Among the Arabs too there were remarkable travelers. Their first visits to Cathay worked wonders on the fruitful imagination of Bagdad, and the result was Sinbad the Sailor, many of whose best stories were repeated in the European travel books of the same day. The required pilgrimage to Mecca gave Arabs a taste for wandering, and they possessed the carefree hearts with which all nomads must be born.
The greatest of them all, Ibn Batuta, was completely without a sense of responsibility. His wanderings surpassed even Marco Polo's in extent. Whenever a Rajah of India grew tired of bestowing favors, Ibn went to China. Whenever the Emperor of China scorned him, he went back again. His real home was in Tangiers, but he managed to make a home for himself, complete with wives, wherever he went. When the Black Death finally drove him back to northern Africa, he merely made Tangiers a base for further explorations. Then he was off again, across the Sahara this time, where he reported that houses were really built of rock salt and roofed with camel skin as Herodotus had told. Thence south to Timbuctoo and across the Niger (which he mistook for the Nile) and finally into the Sudan. When he returned he dictated his travels by royal command; but that was one of the Arab documents which the Europeans never took the trouble to translate until the nineteenth century; and the light which might have been thrown on the dark continent by 1400, remained unguessed.
Long before Columbus, the theory of the spherical Earth was generally accepted among scientific people. Roger Bacon had brought the notion back to life. All the great philosophers had fought for it. Even Sir John Mandeville, who was the Baron Münchausen of the fourteenth century, had added his argument.
Mandeville's argument was a characteristically weird tale. He said that he had often heard in his youth how a man had set forth to search the world; how he had gone so far by land and sea that at length he had come to an island where he heard his own language used, wherefor he had great marvel. "But I say that he had gone so long that now he was come again unto his own marshes, and if he had passed farther he would have found his own land. But he turned again from thence, and went back as he had come."
In other words the poor traveler had voyaged east from England until he came to Ireland, and been so amazed that he turned and went west again--surely the most terrific penalty that belief in a flat Earth ever had to pay. But Mandeville was a romancer, and by the middle of the fourteenth century most travelers believed in a spherical world. Ptolemy's works were translated early in the fifteenth, and in 1492, the year that Columbus set forth, Martin Behaim of Nuremburg produced a terrestrial globe.
To Christopher Columbus belongs the credit of daring. He risked his life, all he possessed and all he could borrow to prove his point, where the philosophers of his day had been content with their theories. But his voyages were the result of the knowledge which they had accumulated. With Ptolemy he believed that there was less water than land on the globe, and therefore he telescoped together the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and set forth to cross a small body of water in a few days. Undoubtedly the tales of hardships to be endured in Siberia had scared him off that continent. But the stories of the wonders of Cathay enticed him on. It was no accident, but a genuine sequence of cause and effect, that he took with him a copy of the travels of Marco Polo. But it was an accident, resulting from too scant knowledge, that he took with him also a letter from Ferdinand and Isabella introducing him to Kubla Khan, though that gentleman had been dead for over two hundred years!
After the efforts of Columbus, exploration received a new impetus; and the longed-for trade in spices added a commercial incentive. The names of the explorers are so well known that we need but mention them here; there was Vasco de Gamma, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope; John Cabot, who rediscovered Newfoundland; Balboa, who first saw the Pacific "from a peak in Darien"; Cortez, who conquered Mexico; Magellan, who rounded South America and whose boat crossed the Pacific; and Drake, who sailed around the world, passing on his way up the coast of California where he missed the sight of San Francisco Bay because the Golden Gate was buried in fog.
These men and the others of their kind made the new geography. No one could argue now as to whether the world was a sphere or a flat disc. The argumentative stage had passed.
There was still some doubt however as to the actual shape of the world. The author of one novel makes a publisher reply to a young writer on philosophy:
"Of course you were wrong in saying there is no world. The world must exist to have the shape of a pear; and that the world is shaped like a pear, and not like an apple as the fools of Oxford say, I have satisfactorily proved in my book. Now if there were no world, what would become of my system?"
With these new explorations, ideas had to fit in with the known geography. It was no longer possible to treat continents as the giant Procrustes had treated visitors to his bed, cutting them off if they were too long to fit, and stretching them out if they were too short. The great problem now was to make the map fit the continents, and serious complications had arisen, complications which had been forgotten since the days of Ptolemy. The problem was to show spherical surfaces on a plane map.
All flat maps have some distortion. If the map be of a limited area, a few miles square, the distortion is so small that it may be neglected safely, but when the map shows large areas, a continent or a hemisphere, the distortion must be dealt with.