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Stones In The Washing Machine

Want to understand the rise of modern Europe? Look for stones in the washing machine.

If you could go back to the 1400’s, you would find that Europe was on its knees. In the 1100’s and 1200’s, the failure of the Crusades had resulted in Christians being cut out of the critical trade routes across the Holy Land. In the 1300’s, the Black Death had wiped out one-third of all Europeans. And in 1453, the unthinkable had happened: Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and bulwark against threats from the Middle East, was captured and ransacked by the Ottoman Turks. Clearly, Europe was soon to be toast.

But then two seemingly miraculous things happened in a six-year period. In 1492, Cristoforo Colombo sailed WEST from Spain in three tiny boats, in an attempt to reach China. He failed miserably, and he should have died, but his folly was rewarded – Gracias a Dios! – with the discovery of two continents, previously unknown. Then in 1498, Vasco de Gama sailed south from Portugal and discovered that Africa comes to an end. One can sail around this southern tip and ­- Gracas a Deus! – travel EAST all the way to India, and beyond.

And just what did Europeans do with this information? To understand that, go to the coast of Oman, to a bay where the waves crash so violently that the locals refer to it as the “washing machine.” Deep beneath these waves lie the remains of a ship. It was found in 1998, and researchers who have been studying it now suspect it’s the Esmerelda, one of the ships in Vasco de Gama’s second armada, which was lost in 1503. If they are right, it’s the earliest physical evidence of this era of European exploration ever found.

And just what can the Esmerelda tell us? Divers have brought up the ship’s bell, an astrolabe, a single coin, artillery and ordinance of lead and iron, and numerous stone cannonballs engraved with the initials of de Gama’s uncle, who was the ship’s captain.

Stone cannonballs? Oh, yes, the historical record is pretty clear about what this fleet was up to: they established a “colonial factory” in Mozambique; they preyed on trade ships near the Red Sea; they slaughtered a ship full of Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca; they threatened and bombarded Calcutta; and they established a permanent Portuguese patrol throughout the Indian Ocean.

Portugal wasn’t alone. Spain was similarly busy in the Atlantic, and would soon be followed by England, France, Holland and Denmark. With unfettered access to the riches of the world, Europe grabbed the opportunity with every ship, and every weapon, they had.

Those stones in the washing machine are the earliest evidence we have of the power of this sudden advantage. They represent a turning point in world trade and warfare. And they are a grim harbinger of what was to come: the “Age of Discovery” and 400 years of European ascendancy.
Mike Keeler

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