When Columbus reached Cuba in 1492, he actually believed that he had arrived in Asia.  Why not?  After all, he had found land precisely where it was indicated on his Portuguese maps.  His enthusiasm for achieving the impossible—finding a western shortcut to the Orient—so impressed the Majesties of Spain that they promptly applied to Pope Alexander VI for a monopoly to preserve this “priceless” avenue of commerce.

Secretly, King John II of Portuguese was overjoyed.  Thanks to the efforts of English Franciscans and the pioneering expeditions of Prince Henry, his explorers had already charted New World coastlines from Labrador to Brazil.  Alone among European sovereigns, he already knew that the coast of Asia was several thousand miles beyond the shores of the new western continent. 

As the misguided pageant of New World discovery continued to unfold, Portuguese rivals squandered their maritime resources in a futile effort to find an ephemeral passageway through the western mainland.  First the Spaniards, then the English and the French chased after non-existent “straits” to the Pacific Ocean .  Meanwhile, Portuguese mariners continued on their merry way sailing unhindered around the Cape of South Africa — the only practical route to the Spice Islands.

A reassessment of historical documents reveals the success of a grand Portuguese scheme to mislead commercial rivals.  Loyal agents prepared a banquet of deception that included fake maps, secret expeditions, and well-groomed turncoats who led competing nations down the wrong pathways to glory.  

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Ever since the days when Columbus set sail for Asia in 1492, historians have pondered over a legacy of misnamed continents, vanishing isles, and fictitious short-cuts that mariners believed would lead them to the Orient.  Columbus launched the era of confusion by misnaming Cuba as the “Zaiton” peninsula that Marco Polo had visited on his trip to China in 1375.  He subsequently confused Haiti with Japan; he misnamed the natives “Indians;” and he identified the southern mainland as “the Other World”—after a Roman legend about a Fourth Continent (a.k.a. “the Antipodes”).

These early misidentifications of a “New World” came about largely as a result of Portuguese maps and numerous Classical authorities that initially convinced Columbus that a westward trip to the Orient was feasible.[1]  Although the actual map that Columbus used on his voyage has not survived, historians are fairly confident that they know what it looked like.  Presumably, it was some variation of several similar maps that were current among Portuguese cartographers in the late 15th century.  Columbus worked for a time with his brother (or uncle) as a mapmaker in Lisbon, and it was in this city that he observed Portuguese maps and globes.  The Portuguese concept of a narrow Atlantic Ocean is apparent from maps by Henricus Martellus Germanus (1489 & 1490) and Martin Behaim (1490-92).  These maps indicated that Asian mainland was situated about 4,500 miles west of Europe.  Paolo Toscanelli cited a similar distance in a letter and map of 1474 that were eventually made available to Columbus.[2]  Thus, historians are confronted with four maps (or descriptions thereof) which are surprisingly uniform in their portrayal of mainland on the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean.  As Columbus (in his ship’s log of 1492) attributed his perception of the Atlantic geography to maps he had seen in Lisbon, there can be no question that he derived his misconception of the location of Asian mainland from Portuguese sources. 

Columbus, of course, found land precisely where it was indicated on his map.  Thus, he was convinced that his maps were accurate and that he had indeed reached the coast of Asia.  Orthodox historians have had a dickens of a time trying to reconcile the accuracy of land areas on the Columbus map with their conviction that the existence of land where Columbus expected to find it was a fortuitous “coincidence.”  Thus, the traditional story of the Columbus voyage begins with an enigma—the explanation of which we are expected to accept largely on faith. 

Most historians have assumes in the past that the bona fide story of America does not begin until the arrival of Columbus which was documented by such contemporary writers as Peter Martyr, Ruy de Pena, Bertholomew Las Casas, and Ferdinand Colon.  Given this kind of mindset, there is not much incentive to look farther back in time for the roots of New World discovery. 

New evidence has come to our attention in the latter half of the 20th century that justifies a reexamination of traditional views regarding the Age of Discovery.  This evidence includes three authentic 15th century maps that help reveal the pervasive impact of Portuguese espionage.  It now seems apparent that Columbus, ever a careful researcher, was victimized by his sources.  He actually did have an accurate map of the Atlantic.  There was one major problem: the mainland opposite Europe on his Portuguese map was deliberately misnamed.

Even before the Columbus voyage, the Western that European

from Europe  routes , “fantasy isles” and “unofficial” voyages that are mentioned in the pages of ancient manuscripts.  Foremost among the many lingering enigmas from the era of New World discovery is the incredible “Columbus Map.”  —a 15th century Portuguese chart of Atlantic isles that placed mainland 4,500 miles west of Europe.  That was precisely where Columbus expected to find land in 1492.  Since mainland was located precisely where it was indicated on his map, the Spanish mariner sailed home convinced that he had arrived at his intended destination, the Orient, with its vast treasures of gold, jewels, and spices. 

Cipangu (Japan) and the shores of Marco Polo’s “Cathay” (China).

Those Dubious Western Isles

During the Middle Ages, there were lots of opinions regarding the nature of overseas lands west of Europe.  The mappamondes (or “wheel maps”) favored by priests featured the official version of the world.  According to current dogma, there was an Earthly Paradise in the Far East that was flanked by the minions of the biblical giant—Gog Magog.  Europeans waited anxiously for the trumpets of Doomsday that would launch their migration to ravage Christian Nations.  According to one popular prediction, Doomsday was expected to occur at the end of the first millennium.  When that didn’t happen, the prophet Joachim of Fiore suggested the year 1260.  Once more, the failure of Gabriel to sound his horn at the appointed hour led to a yet another postponement. 

Beyond the walls of cathedrals, common people kept alive the tales of folk heroes who had sailed across the seas to exotic lands.  Ireland had its Chuchulain and Saint Brendan; Wales had King Arthur and King Maty; Scandinavia had Eric Rauda and his son “Lucky Leif”; Spain had King Hespera and a vagabond Franciscan who claimed to have found the isles of Brazil and Great Ireland in the West.[3] 

The cartographic record reflects the popularity of medieval legends.  The name of King Arthur’s colony, “Albion Magna” (a.k.a. “Albania Superior”), shows up as part of mainland west of England on schematic copies in the 8th century map.  Even the Nordic “Vinland” has an enduring presence in the Medieval and early Renaissance cartography as seen in manuscript maps that accompany the various editions of Ranulf Higden’s geographical text Polychronicon (circa 1350) and printed editions of the Rudimentium Novitiorum (Lubeck 1475, and Augsburg 1480).[4]  The legendary Irish colony of Irland Mikla (Great Ireland) can be seen on maps by Angelino Dalorto (1330) and Mecia Viladestes (1413).  The isle is identified by the name “Ibernia” which is supposedly situated north of Iceland and west of Greenland.  A legend identifies the isle as a “forested land” that has “fat birds” (i.e., turkeys).[5] 

The rising popularity of universities in the 13th century brought more speculation regarding the nature of overseas isles.  That was because Arabic translators resurrected “forbidden” books from Classical Roman times that were obtained from merchants in Toledo.  Roman writers mentioned a southern continent called “the Antipodes” that was supposed to be situated across the Atlantic west of Africa.  Another Roman name for this continent was Mundis Alteris—or “the other world.”  Seneca speculated that future mariners would encounter “a New World” in the West.  So European intellectuals were primed to the idea of finding overseas lands that had been known to Classical philosophers.  By the 15th century, geographers identified the western mainland of Asia as India Superior or India Terza ( “the Third India). 

Some Roman writers had speculated on the existence of a temperate land called “Hyperborea” (Land Beyond The North Wind) which was located in the “Magnetic Regions” or at the North Pole.  According to Claudius Ptolemy writing in the 2nd century, Hyperborea was uninhabitable because it was located in the “Frigid Zone.”  Nevertheless, Roger Bacon in his Opus Majus (circa 1265) was compelled to assure Pope Clement IV that Hyperborea was indeed habitable.  Bacon based his appraisal of the Magnetic Regions upon the crucible of “experience” as confirmed by the writings of Aristotle.  According to Friar Bacon, Aristotle had sent explorers to the ends of the earth in order to verify the claims of ancient mariners—thus “experience” proved that the region was inhabited in spite of the frigid climate predicted by Ptolemy’s model.[6] 

Classical Greek writers extolled the Western Isles called Hesperides or “Isles of Golden Apples” (akin to the Roman Insulae Fortunatae, i.e., the “Fortunate Isles”).  Some medieval cartographers believed that the Canary Islands were the Insulae Fortunatae; others insisted that the legendary isles were yet to be found farther west. 

There were other hints of overseas isles in forbidden sources.  The Arabian geographer Al-Idrisi in the 12th century mentioned “Far Land” and “Irland Mikla” in the Far West.  Portuguese geographers preserved the traditions of an isle called “Antillia or Seven Cities” that served as a refuge for seven bishops and their congregations who fled the 8th century Saracen invasion.  A schematic version of Antillia as rectilinear isle shows up on most Portuguese Atlantic charts west of the Azores. 

In 1261, King Haakon IV of Norway-Sweden shocked the freemen of Iceland and Greenland by declaring sovereignty over all the isles from the Baltic to the North Pole.  This annexation included mainland southwest of Iceland known as Landanu—“the New Land.”  It was located roughly in the region of modern-day Nova Scotia.  It seems that the region was occupied by Celts because a Spanish Franciscan who visited the region circa 1350 called it “Ibernia;” but he noted that the people were subjects of the King of Norway.  Another isle in the West was called Markland in Nordic folk tales.  This region of the East Coast (possibly Newfoundland) was a reliable source of lumber and codfish that Nordic merchants brought to Greenland and Iceland as late as 1355.  An Icelandic name for the region was “the Icelandic Isles.” 

Marco Polo’s Cathay & Cipangu

In the early 14th century, a book called “Marco Polo’s Travels” added a new dimension to speculation regarding overseas isles. 

Arrival of the Renaissance brought revived interest in tales of ancient voyagers. 

Columbus chose to rely upon the authority of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi and various Classical scholars who maintained that the distance was not very great between Europe and western mainland that was commonly known as “India Superior” (Asia).  That was one of the names that Romans gave to the western mainland.  Another name was Eperios Occidentalis—or “Western Continent. 

When 16th century historians set about writing the story of maritime exploration, they lacked many pertinent documents that would later surface.  Thus, they were hampered in their efforts to achieve accuracy by insufficient data.  They were also burdened with political and religious loyalties that led them to ignore contrary theories while extolling evidence that supported their own convictions.  In retrospect, it is therefore not surprising that the evidence of cartography runs counter to many cherished assumptions about how and when the New World came into existence as a cartographic feature on world maps.  A case in point is the isle of Antillia.  Commonly regarded as a “fantasy” by many historians, this little isle of Portuguese derivation may well prove to be the seed of New World discovery.[7] 

Antillia is the name of a mid-Atlantic isle that shows up on early 15th century Portuguese maps.  The name endured on 16th century maps and was eventually applied to the Caribbean Islands we generally call “the Antilles.”  According to legends recounted by Ferdinand Colon and summarized in captions on the Behaim globe and the Ruysch map of 1508, Antillia was a place of refuge for Christians who fled the Saracen invasion of Portugal in 714 AD.  Ferdinand mentioned that Antillia was situated 200 leagues (or about 600 miles) west of the Azores.  Antonio Galvano identified the Antilles as being equivalent to the “new isles” that Spain claimed following the Columbus expedition.[8] 

The name “Antillia” is variously interpreted as having one of the following meanings: 1) an isle “ante” or in front of Europe; 2) an isle “opposite” Tile—which was an old Roman name for Iceland (thus, ant-tile); or 3) the “ancient isle” derived from the word antiglia.  The last version occurred on some 16th century maps as an alternative name for the Antipodes (a.k.a., Mundus Novus or South America).[9] 

Figure 1 shows a typical version of Antillia as a schematic, rectilinear isle located someplace in the mid-Atlantic Ocean opposite Portugal and the Strait of Gibraltar.  Some writers such as William Babcock and Karre Prytz regard this Antillia as an early representation for the East Coast of North America.[10]  However, most modern writers tend to regard the tale of 8th century Portuguese refugees as apocryphal.  It is commonly thought that Columbus altered his course in 1492 sailing north towards the presumed location of Antillia—but found only clouds.  Since no such island actually exists 200 leagues west of the Azores, modern writers tend to lump Antillia in with a host of other “fantasy” isles that occur on medieval mappamonds or wheel maps.[11]  Accordingly, Zvi Dor-Ner dismissed the Antillia maps as irrelevant to the study of New World discovery:

“The legendary—and wholly imaginary—island of Antilia, shown in red on this 1424 map by Zuane Pizzigano, continued to show up on charts of the Atlantic even after the ocean was finally traversed…it was possibly among the islands that Columbus’s charts showed as lying on the north of his route.”[12]

Portuguese Atlantic Charts

Dor-Ner recognizes the fact that Columbus had charts of the Atlantic Ocean.  This should seem quite odd given the popular tradition that Columbus sailed boldly into a “Sea of Darkness” that was supposedly unknown to Europeans.  The Atlantic couldn’t possibly have been such a “Dark Sea” if Columbus actually had nautical charts to show him the way.  Dor-Ner is well aware that Columbus had charts of the Atlantic, and these charts played an instrumental role in the course he took across the seas in 1492.  We even have a fairly clear idea of what these charts contained in the way of nautical information.  Dor-Ner observed that:

The twenty-inch globe constructed at Nuremberg by Martin Behaim represented the last, best attempt at understanding the distributions of land and water on the earth before Columbus set out upon his enterprise.  Behaim’s globe, in fact, showed the world as Columbus believed it to be.[13]

Martin Behaim was a cartographer and German expatriate who began working in the Portuguese service in 1482 and died in 1507.  His globe of 1490-92 and the maps of his associate, Henricus Martellus Germanus (1489 & 1490), portray the opposite coast of “The Indies” (our Asia) as being 4,000 to 5,000 miles west of Europe.[14]  The actual distance is about 4,200 miles.  Modern historians generally assume that the placement of the East Coast of “The Indies” on maps by Behaim and Martellus was a coincidence caused by their underestimate of the circumference of Earth and the number of degrees allocated to the Atlantic.  Al-Farghani’s estimate of the circumference (20,400 miles) when combined with Behaim’s indication of about 90º for the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean suggested that the distance between Europe and the Indies should be about 5,000 statute miles.  Based on these figures with his own adjustments for the length of a degree at the Tropic of Cancer, Columbus estimated that the distance between the Canary Islands and Cipangu (Japan) should be about 2,400 miles and the distance to mainland about 3,400 miles.[15] 

Columbus was so convinced of the accuracy of his maps that upon reaching Cuba, he wrote in his log on October 24th, 1492: “All my globes and world maps seem to indicate that the Island of Cipangu is in this vicinity.”  He calculated that his caravels had sailed 1,142 leagues (3,426 miles) or right about where Behaim’s globe indicated the location of mainland.[16]  On November 2nd, he revised his assessment of their location by asserting that they had actually reached mainland a few hundred miles west of Cipangu. 

On Behaim’s globe, there is a great macro-peninsula called “Zaiton or Mangi Province” at the latitude of the Columbus voyage along the Tropic of Cancer.  Behaim’s globe and maps by Martellus show this macro-peninsula reaching far out into the Atlantic—making it appear to be the closest part of the mainland for European voyagers.  Figure 2 shows this macro-peninsula on the Martellus map.  Actually, there is no such peninsula at the Tropic of Cancer on the coast of Asia.  Ravenstein called this fabulous peninsula “the Horn of Asia.”[17]  It was this peninsula that Columbus believed he had found.  Thus, when natives told him there was a huge island to the east (Haiti), Columbus surmised that his map was accurate in showing a great macro-peninsula with a huge island at about the same latitude to the east. 

The Columbus Atlantic charts serve as a reminder that it was the Portuguese who undertook a comprehensive survey of the Atlantic Ocean.  Prince Henry The Navigator of Portugal (1420-1460) and later King John II sent numerous explorers west seeking the location of mainland referred to as “Antillia” or the “Isle of Seven Cities” in the 15th century.[18]  Among these Lusitanian navigators were Goncalo Cabral, Joao Fernandes, Vincent Dias, Diego de Tieve, Dom Fernao, Joao Vogado, Jao Vaz Corte-Real and sons, Ruy Concalves, Fernao Telles, Joao Affonso de Estreito, Alonso DeHuelva, Fernao Dulmo, Jacobus Carnus, Joao Coelho, and Martin Behaim—to name a few.[19] 

Did any significant knowledge of the Western Atlantic result from all these expeditions? 

We know for certain that Prince Henry’s navigators located Madeira and the Azores in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.  Although modern historians continue to argue over the significance of Portuguese expeditions farther west, there are numerous testimonials supporting the theory that Portuguese mariners succeeded in charting the coast of the North American shoreline opposite Europe.  The biographer of Columbus, Ferdinand Colon, wrote that the Portuguese had succeeded in reaching Anitllia by 1430.[20]  The Martin Behaim Globe includes a caption indicating that European ships had passed by Antillia in 1414; and the 16th century historian Antonio Galvano mentioned an ancient Portuguese report that a ship had landed at Antillia in 1447.[21]  Shortly following the return of the Columbus expedition, historian Peter Martyr surmised that the Spanish-Italian adventurer had reached isles previously known as “the Antilles:”

He (Columbus) assumed that he had found Ophir, whither Solomons’s ships sailed for gold, but the descriptions of the cosmographers well considered, it seems that both these and the other islands adjoining are the islands of Antillia.[22]

The King of Portugal, John II, and his court chronicler, Ruy De Pina, came to the same conclusion: Columbus had merely reached isles that were already known to the Portuguese as Antillia.[23] 

Early New World Cartography

The proof that King John II and his clerk were correct in their assessment of the Columbus landfall is to be found in the early cartography of Antillia and the adjacent mainland.  A comprehensive assessment of the cartographic record including some charts that have only recently come to light reveals surprising evidence of early Portuguese knowledge of New World shores reaching all the way from Newfoundland to Brazil. 

Figure 3 shows Andrea Bianco’s map of 1436 that places “Stockfis” on the southern extremity of Greenland.  This “Stockfis” (a.k.a., Stockfish, Salt Fish, or cod) is generally taken to be an early reference to the Newfoundland fishery.  This comes as no great surprise since Icelandic fishermen apparently traveled to that region often to gather cod.  What is surprising is a portrayal of the same region on a 1490 map called the “Paris Map.”  This map, Figure 4, is sometimes attributed to Columbus.  It has a group of islands called “Isles of Seven Cities” within 200 miles of the actual longitude and latitude of Newfoundland.  That is not to say that Newfoundland was The Isle of Seven Cities—for the name was variously applied to land areas from the Caribbean to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.[24]  We know from historical accounts that several Lusitanian expeditions had sailed to this region prior to 1490.  Among the few that have been identified are voyages under the command of Joao Fernandes, Jao Vaz Corte-Real, Johannes Skolp (Scolvus), and Fernao Dulmo.  Ferdinand Colon mentioned that two of his father’s associates, Fernao Dulmo and Velasco DeGalicia, had succeeded in reaching the “Baccalos” on a voyage that took place by 1486.  This “Baccalos” is a Portuguese word for codfish and is generally taken as a reference to Newfoundland.  Since Dulmo’s patent from John II specified mainland known as The Seven Cities, we have further indication of the association between Newfoundland, Baccalos, and The Seven Cities. 

Numerous 16th century cartographers (Wyfliet, Lok, Frisius) mentioned that the Skolp expedition reached the vicinity of Newfoundland or Labrador in the year 1476.[25]  Thus, we have evidence from both cartography and historical accounts that Portuguese mariners had explored and accurately determined the distance to isles and mainland in the region of Newfoundland by 1490. 

Portuguese mariners had also determined the approximate location of Florida by this point in time.  The cartographic origin of Florida can be traced back to a 1436 map (Figure 5) by Andrea Bianco.  Bianco was a Venetian cartographer who sometimes worked in the Portuguese service.[26]  Vicenzio Formaleoni argued in 1788 that Bianco’s Antillia was an early representation of America.  Although it appears to lie too close to the west coast of Portugal, some allowance can be given for the difficulty in estimating longitude in the 15th century and the tendency for cartographers to truncate areas of maps where few details were known.[27]  The close similarity of Bianco’s Antillia to a similar region of land (has antilhas) at the same latitude on the so-called “Cantino Map” of 1502 (Figure 6) reveals that the 1436 map simply gives an early approximation for the longitude.  The identification of Bianco’s Antillia with has antilhas on the Cantino Map can be determined by the same shape, same latitude, and same name. 

Bianco’s Antillia with its peculiar, macro-peninsula in the approximate shape of Florida, is only one of 13 charts that show some form of a macro-peninsula across the Atlantic from Europe.  Data from these maps showing the approximate latitude and distance west of Europe are presented in Tables I and II.

Table 1: Macro-Peninsula on Ancient Maps

author/map          date   source              lat. N   miles

Macrobius          440    Roman                45°      ?

Sanudo              1320    Italian                 45°      ?

DeVirga            1414    Ven./Fran.       polar?     ?

Yale Vinland    1440    Swiss/Fran.        38°      ?

Florentine         1447    Florence             40°      ?

Genoese            1457    Genoa                 40°      ?

Florida              2000    Atlas                   25°   4,200

The maps in Table I include a 15th century copy of a map by Macrobius and one example of maps by Marino Sanudo that portray mainland (India/Asia) west of Europe with a macro-peninsula above a huge gulf.[28]  None of these maps contain sufficient information to estimate the distance separating the western mainland from Europe.  However, Classical writers mentioned in Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus and Pierre D’Ailly’s Imago Mundi suggested that the sailing distance across the Atlantic was within the capabilities of ordinary mariners. 

Table II presents information on maps by Portuguese agents and cartographers.  It is immediately apparent that the Portuguese achieved a higher degree of accuracy with respect to sailing distances and latitudes indicated on their maps.  This accuracy reflects the strong association between navigators trained at Sagres under the direction of Prince Henry The Navigator and the skills of Jewish and Venetian cartographers working in the Portuguese service. 

Table II: Portuguese Macro-Peninsula/Antillia

author/map          date   source              lat. N   miles

Bianco (a)         1436    Ven./Port.           35°   1000

Bianco (b)        1436    Ven./Port.          30°    1000

Fra Mauro         1459    Ven./Port.           25°      ?

Toscanelli         1474    Flor./Port.          20°   4,500

Martellus          1489    Ger./Ven.            23°   4,000

Martellus          1490    Ger./Ven.            23°   4,000

Behaim             1492    Ger./Port.           23°   4,500

Florida              2000    Atlas                   25°   4,200

The latitudes of the tip of the macro-peninsula on Portuguese charts can be estimated by comparing their locations to reference points in Europe. Eight examples are presented in Figure 6.  The existence of such a macro-peninsula across from Europe dating to at least 1414 (the date on the DeVirga map) establishes that there was a cartographic tradition for a macro-peninsula along the coast of Asia/India.  According to most historians, Medieval Europeans were completely ignorant of both the Asian coast and the North American coast—so there is no current explanation for why cartographers should have elected to portray such a macro-peninsula on their maps. 

On the other hand, if these peninsulas are examined on a temporal basis, we can determine that over time, cartographers moved the southeastern tip towards the actual coordinates of the tip of Florida at N25º Latitude about 4,200 miles west of Europe.  This general correction of the location of the macro-peninsula is presented in Figure 7.  Since this cartographic adjustment occurs during a period of known Portuguese exploration in the Western Atlantic, the possibility has to be considered that mariners sailing for John II had accurately determined the location of mainland (Florida or Antillia) prior to the Columbus expedition. 

Henricus Martellus (1489 & 1490) and Martin Behaim (1492) brought the macro-peninsula down from 35°N (the latitude of Bianco’s Antillia) to the Tropic of Cancer (23°27’N) or just a bit south of the actual latitude of Florida.  This is the kind of increasing accuracy we might expect if explorers and cartographers refined their measurements over time.  We noticed that in Table II, maps attributed to the Portuguese agents or cartographers working in their service have a particularly high degree of accuracy with regards to the latitude of Florida and the distance west of Europe.  The Bianco maps are only 5° too far north, although the longitude seems to be off by 2,500 miles.  This error could be attributed to the infancy of cartography or simply the perspective of the map and the tendency of cartographers to conserve space.  By 1489, the Martellus map shows that Portuguese mariners had determined the actual latitude for the macro-peninsula (Florida) with its tip just above the Tropic of Cancer.  It seems that Martellus and Behaim erred by approximately 200 miles in their estimates of the distance between Europe and the western mainland.  This degree of accuracy with respect to both longitude and latitude for a macro-peninsula west of Europe can not be attributed to coincidence. 

Farther south, Portuguese mariners had also determined the location of the southern continent (that Vespicci called Mundus Novus) by 1448.  In that year, a map by Andrea Bianco identifies a huge isle west of Africa with the caption: isola otinticha 1500 mia or “isle authenticated at 1500 miles.”  Since this is a fair estimate of the distance between the coast of Brazil and Cape Verde, Africa, Bianco’s map can be taken as an indication that the Portuguese had a fairly accurate indication of the location of mainland south of the Caribbean.  The fact that the caption uses the term “authenticated” instead of “discovered” suggests that navigators had succeeded in locating a mainland that was sighted on previous voyages to the southwest. 

Several accounts confirm Portuguese knowledge of this mainland.  Columbus was appraised of the existence of such a mainland in 1493 when he stopped by King John II’s royal palace in Lisbon to inform the King that he had established a shortcut to “The Indies.”  The King not only advised Columbus that the Caribbean Isles were already known as the “Antilles,” he further informed his guest that there was mainland south of the Antilles.  This was the first thing Columbus had heard of mainland in that direction as it was not indicated on any published Portuguese maps.  Based on this revelation, Columbus sailed far south of his customary route to Hispaniola in 1498 in order to ascertain what the King of Portugal had meant by mainland being located in that direction. 

Modern historians tend to regard King John II’s statement about a southern mainland as a mere prediction based on Roman legends of the Antipodes being located south of the Equator.  However the existence of Bianco’s 1448 map confirms that the Portuguese had already begun mapping the land that would later be called Mundus Novus (that is, Amerigo Vespucci’s “New World”).  Knowledge of this land apparently led Portuguese authorities to demand that the papal line of demarcation separating Spanish from Portuguese territories be moved to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands in the Treaty of Tordesillas—thus giving them access to Brazil.  The English spy, Robert Thorne informed King Henry VII in 1527 that prior to Columbus’s voyage: “The King of Portugal had already discovered certain islands that lie against Cape Verde, and also a certain part of the mainland towards the South, and called it the land of Brazil.”[29] 

One additional document pertains to early Portuguese knowledge of the southern mainland.  The Nuremberg Chronicle for 1493 includes a statement that Nuremberg expatriate Martin Behaim had sailed in company with Jacob Carnus of Portugal south of the equinotical line to the alter orbis.  This alter orbis or “Other World” was one Roman designation for the Antipodes.  It is significant in this respect that Columbus also referred to mainland he encountered near Venezuela as the alter orbis.  His brother Bartholomew (in a map dated 1506 and copied by Alessandro Zorzi) indicates that the mainland was also known as “the Antipodi” or the Antipodes of Roman legend.  Columbus subsequently “discovered” mainland (Parias and Veruga)—in the 15th century Christian sense—by conducting solemn ceremonies wherever he landed in order to officially confiscate native lands in the name of King and Christ. 

Revealing a “New World”

It was not until Amerigo Vespucci arrived upon the scene as a quasi-secret agent of King Ferdinand of Spain that the so-called “New World” was revealed to Europeans.  Up to that point in time, most Europeans expected to encounter some resistance in Asian waters from Arabs and the Chinese who traded with the Spice Islands.  Thus, their visions of western commerce were somewhat limited to a region already dominated by the great khan, the denizens of Gog-Magog, and the bastions of paradise.  Vespucci’s description of a New World waiting for European colonization painted an entirely different picture of opportunities in the west. 

Although several of Vespucci’s four expeditions to the West are somewhat controversial because of limited supporting evidence, the mainland and isles he claimed to have visited are fairly well delineated in the Portuguese Padrao or “King’s Map” of 1502 (Figure 9).  This map shows the emerging shoreline of Newfoundland, a huge gap of ocean where New England should be located, the Florida Peninsula, shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico between Florida and Texas, and the coast of the southern continent from Venezuela to Brazil.  Vespucci identified this southern continent as a Mundus Novus or “New World” in letters that circulated in Europe between 1502 and 1507.  Vespucci called the southern continent a “new world” because it wasn’t shown on any contemporary maps.  He added that if the southern continent was the same mainland that was known to the ancients as the Antipodes, Church authorities held that the land was uninhabited.  Therefore, it was for all practical purposes—a New World in the eyes of contemporary Europeans.  Vespucci’s descriptions of vast new territories that were just waiting for European expansion inflamed the passions of Renaissance entrepreneurs who were anxious to stake their claim upon new territories and new resources in the West.  Thus, Vespucci’s characterization of the mainland as a “New World” swept Europe by storm—leaving the reputation of Columbus and his erroneous claims of a “shortcut to the Indies” lying in the dust. 

Vespucci’s letters were so popular by 1507 that the German cartographer, Martin Waldseemuller, decided to dedicate a New World map proclaiming Vespucci the “discoverer of a new continent.”  Waldseemuller even named the continent “America” in honor of Amerigo—the so-called “discoverer.”  Regardless of Waldseemuller’s motives and subsequent claims on the part of Columbus supporters who want to claim due credit for their hero, we can trace the cartographic evolution of the American continent back to Bianco’s 1336 portrayal of Antillia and its macro-peninsula (Florida).  This evolution is indicated in Figure 10 where Caneri’s 1504 map shows the midway development between the Padrao of Cantino (1502) and Waldseemuller’s naming of America (1507).  Most subsequent maps of the New World continents are built upon this cartographic foundation that is often referred to as the “Lusitano-Germanic tradition.”[30] 

Historian Kenneth Nebenzahl was so impressed by the inclusion of a peninsula that looked like Florida on the Cantino and Canari maps that he called it: “the greatest unsolved cartographic puzzle of the period.”[31]  Officially, Florida wasn’t discovered until Ponce DeLeon’s expedition in search of Bimini in 1513.  However, no maps have survived from that expedition, nor was there any change to existing charts of the area—so it is impossible to say that DeLeon added anything to geographic knowledge. 

Conclusions: Discovery from the Perspective of Cartography

There appears to be little correspondence between cartographic documents and the popular version of history.  The Albertin DeVirga Map of 1414 (or 1411) is the oldest map that contains sufficient detail of New World mainland to suggest that it was based on a scientific survey.  This follows in time Roger Bacon’s 1265 proposal to make a scientific map and historic references to English Franciscans mapping Northern Europe and isles to the west.[32] 

According to the testimony of a Dutch Journalist, Jacob Cnoyen, an Oxford Franciscan presented King Edward III with a document called Inventio Fortunatae or “Discovery of The Fortunate Isles” circa 1360.  This document included measurements made using an astrolabe.[33]  Since Prince Henry The Navigator of Portugal was the great-grandson of Edward III, it is possible that knowledge of the western isles reached Henry via his English ancestors or their Venetian allies.  Since Edward III once had a navy of more than a thousand ships and the Oxford Franciscans once had a factory for making astrolabes, the English had the capacity for mounting a scientific survey of the Western Isles. 

The Dutch account of Inventio Fortunatae along with the DeVirga map lend credence to the conclusion that English Franciscans followed by their Portuguese allies in the 15th century were principally responsible for building the foundation of scientific cartography in the West.  Amerigo Vespucci initially got the credit for “discovering” the New World because he had the audacity to reveal to the general public information that the Portuguese Kings had known for generations.  The Kings kept this knowledge secret in order to deter competition. 

Columbus was correct in his assessment that his Portuguese charts were accurate in showing shorelines of the Western Atlantic.  However, the deceptive Zaiton Peninsula that Behaim and Martellus attached to the East Coast of Asia can be regarded as an effort in commercial espionage.  Likewise, their failure to include a southern continent on Atlantic maps when the location of “Brazil” had already been established was probably done to conceal potentially lucrative resources such as brazilwood from commercial rivals. 

When 19th century historians decided to elevate Columbus to the glory of “discoverer,” they were principally motivated by religious and political convictions.  They either lacked sufficient cartographic documents or neglected to conduct a thorough analysis of the ones that were available.  The most important documents that were virtually unknown until the 20th century included: 1) the DeVirga Map which wasn’t found until 1911; 2) the Yale copy of the Martellus Map showing details of longitude and latitude; and 3) the Cantino copy of the Padrao. 

Contrary to traditional beliefs, the evidence of cartography supports the conclusion that it was the English and their Portuguese allies who deserve the preponderance of credit for creating scientifically verified continents out of mythical isles.  Indeed, the course of 15th century exploration depended upon the vanguard of mariners who sailed in secret to the New World and the cartographers who charted their progress. 

Historians often back-peddle when they come to sections in the Columbus log where the mariner talks about finding natives using iron frying pans or riding horses (which he heard about in Costa Rica), or when he identifies such obvious Old World plants as cinnamon and aloe.[34]  It was commonly acknowledged that he brought back New World bananas, tobacco, and maize—leaving historians with further enigmas.  Bananas were indigenous to the Orient and Africa; Roman herbals described a narcotic called “yellow henbane” that smoked like tobacco; and Pliny the Elder described maize in the 1st century.[35]  The list of anomalies reaches a crescendo with the naming of the New World continents.  On the surface, it seems an incredible injustice that they were not named after the Spanish mariner—Cristobol Colon—who is credited with making the discovery.  Historians are often illusive when it comes to explaining why they were named after a Florentine interloper, the supply agent, Amerigo Vespucci.  The popular 18th century writer, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, lambasted Vespucci as “a pickle dealer and a thief.”  Modern writers usually invoke some incredible “mistake” on the part of a German mapmaker or the unfortunate popularity of Vespucci’s 1502 letter called the “Mundus Novus.”  Subsequent efforts to rename the continents “Columbia” proved futile; but there were other contenders including Sebastian Cabot, Martin Behaim, and a host of legendary mariners dating back to the days of Ulysses.  On such tenuous evidence as a single letter or a misplaced banana peel rests the popular version of America’s heritage. 

—presumably to the middle of the 16th century.  Every anticipated demise of the world resulted in some peculiar behavior on the part of Christians.  Mobs burned Jews in an effort to “cleanse” their cities;

Ferdiand and Isabella expelled non-Christians from Spain; and evangelists, like Columbus, dreamed of converting savages to the True Faith or finding a hoard of gold to fund a new crusade.  Thus, Spaniards succeeded in expelling the most competent merchants and scientists who fled to Portugal at the time that both nations were competing for foreign trade.  Columbus found himself torn between the righteous motives of his Queen and the practical necessities of funding and managing bold overseas enterprise that came very close to the borderlines of orthodoxy. 

Since those who differed with the interpretations of ecclesiastical authorities often experienced an untimely end at the hands of Inquisitors, there was a strong incentive for mariners not to sail west—lest they provoke the wrath of God, Satan, or the enforcers of dogma.  The cartographic record was likewise held bondage to the traditions and superstitions of the Age of Faith.  That is not to suggest that some daring mariners didn’t sail west.  They were simply wise not to mention in public what they did or what they saw.  Likewise, fishermen had their own reasons for not mentioning what they found. 

That is not to say that all of Europe was not awash with tales of daring voyagers.


[1] Historians traditionally explain the Columbus misconception of Atlantic geography by relating his determination that the length of a degree was 56.66 miles.  This figure, when combined with the presumed size of the Sinus Magnus (Pacific Ocean) and the extended travels of Marco Polo (30 degrees) beyond Ptolemy’s Asia yielded a distance across the Atlantic of about 4,500 miles.  These figures are basically in agreement with the dimensions for Portuguese maps by Martellus and Behaim.  Columbus verified the distance of an equatorial degree while sailing on Portuguese voyages to Africa.  Thus, his impressions of geography seem to have been derived from Portuguese sources—although there was some disagreement among his contemporaries about the distance to the coast of Asia, the circumference of Earth, and the nature of mainland across the Atlantic.  See for example Robert H. Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, Camden: International Marine, 1987, p. 25. 

[2] Although there is continuing controversy over the validity of the Toscanelli correspondence, it really doesn’t matter from the standpoint of Columbus’s perception of the Atlantic.  Indeed, the contents of the Toscanelli letter are basically in agreement with the maps of Martellus and Behaim. 

[3] Compilations of ancient tales about overseas voyages are prodigious. Tales of Arthurian colonies can be found in copies of the Gestae Arthuri.  They are described in Richard Hakluyt, Principle Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, Toronto, Dent & Sons, 1909, from a manuscript ca. 1600.  See also Elizabeth Taylor, “A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee,” (1956) Imago Mundi, Netherlands, Vol. 13, pp. 56-68.  The tale of the Spanish Franciscan who sailed west of Iceland to a second “Ibernia” survives in copies and translations of an anonymous manuscript called The Book of Knowledge (circa 1350). 

[4] Examples of all the maps mentioned can be found in Gunnar Thompson, The Friar’s Map of Ancient America—1360 AD, Bellevue, WA, Radio Bookstore, 1996.  For maps of “Albania Magna” see maps by Erlend Thordsen (1568) and Jon Gudmundsson (ca. 1600) in Thompson (1996), pp. 28-34.

[5] See Thompson (1996, pp. 175-183) for a discussion of turkeys in Great Ireland. 

[6] For Bacon’s explanation on the habitation of Hyperborea see: Robert Burke, translator, The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, Philadelphia, U. Press, Vol. I, 1928, p. 311; also R. Bacon, On The Habitation of the Earth (c. 1275)

[7] See for example Donald Johnson, Phantom Islands of The Atlantic, New York, Avon, 1994; Raymond Ramsey, No Longer on The Map—Discovering Places that Never Were, New York, Ballantine, 1972. 

[8] William Babcock, Legendary Isles of The Atlantic, American Geographical Society, 1922, p. 72.  Antonio Galvano, The Discoveries of the World, Hakluyt Society Publications, 1st Series, Vol. 30, London, 1862, p. 72, identifies the Antilles with the isles that were later called “New Spain.” 

[9] For an example of “antiglia” for South America see the Portolan Atlas of 1508, in Babacock, 1922, fig. 8 showing the Edgerton MS 2803 of the British Museum.

[10] Babcock, 1922, pp. 72-84, and Karre Prytz, Westward Before Columbus, Oslo, Maritime Forlag, 1991, are among the proponents of Antillia representing America.  Babcock (p. 153) visualizes Antillia as Cuba; Prytz believes that Antillia represents the North American coast from Florida to the Carolinas.

[11] Babcock, 1922, p. 72. 

[12] Zvi Dor-Ner, Columbus, 1991, New York, Morrow, p. 142.

[13] Dor-Ner, 1991, 82. 

[14] See Dor-Ner, 1991, p. 79 for the respective estimates by Toscanelli and Behaim.  Kenneth Nebenzahl, Atlas of Columbus and The Great Discoveries, New York, Rand McNally, 1990, p.13, calculates the distance between Europe and Japan on maps by Martellus and Behaim at 3,500 miles or 90°.  John Harley, Maps and the Columbus Encounter, Milwaukee, Maier Press, indicates the distance at 4,250 miles.

[15] Dor-Ner, 1991, pp. 79-82. 

[16] Dor-Ner, 1991, pp. 164-165. 

[17] G.E. Ravenstein, Martin Behaim His Life and Globe, London, 1908. 

[18] Gunnar Thompson, The Friar’s Map, Seattle, Argonauts, 1996, (1996), pp. 175-244.

[19] For details of Portuguese Atlantic explorations see Henry Harrisse, The Discovery of North America, 1892; Thompson, 1996, pp. 175-244. 

[20] Babcock, 1922, pl 72 quotes Ferdinand Colon: “in the time of Henry infant of Portugal (1430), a Portuguese ship was drove by stress of weather to this island Antillia.” 

[21] Galvano, 1862, 72. 

[22] Pietro Martyr d’Anghiera, The Decades of the New World or West India, in F.A. MacNutt, trans., The Eight Decades of Peter Marthy D’Anghera, New York, 1912. 

[23] Arthur Newton, The Great Age of Discovery, Freeport, NY, Books for Libraries, 1932, p. 94. 

[24] A Portolan Atlas of 1508 has the whole of North America labeled as “Seven Cities.”  Babcock, 1922, fig. 8; Egerton Ms. 2803 in the British Museum

[25] Harrisse, 1892, p. 657-9; Thompson, 1996, 190-193. 

[26] Vicenzio Formaleoni, “Essai sur la marine ancienne des Venitiens,” in Babcock, 1922, pp. 148-157; and Gunnar Thompson, “The Cantino Bridge From Antillia to America,” in Information Bulletin, WAML, November, 1999. 

[27] Babcock, 1922, p. 157. 

[28] For details of these maps see Thompson, 1996. 

[29] Jack Beeching, Ed., Richard Hakluyt—Voyages & Discoveries, London, Penguin Books, 1972, p. 50. 

[30] Nebenzahl, 1990, p. 32. 

[31] Nebenzahl, 1990, p. 34.

[32] Thompson, 1996.

[33] Mercator’s documentation of Cnoyen’s account of the Franciscan survey is contained in his map of 1565. It is also found in Elizabeth Taylor, “A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee,” (1956) Imago Mundi, Netherlands, Vol. 13, pp. 56-68.

[34] See for example .Samuel Morison, Admiral of The Ocean Sea.  Columbus reported native tales about horses in the western regions of Costa Rica.  Abandoned mines in Costa Rica led Columbus to the conviction that he had found the site of King Solomon’s Ophir—from whence he had obtained a hoard of gold. 

[35] Pliny the Elder maize quote.  Hoysala dynasty temples of the 13th century in Central India have statues holding maize ears with husks, kernels, and corn silk.  Local scholars identify the plants represented as “maize” which they call the traditional “food of Rama.”  Ancient medicinals and Sanskrit texts identify maize as hanta, khundrus, and maka.  See Carl Johannessen