1434 Fridays, Part the Second

In the last entry I made it all the way to the second paragraph of Gavin Menzies’ Introduction to 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance.  Hopefully I’ll make it slightly farther this time.  I’m guessing I’ll make it at least to the second page.

In Menzies’ second paragraph he claimed that Christopher Columbus had already seen a map of the Americas before he did his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria thing in 1492.  The next logical step, then, is to drag the good name of Ferdinand Magellan through the mud.  This is, I believe, primarily because Gavin Menzies has never heard of John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, or Balboa.  More power to them, I say.

Either way Menzies again makes testable claims in relation to Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition.  He points out that the voyage wasn’t going well as Magellan transited the passage which is now known by his name down at the bottom of South America.  So we get this:

A member of the crew wrote, “We all believed that [the Strait] was a cul-de-sac; but the captain knew that he had to navigate through a very well-concealed strait, having seen it in a chart preserved in the treasury of the king of Portugal, and made by Martin of Bohemia, a man of great parts.”

This is from the Pigafetta account of Magellan’s expedition.  The Martin of Bohemia in question was Martin Behaim.  This is the super-helpful cleaned-up depiction of Behaim’s globe on Wikipedia:


If you look closely at that globe you’ll notice a few things.  First, you’ll notice that there is no strait of anybody, let alone Magellan.  It’s just a bunch of islands.  But if you look at the islands closely, you might notice a few other things.

First, Cipangu is on the left side, just above the Equator.  Just to its right you’ll see an island labeled “Sant Brandan.”  That would be the mythical Island of Saint Brendan, who supposedly traveled into the Atlantic and discovered a bunch of amazing stuff in the 6th Century.  Above and to the right of Sant Brandan you’ll see Antilia and Indicus.  Antilia is the mythical island of seven cities of gold that was depicted in the Pizzigano Chart and kicked off Menzies’ search for proof that the Chinese discovered America in 1421.  To the right of that are a bunch of other islands labeled Acores, Ferro, Canarie, and Cabo Verde.  Those are the Azores, Canaries, and Cape Verde Islands, which were long inhabited by the Portuguese and Spanish by 1492.  To the right of that are the west coasts of Africa and Europe.

Suspiciously absent, you might notice, is a giant landmass in between.  I mention this because it’s completely and totally obvious right here that Gavin Menzies did not do his homework.  If he actually cared about true historical inquiry – which, you’ll recall, he accused the many historians who greeted 1421 with silence of being guilty of – he might have looked at Martin Behaim’s map and noticed that it does not include America or anything even remotely America-like.

In fact, he could have read Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, which was published in 2003.  Bergreen offers this explanation:

Pigafetta was inadvertently responsible for the case of mistaken identity; in all likelihood, he confused Behaim’s rendition with that of another Nuremberg mapmaker, Johannes Schoner, a professor of mathematics who produced two maps, one in 1515 and the other in 1520, close to the time Magellan was displaying a map to King Charles.  To the nonspecialist, Schoner’s maps closely resembled Behaim’s, and Pigafetta could easily have mistaken one for the other, especially since Schoner did not sign his production.[1]

Let us then consider Schoner’s map.


That includes something that looks a lot like South America.  It also includes something that looks like a decent-sized island where North America would be.  And there’s a strait in between those two.  Also there’s a strait at the bottom, between proto-South America and a giant, completely out of place Antarctica-ish looking place.

If you look directly to the left of not-North-America you’ll also see an interesting land form: Cipangu.  It’s called Zipangri in the Schoner map, but that is most definitely Cipangu.  It’s also roughly in the neighborhood of the Baja Peninisula in the North America of reality.  From there, too, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump from Cipangu to mainland Asia.

That’s what Magellan was looking for: a quick route through the newly-discovered lands in the Atlantic that would grant him easy passage to the Spice Islands and fantastic wealth.  In the Schoner map Asia and Europe take up far more of the world than they do in reality, which is how Schoner’s Atlantic, Pacific, and Americas can be so very narrow.  This is an explanation that goes all the way back to Claudius Ptolemy.

Ptolemy made two mistakes in creating his map of the world that ended up really distorting his – and, therefore, posterity’s – notion of the world.  First, he underestimated the circumference of the planet by about 14 percent.  Second, he overestimated longitudinal distances.  In his map Europe and Asia reached approximately 180 degrees around the globe.  This is technically true, but for the ancient and medieval mind the east side of Asia pretty much meant China.  The distance from the west coast of Portugal to the east coast of China is about 140 degrees.  In 1492 Henricus Martellus completed his map, which increased the size of Europe and Asia to 230 degrees.  The 1474 Toscanelli Map also extended Europe and Asia around 230 degrees.  Toscanelli or his allies attempted to argue for a western voyage to Asia based on his conclusions.[2]  Wikipedia offers a helpful illustration of what Toscanelli’s Map would look like in the real world:


Notice how Cipangu is between the west coast of reality-Mexico and the east coast of the Baja Peninsula.  If you’re thinking that’s pretty much exactly the same place Schoner put it…well…I am, too.  Make a note of that, as I’ll be getting back to it shortly.

I need to back up just a bit.  I mentioned the weird-pseudo Antarctica in the Schoner map.  The straight between South America and pseudo-Antarctica is at about 42 degrees south on the Schoner map.  The actual south end of South America is down around 60 degrees.  So that’s too low.  There is, however, the Rio de la Plata at 35 degrees.  Let’s go back to Bergreen here.

Years before Magellan arrived at the Rio de la Plata, both Spanish and Portuguese ships had searched for the strait at this very point.  Antonio Galvao, who served as the Portuguese governor of the Moluccas, wrote about a “most rare and excellent map of the world, which was a great helpe [sic] to Don Henry (the Navigator) in his discouries [sic].”  In 1428, Galvao said, the king of Portugal’s eldest son made a journey through England, France, Germany, and Italy “from whence he brought a map of the world which had all the parts of the world and the earth described.  The Streight of Magelan [sic] was called in it the Dragon’s taile[sic].”  A dragon’s tail was a fitting image for the strait, suggesting that it was dangerous, sinuous, and possibly mythological.  Columbus believed in its existence, too.

I find this utterly fascinating.  For one thing, the 1428 map and Galvao’s description of it made it into Menzies’ 1421 and, not surprisingly, Menzies made a big deal about it.  For another thing, both Menzies and Bergreen get this one completely and totally wrong.  It’s understandable, since Galvao’s explanation doesn’t exactly make sense, either, but the Dragon’s Tail is a specific feature of world maps from the 15th Century.  Let’s look at the Martellus map:


See that big peninsula sticking down from the east side of Asia?  There’s a term for that: The Dragon’s Tail.  To understand the Dragon’s Tail, we need to understand Ptolemy’s map of the ancient world.  Also we need to understand a bit of Aristotle’s cosmography.  Isn’t this fun?[3]


If you look at that map you’ll see two broadly-defined areas: white areas and blue areas.  The blue areas are water.  The white areas are land.  If you look over at the right side of the map and then trace it down along the bottom, you’ll notice that the land seems to surround a huge, inland sea that stretches between the west coast of Africa and the general area around India.  Ptolemy thought that the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean was landlocked.  Let that thought rattle around for a bit.

The second thing we need to consider is Aristotelian cosmography.  Aristotle divided the world into five zones.  Broadly, these were two arctic zones, two temperate zones, and an area in between known as the torrid zone.  The notion we have of the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic Circle, the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn are holdouts of Aristotle’s notion of the world, as they are the dividing lines between various zones.  He believed that humans were incapable of surviving in the arctic zones and would burn up in the Torrid Zone.  He was also the only classical philosopher to maintain a hold on western European thought during the medieval period.  So when medieval cosmographers were drawing their T-O maps they were basing their world on Aristotle’s notion.

Aristotle had two other beliefs that matter a great deal.  The first was that there had to be a landmass of equal size on the opposite side of the Torrid Zone.  This was referred to as the antipodes, which is a term that literally means “opposed foot.”  The second was that there had to be a fourth part of the world somewhere, which would eventually be reached, with the first three being Europe, Asia, and Africa.  These two ideas are fundamentally linked.  Probably.

During the medieval period, however, people mostly kept to the notion of the uncrossable Torrid Zone.  Then Marco Polo made a brief mention of crossing so far south that the Pole Star could no longer be seen.  That meant that Marco Polo had crossed the Torrid Zone into the southern hemisphere and lived to tell the tale.

The Portuguese eventually figured out that Africa did end.  If you go back to the Martellus Map, however, you’ll see that Africa’s southeastern coast extends really far out into the Indian Ocean.  You’ll also see that there’s a giant peninsula that extends down from the east coast of China and stretches back towards Africa.  That’s an artifact of the Ptolemy map.  Martellus was the first European to make a map after the Portuguese found the southern tip of Africa.  He believed that it was still possible that land extended all around the islands Marco Polo had visited, so he adjusted his map accordingly.

This feature was repeated on a whole bunch of maps.  The interesting thing is, though, that it started with Martellus’s map in 1489-ish.  So the timeline of Galvao mentioning Magellan and a “dragon’s taile” and incorporating a date of 1428 is way off.  In my professional opinion, though, I’d say that Galvao got something wrong.  I see no conspiracy here.  Galvao was born thirty years after the death of Henry the Navigator and sixty years after the story related by Bergreen.  European knowledge of the globe increased exponentially in that time and, crucially, many of the discoveries and maps thereof were considered state secrets.  It’s not hard, then, to imagine that actual events or terminology were distorted from time to time.

Meanwhile, remember that notion of an equally-sized antipodean landmass?  It lived on in the European imagination as a land called “Terra Australis” or “Terra Australis Incognita,” also known as “the unknown southern land.”  Eventually, of course, a large southern land was discovered down in the antipodes.  They called it Australia.  Later on they found Antarctica.  Some mapmakers, however, insisted on putting Terra Australis on their maps.  I strongly suspect that’s what Johanes Schoner was up to.

Either way, I’m up to, like, page 7 and part 2 of this series of posts.  I’ve covered approximately five paragraphs of Menzies’ Introduction.  Two of those paragraphs contain one sentence and a third contains a rhetorical question followed by the words, “It doesn’t make sense.”

We’re making GREAT time.


[1]Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 170.

[2]Toscanelli also claims to have had a long conversation with an ambassador from Cathay in 1432, which most definitely got Menzies’ attention…

[3]Yes.  Yes it is.

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