01 February 2011

The tyranny of distance didn't stop the cavalier

I've recently been reading a great deal about the history of global exploration and cartography.  First up, I enjoyed reading Toby Lester's The Fourth Part of the World, about the famous Waldseemuller map of 1507.  This is a large world map that was famously purchased by the US Library of Congress for $10 million in 2001 because it's the oldest existing map to show the name 'America'.  In the case of the Waldseemuller map the name (which is taken from the feminised version of the name of an accomplished Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci) is actually applied to South America rather than the area of the present-day United States, but it shows what is probably the very earliest genesis of the name that came to be applied to the entire New World.

Lester's book then led me to seek out another in a similar vein.  The Anglo-Spanish scholar Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's 2006 book Pathfinders: a global history of exploration is a highly readable survey of the history of exploration from its earliest examples in antiquity through to the last ventures to obscure pockets of the globe in the early 20th century.  You might have heard of Fernandez-Armesto, who is a distinguished scholar in both Britain and America, in another context.  He was the historian assaulted and arrested for jaywalking in Atlanta in January 2007, in a clash of cultures that made headlines around the world.  Here he recalls the incident, and how it affected his understanding of America:

I learnt that the Atlanta police are barbaric, brutal, and out of control. The violence I experienced was the worst of my sheltered life. Muggers who attacked me once near my home in Oxford were considerably more gentle with me than the Atlanta cops. Many fellow historians at the conference, who met me after my release, had witnessed the incident and told me how horrific they found it. Even had I really been a criminal, it would not have been necessary to treat me with such ferocity, as I am very obviously a slight and feeble person. But Atlanta's streets are some of the meanest in the world, and policing them must be a brutalising way of life.

Pathfinders is an excellent read, and I thoroughly enjoyed its command of the historical material and the attention to detail it displays.  In particular, Fernandez-Armesto's valuable command of both British and Iberian sources enables him to provide a strong picture of the important Spanish and Portuguese exploration from the late 15th century onwards.  One particularly interesting passage discusses the exploration of the South Pacific following the expansion of Spanish rule in South America and the discovery of the treacherous but navigable Straits of Magellan.  In a section discussing this exploration, Fernandez-Armesto outlines the exploits of one captain and how far afield he travelled.


Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532-92) was on the Alvaro de Mandana expedition of 1567 that sought the great southern continent of Terra Australis that European philosophers believed must exist in the south to counterbalance the Eurasian land mass in the north.  After a huge trans-Pacific voyage the expedition discovered and named the Solomon Islands in February 1568.  A decade later, after writing a major history of the Incas that was later lost to posterity, de Gamboa led his own Pacific expedition.  A major driving force behind the journey was the plight of the isolated Spanish colonies in the wake of the depredations of Sir Francis Drake's privateering raids on the coasts of Peru and Mexico in 1578.  Here Fernandez-Armesto discusses the intent and scope of the voyage:

Detailed charting of the complexities of the southern Chilean coast had to await the work of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, an uomo universale of exceptional talent as a navigator, historian, and propagandist - who, in 1579 to 1580, scoured the islands, swept the Pacific as far as the Chatham group, and worked his way through the the Strait of Magellan from west to east.  His voyages were part of an attempt to make the Pacific secure against incursions by English, French, and Dutch pirates by finding suitable sites for fortifications and naval bases [Pathfinders, p.223]
These details are impressive, given the challenges of navigation at the time, but the key phrase that interests me is the note that de Gamboa 'swept the Pacific as far as the Chatham group'.  This is certainly not beyond the capabilities of Spanish sailors of the time, given that the de Mandana expedition travelled further in 1567-68 and could have easily turned aside to the vicinity of New Zealand intentionally or accidentally if the prevailing wind direction had altered.

The Chathams are an isolated and small island group lying about 800km east of the New Zealand mainland.  According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 'William R. Broughton discovered the group in 1791 while en route to Tahiti in the British ship Chatham'.  Perhaps de Gamboa came across them during his Pacific wandering?  It's not as if there haven't been rumours about Spanish explorers reaching New Zealand before Abel Tasman passed by in 1642.  After all, there's the case of the mysterious iron helmet from the 1580s found in Wellington Harbour 'some time before 1904', although there is no evidence to link that artifact to Spanish travellers and as it displays little water damage it may well have been dropped into the Harbour at a much later date.  A similar helmet was found in the Kaipara Harbour and is apparently part of the collections of the Dargaville Museum, but I can't find a photo online.  Author Ross Wiseman in his book The Spanish Discovery of New Zealand in 1576 claimed that the Spanish explorer Juan Fernandez took an unrecorded stopover in New Zealand, although the available evidence is fairly unconvincing, and the fact that in another book Wiseman claims that ancient Phoenicians once settled in New Zealand encourages careful readers to take his views with a strong dose of scepticism.


While it may be an entirely fanciful notion, wouldn't it be nice to consider that de Gamboa might have beaten Broughton to the Chathams by over 200 years?  And in so doing, set back the date of the European discovery of the New Zealand islands by over 60 years?         
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