- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

When Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, empire-building European countries rushed to explore the New World and lay claim to its land and resources.
It was this climate of cutthroat competition, says ex-CIA analyst Peter Dickson, that led the Portuguese to launch an expedition that sailed around South America and into the Pacific Ocean and then try to cover up the discovery.
Most historians believe that in 1513, Spaniard Vasco de Balboa was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. But Mr. Dickson, a retired CIA analyst living in Arlington who holds master's degrees in government, philosophy and history, is trying to change all that.
He has concluded that the Portuguese secretly sailed around the tip of South America at least a decade before Balboa's famed trek across the Isthmus of Panama. Mr. Dickson will share his research today at 2 p.m. at a Library of Congress lecture. The full text of his findings will appear in the magazine Exploring Mercator's World.
Mr. Dickson gleaned his conclusions from 16th-century sources, including pieces from a small globe, a geographical essay and the Waldseemuller Map, which the Library of Congress is purchasing from Germany for $10 million.
Created in 1507, the globe, essay and map were part of a large-scale project in St. Die, France. There, a team of geographers, led by mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller, sorted through and compiled much of the new geographical information made available by explorers.
Conventional wisdom has Balboa reaching the Pacific in 1513 and Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailing into it sometime between 1519 and 1522. Before then, scholars believe, geographers thought only one ocean separated Europe from Asia.
Mr. Dickson first saw the Waldseemuller Map in 1995. "I was blown away that they got the basic pieces of the puzzle correct," he says. The map, while somewhat crudely drawn, did approximate the size and shape of South America.
Last January, while working on a bibliography about the Waldseemuller Map, Mr. Dickson noticed a small detail on the globe pieces. On the globe, the mapmakers applied the label "Oceanus Occidentalis" to what is now the Pacific Ocean.
The term, which means "western ocean," referred to the Atlantic at the time. This implied, to Mr. Dickson, that the Portuguese knew the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were separate but connected.
Spurred by this strange detail, Mr. Dickson started studying the Waldseemuller Map more closely. He soon noticed the map accurately depicted the angular shift in the western coast where present-day Chile and Peru meet.
The map located the bend between 18 and 19 degrees latitude south virtually an exact match with modern maps.
"That's a key geographic feature," says Mr. Dickson. "It's very distinct."
The map also shows the Andes mountains, which aren't visible from the eastern coast.
Mr. Dickson started checking the measurements of the continent in latitude and longitude. They were 90 percent accurate, he says.
Finally, he turned his attention to the essay that accompanied the map. It described the newly discovered land as an island, which "implies the ability to sail around to the south without actually saying that someone had really done that," Mr. Dickson says.
From there he connected the dots. The Portuguese, not Balboa, first discovered the Pacific, Mr. Dickson concluded.
While Mr. Dickson is satisfied with his evidence, some experts aren't. David Woodward, a geographer from the University of Wisconsin, says theories like Mr. Dickson's are common.
"A lot more evidence, including archival evidence, is needed to postulate such a voyage," Mr. Woodward says. "Correlation of a position on an old map with today's knowledge does not prove that anyone was actually there. It could be a coincidence."
And if Mr. Dickson is right, why would the Portuguese be so secretive about their discovery?
"[The early 16th century] was a moment when secret knowledge was of great value," says Mr. Dickson. "You had a competitive advantage if you were exploring."
In addition to military and political advantage, such information had economic value. The Waldseemuller Map cuts off the southern tip of South America, which lay in Spanish territory, implying that there was no way around the continent. But the trade route around Africa a route controlled by the Portuguese, incidentally is clearly marked.
"They were dying of curiosity," Mr. Dickson says. "I think the Portuguese were determined, once they found Brazil, to find out if there was another strait that could pose problems for their African route."
"This map is biased towards Portugal," he continues. "They were stepping around the awkward truth. They didn't lay all the cards on the table in any map or in writing."
John Hebert, chief of the geography and map division at the Library of Congress, says an early Portuguese expedition is "highly possible." That such a voyage would remain secret is also likely.
"[The map] hasn't been thoroughly studied from the angle of, 'What was its intention?'" Mr. Hebert says.
Mr. Dickson says: "You have to be thinking about all the pieces of this puzzle: the globe, the essay and the map. Nobody did that."
Most scholars, he says, focused on the map's use of the name "America" for the New World. The label earned the map the nickname "America's birth certificate." Mr. Waldseemuller believed that Amerigo Vespucci first discovered the South American mainland in 1497.
"If there's another artifact that has more packed in it of global significance, I don't know what it is," says Mr. Dickson. "My discovery underscores the importance of the map."
Mr. Dickson doesn't have ties to any universities, a fact he says helps his research. "That's one of the reasons I made this discovery," he says. "If you're in one of the universities, you accept orthodoxies, and it's hard to push against the conventional wisdom. The academic world is not a place where you end up making great breakthroughs in the humanities."
Long thought to be lost, the Waldseemuller Map sat in a castle in southern Germany for 350 years until its rediscovery in 1901.
The Library of Congress is trying to raise an additional $3.5 million to purchase the map, which measures approximately 36 square feet, from its German owner.
"This isn't a Columbus thing all over again," says Mr. Hebert, referring to the controversy of where exactly Columbus landed in 1492. "It begins the search for answers all over again."


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