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Earthdate 2003-07-19

Pre-Columbian voyages across the Atlantic

A participant in an Alternate History mailing list asks the question:

Perhaps by this [medieval] time the Muslims would also be struck with the idea of sailing westward across the Atlantic.  From a religious point of view this could mean more land to make converts in.

Muslims during the mid-Middle Ages were as acquainted with ancient Greek philosophers as the Europeans were later to become.  Aristotle pointed the way west, for any willing to hear it, at the end of his proof of the sphericity of the Earth (still as valid today as when written in the 4th century BC).  It's worthwhile reviewing Aristotle's words, which incidently demolish the prevalent myth nowadays that cultivated ancients believed the world was flat.  After mentioning several logical arguments for the Earth's sphericity (which have not held up over time), Aristotle wrote: 1

The evidence of the senses further corroborates this.  How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them?  As it is, the shapes which the moon itself each month shows are of every kind — straight, gibbous, and concave — but in eclipses the outline is always curved: and, since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line will be caused by the form of the earth's surface, which is therefore spherical.  Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but that it is a circle of no great size.  For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon.  There is much change, I mean, in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward.  Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighborhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars, which in the north are never beyond range of observation, in those regions rise and set.

All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size: for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be so quickly apparent.  Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one.

Beyond that initial beckoning of the way, I've run into a couple of references to actual expeditions west across the Atlantic prior to Columbus (and I don't mean the Vikings!), originating from Iberian or Mediterranean ports.  One such mention is Samuel Eliot Morison's The European Discovery of America, where in discussing the lead-up to Columbus's voyage Morison wrote: 2

When [Columbus] had learned enough Latin to read ancient and medieval cosmographers, he ascertained that Aristotle was reported to have written that you could cross the Ocean from Spain to the Indies paucis diebus, in comparatively few days; and Strabo recorded that certain Greeks or Romans had even tried it but returned empty-handed “through want of resolution and scarcity of provisions.”

The second mention of earlier voyages I've seen is Timothy Ferris's Coming of Age in the Milky Way, in which Ferris wrote: 3

Columbus's plan appeared foolhardy to anyone who possessed a realistic sense of the dimensions of the earth.  To sail westward to Asia, as the geographers of the court at Castile took pains to inform Columbus, would require a voyage lasting approximately three years, by which time he and his men would surely be dead from starvation or scurvy.  The voyage had been attempted twice before, by Moorish explorers out of Lisbon and by the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa in the thirteenth century; none had been heard from since.

I'm trying to gather more information about any pre-Columbian expeditions west.  If anyone has additional information, or is aware of a halfway serious study concerning them, please let me know!
 

References

1 Aristotle, "On the Heavens," Book II, Chapter 14, The Works of Aristotle, Oxford University Press; pp. 297-298.

2 Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages AD 1492-1616, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974; p. 17.

3 Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Anchor Books/Doubleday, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, 1988; p. 56.
 

There will come a time in the later years when Ocean shall loosen the bonds by which we have been confined, when an immense land shall be revealed... and Thule will no longer be the most remote of countries.

Seneca



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