13. Some Nautical Myths and Issues
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13 Some Nautical Myths and Issues “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-­ wax— Of cabbages and kings— And why the sea is boiling hot— And whether pigs have wings.” —Lewis Carroll, 1872 Conventionally, archaeologists and historians view ships and sailing as having commenced on the Nile River, expanded to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, passed to the Phoenicians and their Carthaginian successors and to the Minoans and Greeks, with know-­ how accumulated over the millennia in the Mediterranean eventually culminating in the caravels of Portugal and Spain that finally allowed humans to embark upon the open ocean. It has been typical of this mind-­ set to make it “not only unthinkable but impossible” that distant ocean exploration could have happened before the fifteenth century.1 In addition, the Eurocentrism of many historians and other scholars has led to a number of misapprehensions regarding the capabilities of non-­ European craft. Just one example of this point of view will suffice: “Before Magellan entered the Pacific in 1520, in what we would call a primitive sailing ship . . . there were only primitive rafts and dugout canoes; later, outrigger canoes; followed , still later, by the double canoes (catamarans) with built-­ up sides. There were more advanced types of ships in Japan, China, Malaysia and India, but of a type which scarcely could make very long transoceanic voyages successfully.”2 The Columbus Myth The words of one historian exemplify the established perception: “A number of technical changes came together to make ocean voyages possible: the compass, celestial navigation, improved shipbuilding, and guns to meet whatever challenge might appear,” and only then did exploration go beyond the coasts and the less distant islands.3 However, much of this widespread perception rests on misinformation. A way to begin dealing with these misconceptions is to address head-­ on the Columbus myth. 146 / Chapter 13 Stephen Jay Gould observed, “All defining events of history develop simplified legends as official versions—primarily, I suppose, because we commandeer such events for shorthand moral instruction, and the complex messiness of actual truth always blurs the clarity of a pithy epigram.”4 “[We] seem to need heroes , defined as courageous iconoclasts who discerned germs of modern truth through strictures of ancient superstition.”5 Ian Wilson, in his book The Columbus Myth, asserted, “On both sides of the Atlantic umpteen generations of schoolchildren have been taught to regard the continent of America as having been an island effectively cut off from the rest of the world until Columbus’s out-­ of-­ the-­ blue arrival.”6 Even half a millennium after Columbus, just about everyone is inculcated with the proposition that until 1492, no one had ever conceived of sailing westward to Asia. “Since the earth itself was thought to be a spherical [sic; circular ] disk, navigators venturing to the imaginary border of this circumferential [ocean] river would fall over the edge and never return. Not only was the sea filled with enormous whirlpools, monstrous demons, and dragons with man devouring jaws lying in wait for everyone who entered it, but the ocean and its secrets—according to religious belief—belonged to god and was not to be explored by humans.”7 Moreover, some allegedly believed that the sea boiled in the tropics. As far as the monsters are concerned, these appear simply to have been exaggerations based upon sharks, giant squids, octopuses, whales, and marine crocodiles. The source of the monsters idea is perhaps the Bible itself, in which it is written (Psalms 104:25–26): “this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.” Nevertheless, as the psalm goes on to state, “There go the ships.” It is further widely held that, in any case, before the inception of the astrolabe , the mariner’s magnetic compass, and accurate charts for plotting courses, no one dared go far out of sight of land for fear of becoming lost, and that before the adoption of full decking, the stern rudder, multiple sails in­ clud­ ing the lateen mizzen course (triangular aft sail; see chapter 15), and other supposed late medieval and early Renaissance innovations in European marine architecture and rigging, there were no watercraft able to cross oceans.8 In fact, perfectly capable watercraft had existed for millennia, especially in south­ ern and east­ ern Asia. Europe, too, had able ships, but sailing rigs and methods were earlier and far more highly developed in greater South...


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