"By Compass and Sword!"

The Meanings of 1492

by Resat Kasaba
published in MER178

It is hard not to be impressed by the changes that took place in the world during the second half of the fifteenth century. Bartolomeu Diaz rounded the southern cape of Africa in 1488; Columbus completed his first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492; Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498; and the first circumnavigation of the earth, begun under Magellan’s command in 1519, was completed in 1522. The succession of events was so swift, and their individual and combined effects so far-reaching, that we sometimes forget that they took place in the middle of a period when the European economic and political system itself was restructured thoroughly, as its economic center of gravity moved from the Mediterranean coastal region to the northwest corner of Europe. As a result of this historic shift, the Near East and North Africa lost the privileged position they had occupied in world trade for many centuries. In the course of the sixteenth century, the parcelized political landscape of Europe was replaced by several centralized empires and states. These states extended their economic and political influence to Asia and the Americas while engaging in lengthy struggles for hegemony in Europe. “By the compass and by the sword! More and more and more and more” read the caption for a sixteenth-century etching that depicts a Spanish captain with one hand on his sword and the other holding a pair of compasses atop a globe. [1]

Like any other major historical change, the explorations of the late fifteenth century and the more general restructuring of Europe meant different things to different peoples and regions. Of those who participated in them, some benefited, some did not; some tried to facilitate these changes, and others to slow them down; large numbers of people willingly moved across great distances in order to take part in these transformations, while others were engaged by force. European historiography has recently begun to nuance its rendition of this history by taking into account these varied experiences; the newer approaches have served “to bring” indigenous Americans, Caribbeans and Africans “back in.” But one important aspect of these changes continues to be left out of most writings on this topic. This is the question of what happened in and around the southern and eastern Mediterranean coastal region as the European center of gravity shifted elsewhere.

When the Near East and North Africa are mentioned at all in conjunction with the explorations, it is usually in order to describe the role played by the Muslims in preparing the ground for these achievements. We know, for example, that many of the navigational instruments used by Columbus, including the magnetic compass which was his most important tool, were developed by Arabs. We also know that Columbus was influenced (and, it seems, misled) by the calculations of the ninth-century Muslim astronomer, Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad al-Farghani (known in Europe as Alfranganus or Alfrangano) in estimating the size of the globe. [2] On a more general level, many of the classical texts which Columbus and his contemporaries read had been preserved by the Arabs during Europe’s Dark Ages and were translated back into European languages during the fifteenth century. Finally, starting with Seville, most of the southern European cities owed much of their initial wealth and prominence to their trade with North Africa and the Levant as mediated by Muslim Arabs.

Such correctives take some wind out of arguments that insist on seeing the discoveries as another triumph of the Western spirit. But the relevance of the Near East and North Africa to these events is not limited to the compass, the astrolabe and the maps created by Muslim scholars. The very transformations that restructured Europe and unified the North Atlantic economy also relegated a large chunk of what had been the center of the old world to the status of a backwater. By the end of the sixteenth century, the people and civilizations of the eastern and southern Mediterranean coastal region had become the objects of a generalized sense of fear and hostility in the new world order that was taking shape, a position which they have continued to occupy ever since.

Boundaries and Communities

Popular accounts often trace the origin of the hostility between Europe and the Near East back to the Crusades. While there may have been some continuities between the medieval and early modern era in this respect, overemphasizing such links yields a distorted picture. Geographically, and in terms of patterns of settlements and human migrations, it is not easy to demarcate the boundaries between Europe, North Africa and Asia. There are many zones where the three continents overlap economically, politically and culturally. At different times in history, depending on regional and global conditions, relations among them have been more or less distant and more or less hostile. It is not accurate to treat these continents as completely separate land masses (which they are not), nor is it appropriate to portray the nature of their contacts as intrinsically antagonistic.

A good way of imagining how they were linked is to start with the Mediterranean Sea and think about a series of interlocking and overlapping human communities that extended to Asia and Africa from around its coastline. Columbus himself was a product of this fluid environment. Being from Genoa, he had access to one of the most advanced networks of trading communities of his time. Unlike the Venetians, the Genoese did not have imperial designs, which made them less of a threat to established and aspiring political authorities and allowed them to be equally active as traders in the eastern and western Mediterranean. Between the early 1470s and the mid-1480s, Columbus, with his Genoese connections, was able to travel across the Mediterranean and the known parts of the Atlantic, as far away as Iceland. [3]

The pattern of settlement and migration of communities such as the Genoese, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Arabs around the Mediterranean formed the three main passages that cut across the constantly changing political boundaries and linked Europe with Asia during the late medieval period. The first of these passages followed a northerly route linking the Asian steppes with the area above the Black Sea. The second passage had two branches; one connected the Persian Gulf with the Syrian-Palestinian coast, the other with Anatolia through Tabriz. The third was the southern route that passed through the Red Sea and continued on to Cairo and Alexandria, and into the Mediterranean Sea. [4]

During the 100 years that preceded the European expansion in the fifteenth century, Europe and the Near East lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in their history. The Mongol expansion that had dominated world history in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries split into several branches which were absorbed by competing local cultures in Asia, on the northern Black Sea coast and in Persia. What had been the unified land mass of the largest empire in human history, covering contemporary China, Russia and east-central Europe, was gradually carved up into smaller entities and began to resemble the landscape of feudal Europe.

The period was also marked by the devastating effects of the plague epidemic, which reduced the population of Europe alone by more than two fifths. The effects of declining populations in Europe and the Near East were exacerbated by changing climatic conditions in Europe. As the feudal era drew to a close, with their shrinking populations, smaller cities, abandoned fields and internecine struggles among lords, dukes and kings, European states were in no position to take the initiative in reunifying the world and keeping open the passages between Europe and Asia. In fact, at the threshold of the early modern era, Asia and Europe seemed to be moving further away from each other, separated by a “steppe frontier” area that belonged to no one. [5] It was this growing vacuum that the Ottoman Empire started to fill during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

One of the many myths of early modern European historiography is the argument that the Europeans were forced to turn away from the Mediterranean and seek new ways of reaching Asia because the Ottomans, having established a firm control over most of the Near East, were blocking the existing routes. It has been more than 40 years since Fernand Braudel attempted to correct this mistake. “The time has surely come to turn on its head that hoary and misleading explanation...that it was the Turkish conquest which stimulated the great discoveries,” he wrote. “After all the Turkish occupation of Egypt in January 1517 did not occur until 20 years after Vasco da Gama had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope.” [6] Nevertheless, most writings on the subject continue to relate these two events in a routine fashion.

This is not to say that there was no relationship between Ottoman expansion and European explorations. The Ottomans were well acquainted with Asia’s wealth, especially through their extensive contacts with India. They also understood the significance of the land and sea passages between Asia and Europe. In fact, the pattern of their expansion suggests a systematic effort at capturing all the outlets to Asia. At the same time, however, there is little evidence that the Ottomans tried to establish a monopoly over these routes or to discourage the flow of long-distance trade across their territories. They did set up an elaborate system to monitor this trade in order to secure the provisioning of urban markets and to tax mercantile wealth. These purposes could be served only by encouraging, not hindering, the movement of goods. To this end, they provided security in ports and on overland routes, built and maintained roads and inns, allowed considerable freedom of trade to local merchants, and cooperated with foreign merchants. Therefore, even if the Ottomans had succeeded in controlling all the passages between Asia and Europe, it is far from clear that this would have entailed a suspension or diversion of Euro-Asian trade. On the contrary, in earlier centuries, whenever these lands fell under the control of a single power, commercial conditions improved, since such regimes usually suppressed piracy and improved the safety of caravan routes. This had been the case under the Romans, the Arab caliphates and the Mongols.

Fault Line

Even though chronology does not support a causal relationship between the Ottoman conquests and European explorations, and even though the Ottomans were not bent on obstructing Euro-Asian trade, the portrayal of the Turks as a dangerous and alien force that was slowly encroaching on Europe became one of the most pervasive and enduring images of early modern Europe. Part of the European fear of the Turks derived from the speed with which the Ottoman Empire spread in the Balkans and completely captured the Byzantine Empire, including Constantinople. As Europe was emerging from its 100 years of regression, the Ottomans had become the power to be reckoned with in the Near East.

In addition to further complicating an already unstable balance of power, the Ottoman victories increased the urgency of creating a sense of collective identity for the Europeans. Given their disparate histories, it was impossible to construct a single European experience to serve as a unifying principle. After all, the European states were in a continuous state of war with each other for over 100 years between 1338 and 1453. Even the Church, which could conceivably have become such a force, would soon lose its unity and itself become a source of an extremely divisive and destructive conflict.

In the absence of an easily identifiable collective experience that could give Europe a sense of cohesion, the Europeans rejuvenated feelings of mistrust and antagonism by defining Islam (and to a lesser extent Judaism) not only as non-Christian but also as non-European. Just as the last Iberian Arab kingdom was defeated in Granada and pushed out of Spain, the Ottomans, with their successes, appeared to be realizing the worst nightmare of the Europeans. After many years of trying in Portugal and Spain, Columbus finally succeeded in finding support for his travels by appealing to this newly galvanized fear of Islam in Europe. He addressed the Castilian crown as “Catholic Christians who love the holy Christian faith and...augmenters thereof and foes of the sect of Muhammad.” [7] To the courts in Iberia, Columbus promised not a new continent, not even a new island, but the possibility of circumventing the Muslim-held territories en route to Asia and eventually using Asian wealth to capture Jerusalem. It is not surprising that he found a sympathetic audience in Isabella and Ferdinand. A long tradition especially strong in the Aragonese court linked millenarianism with the ambition to rule in Jerusalem and eventually to create a united world empire. [8]

The ideological fault line that separated Africa, Asia and Europe from each other was reinforced from the other side by the Ottomans as well. Like any state or empire, the Ottoman rulers needed to cultivate a sense of identity among their subjects and a principle of legitimation for their rule. They represented their endeavor not in terms of cold political goals and calculations, but in terms of carrying out the Prophet’s mission. In the early sixteenth century they made the dubious claim that the title of the caliphate belonged to the Ottoman sultan, and brought some of Muhammad’s personal possessions from Egypt and Arabia to Istanbul. While their day-to-day imperial practice was decidedly pragmatic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious, in their official discourse and in their dealings with other states the Ottomans maintained a facade of religious puritanism and a self-righteous anti-Europeanism. All this provided the Europeans with an easily identifiable cause for unity and, more importantly, a clear demarcation between the Europeans and non-Europeans.

The explorations of the late fifteenth century and the unification of the North Atlantic economies that followed involved the increased circulation of goods, people and money across ever greater distances in the world. The bottlenecks of the late medieval economy were removed and Europe embarked on a long period of economic expansion. Looking back at the upward and outward trend that has remained unbroken until the twentieth century, analysts have dated the beginnings of the modern era in the mid-fifteenth century. As an aspect of this interpretation, Columbus himself sometimes is portrayed as the first modern man, and the explorations he and his contemporaries carried out as the first modern project. According to this argument, Columbus’ life consisted of one long period of preparation, followed by experiments in the Mediterranean and along Europe’s Atlantic coast, and finally the implementation of his scientific project.

Just as new studies have effectively questioned the triumphant rendering of the story of “discoveries,” so the character of Columbus and the nature of his mission have lately come under close scrutiny. It is now clear, for example, that Columbus was motivated more by a desperate desire for personal advancement and enrichment than by the pursuit of a scientific idea. We also know more about his mistakes. Most of the time, Columbus relied not on scientific evidence but on Biblical passages to bolster his claims about geography.

Discoveries and Divisions

Perhaps the most difficult part of the historical record to reconcile with the image of the daring mariner who was far ahead of his time is Columbus’ conduct in the New World. He was a grossly incompetent administrator and barbarously brutal in his dealings with indigenous peoples. Far from diminishing, his millenarian and apocalyptic prophecies intensified as he made further trips to the Caribbean. “As I hope for heaven, I swear that everything I have gained, even from my first voyage, with our Lord’s help, shall be offered to him in equal measure for the expedition to Arabia Felix, even to Mecca,” he wrote after his fourth crossing in 1499. [9]

After five trips, toward the end of his life, he stated, “This world is small.... The experience has now proved it.” [10] Columbus’ refusal to change his mistaken beliefs even in the face of “evidence” from his own travels is indicative of the rigid intellectual outlook of his time. He was the product of an age whose legal, religious, political and cultural systems simply did not have any room for a “new continent” or a hitherto unknown race. Instead of questioning their belief systems, Columbus and his patrons tried to fit their findings into these systems. When it became apparent that such attempts were futile, those in positions of authority became narrower, harsher and more exclusionary in their vision and methods. The “discoveries” of the late fifteenth century, instead of opening and broadening the European mind, further closed it. [11] Most of the new information about the world was used to create new ways of dividing and compartmentalizing humanity.

Sometimes studies of the accelerated unification of the world economy through trade, migration and movements of capital after the sixteenth century tend to overlook how divisive this process has been from its very early phases. One aspect of this divisiveness had to do with the Europeans’ interactions with the indigenous peoples of the New World. Starting from Columbus’ first voyage, the question was posed as to whether the people he met were human beings, and as such whether they were qualified to receive God’s grace. Columbus’ answer was a qualified “yes”: they were fully human and rational, hence suitable for conversion, but being simple, they were easily dominated. [12] Some of the pseudo-scientific arguments that Europeans have used to justify their colonial practices all over the world were originally put forth by Spaniards as they interacted with indigenous Americans. “The Indians can be said to be slaves of the Spaniards,” a mining expert explained to the Spanish king toward the end of the sixteenth century. “Nature specially proportioned their bodies, so that they should have the strength for personal service. The Spaniards, on the other hand, are delicately proportioned, and were prudent and clever, so that they should lead a political and civil life.” [13] Like others after them, the Castilians interpreted the success of their colonial exploits as proof that they were the chosen race. [14]

The other important division of this period relates to the ideological fault line between Islam/Near East/North Africa and Europe. The processes that unified the North Atlantic world into a system of trade and production also severed the Mediterranean from the central zone of these activities. Even the Spaniards and the Portuguese who were the main intermediaries of this integration ended up reaping few of its benefits. The economies of these over-extended states were so weakened that they had to pass most of the American silver they acquired on to the Dutch and German bankers to whom they were heavily indebted. The Italians failed to compete with these newer centers in the northwest because in places like Venice the better-organized guilds managed to keep not only prices but also wages high, thereby cutting into the profitability of manufacturing. In other words, the Mediterranean which the Ottomans were striving to capture and control had already lost much of its previous appeal. The Ottomans were not totally oblivious to this fact. In the History of the West Indies, written for Sultan Murad III around 1580, we read: “Within 20 years, the Spanish people conquered all the islands and captured 40,000 people, and killed thousands of them. Let us hope to God that sometime these valuable lands will be conquered by Islam, and will be inhabited by Moslems and become part of the Ottoman lands.” [15]

The divisions that can be traced back to the sixteenth century continue to cast their shadow onto contemporary Europe. During the Spanish civil war, the worst insult one could use was to call someone a Moor. [16] Today, people from southern Europe are still considered to be lesser Europeans. As for Turks and North Africans, they clearly fall on the other side of the invisible line that encircles and defines Europe proper.


[1] J. H. Elliott, The Old World and The New (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 53.
[2] William Phillips and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 109; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 31.
[3] Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. 6; see also Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Before Columbus (London: Macmillan, 1987), ch. 4.
[4] Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 137-151.
[5] William McNeill, Europe’s Steppe Frontier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).
[6] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean, vol. 2 (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 666-667.
[7] Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. 45.
[8] Ibid., pp. 49-50.
[9] Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. 150; Phillips and Rahn Phillips, pp. 124-125.
[10] Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. 174.
[11] Elliott, p. 15.
[12] Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus, p. 83.
[13] Elliott, p. 44.
[14] Ibid., p. 94.
[15] Ibid., p. 88.
[16] Fernandez-Armesto, Before Columbus, p. 56.

Filed under: