Some years ago my curiosity was piqued by an Indian ring-necked parakeet in an early 15th century Flemish altarpiece,
and an Australian sulphur crested cockatoo in one of 1496 painted for the Dukes of Mantua in Italy. This altarpiece was painted two years before Vasco de Gama got to India in 1498 and this cockatoo is the subject of a superb paper by Dr Heather Dalton of Melbourne University, Australia.
How did these birds get to Europe in the 15th century and is there evidence for the trade in other luxury items emanating from the Far East long before these routes were opened up by the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the 1480s and 1490s.
By examining surviving Roman murals, mosaics and documentary evidence; 13th & 14th illuminated manuscripts; 15thand 16th century paintings, altarpieces, ceramics and more recent archaeological evidence, we will explore the trade in consumables from southeast Asia, precious stones, pearls, ceramics and exotic birds and animals that date from Roman times. In some cases, evidence comes from as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians and the Greek historian, Herodotus (484-425BC).
We will explore how the Greeks and Romans loved their silks and other goods that came from China. Was this one-way trade, or was there a two-way exchange of technologies and goods? We will also look at how the Vikings helped restore the European economy during the so-called Dark Ages, as well as the rise of the trading republics of Venice, Genoa and little Pisa after 1000AD.
It was not just goods that travelled along the Silk routes. You only have to read the travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta to realise that the less erudite members of the trading expeditions would have had their stories to tell as well. These would have been handed down by word of mouth and no doubt, in that process some of their experiences would have grown in the telling. Think about the legends of Jason and the Golden Fleece and Sinbad the Sailor. Hollywood has used ancient myths and legends to make some wonderful (and taking a retrospective look at thesefilms from our digitally enhanced viewpoint, hilariously funny) films, but many of these ancient tales are rooted in fact.
Despite the warning on the maps of the 15th and 16th centuries that venturing past certain points the unwary traveller was told “There be Dragons”, brave crews set forth in search of new routes to the fabulous land of Cathay.
These words may well have been a warning and some of these dragons, or other monsters of the deep, really existed, but not in quite the same form as seen on these ancient charts. Perhaps it was it the fall of Constantinople in 1453 that inspired Columbus and de Gama to sail off into the unknown in search of a direct route to the lucrative Spice Islands, ignoring the warnings that monsters and dragons were there lying in wait to destroy them. In the early 15th century,the Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) sponsored the Venetian captain, Alvise da Cadamosta. Da Cadamosta got as far as Senegal and Guinea-Bissau in 1456 (see the map of Portuguese voyages of discover below).
In the 1490, the Spanish royals, Queen Isabella & King Ferdinand, sponsored the Genoese captain Christopher Columbus to find a sea route to the lucrative East. As we all know, on his first voyage in 1492 he sailed west and got to the Caribbean islands of Santo Domingo and Cuba.
Portuguese interest in maritime exploration had ceased on the death of Henry the Navigator in 1460, and it was not until King John II came to the Portuguese throne in 1481 was interest in breaking the Venetian monopoly on the spice trade revitalised. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, landing in Mossel Bay, thus proving that the African continent could be circumnavigated. Then eleven years later in 1497, Vasco de Gama set sail from Lisbon with a fleet of four ships following in the wake of Bartolomeu Dias. After an eventful voyage, this small flotilla arrived at the ancient port of Calicut on the Malabar Coast (we know it as Kerala) on 20th May 1498.
Pope Alexander VI divided the world between Spain and Portugal in a papal bull of 1493 and the Treaty of Torsedillas of 1494. There was a dispute in 1522 when Magellan’s fleet returned to Spain having circumnavigated the world, thus proving Aristotle wrong and that the world was not flat. This diplomatic spat was resolved in the 1529 Treaty of Zaragossa. The Spanish and Portuguese dominated the exploration of the world until the end of the 16th century. During this period, all sorts of exciting new commodities poured into Europe from the Far East and the New World filling the Portuguese and Spanish treasuries to overflowing.
However, legend has it that da Cadamosto, Dias and de Gama were not the first explorers from north of the Equator. Herodotus (who lived from 484-425 BC) tells us that the Phoenicians sailed down the Red Sea and continued south, circumnavigating the African continent clockwise during the reign of the Egyptian King Necho during the last quarter of the sixth century BC. Writing in the first century BC, the writer and geographer, Ptolemy of Alexandria, said Herodotus was wrong and it was impossible to sail around Africa. Thanks to the renewed interest in the works of the Roman writers, this was the considered opinion of all ‘intelligent and educated’ people until Dias proved Ptolemy wrong in 1488. Modern archaeology has now proved that the writings we know as the Histories of Herodotus, was not a collection of his confabulated memories.
It was not just spices from the East and gold and silver from the New World that came into Europe. A miniature portrait by one of the Horenbout family shows that Katharine of Aragon, (the first wife of Henry VIII of England in case there are any readers who are unaware of who she is) was given a pet Capuchin monkey in the mid 1520s. These monkeys are indigenous to the islands of the Caribbean, including Santo Domingo. Was this a diplomatic gift given in order to curry favour with the queen of England? Why did Katharine choose to have her portrait painted with her pet that is chained to her wrist? This portrait miniature is not just a record of an exotic gift, but speaks silently about lust, and political alliances. For one woman at the Tudor court, it could well have been a visual warning to stay away from the king!
Prior to the opening up of the riches and delights of the New World, it was eastern foreigners that supplied the spices and luxury goods emenating from the Spice Islands and fabled Cathay and so desired by the Europeans; but who were these ancient traders and how had they managed to dominate the luxury goods market for 1500 years? The evidence is there; all you have to do is know where to look.
The cost of this study day is £28 and includes coffee & tea and lunch (and West House study day lunches are always good. They do a particularly good Millionaire’s shortbread!)
To book a place please contact: Hon.Sec.firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to sharing some of my research with you at West House, Pinner on Saturday 7th December 2019.