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The Trade Winds and Westerlies that Defined the World Order

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Pesse Canoe: One of the oldest boats ever discovered

Pesse Canoe: One of the oldest boats ever discovered

A tale of Two Winds

Half an hour before sunrise on a Friday morning, 3rd August 1492, three ships set sail from the port of Palos in Spain. The people who assembled to see the ships off were gloomy and some were even crying as they bade goodbyes to their friends and relatives travelling aboard the ship as if they were never to meet them again. The names of the ships were Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina. The Captain of the fleet was Christopher Columbus. If the winds of the sea would favour them, Columbus was hoping to travel west and arrive on the shores of India, based on the faulty maps of those times. The wind did not play havoc on their onward journey to the west, but they also took the fleet of Columbus thousands of miles further than they had planned, as there was no land to be seen en route, until arriving on the shores of North America, the New World. The sea remained dead calm throughout most of their journey, unnaturally so, triggering forebodings and superstitions, and the crew were on the brink of a mutiny when they reached one of the islands that flanked the North American mainland. On his return to Spain after a few days, Columbus and his crew were in for an unanticipated surprise- scowling tempests, and an extremely bumpy sea. The voyage of Columbus thus can also be told as the tale of two winds.

Roman War Ships

Ancient Voyages

Ocean travel has a history of about 7000 years, according to the World History Encyclopaedia. It is believed that the Sumerians created the first boat in 3600 BCE. The oldest remains of a boat ever found are the Pesse canoe in the Netherlands and another boat in Kuwait, both 7000 years old. The civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt also developed the skill to make boats out of reeds and Papyrus. There is evidence to suggest that the queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458) of Egypt made expeditions to Punt in reed boats across the sea, Punt being somewhere in Africa, as researchers are not yet able to agree on a specific location. The Egyptian records from that era say that the Kingdom of Punt was a land of plenty, a land of the gods, where the Egyptians bought gold, ebony, wild animals, ivory, and spices. On this voyage, Hatshepsut is reported to have brought live trees to Egypt to be planted there. Egypt had no trees as good to build stronger boats and ships.

Reed Boat


Early Voyages: Close to the Shorelines

The early sea voyages had one common character- the voyagers were careful not to lose sight of the land. Nubian, a distinguished Arab writer of the Middle Ages wrote the below words about the Atlantic Ocean, reflecting the fear that filled the human heart when it watched the unknown expanses and the infinite horizon of the sea-

The ocean encircles the ultimate bounds of the inhabited earth, and all beyond it is unknown. No one has been able to verify anything concerning it, on account of its difficult and perilous navigation, its great obscurity, its profound depth, and frequent tempests; through fear of its mighty fishes, and its haughty winds; yet there are many islands in it, some peopled, others uninhabited. There is no mariner who dares to enter into its deep waters; or if any have done so, they have merely kept along its coasts, fearful of departing from them.

The Ancient Uluburun Shipwreck: Reconstruction

Uluburun Ship Wreck to Christopher Columbus

The Uluburun shipwreck found off the coast of Turkey is the oldest shipwreck ever excavated by archaeologists and belongs to the Late Bronze Age. The artefacts on the ship indicate that it was a trade ship. There were goods from Egypt, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia on this ship, pieces of evidence that reveal there were sea trade routes in operation during the Bronze Age. The Mediterranean Sea was the backdrop of these adventurous travels and no one dared to go beyond the Mediterranean. The Indus Valley civilisation of Mohenjo Daro also has 5000-year-old pictures of boats and sea voyages. Phoenicians with their efficiently crafted boats were the first to circumnavigate Africa in their trade travels. After the first Punic war in 254-241 BCE, Rome became the leading country of sea navigation. By 9 CE, the Vikings from Scandinavia began to arrive on the European coasts on their sophisticated ships to carry out ruthless raids and loot the churches and wealthy villages. They were the first Europeans to drop anchor on the North American coast, centuries earlier than Christopher Columbus, according to later evidence. All these sea voyages were made possible by the winds, mostly the westerlies and the trade winds.

The Science of Winds

The winds of the earth are categorised into five wind zones-

Polar easterlies


Horse latitudes

Trade winds

The doldrums.

While polar easterlies are felt in the sub-polar regions and horse latitudes blow mainly in deserts, the westerlies and trade winds gust above the oceans. The doldrums are the zone where the trade winds from both hemispheres converge, creating calmer weather. Here I tell you the story of trade winds and westerlies as they were the wind zones that changed the course of history and politics. To keep your ship on course with the wind is the simplest method of navigation but the unpredictability of winds can be a challenge for a sailor. When there is the slightest change in the wind, the ship has either to change course or trim the sails. Sea swells, the sun, and the stars helped the ancient sailors to keep the ship in the desired direction with or against winds. When the compass was invented, sailing in the right direction became easier and more accurately doable. The winds tend to shift course more often than the sea currents. The early seafarers used to fly strips of fine clothes from the boom of the ship to know the direction of the wind. Under a cloudy sky, the wind changes direction more frequently.

The Global Wind Patterns


Wind Changed Everything

The early seafarers had to learn how to follow the winds and navigate the unknown expanses of blue water that surrounded their landmasses commanding awe and fear. The trade winds are the winds that blow in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. For most of the year, the trade winds move from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. One of the most studied and renowned wind phenomena, the Southeast Asian Monsoon is a seasonal trade wind that has a heavy moisture content.

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The Westerlies blow from the west and are strengthened by the polar easterlies, and they remain fierce during winter, and comparatively mild in summer. Roaring Forties, the wind zone between 40 and 50 degrees latitude in the Southern Hemisphere are the most vicious of westerlies because, in its course, there is very little land to slow it down, the only big enough land masses being the tip of South America and Australia, and the islands of New Zealand. The largest ocean current in the world, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, is created by westerlies. Trade winds are more predictable than the westerlies. Understanding the trade winds and westerlies was the first step for early sailors to navigate the sea far from the coast and into the unknown vastness. These winds made possible human connections across the continents, empire building, cultural exchanges, and the beginning of globalisation and new world order. Across the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, the trade winds facilitated most of the explorations and trade travels.

Understanding the Winds

The Arabs of Mesopotamia were the first to try to measure latitudes and calculate the circumference of the earth. Pliny The Elder, Strabo, Mela, Pomponius, and Ptolemies further worked to advance the science of geography. Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Book VI describes Asia, India in more detail, its people, customs and the sea trade routes that Romans used to reach India. As early as the 1st century BC, Hippalus, a navigator and trader, discovered the monsoon winds in the Indian ocean. Hippalus wrote the book, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and is supposed to have found the direct sea route from the Red Sea to South India.

The Faulty Toscanelli Map Used by Columbus to Navigate to North America

The map was prepared by the Italian mathematician, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli

The map was prepared by the Italian mathematician, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli

The Age of Exploration

Beginning from the 1400s and extending beyond the 1600s explorers and traders travelled through the sea from Europe to the spice capitals of the world, Asia and Australia. This period is called the age of exploration or the age of sail. Spain, Portugal, and Britain were the leaders of these sea voyages as their ships were of superior quality, and these travels helped them build colonies and empires in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is no accident that the age of exploration coincided with the Renaissance period in Europe as new ideas and thoughts always lead to new adventures and discoveries. All these also usher in wealth creation. The discovery of sea routes also arose from a felt need to find an alternative path to Asia to the pre-existing land routes as the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople in 1453 and closed down these land routes for Europe. In the age of exploration, both individuals and nations involved in these sea voyages and trades profited, though often exploiting the native people.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian sailor, proved that ancient travellers, even before the beginning of sea navigation as suggested by historical evidence, might have used the winds to travel across continents and that the trade winds could blow a ship from Egypt to America. To prove his point, he navigated from Peru to French Polynesia, a distance of around 6,920 kilometres, in a no-motor, windsail raft, just depending on the winds.

Henry the Navigator

Dom Henrique, or Prince Henry the Navigator, the ruler of Portugal in the 15th century, laid the foundation for the maritime expansion of the Portuguese Empire by sending ships to explore the west coast of Africa. In continuation of this pursuit, in 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias ) unwittingly navigated around the southern tip of Africa (Cape of Good Hope) and entered the Indian Ocean. In the same period, Christopher Columbus postulated that sea vessels could navigate west of the Canary Islands and reach India by manipulating the trade winds and westerlies.

Prince Henry the Navigator


The Voyage of Columbus

To leave the Canary Islands out of sight and venture into the sea beyond was a really dangerous endeavour in the days of Christopher Columbus. The canaries were the frontier islands and to enter the unknown distances of the Atlantic beyond that was unheard of. This was exactly what Columbus intended to do. The westerlies and especially the roaring forties were the worst nightmare of sailors if they wanted to sail westwards. The voyage of Columbus to find a westward sea route to India and Asia began from the port of Palos in Spain as mentioned earlier. His three ships reached the Canary Islands but to get further westwards, out of sight of the Canary Islands, he needed favourable winds. For this to happen, he had to wait three days in the outer sea as the waters remained windless for three days and the calm kept his vessels still close to the Islands. Once a breeze carried them to the sea beyond the visible limits of Ferro, the last island of the Canaries, the journey in its real sense began. Throughout their journey, Columbus’s ships met with favourable weather though the speculated days to arrive on the shores of Asia were long past and still, there was no sign of land. On the 12th of October, they touched shore in North America, (Columbus thought he had reached India) after travelling thousands of kilometres more than they anticipated. However, on his return to Spain, Columbus faced raucous winds that even prompted him to think that he might die in a shipwreck. To be on the safe side of things, and to keep the knowledge of the new land he collected intact even if his ships sank, Columbus wrote down the details of his voyage on parchment, covered it to make it waterproof, and put it in a barrel hoping it to be found by someone, someday. Such was the fear and uncertainty that the winds instilled in him.

The Voyage of Vasco Da Gama: Another Wind Zone

It was during the time of the second voyage of Columbus to the New World that the Portuguese sea captain Vasco Da Gama undertook another trailblazing sea voyage and reached South India circumventing the Cape of Good Hope, in Africa. At that time, the cape was known as the Cape of Storms, rightly so because many ships were wrecked by winds in its bay. The path around it was already charted by Bartolomeu Dias as mentioned before. Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, and Saint Rafael were the three ships that ventured into the sea under Gama’s mission. For five months they travelled in the Atlantic and weathering the fierce storms and lashing ocean waves, circumvented the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean. The terrifying weather pushed the majority of sailors to the edge of a mutiny but Gama singled out the defectors and put them in shackles. In a fit of anger and show of confidence, Gama even threw his navigation instruments into the sea and declared that he needed only God to safely navigate the ships to the shores of India. The compass was in a rudimentary stage of development those days and of not much use and the only dependable ‘signposts’ were the polar star and the Great Bear constellation. One could only imagine what went through the minds of those sailors standing on the deck of their cumbersome vessels tossed over and hit by incessant storms and waves, and squinting to see the polar star beyond the hazy clouds above.

The Voyages Made to the New World by and after Columbus

Magellan’s Expedition

Ferdinand Magellan’s sea voyage commenced in 1519 to find the Spice Islands near Indonesia but he reached the southeastern side of South America. He crossed the Atlantic and passed through a narrow passage that connected the Atlantic Ocean to another sea, which he named the Pacific Ocean, meaning the peaceful sea. The passage that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific is named after Magellan- the Strait of Magellan. The Pacific Ocean is the largest and the deepest ocean on earth and Magellan’s naming it calm is just a misnomer. Magellan’s ships met with favourable winds in the Pacific but this ocean can be as treacherous as any other. Crossing the Pacific, Megallen’s crew entered the Indian Ocean, and steered back home, thus rounding the globe a full circle. Megallen did not live to see this as he was killed in the battle of Mactan in today’s Philippines.

Finding Australia: Captain James Cook

Ancient Romans and Greeks had talked about a mysterious and large island in the southern sea and called it Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern land. The 1768 voyage of Captain James Cook resulted in finding and claiming the land of Australia for the British Empire. The journal of Captain Cook describes the different types of winds his ship experienced in the south sea- from a gentle breeze to a “terrible storm of thunder and lightning accompanied with very heavy rain” to a strong gale to a top-gallant gale.

A Typical Sail-Powered Ship

Winds in Modern Navigation

Modern ships still have wind indicators. To steer clear of storms and gales, navigators use the information gained from these. For smaller boats with sails and recreational boats such as yachts, knowing the direction and strength of the winds is paramount for a safe journey.

Modern sail Ships

New Age Sails

Different wind propulsion technologies such as soft sail, hard sail, suction wings, and kite sails are still being developed and researched so that wind-based navigation can supplement the modern fuel-based navigation, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the shipping sector.


History of Ancient Sea Travel: Trade, Burials and Maritime Cultures, World History Encyclopaedia, Youtube,

Punt, World History Encyclopaedia.

Wind, National Geographic.

Introduction to Exploration of North America.

Eastern Trade of the Roman Empire Based on Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, Melinda Szekely.

History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce, Volume 1, William Schaw Lindsay.
Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Washington Irving, 1892.

The Romance of Navigation: A Brief Record of Maritime Discovery from the Earliest Times to the 18th Century, Henry Frith, 1893.

The Voyages of Captain Cook, James Cook, 1999.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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