Some years ago, I read the journal of Christopher Columbus covering his first famous voyage of exploration, and I was left with the suspicion that Columbus had deliberately sailed South-West rather than directly West, because he already knew that there was a large land mass straight across the Atlantic.
You see, in the years before he finally got funding from Spain, he’d done a lot of scouting around the Western seaboard of Europe, and had visited the Basque ports, Bristol, and even Galway. In modern times, it has been suggested by some that fisherman from these Western fringes were already earning a fat living by catching cod off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland. They knew there was a huge “island” — the land mass of North America, but kept its existence a trade secret.
So I thought that Columbus might have picked up information on America, and had decided to sail round it, to the South, in order to reach China.
Well, like any serious writer, I decided to check my facts today before writing a blog about it. A good thing too, because I was completely wrong. Columbus did reach land somewhere in the Carribean, well to the South of Europe, but it was only because he had first sailed to the Canaries, off the coast of Africa, to begin his voyage. From the Canaries, he went more or less directly Westward, until land was sighted.
My conspiracy theory about Columbus is pretty much blown out of the water then, but the idea that the fishermen knew about America is still held seriously by some people. It’s even been suggested that the name “America”, always claimed for Columbus’s fellow-explorer Amerigo Vespucci, actually derives from the surname of the merchant Richard Amerike, from Bristol, who funded a fish-processing facility in “Brasile” in 1480, twelve years before Columbus sailed. It has been suggested, fairly plausibly, that “Brasile” was in Newfoundland. Amerike later sponsored an early exploration voyage (1497) by John Cabot, which returned the first public information on the new lands of North America. Vespucci sailed in 1499.
Columbus wasn’t looking for America, and till the day he died, was convinced that he had reached the Far East. His problem was that he had his own personal calculation of the size of the Earth, and it was wildly wrong. (The true size of the Earth had been worked out around 200 b.c. by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes.) In the 1490s, every educated person in Europe (and China, and India, and North Africa) knew that Columbus was wrong, but that didn’t stop him. (Incidentally, the names of the two smaller ships in his first “fleet” of three, the Pinta (painted one) and the Niña (little girl), translate best as “Tart” and “Bimbo”. They never told you that in school.)
Not that he was the first European to cross the Atlantic anyway. The Scandinavians who colonised Iceland around 900 a.d. later spread their settlement to Greenland, and later still, to North America. (Incidentally, Iceland already had Irish monastic communities when the Vikings arrived. The sagas say they “went away”, but I suspect genocide.) The Vikings called the new land “Vinland” for its vines. That would suggest somewhere quite far South along the New England coast, but so far the only archeological evidence is the remains of the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, dating to around 1000 a.d.
But we can do much better than 1000 a.d. Native Americans owe most of their ancestry to the stone-age peoples who colonized the continent around 15,000 years ago from Eastern Asia via Siberia and Alaska. But evidence is growing of a non-Asian strain in the Americas. There is a mitochondial DNA sequence, Haplogroup X, that occurs in Europe and North Africa, but also in Native Americans of the East Coast. It’s possible that the first Columbus was a stone-age European about 20,000 years ago.