The Mapmaker by Frank G Slaughter

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This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book set in Portugal, which was a bit problematic, as there isn’t a lot of English language historical fiction set in Portugal and I’ve read pretty much all of it!  However, I did find this.  It turned out that only part of it was set in Portugal, and, in this disastrous tennis season, I kept getting distracted into reading up on medieval Mallorcan mapmakers, but never mind.

This book’s an interesting mixture of the work of real life cartographers under the auspices of the Portuguese prince now known as Henry the Navigator, some quite detailed information about navigational techniques of the time; things probably believed to be true when the novel was written (in the 1950s) but now doubted, notably the existence of a school of navigation at Sagres; stories and theories about the Americas being discovered by the Venetians long before Columbus; legends which the characters believe but the reader isn’t meant to (all the Prester John stuff); and Boys’ Own adventure stuff.   That sounds rather strange, but I did really enjoy it!

Our hero is the Venetian cartographer and navigator Andrea Bianco, who was a real person and is best known for his 1436 atlas showing “the island of Antillia”, which some people believe to be mythical but others believe to be the coast of Florida – although, in this book, the native inhabitants refer to it as “Acuba”, so possibly the reader’s meant to think that it’s Cuba.  There are various theories about Venetian sailors having reached the Americas in the early 15th century, and we just don’t know whether or not they’re true.

In this book, Andrea’s working for Henry the Navigator, alongside various Mallorcan Jews or conversos who were amongst the leading cartographers of the time, and he holds the secret of measuring latitude.  He’d been captured by Turks and held as a slave, during which time he not only learnt how to measure latitude but travelled to China and Japan.  However, at the start of the book, he escapes during a storm and is fortuitously rescued by a wealthy Portuguese man and his beautiful daughter, Leonor.  It transpires that his dastardly half-brother was plotting against him and was the reason he was captured.  The said dastardly half-brother then makes it impossible for him to stay in Venice, so off he goes to Portugal, where he soon gets in with Henry, and joins a voyage to the coast of Africa.  We get some distressing scenes of slaves being bought from African slave traders and brought to Portugal, with the Church preaching that this is all to the good and it’ll save their souls: however, Andrea stands out against this, and any slaves assigned to him are immediately set free.  He also makes it clear that the Turks and Arabs are far more advanced in their knowledge of navigation than any Europeans are, and that the ancient Phoenicians were too.

Off they go on another voyage, to the Canary Islands, but things go wrong and they end up in the Sargasso Sea.   We do know that Portuguese ships at this time did reach the Sargasso Sea, but, here, our ship ends up in “Antillia”.   There are various adventures, in which our hero saves the life of the beautiful Leonor, who for some inexplicable reason has come along on the voyage, and eventually, thanks largely, of course, to Andrea, they make it back to Portugal.  At this point, the dastardly half-brother reappears and tries to kill him, but Andrea manages to escape – of course.  The dastardly one gets his come-uppance, and Andrea walks off into the sunset with the beautiful Leonor.

So it’s a bit daft in parts, but the information about navigational techniques is genuinely interesting.  The idea that the Portuguese reached the Americas before Columbus but Henry hushed it up to avoid distracting attention from his plans in Africa, which is how things are explained here, is highly unlikely; but could the Venetians have got there first?  Well, you never know!  And this is a Boys’ Own book for adults, rather than books by, say, G A Henty, which are clearly aimed at children, so it was something different!