Review: Explorers of the New World
Product Information System Requirements
Distributed by Softkey International Inc.
One Antnenaeum Street
Cambridge, Mass 02142
Street Price: $39.95
Mac with 68030 25 MHz or better processor
Minimum 8 MB RAM
Minimum 13" monitor with 256 colors
System 7.1 or later
By sheer coincidence, several months ago I chose to review the multimedia CD-ROM entitled: Explorers of the New World without remembering that here, in Canada, we were about to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the landing of John Cabot and his ship, the Matthew, on our east coast. This CD, issued by SoftKey Multimedia Inc., documents the activities and accomplishments of European explorers who sailed the oceans from 1450 A.D to 1600 A.D. in search of “New Worlds,” adventure, fortune and fame.
This production, which can be run directly from the CD, chronicles the histories of three famous voyagers: Christopher Columbus’ (1451-1547) voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to discover the New World, the conquest of the Aztec Nation by Hernan Cortes (1485-1547), and the circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521). Another sixty explorers and their accomplishments are documented to a lesser degree. The initial “splash screen” allows easy access to the narratives of the three main characters.
A mouse-click on any one of the three figures brings up an illustrated story line with narration. Also shown are the “hotspots” which take you to the other areas of information including “Other Explorers,” “Timeline,” “Database,” and a general “Tour” of the CD contents. The “Compass,” at the lower left corner of the screen, is a user friendly control panel allowing you to move back and forth in the program, get “Help,” view the CD contents in a diagrammatic tree form, or quit the CD entirely.
The stories of all three major sea captains have similar formats. Each character introduces his intentions via a Quicktime narration followed by a “Map Screen,” keyed with the important aspects of his journey. A mouse-click on anyone of the active “Map Screen” icons will take you to a narrated, illustrated tour of that specific event or phenomenon.
”Theatrical vignettes, in the form of QuickTime movies, are cleverly integrated into landscapes. Textual material is accompanied by interesting ambient musical accompaniment. Slight variations in formats for the "Big Three" give a good historical and cultural context of the times. This prevents any feeling of redundancy in the material.
Subjects range from entertaining trivia to fascinating historical information. The "Navigational Instruments" icon in the Columbus story has an adequate discussion of the instruments and methods whereby the early ocean sailors managed journeys on the open seas. Their use of the quadrant, compass, and "dead reckoning" for navigation would amaze travelers of our century who are accustomed to pinpoint radar positioning. For Columbus and his contemporaries, reckoning wrong meant that the phrase "dead reckoning" could (and often did) take on a literal meaning!
Activating the "Fighting the Tlaxcaltecs" icon in the Cortes journey initiates an interesting discussion of weapons and warfare between European and Aboriginal peoples. In this case, I was amazed at the effectiveness of the native weaponry. The Macuahuitl sword, capable of beheading a horse with a single blow, often balanced the Spaniards' arsenal of horse and canon.
A mouse-click on the "Trinidad" ship icon in the Magellan section brings into view a 3-D model of a ship typical of that period. Also illustrated are various aspects of life aboard ship. One amusingly ironic fact was that since most of the drinking water on the ships spoiled, two liters of wine were issued daily as a substitute. This led to most men serving their watch "slightly tipsy."
A number of the screens are interactive, allowing the user to activate items ranging from a native village to a view of the Court of the European Royalty which sponsored Columbus' voyages to the workings of an Aztec Palace (Cortes).
The information content may seem rather sparse from time to time, yet taken together, the total material yields a reasonable foundation for understanding the "breed of men who were far from content to stay within the confines of their world." Hollywood-driven action movies sometimes pale in comparison to the dangers faced by seafaring individuals. In the case of Magellan, five ships and 258 men left home port. At the conclusion of their "adventures" during a three year circumnavigation of the globe, only one ship and 18 men returned home. Kevin Costner and Water World are child's play by comparison - Shame! The exploration and exploitation of the New World, fantasy or otherwise, are more than just shoot 'em up macho scenarios.
Clicking on the "Other Explorers" sailor from the start-up "Splash Screen" takes you to the hold of a ship containing barrels with the letters of the alphabet emblazoned on them. Clicking on a barrel will generate a list of explorers alphabetized by last name within the range of letters depicted on the barrel icon. Each name can be activated to call up information and maps associated with that captain's journey(s) and accomplishments. You can access this same information via the "Database" section. I prefer the "Database" approach because it is a cleaner interface for accessing all relevant material, including individual portraits (where available), textual material, map(s) with hyperlinks between map location and relevant text, and a "Print" option. Furthermore, the "Database" section allowed for individual word searches against all "Other Explorer" text areas.
The "TimeLine" section is divided into two linear streams. The top stream indicates exploration activities within the 1415 A.D. to 1625 A.D. timeframe. The lower stream denotes corresponding historical events; however, this data is rather minimal and sometimes obscure. For example, paralleling the completion of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1506) with the publication of a world map (1507) by cartographer Waldseemuler (which included the first "America" labeling of the newly discovered continent) or pairing the Portuguese discovery of the Azore Islands (1427) with the Death of Joan of Arc (1431) is interesting, but of minimal use to someone whose primary interest is global exploration. More relevant connections to Galileo's and Kepler's discoveries or discussion of the technological, economic, and political underpinnings of the featured explorations and conquests would have been of greater help.
A final section, "Impact," lists about twenty items of export and import that affected both the Old and New Worlds and hence the future of the following centuries. Most everyone is aware that tobacco importation from the New World to Europe developed from its historical use in the New World for ritual and "medicinal" purposes. Less well known is that the New World tomato (once thought by the Europeans to be poisonous) became the European basis for pizza and the twentieth century condiment of choice for french fries, ketchup. My favorite Old World use of New World imports is corn/maize. This product, initially valued for its ability to grow in difficult soil regions in Europe, has become the basis of today's automotive "Gasohol!" Anything to help in today's world of extreme industrial pollution and global warming. The Old World, in turn, exported grapes to the New World, which eventually became the bases of the California wine industry.
Coffee and olives were also key Old World to New World exports and became economic commodities for the future countries of Latin America, Chile and Peru. A brief mention is made of some psychological, social, and health "Impacts" on the New World. Smallpox, STDs, cultural disruption, warfare, and slavery are only a few of the less pleasant aspects of European contact with the cultures of the New World.
While examining this CD, I decided to check back on John Cabot and his voyage in the Matthew. Activating the "Other Explorers" section and then "Cabot," I read that he had discovered his section of the New World by landing at Labrador! Mmmm, I think not! Historians recognize three possible landing sites: Bonavista in Newfoundland, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, or possibly somewhere in Maine, U.S.A. A double check in the Microsoft® Encarta® 96 Encyclopedia did not support the Labrador landing site.
I am not an expert in "Other Explorers'" histories, so I cannot attest to the accuracy of the information contained in those sections. However, I was disappointed that the production did not contain a bibliography to facilitate additional reading for the student user. In its present form, "Explorers of the New World" is an interesting family library addition and a moderately useful research and study resource for grade school and high school students. As a final footnote, I must admit that the CD-ROM contents did lend a better contextual understanding for me when I had the chance to view the film, The Mission, starring Robert De Niro. This excellent film, set during the era of "Explorers of the New World," emphasizes the ambiance of that time and the battle between the Portuguese and Spaniards for New World supremacy at any cost. Rent the video. Even Leonard Maltin (Movie and Video review Guru) gives the film an above average rating! ®
If you wish to examine an interesting shareware program dealing with the same explorer topic, boot up the old Internet connection and go to the URL:
Do a search for "Explorers" and download the shareware ($15) program produced by The Iverson Software Co. The timeframe is more expansive, including a Viking favorite: Eric the Red (c.950-1001), and even "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?"