Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wood Ship and West Sea Landing – Part III

As stated in the last post, a recent writing by a Great Lakes theorist made some rather indefensible comments. Two of them were answered in the last post. In this post, let’s deal with the next paragraph of his writing in which he wrote:

“Arguably, the wisest way to bring your family from Arabia to America in a seaworthy wooden vessel is to keep close to shoreline most of the trip. You bravely round the Cape of Good Hope and divinely guided, cross the Atlantic—“

First, someone in the 21st century can glibly write: “Arguably, the wisest way to bring your family from Arabia to America in a seaworthy wooden vessel is to keep close to shoreline most of the trip,” but any mariner worth his salt will tell you that sailing near shore, or even in the sight of land, is extremely dangerous and no one would attempt such a thing with family and loved ones in a large vessel strong enough to sail into deep water oceans. Very experienced early Portuguese sailors lost ships sailing around Africa until they learned how to do so. We read a lot today about how early mariners kept to the sight of land, but that is a modern understanding of how these men sailed their ships. After all, they had maps and charts, and stayed out to sea, coming toward land only occasionally to check their bearings. These early Portuguese sailors, like Vasco de Gama, touched on the eastern shores of South America in their sailing around Africa.

Secondly, the early Portuguese ships that sailed the coastal waters of Africa were not deep-sea ships, but shallower, lighter, and less seaworthy coastal vessels. By the time of Columbus, the Portuguese ship-building was more of a refined art, with very strong hulls that could withstand the pounding of ocean winds and currents, and sails that could handle the gales and storms at sea.

Additionally, this author writes: “You bravely round the Cape of Good Hope and divinely guided, cross the Atlantic at the shortest distance between the Old World and the New”—a simple statement written today, but a task that challenged the best mariners of the ancient world.

In 1419, Prince Henry, son of King João of Portugal, began to subsidize sailors, mapmakers, astronomers, shipbuilders and instrument makers who were interested in discovering new lands Although these men were mostly Italian, there were also many Jews, Muslims, Germans, Scandinavians and Arabs who came to Prince Henry's court. They were all united in their desire to find a way around Africa to India. These sailors did not succeed but they were successful in advancing down the west African coast, where they began to open a rich trade in gold and slaves.

In 1488, the Portuguese captain, Bartholomeu Dias is credited with reaching the east coast of Africa, however, that brag by the Captain was not true. His ship reached the southern tip of Africa and could not sail through what was then called the Cape of Storms because of the dangerous waters there (later renamed Cape of Good Hope to encourage others to navigate around it), and when he insisted in penetrating those difficult waters, his crew threatened to mutiny. Turning back, he returned to Lisbon to make his claim, but in fact never accomplished the task. In a second voyage in 1500, Dias’ ship was wrecked in this area trying to round the Cape. It took Vasco de Gama the following year, to round the Cape, and he did so by swinging far out to sea to avoid the swirling, dangerous currents—a suggestion given him by Dias.

This Cape of Good Hope was not the southern most point of Africa, but Cape Agulhas, about 90 miles from Good Hope. And no matter how much divine guidance you received, you could not accomplish a route staying in along the coast and in sight of land. You had to sail far out to sea to avoid the dangerous retroflective currents around the southern tip of Africa. Besides, divine guidance would have taken the ship up toward the Cape Verde islands where the northern gyre of the Atlantic swings west toward the Western Hemisphere and the New World—not meander across the Atlantic. This is the route divine guidance gave to Columbus, from the Canary Islands westward along the trade winds of the North Atlantic Gyre.

(See the next post, “Wood Ship and West Sea Landing – Part IV,” to see how ridiculous statements made today would have applied to the ancient world)

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