Christopher Columbus was definitely not a candidate for membership in the Flat Earth Society. Like other European intellectuals of his time, he accepted that the earth was round. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras declared the earth round in the sixth century B.c. Aristotle reported rumors of lands to the west of Europe, and Eratosthenes computed the circumference of the world amazingly accurately centuries before Christ. The Greek geographer Strabo about
7 B. C . wrote of attempts to circumnavigate the earth; in the first century A. D . Pliny the Elder wrote that oceans surround the whole earth and that the distance from east to west is that from India to Spain. Romans had ports in India and probably explored the South China Sea. By the tenth century Venice was trading in the spices of the Indies. Marco Polo returned to Europe in 1295 with vivid descriptions of the wealth and sophistication of India, China, and Japan (Cipangu).
By Columbus’s time rough maps of Asia existed. In 1462 the king of Portugal is said to have offered a reward for discovery of rumored islands to the west. Columbus reportedly sent a “sphere” with his ideas of “sailing west to reach the east” to Florentine scholar Paolo Toscanelli, who responded in 1474 with a letter and a chart, which showed that by sailing 3,000 miles west from the Canary Islands one would reach the East with no obstacles to block the way. On Columbus’s travels south to Africa and north to Ireland and perhaps Iceland, he certainly heard the rumors of lands to the west.
Explorer Thor Heyerdahl claims Columbus had more than rumors, that he knew where he would find the lands to the west because of letters to the Vatican from Norse priests in Greenland settlements four centuries earlier. He also cites a request that the king of England order his ships to stop plundering those settlements. Heyerdahl hopes to prove in a forthcoming study that Columbus was aware of the Greenland letters.
According to the Spanish historian Antonio de Herrera, while in Portugal Columbus likely met Martin Behaim, who in 1492 produced his magnificent globe (right) the oldest existing on earth today. The globe, now in the German National Museum in Nurnberg, brought together the best geographic information of the time, with one notable exception: Behaim used Ptolemy’s circumference for the earth, which was a quarter too small, leaving as with Toscanelli’s chart no room for the yet undiscovered Western Hemisphere. Columbus set sail from the Canaries for Asia with confidence in his sources. After sailing for 33 days and approximately 3,000 miles, he understandably assumed he had reached his goal. On October 24, 1492, he wrote in his log “on the globes which I saw, and in the paintings of mappamundis, it [Japan] is in this vicinity.”
By superimposing Columbus’s track on the Behaim globe, we find that by the 33rd day he would have reached Cipangu had the chart only been correct. It’s easy to see how he might think he had missed it and had reached one of the nameless islands of the Sea of the Indies. He thus named the people he met Indians, and quickly sailed on in search of Cathay (China).
It seems Columbus was obsessed with sailing west for one reason he would become wealthy and powerful by finding a shorter route to the riches of Asia. And national loyalty was of no concern. Before gaining the support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Genoese sailor sought patronage for his ideas in Portugal, England, and France. His discoveries did not bring great wealth and power. He died powerless and relatively poor the very conditions he sought to avoid by sailing west.
On May 20, 1506, with a priest in attendance and a small group of friends and relatives at his bedside, his son Ferdinand reports that Columbus repeated the words attributed to Christ on the Cross “Unto your hands, Father, I commend my soul” and died.
Whether he was the first European to reach the Western Hemisphere is fuel for debate, but except to set the record straight, it doesn’t really matter. It was Columbus who brought Europe to the New World, with all the consequences that resulted. As a magnifying glass collects sunbeams and focuses them into a
white-hot heat, Columbus had collected the best geographic and cartographic knowledge of his time, and with his four voyages he immediately focused the attention of all Europe on the West, leading countless men to find the fame and fortune that
His expeditions had discovered yams, beans, maize, tobacco, and possibly syphilis. He wrote of the beauties of the land and the rivers. The massive outpouring of the Orinoco River along the Venezuela coast convinced Columbus he had also discovered “a very great continent, which until today has been unknown.”
But the greatest irony of all Columbus died dogmatically claiming he had reached Asia. And to the chagrin of historians, no record survives of where he first set foot in the New World. Senior Associate Editor Joseph Judge believes he knows, and will tell us why in the following pages.