubt with the help of the ubiquitous touts—and set out to plan the next leg of their journey. Before long they fell in with a group of merchants from Fez and Tlemcen, the very North African cities where Covilhã had been posted. The merchants were headed to Arabia and India itself, and the wily spy coaxed them in their own dialect into taking him and his companion along for the ride.

It was now the spring of 1488, and almost a year had passed since the pair had left Portugal. The camels were saddled and loaded and the long caravan set out, after a pelting from the boys at the gate, for the Red Sea port of Tor. Tossed and shaken by their noisy, smelly mounts, the Portuguese crossed the flat, stony Sinai Desert, then a range of barren granite mountains that shone in the sun as if they were oiled, and next a coastal path so narrow that in places they had to ride in the sea. For food they had tough twice-baked bread, dry cheese, and salted ox tongue, and they were forced to pay handsomely for water that wriggled with red worms. Robbers ambushed them in date plantations, stole their provisions, and had to be paid off with silver. The mule and camel drivers kept raising their prices, and if anyone complained, they drove off their animals with the baggage still on their backs. The two men barely slept; by the end of the trek they were sliding off their mounts from exhaustion and hallucinating that hands were grabbing at their last few crumbs of food.

It was becoming clear why spices cost so much in Europe, and the journey had only just begun.

As the caravan finally reached the Red Sea, the guides spun another favorite yarn. It was here, they explained, that the waters had parted for Moses and the children of Israel and had crashed over the pharaoh’s pursuing host. Martin Baumgarten dutifully reported that the tracks of the pharaoh’s chariots and the prints of his horses’ hooves were clearly visible, “and tho’ one should deface them this minute, they shall plainly appear the next.”

THE 1,400-MILE-LONG RED SEA, which European travelers were surprised to find was not red at all, is shaped like an elongated slug crawling north toward the Mediterranean. Two feelers protrude from the slug’s head: on the left is the Gulf of Suez, which separates Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula, and on the right is the Gulf of Aqaba, which divides Sinai from the Arabian Peninsula. At its southern end the slug’s tail swishes into the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, the part of the Indian Ocean that lies between Africa and India. There, where the two bodies of water meet, the coast of Africa curves east in a sharp hook, cradling the southwestern corner of Arabia.

The tight channel between the two continents is known as the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb; the name means “Gate of Tears.” Strong currents and scattered islands make the passage precarious, and for much of its length the Red Sea itself is strewn with treacherous islets and sunken reefs. Gusting winds and choppy waves regularly drove heavily laden sailing vessels onto the rocks, and while a few oceangoing ships braved the strait and continued halfway up the east coast of the sea to Jeddah, the port of Mecca, small vessels skippered by experienced navigators mostly had the traffic to themselves. The two dhows—traditional Arab sailing ships—that the Portuguese spies boarded in the little port of Tor were typical of the craft that had plied the route for centuries. The hulls were made of planks sewn together with coconut fiber, and the sails were mats of woven coconut fronds. Lightly built for maneuverability—and because timber was in short supply—they were also leaky and unstable even in light swells. The pilots could only navigate by day, and since pirates infested the coasts, they had to stay well out to sea at night. By the time the merchants’ party sailed through the Gate of Tears and headed for the southern Arabian coast, two excruciating months had passed since they had left Cairo.

The spies were about to discover the fabulously rich triangle at the heart of the spice trade. The first of its three points was the port they had just arrived at, and it was a forbidding sight.

The famed harbor of Aden lay in the crater of an extinct volcano that stood proud of the mainland of Yemen. The city nestled on the crater floor, and jagged black crags surmounted by a cordon of castles almost encircled it down to the sea. Behind the shore, strong fortifications completed the defensive bowl, which the Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi thought looked uncannily like a giant sheep pen. With its fine anchorage, natural defenses, and position commanding the entrance to the Red Sea, Aden had been a commercial center of the first order since ancient times, and as the main terminus for oceangoing vessels laden with Eastern spices and silks, precious stones, and porcelain, it was among the richest trading cities of the medieval world.

When the party from Cairo arrived, the monsoon winds that drove Arab ships southeast to India were already gusting fiercely. Crossing the Arabian Sea in high summer meant one of two things: death, or a quick journey of as little as eighteen days. Delaying too long would mean waiting another year, and the two men decided to split up. Afonso was to sail the short distance from Aden to Ethiopia, where he was to seek out Prester John, while Pêro was to continue to India. They arranged to meet back in Cairo at the end of their adventures.

The dhow that Covilhã boarded for India was much larger than the Red Sea boats, but it had the same single mast, raked forward and crossed by a long yard to which was bent the head of a lateen sail, and it was made of the same sewn planks. There was no deck; the cargo was covered with thick cane mats, and the passengers had to squeeze themselves in wherever they could. It was almost impossible to find shade from the burning sun, the only barriers to waves washing over the side were strips of matting or cloth smeared with pitch, and for food there was nothing but half-cooked dried rice sprinkled with sugar and chopped dates. The dhows were fast runners and their Arab captains were skilled navigators, but the few weeks it took to reach India passed slowly.

As the year neared its end, Covilhã headed along the Indian coast to a city whose marvels he had heard a great deal about on his journey. Calicut was the second point of the trade triangle, the gathering place of the spices and jewels of the East, and the spy stayed on for several months to investigate the sources and prices of the mysterious goods that sold in Europe for staggering sums. His report would have far-reaching consequences for his hosts: within a few years, Vasco da Gama would sail for India with orders to head straight for Calicut.

In February Covilhã made his way back up the coast, stopping to record the location and trade of more ports along the way. By now the Arab fleets were heading back home, and he secured passage on a ship bound for Hormuz, the third point of the fabled triangle.

The ship sailed into the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea’s twin inlet on the eastern side of Arabia, and headed for a small island that commanded a narrow strait. As it approached, Covilhã made out a sizable city through the thicket of masts that filled the port. When he landed, he found it packed with merchants from every corner of Asia. Situated at the point where the Arabian Peninsula juts sharply out and seems to make a dent in the coast of Iran, Hormuz had no greenery and no fresh water, which had to be brought in flagons from the mainland, but it sat astride the junction of the sea routes from India and the Far East with the land routes that led through Iraq to Syria, Turkey, and Istanbul. Its markets were heaped with pearls, silks, jewels, tapestries, spices, perfumes, and drugs, and for sheer luxury it had few equals. Carpets covered the streets for the comfort of shoppers, and linen awnings draped between the rooftops kept off the scorching sun. Merchants’ tables boasted fine wines and expensive porcelain, and gifted musicians played while they ate. A later Portuguese visitor reported that the food was better than in France, while an English adventurer marveled at the beauty of the women, though he found them “very strangely attyred, wearing on their noses, eares, neckes, armes and legges many rings set with jewels, and lockes of silver and golde in their eares, and a long bar of golde upon the side of their noses. Their eares with the weight of their jewels be worne so wide,” he added, “that a man may thrust three of his fingers into them.” Cultural chasms aside, there was no gainsaying the importance of the island city. If all the world were a golden ring, went an Arab adage, Hormuz would be the jewel on it.

Covilhã now had a vivid picture of the dazzlingly rich trade of the Arabian Sea—and of the dangers and exorbitant dues that dogged its merchants at every step. The sea route from Europe might take longer, but the oceans were gloriously untroubled by robbers and customs officials, and there was undoubtedly a killing to be made. One thing remained: to find out whether ships really could sail directly from Europe into the Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese spy left Hormuz on a ship bound for Africa and disembarked at Zeila, a busy Muslim port that exported gold, ivory, and slaves from Ethiopia. The great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta had found Zeila “the dirtiest, most disagreeable, and most stinking town in the world,” and though the sea was rough, the reek of fish and camels slaughtered in the streets was so revolting that he spent the night aboard his ship. Covilhã did not stay much longer. He set out to see how far down the coast he could sail, and he soon had his answer. The Arabs had settled the shores of East Africa for centuries, but their dhows could not withstand the heavy seas to the south. Besides, even if they had had the technology, they saw no need for such a voyage and had probably never attempted it. Their caravans had long funneled the goods of the African interior north and east to the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and it made no sense to switch that trade to the west and the apparently empty Atlantic. They had certainly not tried to sail all the way around Africa to reach wild Western Europe: why bother when they already controlled half the Mediterranean, including many of its leading ports, and the goods of Europe, along with much of its gold, came to them?

The riddle of Africa would take a while longer to solve. Covilhã returned north, and by early 1491 he reached Cairo. It had been an exhausting if exhilarating journey, and he had been away from home for nearly four years. He must have been looking forward to meeting up with his fellow spy and going back to his wife, his family, and his richly deserved rewards.

He never found his companion. While he was waiting in Cairo, Afonso had fallen ill and had died.

The indefatigable Pêro prepared to make the return trip alone, and he was about to leave when two Portuguese Jews turned up on his doorstep. King John had sent them, they explained, and they had tracked him down, with some difficulty, in the cosmopolitan confusion of Cairo.

One of the two was a shoemaker from northern Portugal named Joseph; the other was a rabbi named Abraham from the south. A few years earlier Joseph had traveled overland to Baghdad, perhaps to investigate the market for shoes, and there he had heard fabulous things about Hormuz. On his return he had sought out the king, who was always accessible to messengers from faraway lands. The rabbi had also been east, perhaps to Cairo. When the two spies had failed to reappear, John had decided to send the two Jews to search for them.

The newcomers had with them a letter from the king, which Pêro lost no time in reading.

Its contents could hardly have been welcome. If their mission was complete, John wrote, the two men should return to Portugal, where they would receive great honors. If not, they should send word of their progress by the shoemaker Joseph and not rest until they had fulfilled their quest. In particular, they were not to come home unless they had personally established the whereabouts of Prester John. Before they did anything, though, they were to conduct the rabbi to Hormuz. The king no doubt thought a rabbi was a more reliable informant than a shoemaker, and Abraham had sworn that he would not turn back without seeing Hormuz with his own eyes.

King John had no way of knowing that his spy had already been to Hormuz himself and was ready to give a full report of its operations. Pêro had his royal orders, and as usual he was determined to carry them out to the full. He wrote a long dispatch to the king, handed it to Joseph, and set off with his new companion. The shoemaker made for home, the bearer of news that would be of vital importance to Vasco da Gama’s impending mission.

Once again Covilhã crossed the desert to Tor; once again he made the slow, perilous journey down the Red Sea. By now the spy was an habitué of the Arabian ports, and in Aden the pair easily found passage to Hormuz. When Abraham was satisfied that he had seen all he needed, the two men went their separate ways: the rabbi back to Portugal, probably via a caravan headed to Syria, and Pêro back to the Red Sea.

From there Covilhã made for Jeddah, the port of Mecca. He was about to deviate utterly from his instructions. By now he had developed a taste for the hard glamour of adventure—and the inveterate explorer’s hunger to spice up life with a dose of danger.

Jeddah was rich, busy, and completely forbidden to Christians and Jews. Pêro, though, was bronzed from long voyages in uncovered ships and bearded from the usual sailor’s distaste for shaving. Besides, he had spent the past four years living and traveling with Muslims. He had adopted their dress, he was fluent in their language, and he was utterly conversant with their customs. He went undetected in Jeddah, and he decided to go farther—to Mecca itself. At the least sign that he was a Christian, he knew he would have been executed on the spot.

Perhaps, with his head shaved and uncovered and his body wrapped in the two white cloths of the pilgrim, the Portuguese spy entered the sacred precinct of the Kaaba and circled the stone cube seven times, tracing the path worn in the granite slabs by millions of worshippers’ feet. Perhaps, if he had arrived at the time of the hajj, he followed the press of pilgrims to Mount Arafat, where Muhammad was said to have preached his last sermon, then threw pebbles at the devil at Mina and watched the mass slaughter of animals that commemorated Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son. Having seen his fill, he journeyed on to Medina and visited the great mosque that was rising, after a lightning strike had destroyed much of the previous building, over Muhammad’s burial place.

His initiation complete, Covilhã left Medina for the Sinai Desert and dropped in on the ancient monastery of St. Catherine. The skeletal Greek monks bundled him off, as they did all pilgrims, to attend a service and to marvel at the Burning Bush that Moses himself had seen, or at least that the emperor Constantine’s mother Helena had miraculously unearthed on a relic-hunting trip to the Holy Land. Having squared everything with his faith, Covilhã continued to Tor and took for the fifth time to the Red Sea. It was now 1493. More than a year had passed since he had left Cairo with the rabbi, and Prester John still needed to be found.

The spy landed in East Africa near the mountains of High Ethiopia, a formidable bulwark that for centuries had protected the interior from attack. After a perilous journey across deserts, plateaus, and plains, he reached the court of Alexander, Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings, the descendant, so he and his dynasty claimed, of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopia had once been a great power, and in its remote fastness it had preserved its ancient traditions. The king, who presided over a vast and intricate hierarchy of nobles, had numerous wives and dozens of daughters, some of whom virtually ran the country. Yet he was Christian, and so were his people.

Alexander warmly received the visitor, and Covilhã presented him with an address written in Arabic and a brass medal engraved in multiple languages that he had kept for this moment since leaving Portugal. Both were addressed to Prester John, but by now the Ethiopians were accustomed to the Europeans’ baffling but harmless habit of calling all their kings John.

The monarch received the communication, Covilhã later reported, “with much pleasure and joy, and said that he would send him to his country with much honor.” He never did. A few months later Alexander marched off to put down a rebellion, and unrecognized at night, he was cut down by arrow fire. His infant son succeeded him until he succumbed to a childhood disease, and after much confusion Alexander’s brother Naod replaced him on the throne. Covilhã immediately petitioned the new king to fulfill his brother’s pledge and was politely turned down. Covilhã outlasted Naod, too, but Naod’s son and successor David was no more inclined to let the traveler go. Since his forebears had not given him permission to leave, he explained, “he was not in a position to grant it, and so the matter stood.”

After years away from Portugal, no doubt long mourned by his family, Covilhã had become a dyed-in-the-wool expatriate. With his vast experience of the world and his fluency in several languages, he was a valued adviser to the court. He was rewarded with titles and estates, and eventually he was made governor of a district. After demurring as long as he could, he caved in to the king’s wishes and took a wife. He was clearly able to choose well, because there, in the middle of Ethiopia, thirty-three years after the former spy had left home, a Portuguese embassy arrived and found him fat, rich, happy, and surrounded by his children.

WHILE KING JOHN was waiting for his spies to return, he had forged ahead with the second prong of his master plan. To head up the next expedition by sea he chose Bartolomeu Dias, a cavalier of the royal household and an experienced captain. His mission was to answer once and for all the burning question of whether ships could sail around Africa, and if possible to press on to the lands of Prester John.

Dias quietly left Lisbon in August 1487, three months after Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva had set out. The fleet consisted of two caravels together with a supply vessel captained by Dias’s brother Pêro, an innovation that was designed to prevent the increasingly long voyages from coming to a premature end for lack of food, water, and spares. Though the ships were unnervingly small for such a venture, the preparations had been unusually thorough, and the crews were highly experienced. Also on board were two African men and four African women who had been seized on earlier voyages and who were to be set ashore to ask after India and Prester John. The royal planners thought the inclusion of the women was a masterstroke on the grounds that they were less likely than men to be attacked, though as it turned out, one of the women died en route to Africa while the other five envoys disappeared inland and were never heard from again.

The fleet sailed past the wide mouth of the Congo River, stopped in Whale Bay, and struggled south against a heavy coastal current. To make better progress Dias put out to sea, only to be swept up in a storm. For thirteen days the caravels were driven west and south before the gusting wind, with their sails at half-mast to prevent the prows from plunging into the rough seas. The temperature had dropped markedly by the time Dias was able to steer back east, and when the coast failed to appear after several days he instead turned north.

Soon mountains came into view on the horizon, and as the ships drew closer the men made out a sandy beach curving from east to west, backed by sloping green fields where herders were tending their cattle. The herdsmen took one look at the mystifying ships and drove their flocks inland. With no one in sight, several sailors set out to search for fresh water and found themselves the target of a shower of stones from the hills above. Dias shot one of the assailants with a crossbow, and the fleet hurriedly resumed its journey.

By now the frightened and exhausted crews had had enough. There was hardly any food left, they protested in chorus. The storeship had been left far behind, and if they went any farther they would die of starvation. They had discovered fourteen hundred miles of coastline that had never been seen by Europeans; surely that was plenty for one voyage?

Dias eventually gave in, though not before landing onshore with his officers and extracting a signed statement that they were determined to turn back. It was only as they headed home that he finally sighted the unmistakable rocky point of a great cape, backed by a dramatic series of high peaks that framed a mountain with a top as flat as a table. He ruefully named it the Cape of Storms, though on his return the king decided on the more optimistic Cape of Good Hope.

The voyage had lasted more than sixteen months. The ships were in tatters, and the survivors’ health was broken. They had weathered a tempest, they had seen the southern tip of Africa, and they had come home with precise charts that proved the great Ptolemy wrong. An ancient mystery had been solved, and as the news leaked out, Europe’s maps were hastily redrawn. Yet on the very verge of sailing into the East, Dias had had to admit defeat. When he made his report to the king, he apologized for failing to find either Prester John or the Indies. Those were his orders, and by that high benchmark he had failed. His were not the rewards, and his was not the name that would go down in history.

By now the Portuguese had mapped the entire western coast of Africa. It was a remarkable testament to the doughty determination of an entire people, and many had paid a high price. Yet on the brink of triumph, the possibility suddenly arose that it might all have been in vain.

Among the figures who gathered that December in 1488 to hear Dias’s report was a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus.

ON MARCH 4, 1493, a lone caravel limped into Lisbon’s harbor and anchored alongside Portugal’s most powerful warship. The Niña had been battered by violent storms that had stripped off its sails, and its captain had been forced to seek the only shelter within reach.

It was not the homecoming that Christopher Columbus would have chosen. For years he had attempted to persuade the Portuguese king to sponsor his audacious venture to reach the East by sailing west. Yet John had decided the Italian was full of big boasts and hot air, and his council of experts had poured scorn on his proposals and rejected them out of hand.

Columbus, the son of a Genoese weaver, had been drawn to the sea as a boy. He had first arrived in Portugal in 1476, as an ordinary seaman on a merchant ship carrying a cargo of mastic to England. The convoy had come under heavy attack off the Algarve coast, close to Henry the Navigator’s old center of operations, and when his ship began to founder the young sailor had dived overboard, grabbed an oar, and half swum, half floated the six miles to the shore. After that dramatic entrance he had found his way to Lisbon, married a nobleman’s daughter, and launched himself into Portugal’s naval affairs.

Columbus was not the first man to propose sailing west to the East. The notion dated back at least to Roman times, and it had recently been revived. In 1474, a prominent Florentine intellectual named Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli had written to one of his many correspondents, a canon at Lisbon Cathedral named Fernão Martins, to propose a scheme to sail westward to the Indies as “a shorter way to the places of spice than that which you take by Guinea.” The priest had presented the letter at court, where the plan received short shrift but reached the ears of the Genoese newcomer. Columbus was struck by a grand vision of adventure and riches, and he wrote to Toscanelli for a copy of his letter. It duly arrived, along with a map showing the route the Florentine recommended, and Columbus threw himself into a crash course of research.

From his reading, he drew several conclusions that seemed to put a western passage tantalizingly within reach.

The first was that the circumference of the earth was much smaller than it really was. Here Columbus had a powerful authority on his side: the great Ptolemy himself had lopped several thousand miles off the remarkably accurate calculations of his Greek predecessor Eratosthenes. Ptolemy’s own estimate had been superseded by a larger figure given by the ninth-century Persian astronomer Alfraganus in his Elements of Astronomy, a revised summary of Ptolemy that was still the most popular textbook on astronomy in both East and West. Columbus, though, assumed that Italian miles were identical to Alfraganus’s Arabic miles, whereas they were in fact substantially shorter, and so he decided that the globe was even more compact than Ptolemy had envisaged.

Having shrunk the globe, Columbus stretched Asia. Estimates of the distance going east from Portugal to the Chinese coast ranged as low as 116 degrees of longitude, a figure that left anyone contemplating going in the other direction a gaping 244 degrees of open sea to sail. Ptolemy was more helpful—he had calculated the distance at 177 degrees—but that still left the impossible task of sailing more than halfway around the globe. Instead, Columbus turned to Ptolemy’s contemporary Marinus of Tyre, who had come up with a figure of 225 degrees, leaving just 135 degrees to cross.

Even taking the lowest estimate of the circumference of the earth and the highest of the breadth of Asia, no crew could have survived such a voyage without regular stops for fresh food and water. What Columbus needed was evidence of land en route, and for that he turned to Marco Polo. Polo had reported that Japan lay fully fifteen hundred miles off the coast of China, and in Columbus’s mind Asia leapt even closer. He was convinced that Japan was little more than two thousand miles west of the Canary Islands, with China, the Spice Islands, and India itself just beyond. With a fair wind, he would be there in a couple of weeks. Better still, there was a potential stepping-stone to Japan: the island of Antillia, which Christians fleeing the Arab invasions of Spain were rumored to have settled in the eighth century and which legend placed far out in the Ocean Sea.

Columbus was brazenly running against the consensus of his age. Having been rebuffed in Portugal, he had no more luck pressing his case in Genoa and Venice. His brother Bartholomew set off to sound out the kings of England and France, while Christopher abandoned Portugal for its old enemy, Spain. There he obtained an audience with Ferdinand and Isabella, who were now ruling Castile and Aragon from Córdoba, and presented his plan. The two monarchs kept the would-be explorer on a well-padded leash while their advisers deliberated, but the matter dragged on so long that Columbus slipped away to Portugal to try his luck again.

It was at that point that Bartolomeu Dias docked in Lisbon on his return from the Cape of Good Hope. Dias’s discovery was a disaster for Columbus: it finished off any Portuguese interest in far-fetched western routes to Asia. Columbus slunk back to Castile, only to hear after another long delay that Ferdinand and Isabella’s experts had judged that his “promises and offers were impossible and vain and worthy of rejection.”

Two years later everything changed.

On January 2, 1492, after a bitter ten-year campaign, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Islamic kingdom of Granada. It was said that the last sultan turned back as he left the city, looked one final time on the sunset-red towers of the Alhambra Palace gently glowing above the rooftops, and burst into tears. “You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man,” his mother scolded him, and they went on their way. The Alhambra’s new owners processed up the hill to its gate dressed in gorgeously colored silks: a final reminder of the glorious heritage of al-Andalus.

The last vestige of Muslim rule in Western Europe had been wiped out, and the royal couple immediately sent word to the pope. “It pleased our Lord,” they piously boasted, “to give us a complete victory over the king and the Moors of Granada, enemies of our holy Catholic faith. . . . After so much labor, expense, death, and shedding of blood, this kingdom of Granada which was occupied for over seven hundred and eighty years by the infidel . . . [has been conquered].” Unmentioned in the letter was the awkward fact that for much of the previous quarter millennium, Granada had been a vassal of Castile and had supplied it not just with desirable Muslim goods but with troops.

The Reconquest was complete, the foundations had been laid for the unification of Spain, and the Catholic Monarchs—the title the appreciative pope bestowed on Ferdinand and Isabella—set about purifying their realm. They were confident that the Muslims and Jews who remained in Spain would soon convert, but the public mood quickly turned vengeful. Horror stories of Jews crucifying Christian children and eating their still-warm hearts sent shudders running down Spanish spines, and though no one could point to any child who actually went missing, several scapegoats were arrested and burned alive. The date of August 2, 1492, was fixed as the deadline for all Jews to embrace the Christian faith or face execution, and just seven months after the fall of Granada, the Atlantic port of Cadiz was choked with tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Spain. The rush to leave was so great that captains extorted huge sums for standing space in their holds, then dumped their passengers overboard or sold them to pirates. Others escaped to North Africa, only to be banned from its cities and left to die in the fields. Sepharad had long been a fairy tale, not a real place. Now it was a nightmare.

Muslims fared no better. A treaty that had promised freedom of worship in Granada, including the protection of mosques, minarets, and muezzin, was quickly torn up. Spain’s Muslims were soon converted by force, then marched to the torture chamber to find out how genuinely they held the faith that had been thrust upon them. The Inquisition was Spain’s proof of its ideological purity, its claim to be the most righteous Christian nation, and yet another consequence of the long battle between Islam and Christianity in Iberia. It was also economically ruinous. That same year the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II, Mehmet the Conqueror’s son and successor, sent his navy to Spain to rescue its Muslims and Jews alike. He welcomed the refugees to Istanbul as full citizens, threatened with death any Turk who mistreated a Jew, and ridiculed the shortsightedness of Ferdinand and Isabella in expelling so many valuable subjects. “You call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” he scoffed to his courtiers, “when he impoverishes his own country to enrich mine!” The fires of religious war that had been stoked in Iberia had blown back home, and they would blacken Spain for centuries to come.

Having scoured the foreign matter from their kingdom, the royal couple turned their attention abroad.

A few weeks after the conquest of Granada, Isabella summoned Christopher Columbus and rejected his appeal against her experts’ verdict. The would-be explorer was trotting off disconsolately on a mule when, back at the court, Ferdinand’s finance minister spoke up. Columbus, he pointed out, had already secured half his capital from Italian investors. The enterprise would cost no more than one of the weeklong fiestas thrown for foreign ambassadors, and surely the royal treasury could shift some funds around and find the cash? Perhaps Columbus’s wealthy rescuer even then suspected that he would be forced to put up most of the money himself; perhaps, as a baptized Jew, he had his reasons for insisting that the reward of converting Asia to the Holy Faith was well worth the risk.

Isabella sent a messenger haring after Columbus and caught him preparing to board a ship to France. Columbus’s terms were outrageous: he would receive 10 percent in perpetuity of all revenues from any lands he discovered, he would be their governor and viceroy, and he would control every colonial appointment. Not least, as soon as he reached land he would be appointed Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Most of his conditions were accepted, but then, no one really expected him to succeed.

Half an hour before sunrise on August 3, 1492, as the ships crammed with Jews edged east out of Cadiz, Columbus set sail west for Asia. As soon as his small fleet was safely under way, he sat down in the cramped cabin of his flagship, the Santa María, and wrote the first lines of his journal.


Columbus intended to present the book to Ferdinand and Isabella on his return, and it was addressed to them. He celebrated the Catholic Monarchs’ great victory over the Moors of Granada and their righteous expulsion of the Jews, and he reminded them that he was embarked on an equally holy mission:

Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes devoted to the Holy Christian Faith and the propagators thereof, and enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India, to see the said princes and peoples and lands and [to observe] the disposition of them and of all, and the manner in which may be undertaken their conversion to our Holy Faith, and ordained that I should not go by land (the usual way) to the Orient, but by the route of the Occident, by which no one to this day knows for sure that anyone has gone.

Soon, he added, he would return with such wealth “that within three years the Sovereigns will prepare for and undertake the conquest of the Holy Land. I have already petitioned Your Highnesses to see that all the profits of this, my enterprise, should be spent on the conquest of Jerusalem.”

Columbus’s innate seafaring instincts had been well honed during his years in Portugal, and five weeks after he left the Canaries he sighted land. He was a less natural leader of men; even in that short span his crew more than once threatened mutiny. The land turned out to be a small island, but the friendly natives signaled that there was a much larger island nearby. Columbus sailed off, convinced he was headed to Japan, even though the locals called the place Colba, and explored a length of the shore. By the time theSanta María ran aground on Christmas morning he had visited a third island, and he set his course for Spain.

The three islands would later be revealed as one of the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola, but Columbus was convinced he had reached Asia. True, the East was not everything he had expected. He had found a bush that smelled somewhat like cinnamon and nuts that, though small and inedible, with a little imagination did seem like coconuts. The mastic trees were evidently not producing that year, and the gold he took away turned out to be iron pyrite—fool’s gold. The islanders in their thatched huts were clearly among the poorer subjects of the Great Khan, but undoubtedly, he told his journal, the emperor’s palace lay nearby.

When the battered Niña was blown off course and had to put into Lisbon, the new Admiral of the Ocean Sea sent a note to King John. In it he asked permission to enter the royal harbor, where he would be safely out of reach of treasure seekers, and stressed that he had arrived from the Indies, not from Portuguese Guinea. When Bartolomeu Dias rowed over from his warship, alongside which Columbus had anchored, the admiral could not resist showing off the captive “Indians” he had brought back as proof of his staggering discovery.

Four days after his unintended arrival, Columbus set out to meet the Portuguese king. With him he took the strongest of his captives and a few trinkets he had picked up on the islands. Spices, gems, and gold were conspicuously missing.

The king was not in the best of moods. Two years earlier, his only son, Afonso, had fallen off his horse while riding along the banks of the Tagus and had died in agony in a fisherman’s shack. The seventeen-year-old Afonso had been married to Isabella of Aragon, the oldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The Catholic Monarchs’ only son was dangerously ill, and since Afonso had looked increasingly likely to become the heir to both Spain and Portugal, many suspected foul play. Ferdinand and Isabella had tried every diplomatic maneuver to declare the marriage void, but the young couple, having been married for purely political reasons, had inconveniently fallen in love. More to the point, Afonso was an excellent rider, and his Castilian valet disappeared after the accident and was never heard from again. The possibility that Ferdinand and Isabella had stolen John’s thunder by discovering the sea route to India was a bitter pill to swallow.

Columbus made matters worse by insisting the king address him by his string of new titles and pointedly reminding him that he had turned down the dazzling opportunity he, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, had given him. Some of John’s advisers offered to kill the impudent sailor, but the king heard him out. It was far from clear just what Columbus had discovered, but he had clearly discovered something. When the admiral was done, John pointed out that he had found no spices. Columbus explained that he had only got as far as the outlying islands of Japan, and the king tried another tack. He was pleased the voyage had gone so well, he said insincerely, but under the terms of the papal bulls and the treaties between Castile and Portugal, the discoveries no doubt lay within Portugal’s orbit. Columbus replied that he had obeyed his monarchs’ orders and had not gone anywhere near Africa; besides, no treaty had anything to say about new lands to the west, since no one had suspected there were any.

John smiled noncommittally, retired in a fit of anger that he had let such a chance slip, and dashed off a letter to Spain in which he threatened to send warships to ascertain the truth and if necessary claim the new lands for Portugal. It was not a bluff: he had a fleet readied to follow Columbus if he set out again, and an alarmed Ferdinand dispatched an ambassador to beg John to delay its departure until the matter had been discussed.

On May 4, 1493, shortly after Columbus finally reached Spain, the pope weighed into the fray by dividing the world in two.

Pope Alexander VI was not a neutral referee. He had been born in Spain, and his family name—Borgia—would become a byword for blatant nepotism. He had four children by his favorite mistress, and he parceled out to them large chunks of papal land. Spanish cutthroats, whores, fortune hunters, and spies were running riot in Rome, and the papal palaces were reportedly great writhing heaps of bodies. Rodrigo Borgia was even rumored to have bribed his way into the chair of St. Peter, but his candidacy had certainly been helped by the intervention of his friend Ferdinand of Spain. The Catholic Monarchs had ample reason to believe that Rome was on their side.

On the pope’s orders, a line was drawn from the top to the bottom of the map a hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, two archipelagos discovered in Henry the Navigator’s time that were still Portugal’s westernmost possessions. Everything to the west of the line henceforth belonged to Spain. The long bull that laid out the new world order pointedly failed to mention Portugal at all, and soon Lisbon’s predicament took an even more dramatic turn for the worse. That September, another bull revoked every previous license given to the Portuguese to colonize new lands. Since it might happen, the pope explained, that the Spanish, while sailing west or south, might “discover islands and mainlands that belong or belonged to India,” they were to be granted any lands whatsoever, “found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered, that are or may be or may seem to be in the route of navigation or travel towards the west or south, whether they be in western parts, or in the regions of the south and east of India.” Given the confusion over the extent of India, that was sufficiently ambiguous to cover almost anywhere, including much of Africa.

The long decades of Portuguese discoveries were suddenly at risk of leading nowhere.

In a piece of timing that reeked of papal collusion, the Spanish sent Columbus back west two days before the second bull was formally issued. This time the Admiral of the Ocean Sea commanded a fleet of seventeen ships and an army of twelve hundred men. He explored the Bahamas and the Antilles, discovered new islands, landed at Puerto Rico, and returned to Cuba. The stakes were high, and Columbus urgently needed tangible proof that he could bring home the riches of the East. His men went around sniffing trees and convinced themselves they bore spices, though they were no more in fruit than before. Columbus ordered his new subjects to hand over a quarterly tribute in gold; if they refused, he threatened, they would have their hands cut off. Since they had no way of reaching their quota, many were mutilated and were left to bleed to death, while thousands poisoned themselves to end the ordeal. Hundreds more were rounded up, mothers dropping their babies on the ground as they fled, to be shipped back to Spain and sold; many died on the journey. The Spanish set about pillaging and slaughtering with savage abandon, and the stark shapes of countless gallows rose up across the New World.

With Columbus still away, King John sent his envoys to negotiate directly with Spain. He had the stronger navy, and he was well aware that Ferdinand and Isabella were deeply in debt and were busy building their new nation. Besides, his informants on the Spanish royal council had told him that the Catholic Monarchs were willing to treat the pope’s outrageous edict as a negotiating position.

The two sides met at the little Spanish town of Tordesillas, just across the border from Portugal. With a papal envoy acting as mediator, the negotiators hammered out a compromise. The Spanish agreed to move the boundary line 270 leagues farther west, roughly to the midpoint between the Cape Verde Islands and Columbus’s West Indies. The Portuguese recognized Spain’s sovereignty over any lands her sailors found to the west, and the Spanish conceded to Portugal the rights to all lands to the east, Indian or otherwise. The new treaty was signed on June 7, 1494, and in Portugal it was hailed as a triumph. More accurately, it was the most outrageous cartel of all time, but in the end it raised as many problems at it solved. It was left to a future joint voyage to establish just where among the straggling islands the measurement of 370 leagues began, but the voyage never took place. In any case, there was no way for men at sea to determine their longitude with any precision, and so no way to know whether they had crossed the line. Nor did anyone think to ponder whether the line merely bisected the Western Hemisphere or stretched all the way around the globe.

Spain and Portugal were locked in a furious race to spread their faith and dominion far across the earth. Soon nations whose names were barely known to Europe would discover that they had been parceled out between two European powers they had never even heard of.

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