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by William H. Benson

October 11, 2012

     Christopher Columbus achieved preeminence during the Age of Exploration, that most adventurous chapter in Europe’s long and troubled history. The Age had begun when Portugual’s Prince Henry the Navigator in the fifteenth century, had dispatched his vessels south along Africa’s western coast, hoping to find a route to the treasures that he knew Asia possessed.

      Eventually, it was Vasco da Gama who rounded Africa’s southern cape, sailed across the Indian Ocean and reached India. Thereafter, the Portuguese set up trading stations in India, Africa, and China.

     Because the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, wanted a part in this lucrative trade, they agreed to support the Italian mariner, Christopher Columbus, who convinced them that he could sail due west and reach Asia, India and China. American history began on October 12, 1492 when Columbus landed his three Spanish caravels on an island in the Bahamas. 

     Because of Columbus’ daring, Europeans no longer considered the Atlantic Ocean a barrier, a blockade to travel. By conquering the Atlantic Ocean, he minimized the world to a navigable size. His feat was a display of human ingenuity, a confluence of skills and adaptations that men had learned over several millennium.

     Human beings are land animals, ill-equipped to survive little more than a few minutes in the water. To transport themselves to distant lands, men had to develop the means to cross the oceans and seas riding atop the water. Unlike on land, where men had harnessed a horse, mule, ox, or camel in order to carry them vast distances, men had not discovered any ocean animals that they might similarly domesticate. Whales dived too deep for men to ride on their backs.

     Men understood that they had to take land-based items with them if they were to survive when riding the waves. So, knowing that logs float on water, they chopped down trees, cut them up, and assembled them into rafts, boats, and ships. Men next wove thread made from plants into cloth that when stretched upon a mast served as a sail that harnessed the wind and propelled the ship.

     Thus, the principle was set: adapt land products in order to survive when floating atop the water. It is not a coincidence that a three-masted ship is sometimes called a “bark.”

     Some might suggest that because ship-building was so important to the English that in their language they attached it as a suffix to other words to describe an exceptional skill level, such as horsemanship, friendship, seamanship, and workmanship. Or it is more likely that the word for a floating vessel originated as watercraftsmanship or some other variation and that it was gradually shortened to just “ship.”

     Jacques Barzun, the historian and author of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, argued in favor of the Greek word “techne” rather than “technology” to describe an accumulation of skill. Of techne, Barzun said, “The word is short and exact; technology is neither.” The construction of ocean-going vessels in the fifteenth-century was indeed Europe’s newest techne.

     It was not enough to know how to sail a ship. It was also important that a mariner know where he was in relation to his home, and in what direction and how fast he was moving. He studied the stars and identified Polaris, the North Star that sits fixed, overhead at the North Pole, at 90º latitude, but at the equator, at 0º latitude, the star appears to sit on the northern horizon. Sailors knew with astonishing accuracy their latitude base upon Polaris’s height in the night-time sky. “I am constant, as the North Star,” wrote Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar.

     Navigators began to make instruments to assist in determining a position at sea; Columbus took with him a compass, an astrolabe, an hourglass, the quadrant, the backstaff, and charts. The idea developed of applying to a map a grid of latitude and longitude, and so maps of useful assistance.

     Christopher Columbus’s Spanish caravels were an amazing display of human ingenuity, techne, and workmanship, involving shipwrights, astro-navigators, cartographers, and instrument makers. He sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean because of the efforts contributed by many others.

     Columbus sailed the Atlantic, but so did the Norsemen centuries before, but in a more northerly route. The Chinese circumnavigated the Indian Ocean in their “junks,” early in the fifteenth century, and so did the Arabians in their “dhows.” James Michener, in his book Hawaii, wrote that the Polynesians conquered the Pacific Ocean in crude dugout canoes seven centuries before Columbus, and that by doing so, they “accomplished miracles.”


     Men and women gaze upon their ships with fondness; this is a love affair that has never faltered. Cabins in those city-like cruise ships are normally filled, and daily those ships traverse the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. Some sail for pleasure, to see the sights; others do so for business or trade; and not a few others, like Columbus, do so because they are greedy for gold.