Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery

Patrick Lynch - November 2, 2016

The Age of Discovery was a period in history that is normally said to have occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries. It involved European ships travelling around the world in a bid to find new trading partners and routes to improve their lives back home. Of course, these explorers ended up enslaving and murdering millions of native peoples which makes it easy to forget about the great achievements of Magellan, Cortes and others.

Life was rough for sailors on these voyages and it could be years before they made it home. In many cases, these men died overseas; either through encounters with natives or more likely, because of disease. While it was probably thrilling to be part of an expedition to locate new worlds, it is worth noting that sailors were poorly paid and harshly treated. Some of these men were actually impressed (forced) into service and would be whipped or beaten for disobeying commanding officers while failed mutineers paid with their lives.

It was an age where great legends were formed but it has also provided us with more than its fair share of myths and I look at 6 of them below.

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery
Dailymotion (Hernan Cortes)

1 – Cortes Was Seen as a God by the Aztecs

This myth suggests that the Aztecs thought Hernan Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl and the rest of his conquistadores were also gods. To be precise, the Aztec leader Montezuma is said to have mistaken Cortes for a god. In reality, there is no evidence to suggest this was ever the case. Cortes wrote plenty about his adventures in Mexico and never mentioned anything about himself or his followers being mistaken for deities.

He did write that the natives were awestruck by the weaponry of the conquistadores and there was an account of a Spaniard on a horse being viewed as ‘man and beast’ by a native after originally mistaking the conquistador as a centaur-type creature.

It would appear as if the entire myth began to take shape a couple of decades after the Spanish conquest. Inhabitants of New Spain were trying to figure out how such a small invading force was capable of defeating the mighty Aztecs. Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar, began working on research project related to Mesoamerica in approximately 1545. With the aid of the Natuatl people (the term ‘Aztec’ refers to them), Sahagun created The Florentine Codex which is a huge text with over 2,400 pages across a dozen books and more than 2,000 images.

He continued to add to the Codex until he died in 1590. In this text, the Natuatl gave their account of what happened during the Spanish Conquest. Some of the information comes from old warriors who fought the Spanish and lived to tell the tale. In trying to explain their failure to defeat the invaders, they tried to convince themselves that symbols and portends had suggested the Spaniards were actually returning gods.

This led to indecision within the Aztec ranks which allowed the Spanish to take a foothold and defeat the natives. The Spanish were quite happy to play along with the myth and used it to their advantage; it provided them with justification for later conquests. Of course, there were other reasons why Cortes was able to defeat a much larger force. As well as having no knowledge of foreign threats and weaponry, the Aztecs were also oppressive rulers; this was one of the main reasons for their demise. Instead of taking up arms against the Spanish, a number of native auxiliaries helped the conquerors!

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery
The Flat Earth Society (Yes, it does exist)

2 – People in the Middle Ages Believed the World was Flat

This is a myth you may even have heard in school and suggests that the majority of people in the Middle Ages were backwards enough to believe the Earth was flat. During the Age of Exploration, the story goes that the public were against the idea of explorers trying to travel around the world in the belief they would sail right off the edge.

This is of course complete nonsense and is an unfair representation of people during the Middle Ages. According to historian Jeffrey Burton: “With extraordinary few exceptions, no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the Earth was flat.” He goes on to say that all educated Greeks and Romans accepted the sphericity of the Earth by the first century A.D. It should be noted that a handful of the early Popes at the beginning of Christianity opposed the idea but in general, practically no educated person in the world believed the Earth was flat long before the Middle Ages.

Indeed, the fact that the Earth was a sphere was probably known since the 6th century B.C. with Pythagoras often credited as the first person to make the suggestion. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle came to the same conclusion and used evidence such as the southern constellations rising higher in the sky when you travelled south to support the theory. In the 3rd century B.C., Eratosthenes calculated that the Earth was approximately 252,000 stadia in diameter. Scholars don’t agree on the exact measurement he used although it has been assumed he used the Egyptian stadion which would be 157.5 meters. If this is the case, his estimate was just 1% away from the actual diameter of the Earth which is truly remarkable.

In terms of how the myth got started; it can be traced to the 16th century when secular scientists tried to claim that a number of religious groups believed the Earth was flat during Medieval times. They did this as a means of painting such groups as ignorant. In the 19th century, a range of texts including History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (by Andrew Dickson White) helped to give the myth quite a lot of traction.

The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving added further fuel to the fire. In it, Irving claims it was Columbus who first discovered the Earth was spherical. He tried to suggest his work was based on scholarly findings when in reality, it was pure fiction. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and a range of books and articles tackled this myth in the early part of the 20th century.

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery (A 1743 Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh)

3 – Walter Raleigh Introduced Tobacco and Potatoes to England

Sir Walter Raleigh is a fascinating historical figure as he has managed to have a variety of achievements and deeds falsely attributed to him. For instance, he didn’t chivalrously lay his cloak on a puddle to ensure the feet of Queen Elizabeth I stayed dry nor was he this dashing and handsome individual as is often suggested.

Perhaps one of the most enduring myths associated with Raleigh is the notion that he introduced potatoes and tobacco to England. The date given for the arrival of tobacco in England is 27 July 1586 when Raleigh brought it over from Virginia. One fable says that a servant believed Raleigh was on fire when he saw him smoking a pipe for the very first time and proceeded to douse him with water.

In reality, tobacco had been in England for a number of years before the above date. Spanish and Portuguese sailors regularly smoked tobacco and probably introduced the habit to their British counterparts long before Raleigh is said to have brought it over. Some sources suggest it was Sir John Hawkins who brought tobacco to England in 1565.

Raleigh is also credited with bringing the potato to England but again, this is untrue. The Spaniards discovered the potato during their Inca conquest and there are records which suggest it was sold in Seville in 1570. There is no real mention of potatoes in England until the 1590s when herbalist John Gerard released a plant catalogue which contained over 1,000 species of plant including a picture of the potato. Yet again, there is simply no evidence of Raleigh introducing potatoes to England although he may have come across the sweet potato off the coast of Venezuela.

While Raleigh didn’t introduce tobacco or potatoes to England, he was a renowned explorer and one of the queen’s favorites. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth I discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage to a maid, she had him thrown in the Tower of London in a fit of jealous rage. He was released and failed in his attempt to find El Dorado. His luck ran out when King James I came to the throne in 1603 however. Raleigh was accused of treason and was sentenced to death. After 12 years in the Tower of London, he was released only to fail on a second expedition to find El Dorado. He defied the king’s command by attacking the Spanish on this mission and was executed in 1618.

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery (Ferdinand Magellan)

4 – Ferdinand Magellan Circumnavigated the World

Magellan is often regarded as one of the greatest sailors and explorers in history and is said to have been the first man to have circumnavigated the world. Unfortunately for him, this isn’t true because he died about halfway through the expedition! Magellan originally intended to find a safe way for merchants to make the Spice Islands but his expedition ended up doing something remarkable. Despite the achievement, the expedition was a disaster as not only was the leader killed, only one ship and 18 men made it home from the original fleet of five ships and 270 men.

The expedition began on 20 September 1519 and the five ships sailed out of Spain. In a sign of things to come, the mission started disastrously as only three ships made it as far as the Pacific Ocean. An attempted mutiny resulted in the loss of one ship as the expedition sailed along South America while another deserted while sailing through what is now known as the Straits of Magellan because the crew had lost hope of succeeding on their journey.

After three months of floating along the Pacific Ocean with no possibility of resupplying, the remaining ships managed to make it to Guam. The expedition made it as far as the Philippines where Magellan was killed on 27 April 1521. Apparently, the explorers got involved in a local war and Magellan received a bamboo spear in the face for his troubles. He survived the initial blow but was surrounded and slashed to death with weapons such as cutlasses.

After he died, a vote amongst the crew led to two men sharing the leadership of the expedition. Both died within a few days and their successor made the mistake of remaining behind with one of the ships as the expedition continued. He didn’t make it home and the new leader was said to have been Jean Sebastian Elcano who led the final ship, the Victoria, home on 6 September 1522 almost three years after departing.

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery
National Geographic (Captain James Cook)

5 – Captain Cook Was the First European to Discover Australia’s East Coast

This is certainly one of the most prevailing exploration myths as some historians seem keen to ignore evidence which suggests Captain James Cook was not the first European to discover Australia. It is bizarre to find that Cook is treated reasonably well by history given the fact he was, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant individual who had no hesitation in whipping subordinates nor did he care about native villages as he burned them down.

He is said to be the first European to discover the Eastern coastline of Australia when he arrived in 1770 but that is not the case. Certainly, the idea that no other European had landed in Australia before him is complete nonsense. A Dutch navigator named Willem Janszoon arrived and landed at what is today known as the town of Weipa. Several other Europeans followed suit before Cook made his mark.

Spanish explorers had been sailing in the Pacific Ocean for 300 years before Cook’s arrival in Australia and it seems impossible to suggest that they didn’t discover such a vast land mass during that time. The Dieppe Maps are possibly the most compelling proof of this fact. These maps were created in the French town of Dieppe during the 16th century and clearly show almost all of the continent’s coastline including the east coast. It is also likely that the Dieppe maps were actually copies of Portuguese maps. As well as using copies of Abel Tasman’s maps, Cook probably used stolen Spanish maps to make his way around the Pacific Ocean.

Additionally, a number of artifacts that pre-date Cook’s arrival have been found but are largely ignored by mainstream Australian historians and archaeologists. In 2014, a teenage boy found a 16th century swivel gun in Darwin and a skull belonging to a 16th century European male was discovered in New South Wales. Other artifacts include a rapier sword blade and ship’s bell from the 16th century and African coins from the 12th century. In other words, the evidence suggests that Cook was beaten to the punch by a number of explorers. Of course, this could be seen as irrelevant because Australian Aborigines have inhabited the land for approximately 50,000 years!

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery
The Imaginative Conservative (Christopher Columbus)

6 – Columbus was the First European to Discover America

Yes, there are still some people who believe this myth despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. The story goes something like this: Columbus sailed from Spain with three ships called the Pinta, Santa Maria and Santa Clara (also known as the Nina). The expedition began in August 1492 and within two months he had discovered America.

First and foremost, Viking sailors had ‘discovered’ America centuries earlier. Led by Leif Ericson, they set up a colony in Greenland in 982 which lasted until 1500. They spent quite a lot of time on expeditions down south and came across what they would call ‘Vinland’ which was probably the east coast of North America. Some historians believe the Vikings made their way as far as modern day North Carolina.

The Vikings even made an attempt to settle in North America and established a very short-lived colony in 1005. It lasted all of two years before the Native Americans showed their displeasure and kicked the Vikings out of their country in a hail of arrows. Sources suggest that Ericson’s brother Thorvald was the leader of the settlers and was killed by an arrow to the chest.

The second part of the myth is the notion that Columbus discovered what is now known as the United States. On his 1492 voyage, he actually came across the Bahamas archipelago and an island known as Hispaniola which is now split into the Dominican Republic and Haiti. While he did discover Central and South America, he didn’t land in the United States. What he did do was enslave the native people he came across on his voyages and he was renowned for his cruelty to those he had enslaved along with any members of his crew who defied him. Unfortunately, Columbus didn’t die in abject poverty as you may have heard. He was actually pretty wealthy when he died.