07 January 2004

Africa and the Atlantic Islands Meet the Garden of Eden

Christopher Columbus's vision of the world beyond Europe was deeply influenced by what he gleaned from written sources such as Marco Polo and the Bible. Yet he also had a great deal of personal and practical experience from travels in the Atlantic Islands and costal regions of West Africa. Upon his arrival in the Caribbean, he expected to find the Asia described by Marco Polo. Initially, he considered establishing a series of factories and trading posts, similar to those of the Portuguese in West Africa, from which Europeans could tap into local trade networks. When he discovered that brisk trading relations would not likely come about in the near future, he advocated the establishment of mining and agricultural enterprises, such as those the Portuguese and Castilians had founded in the Atlantic islands. Thus his experience in Africa and the Atlantic islands helped shape his responses to the conditions he unexpectedly encountered in the Caribbean.
SOURCE: William D. Phillips, Jr., "Africa and the Atlantic Islands Meet the Garden of Eden: Christopher Columbus's View of America," Journal of World History, vol. 3 (1992).

A few of the other articles in the same issue look rather interesting, too, judging from the abstracts.

UPDATE: Jim Bennett leaves a fascinating comment about something else Columbus learned from earlier experience.
Another effect of Columbus's experiences in sailing the eastern Atlantic was his understanding of the Atlantic wind system, particularly if you accept his own account of having sailed to Iceland and the seas to its north. Rather than argue over exactly how much credit Columbus deserves for discovering the Americas (an endless and problematic exercise) perhaps it's worth focusing in Columbus as the discoverer of the mid-Atlantic wind system. This was the underlying reason for his intuitive leap of departing from the Canaries, rather than the Azores, unlike previous expeditions. A Canaries departure puts one into the mid-Atlantic wind system bound west; an Azores departure usually results in fighting the wind system, harder in those days with rigs that couldn't sail close to the wind.

No comments: