Sunday 9 July 2017

around the horn

We’ve known for some time that the fall of the Byzantine Empire—precipitated by the Ottomans’ taking of Constantinople—in May of the year 1453 was an event chronically adjacent to the dawn of the age of exploration with Christopher Columbus’ voyages in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s five years later (preceding both and inspiring the success of his fellow countryman subsequently was Bartlolomew Diaz). We, however, failed to recognise the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire and the blockade of overland routes to Asia directly, like the series of Crusades to recapture the Holy Land of Middle Ages and safeguard caravans of pilgrims, was aimed to re-establish trade-routes severed by Muslim occupation.

Unlike what Marco Polo had done a century prior, one could no longer walk to India and China and so a sea-route was sought in order to satiate those willing to spend exorbitant amounts of wealth on exotic spices and silks. Exchanges of goods and culture still continued by the Venetians, with whom the Ottomans had developed a business-relationship, but no one else thought that that maritime empire should enjoy a monopoly on supply. Betting that the globe was in fact smaller than Greek geomancers calculated, Columbus first embarked on a route to the East by going west and never realised that his progress had been arrested by two intervening continents, it was da Gama that actually reached the Orient first by sailing around the southern horn of Africa and on to Asia—prompting the Pope to negotiate a treaty decreeing all lands outside of Europe belong to one of the two Iberian kingdoms. The line of demarcation was the Cape Verde Islands (Repรนblica de Cabo Verde) and everything to the West belonged to Spain, whilst (inclusive their colony on the archipelago) belonged to Portugal—stopping at Cuba and Hispaniola, and while repudiated many times over the centuries basically held until colonial ambitions for all of the European powers erupted. Though the Byzantine capital was subject to many sieges in over a milleuium until its fall—it took the Ottoman forces’ knowledge of gunpowder from the Chinese to breach the city’s defences, it had resisted capture until the fifteenth century and kept open the lines of communication between the West and East. One wonders if that if the old logistical network hadn’t become a less than ideal option, then would there have been an impetus for exploration.