'For as long as man can remember, there has been Rome, ruled by the Romans. One can scarcely believe this may some day soon change. The light of Rome has shone upon the ages. Yet this light does not come from the lands or the ruins of the past, but from its people. Fate, it seems, has ordained that the Romans cannot carry on this legacy in the lands of our forefathers. For some, it would seem this is the end. But perhaps we may yet live on. There is land enough for that.' -attributed to Manuel II Palaiologos, last Emperor of the Romans
Historians may long debate the authenticity of the pronouncement issued by the Emperor Manuel Palaiologos in 1419, but in serves to encapsulate in brief the astounding series of events that transpired in the aftermath of the fall of the old Byzantine Empire.
The Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, New Rome, whatever title one deigns to assign to this realm of medieval Greeks, was, at the turn of the 15th Century, dying a long, slow death. By all rights, Byzantium should have been swept off the map decades, if not centuries, prior. But luck and staunch determination proved otherwise. An empire that had once stretched from the gates of Persia in the east to the Iberian Peninsula in the west was by 1418 reduced to a few tiny enclaves in the Greek mainland. Most important of these enclaves was Constantinople, where the emperors awaited their inevitable destruction at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
We do not know what inspired, or prompted, Manuel Palaiologos to abandon Constantinople to the enemy. Some claim it was divine inspiration, others that it was the mark of a deranged mind broken by the sorrow of defeat. More likely, it was the last act of a desperate king unable to see any other means of survival. In 1418, the emperor dispatched embassies to the distant Kingdom of Castile in the hopes of enlisting the Spaniards' support for a Crusade to repel the Ottoman tidal wave. Unsurprisingly, such entreaties were met without sympathy; Castile had its own problems to deal with; Constantinople could wait.
Years before, Manuel Palaiologos had journeyed to Iberia in a first effort to enlist help from the West. It is most likely through this visit that he learned of the Canary Islands off the western coast of Africa, tenuously controlled by the Castilians. The Byzantine embassy made a truly unique proposal that certainly caught the attention of King Juan II: an expedition of as many Greeks as Manuel could hope to muster would journey across the Mediterranean and settle on the small chain of islands to civilize it in the name of the Castilian throne. The King, taken by the novelty of the proposal, accepted.
A most unusual propostion.
Manuel had significantly greater difficulty explaining his decision to his court and the people of Constantinople. The empire, he argued, was doomed to fall. The West would not lift a finger to save it. By fleeing to the distant corners of the world, the Greeks might start anew, bide their time, and return in a time when the nations of the West were ready to fight the Turks for possession of Constantinople. The Patriarch thought him mad, refusing to leave his city, while many nobles likewise vowed to fight to the end or travel instead to the Morea or Treibizond. But some agreed with Manuel that the situation was hopeless, and thousands of commoners enlisted to join this unprecedented endeavor.
One man, a minor noble of no great importance in the history of the empire, hesitated until the very last moment in deciding whether to accompany the emperor's expedition or remain in Constantinople to await the end. It is said he leapt off a pier and swam in pursuit of one of the last ships to leave Constantinople, only to be fished out of the sea to keep him from drowning. It was in this way that Isaakios Batatzes joined in the exodus to the Canary Islands. Had he been left behind, one can scarcely imagine what would have become of those first few Greeks who turned their backs on their homeland and sailed into the unknown.
At the edge of the known world.