On a September of 1408, at Hvalsey Farm in the East Settlement of Greenland, the Icelandic heiress, Sigrid Björnsdaughter married a family friend named Thorstein Olafsson who had come from Iceland to woo her. A short time later, Sigrid was Iceland-bound, leaving behind her an outpost too far, sinking into extinction.
Six years later, a massive fleet of Portuguese ships and chartered foreign vessels deposited an army of as many as 10,000 men before the fortified port of Ceuta on the Moroccan shore of the Straits of Gibraltar. The crusaders of Portugal were about to launch themselves into the first (overseas) imperialist morass. It's always darkest
Cardinal Biggles! Comic genius.
before the dawn, and we are looking here at the last star of night. Columbus, Luther, all that jazz, are about to come. A light born in the observatories of the astronomers would lead an "Age of Reconnaissance. as much as of Reformation.
All I'm missing now is the Renaissance! Hmm... "With one foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages, Petrarch saluted the Renaissance with the other." Sometimes, the old material is the best material.
Well, okay, but isn't there a rather trenchant criticism to be made here? As someone, perhaps Cohn, here, points out, it's recycling. The waning of the Middle Ages recycles Reformation-era arguments, which would be fine if they were a solid, however old, explanation for a clearly delineated trend. But that's not the case here. On the contrary, this is poetics all the way down, shaped in the trenches of Tudor political infighting. Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being separated from it. Poetics means an argument crafted to fit. Impressed by Bill McNeill's scientific take on epidemics? Teratology before it was science. Does a story of decline resonate for you? People like a good waning. Again, I'm seeing a heuristic that predates the evidence used for it today.
Whatever. Cherry-picked evidence isn't necessarily wrong. Poetics can be recruited to support valid hypotheses. There's a bit of currently relevant politics in the enduring myth of the "Little Ice Age," but my only concern here is not to buy exogeneity-in-a-poke. No heroic inventions. No great men, just work of the hand.
Can I make it work? I don't have to, smarter men than I have done so, long ago. All I need to do is gild the lily with other recent work by historians who, unlike me, can afford to do primary source research. One of the many strengths of Parry's treatment of the "Reconnaissance" is that he gets rid of the whole "all of sudden" thing. Parry gives us an incremental picture, and Peter Russell's (comparatively) recent biography of Prince Henry "the Navigator" gives it another dimension, so that the heroic age of Discovery was born in a fit of absence of mind; an accidental outcome of the capture of Ceuta. The advantage of this version is that the process is, at least as I see it, about the way that new work forces are recruited and learn new skills.
Again, so much is princes/entrepeneurs, so much the nurturing of a floating proletariat. The marriage, the tenants; the princes, the sailors.
It's too bad that Kirsten Seaver's publisher persuaded her to rewrite her last book. It taints her accomplishment, but she is still author of by far the best study of the Greenland settlement, even if she has written it twice, and that was probably inevitable. There's money in it, and the evidence just isn't coming in fast enough for a truly new book in her lifetime. The truth is, it probably can't. Danes, Norwegians, and Icelanders realised the chance they'd missed the moment someone else invented the idea of America and began scouring the documentary sources as early as 1516, so there hasn't been much of a chance for anything to be lost in the archives. The archaeology is expensive, and she's already gone further than I think is warranted into speculation.
What we have is clear enough. About 985AD, some people arrived in Greenland. This part desperately needs to be demystified. It was admittedly a very different lifestyle from anything practiced in the woods of Norway, dietary similarities aside , but near exactly like that practiced by the peoples of the high Atlantic islands of Scotland from Neolithic times down to the present. Greenland was more northerly and colder than St. Kilda, but not critically so. St. Kilda "declined" when its inhabitants all got jobs on the mainland in the last century. As a small town west coast boy, I don't see a need for any other explanation of the end of the Greenland settlement than that. I've seen too many abandoned outports, from famous ones to all the distinctly non-famous ones abandoned without a backwards look when a road was built or a new townsite, or the mine played out. That's what life is like when you're in the floating labour pool of the high latitudes. Even the guy living down in the manager's house knows it.
Seaver makes it clear that Sigrid came to be remarried to Thorstein because disease had swept away her immediate family. She was the last person with a clear inheritance right to vast properties in northern Iceland, and securely vesting that inheritance meant securing social peace. Her first husband was probably one of the biggest men of Greenland, of the lineage of Erik the Red, we infer from his possession of Erik's old seat of Hvalsey. The fact that we don't know who he was is telling, because such a house has a genealogical saga by definition, and that it wasn't recorded is telling of some kind of social lapse. As if we didn't already know that exactly that had happened! So we're back in the moment; two of the most powerful families of Greenland and Iceland making a dynastic union in the 1390s, modifying it in 1408, and possibly again in the late 1420s. That's as late as we can be sure that connections of power and influence stretched between Hvalsey and Holar.
Such power has occasionally to be monetarised, which is why it is obvious enough that this is about dried fish, train oil, pelts, and a small trade in Arctic exotica. The Hebrides were a population sink rather than a source because there was a time when the crofters' modest definition of comfort was, like the old price of steam coal, consistent at sea level everywhere. (Bonus Celtic revival gits video; it's not just women; Aussies do it right)
Back for a moment to the fact that we don't know who Erik the Red was. Odd, given that we have The Saga of Erik the Red. But that's because Erik is the ancestor of two fourteenth century Icelandic bishops via Thorfinn Karlsefni, and that wealthy Icelandic merchant at one point travelled to one of the Atlantic's many blessed isles, and there found the holy foods of the Blessed Sacrament growing free, which is the kind of miracle that we need for the ancestor of a bishop.
And so we know of "Vinland." Thanks to inspired archaeological work, we also know that it is more than a myth. For a few decades, some North Atlantic sailors explored down into North America at least as far as a place on one of Newfoundland's precious few pockets of arable soil that can't be approached from seawards in a vessel with a full hull form. That's all we can know. For all we can know in an empirical way, the Greenlanders built a city under Boston, cleverly contriving to lay their foundations in no place yet found by archaeologists.
Or, far more likely, they didn't. Having sailed about as far from Greenland as they would have to sail to get back to Norway, the explorers found a tiny outport site with a climate far worse than Greenland's. As far as they knew, they were on some benighted coast in the high northeast/west of Asia, far more easily reached via Russia, but they still had a good look around before they abandoned it. Far too much southing and westing for a little grazing and some fishing. (A point made by both Seaver and even more dramatically here.) We know that they kept going to Labrador for something,because of surviving records of a Greenland logging expedition fetching up in Iceland at one point in the fourteenth century, supposedly because they had lost their rudder. Given documentary attrition and the fact that intercolonial trade was formally forbidden by the Archbishop in Trondheim in order to better monetarise the trade and take taxes off the top, there might have been a "Markland"-Iceland trade carried out by Greenlanders. If so, it was long ago guessed, it was about timber.
Maybe; Greenland was a tiny colony of only a few thousand souls. That's not a lot of young men to make up a seasonal logging camp, especially given just how severe the winter weather is in Labrador. Perhaps it was worth it because it drew furs from the interior of North America or via the Ramah chert exchange network, but that wouldn't make it any the less occasional. A settlement of a few thousand doesn't have that large a surplus of young men, and could lose it in a single disaster. America, and Vinland, were sidelines at best.
Fish would have been on the mind of the men who went to capture Ceuta, because once every ship available in Lisbon had been chartered, the rest of the expedition had to make do with the kind of fishing boats made legendary by Parry as the "caravel." Leaving Whig technological history aside, the upwelling Gulf Stream off the coasts of Portugal and Morocco had given rise to a neat little work boat that could take a worthwhile military cargo as far as Ceuta, not very far as these things go.
Fish, and the Atlantic, were (perhaps) not on the minds of the men who taxed Portugal for this. What was on their mind was Iberian power politics. Russell's book is a bit of a slog to extract the good bits, but the key point is that "crusading," and, in particular, crusading in Morocco, was a patronage play and a bold political statement. The court in Lisbon turned towards, and away, from these projects according to the balance of power and the vagaries of dynastic politics. The incremental steps the Portuguese made down the coast of Africa and around to India have nothing to do with visions of a wider world, a rising bourgeois, or any such grand synthesis. (Well, I suppose that I'm offering my summary of Russell as a grand synthesis, but less grand.)
Whenever Lisbon felt the heat to subordinate itself to Castile as leader of the Iberian crusaders, it sponsored another burst of activity down the African coast, justifying it in terms of presumptive crusading effect. An intermittent Ethiopian diplomatic offensive, in reality aimed at Cairo, I'm told in a great article that I've misplaced, presented Ethiopia as a good base for recovering the Holy Land. Could you get there by pushing down the coast of Africa? Well, surely God would provide a way for Portugal to avoid having to crusade in the eastern Mediterranean under Castilian command.
That Fifteenth Century strategists proposed to ascend the African rivers to the Nile, or divert the Nile into the Red Sea, or blockade the mouth of the Red Sea from Socotra is a bit of a surprise, but hardly a reaonable one. But that's just stories. I want to hear about work, specifically, the work to keep the garrison of Ceuta fed. Prince Henry was put in charge of that. In other eras, the heads of shipping lines have often tried to diversify, find other routes. Henry's wants included more complicated forms of social credit than money in the bank, which is why he sought crusading opportunities for the men of his household, but the pursuit of wealth also feeds motivated cognition, so that in the end, Henry found his infidels where he needed to find them.
Or felt that he needed to find them. The Canaries were near at hand, claimed by the Castilians, filled with ill-armed pagans. Why not? But it never quite worked out. On the other hand, the sail north from the Canaries home, once you've learned to do it according to the winds rather than straight line navigation, takes you not too far from the great rock of Madeira. It's hard to imagine that the kind of men who settled St. Kilda wouldn't have made a home there, so the fact that there was no-one on Madeira in 1424 indicates that no-one with the capital had ever found need of it. What did attract people was the much less impressive island of Porto Santo, 28 miles northeast of Madeira. It had dyewood, and was a good staging ground for dry-cure fish.
The dry cure, in which cod or other white fish is trimmed, filleted, landed, salted, and put up on racks, perhaps over a low fire, for a relatively rapid and still thorough drying, has a vague history. The other major inspirations for this post, Cadigan and Pope on the Newfoundland plantations of the seventeenth century, fall in with the vague assumption that it was "invented" at some point in the 1400s. It seems to me that what you have to invent is some way of bringing labour, salt, and fish together on some shore along with provisions and timber/fuel/lumber that doesn't needlessly provoke the locals. Porto Santo had all of that. The earliest reports emphasise dyewood instead, but dyes had more glamour, and probably would have paid more excise.
Whatever be the case, two of Prince Henry's captains made landfall in 1418, but it was a well-connected figure about Lisbon, a Lombard knight by origin (and later father-in-law to Christopher Columbus) named Filippo Palastrelli who was made captain of Porto Santo in 1446. This was during a royal minority, and the usual to-the-death struggle over the regency was well begun. Henry, coming off a huge blow to his reputation back in 1437, was making better known efforts towards Guinea. The significance of the Porto Santo colony is that it was another stop along the way out to Guinea, another chance to fill the holds and make a profit.
But hold up for a moment, because aren't the 238 square miles of Madeira a more obvious prize? There's a neat answer here, in that Madeira has a very threatening aspect when the wind is blowing onshore. And when else would a sailing ships ever go near it? a colony on Porto Santo, especially a fishing plantation, would be the first to be around it when the wind wasn't blowing onshore, when the whitecaps vanish at Funchal.
Cadigan describes the early plantation expeditions to Newfoundland made during the 1500s as being carried out by an already well-established model. The boats were typically caravel-sized, of 40 to 50 tons, and shipowners spread out the risk by buying part shares in many ships rather than the whole of one. The captain was therefore a contractor, and he, like the 5 man crew, worked for shares, not wages. Passage, to the fishing grounds and back, was one of the costs to be met by the corporation that was the fishing vessel, and the cost of passage was therefore the crewman's investment. The point is that he was not an employee with paid passage, nor was he guaranteed work on the fishing grounds. Ten long tons of salt cod were expected in the hold at the end of the season; two tons per man, taken in open boats after a daily row of two miles or more, brought back onshore, split, salted and dried. (And capelin for bait similarly fished up.) Good fishing could accomplish this in as little as two weeks, but fishing wasn't always good. And if a crewman couldn't make a go of the season, he wasn't guaranteed a return trip. That is why the Newfoundland fishery has been described as a "leaky pump," drawing labour back and forth across the Atlantic.
You can see why locals, where there were locals, had their issues with this business model. As for the men, there was often an advance payment when they left that went to their families. In February during the relatively well-documented 1600s, West Country market towns would hold hiring fairs at which. Desperation could make for bad decisions on either side, and there was in any case plenty of time to do non-fishing work, and work to be done, out on the grounds. For, conversely, this ought to have been a good business, with plenty of synergies with onshore farming, or at least gardening and ranching, to exploit the offal. Others raised structures. Some wintered over in them, by choice or not. In the Newfoundland case, some went up country to trade for furs.
So it makes perfect sense that their counterparts of two centuries past would have seen their chance. You wouldn't be human if you were a young man at Porto Santo, one still and beautiful summer morning, and you had nothing to do and a boat, and you didn't set off to climb to the tallest peak of Madeira, just to see what you could see. And it soon proved that Madeira was no Porto Santo, much lessNewfoundland. It is a rich country. Noted early profit centres include honey, that legendary, low labour, settler crop of wheat, and, of course, sugar and wine a little later.
And wood. Prince Henry's commissioned history of the Guinea trade gives heavy emphasis on the wood of Madeira. Great timbers were used to feed a building boom in Lisbon. Caravels built on the shore at Funchal were repurposed for exploratory trips down the African coast. And here I am seeing the limits of reading Prince Henry the Navigator as the Medieval other. Consider: he has a royal contract to feed Ceuta. He has a dockland headquarters in Lisbon, run by a corporate body, the military order that he heads. He has landed revenues, and, like any aristocrat, has built up new landed revenues in the new settlement of Madeira. This gives him a claim on the lumber landed on the dock at Lisbon. But, more than that, he has an interest in the ships, built in Madeira, that land the lumber. The whole point of shipbuilding at Madeira is that it is cheap. The lumber is sawn by hydraulic saw mills, which have low factor inputs, since there is no other demand for water power on the frontier island. The lumber is cheap. Caravels are cheap to make, or even mass produce. Perhaps builders even used the trick favoured by Quebec shipyards of the nineteenth century and built the ships around big beams suitable for palace building back in Lisbon.
The thing is, if the caravel pays for itself by docking in Lisbon and selling off its timber, as the Quebec-built sailing ships paid for themselves on their first trip to Liverpool, this is a problem for a shipowner. The caravel will be offered at auction, and its price will determine the sale price of his vessels. Not a pretty prospect if he has borrowed on them and the bidding isn't brisk! The solution is to step in and buy, establishing a floor price.
Very well, now you have a ship. Now you just need to find a use for it. The California wheat bonanza not being on just yet, the logic of pushing down the African coast is pretty clear. Prince Henry might tell us that it's all about crusading, and at one level, it was. It's just that there was fish down there. (Prince Henry's chronicler of the deeds of arms done in the discovery of Guinea even mentions that his first caravel to reach the Rio d'Oro happened on a seal calving and came back with a load of pelts and train oil.)
So this is the picture that I'm seeing; a simple, self-reinforcing pattern of intensification that has as its natural end the full exploitation of all of the bank fisheries of the Atlantic. If it is a staple industry, it isn't limited by capital, because business can turn wheat farms over to cash crops in proportion to the amount of dried cod they can count on (and it might have been on the order of hundreds of thousands of tons as early as 1600), freeing up capital for more ships. Timber apart, the main limiting factor is skilled labour. The more strongly the pump strokes, the more underemployed and idle labour it is going to draw in. The questions now are ones of timing, and the pump's leaks.
- Postblogging Technology, October, I: Forest for the Trees
- The Bishop's Sea, III: The Real Presence
- Gathering the Bones, 18: Hew Down the Bridge!
- Postblogging Technology, April 1944, I: Ancestral Voices
- Postblogging Technology, November, 1943: Caesar's New Clothes
- Postblogging Technology, March 1944, I: Pulling In the Horns
- Old Europe: Always Falling
- Gather the Bones, 17: To Our Mother of the Lakes
- From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, III: "Look for me at dawn on the third day."
- Postblogging Technology, September, 1945 II: Praying for a Good Victory