Shock at discovering that a hemisphere of the world
had been missing was hardly profound. The Renaissance mind
could comprehend the new three-dimensional space and an
enlarged globe, even when it was stretched out on a flat map.
A modern scholar has written of the receivers of the message of the
New World that ".. trained by Renaissance humanism,
they were especially well suited to deal with the cultural consequences
of overseas discovery." Marsilio Ficino, in the 1470's, wrote,
"Man wants to be everywhere. He is not content with any frontier."
Still, it took a generation for Europe
to be sold on the idea.
The Italian Renaissance did more than provide a representative figure
to discover the New World, and another to provide it with a name. It
was the Renaissance that sent Columbus to America and that dealt
with what he brought back. The Renaissance provided the mentality
for the Age of Discovery, did its research, gave it its tools, its back-
up, interpreted it, kept the fires moving from one nation to the next,
until they inflamed in each nation a permanent interest group
whose client was the New World.
Columbus was a "field commander," first, last, and always -
like many another; greater he was, because, resolute,
with a rightfully directed idée fixe and
a pigeon-like sense of direction,
he could ultimately move men and ships into a strange world.
However, upon his return he had to prove his conquests,
what it was that he had gained. It was up to the Spanish court,
the other navigators coming and going, the
scholars, the churchmen, to weigh and judge his achievement.
His main effort was to get ready for the next expedition.
All fields of learning were immediately alerted for
what his adventure had meant and how it might affect them.
The political elite and intelligentsia began to engorge his materials
and to communicate with other courts and centers of learning
and religion throughout Europe - the Italian states, the Vatican,
France, the Low Countries, the German States, even with
England, which was not yet cut off from Catholicism.
Columbus provided a report, which was released.
A new route to the Indies had been found.
His position on the subject, although he did not write much,
and published tardily, was the single greatest obstacle
to the recognition of America as a New World. Both he and the
Spanish government insisted upon referring to it as
"the Other World" or "the Indies."
The Vatican cooperated. Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493
issued a Bull, law to all Catholics and
hopefully a warning to the rest of the world. It declared that
God owned the World and the Vicar of God, to wit,
the Pope at Rome, might dispense
all that was not already in the hands of Christians,
and that, of this non-Christian land with its false titles,
Spain was to own all that was to be found beyond a line
drawn 100 leagues or more West of the Azores and
Cape Verde Islands. If the Bull appeared to be pro-Spanish,
it may have been because the Pope was himself Spanish.
A year later Portuguese and Spaniards signed a Treaty of
Tordesillas, which moved the Pope's line of demarcation
270 leagues further west.
Portugal was to have all the lands East of the new line,
Spain all lands West of it. The Treaty hardly made sense unless the
Portuguese had already touched upon the hump of Brazil, which
would now become their domain.
Columbus held but a hypothesis, and within the next political
generation, his hypothesis would be rejected. It would be nullified
because ships of five countries would set out to duplicate his
discovery, not once but twice or several times, depending upon the
resources brought to bear. There would be scores of ships skirting the
shores of the New World and landing there.
(Often wrecking upon its shores, or at sea coming and going:
a rule of thumb would assign one-third of the ships and
their human and material cargoes for the first generation
to "Davy Jones' Locker," roughly the percentage of
Europeans lost to bubonic plagues of the fourteenth century, of
Germans lost to the Thirty Years' War, of the percentage of Irish lost to
Potato Famines of the 1840's to come.) What they found was far
different from the fabled lands of Cathay and India.
Scholars everywhere hastened to their shelves to do library research.
Ancient books were brought out and reread, even back to Aristotle,
nay, the Bible, to see whether something had been missed and
whether what was reported was in line with what had been said in the
past. The zoological claims were questioned. Where were the
elephants of the Indies? Not there. But gorgeous parrots would be
proffered, just as one would expect.
Sketches were made of the landfalls, of coastlines dimly seen, of
people by their huts... Protocols were taken of interviews of natives,.
.. of their responses to interrogations by drawings, by gesture, by a few
words hastily learned, of the interrogation of informants brought back
as exhibits and to be interrogatedad infinitum.
There would be exhibitions of New World collections. From the
museum of Charles V, ruler of Spain and much more of the world
- on whose empire, a Spanish poet declaimed, "the sun never set",
the same expression that British subjects bruited about three
centuries later - an exhibition toured the realm.
Germanic art genius Albrecht Dürer saw it in Alsace and the
treasures of Montezuma astonished him. "I saw among them
wonderful works of art and marveled at the subtle ingenuity
of people in strange lands. I do not know
how to express all that I experienced there." His
"Ideal City" of 1527 seems to have been influenced by the
City Plan of Tenochitlan, which was shown there.
Theologians must ruminate, argue: Were the Indians
true humans, with souls to be saved? Did their conditions of life
prove the blessed situation of Christendom?
Which of their mess of customs had to be disposed of
to qualify them for baptism and the holy communion?
There was a rush of fine talent to go to America
Investors offered themselves, with and without capital.
The departure of the Jews, many of their assets dissipated and in effect
seized, interfered with capitalization of enterprise in America.
Gentiles then, as now, often believed that money
came, went, and accrued without benefit of astute management.
When stolen American gold and silver began to flow
into Spanish coffers, expulsion of the Jews seemed not to matter.
The cross would inform, the sword seize,
and the Court spend.
Voices of the crew and officers added a new dimension
to the knowledge and awareness of the Age.
If scores of boats returned from the New World within the
first political generation, some thousands of
mariners and soldiers would have been released upon Spain and
Europe. If 8,000 men told one or more stories to only two persons
per month for twenty years, nearly 4,000,000 persons
would have heard eye-witness accounts of the New World.
If these four millions had told what they had heard
to someone else, which they would, not once, but twice or more,
and to several others besides, over the same period of time,
the total population of Europe, estimated at 70 millions
in 1500, would have heard several accounts. Since this was
an age still of personal transmission of news and opinions, there is
no doubt that, whatever the duplication in the figures just cast out,
only a rare person in all of Europe would not have a store of
facts and fancies about the New World, and
many would know considerably more.
It happened that the Renaissance achieved one of its triumphs
with the invention and perfection of movable type,
paper-making and printing of books, leaflets, manifestos,
proclamations, bulletins, and picture-collections.
Gutenberg's famous press, itself burgeoning from a set of inventions,
began printing nearly a half-century before the voyage of
Columbus. Two years after Columbus landed, Aldo
Manuzio started the Aldine Press in Venice
in order to print true editions of books.
Within a socio-political generation, printing presses and
books were found throughout advanced countries of Europe.
Although Latin was still the universal
European language and hastened the distribution of
New World news, the dissemination of news
written in the popular languages accelerated greatly
with the printing and publishing industry.
The industry was ready for the big news-break.
Soon a brisk trade in Americana was carried on at the
annual Frankfurt Book Fair, then as today.
In 1507 in an Alsatian town called St. Dié,
a printer and a geographer gave the New World its name:
Why-so was perhaps better understood at the time than later on,
but today one can see in it a classic case of the
Free Press vs. Government.
Unlike Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Florentine navigator,
had cultivated a wide range of acquaintances, and had
written vivid and humane accounts of the New World.
He claimed to have been on several voyages to the so-called Indies,
had descended the whole of the North Atlantic Coast,
had circled the Bahamas, and had sailed down to explore the
Southern Atlantic coast, first for Spain,
then for Portugal, between1499 and 1501.
In 1499 he participated in the Spanish
expedition of Alomod and Hejida.
At least one of these expeditions may have been imagined,
nor was he captain on these voyages.
There is little question as to his navigating abilities, and
he might well have been a consistently effective leader;
probably the captaincy went to an investor and managerial type,
while Amerigo, more of a scientist and scholar,
acted as navigator.
His attitude towards New World inhabitants was modern;
for a month on one occasion he went to live among an
Indian group as a member of the community,
a participant observer, writing an account of it afterwards.
He described the mainland of America,
implying that he had seen it before Columbus,
who had never seen it, or before anybody else,
which was not true. He declared that he had not gone to
the New World to make a profit, but to
observe and learn.
He argued that a truly new continent had been shown to exist,
this by himself and others. Whatever he did and said
carried a substantial validity if only because
Europe expected miracles of art and science to emit from
contemporary Florence. No matter that the letters of Columbus were
published immediately upon the presses of
Barcelona, Rome, Basel, Paris, and Strasbourg.
A German version appeared in 1497.
In 1504 Peter Martyr's Libretto about
three voyages of Columbus appeared. A number of
Portuguese voyages were described in publications
appearing at the same time as Vespucci's.
His little book, based on an account sent to
Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, was called
Novus Mundus and came out in 1540.
The book was an instant success and was promptly translated
into several languages.
When news of his discoveries had reached Florence,
for three days palazzi torchlights burned in celebration.
Machiavelli pondered risks and glory, and commented ruefully that
"it has always been no less dangerous to discover new methods and
institutions than to explore unknown oceans and lands..."
(Though innocent, he had been imprisoned and tortured for
conspiring against the rulers of Florence.)
Vespucci was obviously not a creature of the Spanish Crown or
any Emperor; as a Florentine in correspondence with the famous
de' Medicis, he would be more simpatico to the intelligentsia,
especially those from the autonomous towns of the Upper Rhine in
Germany, Switzerland and Alsace. Geographer Martin Waldseemuller
was preparing a map of the New World; it appeared in the
book, Cosmographiae Introductio, labeled America.
Intellectual snobbery, perhaps, which to us seems to be
magnificent presumption: that these gentlemen of the press could
take it upon themselves to give a republican name, a
working author and navigator's name, to great new lands,
instead of calling them Carolusia for the Emperor Charles V,
or by some other noble name.
This was the famous Renaissance bravado. The world accepted it.
In England, the word "America" appeared for the first time in a
work by John Rastell in 1519, seven years after
the death of Americus (feminine = America) Vespucius.
The literature of the period did not reveal a concern for
American explorations and problems more profuse than
the literature dealing with the Turkish threat, religious disputes,
abuses and uses of political power, and popular science and medicine.
News from the Near and Far East competed
less seriously, because it became evident that the
human story would be coming from America;
people were soon sailing to and from
those shores in large numbers.
During these two centuries: 1500 to 1700,
Europe had to contend with the aggressive and culturally voracious
Turkish Islamic Empire, now moved deeply into Europe.
The effects on Venice and Austria were paralyzing.
Did New World diversions finally determine that Turkey
would remain dominant in Southeast Europe and the Near East, and
that Islam would retain North Africa?
The price of the New World should then be revised to include
the cost of the incapacity of Christian Europe to
contain and repel the Ottoman Empire.
If Spain, with the West's most formidable armies and vast fleets,
consistently had turned its might to help Venice and
Hungary in their war against Turkey,
after winning the great sea battle at Lepanto,
and had driven the Ottoman Turks from Europe,
would the value of retaining for the West for several centuries
the cultures of Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, and
possibly North Africa, be greater than the value
to the world of the European conquest of the Americas?
It is legitimate, if futile, to ask such a question, because such
conjectures lead to better-trained and
at least fairer judgements. By the same token,
one may ask whether the exploitation of
the Americas was worth the experience with syphilis
that the mariners of the Pinta and Niña brought back to Europe.
The distribution and digestion of New World information,
in all of its real and fanciful forms, hardly
kept ahead of the fast-spreading syphilis.
From time to time it has been alleged that syphilis came
not from America but had been anciently present in the Old World.
Was it a new disease? Did not one of the groups that happened
upon America much earlier, the Norsemen, for example,
contract and spread syphilis?
Various studies have refuted this hypothesis.
Examination of 30,000 ancient Egyptian skeletons
revealed no trace of it. Occasionally a skeleton will be found
here or there from pre-Colombian times outside America
that has signs of the disease, but not at all conclusively.
Almost surely syphilis was the unwitting revenge of the
natives of San Salvador for the cruelties and deprivations
visited upon them by Spanish and later exploiters.
The disease was transmitted by sexual contact,
erupted in sores, would subside, erupt again, and again,
in muscular and nervous disorders, until in its final stages,
five to thirty years after catching it,
one would often go blind, mad and die.
Just as they had been avid for the Arawak women,
crews and soldiers were eager for their own wives and women.
They moved around Spain, then Europe. They invaded the Low
Countries. They joined the Spanish Army on its way to fight the
Neapolitans, and infected the population of Naples. A French Army
came to the assistance of the Neapolitans and, when the Spaniards had
been driven out, enjoyed the fruits of victory. The French then
returned to France, bearing the Neapolitan Disease,
while the Italians called it, quite as unjustifiably,
the French Disease.
An Italian physician, Dr. Fracastor, analyzed it
in a long dramatic poem about a shepherd called Siphilus,
struck with the illness by Apollo (God of Medicine) for a
fancied insult: thus the name. Soon it was everywhere,
moving with the velocity of stories about the New World.
If not all Europeans came down with syphilis,
it was because the number of virgins of both sexes,
and of monogamous females and males, increased out of dread.
Perhaps Luther, who suffered from the suspiciously similar ailment,
gout, demanded the purity of monogamic marriage,
in contrast to weak-kneed celibacy,
out of fear of the disease.
Possibly the violent hatred against the Catholic Church, Luther's
"Whore of Rome," came in relation to the plague that would devastate
Europe for over 150 years, and
of course would go back and forth from America,
unleashing severe symptoms, with never a sure cure,
and then coming under a sort of easement and relief through
sulphur and other ointments until the advent of
penicillin in the 1940's.
It was calculated, at the end of the nineteenth century,
that a quarter of French males had contracted the illness
by the time they had finished lycée.
Still, today, syphilis is rampant, and, if the estimated 3,000,000
cases in the United States are not apparent, and lower figures are
otherwise cited, it is because syphilis today is often cured in
its early stages unnoticed, by means of an anti-biotic
administered for a feverish flu or a stomach germ or
accidental wound. (Even so, 297,707 cases,
contracted after induction, caught American
servicemen during World War II, about
the same number, 291,557, as were killed in the War.)
Charles V himself, 1500-1558,
the magnificent Majesty of the world's greatest empire,
contracted syphilis. So did Francis I, King of France
during this period of our interest, And most likely
Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth, Queen of England,
who had grave trouble siring an infant who would live.
The disease arrived in Bristol from Bordeaux in 1498.
With Vasco da Gama's crew, it sailed to India in 1498,
and from there went to China in 1505.
Probably it was from this original Portuguese source that the
first cases arrived in Japan by 1512 and
spread out wildly.
A former Surgeon General of the United States wrote -
there was every indication - that Columbus was afflicted:
on the voyage of 1494 he was ill;
in 1498 he had a seizure of what was called "gout,"
which mimics some of the symptoms (and vice versa);
he had delusions that he was the Ambassador of God;
rebellious officers bound him in chains and sent him back to Spain;
recovering somewhat, he was dignified with a fourth expedition, and
upon arrival in the "Otro Mondo" had to be carried ashore.
He seemed, writes Dr. Parran, to have had all the symptoms
of syphilis in its final stages; he died in 1506.
The search for cures was on immediately, to little avail,
until the disease became "tired," less virulent, and then mercury,
a dangerous cure, came to be administered with good effects.
The curative barks and herbs that had been rushed from the New World
appeared to be futile. Apparently Indians had been resting with the disease
more or less comfortably. On the other hand, it should be recalled
that Indians were incredibly sensitive to diseases brought from Europe and
could not evolve immunity to disastrous plagues,
even after three centuries.
America brought other returns, more benign, although when one
thinks of tobacco and coca, one is not so sure.
However, there were truly excellent new plants for eating,
ornamental display, and medicines and drugs.
If the Age of Discovery had been confined to America,
greater enthusiasm and interest would have been given the New World
and its products, but once again it is well to remind oneself of the
preoccupations with the Ottoman Empire, and the
triumphs of exploration and trade in Africa, the South Pacific and
the Far East. Neither could our flattered new
Indian pharmaceuticals match the immense Chinese
The terrible wars of the age, regularly called religious, but
incorporating every human motive in its worst aspects,
did not exclude anti-semitic persecutions, though
these had been occurring in nearly every generation
in one or more European countries more or less severely.
One of the worst occurred in Spain, at the very moment
that Columbus was set to sail for the Indies, for
then it was that the Jews were cast out of Spain, and shortly
afterwards out of Sicily, which had fallen to the Spanish Crown, and
out of Portugal as soon as it was joined by royal marriage to Spain.
Remarkably, almost all of the Jews survived,
dispersing to here, there, and everywhere, including the Americas;
many felt compelled to convert to Christianity.
Inspiration of ideas of utopias and natural living
came from the New World - ideas about
life without Christianity or Islam.
Simplistic conceptions of liberty, as an absence of all
restraints, not realizing the abundance of constraints under which
Indians labored. Thought many Europeans:
"Oh, to live like a simple, noble savage!"
Romances of America began quickly to flip from
the presses, which, then as now, made their
big money from violence, sex, political subsidy,
payoff, and scandal.
Finally the great historians of the Renaissance,
Italian or Italian-trained, would, under the very windows of the
already committed Church and the Crown of Spain and Portugal,
and whether they had been to the New World to
conduct field researches or had assimilated
all the data from the field - they would announce
in volume after volume the massive evidence designating
the discovered lands to be truly a New World,
materially, naturally, humanly, culturally
rich and varied, capable of Europeanizing
(as would not be the true Indies and Cathay)
but also forever substantially unique.
As early as 1530 there could have been a conference
of all concerned with western conquests, to decide
whether this was a New World, and what it was like, and
what to do with it.
Perhaps the occasion could have been the appointment of
Orviedo as official Spanish Chronicler of the Indies.
Would this group have emerged with divided opinions,
a consensus? It would not have followed the Spanish line.
Nor the Vatican line which followed that of Spain.
It was a New World and generally called America.
Thus, the old generation must die for a new paradigm.
Renaissance and Reformation finally defined
what Columbus had brought to their attention.
Now the history of the Americas would be played in
harmony or cacophony with their themes, as well as with
those of natural history and of the Indian peoples.
Although many romantic European males would dream
of it wistfully, including famous philosophers and theologians,
the American scenario would never be
"Brave virginal hero from Europe
meets virgin American Indian queen,