BY: JOE WALL
In an age where news spreads worldwide in seconds and a universe of knowledge is a web search away, it’s easy to forget there was a time when oceans represented the ultimate boundary for explorers. In an era lasting roughly from 1450 to 1750 – known as the European Age of Exploration – the Iberian Peninsula emerged as a focal point of exploration, colonization and, crucially, technological advances that opened up once impregnable expanses of ocean and the lands beyond.
An Emerging Iberian Peninsula
Separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees and Africa by the Strait of Gibraltar, the Iberian Peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides and protrudes from Europe into the Atlantic like a massive cruise ship terminal, beckoning the nautical spirit. Rivers like the Tagus, which originates in Spain and flows into Portugal before emptying near Lisbon, provided ideal environments for sea trade and the pursuit of boat building, perhaps inspiring dreams of ocean conquests.
From the earliest stages of the Age of Exploration, the people of the Iberian Peninsula gained acclaim as navigation and sailing experts while expanding the stature of Spain and Portugal worldwide. Prince Henry the Navigator, third son of Portugal’s King John I, established trading posts up and down the coast of West Africa. Christopher Columbus’s famous expedition across the Atlantic was financed and sponsored by Queen Isabella of Spain. These journeys led to new trading lanes, the meeting of cultures and a growing European appetite for imperialism.
What made Spain and Portugal the early leaders of European maritime exploration? Technological advantages and the pursuit of nautical sciences that allowed them to sail further, faster, safer and more accurately than other would-be seafaring nations.
This advanced technology arose from centuries of Iberian Peninsula history. Despite a centuries-long war of Christian re-conquest against the Muslim Moors from North Africa (who conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD), Spain experienced huge gains from the scientific and technological achievements of the Moors.
A great advantage was the cultural integration of Moorish Spain with Islamic empires further east. These realms in Arab and Persian lands were burgeoning hubs of economical and intellectual trade that stretched to China. These inroads eventually led to the sharing of technologies like the magnetic compass, paper and gunpowder, which made their way westward throughout Islamic lands and ultimately back to Moorish Spain.
In combination with advances in nautical instruments, cartography and shipbuilding, these developments would turn Spain into a world-leading repository of navigational technology — tools that would be essential for Columbus, Ponce de León (who led the first official European expedition to Florida), Hernando de Soto (who participated in the conquests of Central America and Peru) and other explorers to seek glory upon the Atlantic Ocean.
Pursuit of Nautical Science
The same could be said of Portugal, which emerged as a nation in 1128 after the Battle of São Mamede with the defeat of the Moors. After the re-conquest of Portugal was finalized in 1250 with victory over the south, Portugal began a period of great development in navigation.
That development started with a faith in mathematics, physics, oceanography and astronomy. Henry the Navigator, the catalyst for Portuguese exploration and imperialism, founded a town on Portugal’s southwest coast at Cape St. Vincent called Vila do Infante – the Prince’s Town – where he pursued advances that made transoceanic navigation possible. It was a sublime place to nurture the seeds of the Age of Exploration; and, it’s said cartographers and astronomers were invited there to both develop and improve the science of navigation.
History books are filled with the exploits of Portuguese explorers. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European mariner to round the southern tip of Africa. He was soon followed by Vasco da Gama, who in 1497 sailed around the Cope of Good Hope and was the first European to reach India by sea. In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral led an expedition that ‘discovered’ the land that would later be known as Brazil.
Instruments of Exploration
The earliest periods of navigation within Portugal and Spain involved the use of what we’d today consider crude and unreliable instruments. The kamal and cross-staff, while both useful in determining latitude, lacked the ability to be consistently applied while at sea. They were replaced by the trigonometric quadrant and its semi-circle construction. This was an improvement but proved occasionally unreliable at times, as calm waters were required to acquire a reading.
The quadrant was eventually used with the astrolabe and became a critical piece of equipment for navigation after Martin Cortes de Albacar, a Spanish cosmographer from Aragon, published his Art of Navigation in 1551. It was revolutionary in that it could be used day or night, in rough or calm seas, and when used with the quadrant allowed navigators to gain the most accurate readings possible.
Finally, the nocturnal and its accompanied values in the ephemerides granted sailors the ability to plot longitude on the open ocean. Weather and the tenuousness of equipment made all trips perilous, but this evolution in technology allowed expeditions to be confident that a course could be safely and accurately plotted from a port of call to a final destination.
By the mid-16th-century, nautical sciences granted humankind the ability to circumnavigate the globe, uncover vast reserves of untouched natural resources, open dialogue with previously unknown cultures, and open lucrative new trading routes. The expansion of humanity’s connections was well underway.