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    Portuguese shipwreck question
    From: John Huth
    Date: 2009 Oct 29, 10:39 -0400

    For you historians out there, I have a question - well, actually two somewhat related questions. Jump to the end if you know it all, where the questions appear. 

    I work with a Portuguese colleague who is fond of telling me that the Portuguese knew about the New World before Columbus and that Columbus really was a spy for Lisbon.   Although I'm happy to entertain thoughts on this conjecture, I have two more concrete questions for you folks.  

    In the current issue of National Geographic, there's an article on a Portuguese shipwreck in Namibia.  It looks like a great find, by the way - several astrolabes.   In the article, there's a map that shows a route taken by their ships around Western Africa, and it swings quite wide.      I don't know if the vessels were typically lateen rigged or square rigged, but I was impressed how far west the route goes near the equator.   There's a strong equatorial current in that region, and of course the Trades.   Naively I might have thought they would hug the coast, but I could see some logic in a course that swings far west, particularly if the vessels couldn't sail close to the wind.  I'm thinking mainly about the latitudes south of the Canaries and crossing the equator.   In the case where the vessels swing to the west, there have been assertions that storm-blown vessels made landfall in what is now Brazil.

    I do know that Columbus, on his third voyage, had in the back of his mind the notion from Don Joao of Portugal the idea that there was a continent between Europe and Asia, which leads some credence to my colleague's assertion.   

    The second, only peripherally related question has to do with finding place names from the Marseilles tables.  I have a paper from 1923 where the author has examined the Toledo and Marseilles latitude/longitude tables, dating from roughly the 12th-13th centuries.   I'm assuming that most of the tabulated data are for the purposes of astrology, as opposed to navigation, but it makes for interesting reading.   In the tables, there are many place names that I cannot recognize, although with a lot of digging I could recognize some.   E.g. I associated Iceland with "Tule", which seems logical, but many names evade me.  One in particular is "Sigdemessah".    This is north of "Gana", and south of "Corduba", and roughly at the same longitude.  


    1.) What evidence is there for Portuguese vessels sailing on a far west path around West Africa - getting close to what is now Brazil?

    2.) Any idea what modern town Sigdemessah might be?   Timbuktu? 


    John Huth

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