ESSAY NUMBER 15
Public domain image courtesy of http://pnt.gov/public/images/.
LESSONS FROM THE AGE OF EUROPEAN MARINE EXPLORATION FOR THE SPACE AGE.
DID COLUMBUS CLEAR CUSTOMS?
Most historians seem a bit perplexed at Columbus's persistent belief that he had reached the Orient. Many credit him with more than a typical share of stubbornness bordering on obsession. In the popular mind Columbus arrives in the Bahamas meets "Savages", encounters no riches associated with the Orient, and inexplicably persists in his belief that he has reached the Orient. But this was simply not the case.
First as we learned in our description of the landing of Columbus as described in preceding pages he didn't find the "Indians" of his "San Salvador" to be "savages" at all, but "peasants". He fully expected to find peasants in Oriental society as he knew them in his own and the Oriental version was described in the account of the travels of Marco Polo with which he was familiar. Moreover these very first peasants displayed small items of gold. When Columbus met Guancanagari he found a society of perhaps some thirty thousand souls with significant organization. His description of his first sight of Guacanagari indicates the trappings and entourage that a European who had never visited the Orient might associate with a minor Royal of a rural part of an Oriental kingdom. With Guacanagari Columbus received more gold and some previously unknown spices, exactly what he anticipated finding in the Orient. But the ship wreck of the SANTA MARIA forced an early return. Columbus was quite well aware that he had but sampled a very few of some offshore islands, that he had good reason to believe were off the Asian mainland. Historians agree that Columbus believed the circumference of the earth to be less than we now know it is, plus he probably believed the land mass of Asia was much larger than what it is, and he had no real way of measuring longitude . When these facts are considered along with an unjaundiced view of exactly what Columbus saw on his first voyage it seems quite reasonable that he believed he had reached the Orient on his first voyage.
His second and third voyages involved mostly establishing a base of operations on Hispaniola and a gold mining operation. His opportunities to explore freely were minimal. He eventually did visit the north coast of South America. He did come to understand that South America was a previously unknown continent far to the south of the Asian land mass. In more northerly latitudes he still expected to find what we now call China and Japan. On his fourth voyage he would actually reach the Caribbean coast of Central America and encounter coastal Mayans, What he would see could only further convince a European of his day that he had reached the Orient.
The Mayan coast lands were long and Columbus must have suspected that he was coasting along a mainland. He could not know how narrow parts of that mainland were or the great Pacific Ocean, an ocean that his world dimensions had no room for, was beyond the distantly glimpsed mountains to the west. But what was of far more significance was that Columbus now encountered a coast with coast wise trading vessels the size of galleys that he was familiar with in his own Mediterranean world. He encountered a coast with ports, some of which had breakwaters, officials, and signal beacons. The vessels were huge canoes with shelters amidships of tightly woven palm leaves. The canoes had large crews and significant weather protected cargo capacities. They were in the charge of well dressed merchants who often had their families along. These trading, coastal large canoes were engaged in regular and organized trade. The ports had official buildings of impressive size made of stone and displayed a strange but advanced architecture. Columbus had come face to face with what could be described as the Mayan Merchant Marine.
Columbus first encountered the Mayan coast wise traders in 1502 near what is now referred to as the Bay Islands of Honduras. In his log he noted:
"There arrived a canoe full of Indians , as long as a galley and eight feet wide. It was loaded with merchandise from the west, almost certainly from the land of Yucatan"
Columbus described a thatched palm shelter midships in the craft sheltering women and children as well as merchandise from both rain and sea. The women and children seemed to be family of the presiding merchants. The crew consisted of nearly twenty five men. Trade goods consisted of high quality cotton cloth of intricate design and many colors, flint bladed tools and weapons, swords carved of very hard wood and a variety of food items. This first encounter was not untypical of a variety of craft that Columbus would observe on his fourth voyage, in fact this particular canoe was a bit on the modest size. Some historical accounts describe Mayan vessels capable of carrying forty to fifty people plus large amounts of trade goods. Most Mayan traders followed the coast line using natural features, shrines and towers as short range aids to navigation. However some Mayan navigators ventured offshore. The Mayans had reached and colonized such offshore islands as Cozumel, the Belize Cays and Bay Islands by 600 to 900 AD.
As the Mayan culture evolved some seaside villages developed into real ports of call and trading centers. One such example was the town of Cerros on Chetumal Bay in what is now northern Belize. This town was located at the confluence of the mouths of the New and Hondo rivers. The port connected the coastal and offshore island trade with the inland regions of the Mayan empire reachable by the two rivers. The Mayan maritime trade made use of many natural harbors but also made artificial improvements where needed. On the northern coast of Yucatan on the island of Cerritos the ruins of docks, piers, and a 1,000 foot seawall can be found. The maritime trade infrastructure of the Maya spread across the whole coastline of Mexico to what is now called Panama and extended inland at every navigable river. Between 900 and 1520 AD this Meso American maritime trade flourished and became sort of international in scope involving not only the seafaring Mayans but also seafaring Aztecs and other peoples. By the time of first contact much of this trade had come to be controlled by wealthy nobles tied to each other through marriage and formal alliances and dominating the economies of these widely spaced coastal communities. This system collapsed shortly after the Spanish conquest and has been largely forgotten. But this was the system that Columbus saw on his fourth voyage. On that voyage he saw people of apparently Asiatic racial stock and of a high order of civilization engaged in an extensive and organized maritime trade from real port cities. Why would he think he was anywhere else but Asia?
Any review of primary sources of the early period of European contact with American natives reveals a "New World" populated by both tribal peoples and what can only be described as "nation states". Columbus sailed into a World of inter tribal and "international" relationships and conflicts. He was first seen by the first officials he encountered as a powerful potential ally against a truly savage tribe harassing a more civilized tribe enjoying no advantage in weapons, tactics, or technology. Columbus and subsequent Spaniards enjoyed a narrow but critical advantage in weapons and transport technology. They were also possessed of a moral code that rendered parts of the preexisting order of the "New World" offensive. Instead of learning and fitting into the existing order the Spaniards would cite certain practices of the preexisting order as justification for conquest, made possible by their narrow technological advantages. They also unwittingly aided and abetted in conquest by microorganisms. The collision between the old and new worlds at the subhuman level will be the subject of other discussions. The purpose of this discussion is to examine how one view of world order was totally eclipsed by another when two radically different cultures collided after years of separation by a vast previously uncrossable ocean.
Columbus and those who followed in his wake entered a world of alliances, conflicts, trade, communications, and some long established rules of order. The Europeans would exhibit no consideration of any of the established rules of order, would exploit conflicts and alliances to their advantage, and manipulate trade to their advantage at every opportunity. In the process the Europeans would struggle with each other and eventually evolve a highly organized body of international law.
As we push out into space, particularly space beyond our own solar system we may be entering a realm where a preexisting legal order may be operative, or operative in certain regions only, or non existent. we may bring important legal ideas to the forum, or our ideas may be viewed as valueless as the Europeans viewed the preexisting order of the Indian nations. For all we know our undisturbed evolution to date may be the result of an existing interplanetary legal order. Before we launch into space beyond our solar system we need to consider the possibilities of interplanetary law. We will probably have to guess at it , but our own experience in the evolution of international law, particularly maritime international law should give us some valuable insights. Unlike the Europeans during the age of exploration we had better not assume we enter the region with any superior codes or the ability or any moral right to impose such. A review of our own maritime international law could provide us with some insights into any preexisting interplanetary order.