Vasco da Gama lands in Kozhikode, India

In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, landed at present-day Kozhikode, India, which was then Calicut, “The City of Spices,” capital of the independent Samoothiri (Zamorin) kingdom, which was then a rising power on India’s western Malabar coast.

Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal,  mural by John Henry Amshewitz

Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal, mural by John Henry Amshewitz

During the 14th century, the city grew into a center of the spice trade between Asia and the Middle East, serving as a major destination port on the sea route across the Arabian Sea from ports in northeast Africa, Egypt, and on the Arabian Peninsula. When the Portuguese fleet led by da Gama arrived at Kozhikode, there were reportedly 700 ships waiting to offload goods, and da Gama was greeted by an Arab merchant who spoke Portuguese. It also was an important producer of the cloth named for the city: calico.

The Portuguese went to great lengths to keep their geographic knowledge secret, but evidence of their explorations is soon found on maps. This map, printed from a woodblock in 1541, is an important early document of Portuguese voyages to South India:

For the Portuguese and other Europeans, da Gama’s successful journey was a rich opportunity to expand a spice trade that had always been dangerous and expensive, and had, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, become increasingly costly and difficult, as the Ottoman empire closed off the traditional trade routes that had made Venice and other Italian maritime city-states wealthy. The rise of Portuguese power followed on the success of da Gama’s voyage, which proved the viability of maritime trade over routes around the south of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. And with the spice trade came the rise of European imperial power in Asia.

Image of Kozhikode from Braun & Hogenberg's  Civitates orbis terrarum , 1572.  Click here for more city views by Braun & Hogenberg.

Image of Kozhikode from Braun & Hogenberg's Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572. Click here for more city views by Braun & Hogenberg.

For Kozhikode, da Gama’s success was rather less pleasant. In 1500, a Portuguese fleet led by Pedro Álvares Cabral became embroiled in violence with Arab merchants, and then traveled to the nearby kingdom of Cochin, an unwilling vassal of the Zamorin, who would ally with the Portuguese. In 1502, da Gama returned with a Portuguese fleet of 15 ships, and demanded that the Zamorin (the ruler) expel all Muslim merchants, and, when this order was refused, da Gama bombarded the city, before sailing to Cochin, where the Portuguese were welcomed. 

Despite the Portuguese aid to the Cochin rebellion, Kozhikode remained a powerful local state. It was not until the next century that Dutch and then British forces began to dominate the city.

Columbus and the 1492 hurricane season

The basic facts around the explorations of Christopher Columbus are known to most: under the patronage of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Castille, Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of the East Indies (South and Southeast Asia), but instead landed in what would later be known as the West Indies, specifically the Bahamas archipelago and an island he named San Salvador.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.

Most histories of Columbus offer an extra layer of historical context, demonstrating that it was no accident that Columbus’s journey was financed by the newly-ascendant Spanish crown, which had just completed the Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula.

The return of Christopher Columbus; his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella , painting by Eugène Delcroix.

The return of Christopher Columbus; his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, painting by Eugène Delcroix.

But the devastating 2017 hurricane season, including Harvey, which led to massive flooding in Houston, and Irma, which ravaged Puerto Rico and neighboring islands, reminds us that a negative fact played a crucial role in the Columbian narrative: Columbus did not report meeting any storms during the fall of 1492 as he sailed through the Bahamas to Cuba and along the coast of Cuba and Hispaniola. The Bahamas had first been sighted on October 7, 1492, and Columbus’s fleet did not head east for Spain until January, 1493.  Although the Atlantic hurricane season peaks in late September, it is generally considered to run from June 1 to November 30. For almost two full months, Columbus sailed in hurricane territory without facing a major storm. Hurricanes struck Hispaniola in late September 1494 and late October 1495.

First voyage. Modern place names in black, Columbus's place names in blue

First voyage. Modern place names in black, Columbus's place names in blue

Ships like Columbus’s Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria certainly could survive a hurricane, but their chance of being lost in a great storm was hardly small. In fact, on the return journey, after the Santa Maria was lost running aground, the caravels Niña and Pinta both survived a big February storm that reportedly sank a fleet of 100 similar ships.

Columbus, spurred by a miscalculation in the size of the Earth, benefitted from much good fortune; a quiet 1492 hurricane season should be included on the list.

Roman Roads and the London Underground

A particularly conspicuous feature of the cultural landscape of the first and second century CE Mediterranean was a network of roads connecting Rome and its provinces. The Romans invested great energy and resources in the planning of road systems. They cleared and leveled rocky terrain, constructed embankments, retaining walls, and bridges where necessary, and placed milestones at intervals of one Roman mile, approximately 1.5 kilometers.

The most famous graphic representation of a transportation system is surely Henry C. Beck's 'electrical circuit' map of the London Underground, which dispensed with scale, left only the Thames as a surface feature, plotted equidistant stations, and set angles at either 45 or 90 degrees.

Henry C. Beck, Map of London's Underground Railways - available at Altea Gallery, London

Henry C. Beck, Map of London's Underground Railways - available at Altea Gallery, London

Fortunately for us, Sasha Trubetskoy, an undergraduate economics student at the University of Chicago, had the brilliant idea of visualizing the ancient Roman road network on Beck's model:

As for contemporary ancient Roman maps, the only map of Roman roads that has survived from Antiquity is the Tabula Peutingeriana, the surviving copy of which actually dates from the 12th or 13th century, and takes its name from Konrad Peutinger, a collector of antiquities who was willed the map in the early 16th century.

During the Renaissance, there was widespread public interest in ancient Greece and Rome. In this interest Abraham Ortelius saw an opportunity and in 1598 published the Parergon, considered the first historical atlas. The Parergon consisted of 38 maps and views of the classical world, including a 4-sheet map of the Peutinger Table.

Other cartographers published versions of the Peutinger Table as well, including Johannes Janssonius, who prepared a new plate and inserted it into the ancient world volume (VI) of his Atlas Maior and then into Accuratissimia Orbis Antiqui Delineatio, with G. Hornius's text printed as a single volume. Our friends at Libreria Antiquaria Perini in Verona have an excellent example on sale here:

Westward the course of empire takes its way

In Names on the Land, George Stewart writes that "the distinctive quality of California's later naming history was its self-consciousness," and illustrates this point with the story of Berkeley. In 1864, a site was chosen and forty acres purchased for a new college. A committee was appointed to find a name for the town, but no agreement could be reached. Searching for the perfect name, over a year and a half passed.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, proposed Peralta, the name of the original property owner. Peralta seemed perfect, even as a possible Latin motto for the university: Per Alta ("through the high things" --  especially appropriate for UC Berkeley it would seem).

And yet, even Peralta was passed over. A few days later, the trustees gathered on site for an informal meeting. Stewart relates that beneath a high sun on a clear spring day, watching out-bound ships cross the magnificent San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate, someone quoted George Berkeley: "Westward the course of empire takes its way."

Berkeley's full quote sits atop this incredible art-deco style pictorial map of the East Bay:

Stewart, George R. Names on the Land: a historical account of place-names in the United States. New York: 1946, p. 346-8.

Cosmographia - a landmark achievement of Renaissance scholarship

One of the most successful descriptions of the world from the Renaissance and certainly the most successful of the 16th century was Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia. First published in Basel in 1544, it contained an important collection of woodcut maps based both on Ptolemy and new maps for the Age of Discovery.

The new maps include a world map in its first state, showing a Northwest Passage to the Mollucas (per hoc fretum iter para Molucas - by this passage is the way to the Moluccas). North America is called Terra Florida and is almost into a separate Francisca (New France). South America is still referred to as America sive Insula Brasilii (America or the island of Brazil), referring to an island that was drawn in the western ocean before the Americas were discovered (Shirley 70).

The book - which is a hybrid of geography, history, and philosophy - is perhaps most famous for its map of the Western Hemisphere (Burden map 12, state 3), the inclusion of which, according to Burden, helped popularize the name 'America.' Magellan's ship, the Victoria is shown in the Pacific and Magellan's Straight separates the continent from Tierra del Fuego. In addition to the curious details and form of North America (seen also in the world map), cannibals dominate Brazil and the Yucatan is depicted as an island.

Other important new maps include the Asia map, which shows Japan as an empire of over seven thousand islands, and the Africa map, on which kingdoms are indicated by crowns, Guinea is dominated by a cyclops, and the Mountains of the Moon feed the Nile River (Betz map 3).

Overall, Münster's Cosmographia remains an incredible work of craftsmanship and science, a representation of the Renaissance worldview and known world in the 16th century.

References: Graesse IV, 622; Burmeister 68; Sabin 51386. Burden, The Mapping of North America, #12, 1st state. Shirley, The Mapping of the World, #77, 1st state. Alden, Vol. I, p. 52, #542/22. Stevens (Ptolemy) 49: Karrow. Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century, p. 422.