The Conundrum of Columbus

Much has been written about Christopher Columbus (aka Cristobal Colon, C. Colombo etc.) and his discovery of the New World in 1492.  The old story we heard when we were children went something like this:  Everybody thought the world was flat, Columbus thought it was round.  He got Queen Ysabel to put up her jewels (somehow) to finance his trip.  The men got nervous but he bluffed them through by shear strength of character and on Oct 12th, 1492 it was "Land Ho" on San Salvador.

During the 1960s there was this whole revision of history and we had to acknowledge that maybe things weren't that simple.  The Norse had found the new world 500 years earlier, (they just didn't tell anybody except other Norsemen) and it turns out that everybody knew the world was round.  Eratosthenes had even accurately measured the diameter of the planet some 1900 years earlier.  The caliphate of Cordoba in Spain had preserved the works of the Greeks and Romans even when they were lost to the rest of Europe.  Expeditions had been sent westward from the Azores while Irish and Portuguese fisherman were already fishing the Grand Banks by 1492.

But yeah, so what?  Even with all this contact, no one in Europe knew there was this huge land mass to the west.  Maybe the old stories are too simple but the new version is not enough to explain how Columbus did what he did.  Was he really the smartest guy in the room?

The Navigational Problem

In the fifteenth century, everyone who dealt with navigation as a serious matter acknowledged that the world was a sphere.  Just watch a sailboat sail away from a dock on a clear day toward an open horizon.  It drops from view below the horizon before it disappears because of pure distance.  This can be observed with the naked eye.  From the view of the people on the boat approaching a mountainous coastline, this is even more evident.  The peaks appear first from many miles away while one must be quite close to make out the beach.  That's why they put the lookout at the top of the mast.

Only a few years before Columbus, Prince Henry the Navigator had started to refine the task of making accurate charts.  He gathered together sailors and used the techniques that Eratosthenes and others had refined and started making maps that started to look like the charts we have today.  However, to be useful, a chart had to be relatively accurate and had to have some chance of letting a sailor avoid the rocks and shoals that are too small to appear on a large scale map but plenty big enough to sink a ship.  Even with the best maps of the day, the best way to go from port A to port B was to carry along a pilot who knew the way and could recognize the far shore and its dangers.

But what did one do when when no pilot was available?  Like if you sailed to a new place that no one you knew had been to before?  The sailors of this time were up to this task, but it involved keen observation, considerable courage, luck and the willingness to use every trick in the book.  They observed birds and took samples of the sea bottom where it was shallow enough to reach with a weighted line.  They took note of any debris floating in the water.  Those that could read and write, took notes and made written journals or "rudders" of what they had seen.  These were jealously guarded documents but part of Prince Henry's legacy in Portugal was the idea of making these rudders more readily available for map makers to use.  Columbus' partnership with his brother Bartolomeo's cartography shop in Lisbon in 1476 exposed him to much of this information and technique.

Another advantage for Columbus involved his choice in wives.  Filipa Perestrello e Moniz was the daughter of a man who was governor of Madeira.  This occasioned him to travel out into the Western Ocean and personally observe the evidence borne on the waters there.  He made another fortunate voyage to Iceland in 1477.  Crossing the North Atlantic drift exposes sailors, who understand what they are looking at, to clear evidence of land to the west and more importantly, evidence of its distance.  In Iceland, someone with an interest in rudders would have found the Icelandic sagas a telling account of navigation in open boats to land in the west.  There is some evidence that, while in Galway, Ireland, he witnessed the recovery of two dead Inuit in a small skin boat.  Their Asiatic features would surely suggest the orient and the light construction of the kayak would suggest proximity to anyone with Columbus' knowledge.

This leads to the first part of the navigational problem.  All this observational evidence was telling him of a large mass of land to the west.  It was also telling him that it was close enough to reach with the new caravel ships of the day.

Observations in Madeira and further south to Guinea in 1482 would reveal that in the fall of each year, northeasterly winds could be counted on to take a boat west along with the Canaries Current.  In the same vein, westerlies were available farther north (around Madeira) that could bring a boat back.  This gave an ambitious man like Columbus a destination and a way to get there.  The fall of Constantinople in 1453 gave him motive.  With the overland routes to the east now blocked by the Ottoman Turks, a new trade route needed to be developed to China and India.  The man who pioneered this route could write his own ticket.  All Columbus had to do was convince someone to let him try.

The Theological Problem

At the time Columbus was gathering all this information, Spain was in the processes of mopping up the last of the Islamic invasion that had threatened the Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula for the last 800 years.  As a result, the Spanish monarchs launched a wave of religious intolerance that saw the last of the Muslims and Jews expelled or forced to convert to Christianity.  The famous Spanish Inquisition was instituted in 1480 and by the time Columbus was looking for a backer for his proposed journey to the west, it had become a very dangerous proposition to be anything but the most devoted of Catholics.

The reason this was important to Columbus is that the Catholic church had a lot to say on the possibility of finding land to the west.  As I have pointed out, Eratosthenes had previously calculated the circumference of the earth at a distance approximating 24,662 miles in diameter.  By the late 1400s, there had been enough travel to the far east overland and by sea routes to have gained an approximate measure of the distance from Spain east to China.  Using this knowledge, the scholars of the day estimated that there lay an ocean of some 11,000 miles between Spain west to China which, as it turns out, is pretty close to the way we measure it today.  No sailor, not even Columbus, figured that any ship available at that time could make a voyage of that length without touching land and re-supplying.  As evidence, remember that Columbus' crew almost mutinied on a voyage of only 36 days.

Official church doctrine had stated for several centuries that there was no inhabited land on the other side of the world (the antipodes). St. Augustine had argued in his City of God (book XVI, chapter 9) that there was no way that men could have gotten that far in the time that had passed since Noah's flood.  It was also argued that, since God wanted everyone converted before the end of the world, and the end of the world was expected presently, it wouldn't be fair to have any new lands discovered that would make the job any harder than it already was.

So this was Columbus' real problem.  He had to convince people to allow him to sail westward to land that he knew was much closer than 11,000 miles.  But he had to do it without committing the heresy of claiming that it was an undiscovered populated land.  So Japan, India and China had to be closer than most people thought they were.

The Geographical Problem

This was a problem that might have stumped most men but Columbus actually pulled it off.  The secret to his success was that he was a true believer.  He accepted all of the tenants of the church and the evidence of his own eyes and worked for several years to reconcile them.  Through some truly masterful and horrible geometry, he was able to create a proof that he used to convince himself and the King and Queen of Spain that the earth was quite a bit smaller than it actually is.  Hardly any other scholar was convinced by his mental gymnastics, which is why it took him so long to secure funding for his voyage.  The Portuguese court rejected his petition largely because of this geographical issue.  But the court of Spain was in just the right mood to take a small risk on a low born sailor that could have such potentially huge rewards.

The Spanish rulers had just expelled the Jews and confiscated their property. The Spanish cofers were bulging. If Columbus was correct, then Spain would go from being the European country farthest from the orient to being the closest.  Success of this kind was easily worth the risk of three small caravels.  After all, the Portuguese had sent an entire fleet northwest from the Azores in the 1450s in hopes of finding a few more islands to use as fishing outposts.  They would have discovered the North American mainland except that they sailed against the prevailing winds and currents and where turned back by cold weather.

The Problem with Delusion

Of course, the problem with deluding yourself so completely is that you look like an idiot to everyone else. Columbus had a terrible time selling his fanciful geometry and it frustrated him so badly that he started adding crazy demands to his plans for the westward voyage.  By the time Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to let him try his scheme, they also had to agree that if he found land, he would be given the hereditary title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and be made Viceroy and governor of any colonies founded.  And this was his undoing.

The fact that Columbus succeeded so spectacularly meant that all these odd promises had to be honored.  But in so doing, it made Columbus rise too rapidly.  Made him too many enemies at the Spanish court.  He couldn't rest on his accomplishment but had to return again and again to the New World to try and expand and defend his claims.  He became responsible for the colonies and colonists.  These voyages and the maintenance of the colonies led to his early death.  To the end he doggedly maintained his belief that the land he had discovered was Asia even though virtually everyone else realized that it was not.  This is predictable considering the tortuous convictions he had to adopt to be allowed to make the voyages in the first place.

Being Right by Being Wrong

In the end what can be said about Columbus?  He was a good sailor who observed the natural world and used the clues he was given to make probably the most significant voyage of discovery in European history.  His religious views allowed him to stay alive and even succeed in a time when religious intolerance made liberal thinking a very dangerous enterprise.  But in reconciling these two parts of his nature he had to fool himself so badly that today he is most famous for "accidentally discovering a direct route from western Europe to the Americas".  To many, he is the world's most fortunate blunderer. 

But that is not fair.  There has always been a tension between observation and theory.  Columbus made critical observations that allowed him to reach his goal.  He was simply weak on theory.  He was a sailor, not a philosopher.  This is a predicable product of the time he lived in.  Free thinking was a very dangerous hobby at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  How many bright sailors made the same observations as Columbus but could not subvert them to the theological views of the day, we will never know.  Columbus' talent for self deception was at least as important to the success of his enterprise as his navigational skills.

One other thing needs to be added here and that is that most of what we think we know about Columbus may not be true. After his voyage, Columbus was under tremendous pressure to hold onto the titles he had won from his contract with the royal house. First he and then his son and heir wrote biographies that included some very dubious claims about his family lineage and his personal history. Did he ever really travel to Iceland? Did he land in Galway at the same time as the Inuit bodies were discovered? We can't really say.

What could this teach us today?  We have a government that continually interferes with scientific research on religious grounds.  If your research involves embryonic stem cells, helps women avoid pregnancy, or demonstrates human caused climate change, the US government will do everything it can to defund, delay, discredit or destroy your project.  Work in opposing fields and you will find the government all smiles and hand shakes.  It may take men and women with subtle minds like that of Columbus to work in this kind of intellectual mine field.

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This page was created by Paul Kahle 16-Mar-2020

This page was last updated on 16-Apr-2023