The Race to the New World: Excerpt


Palgrave Macmillan edition

On November 4, 1494, Nürnberg’s Jerome Münzer ascended the bell tower of Seville’s Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. It had been built in the late twelfth century as the minaret of Seville’s great mosque, when the city was the capital of the Muslim empire of the Maghreb, which included North African territories from present-day Libya to Morocco. Seville had fallen to the Christians in the reconquista of 1248, and while the minaret was spared, the mosque, which had been damaged in an earthquake, was torn down to make way for the cathedral, the greatest Gothic structure in Europe. Its construction had begun in 1420 and was still proceeding when Münzer visited, attracting talent from across Spain as well as from Flanders and Germany as the city center was transformed into one of the world’s greatest work sites of the fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus would be buried in it.

Münzer took in the panorama of “the most celebrated town of the kingdom of Andalusia” from more than ninety yards in the air. Seville retained “an infinity of monuments and old things from the time of the Saracens.” It was built on a typical circular plan and located on flat ground on the eastern shore of the Guadalquivir. The city’s riverside fortress, the Alcazar, dated back to A.D. 712 and had become a royal residence after the reconquest, with a palace constructed within its crenellated walls in the mid-fourteenth century during the reign of Peter the Cruel.

Excerpt from “Chapter 12,” The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery, by Douglas Hunter. ©2011. Published in September 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan (world) and in March 2012 by Douglas & McIntyre (Canada).

“The Sevillans hope that the king will come to live with them, and they are also smoothing the streets in macadam and undertaking many works,” Münzer remarked. Fernando was “repairing the old crumbled walls [of the Alcazar] and preparing three apartments, for himself, his children, and the queen, apartments of exquisite style, built with art, of the kind that will never be found again.”

Douglas & McIntyre edition

Before Münzer was the Guadalquivir, “a very beautiful river, navigable and large.” Ships of up to 150 tons, he wrote, called at Seville. “Outside the city and beyond the bridge on the Guadalquivir, which has been built to pass atop boats, there is a long suburb called Triana.” Münzer found time to negotiate the contraption of anchored hulls lashed together with cable and surmounted by boards known as the Puente de Barca, or Bridge of Boats. An assessment of Seville was incomplete without a visit to Triana’s waterfront district, the Barrio del Mar in the parish of Magdalena. This was the thriving center of maritime activity for a city serving as the administrative and logistical heart of the envisioned overseas trading center that Columbus was creating in the Indies.

In Triana, Münzer would have moved among some of Spain’s most accomplished and entrepreneurial seafarers, divided into brotherhoods largely organized along family lines called comitres. The members were wealthy and powerful members of Seville’s society, the equivalent of nobles, who were exempt from taxation. The strict laws on comportment allowed them to carry arms, dress in silk, and adorn themselves in gold and silver. As merchant sailors, they ranged as far as the Canaries, Flanders, and England, banding together in financial partnerships that sometimes included participants from Seville’s considerable Genoese merchant community. Columbus’s discoveries were giving Triana’s merchants a new destination; many of the ships chartered for the new Indies service belonged to its comitres. Some people even insisted that the sailor who first sighted the New World on October 12, 1492, was a local man aboard the Pinta, Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, also known as Roderigo de Triana. Just one example of the local spin-off benefits was the provisioning contract for the second voyage’s armada, granted to Seville’s Gianotto Berardi, the Florentine creditor of Columbus from the first voyage. Berardi was paid to supply a vessel laden with between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds of ship’s biscuit, an order that kept well stoked the ovens of Triana’s bizcocheros, or biscuit makers.

Seville also held the leading role in the ongoing conquest of the Canary Islands and the expansion of its sugar industry. Between 1470 and 1515, trade involving the Canaries accounted for 70 percent of mid-Atlantic region voyages by vessels chartered in the port. The city’s dominance of Andalusian trade was magnified by the declarations of Fernando and Isabel in May 1493 that Cadíz, whose commercial life was so closely linked to Seville, would be the hub of the Barbary trade as well as the designated Spanish seaport (under Seville’s authority) for the Indies. A tight network of ports—Cadíz, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, El Puerto de Santa María, and the smaller ports of Palos, Moguer, and Lepe—was linked to and dependent on Seville, which also served as a key staging area for Italian shipping in the Flanders trade.

Triana was flourishing, with shipyards, ship’s riggers, shops, and tavernkeepers as well as moneychangers and brokers. Münzer marveled at the large clay containers being manufactured there for transporting wine and oil. Most, he said, could hold nearly twelve or thirteen amphorae of wine. “If I had not seen them, I would not have believed it.” This commercial bustle was placing additional strain on the breakdown-prone Puente de Barca, which had spanned the Guadalquivir since 1171. Münzer’s footfalls had been sounding on the floating bridge at the very time John Cabot was being entrusted to replace it with a fixed link.

•     •     •

The ruling council of Seville had agreed on September 15, 1494, to employ “Mr. Johan Caboto, Venetian, inhabitant of this city,” in the construction of the fixed link. The bridge, like the Valencia harbor project, could have been Cabot’s idea, although the assignment probably came to him because of his success in ingratiating himself with Fernando and leading court figures at Valencia in April 1493 who were also associated with the Columbus enterprise that was developing its logistical headquarters in Seville. The fact Cabot was entrusted with a public works project so critical to the city indicates the high esteem in which he was held.

Cabot was to be paid for a total of five months, and records indicate he already had devoted himself to the job for three months—hence he had been in Seville since at least June. He was to receive a fee from Seville of three reales and three maravedis per day. The city further released fifty Castilian doubloons, or 7,300 maravedis, for the construction of the “city bridge of brick,” for which a brickworks on Triana would have supplied material, although stone was mentioned as well. The costs appeared trivial, compared to the expense the city was shouldering just to maintain the floating bridge. Since 1488, the care of the Puente de Barca had been contracted to a prominent comitre member, Luis Rodríguez de la Mesquita, who was also a tax farmer for Triana and some other towns under Seville’s authority. The maintenance contract paid him an astounding 225,000 maravedis per year, which was the equivalent of more than four pounds of solid gold. Little wonder that Seville’s civic leaders, enriched by the conquest of the Canary Islands and flush with the idea of the economic prospects awaiting them as Española was developed by Columbus, thought by mid-1494 that they needed and could well afford a more robust and reliable link.

Beyond noting the fact that the Sevillans were “undertaking many works,” Münzer made no specific mention of the key infrastructure project Cabot was being paid to build. Regardless, Münzer and Cabot were in Seville and Triana, walking the Puente de Barca, during the same critical period in November 1494—a time critical not only in their own lives and careers but in the increasingly precarious Columbus enterprise.

Cabot would prove to be more than a builder of bridges. And Münzer already was more than a Renaissance German tourist.

•     •     •

Jerome Münzer was no ordinary traveler, and this journey was no ordinary pilgrimage. In addition to being a physician trained in the Lombardy region’s city of Pavia, Münzer was an envoy of Maximilian I of the Austrian house of Hapsburg, the new King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperor.

Münzer and his three traveling companions, Gaspar Fischer and Nicolas Walkenstein of Nürnberg and Anton Hewart of Augsburg, had been wending on foot and horseback (or muleback) through Europe since August 1494, passing through Switzerland and southern France before arriving in southern Spain on September 19. The journey through Catalunya, Andalusia, and the recently conquered kingdom of Granada had strung together monasteries and villages within an itinerary that took in every major place of interest: Barcelona, Valencia, the city of Granada, and then Málaga, where they paused overnight on October 29 before heading for Seville.

Münzer probably imagined publishing the Latin travelogue he left behind, which never happened, but there was far more to the journey than his lightly detailed if engaging account conveyed. As an envoy of Maximilian I, he enjoyed audiences with the rulers of Spain, Portugal, and Navarre and conversations with other leading figures of the day, about which he related very little. He invested considerable time in significant locations, without accounting for all of his activities or revealing the names of everyone he met.

Münzer was keenly interested in geography, particularly the geography of opportunity that had lured Columbus westward. The year before he undertook this journey, Münzer had been promoting a new idea for reaching the Indies by sailing westward across the northern reaches of the Ocean Sea. There is every reason to believe that the scheme was still very much on his mind as he undertook his journey, that Columbus’s alleged success had in no way suppressed his enthusiasm.

Seville was especially intriguing for him. Having arrived on November 4, he did not leave until November 11, and that week of respite and exploration produced little more than a tourist’s description of landmarks, with intimations of great changes afoot. Münzer said not a word about the fact that Seville was the new headquarters of Spain’s Indies enterprise, although he was perfectly aware of Columbus’s activities and would be intimately informed about the many foibles of Española before his journey was over.

Münzer was an exploration advocate whose convictions and ambitions, far from having waned, could only have been reinvigorated by this Iberian tour. Five days after leaving Seville, where Cabot was supposed to be building his bridge, Münzer was at Évora in Portugal, dining with João II four times and enjoying unelaborated conversations; soon after Münzer was in Lisbon, staying in the home of the father-in-law of a fellow Nürnberger, Martin Behaim, whose participation in Portuguese exploration, friendship with Columbus, and precise role in the New World’s discovery would dog historians for centuries. Through these two Nürnbergers the essential mystery of John Cabot’s career—of how he went from being a bridge contractor in Seville to an explorer in England— approaches a coherent explanation.

•     •     •

Jerome Münzer was an enabler and a facilitator for his friend Martin Behaim, an exploration figure whose stock has risen and fallen as violently as any speculative issue. At its greatest heights, Behaim has been hailed as the true discoverer of the Americas; at its most pronounced depths, he has been dismissed as a lying self-promoter. Behaim may well have claimed for himself loftier achievements than he was entitled to, but he was unquestionably an authentic figure in late fifteenth-century exploration.

Behaim was born in 1459 in Nürnberg, the center of the German Renaissance: prosperous, intellectually sophisticated, a hive of printing and precision instrument design and manufacture. The family’s roots may have been in Bohemia, which would explain the name, but the Behaims had been leading citizens of Nürnberg since the early fourteenth century. Behaim’s father, Martin the elder, was an affluent merchant and city counselor whose business dealings took him to Flanders in the north and Venice in the south.

Martin the elder died in 1474, and in 1476, the younger Martin was sent to Mechelin in what is now Belgium as part of the family trading business. A June 1479 letter found Behaim in Antwerp, contacting his uncle Leonhard in Nürnberg, to report having spent three hundred florins provided by his mother on English cloth at the fair at Bergen-op-Zoom. Seven years later, Behaim had achieved an ascent that the older Christopher Columbus, who knew him and was no stranger to upward mobility, could only have envied. Behaim was poised to make the very westward voyage in search of the Indies for João II that Columbus had failed to persuade the Portuguese king to support.

Behaim’s spectacular progress presumably began with fortuitous connections he made in the Low Countries as a young merchant. Most of what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders formed the prosperous yet politically volatile northern part of the duchy of Burgundy, which had come into Maximilian I’s possession through his first marriage. The Burgundian Netherlands, as the historic region is known, had close relations with Portugal through trade as well as dynastic alliances, which extended Flemish influence far into the Atlantic realm. Isabella of Portugal—daughter of João I and sister of Prince Enrique (Henry) the Navigator—had been Duchess of Burgundy, and around 1460 she received a grant permitting her Flemish subjects, who were seeking relief from the privations of the 100 Years’ War, to colonize the Azores. Immigrants from Flanders so dominated their settlement that they were commonly known as the Flemish Islands.

In 1466, a Flemish noble, Joss van Huerter, whose family had a seigneural holding in Wijnendale, began to settle the Azorean island of Fayal. Huerter was awarded the hereditary title of captain donatorio for Fayal in 1468; this captaincy, which granted the right to settle the land, was extended to neighboring Pico in 1482. Huerter did not spend all his time in the Azores. Known in Portugal as Joz d’Utra or some variant thereon, he maintained a splendid residence in Lisbon and would have returned to Flanders occasionally on business.

Behaim likely encountered Huerter around 1479–80 and followed him from northern Burgundy to Lisbon, although German merchants also were well established in the Portuguese capital. There was also a close dynastic relationship between Portugal and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire: Frederick III’s queen consort—and Maximilian’s mother—was Eleanor of Portugal, sister of Afonso V and aunt of João II. (The Portuguese were also very fond of German gunpowder and artillery expertise.) Behaim would marry Huerter’s daughter, Joanna de Macedo, between 1486 and early 1489; in the meantime, Huerter’s standing in both Lisbon and the Azores would have been crucial to Behaim’s ascent.

By 1484, Behaim was a leading member of João II’s learned council charged with solving the sun-sight problem, and his contributions included drawing up the required declination tables. Huerter must have advanced his candidacy, which was founded on Behaim’s claim to having been a student of the great Nürnberg astronomer and mathematician Regiomontanus, who had produced the celestial almanac Columbus used in observing the lunar eclipse of September 1494.

Behaim was said to have provided a new astrolabe design for the Portuguese. It may have been based on the work of Regiomontanus, who created a number of improvements in observational instruments. Behaim also could have been a commercial conduit to Portugal—and ultimately even to Columbus—for the scientific instruments (including mariner’s compasses) being produced in Nürnberg.

Behaim made a voyage to West Africa in the 1480s, supposedly in concert with solving the sun-sight problem, although it’s not clear when. In July 1493, the massive Liber chronicarum, a copiously illustrated world history also called the Nürnberg Chronicles that was one of the great books of the Renaissance, was published in Behaim’s hometown after five years of preparation. Compiled by Jerome Münzer’s fellow physician and humanist scholar Hartmann Schedel while Behaim was back in the city, it claimed that João II dispatched “certain galleys” around 1483 down the coast of “Ethiopia”; Behaim was captain of one vessel while Diego Cão (“Jacobus Canus”) commanded the other. The text described them observing longitude and latitude according to the Ptolemaic scheme and asserted that they crossed the equator, discovering lands that had been searched for in vain by the Genoese. If Behaim actually made a voyage with Cão, it was unlikely he was given command of a vessel. Behaim also had to have been back in Portugal in order to be made a knight of the Order of Christ by João II on February 18, 1485. It’s more likely he sailed on a 1485–86 voyage by Cão in association with João Afonso de Aveiro, as part of the experiments to solve the sun-sight problem.

Behaim would have been in Lisbon, active as an esteemed member of a royal junta on navigation, at the very time Columbus was there, trying to advance his proposal for a westward voyage to the Indies. The Spanish chronicler Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas asserted that Behaim was a friend of Columbus and shared his views on exploration opportunities. Indeed, they must have known each other in Portugal, as Columbus strove to work his own courtly connections through his wife’s family to advance his voyage plan.

One version of the Columbus story holds that four members of the sun-sight junta were tasked to hearing his voyage proposal. Behaim’s name was conspicuously absent from this subcommittee, and he could well have been excused from hearing out Columbus because he lacked impartiality. In any event, Columbus’s voyage plan was soundly rejected, and he left Portugal for Spain, fleeing João II’s ruthless response to the Braganza conspiracy. Behaim then sailed to West Africa on the 1485–86 voyage to conduct sun-sight experiments. It was the apparent end of the relationship between these two ambitious men.

The biographies of Behaim and Columbus were remarkably similar: Both were foreigners who came to Portugal through mercantile activity involving textiles and sugar that was based on sea trade; both were familiar with the Atlantic islands; both ended up marrying daughters of a prominent figure in a Portuguese Atlantic colony; both claimed expertise in navigation; and both were interested in a westward voyage to Asia based on the Toscanelli scheme.

Of the two, Behaim was far better positioned to make the desired westward voyage and inadvertently discover the New World in the process. He was the younger man, well connected at the Portuguese court when there was a strong commitment to exploration, and he boasted a superior pedigree in astronomy and navigation. Through Huerter, Behaim had access to a departure point, the Azores, much closer to the anticipated landfalls than any other Portuguese locale or Spanish possession. In 1486, with Columbus an impoverished guest of the Franciscans of La Rábida—and with John Cabot still in Venice, many miles and career changes removed from making his own westward stab—the opportunity for Behaim to make that voyage arose.

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