September 6 – Sails and Salem

Posted on September 6, 2016

For any given day in the year, we can find many and varied events that happened on that day in years (even centuries) past.

Here are a few that fit together nicely:

On this date in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed away from the Canary Islands. This was the last of the known ports of his famous voyage – it was the beginning of the Great Unknown.

On this date in 1522, the only surviving ship of Ferdinand Magellan's round-the-world journey returned to a port in Spain. On that day the Victoria became the first ship to circumnavigate the world!

On this date in 1620, the Pilgrims sailed away from Plymouth, England, on the Mayflower. The goal of this so-famous voyage was to settle in North America. Eventually, they settled in what they named Plymouth, Massachusetts.

And on this date in 1628, the Puritans settled Salem, Massachusetts.

All of these have in common the courage to face the unknown. The courage to sail off, discover and explore, or the courage to start new lives in new places.

Unfortunately, they also have in common a ruthless disregard for peoples of those newly discovered, explored, and settled lands.

I always enjoy exploring the surprising, confusing, or memorable aspects of familiar historical tales. Here are a few:

  • There is a myth that Christopher Columbus went up against the people of his day, claiming that the world was round when “everybody knew” that the world was flat. The myth goes on that Columbus was proved right – the underdog wins the day!

    There is another myth that Christopher Columbus was incredibly stupid and wrong-headed about the world. According to this myth, everyone knew that the world was round like an orange, and learned people agreed that it was really, really huge. According to this story, everybody knew that sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to China and “the Indies” was impossible, at least at that time – the distance was too far. According to this myth, Columbus stubbornly argued that the world was way smaller than it is – and he was just plain lucky to run into islands and continents conveniently located a sail-able distance from Europe.

    The reality was that experts, scholars, and navigators in the late 1400s all agreed that the world was roundish (if you want to see how even ancient scholars knew that, check out
    this article), but they disagreed about its size and shape, and they of course didn't know how much of the Earth was covered by land and how much by oceans. Columbus thought it likely that the Earth was smaller than it is, and that it was shaped more like a pear than an orange. But he was hardly alone in these thoughts – he wasn't someone who held onto a stubborn disbelief of well-established knowledge. A mathematician named Paolo Toscanelli, from Florence (now Italy), thought that Asia could be reached by sailing west – and Columbus corresponded with him. A globe made by Martin Behaim showed Asia extending much farther east than it really does, and the Atlantic islands including the Canary Islands extending much farther west than they really do; even the great (and ancient) thinker Ptolemy thought that Eurasia is much larger than it is.

So, the more correct view of Columbus is more nuanced. He certainly wasn't a great intellectual hero whose minority views were proved correct! But neither was he a know-nothing fool who ignored all the experts of his day.

  • You may have read that, even though Magellan is often given credit for being the first person to circumnavigate the globe, he didn't do it. He was killed in what we now call the Philippines, before his mission even reached “Spice Islands” (today called Indonesia). 

Magellan deserves some partial credit, since he organized the voyage, navigated the dangerous, stormy straits that bear his name around the tip of South America, and also navigated a 98-day journey across the Pacific before reaching habitable land...but two others also deserve credit:
The Basque mariner Juan Sebastian Elcano commanded the return voyage of Victoria, which was the only surviving ship out of the five that started.

A statue of Enrique, aka
And Enrique, a personal slave of Magellan's who acted as an interpreter during the expedition, had lived in the Philippines, and historians point out that he may be the first human to have circled the globe – when the expedition reached the Philippines, his homeland!

It's interesting to note that, although most of the sailors of the Magellan expedition were Spaniards and Portuguese, the crew included men from Greece, Sicily, England, France, Germany, and North Africa. I don't know if Enrique was the only slave, or the only Asian-born person on the ship – but it's clear that the expedition was more multi-cultural than we generally picture it!

  • What is the difference between the Pilgrims of Plymouth, MA, and the Puritans of Salem, MA?

Both groups were religious Christians who believed in Calvinism (which is one of so very many Christian branch-offs).

But the Pilgrims were a separatist group who felt that they needed to separate from the Church of England. They fled from England and settled in Holland, in the Netherlands, but they feared that they might lose their English cultural identity there, so they fled even farther...all the way to the New World.

Many Puritans, on the other hand, remained within the Church of England and sought to reform it (purify it) from within. Some of these “non-separating Puritans” founded Salem and, later, created the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

(By the way, some sources make it sound as if Puritans and Pilgrims were two different groups, and other sources clearly state that Pilgrims WERE Puritans; they say that Pilgrims were a minority group of separating Puritans.)

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