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How the Winds Changed History

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a prolific and learned English-born historian of Spanish descent, begins his new book as follows:

History has two big stories to tell. The first is the very long story of how human cultures diverged—how they parted and developed differences, in ignorance or contempt of one another. The second is the main subject of this book: a relatively short and recent story of convergence—of how human groups got back in touch, exchanged culture, copied each other’s lives, and became more like each other again.

This arrestingly simple scheme was his own invention, though he acknowledges affinities with a recent article advancing a similar idea that appeared when his book was already in press.* The notion gives an overall coherence to Pathfinders, making the myriad explorers with whom he deals agents of what another age would surely have called progress. Yet Fernández-Armesto is no Pollyanna. He admits but does not emphasize the destructive aspects of cultural encounters across the millennia and the unhappy fate of marginal peoples exposed to unfamiliar diseases and new weapons who, often as not, were compelled to labor for distant markets wholly beyond their control.

Of Pathfinders‘ nine chronologically arrayed chapters, only two, covering a mere sixty-eight pages, deal with exploration before 1000 CE. Since he begins “around a million and a half years ago” with the migration of Homo erectus and then of Homo sapiens from the African savanna, his treatment of human prehistory before the end of the last ice age is hasty, and concludes with a very dubious rhetorical flourish:

We think worldwide uniformities of culture are a new phenomenon of our era of globalization. Nothing could be more wrong: the great age of global culture—the most “globalized” era in history—was in the Stone Age. When that age ended, diversification accelerated. When some peoples began to abandon foraging and take up farming, and to forget nomadism in favor of urban life, there arose the sharpest differences of culture ever experienced by any species.

In view of the wide differences that still exist between, for example, Eskimo and Pygmy society, this vision of Stone Age globalism remains implausible. Amazing ingenuity in adapting to divergent climates and varied food resources is a better way to describe the impression given by the scant archaeological and anthropological evidence we have.

To be sure, diversity did increase with the emergence of farming and cities. Yet the next section of Pathfinders‘ initial chapter is headed “The Beginnings of Convergence,” and deals with traces of interregional trade among early farmers. He goes on to deal with “communication between civilizations” and cites Egyptian written records describing the first recorded human being—“Harkhuf”—“whom we can fairly call a specialized explorer.” Around “the middle of the third millennium BC” he made three expeditions into central Africa, whence he brought back a pygmy “who dances divine dances from the land of the spirits.”

The discussion of “trail finders” concludes with brief accounts of Phoenician and Greek explorers of the western Mediterranean, the opening of the Silk Road between China and Persia, and anonymous explorers of the monsoon seas adjacent to south and southeast Asia, where the prevailing winds blow away from Central Asia in the winter and reverse themselves in the summer, making it possible to sail in different directions depending on the season. As befits a man whose ancestors lived in Spain’s northwest corner, whose deep-sea fishermen helped explore the Atlantic, Fernández-Armesto is especially expert on early seafaring. I, for one, had never realized that early sailors feared going “downwind,” i.e., sailing before the wind. He explains:

Most would-be discoverers have preferred to sail against the elements—actually avoiding a following wind—presumably because it was at least as important to get home as to get anywhere new…. The monsoonal wind system in the Indian Ocean liberated navigators from such constraints…. The predictability of a homeward wind made this the world’s most benign environment for long-range voyaging.

In fact, the ability of sailors to detect and make use of prevailing winds is a central theme of Fernández-Armesto’s book, as when he examines patterns of oceanic exploration before 1000 CE. High points were the feats of Polynesian navigation across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, “the last great episode of global divergence”; and the no less arduous exploits of Arctic and North Atlantic exploration by Vikings and Eskimos that “constitute a phase of remarkable convergence: they met in Greenland.” Another achievement was the extension and consolidation of a network of commerce and contact across the monsoon seas of the Indian and Pacific oceans. For a while, Javanese and Austronesians undertook pioneering voyages beyond the monsoonal system to reach the coast of Africa, but soon after the initial explosion of Islam (632–750), Muslims of increasingly diverse ethnic background became dominant in exploration throughout the Indian Ocean. Within a century or so they reached the coasts of China, Japan, and Korea. A Persian sea captain, Abhara, for example, became famous by traveling to China and back no fewer than seven times in the ninth century. By his day, sailors outward-bound from the Persian Gulf could expect to reach China in 110 days by sailing at the right time of year to catch the most favorable winds.

Despite very scrappy written sources, Fernández-Armesto emphasizes the importance of seafaring helped by monsoon winds before 1000:

Some of the great world-changing exchanges of history took place across and around the Indian Ocean…transmissions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to southeast Asia; the shipping of pilgrims—those agents of cultural exchange—to Mecca; the transformation of the ocean…into an Islamic lake; the seaborne trade of east Asia with Africa and the Middle East, and, in part, the westward transfer of Chinese technology.

A discussion entitled “Stirring: Landward Explorations in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages” also treats

processes hard to reconstruct with the sources available to us. New or developing routes from this period tend to be documented, in surviving materials, relatively late in the day, by people who made use of them when they were already well established—merchants, pilgrims, mapmakers, missionaries, diplomats, bureaucrats, warriors, wandering scholars, and curious travelers—rather than by explorers who pioneered or improved them.

Yet even if they are belated, surviving records provide Fernández-Armesto with plenty of familiar tales: about Buddhist pilgrims from China traveling to and from India; about Marco Polo, and the less familiar Rabban Bar Sauma, a Nestorian Christian pilgrim from Peking who traveled westward through regions controlled by the Mongol Empire and visited Constantinople, Rome, and even Paris between 1276 and 1288 before returning to Persia, where he died in 1294.

Fernández-Armesto comments on Bar Sauma’s effort to link up with his fellow Christians:

His journey showed how Eurasia…, though bridged by the roads the Mongols policed, was still divided by chasms of culture. He had to use Persian to try to communicate with his hosts in Christendom and it is evident that a lot of what he and they said to each other was lost in translation…. Nevertheless, the fact that he completed his journey at the same time that Marco Polo and other Westerners were doing so in the opposite direction demonstrates the efficacy of the Mongol peace in making Eurasia traversable…. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the revolutionary experiences of Western civilization at the time…were owed in part to influences exerted along the Silk Roads and steppeland routes.

The author goes on to survey exploration and mapping in Japan, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Everywhere he finds expanding connections until the fourteenth century, when “the little ice age” and widespread plagues “checked the expansion of the great civilizations of Eurasia and North Africa.”

Meanwhile, the Mongol empire crumbled…. The steppeland road across Eurasia again became unusable. The Silk Roads became hazardous once more…. Internal exploration had been carried out thoroughly wherever it is documented—in Christendom, China, Islam, Japan, Java. In Europe, excited imaginations filled speculative maps with discoveries yet unmade. Gold traffickers, despairing of the Sahara, turned seaward. They were not alone. As we shall see in the next chapter, the late Middle Ages were a time of new maritime ventures in exploration as far afield as China, Russia, and—most persistently—Europe’s Atlantic edge.

The next three chapters—“Springing: The Maritime Turn of the Late Middle Ages and the Penetration of the Atlantic,” “Vaulting: The Great Leap Forward of the 1490s,”and “Girdling: Connecting Global Routes, c. 1500–c. 1620”—are the core of Pathfinders, and Fernández-Armesto is here a most excellent guide. He is thoroughly familiar with the voyages and personalities of the principal European explorers. Most of his earlier books and articles focused on the discovery of the Atlantic islands off Africa, and on the decipherment of wind patterns, currents, and other aids to transoceanic navigation. Years of reading and reflection lie behind his judgments, and allow him to offer new insights into the story as a whole, as well as into the personalities and thought worlds of individal explorers.

To begin with, most details remain unknown of how, beginning in 1291, Genoese and Majorcan seafarers, soon followed by Spanish and Portuguese, began to explore the Atlantic in hope of finding a sea route to the gold of sub-Saharan West Africa and discovered such island archipelagoes as the Canary Islands instead. But Fernándo-Armesto affirms that

recent scholarship has sorted out sufficiently the problems associated with the relevant maps…to make a few conclusions clear. In 1339 some of the Canary Islands and the Madeira group appeared for the first time on a surviving map. By the time of maps reliably dated to the 1380s, the Canaries are shown almost complete, with the Savage Islands, the Madeira archipelago, and all but two of what look like the islands of the Azores.

Skeptical experts disagree, but according to Fernández-Armesto the “logic of the geography…settles the question,” since

the winds and currents of the Atlantic naturally form a system of ducts, which tend to take ships southwest from the Pillars of Hercules [the promontories flanking the Strait of Gibraltar] and at most seasons force a wide northward sweep out to sea upon returning traffic…. The Canaries lay on the outward track of vessels bound for the African Atlantic; the Azores studded their best route back home….Open-sea voyages of a length unprecedented in European experience were now under way: they became something like routine from the 1430s, when Portuguese way stations, sown with wheat and stocked with wild sheep, were established on the Azores.

Pathfinders tells us that the inland state of Castile became active overseas only through “one of those epoch-making accidents that history sometimes throws up.” In 1404, a French expedition led by Jean de Béthencourt swore fealty to the king of Castile before sailing off to conquer three of the Canary Islands:

As an undesigned result, Castile had Europe’s first Atlantic colony in central latitudes and—more significantly for the future of the world—a base almost athwart the Atlantic trade winds, from where the remoter ocean, and its further shore, could be explored. Castile was in a position to control access to the Atlantic wind system when the era of transoceanic navigation began later in the century.

  1. *

    David Northrup, “Globalization and the Great Convergence: Rethinking World History in the Long Term,” Journal of World History, Vol. 16, No. 3 (September 2005), pp. 249–268.

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