Thursday 31 August 2023

Seeing the World for the First Time


Geocarta Nautica Universale (Color) Public Domain

In 1523, in Spain, two men set about making a map of the world. They were well equipped for the task. One was Giovanni Vespucci, cartographer to the King of Spain and nephew of the great Amerigo. The other, Captain Juan Elcano, had returned the previous year after completing the first ever circumnavigation of the world. He had been second-in-command of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition. Magellan himself lost his life in the Spice Islands. The expedition had taken nearly three years and was a feat of navigation no less intrepid than the Apollo 8 mission that first rounded the far side of the moon.

I am in the dimly lit basement of the Royal Library at Turin, looking at the very map. It is exquisitely drawn and coloured on 12 sheets of cotton canvas. It is nearly twice as wide as my arm span. It looks a bit like a modern Mercator projection, but it is not. Mercator was only eleven years old. Navigators in the 16th century knew that the Earth was round and had a fair idea of its circumference.   They knew of the Americas but not what lay beyond or whether they could get through or round them to Asia. They found the way and what did lie beyond was the Pacific Ocean taking up a third of the map, and demonstrated for the first time in history.

But what of the world that the map reveals? Europe, the Mediterranean and Black seas were well known and accurately drawn. North Cape and the Arctic Ocean had yet to be properly explored. The Caribbean and Central America, already discovered by Columbus, appear in detail. The rest of the eastern seaboard of North America is still unknown, except for a ghostly, detached sketch of Florida.

The east coast of South America for is shown in detail, right down to the first ever representation of Cape Horn. Magellan rounded the Horn, through what we now call the Magellan Strait. He did not know how close he had passed to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The great continent of Antarctica does not feature on the map. It was not the only continent that he would miss.

From Cape Horn, Magellan set off west to find Asia. The west coast of South America and almost the whole of North America are missing. But then, the map shows the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretching to the West. The idea of longitude had yet to be conceived. It was easy enough in those days to know how far north or south a ship was but east and west could not be accurately measured. Day after day, they had travelled westwards hoping they were on the right latitude to make landfall on the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). They were. The Moluccas are shown, as are the great islands of Java and Sumatra. China and eastern Asia are only roughly sketched in. India is shown in detail as is the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar. They missed the continent of Australia. Africa is about right as the expedition, now under the command of Elcano rounded the continent. The mountains of the moon, legendary source of the Nile, and the Atlas Mountains appear as coloured sketches.

500 years on, this map is a gorgeous and spellbinding work of art. There is much missing but our minds fill in the gaps. I am looking at the world we know drawn for the first time.

I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Travelling with Ibn Battutah

Recently, my travelling companion has been the great Arab traveller and anecdotal historian, Ibn Battutah (IB). Not literally, he travelled in the 14th century (1325 to 1354). The Travels of Ibn Battutah edited by Tim McIntosh-Smith in the beautiful Macmillan Collector’s Library edition fitted into my pocket and its silk ribbon marked my progress through its gilt-edged pages and IB’s 29-year journey

IB was a Qadi, a judge and expert in Islamic jurisprudence. He was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. IB set out from his home in Tangier towards Mecca but travelled north to the Volga, east to China and south as far as modern Tanzania, or so he says. IB is an unreliable narrator. He is known to exaggerate and he probably presented other travellers’ tales as his own.

IB was a learned and devout Muslim. He takes a puritanical view of licentiousness in others, though he expects it of infidels. Wherever he goes, he seeks out fellow Muslim scholars. He also seeks out wealthy rulers. For them he is not just a scholar and Qadi but a man with interesting tales to tell.

Given that we cannot necessarily rely on his stories, I grew interested in the logistics of his travels and what little he tells us about his personal relationships. At times, IB appears to travel alone and at others, he had a large retinue. He speaks occasionally of companions but never names them. Late in his travels, he does mention that one of his companions dies, which causes him some inconvenience.

I do not think he ever travelled light, which brings me to the question of how he financed his travels. He sets out with a supply of silver dirhams that would have been good tender throughout the Islamic world. On arrival in a new city, IB would seek out the Sultan. Sultans usually lavished gifts upon him. Sometimes it was coin but often less convertible items such as grain, live animals and fabrics. On occasions, he had to hire camels to transport his goods. I imagine he sold some gifts to raise cash.

IB’s attitude to slavery slowly shows itself. He never agonises over it. It is part of the way of his world.

IB travels through Turkey, a journey of some weeks. He says matter-of-factly that he travelled in an oxcart accompanied only by three slave girls. In a later episode, he is caused some inconvenience when a slave girl gets pregnant and gives birth. IB does not reveal who the father is.

At one point, he arranges a voyage to China in a junk. He insists that he must hire one of the merchants’ suites, a series of private rooms. He needs them so he can take with him his slave girls and wives (in that order). It is his habit never to travel without slave girls. The arrangements are made but, while IB is ashore making his final preparations, a storm blows up and the junk with all his possessions including slave girls and wives sails away, leaving him behind. He never sees them again.

IB finds himself in the Maldives, his fortunes restored. Here, we get the only insight into IB’s sex life. He writes that the inhabitants live on fish and the fruit of the coco palm which has ‘an amazing and unparalleled effect in sexual intercourse. I had myself there four wives and concubines as well. I used to visit them all every day and pass the night with the wife whose turn it was.’ He left after a year and a half, leaving the wives and concubines behind.

There is little mention of slaves as labourers; rather, they appear to be owned by sultans as status symbols. On several occasions, IB writes that he has given or been given a white slave girl as a gift.

I enjoyed having Ibn Battutah as the travelling companion in my pocket but I would not have wanted to travel with him.