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Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
EXACTLY A YEAR FROM NOW THE WORLD WILL BE MARKING THE FIVE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT OF THE PAST MILLENNIUM. THE ZEAL OF ONE MAN BROUGHT ABOUT THAT EVENT, AND HIS NAME AND TALK OF HIS ACHIEVEMENTS WILL BE OMNIPRESENT HERE, THEN, IS A COLUMBUS CATECHISM TO HELP YOU THROUGH THE MONTHS AHEAD: WAS HE REALLY THE FIRST? IF HE SAILED FOR SPAIN, WHY DO ITALIANS MAKE SUCH A FUSS ABOUT HIS BIRTHDAY? HOW COME AMERICA ISN’T NAMED FOR HIM? WHY IS HE BEING CALLED A VILLAIN NOW?
No. But how pleased he would have been to learn that he is often credited with discovering two vast, far-flung continents whose size and variety he could scarcely have begun to imagine. Those continents had been populated for millennia by a mix of peoples whose cultures were as diverse as their lands. They may have migrated from northeastern Asia more than fifteen thousand years ago. When they came is still a matter of warring scholarship, but those natives were the discoverers of the New World.
Columbus met only a small number of them after he had successfully navigated the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was then known. His disclosure of their existence baffled Renaissance Europe but eventually led to knowledge of an entire new hemisphere. The Genoese mariner made the announcement of his triumphant crossing in a letter addressed to his Spanish patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He declared that he had “found very many islands filled with people without number, and of them all I have taken possession for their Highnesses, by proclamation and with the royal standard displayed, and nobody objected.” This arrogant usurpation was wholly in line with Europe’s determination to expand its ordained and Christian world.
There are claims that other explorers crossed the Ocean Sea long before Columbus. St. Brendan and the Irish are credited with the earliest voyages, dating from the opening phase of the Middle Ages in the seventh century. The Vikings touched base in the far northern lands during the eleventh century, as did Bristol seamen four centuries later. But it was not until Columbus’s extraordinary feat of navigation in 1492 that the presence of a New World was revealed to the wonderment of the Old.
Of course, the term New World is thoroughly Eurocentric. But it’s convenient, it’s here to stay, and we shall use it.
He sailed west from the Canary Islands following an ocean route he had mapped and survived a thirty-three-day trip to make landfall in a new world on October 12.
For years people had scoffed at the idea of a westward route to the Indies. The success of Columbus’s trip was due as much to his passionate belief in what he was doing as to his enlightened decision to sail west-southwest from the Canary Islands along the twenty-eighth parallel, thus avoiding the treacherous counter winds of higher latitudes. Had he invoked the words of the great Italian poet as he embarked? Dante had written in The Divine Comedy , “And turning our stern towards the morning we made wings of our oars for our wild flight, bearing always to the south-west.” It is doubtful that Columbus’s ships would have survived a more northerly crossing.
Not at all. Every educated man in his day believed it was a sphere, and every European university taught the concept in geography classes. There were, of course, some who clung to the ancient biblical notions that the earth was a flat disk with Jerusalem in the center and that one could fall off the edge. But seamen like Columbus knew better from practical experience: They saw that mountains appeared on the horizon before the land came into view and that the hulls of departing ships disappeared before the masts.
The controversial issue in Columbus’s day was not the earth’s shape but its size. This had enormous implications for the explorer’s ambitious plans. Geographers projected widely divergent calculations, but they shared a common belief that the earth was much smaller than it is, some gauging it at two-thirds of its actual circumference. In the third century B.C. Eratosthenes had come quite close to an accurate guess at the world’s true belt size of twenty-four thousand miles. Among those who inspired Columbus were Marinus of Tyre and Ptolemy, both of the second century A.D. , and Pierre d’Ailly and Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, geographers of his own century. Columbus shared with the last two a firm belief that the Ocean Sea was navigable.
Toscanelli’s concepts were particularly appealing because the Florentine not only had put forward low figures for the width of the ocean on a world chart but, as early as 1474, had urged the Portuguese king to consider a voyage westward to Cathay (China). When Columbus subsequently used Toscanelli’s chart to substantiate his claim that he could cross the Ocean Sea, he further reduced its low mileage estimates.