Mapping History Anew; Analyst Says Portugal Discovered the Pacific.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

Mapping History Anew; Analyst Says Portugal Discovered the Pacific.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)


Byline: Josh Earl, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, empire-building European countries rushed to explore the New World and lay claim to its land and resources.

It was this climate of cutthroat competition, says ex-CIA analyst Peter Dickson, that led the Portuguese to launch an expedition that sailed around South America and into the Pacific Ocean - and then try to cover up the discovery.

Most historians believe that in 1513, Spaniard Vasco de Balboa was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. But Mr. Dickson, a retired CIA analyst living in Arlington who holds master's degrees in government, philosophy and history, is trying to change all that.

He has concluded that the Portuguese secretly sailed around the tip of South America at least a decade before Balboa's famed trek across the Isthmus of Panama. Mr. Dickson will share his research today at 2 p.m. at a Library of Congress lecture. The full text of his findings will appear in the magazine Exploring Mercator's World.

Mr. Dickson gleaned his conclusions from 16th-century sources, including pieces from a small globe, a geographical essay and the Waldseemuller Map, which the Library of Congress is purchasing from Germany for $10 million.

Created in 1507, the globe, essay and map were part of a large-scale project in St. Die, France. There, a team of geographers, led by mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller, sorted through and compiled much of the new geographical information made available by explorers.

Conventional wisdom has Balboa reaching the Pacific in 1513 and Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailing into it sometime between 1519 and 1522. Before then, scholars believe, geographers thought only one ocean separated Europe from Asia.

Mr. Dickson first saw the Waldseemuller Map in 1995. "I was blown away that they got the basic pieces of the puzzle correct," he says. The map, while somewhat crudely drawn, did approximate the size and shape of South America.

Last January, while working on a bibliography about the Waldseemuller Map, Mr. Dickson noticed a small detail on the globe pieces. On the globe, the mapmakers applied the label "Oceanus Occidentalis" to what is now the Pacific Ocean.

The term, which means "western ocean," referred to the Atlantic at the time. This implied, to Mr. Dickson, that the Portuguese knew the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were separate but connected.

Spurred by this strange detail, Mr. Dickson started studying the Waldseemuller Map more closely. He soon noticed the map accurately depicted the angular shift in the western coast where present-day Chile and Peru meet.

The map located the bend between 18 and 19 degrees latitude south - virtually an exact match with modern maps.

"That's a key geographic feature," says Mr. Dickson. "It's very distinct."

The map also shows the Andes Mountains, which aren't visible from the eastern coast.

Mr. Dickson started checking the measurements of the continent in latitude and longitude. They were 90 percent accurate, he says.

Finally, he turned his attention to the essay that accompanied the map. It described the newly discovered land as an island, which "implies the ability to sail around to the south without actually saying that someone had really done that," Mr. Dickson says.

From there he connected the dots. The Portuguese, not Balboa, first discovered the Pacific, Mr. …

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