BEHAIM, Martin (Martim/Martinho da Boémia/Bohemia) (1459-1507)
German Merchant and adventurer, promoter of the construction of the famous Terrestrial Globe named after him, controversial figure in the history of Overseas Expansion.
Born in Nuremberg in High Germany on 6 October, 1459, he was the son of Martin Behaim von Schwarzbach and Agnes Schopper. The Behaims belonged to the Nuremberg nobility and earned their living through commerce, as did almost all of the aristocrats of this city. Martin Behaim received his training as a merchant in the Low Countries (Mecheln, Antwerp). He had familial and professional ties to the Hirschvogels, one of the commercial houses of Nuremberg that would subsequently invest in the spice trade. Behaim departed to Portugal in mid-year 1484. In February of the following year, he was knighted by King Dom João II in Alcáçovas. After that, he traveled to the west coast of Africa at least once. His participation in Diogo Cão’s voyage remains unproven, although it is mentioned in the Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber cronicarum, 1493), authored by Hartmann Schedel. According to E. G. Ravenstein’s research, there is a higher probability that Behaim participated in a Portuguese expedition to the Guinea coast, with mainly a commercial purpose, such as, for example João, Afonso de Aveiro’s enterprising voyage to Benin. Whether Behaim intended to participate in Fernão Dumo’s planned expedition to the legendary Island of the Seven Cities remains uncertain. His marriage to Joana de Macedo, daughter of the Flemish Donatory-captain of the islands of Pico and Faial, Josse van Hurtere, and of Brites de Macedo took place sometime in the 1480s. A son was born on 6 April, 1489, from Behaim’s marriage and was named after his father. In 1490 Behaim traveled from Lisbon to Nuremberg, where he remained until 1493. During his stay in the imperial city, the famous Erdapfel, the oldest Terrestrial Globe still in existence, was constructed by a Ruprecht Kolberger, in accordance with the information provided by Behaim. In 1493, after a short stay in Portugal, Behaim traveled to the Low Countries. A letter he sent in March 1494 from Antwerp to a cousin from Nuremberg reveals that he had two roles at this time, as envoy of King Dom João II and commercial representative for his father-in-law in business related to sugar. In a post scriptum to this letter, he indicated that he would be living in the Azores in the future. Here we lose track of Behaim, until a few months prior to his death. It is known that he was in Lisbon in 1507, where he died on 29 July, completely impoverished.
The history of Martin Behaim life is one of the most enigmatic chapters in the history of Portuguese-German relations. In the last two-hundred years, the blending of fact and legend around this controversial figure distort his biography, not infrequently giving rise to lasting controversies. Based on some of the written sources that appeared decades after his death, his apologists have credited him with achievements, such as being a great discoverer, a friend of Christopher Columbus, a member of the mysterious Junta de Matemáticos, and an excellent cartographer and cosmographer, who introduced in Portugal the astrolabe, the balestilha, and the astronomical tables of the famous German mathematician and astonomer Regiomontanus. Behaim “took great pride in being his disciple” [João de Barros, Ásia (I. década, 4. liv., cap. 2)]. In the beginning of the 20th century, E. G. Ravenstein showed that none of these supposed accomplishments have been confirmed, due to lack of conclusive evidence. Ravenstein is supported by Joaquim Bensaúde and other Portuguese historians, who attributed to Behaim an insignificant role in the History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, in clear contrast with German nationalist historiography, where Behaim’s feats continued to be lauded. Only after the second half of the 20th century is there a tendency to relativize the Nuremberg merchant’s role, generally based on Ravenstein’s voiced criticism.
Nevertheless, that Behaim helped to spread the news related to Portuguese Overseas Discoveries throughout the Holy Roman German Empire cannot be denied. The information that he conveyed led to more intense intellectual activity on the part of German humanists, with a focus on Portugal. Behaim’s Globe, although generally still representing the pre-Columbian world, reveals that Portuguese Maritime Expansion contributed to the development of a new image of the world and led to heated erudite debate, especially in Nuremberg. Emperor Maximilian I participated in this debate himself, as documented in a letter dated 14 July, 1493, from the Nuremberg physician and humanist, Hieronymus Münzer, to King Dom João II. In this letter, a joint voyage of discovery was proposed to the King of Portugal, via the West, heading for Cathay, where the lands of spice were expected to be found. The document proves that Behaim and Münzer shared the same idea that Columbus was trying to carry out from 1492 on. It is not certain how many maritime expeditions Behaim participated in; however, according to information from the Globe and other sources close to him, he must have visited the coastal region of the Gulf of Guinea and participated in fighting against the “infidels.” He also knew the Archipelago of the Azores, to which he was connected by family ties. When he lived in mainland Portugal, he was at King Dom João II’s Court, in contact with Portuguese navigators. Through Diogo Gomes de Sintra, he learned about the history of the discovery of Guinea, as shown in the Valentim Fernandes Manuscript, which includes the document entitled «De prima inuentione Guinee», also known as the “Behaim-Gomes Report.”
Independently of the evaluation of his role in the Portuguese Discoveries, it should be noted that Martin Behaim personifies the first generation of merchants from High Germany established in Portugal who would become quite important to the development of Portuguese-German relations in the 16th century.
RAVENSTEIN, Ernest George, Martin Behaim, his Life and his Globe, London, Philip & son, 1908; POHLE, Jürgen, Martin Behaim (Martinho da Boémia): Factos, Lendas e Controvérsias, Coimbra, CIEG/ MinervaCoimbra, 2007.
Author: Jürgen Pohle
Translated by: Maria João Pimentel