[ISHMap-List] Terrae Incognitae 47.1 (April 2015) Online - comment on The Representation of the West Indies in Early Iberian Cartography

Luis Robles luis.a.robles.macias at gmail.com
Sat May 2 06:23:07 CEST 2015

Dear all,

It was a pleasure to read Joaquim Gaspar's article
the latest issue of *Terrae Incognitae*. I liked how
he numerically quantified a phenomenon that had so far been described only
qualitatively: the evolution of Caribbean latitudes in early 16th-century
Spanish and Portuguese maps.

I had a comment though on one statement found in page 21: "As for the
southern part of the region, no historical source mentions the
determination of latitudes by astronomical methods along the northern coast
of South America, although the position of the equator relative to the
mainland is approximately correct, more so on the Cantino planisphere than
on the Juan de la Cosa planisphere." I think there exists at least one such
source, and I communicated it to the author by private e-mail. We both then
agreed that it would be good to share the discussion with the ISHM list in
case somebody else finds it useful and/or wants to chime in with additional

The source I am referring to is the *De orbe novo* by chronicler Pietro
Martyr d'Anghiera, better known in English as the *Decades of the New World*.
The first *Decade *was officially published in Seville in 1511 (it had
previously been pirated by several Italian printers), and seven more
followed until Martyr's death in 1526. They narrate the early Spanish
expeditions to the Indies mostly based on reports from explorers.

Martyr, an Italian humanist, often discusses recent geographical
discoveries under the light of classical cosmography. He pays particular
attention to astronomical data reported from the newly found lands, like
relative lengths of day and night or the height of the Polar Star, which
help pinpoint latitudes. In the first *Decade *he mentions eight
observations of the Pole Star by Spanish explorers, which are detailed in
the table at the end of this email. Three of them are of particular
importance to Gaspar's article as they relate to the position of the
equator and are prior to La Cosa's planisphere of 1500.

In a few cases Martyr reports precise latitude values based on the north
star: 36º for Seville, 32º for Madeira, 5º at a point of Columbus's third
voyage and again 5º in Paria. As the Spaniards got closer to the equator,
however, the method of determining latitude by measuring the position of
the Pole Star (and those near it) reached its practical limit. This
happened in Peralonso Niño's expedition of 1499 to South America, which
Martyr says got so close to the equator that "the stars the mark the north
pole disappeared" and so "it was not possible to calculate precisely the
polar degrees" In another trip that took place almost simultaneously, led
by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, Martyr reports the two locations at which the Pole
Star was observed to disappear and then appear again. This allows us to
know that Pinzón's expedition entered the southern hemisphere after having
sailed around 300 leagues southwest from Santiago, one of the Cape Verde
islands, and after exploring the northern coast of today's Brazil, crossed
back into the northern hemisphere at a place slightly to the north of a
region they called Marina tombal or Mariatambal. They described that region
as a place where "several swift rivers (...) came together (...) and flowed
into the sea. A number of islands dotted this sea, which are described as
remarkable for their fertility and numerous population"; most likely the
mouths of the Amazon.

Both Niño and Pinzón sailed back to Spain in time for their information to
be incorporated into the map that Juan de la Cosa drew in 1500. Actually
Pinzón is the only explorer mentioned in it by name. The equator on this
map crosses the South American coast slightly to the north of the mouth of
two rivers, each of which mouths is dotted with islands (see image below);
very consistent therefore with the place at which Martyr reports Pinzón's
men again sighted the Pole Star. It would be interesting to discuss the
other data point reported by Pinzón via Martyr for the equator, 300 leagues
SW of Santiago, but this email would then become too long.

[image: Imágenes integradas 1]

In conclusion, the first *Decade *of Martyr's *De orbe novo* supports the
idea that latitudes were indeed astronomically determined by early Spanish
explorers of America. In particular, the position of the equator was
ascertained based on the visibility of the Pole Star. It is also
interesting to note that Martyr never mentions the other 16th-century
astronomical method for latitude, based on the position of the Sun. This
suggests that Spaniards did not master or trust that particular method,
which however had the advantage of working well in the southern hemisphere.
Martyr mentions one southern latitude in the first *Decade *(7ºS for the
westernmost extremity of South America) but does not say how the value was
arrived at.

In the second *Decade*, first published in 1516, Martyr affirms that later
on the Spaniards made several determinations of latitude up until the
foundation of Santa María la Antigua del Darién, in 1510. He gives only one
numerical data: 8ºN for Veragua, a region that corresponds roughly to
today's Costa Rica, which lies between parallels 8ºN and 11ºN. My question
for Joaquim is: Could this quite accurate value be one of the reasons why
the anonymous 1519 planisphere shows lower absolute errors in latitude than
earlier works?

Best regards,
Luis Robles

Decade, chapter

Expedition, date

Mentions of latitude

(English text taken from the 1912 edition by MacNutt
<http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12425>; Latin text from the 1530 edition

I, 2

Exploration of the Cannibal islands by Melchior, ca. 1494

“on this voyage the Spaniards never reached the equator, for they
constantly beheld on the horizon the polar star, which served them as guide”

In Latin: “ipsi vero aequinoctialem nunquam tetigere, quandoquidem arcticum
polum semper habuere ducem: & ab horizonte semper eleuatum.”

I, 6

Columbus’s third voyage, 1498

“at Seville, according to the mariners' report, the north star rises to the
36th degree”



“at Madeira it [the north star] is in the 32d [degree]”



“the Admiral quickly left the [Cape Verde] archipelago behind, and sailed
480 miles towards the west-south-west. (...) The pole star was then at an
elevation of five degrees”



“The Admiral declares that in the whole of that region the day constantly
equals the night. The north star is elevated as in Paria to five degrees  above
the horizon, and all the coasts of that newly discovered country are on the
same parallel.”

I, 8

Peralonso Niño’s exploration of South America's north coast, 1499/1500

“Each evening the stars which mark the north pole disappeared, so near is
that region to the equator; but it was not possible to calculate precisely
the polar degrees”

I, 9

Vicente Yáñez Pinzón’s exploration of South America's north coast, 1499-1500

[from the island of Santiago] “they sailed before the south-west wind for
about three hundred leagues, after which they lost sight of the north star”



“The natives call that entire region Mariatambal. (...) Continuing their
march, directly north, but always following the windings of the coast, the
Spaniards again sighted the polar star.”

  II, 7

Vicente Yáñez Pinzón’s exploration of northern Brazil, 1499-1500 (kind of
flash-back by Martyr)

“he reached the extreme point of the continent (...) this point in the New
World lies within the seventh degree”

II, 10

not specified

“The Spaniards made different calculations up to the time when they were
established at Darien”

In Latin the meaning is clearer: “Habent ergo Castellani variā graduū
eleuationem, donec ad Darienem statuta earum terrarū sedem primariā



“they abandoned Veragua, where the north star stood eight degrees above the

2015-04-13 4:22 GMT-07:00 Lauren Beck <lbeck at mta.ca>:

>  Dear Colleagues,
> *Terrae Incognitae*, Volume 47, Number: 1 (April 2015) is now available
> online. The contents of this issue are as follows:
> Editorial (Lauren Beck):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000038?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> Exchanges about Discovery and Exploration (Call for Papers):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000045?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> The Bimini Ghost Maps of William P. Cumming (Gregory C. McIntosh):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000042?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> The Representation of the West Indies in Early Iberian Cartography: A
> Cartometric Approach (Joaquim Alves Gaspar):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000041?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> Asian Geographical Features Misplaced South of the Equator on
> Sixteenth-century Maps (W. A. R. (Bill) Richardson):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000043?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> Recent Literature in Discovery History (Joshua Michael Marcotte):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000040?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> Book Reviews (Compiled by David Buisseret):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000046?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> New World, New Germs: The Role of European Expansion in the Development of
> Germ Theory (Josephine Benson):
> http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/0082288415Z.00000000044?ai=16h&ui=1xs&af=T
> *Dr. Lauren Beck (lbeck at mta.ca <lbeck at mta.ca>)*
> *Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies*
> *Head, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures*
> *Editor, Terrae Incognitae*
> *Mount Allison University*
> _______________________________________________
> ISHM mailing list
> ISHM at lazarus.elte.hu
> http://lazarus.elte.hu/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/ishm

Luis A. Robles Macías

Profile in Academia.edu <http://independent.academia.edu/LuisRoblesMacías>
Blog: http://historiaymapas.wordpress.com/
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