Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery
Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery

Maritime Myths – 6 Fallacies from the Age of Discovery

Patrick Lynch - November 2, 2016

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.