By Chet Yarbrough
By Toby Lester
Narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez
This is a story about maps. The story’s potential for revelation falls flat in answering whether Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci were first to discover America. Toby Lester suggests neither Italian was first because North America was discovered long before 1492—maybe by Vikings (AD 1000) or maybe Chinese (AD 1421). But Lester’s book is about maps and America did not get named America until 1507.
“The Fourth Part of the World” explains how the world became round and the sun became the center of the universe.
Lester shows Columbus and Vespucci to be more than acquaintances. They are, as the Greek philosopher Democritus is believed to have said, “birds of a feather that flock together”. Vespucci is the younger that ingratiates himself to Columbus. Both were brave explorers but both bragged and exaggerated, or dissembled when explanations were called for. Columbus and Vespucci are depicted as intelligent young adventurers with Columbus as a self-taught, voracious reader and Vespucci as a sly, cultured Italian that ingratiated himself to others and broke treaties of discovery to satisfy a lust for glory.
Columbus is at the height of fame after his first voyage, sponsored by Spanish royalty, but falls into disrepute for poor management of dedicated lands to the Spanish crown. After four voyages, Columbus dies in the early 1500s. Vespucci usurps some of Columbus’s prestige by suggesting he made four voyages to “The Fourth Part of the World”. Records do not confirm Vespucci’s claim of four voyages; only two can be attributed to the young explorer. Lester infers that two of Vespucci’s four voyages were Columbus’s.
In any case, Amerigo becomes America by dint of association with ambitious cartographers and the propitious etymology of the word. One of the cartographers loved wordplay and was familiar with Greek words like “gen” which means earth and “meros” which means place; “Amerigen” would mean “No-place-land”. Interestingly, Vespucci is dead before the name is assigned to any map. Lester suggests that a writer, turned cartographer, named Matthias Ringmann, in partnership with Waldseemüller, is the probable word smith.
Map making is the centerpiece of Lester’s book. He reaches back to early Greek map makers like Anaximenes and Herodotus in the 5th century BC. The world was depicted as flat and round, like a plate floating on water. Herodotus grew to disbelieve the round plate idea by suggesting earth is irregular and surrounded by oceans. But, the world was still flat to Herodotus, with civilized people toward the middle and barbarians at the fringe.
Aristotle is credited with proving the world is not flat by noting that ships seem to sink when they pass the horizon. Aristotle noted that stars were only visible from certain locations on land and that lunar eclipses were always circular.
Lester notes that the next big step for map-making is measurement. Just how big is the earth? Lester tells the story of Eratosthenes. Eratosthenes, a Greek mathematician, measures the distance between Alexandria and Syrene at noon; Alexandria, where no shadow is cast, and Syrene where a shadow is cast. By calculating the angle to the sun, and the distance between Alexandria and Syrene, Eratosthenes reasoned he could calculate the size of a circle, the radius and circumference of the globe. He found that his measurement revealed an estimated distance of 1/50th of a circle. His experiment in 194 BC is found to be relatively accurate in modern time.
Lester brings these early Greek opinions about world geography into map-making with the Greco-Roman writer, Ptolemy. Ptolemy, a mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer, begins to map the world systematically; not accurately, but with logic and science rather than superstition.
With a method of measurement, Ptolemy takes up Eratosthenes’ idea and suggests the earth can be accurately mapped. Lester notes that though Ptolemy is right about being able to more accurately map the world, he makes a calculation error and shows the earth to be substantially smaller than its actual circumference.
In one respect, Ptolemy’s miscalculation may have been fortuitous. Columbus may not have taken his voyage if he knew how long it would be. In fact, Lester notes that Columbus kept two sets of logs to deceive his crewman on the distance traveled to maintain their morale on the longer-than-expected voyage.
Lester suggests that Amerigo Vespucci did travel down the coast of North America but his real discovery is South America, an extension of “The Fourth Part of the World”. Lester speculates–because of Spain’s treaty with Portugal, Vespucci denies going as far south as he apparently did because he was working for Spain; while Portugal had treaty rights to the land below North America.
As Lester’s story progresses, map making combines nautical and terrestrial maps. The value of the maps becomes so great to Portugal and Spain that death is the common penalty for theft. Lester suggests the most famous map, at least to Americans, is created in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann because it was the first map to identify America.
The role of religion; the truth and fiction of early explorers like the Mongol Khans, Prester John, Marco Polo, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are played out in Lester’s narrative. Toward the end, Lester shows how the center of the universe is shifted from the earth to the sun by Copernicus.
What stands out in Lester’s story is the incredible unspoken bravery and ambition of men like Marco Polo, Columbus, and Vespucci. Even if much of what they did is exaggerated, one is awed; i.e. awed in the same way twentieth century human beings were when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
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