I’ve written before here how much I’m attracted to stories about exploration. It’s my jam. And I went down a bunny trail recently that I think you might find interesting. Welcome back to Grailrunner’s Inspirations From History series!
It thrills me, the thought of 270 rugged seafarers in the 1500’s betting everything as they set sail in five ships west into the unknown, honestly not entirely sure that there weren’t sea monsters or magnetic islands that would suck the nails right out of their ships. Likely some of them still thought they might sail to an edge, with the sea falling off in cascades into nothing. Yet there were spice islands out there somewhere: cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, growing in exotic pacific islands, where a bag of it brought home would make a fortune and an estate to pass on for generations.
After a failed career and endless quarrels over money with the Portuguese king, Ferdinand Magellan thought he could be the guy to find an unknown route between his home country and these amazing islands. He bet everything. He betrayed his home country and went to Spain, pleading before finally getting the commission. And he didn’t make it home, but his name went down in history as leading the first circumnavigation of the planet. 270 had left, but three years later only 18 of them sailed back into Seville harbor. Half dead and starved, looking like zombies, in the one remaining ship that maybe surprised onlookers that it could still stay afloat.
They made it. First around the world. Awesome.
But Magellan said something before he died, to a writer on board who kept a detailed journal of the day to day events, that fascinated me when I came across it. Remember, the whole point was to find a way to sail from Spain westward, somehow get around or through South America (which seemed insurmountable) to the Pacific Islands and back. That was key. And trade routes were like the nuclear codes of the day – those maps were super secret and locked away because they were the engines of monopoly.
Here’s the recount of what Magellan said, as told by Antonio Pigafetta:
“Had it not been for the Captain General, we could not have found the strait, for we all thought and said that it was closed on all sides. But the Captain General who knew where to sail to find a well-hidden strait, which he saw depicted on a map in the treasury of the king of Portugal, which was made by that excellent man, Martin de Boemia, sent two ships, the Santo Antonio and the Conception to discover what was inside the cape of the bay.” -Antonio Pigafetta
Here’s a link to a fantastic book where you can read a riveting account of the whole voyage, called Over The Edge Of The World, by Laurence Bergreen.
Here’s a link to Antonio Pigafetta’s summary journal which he prepared on his return home in some gorgeous illustrated copies which he presented to the kings of Portugal, Spain, and England. (It blows my mind that you can have such a thing on your kindle, but there it is.)
What caught my attention here was that Magellan told Pigafetta he saw a secret map that had the big answer everyone was looking for: the strait that would lead through South America. Just who the heck drew that map, how did they know there was such a strait leading through the landmass that had blocked so many previous voyages, and why was that map just laying there?
Did Magellan really see such a map, or was he just handwaving to calm his crewmen down when the voyage was looking hopeless? “Sure, guys. Of course. I saw a map. The strait’s there, trust me. A great cosmographer drew it, a genius. Martin was amazing. He wouldn’t let us down.”
That is what go me really rolling with this one. What exactly did Magellan see in that treasury? The image of a desperate genius navigator haunted me, snatching leather books off the shelves and tracing a sun-leathered finger across nautical charts till he came across something that set him laughing like a maniac. Whatever he saw convinced him to risk his life and betray his country. It gave him confidence to take almost 300 men around the world. He found it, of course, but he gave up his life before he could go home and brag about it.
So what did he really see?
Click the title page to the left here to download a 1908 biography of this Martin Of Bohemia who supposedly drew the secret map with a strait leading through South America.
I read these three books in the order in which I’m presenting them to you here to try and answer the question for myself of what Magellan saw exactly.
And in reading this biography, I wanted to at least get to know Martin a bit better, learn what sort of person he was, what life experiences he had that led him to be able to produce this map that became a thing of such consequence.
Who exactly was Martin Of Bohemia?
Martin Behaim (6 October 1459 – 29 July 1507), also known as Martin von Behaim and by various forms of Martin of Bohemia, was a German textile merchant and cartographer. He served John II of Portugal as an adviser in matters of navigation and participated in a voyage to West Africa. He is now best known for his Erdapfel, the world’s oldest surviving globe, which he produced for the Imperial City of Nuremberg in 1492.
There are some problems here though, which you find when you dig into the details.
*Martin’s reputation seems impressive, and you’ll learn he served Portugal on a prestigious mathematical committee geared towards innovations in navigation. However, his main credential in being chosen for that committee was that he “studied” under a famous Nuremberg mathematician named Regiomontanus. He did no such thing, and was maybe a neighbor of the guy when Martin was a child.
*He discovered nothing, and perhaps only sailed on one discovery voyage at all. He probably went down the western coast of Africa, but not apparently as captain (as he said) but just on board as a trader. Maybe. But he provided all manner of exaggerations and falsehoods about his discoveries and adventures back home that wound up on his famous globe and in the margin of the Liber Chronicorum chronicle.
*Martin spent some time in the Azores, and seemed incredibly exotic to the folks in Nuremberg when he returned on family estate-related business. Likely his stories of discovery and his talespinning about navigational feats drew much attention, especially that of a member of the town council named George Holzschuher. This was a guy who’d travelled to Egypt and the Holy Land and was fascinated by travel tales.
*Holzschuher was the one who asked Martin to make a fancy globe showing the latest accumulated knowledge of the earth, since Martin was so qualified to consult for such a task. What a treat to have this genius right here in town to lead the effort! What you can still see today in the German National Museum is the result of that effort, and it’s beautiful. You can thank an artist named
Georg Glockendon for that. What you can thank Martin for is the inexcusably incorrect geography and braggart fanciful tales also included on it.
*His own brother wrote of him: “…my brother Martin is still at Nuremburg, and in your house, and that his conduct is singular. I am sorry to hear this. Here at Lyon they say things about him which make me ashamed. I should be very glad if we were rid of him altogether.”
*And in another letter, “Martin does nothing in particular, but goes daily into the garden, and only concerns himself with the garden”
*Seven years before Magellan’s expedition is when an account referred to as “Newe Zeytung auss Presilly Landt” told of a newly found cape on the eastern coast of South America that could (possibly) marry up with something on the western coast where Spanish ships already were located. The cape couldn’t be explored, according to the New Zeytung account, because a storm blew them out of the bay and into the sea. The problem with Martin riding that train to put it on his map though, is he died 7 years before that account. He never knew anything about it.
So what does all this mean when we consider what Magellan saw in that treasury?
After my deep dive into all this, I can’t believe Magellan was making anything up given the stakes and his risks. He saw something he interpreted as a strait on a map where he intended to sail. This would be around 1518 or so, which was eleven years after Martin’s death and 26 years after that famous globe was delivered to the Nuremberg town council. Martin’s reputation was pristine as a genius navigator and bringer of the sum total knowledge of geography, though virtually none of that reputation was deserved.
For sure, Martin may have delivered maps to the Portuguese king that wound up in that treasury, but there’s no reason at all they would include any mysterious strait through South America given the enormous gaps on his globe in that part of the world. He knew nothing about any of that. So it basically and most likely just wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. It just had his name on it.
Why would that map have Martin’s name on it?
My belief is somebody sold the Portuguese king a speculative map based on the Newe Zeytung accounts, essentially guessing that whatever the people in that account found must connect to the waterways they already knew of on the western coast. But if you want a king to pay top dollar for your map, it has to have an impressive name attached to it.
Oh, Magellan saw a map. It just wasn’t one drawn by Martin Behaim.
Anyway, I thought this was fascinating as the story went on. I hope you take a look at some of these books I’ve linked. The Age Of Discovery was a thrilling time in human history. It’s worth a look to understand what drove those guys.