Monthly Archives: October 2012

Christopher Columbus and the Flat Earth Society

Most of us over the age of forty were raised on the idea that

No one knows for sure what he looked like. He sat for no portraits in his lifetime. A deeply flawed but crucial historical figure.

Christopher Columbus boldly went where no man had gone to discover America.  Well, that much, though simplistic, is true. We were told something else, that he was particularly brave and bold in doing so because he and he alone refused to join the Flat Earth Society, that mass of human beings who believed that the earth was flat and that if a ship sailed West into the unknown it would drop off the edge into the abyss if it were lucky enough to escape the many sea monsters swimming in the oceans out there in the great unknown. This made Columbus quite the independent thinker and his entreaties for ships and crews to Ferdinand and Isabella a hard sell indeed. Nevertheless, being the kind of clever, determined  fellow who could sell ice to Eskimos he finally persuaded them against the counsel of their advisers that the earth was indeed round like every other planetary body visible to the naked eye and off Columbus went in search of a shortcut to the East Indies and a rendezvous with destiny.

When Columbus arrived in the West Indies rather than the East Indies the natives he encountered there, thinking he and his crew were gods, fell down and worshipped them and well , the story seemed to get a bit murky after that (as I recall) or maybe the textbook authors wrapped it  up quickly and moved on to the English settlement at Jamestown. Or maybe we sort of naturally lost interest in Columbus after he hit the beach in America. Whatever the case I don’t remember taking a huge interest in “the rest of the story.”

Years later I discovered that a great deal of what I had learned was pure myth.

The true story is far more interesting. Long before he sailed West, cartographers or mapmakers, the group Columbus was associated with, were involved in a lively debate with scientists, many of whom were astronomers, as to the manner by which lines of longitude were measured on a map or a global representation of the earth.  There was little or no debate among educated, literate people as to whether the earth was flat or round. It was universally acknowledged, as it had been for years, that the earth was round. But how big was the earth? That was the real question. And when you’re sailing on a tiny wooden ship with limited supplies it is not a question to be ignored.

This lively debate between the opposing groups went on for much of the fifteenth century. Columbus and his cartographers, in their calculations of longitude, calculated a much smaller planet than the scientists who, in their view of a much larger planet, insisted  that  any ship sailing West would never reach the East Indies and dry land before water and provisions were exhausted. They weren’t worried about sea monsters and the great abyss.  Any voyage due West , they were quite sure, would be a fool’s errand, a terrible exercise in futility. And, based on the knowledge at hand, they were right. As to the correct size of our planet, we now know that they were  closer to the truth than Columbus and the cartographers. Years later, after Magellan circumvented the globe, the calculations of those sensible scientists were vindicated.

Christopher Columbus was able to make his first voyage in the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, because he came to the monarchs at the right time in history and was able to convince them, not so much that he and his map-makings colleagues were correct but simply that a voyage West, reaching the East Indies by another shorter route, was worth a try. The spices, silks, and riches of the Far East were quite an attraction indeed. Ferdinand and Isabella came to the conclusion that this likeable, insistent fellow just might be on to something. In giving Columbus what he wanted, they were, after all, gambling only with their wealth and resources. This fellow was gambling with his life. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And so, for the glory of Spain and her imperial destiny, off he went.

We need to remember something here. Columbus’ first voyage was gutsy and daring. As far as anyone knew at the time, such a voyage had never been attempted. As the crowds saw the ships off that fateful day in July, 1492 many standing on the dock were convinced that Columbus and his crews were sailing to their doom- that is if the crews did not mutiny first and turn the ships around in time. They were quite sure that between themselves and the East Indies lay nothing but a vast expanse of water that no slowing moving sailing ship could ever cross. Sea monsters would be the least of their problems.

Of course we now know something very important that they didn’t know in July 1492. It wasn’t just a lot of salt water. Between Europe and Asia lay  two enormous continents, North and South America- in a sense, a new world. Nevertheless when he arrived in this new world, Columbus believed that he was still in the old, that he had merely reached the outskirts of Asia. Cartographers were stubborn fellows. Despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Columbus would never retreat from his initial calculations as to the size of the earth. Though he surely had his doubts, it was his story and he stuck to it to his dying day.

The great irony is that the man who made the greatest discovery in the history of humankind would never really know or admit his stunning accomplishment. It is unfortunate in our time that this crucial fact seems to get lost in the current rash of Columbus bashing due to his lousy treatment of the natives he encountered in his journeys. He was no saint.  Let’s remember that there are very few important historic figures who will survive modern scrutiny. Nearly all will come up short.

Yes, the idea that Columbus was a progressive, forward-thinking guy who believed the earth to be round while all the idiots around him thought it flat is pure moonshine. In our time we see a very brave and  daring but deeply flawed man, a man of his time who believed in king and country, a man under considerable pressure to please his superiors,  who, in spite of it all and mostly in spite of himself, stumbled upon something astounding.

The discovery of the Americas by Europeans was, next to the birth of Christ, the most important axis or turning point, in human history. Love him or hate him, Christopher Columbus was the “game-changer,”  the guy who put those forces in motion resulting in the “settlement” and conquest of the Americas by Europeans.

Today we celebrate/recognize Columbus Day with a certain poignancy knowing that the natives of the Americas suffered terribly

in the clash of civilizations that followed his discovery. Europeans gained a great deal but the natives lost a great deal, mostly their lives when European imported epidemics are considered.  In spite of the dark side, it is an important day, a red-letter day and I hope it stays on our calendar. But it may disappear, who knows how our grandchildren will look at things?


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