From the beginning of European expansion, natural knowledge was both its precondition and its constantly developing product. Over the course of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese voyages of exploration in the western and southern Atlantic and along the coast of Africa promoted the development of new knowledge regarding marine navigation and orientation, as well as the ability to rule the seas. They led to new experiences as new seas were sailed and new coasts explored, as the equator was crossed, and as the stars of the southern hemisphere were described. Geography emerged as an independent discipline concerned with the systematic description of the inhabited earth. Encounters with previously unknown lands, peoples, animals, plants, and minerals expanded the frontiers of the ancient and medieval knowledge of the world and changed theoretical understandings of nature. As Peter Martyr of Anghiera (1457–1526), chronicler for King Ferdinand of Aragon, put it, “our pregnant ocean here bears new children every hour.”
Peter Martyr’s early accounts of the “New World” testify to the richness and scope of the European quest for natural knowledge in the first decades of the sixteenth century. In 1493, a few months after the return of Columbus, the Italian scholar began his tenure as royal chronicler by relating reports of the western discoveries. His accumulated works, consisting of letters to his friend Cardinal Ascanio Sforza and other – mostly Roman – personalities, were included in all important European travel collections from 1507 onward. In 1516, he combined the thirty books (in three “decades”) of his writings into a single edition, published in Alcalà and dedicated to Charles, the young king of Spain who later became Emperor Charles V.