Behem, Martin

, otherwise Behaim, Bœhm, or Behenira, an eminent geographer and mathematician of the fifteenth century, was born at Nuremberg, an imperial city in the circle of Franconia, of a noble family, not yet extinct. He had the best education which the darkness of that age permitted, and his early studies were principally directed to geography, astronomy, and navigation. As he advanced in life, he often thought of the existence of the antipodes, and of a western continent, of which he was ambitious to make the discovery.

Filled with this great idea, in 1459 he paid a visit to Isabella, daughter of John I. king of Portugal, at that time regent of the duchy of Burgundy and Flanders; and having informed her of his designs, he procured a vessel, in which, sailing westward, he was the first European who is known to have landed on the island of Fayal. He there established in 1460 a colony of Flemings, whose descendants yet exist in the Azores, which were for some time called the Flemish islands. This circumstance is proved, not only by the writings of contemporary authors, but also by the manuscripts preserved in the records of Nuremberg; and although this record is contrary to the generally received opinion, that the Azores were discovered by Gonsalva Velho, a Portuguese, yet its authenticity seems unquestionable. It is confirmed not only by several contemporary writers, and by Wagenseil, one of the most learned men of the last century, but likewise by a note written on parchment in the German language, and sent from Nuremberg, a few years ago, to M. Otto, who was then investigating the discovery of America. The note contained, with other things, the following facts: “Martin Beham, esq. son of Mr. Martin Beham, of Scoperin, lived in the reign of John II. king of Portugal, in an island which he discovered, and called the island of Fayal, one of the Azores, lying in the western ocean.

After having obtained from the regent a grant of Fayal, and resided there about twenty years, Behem applied in 1484 (eight years before Columbus’s expedition), to John II. king of Portugal, to procure the means of undertaking a great expedition towards the south-west. This | prince gave hitn some ships, with which he discovered that part of America which is now called Brazil; and he even sailed to the straits of Magellan, or to the country of some savage tribes whom he called Patagonians, from the extremities of their bodies being covered with a skin more like bear’s paws than human hands and feet. A fact so little known, and apparently so derogatory to the fame of Columbus, ought not to be admitted without sufficient proof; but the proofs which have been urged in support of its authenticity are such as cannot be controverted. They are not only the letters of Behem himself, written in 1486, and preserved in the archives of Nuremberg, but likewise the public records of that city; in which we read that “Martin Behem, traversing the Atlantic ocean fenseveral years, examined the American islands, and discovered the strait which bears the name of Magellan before either Christopher Columbus or Magellan sailed those seas; whence he mathematically delineated, on a geographical chart, for the king of Lusitania, the situation of the coast around every part of that famous and renowned strait, long before Magellan thought of his expedition.

This wonderful discovery has not escaped the notice of contemporary writers. A confirmation of it occurs in the Latin chronicle of Hartman Schedl, and in the remarks made by Petrus Mateus on the canon law, two years before the expedition of Columbus. These passages demonstrate that the first discovery of America is due to the Portuguese, and not to the Spaniards; and that the chief merit belongs to a German astronomer. The expedition of Frederick Magellan, which did not take place before the year 1519, arose from the following fortunate circumstance: This person being in the apartment of the king of Portugal, saw there a chart of the coast of America, drawn by Behem, and at once conceived the bold project of following the steps of our great navigator. Jerome Benzon, who published a description of America in 1550, speaks of this chart; a copy of which, sent by Behem himself, is preserved in the archives of Nuremberg. The celebrated astronomer Riccioli, though an Italian, yet does not seem willing to give his countryman the honour of this important discovery. In his “Geographia Reformata,” book III. p. 90, he says, “Christopher Columbus never thought of an expedition to the West Indies until his arrival in the island of Madeira, where, amusing himself in forming and | delineating geographical charts, he obtained information from Martin Bcehm, or, as the Spaniards say, from Alphonsus Sanchez de Huelva, a pilot, who had chanced to fall in with the islands afterwards called Dominica.” And in another place, “Boehm and Columbus have each their praise they were both excellent navigators but Columbus would never have thought of his expedition to America, had not Bcehm gone there before him. His name is not so much celebrated as that of Columbus, Americus, or Magellan, although he is superior to them all.

That Behem rendered some very important services to the crown of Portugal, is put beyond all controversy by the recompense bestowed on him by king John, who in. 1485 made him a knight^ and governor of Fayal; he is said also to have espoused the daughter of a great lord, “in consideration of the important services he had performed.” These marks of distinction conferred on a stranger, could not be meant as a recompense for the discovery of the Azores, which was made twenty years before, but as a reward for the discovery of Congo, from whence the chevalier Behem had brought gold and different kinds of precious wares. In 1492, crowned with honours and riches, he undertook a journey to Nuremberg, to visit his native country and family. He there made a terrestrial globe, which is looked on as a master-piece for that time, and which is still preserved in the library of that city. The outline of his discoveries may there be seen, under the name of western lands; and from their situation it cannot be doubted that they are the present coasts of Brazil, and the environs of the straits of Magellan. This globe was made in the same year that Columbus set out on his expedition; therefore it is impossible that Behem could have profited by the works of that navigator, who, besides, went a much more northerly course.

After having performed several other interesting voyages, the chevalier Behem died at Lisbon, in July 1506, regretted by every one, but leaving behind him no other work than the globe and chart, which we have mentioned. The globe is made from the writings of Ptolomy, Pliny, Strabo, and especially from the account of Mark Paul, the Venetian, a celebrated traveller of the thirteenth century; and of John Mandeville, an Englishman, who, about the middle of the fourteenth century published an account of a journey of thirty-three years in Africa and Asia. He | has also added the important discoveries made by himself on the coasts of Africa and America.

From these circumstantial accounts, which have been but very lately brought to light, there can be little doubt, we think, that America was discovered by Martin Behcrn. Dr. Robertson, indeed, is of a different opinion; but great as we willingly acknowledge his authority to be, we may differ from him without presumption in this case, since he had it not in his power to consult the German documents to which we have appealed, and has himself advanced facts not easily to be reconciled to his own opinion. He allows that Behem was very intimate with Christopher Columbus; that he was the greatest geographer of his time, and scholar of the celebrated John Miiller or Regiomontanus; that he discovered, in 1483, the kingdom of Congo, upon the coast of Africa; that he made a globe which Magellan made use of; that he drew a map at Nuremberg, containing the particulars of his discoveries; and that he placed in this chart land which is found to be in the latitude of Guiana. He adds, indeed, without proof, that this land was a fabulous island; but if authentic records are to give place to bare assertion, there is an end of all historical evidence. If Behem took for an island the first land which he discovered, it was a mistake surely not so gross as to furnish grounds for questioning his veracity, or for withholding from him for ever that justice which has been so long delayed. But this very delay will by some be thought a powerful objection to the truth of Behem’s claim to the discovery of America; for if it was really discovered by him, why did he not leave behind him some writing to confirm the discovery to himself? and why did not the court of Portugal, so jealous of the discovery of the new world, protest against the exclusive claim of the Spaniards?

To these objections we may reply, that, however plansible they may at first appear, they do not in the smallest degree invalidate the positive evidence which we have urged for the Chevalier Behem’s being the real discoverer of the new world: for it would surely be very absurd to oppose the difficulty of assigning motives for certain actions performed at a remote period, to the reality of other actions for which we have the testimony of a cloud of contemporary witnesses. Supposing it were true, therefore, that Behem had left behind him no writing claiming to | himself the discovery of any part of the continent of America, the only inference which could be drawn from his silence would be, either that ho was a man of great modesty, or that his mind was intent only on the acquisition of knowledge to himself, without feeling the usual impulse to communicate that knowledge to others. But it is not true that he has left behind him no claim of this discovery to himself. The letters to which we have appealed, and which are preserved in the archives of Nuremberg, together with the globe and map, which he certainly made, furnish as complete a confirmation of his claim as could have been furnished by the most elegant account of his voyages.

For the silence of the Portuguese, many reasons might be assigned. The discoveries of Columbus were made so much farther north than those of Behem, that, in an age when geographical knowledge was so very limited, both Spaniards and Portuguese might very naturally believe that the country discovered by the former of these navigators had no connexion with that discovered by the latter. At any rate, the Portuguese, whose discoveries proceeded from avarice, were satisfied with scraping together gold wherever they could find it: and finding it in Africa, they thought not of searching for it in a more distant region, till the success of the Spaniards shewed them their mistake. One thing more is worthy of attention. The long stay of Columbus at Madeira makes his interview with Behem more than probable. It is impossible that he should have neglected seeing a man so interesting, and who could give hurt every kind of information for the execution of the plan which he had formed. The mariners who accompanied the Chevalier Behem might also have spread reports at Madeira and the Azores concerning the discovery of which they had been witnesses. What ought to confirm us in this is, that Mariana himself says (book xxvi. chap. 3.) that a certain vessel going to Africa, was thrown by a gaie of wind upon certain unknown lands; and that the sailors at their return to Madeira had communicated to Christopher Columbus the circumstances of their voyage. All authors agree that this learned man had some information respecting the western shores; but they speak in a very vague manner. The expedition of the Chevalier Behem explains the mystery. 1

1 American Philosophical Transactions, vol. II. paper by M. Qtto. Nicholson’s Journal, Nos. II. and III. Gleig’s Suppl. to the Encyclop. Brit.