January 9, 1493 Mermaids

Mr. Columbus seems not to have been impressed with his mermaids, describing these particular creatures as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Pax Romana”. The “Roman Peace”. A period between the 1st and 2nd century AD when the force of Roman arms subdued nearly all, who would stand against them.

Unsurprisingly, the conquered peoples described the period, somewhat differently. Sometime around 84AD Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland said, “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century. The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, a time when one could travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east. Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes. It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

Over time the “Black Death” and Mongol fracturing along political lines brought the Pax Mongolica to an end. Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible. Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth. Otherwise, cats would have pushed everything over the edge by now.

The fact that the world is round was understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong. In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands. He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China). Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass while the Americas were left out, altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him, in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but by 1492, they were ready. The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By the new year the expedition had been at sea for six months. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola on January 9, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were almost certainly Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”. “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology. These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors fell into hypnosis, dashing ships on the rocks in vain efforts to reach them.

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these particular mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder. These marine herbivores measure 10 to 13-feet from nose to tail and weigh in at 800 to 1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive. A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, probably a Manatee. The creature was “by no means unattractive” Smith wrote, but I’m not so sure. Maybe Mr. Smith just needed to get out a little more.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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