Growth Of Geographical Knowledge
Classical ideas of the world.—The discoveries of the century completely transformed the conceptions of geography. Greek and Roman scholars had agreed that there were three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa, encircled by the ocean. Aristotle, Strabo, and others accepted the theory that the earth was a sphere, but they usually underestimated its size. Ptolemy, the greatest of the ancient geographers, made two fundamental errors, which most of the Arab and Christian scholars accepted. He depicted the Indian Ocean as an inland sea, and greatly extended Africa until it filled the entire southern hemisphere, China and Africa being connected.
Arab theories and Christian scholars.—The Arabs believed that the earth was a disc or ball, which was the center of the universe. The center of the earth's surface they called Arim, meaning the cupola of the earth. At the eastern extremity stood the pillars of Alexander, at the western the pillars of Hercules, while the north and south poles were equally distant from Arim. The Ptolemaic idea of Africa was accepted by most of the Arabs, but many of their later map makers decreased its size, cutting it off in the neighborhood of Cape Bojador on the African coast, and calling the region beyond the "Green Sea of Darkness." Others sketched in a great southern continent below Africa. The "Green Sea of Darkness" was filled with terrors, whirlpools ready to destroy the adventurous mariner, a sea of mist, fog, and vapor, peopled by monsters. If he escaped these as he ventured southward, he would come to a zone of torrid heat where no man could survive. Roger Bacon, the great Christian scientist, accepted the Arabian theories but supplemented them by a study of the classics. He believed that the habitable world was more than half of the whole circuit, an idea which was repeated in the Imago Mundi of Pierre d'Ailly, a work which may have influenced Columbus.
Early Asiatic contact with America.—Some scholars believe that the western coast of North America was visited by Asiatics long before the eastern shores were reached by Europeans. In 499 a Buddhist priest returned from a voyage claiming to have been to a country called Fusang, lying far to the east. The location of Fusang has interested numerous students, whose conjectures have been marshalled by Vining to prove that it was Mexico. Some have attributed the remarkable sporadic growth of cypress trees below Monterey, California, to this episode. The trend of opinion accepts ethnographic and linguistic similarities as of greater conclusiveness than recorded Chinese history. Belief in early Japanese contact with America rests on a similar basis.
The Northmen.—The first Europeans to venture far out on the Atlantic were the Northmen, a people but little touched by classical, Arabic, or Christian culture before their great period of expansion. The western sea to them had no terrors. Near the close of the eighth century they appeared in England; in 860 they sighted Iceland and in 874 commenced its colonization. Three years later they discovered Greenland, but it was not until 986 that Eric the Red colonized it. In the year 1000, Leif, the son of Eric, went in quest of a land to the west, of which he had heard report. The result of the voyage was the discovery of Vinland, the exact whereabouts of which has been one of the puzzles of history, some scholars claiming it to have been Nova Scotia, others New England. Wherever it may have been, it probably played no part in the Columbian discovery of America, for though the settlements in Greenland continued until early in the fifteenth century, scientists and mariners remained in almost complete ignorance of the far-off activities of the Northmen.
Mediæval travelers.—During the period of the Crusades, travel became more and more extensive. Returning crusaders told of their adventures and of the lands which they had visited. Pilgrims returning from the East increased the store of geographical knowledge and repeated marvelous tales of Russia, China, and India, although none of them had first-hand knowledge. But during the thirteenth century accurate information was obtained. John de Plano Carpini, a Neapolitan Franciscan, went as a legate of Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan in Tartary. His Book of the Tartars is the first reliable account of the empire of the Great Mogul. A few years later William de Rubruquis was sent by St. Louis of France to the same court, and returned to tell a tale of wonders.
Between 1255 and 1265 two Venetians, Nicolo and Matteo Polo, were trading in southern Russia, and eventually they visited the court of Kublai Khan in Mongolia, later returning to Europe. In 1271 they again visited the Far East, this time accompanied by their nephew, Marco, whose account of their journeyings is the most famous book of travel. Marco became an official at the Mongol court and was sent on various missions which carried him over a large part of China. He also learned of the wonders of Cipango or Japan. In 1292 the Polos left China, visited Java, India, and Ceylon, and eventually returned to Europe. Their travels made known a vast region which had previously lain almost outside the reckoning of geographers, and gave to Europeans a fairly accurate as well as a fascinating account of the Far East.
Early maritime activities on the African coast.—While the Polos were in Asia, mariners were beginning to explore outside the Pillars of Hercules. In 1270 the Canaries were discovered by Malocello and a few years later Genoese galleys reached Cape Nun. In 1341 the Canaries were again visited, this time by an expedition from Lisbon, and in 1370 an Englishman, Robert Machin, who had eloped from Bristol with Anne d'Arfet, was driven from the French coast in a storm and came to Madeira where they both died from exposure. Some of the crew, however, returned to tell the tale. In 1402 a Norman, De Béthencourt, reached the Canaries and several of the islands were soon colonized.
Advance of maritime science.—As sea voyaging progressed, maritime science was also advancing. A large number of coast charts called Portoláni were made, which plotted with remarkable accuracy the coast lines of Europe and northern Africa. Over four hundred of these charts are still in existence. Their accuracy was largely due to the use of the compass and astrolabe, which are known to have been invented before 1400.
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