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Passage to Cathay

The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524-1528

by Lawrence C. Wroth
Yale University Press, 320 pp., $25.00

The Beginnings of Modern Colonization

by Charles Verlinden, translated by Yvonne Freccero
Cornell University Press, 248 pp., $9.75

Beyond the Capes: Pacific Exploration from Captain Cook to the Challenger (1776-1877)

by Ernest S. Dodge
Little, Brown, 429 pp., $12.50

After a hundred leagues we found a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flowed out into the sea…. We took the small boat up this river to land which we found densely populated. The people were almost the same as the others, dressed in birds’ feathers of various colors, and they came toward us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment, and showing us the safest place to beach the boat.

These cheerful and hospitable people, “dressed in birds’ feathers of various colors,” were the inhabitants of New York.

The year was 1524. The occasion, the arrival of a Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to set eyes on and describe this “very agreeable place.” But what was a Florentine, commanding a French ship, the Dauphine, doing in New York Bay in 1524? The story is a complex one, which still contains many puzzles and obscurities. But at least we now have access to all the available evidence, thanks to the work of the great Americanist, the late Dr. Lawrence C. Wroth.

The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano is a superb professional study that will make all earlier studies of Verrazzano obsolete. At its heart is Verrazzano’s own account of his voyage, one of the great narratives of sixteenth-century exploration and discovery, which has until now been inaccessible (and unfortunately may well continue to be so, given the inevitably high price of this volume). The text here reproduced in facsimile, with a transcription into the original Italian and a lively English translation by Mrs. Susan Tarrow, is that of the so-called Cellère Codex, which is now housed in the Pierpont Morgan Library. The special interest of this Codex, apart from its textual superiority to the other known versions, lies in the existence of twenty-six annotations in Verrazzano’s own hand. We have here, therefore, a text of extraordinary fascination, whose origins can be traced back to Verrazzano himself.

Verrazzano’s account of his 1524 voyage, which runs to only ten pages of printed text, is a wonderful document, partly because of what he saw and partly because of who he was. He was the first European to observe and describe the North American coastline, from the Carolinas to Newfoundland. He also happened to be the best-educated explorer of the Northern Hemisphere in the sixteenth century. It is possible, but by no means certain, that his parents were members of the colony of Florentine bankers and merchants that had established itself in the important French commercial center of Lyon. But if he was born in France he received probably in his ancestral Tuscany a typical Florentine humanist education. As a result, we see North America in 1524 through the eyes of a Renaissance gentleman.

There is intelligent curiosity here about both the land and its people, as one would expect fron an explorer with such a privileged background. The landscapes are more vividly re-created than in most contemporary accounts: one can even smell in Verrazzano’s work the fragrance of the “palms, laurel, cypress and other varieties of tree unknown in our Europe.” There are times, perhaps, when he seems to be describing Arcadia rather than America—and indeed he bestowed the name of Arcadia on the coast of North Carolina—but the colored lenses provided by acquaintance with classical antiquity do not prevent sharp observation of people and places.

Verrazzano had enough knowledge of both literature and the world to be able to embark on a little comparative ethnology. He found, for instance, the Wampanoag Indians of Narragansett Bay “the most beautiful,” and having “the most civil customs” of any he had seen on his voyage. The lyrical description of these Indians, with their graceful bodies, their tawny color, their black and alert eyes, is almost too good to be true; and Verrazzano gives the game away when he compares their “sweet and gentle” manner to that of the “ancients.” These denizens of the forests of America perhaps bore less resemblance to Indians than to the gods and nymphs of classical antiquity. Yet at the same time he could compare the feminine hair-styles with those of Syria and Egypt, and comment on the oriental fashion in which men and women had trinkets hanging from their ears.

In retrospect the information which he relays about North America and its inhabitants seems more than adequate justification for a voyage which, so far as its proclaimed object was concerned, was not a success. In a remarkable chapter entitled “What Verrazzano Knew,” Dr. Wroth reconstructs the geographical knowledge available to Verrazzano as he was planning his expedition. This chapter, which, like the rest of Dr. Wroth’s commentary, is the outcome of ingenious scholarly detective work, shows that he no longer believed that there existed only an empty ocean between Europe and Asia, but one containing two continents, which had somehow to be circumnavigated. His object, in his own words, was to “reach Cathay and the extreme coast of Asia.” It was therefore a shock to find the route apparently blocked by the solid land mass of America.

The implications of this were not lost on contemporaries. Bernardo Carli, another Florentine in Lyon, wrote home to his father that Verrazzano had found a mass of land “greater than Europe, Africa and a part of Asia; ergo mundus novus.” It was a New World that was slowly delineating itself on European maps; and Europeans of the sixteenth century had the curiosity, the motivation, and the skill to make this New World their own. Why this should have been so is one of the great problems of world history, which cannot be solved by vague references to daring and courage or to an alleged technical superiority which is merely taken for granted instead of being examined. Was it after all inevitable that Christendom, rather than Ming China, should discover and colonize America?

The clues that would enable us to answer this question with real confidence and conviction lie buried deep in the history of medieval Europe. A number of these clues Professor Verlinden, of the University of Ghent, tenaciously follows in The Beginnings of Modern Colonization. This is a collection of eleven essays, previously published in learned journals, and here usefully brought together in an English translation. In a compilation of this nature there is bound to be repetition; and some of the essays are too technical to be of more than professional interest. Between them, however, they add up to an impressive dossier of the extent of “colonial” experience gained by the Mediterranean world in the Middle Ages.

The Genoese in particular are the heroes of Professor Verlinden’s story. He shows how the method employed by Genoese in their Levantine possessions were transmitted to Spain and Portugal, and then in turn used by the Spanish and Portuguese in their colonization of the Atlantic islands and America. The discovery and settlement of the New World thus becomes not the achievement of one or two nations, but a great cooperative enterprise drawing on the accumulated experience of the Mediterranean peoples. The real theme of Verlinden’s essays is that of continuity, in space and in time. There is the continuity between Mediterranean and Atlantic, and the continuity, too, between medieval and modern.

While Professor Verlinden seems to show a certain arrogance in his approach to any part of the world that lies outside Western Europe, he nevertheless successfully shows the importance of treating Western Europe itself as a whole, instead of discussing it only as a group of national units. The history of European overseas expansion has for too long been be-deviled by an excessively nationalistic approach, because so much of the pioneering work on exploration was done by nineteenth-century historians at a moment when the creation of the nation-state seemed to be the logical culmination of European history. Even now, relics of this spirit survive in the strident claims for Portuguese, or some other national, priority in the field of discovery. But it is enough to look at Verrazzano’s voyage, undertaken with the support of the French crown and with the financial backing of a group of Florentine silk merchants in Lyon, to realize the absurdity of this approach.

The history of European exploration requires an understanding, far removed from a narrowly nationalist spirit, of the creative springs of European civilization. It requires, too, a profound comprehension of methods and techniques. The company organization, the various types of colonial concession, which Professor Verlinden has studied to such good effect, constitute an integral part of the history of overseas discovery. So, too, do geography and cartography and the techniques of navigation. If all this suggests the need for a supranational and highly practical polymath, we have at least something very close to this paragon in that most vital of ancient American institutions, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison.

At the age of eighty-four Admiral Morison published the first volume of an intended trilogy on The European Discovery of America. Consisting of nearly 700 pages, it deals with the earlier northern voyages, and is to be followed by a second volume on the southern voyages, and a third on the northern voyages of the early seventeenth century. The audacity of the enterprise takes one’s breath away—or would, if it was not so entirely in keeping with all that we know about Admiral Morison. Here is a man who not only describes the voyages of reconnaissance and discovery, but has actually followed many of them on the sea or from the air. This gives his book an immediacy, a sense of intimate acquaintance with the shoals, the creeks, and the shore, which lifts it out of the category of armchair exploration. Reading Morison, one gets a lively sense of the individual characteristics of his navigators—how Verrazzano, for instance, had a habit of avoiding harbors, which explains how he came to miss great bays like the Chesapeake, the Delaware, and the Hudson estuary.

Essentially, his book is a fast-moving narrative of the various sixteenth-century voyages to northern America, with salty reflections and trenchant comments on scholarly debates. Nothing if not controversial, as on the Vinland map, whose authenticity he doubts, he sails cheerfully on, exuding that all too precious commodity, bluff common sense. Here is a sample of his method:

Although Dr. Armando Cortesao and other Portuguese historians insist that some or all of these enterprising sailors “must” have discovered Newfoundland or Hispaniola, there is no evidence that they found anything. With the exception of the Azores, the story of Portuguese westward search before 1500 is a chronicle of failure. The explanation is meteorological. They struck out into the Western Ocean at seasons and in latitudes where strong westerly winds, even today, make navigation for sailing vessels full of danger and uncertainty.

Such trenchant discussions make this a bracing book both for the scholar and for the general reader, who will find himself carried effortlessly along by a master of the art of narrative history. It adopts no nationalist parti pris, although there are signs of an almost Rowsean enthusiasm for the England of Elizabeth. But the French explorations receive full treatment, while at the same time the French failure to annex all America north of Florida is sympathetically examined. I am not sure that the book makes much clearer the exact reasons why Europeans succeeded in sustaining the vast collective effort required for the exploration and colonization of America; but it gives such an overwhelming impression of European dynamism, perseverance, and ingenuity that one would have been surprised if events had turned out otherwise.

But to what end were the perseverance and ingenuity directed? These Europeans of the sixteenth century were, like Verrazzano, searching for the road to Cathay. Verrazzano himself helped to put his successors on the wrong track. Convinced that the route must exist, he invented a Sea of Verrazzano, which inspired and misled English seamen of the later sixteenth century. It is the search for this alternative northern route to Cathay and the spices of the Indies that provides the theme for Professor Morison’s book, as for the voyages that it chronicles. It was, moreover, a dream that died hard. At the beginning of Ernest S. Dodge’s Beyond the Capes, a study of Pacific exploration between 1776 and 1877, we find Captain Cook setting out on his fatal third voyage in 1776 to find the western end of the Northwest Passage.

Mr. Dodge’s Beyond the Capes lacks the color and sweep of Admiral Morison’s survey, but it usefully recounts the various voyages of Pacific exploration. Comparing these voyages with those of the sixteenth century, one is inevitably struck by the much more scientific spirit of inquiry and observation displayed by the Pacific explorers. The hints of a scientific attitude are already apparent in Verrazzano; but by the early nineteenth century this approach became a matter of course. Europe developed a scientifically oriented civilization.

But whether this allowed it to approach newly discovered indigenous peoples with fewer preconceptions than had been displayed in the sixteenth century remains very much open to question. The South Sea islanders were described, and even drawn (like Kaiana, the Hawaiian chief, illustrated in Dodge’s book), in a way that suggested that European ideas were influenced less by reality than by the Romantic imagination. Verrazzano’s Indians resembled the ancients, Meares’s Hawaiians of 1788 resembled Noble Savages. For all the scientific revolution that divided the two men, the European eye obstinately continued to see what it wanted to see, rather than what was really before it.

Nor, unfortunately, did the resemblance end there. Verrazzano, according to those who knew him, wanted to bring “those rough and ignorant people to the divine worship and to our most holy faith,” and to show them “how to cultivate the land, by means of transporting some animals from our Europe to those most spacious fields.” The Pacific explorers similarly brought with them the benefits of European civilization, with consequences that might have been foreseen from the earlier American experience. Of the inhabitants of Tahiti, George Vancouver wrote:

So important are the various European implements, and other commodities, now become to the happiness and comfort of these islanders, that I cannot avoid reflecting with Captain Cook on the very deplorable condition to which these good people on a certainty must be reduced, should their communication with Europeans be ever at an end.

The disruption of traditional patterns of culture and society; the exposure of dangerously vulnerable peoples to European diseases; the new brutality that entered human relationships as soon as the discoverers and the discovered came face to face—these were the apparently inevitable fruits of Europe’s great expansionist surge. For Professor Verlinden,

…the indigenous societies soon began to assimilate European civilization, and, whatever the brutalities that accompanied this process, there is no doubt that living conditions in the American continent were progressively improved to a level incomparably superior to what they had been, even in the great Indian states, before the discovery.

Others, who read in Morison and Dodge of the fate of Eskimos, Indians, and Tahitians, will wonder if the balance sheet is so easily drawn.

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