Lessons in exploration from Columbus and the Spanish Crown

01/10/13 22:51:00    

By Michael Mealling

One of my backburner projects involves exposing some of the more mythical bits of convention wisdom around why and how we explore. This is mostly to help inform future space exploration policy but also just out of personal curiosity. Big questions like “Exactly how did western civilization go from being stuck in Europe to exploring a new continent within 50 years?” or “What were the incentives that drove people to do things few thought possible?” The general idea is to take each major voyage of discovery from Henry the Navigators early voyages in 1430 to the final discoveries in the Pacific in the late 1700s.

The myth that started all of this is that Columbus' voyage was sponsored by the Kind and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. Even Wikipedia lets this myth continue by suggesting that Luis de Santángel used state funds, not his own. The facts are that Spain had just spent its last nickel kicking the Moors out of Spain. The mission was actually financed by Luis de Santangel (50%), two Genovese families (35%), and Columbus himself (15%) using personal loans he was able to scrounge up. What Isabella provided was a patent on the route, a guarantee of 10% of the revenue from any lands discovered for 10 years, and a title of nobility over the sea. The ships were also privately built and simply leased for the trips. The crew was also private. The legend that Isabella pawned the crown jewels to pay for the voyage isn't true either since they were already in hock. There is no evidence that any of the money came from the Spanish government. It is possible that some of the money used by Santangel came from the Catholic Church but the records simply don't exist.

The myth continues because much of the documenation was destroyed in a fire in Spain and because there was considerable propaganda between Spain and the city states of Italy over who could claim credit. This general trend of private financing, ships, and crews with government provided incentives such as patents and loan guarantees. The best source I found for Columbus is Paolo Emilio Taviani's Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design.

One notable exception is Henry the Navigator. He did finance and run some of the work to make Mediterranean caravels capable of deeper water and did finance the eventually successful attempt at rounding the Cape Bojador in 1434.

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