- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
One officer on board the flagship Santa María was the scholar Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who could speak Arabic. He was meant to be the interpreter between Columbus and the grand khan of China. Columbus, of course, never encountered the grand khan, and a leader of China wouldn’t have been likely to speak Arabic anyway, but Europeans believed that all languages stemmed from that tongue, and therefore it was best to be prepared.
If the New World was destined to be named by Europeans, it should have been named after Columbus. A more appropriate European name would have been North and South Columbia. But the two continents were named instead after Amerigo Vespucci, who voyaged to the New World after Columbus. The name America was assigned by an Alsatian geographer named Martin Waldseemüller when he attempted to chart the New World discoveries in 1507. Because Vespucci was more aggressive in promoting himself, Waldseemüfcller believed the glory to be his. That Vespucci was indisputably the more popular explorer at this time we learn from Thomas More’s Utopia , a book based on the Florentine’s accounts: “Everyone’s reading about the four voyages of Vespucci.”
Renaissance geographers were skilled and conscientious scientists, but as they worked to locate obscure New World islands on their charts, they found the data vague and often misleading. The mapmakers could only put faith in intelligent guesses, a course taken by Waldseemüller when he charted the discoveries of Columbus, Vespucci, and other early explorers as one continuous, continental land strip. By this bold and imaginative step, he in effect introduced a new hemisphere. The name America had been suggested for this new land mass by a fellow geographer and poet named Matthias Ringman. “I don’t see why anyone should justly forbid naming it Amerige,” he wrote, “land of Americus as it were, after its discoverer Americus, a man of true genius, or America, inasmuch as both Europe and Asia have received their names from women.” The name caught on.
The disease indeed made its first epidemic appearance in Europe following Columbus’s first voyage, when camp followers spread it among the soldiers of King Charles VIII during the French monarch’s 1494 campaign to seize the kingdom of Naples. Several tracts of the period discuss the outbreak and indicate that until then the morbus gallicus (French disease) had been unknown in Europe. Many scholars hold that it was spread among women infected by Spanish soldiers who had sailed with Columbus to the New World and contracted it there. Whether or not the affliction had existed in Europe before, its first virulent manifestations did date from the Neapolitan campaign.
Columbus is silent on the subject in his writings. In any case, it was not a fit topic to raise with Queen Isabella, for whom, together with King Ferdinand, his reports were intended. But the Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés wrote of the New World origin of the disease as an unimpeachable fact. In his General History of the Indies , published in 1535, he discourses on it at some length, claiming that “up to the time King Charles passed through there [Italy], no such plague had been seen in those lands. But the truth is that from this island of Haiti or Hispaniola this disease spread to Europe, as has been said; and it is a very common thing here among the Indians, and they know how to cure it, and have very excellent herbs, trees and plants appropriate to this and other infirmities. … ”
The disease became known in Europe by a string of names, most of them imputing blame for its spread: the French Pox, the German Sickness, the Polish Disease. Around 1512 Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian physician and poet, wrote a Latin poem dramatizing the disorder’s importation from the New World. He called the work “Syphilis or Morbus Gallicus,” after a young shepherd named Syphilus who had invoked the wrath of the gods, and thus he coined the name by which the disease is known to this day.
Yes, but it was catastrophic. The tiny settlement was called La Navidad because the plan to set it up was made on Christmas Day of 1492. Located in a shallow bay off the northeast coast of the large island that Columbus called Hispaniola, the site was not the most advantageous, but then Columbus had not exactly chosen it. Nor had it been his intention to establish a colony. The heady step of planting Europeans in the New World came about as the result of the shipwreck of the Santa María . While Columbus slept on Christmas Eve, his helmsman ran the flagship aground on the reefs of a Haitian bay.