8: Gunpowder and Gold

A crystal grows in caves with a great many bats and therefore a great deal of bat manure. 

This same crystal grows in cool, damp areas where a great deal of feces accumulates, including stables and human outhouses.  This crystal can be ground up; it yields a very fine white powder that chemists call ‘saltpeter.’

Zeng Gongliang was a chemist.  Zeng was mixing different materials with saltpeter to see what would happen.  At one point, he ground up charcoal into a fine powder, mixed it with the fine saltpeter, and then set it on fire. 

The mixture exploded. 

He tested various mixtures to see which one gave the most powerful explosion.  His published findings indicated that the largest explosion came with a mixture of 3/4 saltpeter and 1/4 charcoal. 


Many videos on YouTube show people creating the same explosive mixture and setting it off, if you want to see this done.  Look for ‘homemade gunpowder.’  Please don’t try this yourself: it may be fun to some people watching strangers blow off their own hands, but it is not so fun if it happens to you.


He tried different things with this mixture.  At one point, he rolled up some powder inside of a paper and put it into a fire.  The tube exploded with an extremely loud noise and a very bright light.  Zeng had invented firecrackers.


Modern chemists know why a mixture of saltpeter and charcoal explodes:

Normally, charcoal burns slowly because it needs to get oxygen from the air to burn.  Only a small amount of air can get to the charcoal every second, so the charcoal can’t burn very rapidly.  Saltpeter, with the chemical name ‘potassium nitrate’ (KNO3), has a large amount of oxygen in a solid form.  The spark causes all of the charcoal to get enough oxygen to burn and it all burns at once.  The reaction releases the same amount of energy it would if the charcoal burned slowly, but the energy release takes place in a fraction of a second rather than over a period of hours.  The result is an explosion of energy. 


In 1044, Zeng and his colleagues Ding Du and Yang Weide published their findings about the exploding powder in the book Wujing Zongyao (武经总要 ). 


Qqq gunpowder book  page 240


Military Uses


At first, Chinese doctors used the new technology mainly for medical purposes.  Chinese doctors believed that infections were caused by evil ‘humors’ or spirits that got into people’s bodies.  They believed that the humors were sensitive to noise and could be frightened out of the body by loud and sudden noises.  They found they could make very loud noises with firecrackers. 

Over the next few decades, various researchers looked for other uses for the new product.  They eventually found that a slight modification in the formula that Zeng and his colleagues reported could create an even more powerful explosion. 

The new formula was 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur.  This mixture of chemicals is now called ‘gunpowder.’

Military researchers found they could use this powder to make weapons.  If they put the powder into a small closed metal container, drilled a hole in the container, put a piece of paper with a little bit of the powder on it into the hole, then set fire to the paper, the device would explode with incredible force, sending shards of metal in all directions with enough power to tear any person nearby to shreds.  They had invented the device now called a ‘grenade.’

If they did the same thing with a much larger container, they could get a device that would explode with enough force to destroy a building.  They had invented a ‘bomb.’

They then found that they could coat the inside of a tube with the powder by packing the tube first with powder and drilling out the middle, leaving only a thin coating of powder on the inside of the tube.  If they blocked one side of the tube and set fire to the other, the tube would fly wherever it was pointing at a very great speed.  This kind of device is called a ‘rocket.’

They eventually found that if they built the rocket big enough, it could carry a grenade a long distance; when it arrived at its destination, the grenade would explode, killing everyone nearby. 

This invention is still an important tool of warfare; it is called a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). 

The next invention involving gunpowder became the most important of all.  They found that if they had an extremely strong tube that was closed at one end, with a tiny hole for the fuse, they could put powder in the tube and pack it down.  They could then put some sort of bullet, rocks, or a metal ball in against the powder, then light the mixture through the tiny hole.  The explosion would send the projectile flying through the air in the direction the tube was pointing.  They had invented the devices that we now call ‘guns’ and ‘cannon.’ 

The earliest recorded information we have about these new weapons comes from The History of the Song Dynasty (宋史 , pronounced Song Shur), published in 1232 AD. 

This book does much more than describe the weapons.  It explains how to build all of them, with specific instructions about the different mixtures of ingredients to make the perfect powder for each type of weapon. 

Here is one description of a bomb detonation from 宋史 (Song Shur):


He lit it and a clap of thunder was heard, the walls crumbled, and smoke covered the sky.  Many soldiers outside died of fright.  When the fire went out, they went inside and failed to find even the ashes of the 250 defenders; they had disappeared without trace. 



The Spread of Gunpowder and Advanced Weapons


At that time, the Khans of China were at war with the Sultans of the Moslem world.  The Chinese brought in the new weapons.  The Sultans realized they couldn’t compete without having weapons themselves.  How would they ever be able to figure out how to make them?  

In this case, it wasn’t hard: Moslems could read.  The Chinese had published the information about how to make these devices. 

Many people in the 21st century world see that areas under the control of Islam tend to be far more repressive with information than areas under the control of Christianity.  This wasn’t always the case.  The two religions have switched back and forth in this regard over the centuries, each taking turns at its era of repression.  As of the mid-1200s, Christianity was a far more repressive religion.  Only a tiny percentage of the people were allowed to learn to read and the only things they could read were religious books. 

The Islamic world had schools and libraries.  When the sultans of the Moslem world realized the Chinese had these new weapons, they sent researchers to China and they came back with copies of books about the product, including the 宋史.  They began to build their own gunpowder plants and make their own bombs, grenades, rockets, and guns. 

In the year 1260, the Moslems used cannon, bombs, grenades, and other gunpowder-based weapons against the Chinese Khans in the Battle of Ain Jalut.  Link to source.

The 1270 Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices (كتابالفروسيةالعسكريةوالحيلالحرب), Kitab Al-Furusiyyah Wa Al-Manasib Al-Harbiyyah, published the same basic descriptions of gunpowder-based devices as the earlier Chinese book, Song Shur (宋史).  It explains how to build grenades, rockets, bombs, cannon, and guns; it explains how to make the powder for each of these different products.  The 1270 book gives a total of 172 formulations of gunpowder for various uses. 


The Absolute Need To Allow People

To Use Their Minds

At the time, the Moslem and Christian worlds were involved in a series of wars that had been ongoing for more than a hundred years.  These wars were over possession of a certain parcel of land in the eastern Mediterranean that the leaders of both religions considered to belong to their religions, due to statements in the scriptures that both religions shared. 


Three religions on earth are called the ‘Abrahamic religions.’  These three religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are all built on principles established in Book one of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Torah).  The passage below is common to all three of the religions: 

In that day LORD JEHOVAH established a covenant with Abram and said to him: “To thy seed I shall give this land from the river of Egypt and unto the great river Euphrates.

According to date calculations made by modern scholars, ‘That day’ was in the year 1896 BC.  To this day (more than 3,000 years later) the three religions above have been fighting each other to gain control of this land.  They all dispute the meaning of the above phrase.  

Abram had 17 male children. 

This was his ‘seed.’ 

How should the land be distributed among them?  

Under Moslem law, the first born son inherits all.  The first born was Ishmael, who was an ancestor of the founder of the Moslem religion, Muhammad.  This means the only people who could possibly have claims to this land are the descendents of Ishmael, which means that Muhammad and all other ancestors of the Islamic religious leaders inherited it and it belongs to them and their people.  No one else has any right to it. 

Christians claim that Ishmael didn’t have any inheritance rights because he was illegitimate.  He was the son of Abram, butt not by his wife:  his mother was one of Abrams female slaves.   Under Christian law, the child of a male owner and his female slave is also a slave.  (Thomas Jefferson had several children by his female slaves.  All were considered slaves and sold for profit.)   Slaves can’t own property at all, let alone inherit.  According to Christians, Moslems have no rights to this land.  The first legitimate son of Abraham was Isaac.  Isaac was the ancestor of Jesus Christ and all other early Christians.  Christian leaders have claimed from the earliest days of the religion that the covenant meant the land belonged to them, by order of their deity.  It is Christian land.  Under the mandate given to the first man, Adam, by the creator, they have an obligation to hold dominion over it (to establish control by force) and to subdue it (alter it to meet their needs).  

After Isaac, Abraham had 12 more sons.  (They all appear to have been illegitimate; their status is not noted.)  These sons went on to become the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel and the ancestors of all Jewish people.  Jews claim that standard inheritance laws don’t matter because the document states they are the chosen ones, which they interpret to mean ‘chosen to get this land.’ 

This dispute has been going on for more than a thousand years.  The first record we have specifically of Christians and Moslems fighting is the ‘First Crusade,’ announced at the Council of Clermont by Pope Urban II in the year 1195.  

In various forms, these wars have continued to this very day.   Today, and every other day for more than a thousand years, people who believe their religion is right, are collecting money from their people (as taxes, tithes, and other contributions) to raise armies and build weapons to enforce their claims.  The powers in the area officially spend more than $100 billion a year on their militaries and numerous other superpowers that are backing up the local powers spend hundreds of billions more.  Many people I know believe that if the end of the world comes, it will be a result of this battle.


Before the Moslems began to use gunpowder, the Christians had been doing fairly well in the crusades.  By 1269, they had gained total control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (the center of the disputed are) and all surrounding land.  They had held this land long enough to erect massive fortifications.  The Moslems had been doing their best to take this land back, but as long as they were using nothing but swords, arrows, crossbows, and other simple weapons against fortified walls, they couldn’t make any progress. 

In 1270, the Moslems attacked with rockets, grenades, cannons, and rocket-propelled grenades.  The Christians had no chance at all.  They were thrown out of Jerusalem in a matter of weeks.  They put up as much resistance as they could but were pushed back and back.  In 1291 the Christians lost their last bases in the disputed territory with fall of Tripoli and Acre.  They Moslems pressed their advantage and, by 1303, they had removed the Christians entirely from North Africa. 

The Sultans saw an opportunity.  They considered Christianity to be a heretic religion based on false beliefs.  They could wipe Christianity off the face of the Earth.  They attacked southern Europe and took land very quickly. 


A Forced Renaissance

People high in the Catholic church hierarchy realized that they to change.  The Moslems had weapons that were far more effective than any they had.  Constantine had ended research, learning, reading, education, and all but the simplest technology.  The corporations that once built magnificent structures and machines, in the ‘pre-holy empire’ days, were gone; the financial structures that had supported these corporations no longer existed.  Only a very tiny percentage of the people could read, and these people couldn’t read anything other than the Bible, because all books other than the Bible were banned.  All this would have to change or Christianity would be wiped from the face of the Earth. 

By the mid 1300s, reformist Cardinals controlled the conclave that selected the Pope.  On November 6, 1362, the conclave selected Guillaume de Grimoard of France to the post.  He took the name Pope Urban V. 

Urban was extremely progressive.  His first act as Pope was to change the Roman constitution to allow open study of fields other than religion.  He spent most of the rest of his term in office opening new schools.  This is from the New Advent Christian Encyclopedia:


He founded universities at Cracow (by a Bull of 1364) and at Vienna (by a Bull of 1365), and the University of Orange; he revised the statutes of the University of Orléans; and gave great assistance to the universities of Avignon and Toulouse.  At Bologna he supported the great college founded by Albornoz and paid the expenses of many poor students whom he sent thither. 


Of course, the people in charge realized that education was dangerous.  They didn’t want people to know too much.  Educated people threaten religious power structures: they will eventually figure out scientific explanations for things that the religions claim had supernatural causes.  They will expose flaws in the belief system leading people to begin to doubt the beliefs.  But the church had no choice.  It had to allow research and begin to build the new weapons or it would be wiped out.

Schools opened all over the empire.  These schools taught reading, writing, and the system of writing numbers and performing mathematical calculations called the ‘Arabic numbers.’ 


The Rediscovery of the Existence of the Rest of the World

In 1416, a businessman named Henrique de Avis opened a navigation school in the city of Sangres, Portugal.  In 1419 Henrique became governor of the province of the Algarve in Portugal.  He wanted his province to become a leader in what he thought would be a critical industry for the future: shipping.  He got funding for the first large shipyards that had existed since the time of Constantine.  These shipyards, built in Tome, Portugal, were capable of building ocean-going ships. 

The people didn’t have the necessary skills.  Henrique opened a school to develop and teach the skills.  The school’s library began to collect as many of texts on ship building, navigation, or anything to do with this topic as the librarians could find. 

Henrique de Avis was nicknamed ‘Henry the Navigator.’  He was the driving force behind the shipyards at Tome and the navigation school at Sangres.  

Some of the ancient maps that the librarian was able to acquire showed an archipelago of islands about 900 miles to the west of Portugal, deep in the Atlantic.  The Romans had discovered these islands and populated them; they called them the ‘Fortunate Islands.’ Henry sent more than a hundred different expeditions to try to find these islands.  Finally, in 1427 Diogo de Silves rediscovered this island chain.  The Romans had built some structures there, and people had lived on the islands at various times in the past, but when de Silves rediscovered the island chain, no one lived there. 

Henry claimed these islands for Portugal, and as the ‘discoverer’ had naming rights, so he called them the name they now bear: the ‘Azores.’

The Azores were an important discovery because they were clear proof that Atlantic coast was not the end of land on Earth, something that had been accepted for centuries.  There was land to the west.  Some zealous map makers began to piece together information from old Roman texts that led them to believe there were continents to the west of the Atlantic. 

We will get to that story shortly.


Africa, India and China

India and China produced many very valuable things that became incredibly difficult for Europeans to get after the Christians/Europeans lost their land in the Middle East.  This included silk, some extremely important  medicines (people will pay anything to get their loved ones well), and spices that were worth many times their weight in gold. 

When the Christians had a presence in the Middle East, they could get these things because both the Persian Gulf and Red Sea are accessible to the Arabian Sea, which joins with the Indian Ocean.  Traders came up these waterways bringing goods from India and China and sold them in the Middle East. 

But the Europeans/Christians had lost all their land in the Middle East by 1300.  

Only a few people in Europe were rich enough to be able to afford to buy goods from India and China.  But some of these people were incredibly wealthy, with the cash flows from millions of acres of land going into their treasuries each year.  They were willing to pay such incredible sums for items from India and China that people would go to fantastic lengths to get them.  After the Christians lost their land in the Middle East, the only route to China was a 4,000-mile trek over some of the most rugged terrain on Earth.  A few people made the trip, but not many.  They brought some items, and whatever they brought was worth far more than its weight in gold.

By the mid 1400s, Henry’s school of navigation had discovered a great many pre-Constantine Roman navigation charts.  The northern part of the coast of west Africa is the western part of the great Sahara Desert.  The coast is barren and empty, with no fresh water, no towns, and no human habitation.  During the Dark Ages, the only vessels involved in trade were small boats that had to stay close to shore.  Since the shore had nothing for more than a thousand miles, the traders had no reason to travel down the coast.  The Portuguese found charts that indicated that the Romans had found very rich ports for trading quite far south on the coast of Africa.  Portuguese ships made it to some of these ports, reaching Senegal and Cape Verde in the year 1445.  They found the very rich lands around the Gulf of Guinea in 1462. 

In 1469 King Alfonso V granted the monopoly of trade in part of the Gulf of Guinea to merchant Fernão Gomes.  As part of the terms of his contract, he had to explore 100 leagues (about 300 miles) of the coast each year.  In 1471, Gomes’ explorers reached Elmina on the Gold Coast (present day Ghana), and discovered a thriving gold trade between the natives and visiting Arab and Berber traders. Gomes established his own trading post there, which became known as ‘A Mina’ (‘The Mine’). In 1482, Diogo Cão discovered the Congo River. In 1486, Cão continued to Cape Cross, in present-day Namibia, near the Tropic of Capricorn.

The areas these people visited had an enormous population.  They could talk to these people and find out what was further south.  In 1488, Bartolomé Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa.  From there, he could talk to people who lived on the east coast of Africa.  Dias found these people traded with India and China. 

The Portuguese would eventually make it to India and begin trading with people there over the long, long route down the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the east cost, and across the Indian Ocean.  But this would not happen until 1497.  By then, another explorer would have tried to get to India by an entirely different route. 


the Shortcut to India

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli was an author, researcher, and map maker.  He lived in Florence.  His friends knew him as ‘Paul the Physician’ Paul the Physician was a member of a group of intellectuals who searched for and studied Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and other pre-Constantine works. 


We have Columbus’ copy in Spanish translation from the historian Bartolomé de las Casas, in his book Historia De Las Indies.  Columbus had ordered in his will that all of his papers and documents be handed over to Las Casas, who was writing a book about ‘The Indies.’  Las Casas reproduces many of Columbus’ papers in his book, including Toscanelli’s letter.  Except the salutation, it is the same as the letter sent to Martins. 


Other members of the group were Marsilio Ficino (writer, philosopher), Leon Battista, Alberti (mathematician, writer), the Pope Nicholas V, (religious leader) and Nicholas of Cusa (religious leader).

Toscanelli’s library in Florence was said to have had the largest collection of pre-Constantine books that existed anywhere in Europe at the time, exceeding that of even the library of Henry the Navigator. 

On the 25th of June, 1474 Toscanelli wrote a letter to his friend Fernão Martins, a priest at the Lisbon Cathedral.  This letter explained that Paul the Physician and his colleagues had discovered from the Roman texts that the world was a sphere.  This meant it was possible to get to the east by going west.  The original letter, written in Latin, is currently part of the historical documents collection at the Seville Library in Spain. 

A sailor who lived in Palos, Spain, heard of this letter.  The sailor’s name was ‘Columbus.’ Columbus wrote to Toscanelli for more information.  Toscanelli sent Columbus a copy of the same letter he had sent to Martins, with another copy of the map. 

Here are some excerpts from the letter:


To Christopher Columbus, Paul the Physician wishes health. 

I perceive your noble and earnest desire to sail to those parts where the spice is produced, and therefore, in answer to a letter of yours, I send you another letter which, some days since, I wrote to a friend of mine, a servant of the King of Portugal before the wars of Castile, in answer to another that he wrote me by his highness’s order, upon this same account.  And I also send you another sea-chart, like the one I sent to him, which will satisfy your demands. 

This is a copy of the letter:

I have very often discoursed concerning the short way there is from hence to the Indies, where the spice is produced, by sea (which I look upon to be shorter than that you take by the coast of Guinea), yet you now tell me that his highness would have me make out and demonstrate it, so that it may be understood and put in practice.

Therefore, though I could better show it to him with a globe in my hand, and make him sensible of the figure of the world, yet I have resolved, to make it more easy and intelligible, to show the way on a chart, such as is used in navigation, and therefore I send one to his majesty, made and drawn with my own hand, wherein is set down the utmost bounds of the earth, from Ireland in the west to the farthest parts of Guinea, with all the islands that lie in the way; opposite to which western coast is described the beginning of the Indies, with the islands and places whither you may go, and how far you may bend from the North Pole towards the Equinoctial, and for how long a time–that is, how many leagues you may sail before you come to those places most fruitful in spices, jewels, and precious stones.

Do not wonder if I term that country where the spice grows, West, that product being generally ascribed to the East, because those who sail westward will always find those countries in the west, and those who travel by land eastward will always find those countries in the east! The straight lines that lie lengthways in the chart show the distance there is from west to east; the others, which cross them, show the distance from north to south.  I have also marked down in the chart several places in India where ships might put in, upon any storms or contrary winds, or other unforeseen accident.

From Lisbon directly westward there are in the chart twenty-six spaces, each of which contains two hundred and fifty miles, to the most noble and vast city of Quinsai [the city now called Hangzhou, slightly south of Shanghai, used to be called Quinsai] which is one hundred miles in compass—that is, thirty-five leagues.  In it there are ten marble bridges.  The name signifies a heavenly city, of which wonderful things are reported, as to the ingenuity of the people, the buildings, and the revenues.

From the island of Antilla, which you call the Island of the Seven Cities, and whereof you have some knowledge, to the most noble island of Cipango are ten spaces, which make two thousand five hundred miles.  This island abounds in gold, pearls, and precious stones; and, you must understand, they cover their temples and palaces with plates of pure gold; so that, for want of knowing the way, all these things are concealed and hidden–and yet may be gone to with safety. 


The original maps have not been found.  However, various historians have reproduced them based on information in the letter and Toscanelli’s other maps.  The most common reproduction is shown below, with Toscanelli’s land masses in dark gray, the latitude and longitude lines in black, and the actual land that we know now exists shaded in light gray:


Toscanelli map Qqq map here  250


Toscanelli said that each rectangle is 250 miles wide by 350 miles high.  You can determine distances by counting the squares and multiplying.  The distance from Portugal to Cipango (Japan) is shown on the map to be 5,000 miles, with mainland China another 1,500 miles to the west.  The island of Atlantis is shown to be about in the middle.  Atlantis is drawn at about 20 x 150 miles, so explorers could easily miss it. 

The shortest route across the Atlantic to the closest island in the Indian Ocean would go from Spain to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, then across on an almost even latitude for about 4,000 miles due west. 

Shortly after Columbus got this map, he began making attempts to get funding for a voyage to the west.  On April 17, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain signed a document called the ‘The Capitulations of Santa Fe’ which stated the terms that the royal couple and Columbus had agreed to for the voyage. 

This document granted Columbus the right to explore in the west.  If he found any land, he would be made the ‘Governor, Admiral, and Vice-Roy’ of the lands he discovered. 

Here are some excerpts from the text of the Capitulations:


Qqq caputulations   page 250


For as much of you, Christopher Columbus, are going by our command, with some of our vessels and men, to discover and subdue some Islands and Continent in the ocean, and it is hoped that by God’s assistance, some of the said Islands and Continent in the ocean will be discovered and conquered by your means and conduct, therefore it is but just and reasonable, that since you expose yourself to such danger to serve us, you should be rewarded for it.  And we being willing to honour and favour You for the reasons aforesaid:

Our will is, That you, Christopher Columbus, after discovering and conquering the said Islands and Continent in the said ocean, or any of them, shall be our Admiral of the said Islands and Continent you shall so discover and conquer; and that you be our Admiral, Vice-Roy, and Governor in them, and that for the future, you may call and stile yourself, D.  Christopher Columbus, and that your sons and successors in the said employment, may call themselves Dons, Admirals, Vice-Roys, and Governors of them.



Columbus left Cadiz, Spain on August 3, 1492 with three ships.  The first stop was the Canary Islands, which are just off the coast of Africa about 1,250 miles southwest of his starting port.  Columbus and his crew spent a month on the Canaries, getting the ships ready for the long voyage to the west.  They set sail to the west on September 6, 1492 and made an average of about 100 miles a day for the next month. 

On October 12, a sentry saw the first land they had seen since leaving the Canaries.  This is from the ship’s logs:


The land was first seen by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana, although the Admiral at ten o’clock that evening standing on the quarter-deck saw a light, but so small a body that he could not affirm it to be land. 

At two o’clock in the morning the land was discovered, at two leagues’ distance; they took in sail and remained under the square-sail lying to till day, which was Friday, when they found themselves near a small island, one of the Lucayos, called in the Indian language ‘Guanahani.’ 


On October 13 they landed.  Here is the log entry for that date:


The Admiral landed in the boat, which was armed, along with Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and Vincent Yanez his brother, captain of the Nina.  The Admiral called upon the two Captains, and the rest of the crew who landed, as also to Rodrigo de Escovedo notary of the fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez, of Segovia, to bear witness that he before all others took possession (as in fact he did) of that island for the King and Queen his sovereigns, making the requisite declarations, which are more at large set down here in writing. 


Later, in his personal logs, Columbus writes


The Indians then came to the ship in canoes, made of a single trunk of a tree, wrought in a wonderful manner considering the country; some of them large enough to contain forty or forty-five men, others of different sizes down to those fitted to hold but a single person.  They came loaded with balls of cotton, parrots, javelins, and other things too numerous to mention; these they exchanged for whatever we chose to give them. 

I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold.  Seeing some of them with little bits of this metal hanging at their noses, I gathered from them by signs that by going southward or steering round the island in that direction, there would be found a king who possessed large vessels of gold, and in great quantities.  I endeavored to procure them to lead the way thither, but found they were unacquainted with the route.  


The next day (October 13), he had more interactions with these people and described them this way:


Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance.  They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed.  It appears to me that the people are ingenious, and they very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. 

They are very gentile and without knowledge of what is evil, nor do they murder or steal.  Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better or gentler people.  All the people show the most singular loving behavior and they speak pleasantly.  I assure Your Highnesses that I believe than in all the world there is no better people nor better country.  They love their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest talking the world and are gentle and always laughing. 


Later that day, his log entry included the following sentence:


I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased. 


Why People Care So Much about Gold

Columbus goes on and on about something Columbus clearly cares deeply about: gold.  He notes in passing that this land appeared to be the ‘terrestrial paradise’ (the Garden of Eden), that the land was densely inhabited with people who were prosperous, kind, generous, and peaceful, and that the land was fertile and the natives raised a great many wonderful food crops Europe didn’t have.  He mentioned the immense beauty of the land, the amazing diversity of the forests, and the incredible friendliness, generosity, and kindness of the people there.  He mentions the virtual absence of crime, the unbelievable honesty and amazing order of their societies. 

He mentions all of these things in passing, as if they are minor details. 

There is one thing that he goes on and on about, as if it is the most important thing in the world: the metal gold. 

He, and thousands of people who followed him, would later commit atrocities that are so incredible they defy description to get this metal.  He would destroy the beautiful forests to make charcoal to make weapons to conquer people and take even more gold away from them, before destroying them and their civilizations so they could sell the land for—you guessed it—more gold.   

Why would this metal be so incredibly important to him?  Why would anyone care about it at all?

We need to know the answer to this question before we can understand the events of the next 200 years, which largely focused on attempts by people from the Eastern Hemisphere to get this metal.  People were willing to do incredible things to get this metal back then and are willing to do the same things today.


Gold isn’t a particularly useful metal.  It can’t be hardened to make tools, as can many extremely common metals.  It has some special abilities to conduct electricity that other metals don’t have, but these didn’t matter before the discovery of electricity.  It can be used for jewelry, but so can a lot of other metals which are a great deal more common. 

Why would anyone care about it? 

To really understand this, you have to understand the basic relationship between gold and the right to buy and own the streams of value that come from land.  After Julius Caesar took over Rome, he intended to expand his area of control as much as he could.  He needed to buy as many weapons and other supplies as he could get.  The people that made these items needed some sort of tool to use as currency so they could make trades.  Gold and silver only existed in limited quantities and couldn’t be counterfeited. 

Gold had the qualities they needed to use the metal as a currency.  If sovereigns had grain and wanted to trade it for weapons, but the weapon makers had no need for wagon loads of grain, the sovereigns could offer to give them gold in exchange for the weapons, with a promise to then redeem the gold for grain later, to anyone who tendered it.  The weapon makers could pay their workers and suppliers with gold.  The workers and suppliers could then use the gold to buy food. 

If the weapons makers got more gold for their weapons than they needed to pay their workers and suppliers, they could use the extra gold to hire servants.  The servants would accept the gold because they knew they could always trade it for food. 

The gold will eventually find its way back to the kings or other rulers who control the grain.  After this happens, the sovereigns have essentially traded their grain for weapons.  The gold was only involved as a medium of exchange. 

When Julius Caesar conquered land, he sold large parts of it to both individual farmers and corporations (publicans).  He needed to get paid for the land in a currency he could use to pay his troops (so they could buy food) and buy weapons (so he could hold his land and conquer more). 

He needed whatever currency the weapon makers accepted. 

They accepted gold, so he needed gold when he sold the land.  Because sellers of parts of the world accepted gold, people who wanted to buy parts of the world could buy it if they could get gold. 

In sovereignties and other societies that accept that parts of the world can be owned, people who don’t own land don’t have any income unless they work.  No income means no food.  It means death.  If you live in such a society and don’t own income-producing land, you are a kind of economic slave.  You will have masters (your employers) and have to do whatever they tell you to do or you will be punished by being fired from your job and this means death.  Gold could buy an income because it could be traded for income-producing land. 

If you bought land that generated an income, you essentially bought your way out of slavery.  This means that gold meant freedom.   The more gold you got, the more security you had in your freedom. 


Territorial sovereignty Societies

To understand the events of the next few centuries, we need names to refer to the each of the two different cultures (types of societies) that came into conflict when Europeans made contact with the people of the western hemisphere. 

We have already discussed one of these systems.  It is possible for a group of people who are in a position to form any kind of society they want to start with the premise that each part of the world naturally belongs to whatever group is able to conquer it and hold it.  That part of the planet then belongs to the group.  I will use the term ‘territorial sovereignty societies’ to refer to societies that divide the world into individual territories and assign ownership of each part of the world to a specific group of people and their heirs.   The term ‘sovereignty’ means they intend to monopolize that part of the world; they will consider it to be theirs, exclusively and not allow any to share in any wealth or benefits that part of the world provides. 

You may remember that others in our evolutionary past formed this kind of society.  The Ngogo chimpanzees divided the richest parts of the forest into ‘monopolizable patches’ (to use Jane Goodall’s term).  They then ‘assigned’ each monopolizable patch to a specific troop.  They used a brutal method to determine the assignments:   they fought wars.  The troops went to battle and fought until every last member of one of the teams was dead.  The winner got the land. 

These ‘territorial sovereignty societies’ are the types of societies that dominate the entire earth in the 21st century.  They started out as tiny city-states, created in the most productive parts of Afro-Eurasia shortly after humans arrived there.  The continent of Europe had large amounts of highly productive land and appears to have had most of the world’s early city-states. 


Nearly all of Europe has very high degrees of neanderthal ancestry and few if any denisovans markers.  Neanderthals where highly aggressive, territorial, and possessive, with individual groups living in the same spots for many generations.  This seems to indicate that they have some ancestry of the more violent and aggressive simians. 


After they got the use of horses and the benefits of heavy industry, the rulers of the city states were able to expand their holdings to make them regular states.  These different states competed with each other in war.  The rulers better at organizing their states for war gained territory and their states grew; those that were not as good lost territory and their states shrank.  From time to time, some of the states would split, as the people in one area realized they could ‘declare independence’ and become a new state.  In other areas, conquerors would totally wipe out states and they would disappear.  The names and identities of the states of Europe changed over time, but the society in place did not change. 

The European societies, as of the 1400s, were clearly built on the principle of territorial sovereignty.  They divided the land into individual territories, each of which was considered to be monopolized by the people in a certain group (usually non-slaves born inside the borders of the state), who had sovereignty over it. 

In order to discuss the next period of history, I need a name for the two cultures that would be in conflict for the next four centuries.  The first will be called ‘territorial sovereignty Societies.’  


Natural law societies

What about the Americas?  

These continents has very high populations.  They were true human beings (homo-sapiens), the exact same species as the Europeans. 

What kind of societies did they have?  

In the period between 1493 and 1900, the people of territorial sovereignty societies conquered virtually all land in the Americas and put it all in one or another of the world’s countries.  Groups of conquerors took over land, brought their culture, and either removed or subjugated the people who already lived on this landmass to make them part of territorial sovereignty societies.  They are parts of territorial sovereignty societies now.  But what kind of societies did they have before? 

The pre-conquest American societies were not all the same.  Some were highly advanced and progressive, with well-built, densely populated cities that had vibrant economies and advanced sciences.  Others were primitive groups of hunter gatherers who followed migratory animals to hunt and followed rains to gather grains and roots that grew after.  Their conquerors didn’t seem to differentiate.  They gave them all a single name, calling them ‘Indians.’

The best analysis of these societies I could find is in the book Ancient Societies by Lewis Morgan.  He claimed that a few of the areas had societies that resembled the societies of the conquering cultures in certain ways.  The Aztecs, for example, had city-states that were walled off or protected by defensible entries and exhibited the same warlike behavior that had been common in the European societies in their early stages.  (The Aztecs had never had horses or heavy industry, so they didn’t really have anything akin to the European states, but, according to Morgan, some had reached the early stages of development on a path to the kinds of systems that existed in Europe.)  But the great majority of the land in the Americas had land that was fairly unproductive and wasn’t suitable for societies built on territorial sovereignty, given the technology available to the people before the Europeans arrived. 

None of the people of the Americas had any significant neanderthal markers.  (There are some, indicting a slight mixing, but the great bulk of the DNA is non-neanderthal.)  They had migrated across from Siberia, which is about as far from the neanderthal areas as it is possible to get.  Both culturally and genetically, they were closer to the ‘hippie apes’ than to the violent and aggressive chimps.  We see this clearly in the way they reacted when faced with aggressors who wanted their land.   Even when they vastly outnumbered the newcomers (which was the case at first) they didn’t seem inclined to adopt the aggressive tactics of the invaders.  They wanted the more productive lands, of course.  (Land in the eastern part of North America is just as productive as land in Europe.)  But they didn’t have a formal system of claiming and protecting land.  They seemed to have had different instincts and feelings than the newcomers.  The newcomers believed they had a right to any land they could conquer.  It belonged to them.  The natives felt the land didn’t belong to them.  They wanted it, but not bad enough to fight for it.  They would make deals and move on.  

I want a name for the societies of the great bulk of the Americas before conquest, the ones that had no states or countries, did not claim to own and did not have any structures that would allow them to cerate ‘states’ and monopolize land. 

I will call these societies ‘natural law societies.’  

I will use this term because of numerous references made by the American people during the period of their conquest to their primary belief systems:  They believed that humans don’t own and can’t own the world around us.  We are not the masters of nature, we are the servants of nature.  We depend on nature and the natural world for everything we get.  Our lives depend on our ability to understand and follow the edicts of nature.  Humans, like all other animals, must respect nature or it will destroy us.  

The primary characteristic of natural law societies, and the primary difference between natural law societies and territorial sovereignty societies, involves the way the people in them interact with the land they live on.  The people of territorial sovereignty societies interact with land as owners.  They form into groups, mark off land, and treat it as if the group is the owner. 


The group is not a specific group of individuals, it is an ever changing group that considers the land its founding members have claimed to be an entity in itself—a country.  The land defined by the borders of the ‘country’ is treated as if it belongs to the currently-living members of the group.  Don’t thy to over think this:  remember that chimps have had this kind of society for millions of years.  It is not something built on logic but on instincts or feelings.  :   


Natural law societies build their institutions on the premise that there are laws of nature that are above the laws of man.  We must figure out these laws and obey them or we perish.  Many people with this system were superstitious.  (People everywhere are superstitious.)  They believed that nature enforced its laws.  If they witnessed catastrophic weather events like hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts, floods, or expanding glaciers, they thought nature was punishing them for violating its laws. 

They didn’t want to offend nature.  What is the most offensive thing that someone can do to nature?  They can claim it is not in charge.  They can claim that the events on a certain part of the world depend on the will of the human owners, not nature.  As a practical matter, natural law societies can be defined as ‘societies that don’t accept humans can own parts of planets.’

This doesn’t just mean that individual humans can’t own parts of planets.  It means that humans can’t own parts of planets at all.  If a group of people claim that a part of the world is a ‘country’ and belongs to the group, this is just as offensive to nature as an individual claiming a part of the world belongs to that individual. 


Natural Law Societies And Gold

Natural law societies don’t accept that people can buy and own parts of the world.  People can’t buy the rights to the bounty the land produces for any price, payable in gold or anything else. 

The land produces wealth.

No one owns the land, so no one owns the wealth it produces. 

The people have meetings and make decisions.  They decide what happens to the wealth.  They think of it as a gift from nature, not as something they have an absolute right to have.  Who deserves gifts?  By definition, no one deserves to get a gift:  if you get something you deserve, you are getting a payment not a gift.  The people in natural law societies consider the wealth the land produces to be a gift from the land to its inhabitants.  As thedominant species, we have first claim on this gift.  We can therefore use it for our benefit if we wish.  But we don’t own it. 

If people can’t own land, they can’t buy it or sell it. 

The idea of trading a part of the planet for a pile of metal would seem insane to people like this.  (Jefferson bought the Louisiana purchase for  6,000 tons of gold.) 

People can only own ‘such things as can be carried with them.’  (From the Autobiography of Black Hawk, available in references on the PossibleSocieties.com website.)   None of the things they buy are so valuable that they need something that can store massive amounts of value for trade. 

They don’t need to use gold for money.  They had far simpler kinds of money.  (In the book ‘Travels And Adventures’ Alexander Henry gives prices when trading with ‘Indians’ either in beaver skins or bags of rice, both of which were currencies.  You can find a copy of this book in the references section of the PossibleSocieties.com  website.)  

The people in the natural law societies in the Western Hemisphere didn’t particularly care about gold.  To them, it was just another metal.


The Value of Gold

In the Eastern Hemisphere, people had used gold as money since long before the time of Alexander.  The cuneiform texts found in Turkey (discussed above) from 2990BC discussed terms of trade in metals, with small transactions in shekels of copper, medium in shekels of silver, and large transactions in shekels of gold.  These three metals were clearly all used many thousands of years ago.  Gold was far more rare than the others, so it wound up having a larger exchange value.  People who wanted to buy large quantities of supplies (say generals equipping an army) would negotiate the prices in gold.  Payment could be made either in gold or any other currency acceptable to both buyer and seller, at exchange rates in effect at the time. 

Gold was very valuable when Columbus traveled to America.  This is a link to a website that shows prices in medieval times in England in pounds, shillings, and pence.  Each pound sterling is 1/2 of an ounce of gold, so a pence (d in the chart) is 1/480th of an ounce of gold.  (In other words, an ounce of gold trades for 480d.)   Wages in England for laborers were listed as never more than 2 pounds sterling, or one try ounce of gold, per year.  (This amount of gold is now worth about $2,000.)  The streams and rivers of Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean had tiny amounts of gold mixed in with the sand.  People could remove it by using a metal pan and water: the gold is very heavy and sinks to the bottom.  Spin the water to suspend the sand, shake it, and the gold dust falls to the bottom of the pan.  Wash off the sand and you are left with gold. 

There is only a tiny bit of gold in the sand, but gold is so incredibly valuable that even a tiny bit of gold will buy a great deal of freedom.  We will see later that most of the land in North America was sold to corporations that paid in gold, at the rate that works out to about 4/1000th of a gram of gold per acre of land.  (An acre of farmland is about the amount needed to support one person.) 


Grams of gold per acre of land:

We will look at a great many sales that took place later in the book, when we see what happens to the land that was conquered in America.  Here is one example:

In 1794, the governor of Georgia sold 40 million acres of land (the current states of Alabama and Mississippi) for $500,000 in gold, or 1.25¢ per acre.  At the time, each dollar was slightly less than 0.4 grams of gold.  Each dollar would buy 80 acres of land, so 0.4 grams of gold would buy 80 acres, and 1 gram of gold would buy 200 acres of land. 


The streams of the island that Columbus called ‘Hispaniola’ and that the natives called ‘Haiti’ had never been panned for gold.  They were virgins. 

Columbus did some test pannings and found that a man could get enough gold in a day to buy an entire estate back in Spain. 

From time to time, natives would bring him large items, some weighing several pounds, and trade them for manufactured goods.  This seemed to indicate that the island had more than just the gold dust in the streams.  It had gold mines where people could remove immense amounts of this incredibly valuable metal. 


The Hasty Return to Spain

Where was the gold-rich land?  Columbus didn’t know.  It was somewhere.  Columbus decided it was incredibly important that he find it first, before any of his men could find it.  He was particularly worried about the two men he had hired to be captains of the two smaller ships, Martin and Vincente Pinzón. 

One day, Martin Pinzón came to him and told him that he had found out from natives that there was a gold mine on the north end of the island.  He wanted to make a voyage to the north to check it out. 

Columbus was worried that Pinzón would possibly find the mine and hide it.  But he had a greater fear.  He was afraid that Pinzón would go to the north, find the gold mine, claim it for himself, then return to Spain and try to cut Columbus out of the picture entirely. 

Columbus ordered him to remain.  He refused permission for Martin Pinzón to travel to the north of the island. 

The next day, Martin Pinzón was gone.  Pinzón returned a few days later: he had gone to the north side of the island.  When he returned, he claimed he had not found the gold mine.  Columbus didn’t believe him.  He began to be very suspicious of Martin Pinzón. 

On the morning of January 12, Columbus’ sentry woke him up early to tell him that Martin Pinzón’s ship was gone.  The local people told him that it had hoisted sails and departed in the middle of the night. 

Columbus thought that Martin Pinzón had decided to head back to Spain and claim the discovery of the gold-bearing islands for himself.  Columbus decided he had to get back so he could defend his rights and left the next day. 

Columbus had been in the Western Hemisphere for 92 days.  He had found many things that the people back in the Eastern Hemisphere didn’t even know existed.  A few days or weeks more, and he would have discovered much more.  The return voyage was perilous.  He didn’t know if he could make it back at all.  (In fact, his ship was badly damaged in a storm and he almost didn’t make it back.)  

A whole new world was there to be explored.  Millions of people lived in this new world, with an entirely different way of life than the people of Europe.  Columbus himself described the land as a terrestrial paradise. 

The people lived in harmony with the land around them and with each other, without war, without crime, without hardship and want.  But none of this mattered to Columbus.  He had his priorities.  The land contained many grams of gold.  In Europe, a gram of gold could buy freedom forever from want, by buying a large amount of bountiful land. 

He was taking a big risk to make a panicked run back home. 

But he tried it anyway. 

This tells us his priorities. 

The gold was his highest priority.  Everything else was secondary. 

Columbus made it back and was able to keep his rights to the gold (see text box below for more information).  He had not found any mainlands and had not discovered the continents now named America.  He had landed on several islands; he had taken great care to claim all of these islands for Spain.  


The Murder of Martin Pinzón:

It turned out that Martin Pinzón had done exactly what Columbus thought he had done: he came back on his own to try to take credit for the discovery.  Columbus came back a few days after Pinzón and, since Columbus had worked out the deal and had all of his rights in writing, he got the credit. 

Columbus and Martin Pinzón both lived in the same town, Palos.  Columbus sent a message to Pinzón.  He said that he had no hard feelings and wanted to be friends.  He invited Pinzón to dinner.  Pinzón ate and then got sick; a few hours later, he died.  He was the only one at the dinner party who got sick at all. 

Many historians claim that Pinzón’s sudden death after eating a meal that Columbus prepared was no accident.  They point to at least four similar cases where people who had disagreements with Columbus were invited to dinner at his house, ate, and died hours later.  They claim that Columbus killed them with ‘cantarella, a poison commonly used at the time.  Others claim that these were just coincidences. 


The Papal Bull

Isabella of Castille was the queen of Spain.  She had great connections: her brother-in-law was Rodregio DeBorgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI.  He was the most powerful leader in Europe.  As we will see shortly, Europe had an income tax: the people all had to pay 10% of their incomes to the church.  The Pope got this money.  He was the one with all the gold and, in the society in place at the time, the one with the gold made the rules. 

On May 4, 1493, the Pope issued a formal proclamation known as ‘The Bull Inter Caetera.’

The people in Europe didn’t know whether the land Columbus had landed on was in the Indian Ocean or in some other sea.  It didn’t matter.  The Pope, acting on behalf of God Himself (as the bull notes) had decided to draw a line from the ‘Arctic Pole’ to the ‘Antarctic Pole’ that ran through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Everything west of this line that was not already claimed by a Christian king would belong to his sister-in-law and her husband for the rest of time.  Here are some excerpts from the document:


We have indeed learned that you, who for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others and you, with the wish to fulfill your desire, chose our beloved son, Christopher Columbus, to make diligent quest for these remote and unknown mainlands and islands through the sea; and they at length discovered certain very remote islands and even mainlands that hitherto had not been discovered by others; wherein dwell very many peoples living in peace, and, as reported, going unclothed, and not eating flesh. 

In the islands and countries already discovered are found gold, spices, and very many other precious things of divers kinds and qualities.  We, by the authority of Almighty God which we hold on earth, do by tenor of these presents; we give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter, the said line to be distant one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores.  


Columbus immediately began outfitting for his second voyage.  He equipped a total of 17 ships and over 1,000 men, most of whom assumed the title that implied their mission: Conquistadors. 

They were going to conquer the lands that the creator of existence had just given to their bosses, the King and Queen of Spain. 


The Most Important Priorities of Discovery

Under the terms of the Capitulations of Santa Fe, Columbus was made ‘Admiral, Vice-Roy, and Governor’ of the new discoveries.  After he returned, he began laying out his priorities.  Here is what he considers important to the King and Queen:


Most High and Mighty Sovereigns,

In obedience to your Highnesses’ commands, and with submission to superior judgment, I will say whatever occurs to me in reference to the colonization and commerce of the Island of Espanola.  In the said island there shall be founded three or four towns, situated in the most convenient places.  For the better and more speedy colonization of the said island, no one shall have liberty to collect gold in it except those who have taken out colonists’ papers.  None of the colonists shall go to seek gold without a license from the governor or Mayor of the town where he lives; and that he must first take oath to return to the place whence he sets out, for the purpose of registering faithfully all the gold he may have found, and to return once a month, or once a week, as the time may have been set for him, to render account and show the quantity of said gold; and that this shall be written down by the notary before the Mayor.

That all the gold thus brought in shall be smelted immediately, and stamped with some mark that shall distinguish each town; and that the portion which belongs to your Highnesses shall be weighed, and given and consigned to each Mayor in his own town, and registered by the above-mentioned priest or friar, so that it shall not pass through the hands of only one person, and there shall be no opportunity to conceal the truth. 

That all gold that may be found without the mark of one of the said towns in the possession of any one who has once registered in accordance with the above order shall be taken as forfeited, and that the accuser shall have one portion of it and your Highnesses the other.

As regards the division of the gold, and the share that ought to be reserved for your Highnesses, this, in my opinion, must be left to the aforesaid governor and treasurer, because it will have to be greater or less according to the quantity of gold that may be found.  Or, should it seem preferable, your Highnesses might, for the space of one year, take one half, and the collector the other, and a better arrangement for the division be made afterward.

As, in the eagerness to get gold, every one will wish, naturally, to engage in its search in preference to any other employment, it seems to me that the privilege of going to look for gold ought to be withheld during some portion of each year, that there may be opportunity to have the other business necessary for the island performed. 


It goes on and on about the details of the security of this metal and ends:


I beg your Highnesses to hold me in your protection; and I remain, praying our Lord God for your Highnesses’ lives and the increase of much greater States.


This letter really illustrates the point made above. 

In societies that are built around the idea of ownability of parts of the world, people can gain virtually unlimited wealth if they can buy parts of the world.  (The land produces value indefinitely; any flow of value extended forever is an unlimited amount of wealth.) To become the owner of a part of the world, they need to get something that people who conquer the land will accept in exchange for the land.  The conquerors of land need something they can trade for weapons so they can hold their land and conquer more.  The weapon makers accept gold.  The conquerors therefore accept gold.  If you have enough gold, you can buy a part of the planet.  You give the owner/conqueror of the land a little bag of gold dust.  In return, a part of the planet belongs to you forever.

The Western Hemisphere had a great many things of value.  However, as the letter above shows, none of them mattered compared to the really important thing: gold. 

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