The Western Sea: Atlantic History before Columbus

The Western Sea: Atlantic History before Columbus

By Donna A. Vinson

The Northern Mariner, Vol.10:3 (July 2000)

Early 17th century map of the Atlantic Ocean by Pierre de Vaulx

Introduction: The New World was a sudden and startling discovery for Christopher Columbus and his immediate successors, but its portal was not unfamiliar to the mariners of late medieval Europe. The process by which the mysterious and murky “Realm of Ocean” at the western edge of European civilization was transformed into the “western sea” of the late middle ages, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean of Mercator, was gradual and an important but neglected chapter in the developing field of Atlantic history. This process was both less dramatic and less straightforward than the development of the Atlantic system after Columbus, yet it also involved exploration, encounter and exchange, as well as the interplay of geographic perceptions and reality.

Most studies of the “Atlantic World” begin with the era of Columbus, thus presenting his expeditions as the initiation, rather than the continuation or even culmination, of a much longer process.’ This is understandable, given the field’s emphasis on the flow and exchange of commodities, people, institutions and ideas between the Old and New Worlds on either side of the Atlantic, but such a perspective slights the role of the late medieval era in European and world history. Atlantic history emphasizes linkages, but before the Atlantic Ocean linked the eastern and western hemispheres, it connected southern and northern Europe, and their respective Mediterranean and North Atlantic maritime “worlds.”

This connection was both crucial to and representative of what Felipe Fernândez-Armesto has called the “discovery of Atlantic space,” a process which involved not only discovery but also definition and diffusion. From the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, the “European Atlantic” was traversed, explored, charted, and consequently defined; in the process the diffusion of navigational, cartographic, and geographic knowledge created an integrated community of European mariners who formed the core of an emerging Atlantic community.

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