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.

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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

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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.

On the other hand, Pathfinders tells us that Dom Henrique of Portugal, known to us as Prince Henry the Navigator, who died in 1460, was no great shakes as an explorer. What really interested him was access to West African gold fields, and for some thirty years he tried persistently and vainly to imitate Béthencourt by conquering a base in the Canaries. To be sure,

significant amounts of gold…did start to reach Portugal from West Africa in the mid-1440s, but the big advances, both in the extent of exploration and in the discovery of gold, came after Dom Henrique’s death.

Modest improvements in shipbuilding and navigation, combined with a spirit of chivalric adventure and schemes for finding gold, slaves, or other sorts of wealth, fired the imagination of the Iberian explorers,

or else they were missionaries, like the Franciscans…,who sailed to and fro between Spain and the Canaries for some forty years until they were massacred by natives, who, presumably, suspected them of collusion with slavers and conquerors, in 1393.

The concluding section of this chapter proposes two mutually supportive explanations of European and specifically of Iberian primacy in transoceanic exploration. First,

the great aristocratic ethos of their day—the “code” of chivalry. Their ships were steeds, and they rode the waves like jennets. Their role models were the footloose princes who won themselves kingdoms by deeds of derring-do—in popular romances of chivalry—the pulp fiction of the time—which often had a seaborne setting.

Nowhere else were the harsh conditions of life on shipboard so ennobled and far ventures so encouraged.

Second, the pattern of Atlantic winds and currents made that ocean a “highway to the rest of the world”:

Throughout the age of sail…geography had absolute power to limit what man could do at sea. By comparison, culture, ideas, individual genius or charisma, economic forces, and all the other motors of history meant little. In most of our explanations of what happened in history, there is too much hot air and not enough wind.

This bon mot is the principal insight that Fernández-Armesto brings to the history of exploration. Fixed and equable easterly trade winds, flanked north and south by changeable prevailing westerlies, made the Atlantic a two-way ocean, once sailors learned what latitudes to seek for crossing it. And the decipherment of that wind pattern (plus the Gulf Stream and other currents) was the accomplishment that made the transoceanic voyages of the 1490s so fatefully significant. Two-way crossings were routine from the start, so European adventurers, seeking their fortunes, sustained unrelenting contact with the peoples of the New World. As a result, Europeans’ diseases and their technical advantages over Amerindians tipped world balances suddenly and sharply in their favor.

Even though he deals with very familiar explorers—Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Alvares Cabral—Fernández-Armesto’s discussion of them surpasses his previous chapters. Of the four, the account of Columbus’s first two voyages is particularly strong and thoroughly convincing. Given the contradictory mythologies that surround the figure of Columbus, this is no small feat. A man “who never found it hard to entertain simultaneously incompatible thoughts” is hard to pigeonhole. Pathfinders suggests that “what motivated him to become an explorer was a desire to escape from the world of restricted social opportunity in which he was born”; and the specific path he chose was inspired by “knightly romances with a seaborne setting.” Yet he remained

prey to anxieties about isolation, and fears—verging on paranoia—of the perfidy of those around him. He was an outsider in all company, a foreigner excluded from the almost ethnic loyalties that divided his crews.

Later on, after meeting naked islanders in the Caribbean he saw them as naturally good, and potential converts to Christianity, yet also exploitable as slaves. “Columbus’ attitude was ambiguous but not necessarily duplicitous. He was genuinely torn between conflicting ways of perceiving the natives.”

But his feat of finding reliable routes across the Atlantic was fundamental: first he headed south to the Canaries so as to be able to sail west with the northeast trade winds at his back; he then headed north for the return by catching the prevailing westerlies. Fernández-Armesto is at pains to point out that “the year 1492 gets all the hullabaloo, but 1493 was a year of immensely greater significance,” for it was only then that Columbus hit on the best routes, both eastward and westward, across the central Atlantic.

John Cabot and the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama also pioneered transoceanic sailing routes of great subsequent importance:

The next in the sequence of breakthrough journeys was John Cabot’s from Bristol to Newfoundland and back in 1497, which created an open-sea approach to North America, using the easterly winds available in a brief season of spring variables…. Then, beginning also in 1497, Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India discovered a route across the path of the southeast Atlantic trade winds to meet the westerlies of the far south.

Three years later “Cabral penetrated so far into the Atlantic along the route Vasco had explored that he struck Brazil.” But his voyage discovered no new sea routes, although, like Cabot’s, it presaged the establishment of a major colonial rival to Spain in the New World.

Far less is known about Cabot and da Gama than about Columbus, and their portraits in Pathfinders are correspondingly sketchy. Cabot, “a Venetian citizen (perhaps Genoese-born),” but sailing under English auspices, remains wholly mysterious; and da Gama is “a hard character to approach,” being “an irascible provincial… plucked from obscurity and entrusted with responsibility for the voyage, thanks only to the acquiescence of a court faction who hoped he would fail.” He nearly did fail, and Fernández-Armesto judges him harshly. “Vasco had made almost every mistake imaginable…. He missed his latitude… and fetched up on the wrong coast of Africa,” and on the way back he “recklessly defied local knowledge” by departing at the wrong season “to the peril of the expedition.” “Nevertheless,” he admits:

Vasco’s voyage deserves part, at least, of the reputation it acquired…. It may not have changed much for the peoples and powers of the Indian Ocean, who barely noticed the poor barbarians from Portugal, but it transformed Europe, bringing Europeans into closer touch with the gorgeous East than ever before, and putting the newly emerging Atlantic world in touch with older, wealthier civilizations.

The decoding of Atlantic wind patterns that lay behind the breakthrough voyages of the 1490s was not immediately transferable to the far vaster expanse of the Pacific, even though easterly trade winds and prevailing westerlies also existed there, and at much the same latitudes. Wide differences of opinion among European cosmographers and mapmakers persisted both about the size of the earth and about other questions—the continental scale of the New World, for example, and how far Asia might be from what soon came to be called the Americas. These could only be settled by long and perilous voyages.

First and foremost among them was the first circumnavigation of the earth, achieved by Fernão de Magalhães. A Portuguese gentleman adventurer, known to us as Magellan, he sailed with five ships in 1519 under Spanish auspices, penetrated the storm-racked straits at the tip of South America, and then crossed the Pacific, reaching Guam in March 1521 after ninety-nine days at sea. Soon thereafter Magellan died fighting on behalf of a local ruler in the Philippines. The remainder of the expedition then headed homeward via the Spice Islands (now part of eastern Indonesia). A single ship, loaded with valuable spices, finally reached Spain in September 1522 with a crew of only seventeen European survivors of the circumnavigation. The feat was indeed extraordinary, yet Pathfinders is mildly dismissive:

Magellan’s journey, for all its heroism, had solved nothing…. The route was unexploitable: it was too long, too slow, and fatally flawed, because it led only one way across the ocean. The task of finding a practicable two-way route across the Pacific remained.

That was accomplished by a “woefully undercelebrated” man (of whom I had never heard before), Andrés de Urdaneta, a youthful “enthusiast for cosmography” and navigator, based in the New World, who became an Augustinian priest in 1557. Royal command and his reputation as a navigator, however, brought him out of retirement in 1560:

On Urdaneta’s recommendation, the evangelization of the Philippines…was defined as the purpose of the voyage…. “Next to faith in the help of our Lord,” ran the orders addressed to the commander of the expedition, “it is confidently believed that Fray Andrés de Urdaneta will be the chief agent in discovering the return route to New Spain, because of his experience, his knowledge of weather in these regions and his other qualifications.”

And so it was. Sailing west down the trade winds from Mexico to the Philippines was easy enough. The outward voyage lasted from November 1564 to February 1565. Timing the turnaround to take advantage of the summer monsoon was key to a similarly successful return. Heading north from the Philippines on June 1 with the wind behind him, Urdaneta caught the Japan current and soon reached the zone of prevailing westerlies to make a speedy voyage back to Mexico. “The 11,000 miles he crossed made his journey the longest ever undertaken on the open sea without a landfall. It took four months and eight days to get to Acapulco.”

Annual voyages between Acapulco and Manila became standard in subsequent decades and American silver started to flow westward to China via the Philippines at the same time that it flooded eastward to Europe, upsetting prices throughout the entire Old World. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans had both become two-way highways, carrying goods that had a transforming effect throughout the civilized world; and the explorer who opened the Pacific was not Magellan but Urdaneta. That was the single most surprising thing I learned from Pathfinders, and from Fernández-Armesto’s emphasis on oceanic wind patterns as decisive for transoceanic voyages in the age of sail.

Inland exploration in Africa and the Americas, as well as initial sightings of Australia, also extended the reach of European geographical knowledge very greatly between 1500 and 1620, and Pathfinders mentions both famous leaders like Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Walter Raleigh, Henry Hudson, and Jacques Cartier, and obscure ones like Fray Gaspar de Carvajal, who recorded the misadventures of a Spanish expedition that rafted down the Amazon for most of its length in 1541.

Of all these supplementary explorations, the most significant, according to Fernández-Armesto, was the Dutch discovery between 1611 and the 1630s of a faster route to the Spice Islands. This required going far enough south to sail before the westerlies as far as the Australian coast before turning northward:

The opening of the new Indian Ocean route was an unsung episode of enormous importance for the history of the world. The Dutch gained the competitive advantage they sought. Holland’s Golden Age became affordable. A growing proportion of the world’s spice trade, which the Portuguese had never been able to shift out of its traditional grooves, spilled into European hands. The western European economy, long outclassed by those around the Indian Ocean and in maritime Asia, began to catch up.

After 1620 the importance of geographical exploration diminished. Large regions of the earth still remained unknown to Europeans; but reaching the North and South poles and charting remoter regions of the Pacific had only marginal significance for humankind as a whole; and the same was true of the search for a northwest passage around Canada, for the sources of the Nile, and for access to Tibet.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, accurate ways of measuring longitude and latitude, discovered by French scientists, brought new precision to global and local mapmaking. In the eighteenth century, scientific discovery became an end in itself, while in the nineteenth, newspaper publicity created reclusive celebrities like David Livingstone. But by the twentieth century “the main historic work of pathfinding and mapping is over.”

This does not mean that the three concluding chapters of Pathfinders lack fascinating stories about the men who surveyed coastlines and penetrated tropical and icy continental interiors. Explorers were more numerous than ever, often eccentrics, and Fernández-Armesto conscientiously surveys their triumphs and failures in every part of the earth. A few stand out: Vitus Bering’s discoveries in Siberia and Alaska (1725–1742); Captain James Cook’s three voyages charting the far reaches of the Pacific (1768–1769); Mungo Park’s harrowing adventures in tracing the course of the Niger River (1795–1797, 1805); the race to the North and South poles in which rival American, Norwegian, and English expeditions engaged (1904–1911); and, most recent of all, Michael Leahy’s discovery of hitherto unknown neolithic villagers in the interior of New Guinea (1930–1933). Most of these are familiar tales among a host of others; some are new to me.

Fernández-Armesto also has much to say about improvements in mapmaking, overcoming diseases, and how explorers’ motivations changed. In the eighteenth century, he says, “Exploration did become a form of benign frenzy. Those who engaged in it did so increasingly for its own sake.” In the early nineteenth century, “the desire to master nature, to conquer every environment, began to invade and infest explorers’ minds.” But his final judgment strikes a strangely discordant note:

An inescapable lesson of this book is that exploration has been a march of folly…. Explorers have often been oddballs or eccentrics or visionaries or romancers or social climbers or social outcasts, or escapees from the restrictive and the routine, with enough distortion of vision to be able to reimagine reality. The least and most useful of their common vices has been overambition. The splash, the scoop, and the sensation have nearly always been up there among the objectives, alongside knowledge and the enrichment of culture.

Such sweeping generalization exemplifies Fernández-Armesto’s impish impulse to shock his readers from time to time with rash judgments. His overall scheme for human history—first dispersal and divergence, then discovery and convergence—strikes me as similar. Contacts with neighbors were always real and important; their intensification with improvements in transport and communication is indubitable; but I see no reason to suppose that we “became more like each other” as a result. Intensified hostility and conscious efforts to preserve differences are the most common response to bruising contact with outsiders.

As a guide to world history, therefore, I judge Fernández-Armesto deficient; but his discussion of how sailors learned to use prevailing winds to cross the oceans brings a new precision and understanding to the history of exploration, and for that I and other readers remain deeply indebted to him.

This Issue

April 12, 2007

  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.