Monday, December 16, 2013

Flemish Contributions to Columbus’ “Discovery” of America – Part 3

The fishmonger in 16th century Flanders

Today I am in Halifax, Nova Scotia on business (nothing to do with Flanders unfortunately). This is a place with an unshakable dependence on the sea and whose history is intimately tied into fishing. Flanders, a maritime nation, played a role in Europe’s seaborne history. Flemish expertise at maritime navigation – and the Flemish innovations that arose as a result – made a direct contribution to Columbus’ ability to ‘discover’ the New World. It is therefore appropriate that I continue my series (please see Part 1  and Part 2 ) with a reference to Columbus’ reliance on Flemish nautical innovations.

16th century European fishermen off of newfoundland

Fish and Flemings
As historian David B. Quinn has demonstrated, it is likely that Columbus sailed to Iceland and fished for cod.[i] In two places (his son’s biography and Columbus’ own annotations on the world map printed at Leuven) Columbus noted the corpses of two Inuit he saw washed ashore on the Irish coast, perhaps in the year 1477.[ii] The sight of their Asian features helped convince him Asia was not far off.[iii]   The amalgamation of these experiences – codfishing, proximity to northern fishing grounds, and the essential skills involved in navigating such waters – had an impact on Columbus’ calculations for the journey from Europe to Japan.[iv]

Beginning in the late Middle Ages meatless fast days occupied large swathes of Catholic Europe’s calendar – in some jurisdictions as many as 135 days of the year.[v] As the number of feast days expanded and populations recovered following the late 14th century bubonic plague of the “Black Death” (which curiously enough, originated in Asia) hit Flanders in 1349, courtesy of an Italian merchant ship, traditional fishing tools and methods were found inadequate.

Coastal regions, of course, could supply their own needs. But inland regions – especially in the warmer lands surrounding the Mediterranean were faced with not only the need to supplant meat but also the diffculty of spoilage. Consequently, sometime around 1350, Willem Beuckelszoon of Biervliet (then recognized as part of Flanders; today part of Zeeuws Flanders in the Netherlands) is credited with creating a tool to simplify the cleaning process for fish.[vi] 
Codfish in the North Atlantic

But herring – which for which the ‘herring jaws’ were invented – is a fish which must be eaten within a few days of capture, otherwise it spoils.[vii] Fortunately, God created cod.
Cod were a perfect solution to the problem of growing populations and unchanged resources. 

Found in vast schools across the North Atlantic[viii], codfish are high in protein and low in fat (which means that they can be dried and stored for years without becoming rancid).[ix] Perhaps equally important in the success of the cod, it tastes better than other salted fish.[x] Far-roaming (one tagged in the North Sea was later caught 3200 kilometers away, off of Newfoundland),[xi] cod tend to move parallel to coastlines and in waters of 120 feet or less.[xii] Cod became the food for the common man in late medieval Europe.[xiii]
The Flemish Cap, off of the Grand Banks near Newfoundland

While the Flemish may not have pioneered North Atlantic cod fishing, they were certainly involved. Hints of the Flemish importance appear in terminology surrounding cod fishing. Thus, the newly designed lines for catching mass numbers of fish included a “Flemish eye” or knot.[xiv] And the nearest point to Europe off of the Grand Banks, the place where the cod were caught off the Newfoundland coast, was (and still is) called the “Flemish Cap”.[xv] So perhaps it is no surprise that throughout Europe – and especially in southern Europe, where demand was great[xvi] – the term used for cod, ‘bacalos’, is, incidentally, derived from the Flemish term ‘bakkelauw’.[xvii]

Writing about the year 1450, Gilles le Bouvier noted that Icelandic[xviii]  ‘stocphis’ – what the English called ‘stockfish’[xix] and what we today call ‘cod’ – was brought directly to the marketplaces in Bruges and Antwerp.[xx] The vessels fishermen used to catch the cod were called the “Flemish buss”.[xxi] 
A Flemish buss

Maritime power can be projected far beyond the home port. Throughout the 13th century (and likely into the 14th century as well), the Flemish, from at least 37 Flemish ports,[xxii] dominated sea traffic into and around the British Isles.[xxiii] This practical presence led to ritual recognition. A noted authority on flags points out that “The first flags identifying nationality were used at sea. 

The oldest international legal obligation on record for ships to display flags as identification was agreed by King Edward I of England and Guy, Count of Flanders, in 1297.”[xxiv]
None of this proves that the Flemish had first crack at the cod. But it suggests a source for Flemish mastery of maritime mysteries. “The use of the initials of the Frankish names of the winds – N, NNE, NE, etc. – on compass cards, seems to have arisen with Flemish navigators, but was early [1400s] adopted by the Portuguese and Spanish.”[xxv] Parenthetically, the lodestone attached to the compass rose used to navigate was called the ‘Flemish needle’.[xxvi]

“Northern Europeans, particularly the Flemish, were not so casual [about navigation]. They not only wrote about these irregularities but published charts with true sets of losscodrones; one set for Italian compasses and one for Flemish compasses. The Flemish compass lines gave the correct variation.”[xxvii] As cited elsewhere, Columbus intentionally used both to navigate across the Atlantic. Even as late as the 1600s the Portuguese and Spaniards – credited with many of Europes’ overseas conquests during this era – used and adapted Flemish nautical terms.[xxviii]

William Caxton (who spent decades living in Flanders and imported the first English printing presses from Bruges), wrote about the Flemish mariners from a near-coastal point in the 1470s. “The Flemings are mighty, fierce fighters …they engage in trading, especially the wool-trade; they are very ready to risk adventure and danger by sea and by land for the sake of great profit; …they engage in deeds of arms as the occasion demands…They discern reliably what is done in distant lands, signs of peace or war, the state of the realm…”[xxix] Given Caxton’s long association with Flanders such an observation carries heft.

Flemish expertise was recognized by practitioners. Describing the half-century after Columbus, one American writer declared that “the Flemish mariner was distinguished for the intrepid spirit with which he pushed his voyages into distant and unknown seas.”[xxx] Columbus’ own codfishing experiences off the coast of Iceland, then, relied in part – whether overtly acknowledged or not – upon traditions and innovations linked to Flanders. 
Columbus' compass rose

During his first voyage to the New World, Columbus utilized the ‘Flemish needle’[xxxi] as a more reliable guide to ‘true north’. Like other Iberian seafarers he adopted the Flemish-language ‘compass rose’ as a time-and-distance navigational tool.[xxxii] In an attempt to prepare for what to expect when he landed in Cathay, Columbus carried a copy of Marco Polo’s travelogue. Heavily annotated (it is still extant), it was actually printed in Antwerp, in 1485.[xxxiii] All of these were helpful; none were essential.

Maps, for sea travel, are critical. The annotated world map in Columbus’ hands as he strode on the deck of the Santa Maria was printed at Leuven.[xxxiv] This is of greater importance than it seems.
Pierre d'Ailly's map printed at Leuven

From 1472 until 1500 there were 222 maps printed. Of this total, 154 were printed in Italy (and 1 each in Spain and Leuven). To offer another perspective, of the 30,000 books printed in the 15th century, 56 contained maps.[xxxv] Yet, among all the varied and different Italian and Portuguese maps available to this man – brother of a cartographer, no less – Columbus selected the Leuven-printed map as his guide to the New World.[xxxvi]  

My next post will credit the Flemish precursors that he himself acknowledged – and his Flemish seamates and relatives that he did not acknowledge.
A page from Pierre d'Ailly's book printed at Leuven. The notes in the margin are Columbus' handwriting


[i] David Beers Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, 1481-1620, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), pp.71, 105.
[ii] The Leuven-printed map was included in a book called the Imago Mundi. “The Imago Mundi of Pierre d’Ailly is claimed to have been practically the sole source from which Columbus obtained the ideas behind his project of discovery. The marginal notes on the Columbina Library copy of the Imago Mundi are supposed to reveal the steps in the formation of his plans.” George E. Nunn, “The Imago Mundi and Columbus,”pp.646-661, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 40, No.4, July, 1935; published by Oxford University Press,  p.646. Stable URL:  . Accessed: 20/10/2013
[iii]  “His [Columbus’] visit to Galway is attested in his own hand in a marginal note on his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, which still survives. In translation it reads: ‘Men of Cathay have come from the west. [Of this] we have seen many signs. And especially in Galway in Ireland, a man and a woman, of extraordinary appearance, have come to land on two tree trunks [or timbers? Or a boat made of such?]’.” David B. Quinn, “Columbus and the North: England, Iceland, and Ireland” in The William and Mary Quarterly
Third Series, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 278-297. Published by: 
Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Article Stable URL:, p.284
[iv] Surprisingly, given Columbus’ preoccupation with the place,  “Japan first appeared on a Western manuscript map in 1459 – on Fra Mauro’s map of the world – and it began to appear on printed maps in 1506. Until the middle of the sixteenth century, with the arrival of the first Europeans in Japan, its depiction was based solely on the mention in Marco Polo. Hence the various shapes [on maps] were purely the result of fantasy.” Walter Lutz, ed., Japan, A Cartographic Vision: European Printed Maps from the Early 16th to the 19th Century, Steven Lindberg, trans., (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1994), Plate 1, p.93 (unnumbered).
[v] “The introduction of Christianity had an impact on the European diet…[meat] could be prohibited for up to 135 days during the year…the usual alternative was fish.”  J.Wubs-Mrozewicz, Fish, stock and barrel: Changes in the stockfish trade in northern Europe, c. 1360-1560”, in: Sicking, L. et al. (Ed.) (2009). Beyond the Catch: Fisheries of the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, 900-1850. (The Northern World) North Europe and the Baltic c. 400-1700 A.D. Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 41: pp. 187-208 p.188
[vi] There appears to be few references to Beuckelszoon in English  (a NYT article here:  )– and almost none in Dutch (neither in the Kroniek van Belgie, De Geschiednis van de Nederlandsche Stam, nor in the Winkler Prins Encyclopedia van Vlaanderen. A modest reference in Dutch can be found on the website of his hometown (Biervliet, Zeeuws Vlaanderen) here: The best English language summary is here:  “Willem Beukelszoon of Biervliet invented a method of gutting and barreling herring which preserved them for many months. The process was kept secret from other nations, which permitted the Dutch to build up a large export business throughout Europe, since the preserved herring could be eaten on many days of Christian abstinence from meat. The contribution of Beukelszoon was of such importance to the economy that, two hundred years later, the Emperor Charles V formally visited his grave to do him honor and ordered that a monument be raised to his memory as a benefactor of his country.” Charles Mckew Parr, Jan Van Linschoten: The Dutch Marco Polo, (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964), p.5. Note: “Biervliet was at least for a short time the center of the production and the trade in Flemish cured herring.” Richard W. Unger, Ships and Shipping in the North Sea and the Atlantic: 1400-1800, (Alsdsgate, 1997),  p.328. For those who question my inclusion of Willem Beuckelszoon, Richard Unger concurs and offers a plausible argument that the entire tale is a fraud.
[vii] “As early as the end of the 15th century, the large-scale exploitation of cod began on the Newfoundland banks… The great problem was how to preserve and transport the fish.”  Ferdinand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, (New York: HarperCollins, 1973), p.148.
[viii] “The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, flourishes over an enormous area of the North Atlantic, with a modern range from the northern Barents Sea south to the Bay of Biscay, around Iceland and the southern tip of Greenland, and along the North American coast as far south as North Carolina. Streamlined and abundant, it grows to a large size, has nutricious, bland flesh, and is easily cooked. It is also easily salted and dried, an important consideration when the major markets for salt cod were far from the fishing grounds, and often in the Mediterranean. When dried, cod meat is almost 80 percent protein.” Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p.70.
[ix] The Atlantic cod “preserves unusually well because its white flesh is almost entirely devoid of fat. Fat resists salt and slows the rate at which salt impregnates fish. This is why oily fish, after salting, must be tightly pressed in barrels to be preserved, whereas cod can be simply laid in salt. Also fatty fish cannot be exposed to air in curing because the fat will become rancid. Cod, along with its relatives including haddock and whiting, can be air-dried before salting, which makes for a particularly effective cure that would be difficult with oily fish such as anchovy or herring.” Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History, (New York: Penguin, 2003), p.114.
[x] “Not only did cod last longer than other salted fish, it tasted better too.” Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, (New York: Penguin, 1997), pp.22-23.
[xi] “The record for long-distance travel belongs to a cod tagged in the North Sea in June 1957 and caught on the Grand Banks in January 1962 after a journey of about 3,200 kilometers.” Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World, (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p.228.
[xii] “Cod migrate for spawning, moving into still-shallower [less than 120 feet deep] water close to coastlines, seeking warmer spawning grounds and making it even easier to catch them.” Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, (New York: Penguin, 1997), p.42.
[xiii]  “It can be said that cod [was] the acknowledged staple food supply for the ordinary people.” Louis Sicking & Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, eds., Beyond the Catch: Fisheries of the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, 900-1850, (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p.269.
[xiv] “The Flemish Eye is the best method to attach hooks to multi strand wire. Its looseness acts like a spring and takes the pressure off the crimped sleeve.” Accessed August 12, 2013.
[xv] “The eastern most extension of what we today call the Outer Banks, the rich fishing grounds off of the coast of Newfoundland, have traditionally been called the “Flemish Cap”. This is the closest North Atlantic fishing ground for Europeans. European fishermen could fish there literally year-round. Even today, fishermen, when making for the Flemish Cap from Europe, would often say, “We are headed for Flemish.” Rosa Garcia-Orellan, TerraNova: The Spanish Cod Fishery on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the Twentieth Century, (Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press, 2010), p.222.
[xvi] ”The Mediterranean Sea could not supply enough fish on its own, so countries in Northern Europe became a major source of fish for the region – primarily cod. Salt cod was traded for various goods including wine, cloth, spices and salt. When word arrived at the end of the 1400s of abundant codfish on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, fishermen were quick to respond.” RWA Rodger & S Spurrell, The Fisheries of North America (2006), p.1.
[xvii] “’Bacalao’ was the southern European name for cod, deriving from the Flemish word for cod, bakkeljaw.” Callum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007), p.382.
[xviii] Lest we think this unconnected with Nordic America, the term “buss” is derived from the Old Norse ‘buza’. See William Sayers, “Ships and Sailors in Geiffrei Gaimar's ‘Estoire des Engleis’” Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 299-310; p.307 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Stable URL: .
[xix] In Greenland and Iceland, “Stockfish, that is wind-dried cod… was split open and hung on a length of wood called a stokkr, hence the name stockfish.”Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland, (New York: Penguin, 2001), pp.52-53.
[xx] E.T. Hamy, Le Livre de la Description des Pays de Gilles Le Bouvier, (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1908), p.104. Source: Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France.  Accessed August 10, 2013.
[xxi] “A Flemish Buss doth often take seven or eight Last [=14-16 tonnes] of herrings in a day. But if GOD gave a Buss, one day with another, but two Last of herrings a day, that is, twelve Last of herrings in a week; then at that rate, a Buss may take, dress, and pack the said whole Proportion of a hundred Last  [200 tonnes] of herrings (propounded to be hoped for), in eight weeks and two days, And yet is herein[after] allowance made for victuals and wages for sixteen weeks, as after followeth. Of which sixteen weeks time, if there be spent in rigging and furnishing the said Buss to sea, and in sailing from her port to her fishing-place; if these businesses, I say, spend two weeks of the time, and that the other two weeks be also spent in returning to her port after her fishing season, and in unrigging and laying up the Buss: then I say (of the sixteen weeks above allowed for) there will be twelve weeks to spend only in fishing the herring.” Edward Arber, Social England Illustrated, a Collection of XVIIth Century Tracts With an Introduction by Andrew Lang, (Westminister: Archibald Constable & Co., 1903), Forgotten Books Classic Reprint, p.284.   In general the Flemish buss was a modest vessel and after 1600 almost exclusively for fishing. However, “a buss of [the year]1523 was rated at over 200 tons. In 1570 there was a report of a buss which could bring home a catch of 140 tons. But from the 1570s size decreased and vessels of about 100 tons or less became the rule. The buss of those years would approach 25 meters in length and be over 5 meters broad with a depth of over 3 meters.”  Richard W. Unger, Dutch Shipbuilding Before 1800, (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1978), p.30. In fairness, Richard Unger states that “the buss was built for use in herring fishing…[and] the herring buss appeared at Hoorn in the year before the introduction of the big drag net, that is in 1415.” Richard W. Unger, Dutch Shipbuilding Before 1800, (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1978), p.29.
[xxii] In Medieval Flanders, there were “at least 37 smaller and greater ports” along the coast from Calais to Ostend that sent forth fishing fleets for cod. Dries Tys & Marnix Pieters, “Understanding a Medieval Fishing Settlement Along the Southern North Sea: Walraversijde, c.1200-1630,”Chapter 3 (pp. ) in Louis Sicking & Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, eds., Beyond the Catch: Fisheries of the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, 900-1850, (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p.92.
[xxiii] “Into the thirteenth century Flemish boats dominated the carrying trade in the English Channel and to Gascony.” David Nichols, - David Nicholas, “Of Poverty and Primacy: Demand, Liquidity, and the Flemish Economic Miracle, 1050-1200”, The American Historical Review ,Vol. 96, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), pp. 17-41, p.33  Published by: The University of Chicago Press  Article Stable URL:
[xxiv] Alfred Znamierowski, The World Encyclopedia of Flags, (Leicester: Anness, 2008), p.44.
[xxv] Silvanus P. Thompson, "The Rose of the Winds: The Origin and Development of the Compass- Card," Proceedings of the British Academy 6 (London, 1918).
[xxvi] In fairness to the French (or Walloons), it appears that it  was actually a Picard (Pierre de Maricourt aka Petrus Peregrinus) who discovered the navigational benefits of the lodestone, while doing siege work for the French king in 1269. Lloyd A. Brown, The Story of Maps, (New York: Dover, 1977); reprint of the 1949 edition; p.128.
[xxvii] Christopher Columbus, The Log of Christopher Columbus, ed. & trans. By Robert H. Fuson, (Intl Marine Pub, 1991), p.42
[xxviii] Pedro de Medina, a cosmographer resident in Seville and attached to the Casa de Contratacion (which ensured pilots’ navigational tools were accurate and collected data from returning ships) published the early modern ‘Bibles’ of navigation:  Libro de cosmographia (in 1538) and  Arte de navegar (in 1545). In all of his books – which continued to be used for more than 150 years by Iberian mariners – the Dutch language terms for the compass are used. See for example pp.61,115,152,153, etc. of Pedro de Medina, A Navigator’s Universe: The Libro de Cosmographia of 1538, Ursula Lamb, trans. & ed., (London: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
[xxix] William Caxton (1418-1492), the man who literally brought the first printing press to England – learned the craft of printing at Bruges under the tutelage of a Fleming, .  Caxton: The Description of Britain by William Caxton; edited by Marie Collins , pp.109 & 114.
[xxx] William Hickling Prescott, The History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1883), p. 309.
[xxxi] “Northern Europeans, particularly the Flemish, were not so casual [about navigation]. They not only wrote about these irregularities but published charts with true sets of losscodrones; one set for Italian compasses and one for Flemish compasses. The Flemish compass lines gave the correct variation.” Christopher Columbus, The Log of Christopher Columbus, ed. & trans. By Robert H. Fuson, (Intl Marine Pub, 1991), p.42. Columbus’ realization that there is a difference between true and magnetic north aided his trans-Atlantic navigation. The best overview of this topic can be found in Lloyd A. Brown, The Story of Maps, (New York: Dover, 1977); reprint of the 1949 edition; pp.132-134.
[xxxii] Silvanus P. Thompson, "The Rose of the Winds: The Origin and Development of the Compass- Card," Proceedings of the British Academy 6 (London, 1918).
[xxxiii] “It was in fact an Antwerp edition [of Marco Polo’s Travels] from circa 1485 that Polo’s Genoese successor, Christopher Columbus, read and carefully annotated in preparation for his own historic voyage.”
Benjamin Schmid, The Dutch Imagination and the New World, 1570-1670, (New York: Cambridge U Press, 2006), p.9. An open page of Columbus’ annotated copy of Il Milinone can be viewed here: accessed August 4, 2013.
[xxxiv] It was a Pierre d’Ailly world map printed in 1483 which appears in De imagine mundi et alii tractatus, (Leuven: Johannes de Westfalia, 1483). “This was the only map to be printed in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century.” Tony Campbell, The Earliest Printed Maps: 1472-1500, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p.87. Popular references to this book usually call it the "Imago Mundi". Columbus clearly depended upon the map and the book in which it was included. According to one authority, "he made no fewer than 848 marginal notes and calculations" in the Imago Mundi. See Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise  , (New York: Plume, 1991), p.30. For the record, historian Hugh Thomas dismisses the idea that the map Columbus carried on board was the famous Toscanelli map. See Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, (London: Phoenix, 2004),  paperback ed., p.103.
[xxxv] Tony Campbell, The Earliest Printed Maps: 1472-1500, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p.9.
[xxxvi] Data extracted from Tony Campbell, The Earliest Printed Maps: 1472-1500, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987),  Appendix, Table 2 “Summaries”, p.234. Note: this is not to say that Columbus did not own other maps – although the only reference I have seen to Columbus owning any other map explicitly is a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography, printed at Rome in 1478. See Toby Lester, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, (New York: Free Press, 2009), p.336.

Copyright 2013 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written permission.

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