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"By Compass and Sword!

" -- The Meanings of 1492


Author(s): Resat Kasaba
Source: Middle East Report, No. 178, 1492+500 (Sep. - Oct., 1992), pp. 6-10
Published by: Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3012980
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"By

Compass

and

Sword!"

The

Re$at

Meanings

of

1492

Kasaba

Resat Kasaba is associateprofessor


Studiesat the
ofInternational
ofWashington.
University

is hard not to be impressed by the changes that took


It place in the world during the second half of the 15th
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, be?
in
command
under
1519, was completed
gun
Magellan's
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 cen?
coastal re?
ter of gravity moved from the Mediterranean
a
result of
to
the
northwest
corner
of
As
gion
Europe.
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 16th century, the
parcellized political landscape of Europe was replaced by
several centralized empires and states. These states ex?
tended their economic and political influence to Asia and
the Americas while engaging in lengthy struggles for he?
gemony in Europe. "By the compass and by the sword/
More and more and more and more" reads the caption
for a 16th 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
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Like any other major historical change, the explora?


tions of the late 15th century and the more general re?
structuring 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 ap?
proaches 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 hap?
pened in and around the southern and eastern Mediter?
ranean 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
of the 9th-century
seems, misled) by the calculations
Muslim astronomer, Abu al-'Abbas Ahmad al-Farghani
(known in Europe as Alfranganus or Alfrangano) in esti?
mating the size of the globe.2 On a more general level,
many of the classical texts which Columbus and his con?
temporaries read had been preserved by the Arabs dur?
ing Europe's Dark Ages and were translated back into
European
languages
during the 15th century. Finally,
starting with Seville, most of the southern European cit?
ies owed much of their initial wealth and prominence to
their trade with North Africa and the Levant as medi?
ated 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 rel?
egated a large chunk of what had been the center of the
old world to the status of a backwater. By the end of the
16th 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, over?
emphasizing such links yields a distorted picture. Geo?
graphically, and in terms of patterns of settlements and
human migrations, it is not easy to demarcate the bound?
aries between Europe, North Africa and Asia. There are
many zones where the three continents overlap economi?
cally, politically and culturally. At different times in his?
tory, depending on regional and global conditions, rela?
tions among them have been more or less distant and
more or less hostile. It is not accurate to treat these con?
tinents 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
Sea and think about a se?
start with the Mediterranean
ries of interlocking and overlapping human communities
that extended to Asia and Africa from around its coast?
line. Columbus himself was a product of this fluid envi?
ronment. 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 communi?
ties such as the Genoese, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and
Arabs around the Mediterranean
formed the three main
that
across
cut
the
constantly changing politi?
passages
cal 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 Syr?
ian-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 Alex?
Sea.4
andria, and into the Mediterranean
During the 100 years that preceded the European ex?
pansion in the 15th 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 13th and early 14th centuries split into
several branches which were absorbed by competing lo?
cal 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 contempo?
rary China, Russia and east-central Europe, was gradu?
ally 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 de?
clining populations in Europe and the Near East were

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passages between Asia and Europe. In fact, the pattern


of their expansion suggests a systematic effort at captur?
ing all the outlets to Asia. At the same time, however,
there is little evidence that the Ottomans tried to estab?
lish 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 pas?
sages 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 re?
gimes usually suppressed piracy and improved the safety
of caravan routes. This had been the case under the Ro?
mans, the Arab Caliphates and the Mongols.

Fault
exacerbated by changing climatic conditions in Europe.
As the feudal era drew to a close, with their shrinking
smaller
fields and
cities, abandoned
populations,
internecine struggles among lords, dukes and kings, Eu?
ropean states were in no position to take the initiative in
reunifying the world and keeping open the passages be?
tween 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 grow?
ing vacuum that the Ottoman Empire started to fill dur?
ing the 14th and 15th 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, hav?
ing 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 discover?
ies," he wrote. "After all the Turkish occupation of Egypt
in January 1517 did not occur until twenty 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 be?
tween 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
8

Line

Even though chronology does not support a causal rela?


tionship 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
As Europe was emerging from its 100
Constantinople.
of
years
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
Given their disparate histories, it was im?
Europeans.
possible 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 ex?
tremely divisive and destructive conflict.
In the absence of an easily identifiable collective expe?
rience that could give Europe a sense of cohesion, the
Europeans rejuvenated feelings of mistrust and antago?
nism 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 sucMiddle East Report ? September-October 1992

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cesses, appeared to be realizing the worst nightmare of


the Europeans.
After many years of trying in Portugal
and Spain, Columbus finally succeeded in finding sup?
port 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
thereof and foes of the sect of
and...augmentors
Muhammad."7 To the courts in Iberia, Columbus prom?
ised 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 iden?
tity 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 16th
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 multireligious, in their official discourse and in their dealings
with other states the Ottomans maintained a facade of
and a self-righteous
anti-Euroreligious puritanism
All
this
the
with
an easily
peanism.
provided
Europeans
identifiable cause for unity and, more importantly, a clear
demarcation between the Europeans and non-Europeans.
The explorations of the late 15th century and the uni?
fication 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 ex?
pansion. Looking back at the upward and outward trend
that has remained unbroken until the 20th century, ana?
lysts have dated the beginnings of the modern era in the
mid-15th century. As an aspect of this interpretation,
Columbus himself sometimes is portrayed as the first
modern man, and the explorations he and his contempo?
raries 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 ex?
ample, that Columbus was motivated more by a desper?
ate 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 bol?
ster 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
with indigenous
brutal in his dealings
barbarously
and apoca?
Far
from
his
millenarian
diminishing,
peoples.
intensified
made
further
as
he
trips to
lyptic prophecies
the Caribbean. "As I hope for heaven, I swear that every?
thing I have gained, even from my first voyage, with our

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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, towards 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 ques?
tioning their belief systems, Columbus and his patrons
tried to fit their findings into these systems. When it be?
came apparent that such attempts were futile, those in
positions of authority became narrower, harsher and more
exclusionary in their vision and methods. The "discover?
ies" of the late 15th century, instead of opening and broad?
ening 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 16th 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 Euro?
peans' 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 suit?
able for conversion, but being simple, they were easily
dominated.12 Some of the pseudo-scientific
arguments
which Europeans have used to justify their colonial prac?
tices all over the world were originally put forth by Span?
iards as they interacted with indigenous Americans. "The
Indians can be said to be slaves of the Spaniards," a min?
ing expert explained to the Spanish king toward the end
of the 16th century. "Nature specially proportioned their
bodies, so that they should have the strength for per?
sonal service. The Spaniards, on the other hand, are deli-

10

cately 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 prof?
itability of manufacturing. In other words, the Mediter?
ranean 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 twenty years, the Span?
ish people conquered all the islands and captured forty
thousand 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 16th cen?
tury 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.
Footnotes
1 J.H.Elliott,
TheOldWorld
andTheNew(Cambridge:
Press,
Cambridge
University
1992),
p.53.
Columbus
2 William
andCarlaRahnPhillips,
TheWorlds
(Cam?
ofChristopher
Phillips
Columbus
Press,1992),
bridge:
Cambridge
University
p. 109;FelipeFernandez-Armesto,
Oxford
(Oxford:
Press,1992),
University
p.31.
Colum?
3 Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
Before
p.6;seealsoFelipeFernandez-Armesto,
Ch.4.
bus(London:
1987),
Macmillan,
4 Janet
Oxford
(Oxford:
Press,1989),
University
Abu-Lughod,
Before
European
Hegemony
pp.137-151.
ofChicago
5 William
Frontier
Press,1964).
McNeill,
University
Europe's
Steppe
(Chicago:
II (NewYork:Harper
andRow,1973),
6 Fernand
TheMediterranean,
Volume
Braudel,
pp.666-667.
7 Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
p.45.
8 Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
pp.49-50.
andRahnPhillips,
9 Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
p. 150;Phillips
pp.124-125.
10Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
p. 174.
11Elliott,
p.15.
12Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
p.83.
13Elliott,
p.44.
14Elliott,
p.94.
15Elliott,
p.88.
16Fernandez-Armesto,
Columbus,
Before
p.56.
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