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Posts Tagged ‘exploration

“Geographers never get lost. They just do accidental field work.”*…

 

maps

An image from The Catalan Atlas, 1375

 

When Christopher Columbus first set foot in what’s now the Bahamas, it was the lucky sum of a 1,400-year-old cartographical error and Columbus’s own miscalculations of the globe. The Genoese explorer believed the Eurasian landmass to cover nearly 2/3 of the earth’s circumference—the actual distance from Spain eastward to his target of eastern Asia was closer to 1/3 of the circumference.

Columbus’s image of the world was based on ancient maps that greatly overestimated the size of the Eurasian continent and depicted the planet’s circumference some 25 percent smaller than it actually was—a misjudgment compounded by his own wishful thinking and erroneous math. By his calculation, India lay within a 2,500-mile voyage west of Spain. He was off by about 8,000 miles.

Columbus’s errors are only a chapter in a series of discoveries, theories, and mistakes that tell the story of maps and mapmaking. Maps are a 10,000-year journey of humans trying to understand Earth. In 1492, most people had no idea what the world looked like; even some impressively accurate maps were full of myths and mistakes, from fantastical monsters to entire missing continents to swaths of terra incognita, or “unknown territory.”

Over time, errors were corrected and empty spaces were filled in, and today, much of the population walks around with a map of the entire Earth in their pocket that’s so detailed you can see your own front door…

Eight maps, from antiquity to today, that changed how we see the world: “Why Maps Are Civilization’s Greatest Tool.”

* Nicholas Chrisman

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As we find our way, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1415 that Henry the Navigator led Portuguese forces to victory over the Marinids at the Battle of Ceuta, the Muslim port on the North African coast across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian Peninsula– which marked the beginning of the Portuguese Empire in Africa.  Henry remained a central figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire and was a key driver of the 15th-century European maritime discoveries and maritime expansion. Through his administrative direction– including his patronage of cartographers– he is regarded as the main initiator of what would be known as the Age of Discovery.

220px-Henry_the_Navigator1 source

 

“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell”*…

 

cabinet_kiosk_9_june_2020_nagel_alexander_01

Artist unknown (Cristovão de Figueiredo?), Hell, Museu da Arte Antiga, Lisbon, ca. 1515. Oil on oak, 119 x 217.5 cm.

 

Naked people are tumbling into the picture through a circular opening at top right, their features immediately blurred by rising heat and smoke. Below, various bodies are being put to the flames, a traditional punishment for those consumed by lust in their lifetimes…

No one knows who painted this depiction of hell, or who asked for it to be made, or even what purpose it served. We only know that it was done in about 1515 in Lisbon. To my eye, the facial types resemble those of the royal painter Cristovão de Figueiredo, who died in 1525. Several of the strange motifs—the figure with bent knee on a crutch, the pig orifice, the spurting fire, the beak-nosed figure, and the albino monster—are closely drawn from a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch that was in Portugal (probably in the Portuguese royal collection) at the time, and now hangs in the same museum as this painting.

Our painting of hell is big, much bigger than you might expect from looking at a photo. It doesn’t fit clearly into any category of picture known at the time. It is an independent panel, not a scene in a fresco cycle that gains meaning from the larger program. It’s not an altarpiece, nor is it a typical private devotional image, which would have been smaller. Its oblong shape suggests it was not part of a larger structure, as in triptychs by Bosch and others, where hell occupies one compartment, one part of a larger statement about human life and the world. This is a big stand-alone painting of a subject that normally didn’t stand alone. The painting lowers you right down to the sub-basement of hell and lets you look. The looking begins as voyeuristic fascination and then sinks into self-reflection…

There had been paintings of hell before, showing people (much like the people for whom the paintings were made) undergoing various punishments for their sins. But this painting no longer represents generic humanity. Here, the tortured are marked as white Europeans, being punished by mostly swarthy monsters with distinctly exotic trappings drawn from the newly encountered inhabitants of the farthest ends of the world—all the way down the African coast, all the way across the (Atlantic) Western Ocean, and, possibly, as far as India. And the punishments seem to concentrate on the sins unleashed by the European expeditions, the sins of rapaciousness: lust, gluttony, and greed. The monks and friars who accompanied these expeditions, tacking missionary work onto commercial exploits, are emphatically included among the damned…

Turning the colonial gaze back on the colonizers, the painting presents the hairstyles of the Europeans, such as the tonsures, in the manner of recent European reports and images depicting the strange hair and stylings of outlandish natives. Here, Europeans themselves go naked, just as bestselling accounts were then describing the inhabitants of America, Africa, and India. Here, white people are the rapacious ones, the lusty ones, the ridiculous ones, and the defeated ones. Two faces, the albino monster to the left and the flame mask to the right, turn toward us as if to say, yes, I know you’re enjoying watching this, and have you considered this might be you?

Some images from the period—just a few—show the costs of subjection and colonization for the native populations of America, Asia, and Africa. Almost none, apart from this one, prod their viewers to imagine the costs for the colonizers themselves…

Alexander Nagel offers a close reading of a remarkable work, a 1515 painting that turns a mirror on its viewers: “Hell is for White People” (much larger reproduction of the painting available there).

* Oscar Wilde

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As we see ourselves in others, we might recall that Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro González died on this date in 1541.  In the event Pizarro was assassinated in the palace he’d built himself to rule over Peru, after he’d conquered the Incas (and executed their leader Atahuapla).  Pizarro’s death was in retaliation for his own murder of an old partner, then rival, Diego de Almagro.

220px-Portrait_of_Francisco_Pizarro source

 

Written by LW

June 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?”*…

 

Atlas

 

Now that we’re corralled into our homes and apartments, something seems pre-modern in how our worlds have shrunk. Unlike past quarantines, we’re also connected by digital technology to the rest of the globe, calling to mind poet John Donne’s line from a 1633 poem about making “one little room an everywhere.” Donne came of age able to envision a mental map of the globe based on new and detailed evidence about a dizzying array of locations. His poetry is replete with globes, maps, and atlases. What’s considered to be the first atlas was first available in an Antwerp print shop 450 years ago [see here] only two years before Donne was born. It was large, handsome, and expensive, with the grandiose title of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or in English Theater of the Orb of the World. Donne was undoubtedly familiar with it. Produced by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius, it was one of the most popular books of the era. Ortelius had invented the world.

403px-Bodleian_Libraries,_Ortelius,_Theatrum_Orbis_Terrarum_Titlepage_with_four_figures_which_embody_the_four_known_continents

Never before had all cartographic knowledge been compiled together; never before could a reader imagine the totality of the Earth so completely…

Ortelius wasn’t the first mapmaker to be concerned with what the coastlines actually looked like, or with making sure that islands were in the right location. But he was the first to gather all of that detailed material in a single place. Those who purchased the Theatrum were not unlike those first seeing The Blue Marble, a photograph of Earth the members of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission took from space.

As with that image, Ortelius’ atlas birthed a new mental geography, a new imagined space. If Medieval thinkers saw themselves as living in a symbolic and allegorical geographic order, then the Theatrum presented the physical world in its totality. The cartographer didn’t prove that the world was round (people already knew that) or that the world was large (they knew that too) but he gave people the mental images necessary to imagine themselves on that large, round globe. Ortelius gave us not disenchantment, but a differing enchantment—a sense of the sheer magnitude of the planet.

It was the most expensive book ever published (up to then), and one of the most impactful: “The Book That Invented the World.”

* David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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As we find our places, we might recall that it was on this date in 1790 that Peruvian-Spanish explorer and cartographer Manuel Quimper began his exploration and mapping of The Strait of Juan de Fuqua (known until a few years earlier as The North Straits).  Running into the Pacific at the northern extreme of what is now Washington State, the center of the Strait defines the international boundary between Canada and the United States (and in earlier maps, per the link in the quote above, contributed incorrectly to defining California as an island).

Manuel_Quimper source

 

“The nature of an innovation is that it will arise at a fringe”*…

 

fringe

 

Alternative media outlets of the Left and Right have become a crucial supplement to our knowledge of the world, providing those perspectives usually ignored by our mainstream media...

From the masthead of the aggressively-inclusive site that means to make those views available, The Unz Review.

The collection is sufficiently vast that your correspondent cannot guarantee against any bias in its eclecticism (indeed, he notes that it is the work of Ron Unz).  Still, it’s a remarkable aggregation of theory, opinion, and reportage, from what seems a broad array of points-of-view.

Readers are advised to steel themselves, take a deep breath…  then dive in.

Pair with Wikipedia’s Fringe Theory page– and perhaps more interestingly still, their explanation in their editorial guidelines of how they identify and classify fringe theories.

[Image above: source]

* “The nature of an innovation is that it will arise at a fringe where it can afford to become prevalent enough to establish its usefulness without being overwhelmed by the inertia of the orthodox system.”   — Kevin Kelly

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As we iris out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1804 that Corps of Discovery– better known today as the Lewis and Clark Expedition– left Camp Dubois, near Wood River, Illinois, commencing what would be a trek over two years on which they became the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson had commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase (in 1803) to explore and to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent– a Northwest Passage– and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.

 source

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

source

 

 

“Christopher Columbus, as everyone knows, is honored by posterity because he was the last to discover America”*…

 

the_mali_empire

The Mali Empire in 1337

 

Abubakari II was a Malian who ascended to the throne in 1310. He controlled most of western Africa and an incredibly wealthy state with more than one million subjects. He (his navy) may have sailed to the Americas in 1311:

More than a hundred years before the Portuguese had cleared Cape Bojador in the Western Sahara, and almost two hundred before Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, there is some evidence to suggest that Abubakari II, Emperor of Mali, crossed the Atlantic and visited the Americas. The idea even received support from Columbus himself, who wrote in his journal about African journeys from the Guinea coast to the Americas and supposed this was how the South Americans had learned techniques of alloying gold.

At the time, the Malian empire was arguably the richest state on earth. Founded in 1235, by 1310 when Abubakari II came to the throes it had control of most of western Africa, form the inland trading cities of Timbuktu and Gao on the fringes of the Sahara to the Guinea coast. The empire ruled millions of subjects, its three gold mines were responsible for producing more than half of the Old World’s gold and it also profited from the extremely lucrative salt trade. …

[It is from] Inslamic historian al-Umari’s conversations with Mansa Musa [Abubakari II’s successor] that we have our best account of Abubakari’s mission. Apparently, when Abubakari came to the throne in 1310, he ordered two hundred boats to set out to check whether, like the Niger River, the Atlantic Ocean had a far bank. Inorder to maximise the chances of success, a variety of boats was constructed.

Some of them would have been pirogues, which resembled a canoe, while others were probably based on Arab boats such as the dhow. Each of the two hundred vessels had a supply barge attached, with enough dried meat grain and preserved fruit in ceramic jars to last for two years, as well as cotton goods and gold for trade.

Of the two hundred vessels that departed only one returned. The captain reported to the mansa that:

we sailed for a long time, up to the moment when we encountered in mid-ocean something like a river with a violent current. My ship was lost. The others sailed on, and gradually each of them entered this place, the disappeared and did not come back. We did not know what had happened to them. As for me, I returned to where I was and did not enter the current.

It seems that most of the fleet was destroyed in a giant whirlpool. Yet Abubakari II’s curiosity was not diminished by this tale of natural disaster. He determined to make the voyage himself. In 1311 he abdicated, leaving matters of state in the hands of his younger half-brother Musa, and set off at the head of an expedition whose two thousand ships and their supply barges made it ten times as large as the previous one. They sailed off into the Atlantic from where The Gambia is today and were never heard from again.

Powerful but inconclusive arguments have been made to suggest that at least some of the fleet landed in America. The locations usually suggested are Recife in Brazil, or the Caribbean, where the Garifuna, a tribe known to the Europeans as Black Caribs, claimed pre-Columbian African ancestry. Arguments for a pre-Columbian Malian presence in the Americas include the prevalence of the bottle gourd, a native African plant, in South American cultures; the composition of spearheads, indicating the use of Malian gold; linguistic traces of Mandinka languages in the regions where the fleet may have landed; and Columbus’s assertion that he saw black traders working in the Americas when he arrived…

An excerpt from Ed Wright’s The Lost Explorers: Adventurers Who Disappeared Off the Face of the Earth, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com.

* James Joyce

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As we investigate the initial, we might note that this leap-day (like every “last day in February”) is Rare Disease Day— an occasion devoted to raising awareness of and encouraging action on the too-often horrifying ailments that fall outside the spotlight, but that cumulatively are all-too-common.  It’s a great day to adopt an orphan (disease).

logo-rare-disease-day source

 

Written by LW

February 29, 2020 at 1:01 am

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