Islam and the Americas

I was thinking about the Islamic response to the discovery of the Americas.

As far as I can tell, there wasn’t any. They absorbed new crops like maize, and new diseases like syphilis, but I can’t think of a case in which a ship from any Islamic country as much as visited the New World for hundreds of years.

You’d think that there would have been Islamic pirates & slavers in the Caribbean: they raided as far as England and Iceland, but I can’t think of an example. Or sent people (possibly in disguise) to trade, or just out of curiosity. Maybe a Sephardic Jew who could pass for a Spaniard, with a composite bow and a Koran in his sea-chest, intent on stirring up trouble in New Spain…
But it never happened.

Before the Iberians, nobody (other than the Vikings in the far north) had ever gone far into the Atlantic (or if they did, they never came back). The Canaries were known as far back as Classical times, and settled, but then the closest is only 60 miles off the African coast. But there was nobody on Madeira, nobody in the Azores, nobody in the Cape Verde Islands.

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112 Responses to Islam and the Americas

  1. James says:

    Irish and English fisherman most notably from Bristol were known to travel great distances to the west in search of cod. It is a definite possibility that they spied the coast of Newfoundland during trips out to the Grand Banks. There are a couple of documents (one from John Cabot’s bank and a letter from merchant John Day to Columbus in 1497) that imply that North America was known to exist prior to Columbus’ discovery of the West Indies. Columbus also visited Galway and Bristol on a trading voyage in 1476/7 where he would have been in a position to hear stories from the local sailors. It is all still speculation but it is intriguing.

    • Don’t forget speculation about Saint Brendan the Navigator.

      • James says:

        The tiny boats that are described in the earliest myths of St. Brendan make his particular story unlikely, however there is strong archeological evidence that the Eskimos, Lapps and Siberians of ancient times shared the same Ancient Small Tool (AST) technology.

        • Anonymous says:

          Tim Severin and his “Brendan” proved in 1976-1967 that those tiny leather boats can reach New World.

          • Anonymous says:

            Actually Tim Severin and his “Brendan” proved in 1976-1967 that those tiny leather boats can reach New World.

          • Anonymous says:

            Impressive. I didn’t know about that expedition. His vessel looks frailer than a Viking longboat but smaller kayaks made in the traditional way with skin hulls have exceptionally low drag in ocean chop due to their flexible hull and frames.

    • 40+ years ago a Welshman in a pub explained to me that the Welsh got there first and that “America” in fact commemorates a Welsh explorer, name of ap Meric (a plausible Welsh name: “ap” is “son of”).

      Sounds right to me.

      • Gord Marsden says:

        Ian Wilson in his book the Columbus Myth talks about the Welsh name, but attributes the second discovery of America to Bristol fisherman .pre Columbus . The Viking discovery now has two sites in Newfoundland,

    • dearieme says:

      And Basques too?

  2. engleberg says:

    According to Lord Acton the Egyptians couldn’t put together a big enough force to beat the Portugese in the IO because the Turks knew they’d use it to declare independence from Turkey first. But why didn’t a bunch of Barbary Coast captains slide over to the Caribbean? They slave-raided Iceland in the 1300s. What went missing between 1350 and (1500-1700)? When they almost won Lepanto? When they mostly ran the whole Mediterranean? When they knew there were giant gold supplies coming in? Beats me.

  3. manwhoisthursday says:

    Senegal and Brazil aren’t that far apart.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There was no maritime tradition among sub-Saharan Africans.

      • Nor much among the Arabs and North Africans. The Barbary corsairs (and the predecessors) were famous not just for capturing slaves, but also for capturing ships and shipwrights. Perhaps their modest facility for building ships extends to a modest facility for thinking ambitiously about their potential.

    • ABN says:

      I think the ocean winds at equatorial latitudes are not very strong or reliable (“The Doldrums”). And, of course, the western edge of the African continent was already very peripheral to the Islamic word.

  4. Maciano says:

    Sadly, they did reach Indonesia before the Europeans.

  5. anon says:

    This question has a simple answer. Muslims were not bigoted racists colonialists intent on genociding the native Americans.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      The Indian historian K.S. Lal believes that the Muslim invasions of India killed around 80 million people. Whatever the correct figure, it’s clear rulers like Mahmud of Ghazni and Timur the Great were more than happy to invoke jihad as a reason/excuse to plunder the subcontinent. In chapter 9 of his autobiography, Timur boasted of executing 100,000 Hindu infidels in a single day. He may have been exaggerating, in order to portray himself as the ultimate badass, of course.

      At any rate, the idea that Muslim tuff guys had stronger moral scruples than Cortes doesn’t stand up.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      The muslims did not keep up with the boat technology required to traverse the Atlantic. Fleet ocean going wooden sailing ships are incredibly difficult to build and damned dangerous to operate. Even the Mediterranean was too treacherous for sailing half of the year for the muslims. If the muslim traders did attempt to sail beyond the gates of Gibraltar the Spanish, Portuguese, and English did not tolerate competition on their trade routes.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      in a way it was the closing of the med. route to trade with China by the Arab conquests which led to Europeans looking west across the Atlantic

      • athEIst says:

        Ah, the alternative view: the Arab conquest of the 7th century not the Barbarian invasions(invitations) of the 5th and 6th century brought on the dark ages. This view has much to commend it.

        • Jim says:

          The dark ages were well under way by the fifth century. The Arab invasions of North Africa, Spain, Malta, Sicily, Crete, etc. could not have brought them on.

          • Jason says:

            The concept of the “dark ages” is largely an enlightenment invention, in the same way the Myth of the Flat Earth belief is an enlightenment invention.
            Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Main Historical Narrative commonly taught in the last 300 years in the West, switches from the Mediterranean to a much more primitive Northern Europe at the 400 CE point.
            It’s unfortunate and inaccurate, particularly in light all the monumental progress being made in the Eastern Roman Empire at the time.

  6. MawBTS says:

    It’s definitely an interesting question. The Arabs sure did lots of exploration by land.

    My dumbassed guess is that their navy wasn’t equipped to project power over huge oceans like the Atlantic. Much of the Ottoman/Berber fleet was oar powered, often with massive crews (usually 60-70% of which were rowers). I have a hunch that this stops being economically viable over long stretches of water where you can’t stop to resupply.

    But it can’t be that simple, because the Arabs had sail powered merchant vessels. And as early as 1510 they had a pretty good idea of the South American coastline (see this map, and note the squiggly lines to the south. Slam-dunk proof of the Out of Antarctica Hypothesis, if you ask me.)

    It’s just a mystery.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      Up to the Battle of Lepanto it sure looked like the muslim world was going to overtake the christian one. But after that it was all downhill for the entire muslim world.


      If it was just one area of technology that the muslim world was left behind in then yes, it could be multiple reasons, a mystery as you say. But it wasn’t just one area of technology and science it was ALL of them.

      It’s a mystery only if you don’t want to know the truth. Evolution works on us and either the christian world got smarter, the muslim world got dumber, or both.

      We can flap out gums on these dangerous ideas until the cows come home and it won’t amount to a hill of beans. (I couldn’t think of any other stupid cliches to put in that sentence.)

      Most sciences are stuck in the doldrums, but genetics isn’t. Some day we will have this even further confirmed by genetics than it already is by psychometric testing.

      • Garr says:

        I don’t think it was a direct route from being smart to being awesome. Being smart
        AND WEIRD inclines you to accept a world-picture (Christianity) that orients you toward the Beyond, which in turn makes you interested in America and Outer Space. The Chinese could have conquered southern Africa in 1000 AD and sucked lots of gold and diamonds out of it, but didn’t, because the Idea of the Beyond didn’t fascinate them. (I guess it would be unfair to use the failure of the smart Chinese and supersmart Japanese to colonize California/Mexico as an example, since the Pacific’s kind of wider than the Atlantic, but it seems pretty doable to just keep sliding along the coast in a southwesterly direction until you get to the End of the World, South Africa.) (The Japanese are weird enough to have come up with something like Christianity, though … so I guess there’s still a missing element here. Divine self-revelation’s also necessary? — THEN you send your fleets out.)

        • dave chamberlin says:

          The psychometric testing shows the Northern Europeans to be slightly inferior to the Japanese and the Chinese. But the location of the industrial revolution argues for the opposite. We can’t yet say why. What the decline of the muslim world and the amazing flourishing of the Renaissance in the Christian world strongly implies is very interesting and highly controversial. Evolution at work on populations significantly shifting average intelligence.

          Pushing an average IQ of a population maybe 2 to 5 points doesn’t seem like much of a change until you look at the effect on the far left hand tail of the bell shaped curve of average intelligence. There is a huge increase or decrease in genius with small fluctuations in average intelligence. There is also a huge increase in the ability for the labor force to skill up to do things like build ocean going wooden sailing ships.

          What we have today going on in the ongoing evolution of humanity is fascinating, important, and again damned controversial. The stupid are definitely reproducing faster than the very smart. No question, since about 1980 women who drop out of high school average 3.1 children while women who have graduate degrees average half that, 1.5. Sounds grim doesn’t it? But wait, we have assortative mating of the smartest with the smartest like never before. Since the end of World War Two the smartest women go to the top schools and follow up job market where they often pair up with the smartest men.

          So welcome to our brave new world. As the world is dividing into the super rich and the struggling to get by, the world is also dividing into the cognitively elite and bitterly stupid.

          I should add one point to this. These changes take centuries and centuries of time. People don’t get that. It took centuries of cold cruel evolution at work to push a population towards getting a little smarter. Dumbing down a population is probably a hell of a lot easier and happens a lot quicker IF the thumb of cold cruel evolution is pulled off a species.

          • James says:

            I was under the perhaps erroneous impression that while the Japanese have a slightly higher average IQ than Northern Europeans it was distributed over a narrower range. This would counteract their overall advantage where it really counts, the right hand tail of the curve.

        • Wency says:

          Whether a Spaniard in the Caribbean or an Englishman at Jamestown, traveling to the New World was a damned stupid thing to do up through at least the mid-17th century, unless you had absolutely nothing to lose. You had to be optimistic to the point of delusion to think that you would strike it big, as opposed to ending up dead in the very near future, whether by plague, famine, Indians, or even your fellow colonists.

          In fact, the whole endeavor began because Columbus stupidly rejected the mostly- accurate conventional assessments about the size of the world.

          Cortes’ idea of conquering Mexico with a handful of men while officially a mutineer required more chutzpah than just about any successful endeavor in the scope of human affairs. And for all that, I believe a majority of his Spaniards were casualties who would have been better off staying in Cuba, if not Spain.

          It’s entirely plausible that the Chinese were too smart to attempt the thing. Too high of a brain-to-balls ratio.

          • Garr says:

            Right, it’s the imaginative aspiration that makes the difference. You have to aspire to Infinity. (Spengler sees this as the “Faustian” culture’s central idea — as opposed to The Cave for “Magian” (including Islamic) culture, The Maze for Chinese culture, etc.)

      • The Monster from Polaris says:

        As I understand it, in the first half of the second millennium the idea that everything happens because Allah wills it became dominant in the muslim world. Probably al-Ghazzâli had something to do with that.
        And with a worldview like that, it makes no sense to develop science.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “If it was just one area of technology that the muslim world was left behind in then yes, it could be multiple reasons, a mystery as you say. But it wasn’t just one area of technology and science it was ALL of them.”

        Printing. Christendom takes off from the 1450s due to printing books. More books means more technological progress.

        The Arabs didn’t much like printing. They liked handwriting more and didn’t want to print many books.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Conversely, Germans invented movable type printing around 1450 because the West was already speeding up (e.g., clocks). But in either case, printing was a great leap forward.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      partly incentive maybe – they already had trade routes to China, after the Islamic expansion Europe didn’t?

      • ABN says:

        Right–when your culture occupies the strategic center of the Old World, at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, you have less pressure to go exploring the ends of the earth. Plenty of opportunities for trade, exploration, and conquest closer at hand.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Right, Muslims didn’t need alternative non-Muslim routes to India/Indies for spices.

  7. Michael Daxhammer says:

    Nice try, Dr Cochran!
    But as everybody knows Muslim sailors actually discovered the Americas 300 years before Columbus in 1178 and there was a mosque on a hill in Cuba when he arrived.

    Of course everybody is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Islamic scholar and historian and dictator as side job.

  8. georgesdelatour says:

    I’m guessing geography is the key. At the time, plenty of advanced European states were on the Atlantic edge of the continent (Portugal, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands). In theory a more inland Eastern state like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (capital Kraków, 20° E) could have mounted an Atlantic expedition, maybe by hiring some foreign sailors. But in practice, when you’re that far inland and east, other, more immediate regional issues command your attention and distract you.

    After the eclipse of Muslim Spain, the centre of Islamic power was Istanbul (29° E). Plenty of “eastern questions” to distract you from there.

    Among west European states, regional issues and New World exploration were intertwined. Countries could see their immediate neighbours and rivals getting rich off exploration, so figured they’d better do the same.

  9. jb says:

    The reason Muslims never went to the New World might have been that they did not know how to get there. I don’t mean they didn’t know its location, I mean that actually sailing from the Old World to the New is much trickier than most people imagine. There is a fascinating chapter in Ecological Imperialism titled “Winds” which talks about this.

    Apparently, even after Europeans had boats capable of making long open ocean voyages, it took over a hundred years before they actually did it, because it took them that long to acquire the necessary understanding of the winds. The colonization of the Atlantic Islands played a big role in this, as sort of a training ground for both open ocean sailing, and understanding what to do with new lands once you found them (hint: grow sugar). Vasco da Gama may have been assisted on his voyage to India by a Muslim navigator who understood the winds on the Indian Ocean (much simpler than those on the Atlantic in any case), and in theory I suppose Muslims could have gotten to the New World by hiring Christian navigators. But they didn’t, and perhaps that’s the mystery.

    • dearieme says:

      If the Portuguese could establish the Atlantic wind patterns, the Moors could have done so too. Or just hired a Portuguese skipper, or enslaved one.

      P. S. I’ve seen someone assert that the tale of the Moslem pilot used by da Gama is no longer believed by historians, but on what grounds I don’t know.

      • jb says:

        The book does make the point that after China turned its back on the oceans, the only two peoples in any position to become oceangoing imperialists were the Europeans and the Muslims. While it engages in some broad speculation about why one did and the other did not (which might be boiled down to the Atlantic being a much more challenging and instructive ocean than the Indian), the book is mostly concerned with the details of the European experience. While I agree that in theory Muslims could have used a Christian navigator to get to the New World, finding one willing and able to do so might have been non-trivial. In addition, I think it it would have required a great deal of imagination for a Muslim leader to be willing to step so far outside of his peoples’ comfort zone. So I guess I’m not really all that surprised it didn’t come together for them.

    • David Pinsen says:

      Da Gama’s voyage was of much bigger import to the Muslim world than Columbus’s. The Muslims controlled the overland spice trade, and within 20 years of Da Gama reaching India, the Portuguese were getting spices directly from the source.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Europeans got to the Canary Islands around 1312, and started settling the Azores and Madeira around 110 years later.

      The Muslims not getting to the Canaries is interesting because they seemed more accessible to Morocco than to Iberia. But evidently they didn’t get there or landed and were driven off by the natives.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Madagascar was populated from southeast Asia, which is pretty astonishing. Some peoples were just more enterprising about sea exploration, which is dangerous, than others.

        Wikipedia claims that Comoros Islands between East Africa and Madagascar were first settled by Bantus, which would be interesting if true.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is said to have been visited by Arabs around 975 but was unoccupied when Europeans arrived in the 1500s.

        I’m wondering whether Muslim discoveries of islands had a tendency to not stay discovered.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Madeira was close, fertile, and had never been inhabited.

      • Felix M says:

        According to Wikipedia (“Canary Islands”), “Ottoman Turkish admiral and privateer Kemal Reis ventured into the Canaries in 1501, while Murat Reis the Elder captured Lanzarote in 1585”. But these appeared to be opportunistic raids.

    • SealPup says:

      They probably did: after all Basque exploration and a continued Scandinavian interest are pretty much taken for granted, and ambiguous/limited sources reflect low scale interest. Moroccan “conquistadores” turned towards the Niger and failed there rather quickly. It could easily have been a presence in the NW as English allies to counter Spanish ambition and logistically it was easier. But Africa was more promising to the Moors.

      Another thing is that Moslem navies like the Venetians relied upon galleys and the oar. I have seen the same question asked of Venetian decline. Why did Italian merchant republics fail to colonise America? The only Mediterraneans to do so were Iberians with an Atlantic coast and Morocco alone was located similarly.

  10. Jonathan says:

    With extremely limited historical knowledge, I suggest that ocean exploration was a side technological benefit from having to build ships to dominate the Western Atlantic coastlines.

    To be a serious European power, you needed one of the best navy’s at the time.

    Once you investing in a world class fleet, the costs of interconintercontinental travel go down.

  11. Jerome says:

    Everyone knew where the Moon was. But nobody thought it was a good idea to go there. Until the US government invented NASA. Welfare for engineers.

    • James says:

      Once you have developed the technology to hurl hydrogen bombs to any spot on Earth the extra fuel needed to get to the Moon doesn’t make it seem as far away anymore.

    • James says:

      Furthermore Tsiolkovsky was theorizing about utilizing orbital mechanics in order to travel through the solar system as early as the 19th century and engineers Godard and Oberth always assumed their early rocket designs would evolve into machines to do the same. Space travel has always been a major theme of science fiction from at least Jules Verne onwards. Arthur C. Clarke took out a patent for communications satellites in the 1940s. Willie Ley was a spaceflight advocate and bestselling popular science author from the 1920’s until his death.

  12. Cpluskx says:

    I think Ottoman state was just too overstretched and busy to do anything with the Americas. (also Anatolia is too far away) Trying to control/defend/expand all that land with very low asabiya ethnic groups by using diplomacy, war and all kind of tactics, it’s crazy. A country must be as homogeneous as possible.

  13. DataExplorer says:

    During this period there was prolific Mosque construction. When I visited Egypt and Lebanon I noted that a lot of the mosques were built in the 1500s and 1600s. So they were investing their resources in pleasing Allah rather than exploration.

  14. dearieme says:

    There was something very odd about the Moslem countries for centuries. Consider the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. The regime should have known, at least in general terms, that there was upheaval and warfare in Europe on a vast scale. Did they put boats to sea to warn of the approach of foreign fleets? No. What happened was that Nelson pitched up out of the blue, warned them that a large French invasion fleet was on the way, and offered an alliance. They rejected his offer. OK, says Nelson, if you’ll just sell me some food, I’ll be on my way. Not even that, they replied, just bugger off. So off buggered Nelson. Then Napoleon arrived and conquered the joint in a metaphorical five minutes. Very odd.

    • ckp says:

      To be fair, the last time a comparable European invasion of the Muslim world had happened was sometime during the Crusades .. the Turks can be forgiven for thinking this was just another European war.

      • dearieme says:

        Yeah, but no reconnaissance?

        • dearieme says:

          @ckp: Come to think of it, British, French and Russian soldiers had been defeating Moslems for many a day. So I suspect that your argument fails.

          • ckp says:

            They had recon alright, but in places that would make sense for Europeans to invade, like the Caucasus or the Balkans. Invading Egypt was crazy, so they didn’t see it coming.

  15. j says:

    Muslim Arabs colonized the East. Marco Polo found large populations of Muslims in South China and of course they were first in Africa. Livingstone survived in Africa thanks to the hospitality of local Arab slavers, like Tippu Tib, who had settlements on Lake Victoria. The Arabs converted almost all Asia to the Islam. They did not explore the Atlantic because they had no ports on that ocean. After the 18 th century the Portuguese rounded the Cape and took over the Orient reaching Japan. Next came the Dutch and the English, and the Muslim world went into decline.

  16. DRA says:

    The above mentioned chapter in Ecological Imperialism makes the point that the Spanish used the Canary Islands for growing sugar, which was not available for trade from the Muslim lands. Also, The Canary Current made it easy to sail to the islands, but very difficult to get back. the Europeans had to learn to “sail around the wind”, sail west into the Atlantic to catch winds back to Europe.

    I remember reading that the Europeans had to combine sail technology from Arab and older European styles to be as efficient as they needed to be to accomplish this.

    Wonder how much of the Maghreb would still be Muslim if the Spanish hadn’t been distracted by the new world…

    • gcochran9 says:

      You could buy sugar from the Ottoman Empire (produced in Cyprus for example) but the price was high. Some was produced in Sicily and Spain as well. But warmer places were better for sugar cultivation – thus Madeira, the Canaries, and then Brazil and the West Indies. A lot of the value of the New World was related to differences in climate – you could grow tropical and semi-tropical crops there. Since tropical diseases came along for the ride, and since sugar production was labor-intensive (and unpleasant), tropical people [ Africans] were forcibly recruited.

      • ironrailsironweights says:

        Wouldn’t pre-1492 Europeans have had easy access to beet sugar?

        • Misdreavus says:

          Sugar beets were not cultivated until the Napoleonic era (the very first workable cultivars were developed during the late 1700s.).

        • Misdreavus says:

          Speaking of sugar… I don’t believe there’s been any successful attempt to breed sugar maple trees. The long time from seedling to harvest makes it economically unfeasible (sugar maples are typically 12″ in diameter and 40-50 years old before they are first tapped). Hence why sugar maple farms are typically limited to areas where the trees have been growing in the wild.

          A damn shame, because the real stuff is so expensive — not even IHOP uses it. That flavored corn syrup crap just doesn’t taste the same on your waffles.

          This might change in the near future. The University of Vermont has discovered a way to extract syrup from young saplings through vaccum suction:

  17. Douglas Knight says:

    Richard Bishop was a Barbary Pirate who shifted his base of operations. Some sources make it sound like he raided Newfoundland, but most make it sound like he stayed in the British Isles.

    Yes, a Muslim raided Ireland and Iceland. But he was Dutch, so the North Atlantic was more salient to him. After the English took over the Barbary Pirates there was a single community of pirates stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. Probably lots of sailors made their way from the East to West. But if they had an identity beyond Pirate, it was English, not Turkish.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      (There is the mystery of why the Barbary Pirates didn’t extend to the Caribbean before they were taken over by the English. But that is also before they raided Ireland and Iceland.)

  18. iffen says:

    Maybe because the Berbers wouldn’t get into the Coptic boats for exploration trips like they did for an invasion of Iberia.

  19. ckp says:

    There’s a related point: Chinese and Japanese ships never visited European ports until the 19th century, long after Europeans had been visiting and trading in the East for centuries. Why? I can maybe understand the lack of Japanese enthusiasm because of sakoku, but the Chinese could have …

    • athEIst says:

      Europeans had not been visiting and trading in JAPAN for centuries. It was a closed kingdom from 1600 to 1854. So, yes, Japanese ships never visited European ports until the (late) 19th century.

      • ckp says:

        Yes they had. Initially the Portuguese arrived as traders and Jesuits. Later, the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu was concerned by the danger posed to the social order by Christianity, so he banned the religion and closed the country to foreigners. The Dutch were granted an exception: they could trade in the port of Nagasaki (specifically an artificial island in the bay). Through “rangaku” (Dutch studies), Japan kept up with scientific developments that were happening in Europe.

    • jasonbayz says:

      Europe had little China wanted at the time, apart from gold and silver.

      Before the country’s closing, the Japanese did build a Western style ship and sailed across the pacific for a diplomatic mission:

  20. little spoon says:

    I agree with the point that there were relatively fewer Muslim nations with the potential to build boats that could sail the ocean near the atlantic coast. Europe had England, France, Portugal and Spain. Of those, France, Portugal, Spain and England were almost the only ones to ever make colonies out of the Americas. Only the Dutch took small territories apart from that. The nations further inward away from the Atlantic did not explore there.

    In addition, I think the barbary pirates may have seen no motivation to go to the new world because Muslim pirates were slavers. Slavery was the major impetus for expansion for centuries in the muslim world. Islamic civilizations had a huge and unending thirst for new slaves. The barbary pirates would have seen that European colonizers suddenly needed slaves too and kept buying them from Muslims in Africa. So what was the point of expanding to a land that didn’t produce slaves and instead required purchasing them elsewhere?

    • engleberg says:

      ‘What was the point of expanding to a land that didn’t produce slaves. . .?’

      Gold. Silver. So much it financed the whole Spanish Empire even after the Genoese bankers were through with it. It’s not about expanding to the land, it’s about sending a few ships a year with disposable young males. Every society cranks out boatloads of them. Why didn’t Barbarossa strap on a pair and get rid of some lunatic fellow captains? Islam had Africa right there for slaves all right, but why not go for gold? Spengler my sweet patooty; the Barbary pirates had access to charts and pilots and sailors from captured ships that had just been to the Caribbean. And captured ships. And it’s not like the Knights of Malta were running a Muslim-safe space. Why didn’t they go for gold? Is a puzzlement.

      Is a puzzlement.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There was a Swedish colony in New Jersey, a Scottish colony in Panama, a Danish colony in the Virgin Islands, short-lived Brandenburg colonies in the West Indies, Courland had a short-lived colony in Tobago, and the Knights of Malta ( ! ) ran St. Croix and some other Caribbean islands for a few years. Those last three were news to me. I mean, Courland?

      I doubt if the European powers, with the possible exception of France in one of its more perverse moods, would have put up with any Ottoman colony in the New World.

      • E.H. says:

        There is a Swiss colony in West Virginia, their first doctor was my great-great-grandfather. Since the 1950s there has been a colony of Alabama Quakers in the mountains of Costa Rica; I spent a summer there once. Small Islamic colonies could potentially have flown under the radar if they had ever tried to set them up, but they never did.

        The two biggest reasons were fatalism, believing that only God has agency, and corruption, which was practically the entirety of their government and economy. If you made money, it was only because of God’s will rather than work and planning, and you had no expectation of being able to keep or accumulate wealth unless you bought an office that enabled you to extort more bribes than were extorted from you. Also the Arabs and North Africans are lazy, stupid and untrustworthy at best, and their rulers were especially untrustworthy. A colony would cost a ruler a lot to set up but would be beyond effective control, no one could be trusted to rule in your name. A colony soon would become a base of power for a competing ruler.

      • Bla says:

        Dubrovnik did not have colonies in the Americas (while it is possible they had a colony in India) but had some presence in Spanish ones.

  21. BCD says:

    Arab ocean-crossing was confined to the Indian Ocean, where the monsoon winds allowed small ships (boats, basically) to make the passage in a matter of weeks if they got the timing right.

    If they got the timing wrong, that was a different story.

  22. charles w abbott says:

    Others above have hinted at the issue: Going toward Brazil, or south down the coast of Africa from Iberia / Morocco, is easy. Coming back home again is harder, and the best way to do it is to go far out into the high seas. The Portuguese worked hard for a long time to master the techniques. It wasn’t self-evident how to leave the Atlantic littoral, get something valuable, and predictably come back.

    The Portuguese and their neighbors knew the Moors had access to the gold coming from West Africa. They had to sail around the “bulge” to places like Gold Coast (now Ghana)–to trade there. the Moors already had the original trade links (and some conquests) using camels in the trans-Saharan trade.

    So, technically, going to the New World and coming back is harder than it looks. And probably you need sail power–human driven ships may not pass some hurdle of energetics, at least not relative to other investment opportunities.

    Many details are in Colin McEvedy’s Atlas of African history, as well as elsewhere.

    Some materials on the West African coast can be found in this book: George E. Brooks, Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630 (Boulder, Col. and Oxford: Westview Press, 1993). It’s not an easy read, but enlightening.

    = – = – = – =

    I also wonder about the structure of business enterprises. You would think someone in the Arab / Muslim zone would have conjured a business structure to support that sort of long distance trade expansion across the Atlantic, but perhaps that’s harder than it seems.

    = – = – = – = –

    In Millenium, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto notes that every slave trading / plantation founding European power with involvement in the New World had some coastline on the North Atlantic. This sounds like an accurate summary.

    So, to ask why the Muslims of the Mediterranean didn’t participate, you could start by asking why the Genoese and the Venetians didn’t go the the New World, either. If you were used to the Mediterranean environment, you didn’t want to (or wouldn’t or couldn’t) risk everything In the North Atlantic.

    = – = – = – =

    Did Philip Curtin say anything on this topic in Rise and fall of the Plantation Complex? I’ve still never read that book.

    • Jim says:

      Going west to east across the Atlantic goes with the prevailing winds making return uncertain. This contrasts with the west to east migration of the Polynesians against the prevailing winds where if nothing is found return is usually possible.

    • engleberg says:

      Genoese bankers financed the Spanish Empire. Venice and Genoa had a trade war and Venice lost; that’s why Venice didn’t go to the New World. Beats me why the Moroccans didn’t raid the Caribbean.
      Just bought Curtin’s book on your recommendation.

      • AllenM says:

        Look, let us make an obvious comment on the entire thought of why the Ottoman didn’t cross the Atlantic:

        Big powerful new ship that defeated the Turks in Lepanto- sinks trying to attack England.

        Can you survive the North Atlantic in your ships? If yes, you can sail the world. If no, well, ride the Gulf Stream and hope to get home, or stay close to home and let the world sail past your fortresses and into your easy sail to loot them (Barbary Pirates).

        The Portuguese and the English were the leaders in open ocean sailing, and one would argue the raid on Iceland was a fluke:

        Geez, summer of 1627 already, and led by a converso Dutchman!!

        One chance meeting with a real English or Dutch ship of the line and raid would have been a minor footnote in a sea log.

        No real ocean going ships- so no pirates sailing across the Atlantic.

        Galleys were damned near deadly where they could not run to shelter.

        I would note that naval technology advanced quickly in Northern and Western Europe because all of the seaboard powers were fighting after the discovery of the New World for all sorts of reasons, including colonies, local supremacy, and religious wars.

        The real puzzle is why the French sucked in comparison to everyone else given they had the same access to the sea.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          “The real puzzle is why the French sucked in comparison to everyone else given they had the same access to the sea.”

          They had to juggle being a land power and a continental power (imo).

  23. Maciano says:

    I read in “lost to the west” that Columbus was inspired by ptolemeus’ geographia. After the fall of Byzantium these works were rediscovered in the west through Byzantine emigres. This might have planted the seeds for the age of discovery?

    The anomaly is probably curious Europeans, not incurious muslims. Europeans started looking overseas, other cultures didn’t.

    • Jim says:

      Compared to the Islamic World European countries at that time had higher populations and population densities which may have contributed to greater expansionism.

  24. Cocorico says:

    Before the Iberians, nobody (other than the Vikings in the far north) had ever gone far into the Atlantic (or if they did, they never came back).

    I read several times than West Africans did it too.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There’s zero evidence of that, and Africans never colonized much closer islands, like Madeira or Cape Verde.

    • Charles W Abbott says:

      I saw this discussed on the H-Africa list 10 or 15 years ago. Their indexing is not very good, alas. LIttle agreement was reached. Some people think the West Africans did it–others say it’s apocryphal.

      One individual wrote that some of those currents are so powerful that you could actually end up going from West Africa to the Carribean “by accident”, whether you intend to or nor. Surviviing the journey, and coming back again, is the hard part.

      Greg is correct (below) that Africans never colonized closer islands. Skepticism is in order.

  25. AllenM says:

    Great discussion about how the English warships vastly advanced in power and seaworthy between 1400 and 1500- before the big trip across the sea was even done.

    Local warfare was the reason.

    Plus innovation.

    I would note with more than one mast, survival of storms goes up significantly versus a single mast ship.

    And by 1500, England had gone right up to three masts and heavily armed ships.

    Of course, there were failures, the Mary Rose comes straight to mind.

    • Dr Hook says:

      The Mary Rose was launched in 1511 and sank in 1545.
      This suggests the vessel was perfectly sea worthy and was lost due to faulty seamanship.

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