The paradisical Fortunate Islands were also known as the Isles of the Blessed. Heroes in Greek and Celtic mythology were brought here after death. It is suggested that they may have been the Canary Islands, Madeira or the Cape Verde Islands.
" Christopher Columbus followed a straight path "
The suggestion that Columbus used celestial navigation to navigate across the Atlantic is disputed by some scholars who argue that he was limited to dead reckoning techniques. Celestial navigation draws on absolute reference points (the sun or stars), whereas dead reckoning estimates the current position only relative to an earlier position, based on the speed and direction of travel.
Between the 15 th and 17 th centuries, Europeans circled the globe in search of commodities for trade. Spices, precious metals, silk, porcelain, tea and slaves were the most sought after treasures. The commercial motive considerably improved European understanding of the globe, as well as sailing and navigation technologies.
Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) was a Portuguese Count who opened up the trade routes to India, via the Cape and East Africa. He was ruthless in furthering Portuguese interests, attacking Arab trading ships and on one occasion locking hundreds of Muslim merchants in the hold of their ship before setting it on fire.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa
Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475-1519) was a Spanish Conquistador and the first European to reach the Pacific from the American side, after leading an expedition across the isthmus of Panama.
Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach the Philippines. He discovered the Strait of Magellan in Chile, and was the first person to lead an attempt to circumnavigate the world.
Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was an English privateer who circumnavigated the world, and later played a crucial role in the defeat of the Armada. Although widely seen as an English hero, he was also a slave-trader and was implicated in a notorious massacre of 600 civilians on Rathlin Island in Ireland.
Spain began building her vast empire in the 15 th century, spurred on by the exploration of men like Columbus and Magellan, and the gold-seeking conquests of Pizarro and Cortes. The Netherlands became a major naval power in the 16 th and 17 th centuries, with explorers such as Abel Tasman and Willem Barents, and corporations like the Dutch East India Company paving the way for an empire that stretched from South America to South-East Asia. The Repubbliche Marinare was a collection of Italian and Dalmatian city states with strong naval forces and extensive maritime trade networks. Venice, Pisa, Genoa and Amalfi were the four main powers.
Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1650-1707) was MP for Rochester, Kent, and a celebrated naval hero. As commander-in-chief of the British fleets he captured Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession, and shortly before his death he launched a major attack on Toulon.
The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) pitted France and Spain against England, Portugal, Holland and the Holy Roman Empire. The latter coalition fought to prevent an all-powerful unification of France and Spain under Louis XIV and his grandson, Philip V of Spain. As well as the Battle of Blenheim, the war saw fighting in North America and in the Mediterranean. The largest naval battle was the Battle of Velez-Malaga, following which the French navy avoided all further full-scale engagements.
The island of Ushant lies off the westernmost tip of France, due south of Cornwall. It is 8km by 3km in size, has around a thousand inhabitants, and today boasts one of the most powerful lighthouses in the world. The island marks the start/finish line for global circumnavigations.
The Isles of Scilly are made up of six inhabited islands and a scattering of rocky islets, 28 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall. Today, the islands are a favourite tourist destination, enjoying warmer weather than the rest of the UK. One of the islands, Tresco, boasts the world-famous sub-tropical Abbey Garden.
HMS Association was only 10 years old when she sank in 1707. With 90 guns and 800 on board, she was a valuable asset in the Navy, and had taken part in the capture of Gibraltar in 1704. Her Captain at the time of the sinking was Edmund Loades.
This story may be little more than legend. The clergyman supposedly returned the ring to the Earl of Berkeley, who had presented the ring to the Admiral, but the family has no record of it. The ring did, however, feature prominently in a fictional novel by Robert Goddard, Name to a Face (2007).
James Lind treating scurvy on board HMS Salisbury in 1747
Scurvy is a disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C. It was particularly common amongst sailors until Scottish surgeon James Lind proved that citrus fruit could combat it in 1753. Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan both lost more than two thirds of their crews to the disease. Scurvy causes blackened skin, ulcers, rictus, loss of teeth, respiratory problems, and abnormal gum growths that quickly rot. Oddly, only primates and guinea pigs are susceptible, as other animals can synthesize Vitamin C. The introduction of limes to sailors’ diets in the Royal Navy is believed to be the derivation of “limey”, the American pejorative name for a British person.
The Madre de Deus was the archetypal treasure galleon. The 165ft Portuguese carrack had seven decks and 700 crew. To get an idea of the scale of this fat, squat ship, consider her weight: at 1,600 tonnes, fully laden, she was as heavy as ten adult blue whales or a hundred London double-decker buses. She was three times the size of any English ship of the time. It took twelve men to shift her huge rudder. The battle between the English privateers and the carrack was not so “brief” as Sobel suggests: three hours of vicious fighting left the decks covered in dead and mutilated bodies. More chaos ensued when the ship was brought into Dartmouth Harbour and left largely unguarded. Local sailors and fishermen promptly looted part of the treasure before Sir Walter Raleigh arrived from London to put a stop to it. The account given in this blog (see February 11 2008) is extraordinary.
Samuel Pepys was an English diarist and MP (1633-1703), most famous for his record of the Great Fire of London. Although he lacked maritime experience, Pepys was also a naval administrator who reached the rank of Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. His voyage to Tangiers in 1683 was in fact an evacuation mission prior to the abandonment of the short-lived English colony which he had helped found there.
Commissioned in 1734, the Centurion was a 60-gun ship of the line. She was the flagship of a squadron sent to capture Manila from the Spanish in 1740. Despite the difficult voyage described in the text, she successfully harassed Spanish interests in the Pacific and captured a number of Spanish ships, including the galleon Nuestra Senora de la Covadonga. The Centurion was the only ship of the squadron to make it back to England.
Johannes Werner (1468-1522) was a German priest and mathematician who lived in Nuremberg at a time when it was an imperial free city and centre of great artistry, craftsmanship and learning. Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg celebrates this time of Renaissance flourishing. Werner translated Ptolemy’s Geography and made the first regular meteorological observations in Germany.
Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de' Galilei (1564-1642), an Italian mathematician, is considered the father of science and modern astronomy. As well as discovering the moons of Jupiter, he developed the laws of motion and improved the design of the compass and the telescope. Galileo was the first to explain that in the absence of air resistance a feather would fall to earth as fast as a stone. He clashed with the Roman Catholic church over the question of Copernican astronomy, arguing in favour of a sun-centred universe as opposed to the earth-centred model traditionally espoused. Accused of heresy, he was placed under house arrest for much of the remainder of his life.
The Galilean moons are the four largest of the 63 confirmed Jovian moons. When Galileo discovered them in 1610, they were the first objects known to orbit a body other than the Earth or Sun. They are named after lovers of Jupiter/Zeus: Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.
Philip III (1578-1621) was son to the all-powerful Philip II who ruled over the expansion of Spain’s empire and sent the Armada to England. Felipe III was a far weaker King, and left most of the business of government to his chief minister, the Duke of Lerma.