Post-classical history


ACCORDING TO THE sixteenth-century Portuguese chronicler João de Barros, one of the Portuguese junta members who had dismissed Columbus’s voyage proposal soon had a change of heart. The bishop of Ceuta now argued for such a westward probe by João II. A naturalized Fleming named Fernâo Dulmo (possibly Ferdinand Van Olm, or Olmen, by birth) from the Azorean island of Terceira was awarded a royal patent for a voyage of discovery on March 3, 1486. Thus was born one of the most intriguing exploration initiatives of Columbus’s and Cabot’s era, a shadowy precursor of both men’s efforts to reach the Indies. And while Terceira occupied less than 150 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean, it teemed with characters who proved central to the quest to find a westward route to Asia. The cast was bound together not only by the geography of that tiny landfall but by intertwining kinships and links to Portugal’s royal family.

Dulmo held the captaincy of the district of Quatro Ribeiras on Terceira. His 1486 voyage patent spoke of a familiar Terceiran desire for acquiring greater slabs of real estate. Terceira had been awarded back in 1450 to a Fleming named Jacome de Bruges and was governed by his lieutenant, Diogo de Teive, who allegedly struck out in search of new lands and found the Grand Banks in 1452. In 1474, Teive’s son, Joam, a resident of Terceira, was awarded a patent with Fernão Tellez that granted them the captaincies of any islands they might find, up to and including the Seven Cities. They presumably returned without result, and now it was Dulmo’s turn to try. His voyage was supposed to reach the Isle of Seven Cities (ilha das sete cidades). The objectives beyond it were described only as “the grand island or islands or mainland.” Dulmo agreed to make the discovery voyage at “his own costs and expenses,” as royal spending was focused on the southerly push down the West African coast.

Dulmo surely never sailed under the initial patent, as four months later a new plan emerged. On July 12, Dulmo formed a partnership with Afonso do Estreito, a resident of Funchal on Madeira, to exploit together the patent rights, with Estreito putting up the money. On July 24, the king issued a new patent for a two-ship voyage by the pair. This new patent also mentioned an unnamed cavaleiro alemam, or German knight. It is impossible to come up with any logical candidate other than Martin Behaim, who had been knighted by João II about eighteen months earlier.

When Dulmo secured his exploration patent, Behaim would have just returned from the 1485–86 voyage to the Guinea coast as part of his sun-sight duties, with either Diego Cão or João Afonso de Aveiro. He also entered the picture only when the Dulmo venture included Afonso do Estreito, so Behaim may have been responsible for attracting the Madeiran’s participation—and money. Madeira was a major production center for sugar and wine, and merchants from the Burgundian Netherlands, including Behaim’s father-in-law, Huerter, held a leading role in the trade. We know that Behaim represented Huerter in business activities, including sugar deals, and that Behaim’s duties took him to Madeira.

Behaim would have provided Dulmo and Estreito with a chart based on the lost Toscanelli original. The patent held the unnamed German in such esteem and so independent of the command of either voyage partner that it granted him the right to choose the vessel on which he would sail. The arrangement suggests that Behaim was attached to the voyage at the pleasure of João II himself.

The expedition was to depart Terceira by March 1, 1487. Behaim was superbly positioned to discover the New World, even if that wasn’t what he had in mind. In Terceira, he had a departure point 1,000 nautical miles west of Palos, from which Columbus would sail in 1492; some 2,200 nautical miles due west was the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, but only 1,000 nautical miles to the west-northwest was the Tongue of the Grand Banks. Yet the whole expedition was brought to a halt by careless royal favors.

Dulmo was called away to Lisbon in the very spring the expedition was supposed to sail, in an effort to settle rival claims of captaincies that were confounding settlement of Terceira. Two other captaincies had been granted in 1474, which overlapped with Dulmo’s older one for Quatro Ribeiras. One of them, for Angra, had been assigned to João Vaz Corte-Real; the other one, for Praia, had gone to Antao Martins (also known as Alvaro Martins Homem). The late sixteenth-century Portuguese chronicler Gaspar Frutuoso would assert that around 1472 to 1474, Corte-Real and Martins had made a voyage from the Azores to the northwest and discovered Terra do Bacalhau, the “codfish land,” in return for which they were awarded the captaincies in Terceira, but nowhere in the awards are discoveries mentioned. Frutuoso’s account nevertheless inspired dubious claims that Corte-Real and Martins had discovered Newfoundland in the early 1470s.

Because of the captaincies dispute, the Dulmo-Estreito expedition never seems to have sailed. But through the star-crossed 1486 patent, Martin Behaim had tipped his hand to his interest in striking out westward as an explorer, with the same objectives as Columbus, six years before the Genoese managed to clear harbor on behalf of Spain.

The terms of the Dulmo-Estreito patent were so close in several aspects to the capitulation Columbus received from Fernando and Isabel in 1492 that more than coincidence must have been at play. Did connections back in Portugal allow Columbus to apprise himself of the 1486 Dulmo-Estreito patent and use it as the model for his 1492 Spanish capitulation? Or was the Dulmo-Estreito patent based on a rejected proposal Columbus had made to João II around 1484?

What has entirely escaped notice is how the patent John Cabot and his sons would secure from Henry VII in 1496 so closely mirrored the details of both the 1492 Columbus capitulations and the 1486 Dulmo-Estreito patent that included mention of a German knight presumed to be Martin Behaim. No less curious was how several Terceirans connected to the interminable captaincies dispute took to seeking Asia by sailing west after the results of John Cabot’s successful 1497 voyage were known. Among them were two sons of João Vaz Corte-Real, Gaspar and Miguel, who were linked to Behaim through marriages to offspring of Joss van Huerter.

The cat’s cradle of relationships Behaim enjoyed on little Terceira was anything but trivial where royal favor and exploration were concerned. João Vaz Corte-Real’s disputed captaincy of Angra had been assigned to him by the widow of the late king Afonso V’s brother, Fernão, Duke of Viseu; Corte-Real had served Fernão as porteiro mor, or high bailiff. Huerter’s own connections were made clear enough by the sumptuous home he maintained in Lisbon on royal property. As for kinship bonds, Huerter’s son and heir, Joss the younger, was the husband of João Vaz Corte-Real’s daughter, Izabel. Huerter’s daughter, Joana, was married to Behaim. Thus Martin Behaim and Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real (brothers of Izabel) were kin through the Huerters.

Terceira’s connections to westward exploration did not end with Behaim and the Corte-Reals. Two other Terceirans would secure a Portuguese voyage privilege following the news of Cabot’s success for England. One of them, Pero de Barcelos, happened to become entrapped in the legal quagmire of local captaincies. The other, his partner João Fernandes, would join with Bristol merchants in the wake of Cabot’s voyages to secure a letters patent of exploration from Henry VII in direct rivalry with the Portugal efforts of the Corte-Reals. Behaim’s exploration ambitions, the Dulmo-Estreito patent of 1486, and the intrigues of property rights on little Terceira were anything but a dead end in North America’s discovery.

IN 1489, BEHAIM CAME into a considerable inheritance from his mother and returned to Nürnberg around 1490 to settle the estate, leaving behind on Terceira his wife, Joss van Huerter’s daughter Joana, and a new son, Martin III. Flush with the inheritance, Behaim indulged in several leisurely years in his hometown.

Behaim had returned to Nürnberg as Schedel was completing the Liber chronicarum and plainly provided the information about his supposed 1483 voyage with Diego Cão. Behaim knew Jerome Münzer well, and Münzer too is thought to have been involved in theLiber chronicarum; a map of northern Europe, and the accompanying text, appears to have been Münzer’s handiwork. Münzer also became allied with an ambitious local project led by Behaim to create the world’s earliest surviving terrestrial globe. Its implications for exploration, for Behaim, even for John Cabot, were profound.

There were likely a few other globes around this time, but Behaim’s is the only one that survives. Toscanelli in his 1474 letter had advised that a globe was the best way for the King of Portugal to envision the advantage of sailing west to the Indies. Although the letter implied the existence of a such a globe, it didn’t say Toscanelli actually possessed one: “Therefore, although I know that the world, as it is, could be shown to him with the sphere in hand, and he could be made to see it; nevertheless, I have decided to show the said route by a map similar to those which are made for navigation.” Las Casas asserted Columbus had a globe, made by his brother Bartolomé. But the Las Casas abstract of the 1492 voyage journal indicates that Columbus at that time did not have one, rather that he had seen examples. The abstract quoted Columbus on October 24, 1492, as he departed Española for Cuba: “On the globes which I have seen and on the world maps Cipangu is in this area.”

Apart from emphasizing the extreme rarity of globes in the late fifteenth century, Behaim’s globe project also emphasized that they were a considerable technical achievement. The Erdapfel (“earth apple”) was sponsored by five leading Nürnberg families, including the Behaims. Martin Behaim was the project’s prime mover and may have conceived of it as a prop to support a new westward voyage—to realize the globe that Toscanelli said would best show the advantage of sailing west. A team of artisans was enlisted to construct it, and Behaim’s paid contributions were limited to a world map used as a guide.

The Erdapfel was more than a map in three dimensions; it featured extensive blocks of text relating knowledge of the world from various sources, including Behaim. The inscriptions, for example, stated that Behaim had made his Guinea voyage in 1486. But the cartographic details were frozen in the mid-1480s: there was no recognition of Bartolomeu Días’s 1487 rounding of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Errors in the configuration of the West African coast cast some doubt on how closely Behaim had been involved with making actual experimental celestial observations. And if Dulmo and Estreito ever did get away from Terceira with Behaim, nothing they found to the west informed the innocent vision of the Nürnberg Erdapfel.

Still, with its depiction of Antilla, Cipango, and a generous scattering of islands along the coast of the Indies, the globe encapsulated the Toscanelli vision that had inspired Columbus as well as Behaim in the 1480s. Although it also drew on other sources, it may be the closest thing to a surviving version of the lost Toscanelli concept. The map Behaim provided (which no longer exists, but in the early nineteenth century was known to consist of two sheets of vellum) could well have dated from the Dulmo-Estreito enterprise.

When the globe was completed, Behaim was thirty-three years old, comfortable in his inheritance. A letter from his brother Wolff, then based in Lyon, to their cousin Michael in Nürnberg on December 5, 1492, captured concerns that Martin was doing little more than putter in Michael’s garden while the rest of the family industriously pursued mercantile opportunities. “I am sorry to hear that my brother Martin is still with you, leading such a singular life,” Wolff bluntly apologized. “I wish we were entirely rid of him.”

Putting him on a ship and pointing him at an empty ocean might have seemed the best solution. Martin Behaim’s life otherwise had expended all forward momentum. The six-year head start he had once enjoyed on Columbus in stumbling on the New World had vanished. On the day Wolff Behaim wrote their cousin Michael, Martin Behaim’s old friend Columbus was sailing east from Cuba on the Santa María and sighting Española for the first time. And in Valencia, Cabot was emerging from the entrepreneurial froth of the Mediterranean, awaiting word from the court of Fernando at Barcelona on whether his harbor scheme would move forward.

Behaim’s listlessness lasted another seven months. The first edition of the Liber chronicarum was published on July 12, 1493. Two days later, Behaim’s friend Jerome Münzer wrote a letter to Portugal’s João II that promised to pry Behaim out of his cousin’s garden, return him to the forefront of exploration, and in the process shift the search for a profitable new ocean route to Asia into northern waters. It was through this enigmatic plan that John Cabot’s voyages for England and his discovery of North America evidently found momentum of their own.

COMPOSED AS A RECOMMENDATION from Maximilian I, the July 14, 1493, letter by Jerome Münzer advised the Portuguese king to assign Martin Behaim to a discovery voyage as a special envoy of the German monarch. Although the letter was maddeningly vague on practical details, it nevertheless made clear that Münzer and Behaim were thinking of an ocean passage far to the north of the route Columbus had just used. But the letter gives no indication that Münzer and Behaim were aware that Columbus had embarked on his voyage of discovery in August 1492, let alone that he had returned in triumph in March 1493. No mention is made of Columbus at all, which suggests that the two Nürnbergers were hopelessly in the dark four months after Columbus had reappeared in Europe.

The duo—and Maximilian I—did seem on first glance regrettably if perplexingly obtuse, as Columbus’s letter describing his discoveries had been published in April and copies of it had spread rapidly in northern Italy. A version would not be published in Maximilian’s realm until October 1493, at Basel, but by July, Spanish and Portuguese diplomats and the Vatican were well into the negotiations for the treaty that purported to divide the world between them along a meridian west of the Cape Verdes. Columbus moreover had debriefed João II and other Portuguese court figures within days of his return; there were such close links between Portugal and the realm of Maximilian I, particularly through the Burgundian Netherlands, that it is surprising word of the discovery had not filtered back to the German court or to a center of humanist thought like Nürnberg by the time Münzer composed his letter.

Although it is possible that Münzer, Behaim, and Maximilian I truly were ignorant of Columbus’s achievement, Münzer instead may have chosen to ignore it in his letter, just as he declined to address the Venetian monopoly on trade through the Levant or the promise of a round-Africa route raised by the 1487–88 Días voyage. The letter was meant only to serve as a diplomatic preamble to Behaim’s full presentation to João II of the voyage’s specifics.

Münzer’s letter never spelled out exactly what the duo were proposing. It instead mainly flattered João II and assured him of his ability to execute the plan Behaim would present. “You also have in abundance the resources and wealth and you have the very knowledgeable sailors who also desire to win immortality and glory. O what glory you will obtain if you [show] that the habitable East was known to your West! And also what profits the trade will give you.” When the envisioned voyage was achieved, Münzer promised that João II and his knights would be “celebrated forever.”

The letter did overwhelmingly imply that Behaim was going to encourage João II to establish a sea route to Asia in northern waters, for its language and perspective were entirely aligned with higher latitudes. Münzer wrote cryptically: “Already you are praised as a grand prince, [by] Germans, Italians, Ruthenians, Poles, and Scythians, who live beneath the arid star of the Arctic pole, as well as [by] the grand duke of Moscow.” Münzer then remarked how it had not been more than a few years since, beneath this star, the grand duke had discovered the great island Grulanda, three hundred leagues long, on which there was a large colony under his rule.

The identity of Grulanda has long been a puzzle. Münzer may have recognized an early Russian discovery of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) or Novaya Zemlya; in either case, it was a high-latitude landmass. This mention probably was a preamble to a point Behaim planned to make at court: Russian experience showed that a royal trading colony along the lines of Portugal’s São Jorge de Mina or Columbus’s Española base could be established successfully in northern latitudes on the Asian side of the crossing.

Münzer went on to praise the skills of mariners of the Azores who “fear neither the cold nor the calms, as they navigate toward the shore of the East with moderate temperatures of air and sea.” He also said that the voyage’s destination was Cathay, which was considered to be a northern province of the empire of the Great Khan. Münzer’s preamble pointed at a voyage proposal by Behaim for northern waters, a realm Columbus steadfastly shunned.

Columbus had a pronounced aversion to seas not much farther north than what most people would consider pleasantly temperate, even subtropical. The Las Casas abstract of the 1492 voyage contained numerous references to “cold” conditions by Columbus, none of them inspiring. Foremost was Columbus’s strange misadventure with the allegedly faulty quadrant, in which he insisted for several days on the coast of Cuba in November 1492 that he was at latitude 42° north when he was actually at 22° north. Columbus was persuaded of his northerly location “by the sea which has a different character from the way it has been hitherto, and yesterday when I was going NW I found that it was cold.”

In the journal abstract entry for November 12, 1492, when Columbus was still on the north coast of Cuba, Las Casas wrote how “[Columbus] also says earlier that it was somewhat cold and that for this reason it would not be a good idea to sail north to discover in winter.” On January 21, 1493, only five days after leaving Española on the voyage home, Columbus “found the winds colder and thought, he says, that he would find them colder by the day the further north he went, and also because the nights were longer because of the shape of the Earth.”

Columbus was so averse to higher-latitude sailing that he was squandering the chance to discover continental North America, which had been achingly close at hand on the first voyage. One has to wonder how much experience he had of waters above mainland Portugal and if a single voyage to England around 1477 had caused this son of the sun-dappled Mediterranean to swear off such passage making in the future.

A quick glance at the Erdapfel showed that Cathay’s great city of Quinsay was thought to be around 45° north. This was the city Columbus had argued he was near during the bizarre quadrant malfunction episode in November 1492. Marco Polo had promised it featured a “port on the sea-coast celebrated for the resort of shipping, loaded with merchandise.” Reaching Quinsay by an even moderately more northern route than the subtropical one Columbus clung to would have been a logical goal of Münzer and Behaim.

And the Erdapfel would have demonstrated clearly the advantages of a northern sea passage. Not only did the globe show that a major destination like Quinsay was only a few degrees of latitude higher than the Azores; it showed in a way anyone could grasp how a westward route closer to the top of the world would be much quicker than the one Columbus had employed near the equator—provided Columbus had even reached the Indies.

Because lines of longitude become more closely spaced as they move away from the equator and converge at the poles, sailing halfway around the world requires a vessel to cover a much shorter physical distance at higher latitudes. A map drawn on a sphere makes this obvious in a way that a flat, two-dimensional chart, with its problems of projection, generally does not. And like Columbus, Behaim and Münzer thought the world was much smaller than it actually is. The two Nürnbergers also proposed there was far less sea than land. Münzer’s letter echoed Pliny in stating that six-sevenths of Earth’s surface was land.

Münzer was advocating a northern route across the Ocean Sea when he assured the king that a voyage to Cathay could be accomplished in only a few days. Not even Columbus had been that optimistic; he had expected to take about a week to reach Antilla from the Canaries before pushing on to Cipango and finally the Asian mainland.

Portuguese chronicler João de Barros would write that Behaim made a globe for João II. If he did, it no longer exists, but Behaim would have brought a smaller, less lavish version of the Erdapfel to Lisbon in 1493, so that he could show João II the wisdom of his voyage strategy in three dimensions. Behaim’s work seems to have inspired a copy, the so-called Laon globe, an inscribed metal sphere less than seven inches in diameter discovered in 1860 in a shop in Laon, France. Possibly Portuguese in origin or inspiration, it is thought to have been part of an astronomical clock.

Given Münzer’s praise of the mariners of the Azores in the letter to João II and the kinship ties between Behaim and the Corte-Reals of Terceira through Huerter, the Corte-Reals may well have been enlisted in the scheme. A prime candidate for helping advance Behaim’s cause at court was Vasqueanes, the elder brother of Gaspar and Miguel. Vasqueanes was born in mainland Portugal, possibly in Lisbon or Tavira. Despite inheriting João Vaz’s Terceiran captaincy in 1497, he would never visit the Azores, leaving it to Gaspar to administer his disputed holding. Ensconced in Lisbon, Vasqueanes would serve as vedor, or intendant (an administrative official), to João II’s successor, Manoel I, and would also help fund his brothers’ explorations. As no surviving material explains whom Behaim and Münzer thought would actually put to sea for Portugal, the Corte-Reals may have been expected to secure the royal patent and command the expedition on which Behaim imagined himself being assigned as an envoy of Maximilian.

But all the preparation by Behaim and Münzer—the presentation, the endorsement of Maximilian I, the entire Erdapfel project—was for naught. The window of opportunity had firmly closed in Portugal. João II’s ambitions for reaching the Orient by any direction had waned. There had been no follow-up voyage to the one by Días in 1487–88 that showed Africa could be rounded to the south. The king may have quietly dispatched a few ships to investigate what Columbus had found, but by the time Behaim made his presentation around the autumn of 1493, the treaty being negotiated with Spain was going to divide the world from pole to pole. Based on what the Erdapfel itself contended about the nature of the world, Behaim would only end up discovering a route to lands that belonged to Fernando and Isabel. After the fiasco of the Dulmo-Estreito enterprise, there would be no second chance for Behaim in João II’s realm. And the Corte-Reals would have to wait for a new king of Portugal, and word of Cabot’s stunning success for England, for the opportunity to mount their own explorations.

About a year after Behaim made his pitch to the Portuguese king, Dr. Münzer rode into Seville. The quest to prove a northerly sea passage to Asia that would rival the more tropical one pursued by Columbus was very much alive.

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