Oh, I love a coincide. Last year I wrote a short story, a historical fiction in its truest sense, about Columbus’s voyage in search of a new route to the East, by going West. The story was told from the perspective of a novice seaman, a prisoner released from his jail sentence on condition he crewed on this voyage (a real person). My story imagined what he would have made of being at sea for such a long time, beyond the time Columbus had reckoned on finding land. I based the events on extracts from the ships log that Columbus wrote. My research hadn’t taken me much beyond the voyage, except into some shipping technicalities, because that was all that was relevant in the short story form. My research for my novel-in-progress (or WIP in author-speak, still a bit odd for me as a term, because I associate that with complex accounting calculations… I once audited a branch of an international telecoms company in Poland, and the WIP calculations were something that only me and the Dutch Finance Director could understand… but I digress) is taking me on an amazing virtual journey of my own.
My book will be based in Lanzarote, in the 18th Century, which until recently I only had a tourist’s view of. I am ploughing my way through ancient and less-ancient histories, and have come across the translation of a delightful account of the Canaries written by a Franciscan Monk and translated by a Glaswegian ‘adventurer’ (published in 1764). I had only got as far as Page iv (the introduction) when I became intrigued by references to accounts in the “Nubian Geographer”. This was too much for my curiosity, so an afternoon disappeared tracking down references via the marvels of Google. Initial search terms came up with nothing, but by changing the search criteria, I found an entry from the Encyclopaedia Britannia, dated 1824 (!) referencing the publication, written by one Edrisi. Amazing. What’s more, I could download the extract as a PDF. Aside from the marvel of technology (wouldn’t that have been helpful as a student) I discovered a key cartographer that I knew nothing about – despite a degree in Geography, well, we must’ve missed out the fascinating subject of the history of geography. Bear with me, but Edrisi is the man who ‘made’ the map shown in the photograph on this post, I say made, because it is a silver tableau! This map, drawn somewhere around 1179 (I think), was one that inspired Columbus to set out on the voyages that he did, apparently. The picture is shown upside down, in order to make a view of the world as we know it today. In the day, Edrisi (really Idrisi) had it with north Africa as the ‘centre’, since this is where he hailed from. Look at England, blown up out of proportion to its actual size – but perhaps not her inflated sense of herself in the quests of the sea – and Scotland, separated by water, from England. I love that it resembles an elephant’s head, with the SW of England, and my own Cornwall, forming the trunk. Incidentally, since the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannia, where they didn’t really know who he was, they now say that he was Moroccan, although lived and worked in Sicily.
Anyway… I could so easily get diverted into a whole other historical fiction here, but I won’t. I find it so exciting that this map inspired Columbus, who fascinated me enough to want to write a bit of his story. Edrisi doesn’t really fit into the history of Lanzarote, and I’m pretty sure that there will be no mention of it in my own work, and I won’t try to force it – but what an exciting discovery. A real Geographer’s paradise.