Columbus Knew Where He Was Going, He Had A Map

  Like all seasoned travelers, Columbus had a map in his pocket when he left Spain on Friday, August 3rd in 1492. Heading west across the Atlantic, he was the first of an impressive group of adventurers who would do the same: but he knew where he was going. He knew he would eventually bump into land and he did. On October 12th he landed on San Salvador in the Bahamas. His map was correct. 

  Columbus, in fact, had many maps. As his dream of crossing the Atlantic took shape his search for any graphic that would support his theory became a major preoccupation.  Many maps were available to him, but as his date with history approached he eliminated all but two; an ancient map that illustrated the entire Atlantic and a Toscanelli chart that indicated a western shore but lacked north and south detail. It was the ancient map that satisfied all of his requirements. 

  This story really begins in 1485 when Columbus literally swam ashore from a sinking ship off the coast of Portugal. His brother Bartholomew was living in Lisbon at that time, manufacturing globes, maps and copying valuable manuscripts. Christopher joined him, living and working with him. He also associated with the remnants of the Nautical School at Sagres near Cape Vincent. Prince Henry started this school as a staging point to explore the west coast of Africa, making Portugal, at that time, the navigation capital of the world and a gathering place for captains and ship owners searching for new horizons. This activity made available to Columbus the best collection of maps and charts available anywhere in the world, except for his mother-in-law's closet. During this period Christopher married Dofia Filipa Perestrello, daughter of Prince Henry's navigator. For a year they lived with Dofia's mother on the island of Purto Santo where he had access to a large and rare collection of maps and charts. Somewhere in these resources, the map business, school and private collection, Columbus found the ancient map that would become his proof that the western shore of the Atlantic existed, his door to the New World and eventually the Piri Reis map. 

  Although the Reis map was not published until 1513, about 20 years after the first discovery voyage, two important facts about the map are clearly evident. It is the first map in modern history to illustrate both sides of the Atlantic and, in his notes, Reis gives full credit to Columbus for the western shore; basically most of the map that is left. Another important fact: the Columbus map is found only on the Reis map. None of Columbus' personal maps or charts have been located, even though he and his brother made a business of illustrating maps. Is this really the map Columbus used in 1492? It has to be. Obviously the Reis map is not the discovery map. After 1492 there would be little reason for Columbus to draw it.  There were two useable maps available in 1492; the ancient one and the Toscanelli chart. The ancient map had the greatest amount of necessary detail. Columbus used it in 1492 and Reis accepted it as "the" discovery map. The proof is in the Reis notes, he says, "These parts are called the coasts of Antilia ... Apparently a Genoese infidel by the name of Columbus was the one who discovered these parts." In his personal notes about the map Reis said, "In all the world there is no map this this." That was a major statement of approval. With over 250 maps and charts to his credit Reis was a respected cartographer. 

  The ancient map illustrated the entire Western coast of the Atlantic from approximately 50 degrees north to 60 degrees south. Columbus, of course, never traveled the north and south shores of the Americas. His area of discovery, in four trips across the Atlantic, was the Caribbean and portions of South America. Spread out over twelve years, his travels focused exclusively on the warm areas of the Western Atlantic; contained in a large oval with The Greater Antilles at the top, San Salvador, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Lesser Antilles, Trinidad, Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras at the bottom. 

  The map is unique in many ways. To begin with it is a navigation chart complete with portolan rose and rosettes. This feature was of little value to Columbus, though, he was basically a dead reckoning navigator. At a time in mapping history, when the Americas were unknown and an accurate world map did not exist, the old map was a major information advance. It was drawn on a gazelle hide, an accepted practice when valuable information was to be preserved. Because of the limitation of the skin the coast of South America was bent at obvious points and brought up in the South Atlantic producing the appearance of a Ptolemy chart. Unfolded the map fits well over a modern Mercator, almost 100 years before Mercator introduce this projection. Sixteen major cities are plotted, eleven in Africa, four in North America and only one in Europe. An additional sixty nine minor cities are plotted; twelve in the Americas.  This is a major statement of irony. In this time period, 1492, Portugal was the navigation capital of the world, the interior of Africa as almost unknown and the North American continent was totally unknown. The cartographers who assembled the original graphics, for the map, were part of a well rounded technical base; their mapping is proof. They had the equipment to establish longitude and latitude, and most important, the need. This writer believes the graphics Columbus used in his map originated well before modern recorded history, reaching him by way of the Library at Alexandria and a variety of cartographers who respected this information. The important point, he used it in 1492 and Reis considered it important enough to include it in his "World Map," 

C Copyright, N. Bielat, 9,1999 All publication rights reserved.  Single copies of this page can be secured from this material. All others, contact: