In 1405 a Chinese fleet of sixty-three vessels, carrying “tens of thousands” of men, showed the flag all over the northern Indian Ocean, including the entrances to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and the Somali coast. At least six similar expeditions followed in the succeeding twenty-eight years—years in which the first painful and tentative Portuguese exploration of the West African coast began. The Chinese fleets were vastly greater than any commanded by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, or Magellan. “Probably the most reliable ships in the world, and probably also the biggest were Chinese,” Professor Parry tells us. Chinese sailors were at least the equals of Europeans in technical proficiency. They were using the mariner’s compass a century earlier than European navigators. Chinese charts were not inferior to those of Europe in the early fifteenth century, and covered vastly greater areas.

Yet it was Europeans who opened up the sea route between Europe and the Indian Ocean, and between South America and the Far East. Why? Professor Parry, whose fascinating and superbly illustrated book poses this tantalizing question, attributes European primacy to a Chinese political decision to withdraw from the Indian Ocean. The consequence of this decision was “a slowing down of Chinese development of hydrography and navigation at a time when European skill and knowledge in these arts was entering on a period of very rapid progress.” Professor Parry is no Chinese expert, so it is perhaps unfair to complain that this is to answer one question with another. Why did the Ming dynasty take this political decision? Which rival forces inside China supported isolation, and which supported expansion? On what grounds? The similar problems of China’s failure to have a scientific or an industrial revolution are being explored in Joseph Needham’s monumental Science and Civilization in China. “China had far more attraction for Europe than Europe could possibly have for educated Chinese,” Professor Parry tells us, and this probably remained true for another half millennium. One day we shall perhaps know why.

Meanwhile the Chinese retreat left the Indian Ocean to Arab seamen, also no mean performers. They too used the magnetic compass in the fifteenth century, and were unimpressed by Magellan’s heavy and slow ships when they appeared in Eastern waters. The Arabs could have circumnavigated Africa, and perhaps had the technical skills to cross the Pacific if the idea had occurred to them. In this case the answer may lie in the political disunity of the Arab and Muslim peoples, which prevented the emergence of states strong enough to support the effort necessary for continuous exploration and conquest. But again the ultimate reasons for the disunity remain to be explained.

If Professor Parry is better at raising these vast questions than at answering them, nevertheless within his own sphere of expertise he is very good indeed. He is an old hand at writing books which combine sound scholarship with easy exposition—even though there are times when this reader would have found a glossary of nautical terms useful. Professor Parry’s secondary questions are: Why were Portugal and Spain the first European nations in the field of exploration? Why were they ultimately displaced by the Netherlands, France, and England?

He puts the discoveries into a historical perspective—at least from the European point of view. Thirteenth-century Genoese attempts to circumnavigate Africa were abandoned when Genghis Khan imposed peace on Asia, and made the land route to the Far East cheaper and more profitable than that by sea. But “the doors which had opened so invitingly in the middle of the thirteenth century were slammed shut in the middle of the fourteenth” by the coincidence of the Black Death and civil wars all over Europe with the collapse of Tatar rule in central Asia.

When recovery came in the fifteenth century, the economic motives for expanding extra-European trade were simple. Between 1495 and 1499, for instance, because trade routes were interrupted by war, the price of pepper at Venice doubled, and some of the rarer spices were unobtainable. Yet by this time they were regarded as necessities by wealthy Europeans, without which indeed the dried and salted meat (which everybody had to eat in winter who could afford meat at all) must have been extremely unpalatable. Vasco da Gama sailed to India at exactly the right time, returning with the news that pepper could be bought in Calicut at less than one-twenty-sixth of the price prevailing in Venice. On his second voyage he brought back over 1,900 metric tons of spices, mostly pepper. “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” wrote one of the earliest Portuguese in those parts—a trifle prematurely, as it turned out.

To snatch Far Eastern trade from the Venetians and Genoese, operating overland through the Middle East, required organization and action on a scale which could be undertaken only by governments. “Portugal was the first European country,” says Professor Parry, “in which overseas exploration…was actively supported over a long period by government.” The circumnavigation of Africa was preceded by the assembly, on royal initiative, of a commission of mathematical experts to agree on the best method of finding latitude by solar observation. One member of the commission was sent off on a voyage to Guinea in order to test the recommended methods. (The same experts sat in judgment on Columbus’s proposals in 1484 to sail west to China, and pronounced them “vain.”)


Once the break-through had been made, thanks to state support, financiers from the older commercial centers of Italy and Germany were prepared to invest capital in the further development of Far Eastern trade. But state backing was still necessary. The Portuguese conquest of the trade of the Indian Ocean was achieved by naval aggression and piracy on a scale which would have been impossible for private persons; and the same is true of the Spanish conquest and settlement of central and southern America. Columbus’s second voyage was already directed at the colonization of Hispaniola. That is why, in the very long run, the final destruction of Arab and Venetian trade with the East was the achievement of the Dutch, French, and English rather than of the Portuguese. The same richer nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries won the greatest profits from the sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

But this became possible only after the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain, and the seventeenth-century English revolution, had established the domination of commercial interests in those countries, and after the French state had been reorganized for fullscale military and naval effort. In the sixteenth century English sea dogs, Dutch Beggars, and French Huguenots showed how much—but also how little that was permanent—could be achieved by private enterprise. Even North America, inhabited by less populous and far less organized communities than Asia or South and Central America, proved very difficult for private enterprise to settle permanently.

Discussing the factors which combined initially to favor Portugal and Spain, Professor Parry distinguishes two separate European traditions of ship construction and of navigation—the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic, and shows how the seamen of Portugal and western Andalusia, at the point of junction of the two traditions, learned from both. (We should perhaps think not of Spain in the fifteenth century, which was still disunited, but of Castile, a political unit comparable in size and strength with Portugal.) This dual inheritance gave the Portuguese and Castilians an advantage over the old-established Mediterranean naval states of Venice and Genoa. And once centralized nation states of any significant size began to be formed they controlled resources in men if not in money beyond the capacity of the vulnerable Italian republics. They could buy the services of “international mercenaries, condottieri of the sea.” Columbus and Cabot were Genoese, Amerigo Vespucci a Florentine; Portuguese navigators like Solis and Magellan were found in the service of Spain.

One constant social factor in the newly forming nation states—whether Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, or England, France, and the Netherlands in the sixteenth—was the existence of a knightly class whose high traditional expectations were suffering from the ending of private war at home, the professionalization of foreign warfare, and the social effects of inflation. They were ready and eager, in the words of Ralegh, one of them, “to seek new worlds, for gold, for praise, for glory.” They tried to recoup their fortunes, either by taking to piracy—plundering existing trade—or by seeking for free land to settle outside their own country—Iberians in the Canaries, Madeira, the Azores, Englishmen in Ireland in the first instance, both in America later.

The existence of settlements in the western islands was a necessary preliminary to the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa, which involved a broad sweep out into mid-Atlantic; and Ireland was the training ground for most of the Elizabethan sea dogs. The initial driving force in exploration then came largely from the gentry, under the patronage of the new nation states. In Jacobean England gentlemen were more adventurous investors than sober city merchants. In the long run the support of the latter was essential; in the short run the former were prepared to take risks which prudent businessmen were not. Throughout there was a curious ambivalent relationship between the two social groups, resolved in New Spain by the supremacy of the feudal-military element over the commercial; whereas in England and the Netherlands the commercial element prevailed.

Professor Parry’s book is about routes to the Far East and to America; the remaining three under review are primarily about routes to America. Here the problems are different. The Chinese or the Arabs could have “discovered the sea,” could have linked the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans; but it was Europeans who did it. In the case of America there was no alternative possibility: American Indians lacked the ships, the navigational techniques, and the commercial organization for purposeful crossings of the Atlantic or the Pacific.


Historians differ about the significance of the European discovery of America. An American professor once surprised an international conference by saying that this discovery was as important in human history as the discovery of fire. Another American wrote, apropos John Cabot, “his contribution to geography is a magnificent one. He discovered North America.” Others have not been so sure. America was discovered by accident, one wit said correctly, and nobody knew what to do with it when found. Why was it discovered?

We must differentiate between the intellectual monomania of Columbus, on the one hand, and the economic interests and rivalries of the Western European states on the other. Columbus had a mission, which looks grand today because it was successful. But he was hopelessly wrong in most of his expectations, and had fantastic luck in the outcome. He died believing that the continent to which he had sailed was Asia. Amerigo Vespucci, the man after whom the new continent was named, also refused to believe that it was anything but the old continent of Asia. The arguments with which Columbus tried to persuade governments that Japan was only 2,400 nautical miles from the Canaries (it is in fact nearly five times that distance) were pretty unconvincing even in his own day. On the evidence before them, the experts were quite right to dismiss his project as unsound. What gave his hunch its chance was the rivalries of the great powers, rather as the slightly more accurate scientists of our own century could only put men on the moon thanks to Soviet-American rivalry.

Nevertheless, if Columbus had not discovered America, someone else would have—though not as the result of any better scientific calculations. Throughout the fifteenth century Spaniards and Portuguese were island-hopping from the Canaries to Madeira to the Azores. As the Portuguese battled their way round the African continent which obstructed their route to India, they learned to swing further and further out to sea, in order to take advantage of the trade winds. They discovered Brazil, independently, in 1500. The Spanish government might have lost interest in Columbus after his first two voyages had located neither China nor gold were it not for the fact that their Portuguese rivals were equipping Vasco da Gama’s expedition round the Cape of Good Hope to India, and Henry VII was employing John Cabot to find a northerly route to China.

Another way to make the point is to contrast the Norse discovery of Vinland in the eleventh century—which in my lifetime has passed from legend to accepted fact, confirmed by archaeological evidence from Newfoundland—with the discoveries of the age of Columbus. The latter were rapidly known all over Europe. Vinland was celebrated in family sagas, but no one else knew or cared about it: it was just one more island the Norsemen had happened on. The age which had to absorb the discoveries of Columbus was the age of Machiavelli, Copernicus, and Luther, an age of intellectual curiosity and speculation. It was also the age of the printing press; the rapid spread of news and ideas about America is yet one more instance of the profound and incalculable effects of that invention, which gave a totally new dimension both to scientific inquiry and to government propaganda.

“We should be on our guard,” says Professor Quinn wisely, “against thinking that Atlantic voyaging was chiefly the result of academic theorizing, with no specific economic objectives.” In the last resort, economic motives were as decisive for the discovery of America as of the sea route to India. The island-hopping of the Norsemen—from Ireland to the Faroes to Iceland to Greenland to Vinland—produced effective colonies of settlement only when linked to trade. The Norse population of Greenland died off in the fifteenth century when the commercial link snapped: the Vinland settlement was an incidental escape, not an economic penetration. In this respect the Pilgrim Fathers were rather like the Vinland settlers, but they had powerful and farsighted commercial backers behind them, as well as an ideological inducement to endure the initial hardships of settlement.

Madeira and the Azores produced sugar and wine; the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands had good fisheries (like Newfoundland); so there was sound economic reason for seeking other Atlantic islands. Hakluyt wanted to re-create in North America sources of goods hitherto imported from the Mediterranean—wine, olive oil, sugar, citrus fruits, figs, salt, iron, dyestuffs, perhaps silk and rice. As the Indians were Christianized, it was argued, they would start wearing clothes, to the advantage of the English textile industry. Export of colonists would relieve the country of rogues, vagabonds, and religious dissidents. Such arguments loomed large in the propaganda of the Virginia Company. Walrus oil for soap-making was a major reason for English penetration of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Other economic incentives were gold and slaves, the most valuable imports of African trade from the start. The slave trade boomed especially after the discovery of America. Conversion of the heathen figured largely in Portuguese and Spanish diplomatic documents designed to win papal support, and in the commercial prospectuses of the Virginia Company. But there was always much self-deception and double-think here. The Portuguese government took no notice of a threat from the Sultan of Turkey that he would destroy the Holy Places in Jerusalem if the Portuguese did not cease their aggression in the Indian Ocean: perhaps they knew that the Venetians were inciting the Turks against their fellow Christians. Columbus commented that the Arawaks of the Bahamas were friendly and docile: they would make willing converts and tractable servants. And of course there were religious reasons for wanting gold. “Gold is the most precious of all commodities,” said Columbus in a famous phrase. “He who possesses it has all he needs in this world, as also the means of rescuing souls from Purgatory and restoring them to the enjoyment of Paradise.”

Subjectively for some individual explorers and colonists the religious motive no doubt counted; objectively ships would never have got across the Atlantic or round Africa without government support and merchant capital. One of the least convincing of Admiral Morison’s pages is his final vision of the sixteenth century as “an Epiphany in the religious sense; the main conception and aim of Columbus, to carry the Word of God and knowledge of His Son to the far corners of the globe, became a fact.” “Envy, malice, treachery, cruelty, lechery and plain greed” are the more realistic words he uses elsewhere to describe the bearers of Christian civilization. “Of the estimated native population of 250,000 in 1492” (in Hispaniola), the admiral had written earlier, “not 500 remained alive in 1538.” A similarly horrifying genocide occurred wherever Europeans went. Either the natives resisted and were massacred; or they did not and were exterminated by disease and forced labor. The survivors of Columbus’s “docile servants” did indeed accept a nominal Catholicism; but slave labor had to be imported from Africa to do the work. So the economies of the two newly discovered areas were ingeniously combined, to the great profit of English and Dutch slavetraders.

Professor Quinn is especially interesting on the interrelation of settlement and privateering. Capital invested in Elizabethan overseas voyages could only be recovered by plundering the Spanish empire and its fleets. So there was always a temptation to divert colonizing expeditions, or the ships sent to relieve a plantation, into piracy. So long as state support was not forthcoming, and so long as privateering was economically more attractive than settlement, it proved impossible to build up an English community across the Atlantic. For only a numerous colony, regularly supplied from the home country, could hold out against Indian hostility in the initial years. A break-through came with a combination of religious dissidents (Puritan and Catholic) as settlers with sympathetic merchants who were prepared to forego immediate profit; but the final solution was reached only in the 1650s, when the power of a new English state was put behind the colonists.

Mr. Foss’s book has attractive illustrations, and contains biographical sketches of Thomas Stukeley, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and Sir Walter Ralegh. But none of these is in any way original. This short book is an adequate introduction for those unacquainted with the subject; it cannot compare in knowledge, power of writing, or richness of subject matter with those of the three masters with whom he is unfortunate to be reviewed.

Professor Quinn is very much a meticulous scholar—fastidious, cautious, distinguishing clearly between knowledge and hypothesis. There is sheer aesthetic satisfaction in watching him make a very elegant brick out of what he admits are far too few straws in a great deal of wind. “The role of hypothesis in this type of study must inevitably be large,” he warns us. “The less material there is, the larger the number of deductions that can be made from it: a kind of Parkinson’s law of historical study.”

But—unlike too many scholars—Professor Quinn realizes that when we do not know it is better to speculate sensibly—with all the proper qualifications—than to say nothing. Some of his most interesting pages are those in which he chances his arm in this way—knowing that he may well be proved wrong by future discoveries of documents or archaeological material, but knowing too that his guesses, based on solid erudition, are likely to be better than those of less well informed writers. At least they suggest questions and areas of inquiry which other scholars can follow up. Even if he is proved wrong, he will have contributed to the eventual discovery of truth. It is a model of the way in which scholarship should be used. His most interesting hypothesis—implied by the date in his title—is that North America was discovered by Bristol fishermen between 1481 and 1491. The discovery was kept secret so that the rich fishing grounds of Newfoundland should not be revealed to the competitors of the discoverers.

Admiral Morison is a scholar too, but he wears his scholarship with a certain hearty sea-doggishness which allows him sometimes to sail a little near the wind. “In explaining obscure matters, imaginary things should never be postulated as existing”: thus he deals with Professor Quinn’s elaborately constructed Bristol hypothesis. “Sweeping all evidence and argument under the carpet in a bluff amusing comment,” is the latter’s retort. Admiral Morison’s “great merit is that he sees sharply in black-and-white terms, and is therefore uniquely qualified to expound what is already known,” Professor Quinn continues with feline smoothness (my italics). “He is perhaps too impatient to study the nuances.” “Hilarious treatment…at least partly justifiable” is the professor’s description of another of Admiral Morison’s dismissals.

But Admiral Morison is an admirable teller of a tale, and I at least found his technical nautical descriptions easier to follow than Professor Parry’s. And he is a man of vast learning. This volume deals with voyages to central and southern America between 1492 and 1616, emphasizing especially Columbus, Magellan, and Drake. He has looked at all the coasts about which he writes, by ship or by airplane, so that he comments with a fresh seaman’s eye on matters which appear rather different from an academic cloister. He appreciates the technically admirable characteristics of unattractive persons like Vasco da Gama and Magellan, and understands the extraordinary personality of Columbus better than anyone else.

He also enlivens his story by asking bluff nautical but very pertinent questions about sexual relations between European sailors and Indian women, a subject on which our other three authors are virtually silent, but which must have played a big part in making or marring relations between the two peoples. A useful book might one day be written on the subject. And who can help admiring a man who produces what is very nearly his fiftieth volume at the age of eighty-seven, and a first-class book at that—the third in a series of which the first appeared three years ago? The admiral has announced his intention of proceeding to a fourth volume, dealing with the northern voyages of the early seventeenth century. If it is as readable, as trenchant, and as learned as this one it will be something to look forward to.

This Issue

November 14, 1974