Amalfi and Pisa
At the beginning of the ninth century we can see the first glimpses of a better day in the rising fortunes of some Italian sea-ports, where favorable circumstances had given birth to liberal institutions. As early as the year 840, Amalfi possessed a considerable number of trading-vessels and, built in 1020, a church in Jerusalem. The maritime code of this little republic ruled the commercial transactions of all the Mediterranean sea-ports as in a later century the law-book of Wisby served as a guide to the merchants of the Baltic.
A few years after its submission in 1131 to the arms of King Roger of Sicily, Amalfi was plundered by the Pisanese and almost entirely destroyed. The neglected harbor was gradually choked with sand, and the little town with no more than 3000 inhabitants had nothing left other than poverty and the remembrance of a glorious past.
Along with Amalfi, Gaeta, Naples, and Pisa rose to considerable eminence in commerce, though far from equaling the power and splendor of Genoa and Venice.
As far back as the beginning of the sixth century, the lagoons city of Venice fitted out a small fleet to purge the Adriatic or Istrian pirates. By a prudent course of policy she rendered herself indispensable to the Byzantine court, and acquired great privileges in Constantinople. It is here she purchased the costly productions of the East with which, during the ninth and tenth century, she provides Northern Italy and a greater part of Germany.
By the beginning of the eleventh century, her trade with Egypt and Syria began to flourish, which soon raised her to the pinnacle of her power and wealth. In the year 1080 she extended her rule over Croatia and Dalmatia and gained in 1204 considerable advantages by assisting the western crusaders in the conquest of Constantinople.
Pera, numerous coast towns from the Hellespont to the Ionian Sea, a great part of the Morea, Corfu, and Candia fell to the winged lion's share, and repaid the services of "blind old Dandolo." The silk manufacture was transported, as a valuable fruit of conquest, from the Morea to Venice, and became a new source of wealth to the Adriatic Tyre. The Euxine opened her ports to the Venetian seamen, treaties of commerce were concluded with Trebizond and Armenia, and a factory was established at Tana, at the mouth of the Don.
While the power of Venice rises more and more in the East, Genoa, which already in the tenth century carried on a flourishing trade, acquired by degrees the supremacy in the Western Mediterranean. The aid provided by the republic to the Greek emperor Michael Palaeologus contributed largely to the overthrow of the Latin throne of Constantinople, and opened the Bosphorus and the Black Sea to the enterprise of her merchants. The grandeur of Genoa now reached its height as she holds fortified possession of Pera and Galata, and covers the coasts of the Crimea with her strongholds and castles.
At a later period, the Florentines appeared on the scene and assumed the rank formerly held by Pisa in Mediterranean commerce. The acquisition of the sea-port of Leghorn in 1421 opened the barriers of the ocean to the birthplace of Dante and Galileo.
After their deliverance from the Moorish yoke in the ninth century, a fresh and vigorous spirit begins also to animate the Catalans. They conclude treaties of commerce with Genoa and Pisa, and towards the end of the thirteenth century the ships of Barcelona are found visiting all the ports of the Mediterranean.
Reopened Intercourse between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
But in spite of the growth of trade and navigation in Italy and Spain, many years had yet to elapse after the fall of the Roman Empire before the gates of the Atlantic were once more opened to the navigators of the Mediterranean. It was not before the middle of the thirteenth century, after Seville and a great part of the Andalusian coast had been retaken from the Moors by Ferdinand of Castile. Then the Italian and Catalonian seafarers, encouraged by privileges and remissions of duties, began to visit the port of Cadiz, where they met with merchants from Portugal and Biscay. Soon after, and most probably in consequence of the connections thus formed, we find Italian ships visiting the ports of England and the Netherlands. About 1316, Genoese vessels began to carry goods to England, and somewhat later the Venetians, whose visits are not mentioned by the chroniclers before 1323.
After a long interruption we see the seamen of the Mediterranean resuming the track to the Atlantic ports that had been struck out more than thirty centuries before by their predecessors the Phoenicians. But their voyages to the western ocean took place under circumstances much more favorable than those which had attended the men of Tyre and Carthage in their adventurous expeditions. Not only the better construction of their ships, but still more the use of the mariner's compass, for which Europe is probably indebted to the Arabs, who in their turn owed their knowledge to the Chinese. The compass enabled them to steer more boldly into the open sea, and regardless of the twisting of the coasts to reach their journey's end by a less circuitous route.
The period when the magnetic needle was first made use of by the Mediterranean navigators is not exactly known, but so much is certain that it did good service long before the time of Flavio Gioja (1302), to whom its discovery has been erroneously ascribed, though he may have introduced some improvement in the arrangement of the compass. Humboldt tells us in his "Cosmos," that in the satirical poem of Guyot de Provens, "La Bible " (1190), and in the description of Palestine by Jaques de Vitry, bishop of Ptolemais (1204 -1215), the sea compass is mentioned as a well-known instrument. Dante also speaks of the needle which points to the stars (Paradise, xii. 29); and in a nautical work by Raimundus Lullus of Majorca, written in the year 1286, we find another proof of a much earlier knowledge of the compass than before the beginning of the fourteenth century, since its use by the mariners of his time is expressly mentioned by that author.
Following this accurate guide, the Catalonians sailed at an early period to the north coast of Scotland, and even preceded the Portuguese in their discoveries on the west coast of Africa. Actually Don Jayme Ferrer penetrated to the mouth of the Rio de Ouro as early as August 1346.
About the same time the long-forgotten Canary Islands were rediscovered by the Spaniards; and at a later period (1402-1405) conquered and depopulated by some Norman adventurers, the Bethencourts.
While the South-European navigators unfurled their sails on the Atlantic, and gave the first impulse to discoveries that in the following century were destined to open up the ocean, the Indian Sea still remained closed to their enterprise.The Venetians by this time rivaled, if they did not surpass, the ancient maritime greatness of the Tyrians in the Mediterranean. They did not, like them, directly carry the rich produce of the South in their own ships from the East-African and Indian ports, but received them at second hand from the Arabian masters of Syria and Egypt.
Despite the fact that no ship of theirs was ever seen in the Indian seas, the knowledge of the Arabian discoveries in those parts penetrated to Europe, and widely extended the knowledge of the ocean. When the Arabs suddenly emerged from the remoteness of pastoral life, and appeared as conquerors before the astonished world, the trade of the Indian Ocean fell into the hands of these new masters of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Arabs soon learnt how to pursue commerce with an energy which the Romans and Persians had never known.
The town of Bassora was founded by the caliph Omar on the western shore of the great stream formed by the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, and soon emulated Alexandria herself in the greatness of its commerce. From Bassora the Arabs sailed far beyond the Siamese Gulf, which had formerly bounded European navigation. They visited the unknown ports of the Indian archipelago, and established so active trade with Canton, that the Chinese emperor granted them the use of their own laws in that city.
This progress of the Arabs, and the vast treasures accruing to Venice from the overland Indian trade excited the envy of the other seafaring powers, and caused an increasing desire of discovering a new maritime route to the wealthy regions of Southern Asia.
The wonderful narratives of the first travelers who wandered by land to the distant East contributed to evoke the ardor of discovery. The most celebrated of these geographical pioneers was Marco Polo, a noble Venetian who had resided many years at the court of the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, and visited the most remote regions of Asia. He was the first European that ever sailed along the western shores of the Pacific, the first that told his astonished countrymen of the magnificence of Cambalu or Peking, the capital of the great kingdom of Cathay, and of the splendor of Zipauga or Japan situated on the boundaries of a vast ocean extending to the east. He also made more than one sea-voyage in the Indian Ocean, and to him Europe owed her first knowledge of the Moluccas, the east coast of Africa, and the island of Madagascar.
This greatest of all the medieval travelers, who without exaggeration enlarged the boundaries of the known earth as much as Alexander the Great, was followed by Oderich of Portenau, who traveled as far as India and China (1320-1330), by Sir John Mandeville, who visited almost all the lands described by Marco Polo, by Schildberger of Munich who accompanied the barbarous Tamerlane on his locust expeditions, and finally by Clavigo, sent in the year 1403 by the Spanish court on an embassy to Samarcand. These bold travelers communicated to their countrymen about the riches and the commerce of the nations they had visited, as well as the fables in which their confidence or their extravagant fancy indulged, made an enormous impression on the European mind, and raised to a feverish longing after those sunny lands and isles which imagination adorned with all the charms of an earthly paradise.
Back to Maritime Discovery