The World After Columbus

On September 9, 1522, eighteen gaunt men, candles in hand, walked barefooted to the shrine of Santa María de la Victoria in Seville to give thanks for their safe return. It was just over three years since they had commended themselves to the Virgin in that same shrine, on the eve of their departure as members of an expedition which was intended to reach the spice islands by sailing west, rather than east, and somehow finding a way around, or through, the great landmass of America. During the course of those three years they accomplished their mission, but at a terrible cost. Mutinous crews were struck down by cold, hunger, and scurvy; their commander, the Portuguese-born Fernando Magellan, was killed by angry islanders on a Pacific beach; and, of the five ships which formed part of the original expedition, only one, the Victoria, limped home to Seville with its much diminished crew. But these lone survivors had done something that had never before been accomplished. In their battered little ship, under the command of a dour Basque captain, Sebastian Elcano, they had circumnavigated the world.

Thirty years separated the departure of Columbus from Palos, in Andalusia, and the return of the Victoria to Seville’s port of San Lúcar de Barrameda. At the start of those thirty years, Europe was still largely confined between the twin barriers of an impassable Atlantic Ocean to the west, and of a remote and alien Asian landmass to the east. By the end of them, Europeans had rounded the coasts of Africa to reach India and the Moluccas; they had encountered lands and peoples, quite outside the realm of their preconceived ideas and expectations, on the far side of the Atlantic; and now, after navigating a storm-swept passage to the south of Patagonia, they had crossed the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean and found their way back home.

The immediate effect of these three decades of unprecedented achievement was to give those Europeans who were interested in such matters a new and overwhelming sense of the size of the world. Columbus, it soon became apparent, had grossly underestimated the distance between Europe and Cathay; and Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian knight of Rhodes who had sailed aboard the Victoria on its epic voyage, recorded with awe that, after leaving the Straits of Magellan, “If we had sailed always westward, we should have gone without finding any island other than the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, which is the cape of that strait at the Ocean Sea.”1 The Europeans, in other words, had found space, and found it on an unimagined scale. But, paradoxically, even as their world expanded, it also began to shrink. A globe encompassed became a globe reduced.

Indeed the very attempt to map the lands and seas of the world through the device of the globe may have helped to reduce unmanageable space to manageable proportions. The first known terrestrial globe was that of Martin Behaim of Nuremburg, dating…

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