Christopher Columbus, magnificent bungler

Note:  This piece was first published in the Shoshone News-Press, October 12, 2003.


Columbus sailed west from Spain on four separate voyages to get his hands on the spices, treasures, and especially the gold of India, China, and Japan, which were known collectively as “The Indies” in his day.

He never found much gold. He never made it to the Indies either. He also never fully accepted that he had actually been to an entirely new place — a “New World” — and not The Indies of his dreams and ambitions.

Columbus got a lot wrong.

It’s been said that he proved the earth was round.

True, his ships returned safely from their voyages, thus showing that westward sailing didn’t cause them to fall off the edge of the earth.

But most educated people in Columbus’s day already believed that the earth was round.

Columbus’s startling claim behind his proposed first voyage was actually something rather different — namely, that the globe of the earth was small enough to allow him to reach The Indies within the limited number of sailing days that contemporary seafaring allowed.

Once again, Columbus was dead wrong.   

Japan was at least four times as far away from Spain as his wishful calculations had suggested.

His first voyage’s three ships and their aggregate of 69 crew members might have all been lost at sea were it not for the lucky interposition of the islands and land mass of the Americas between Europe and Asia, a place nobody in Columbus’s day knew about or even imagined.

The Spanish crown asked an expert commission to evaluate the plausibility of Columbus’s sailing-distance calculations before the first voyage.

It, quite correctly, concluded that Columbus’s distance estimates were wrong, were far too short.

Yet not all of the commission’s reasons were on target. One was that The Almighty would not have kept such a big secret (as the nearness of the Orient) from his human flock for so long.

Columbus lived in a time on the margin between the medieval and modern worldviews, and medieval conceptions were still very much a part of his mental furniture.

It wasn’t until Columbus’s third voyage that his ship actually anchored off the continental mainland of the Americas.

In this voyage, Columbus turned south out of his conviction that gold would be easier to find in the hotter climes closer to the equator. He cruised as far southward as the Venezuelan coastline. At one point his ship lowered its anchor and a small landing party went ashore.

The party’s members became the first Europeans to set foot on the mainland of South America.

Columbus (alas) didn’t go ashore but stayed onboard due to both a painful gout attack and sore eyes.

As he bore his discomfort, his mind was preoccupied with a strange new image.

In days past, Columbus had sailed by the mouth of the Orinoco River. He’d found, to his astonishment, that fresh water could be bucketed aboard his ship for miles and miles out to sea.

Columbus marveled at the volume of river water and the size of the river that would be necessary to account for this phenomenon. He reasoned (quite correctly) that so great an outflow implied that he must be sailing along the coast of a great continent and not another island.

He was right.

But he carried his train of thought farther still.

He reasoned that so great a river must climb to a very great height, so high as to constitute a landscape quite unlike anything else on the earth.

And from this premise he made two inferential leaps: first, that he’d discovered the mouth of one of the four rivers flowing out of the biblical Garden of Eden (which place, he thought, had to be at an elevation high enough on the globe to avoid the flood of Noah), and, second, that so great was this place’s height that the shape of the earth must not be perfectly spherical but instead more pear-shaped.

Columbus was savaged back in Spain and Europe for his earth-as-pear-shaped theory.

Ironically, Columbus got the pear-shape idea right, if not the pear’s true proportions.

It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that NASA scientist John O’Keefe demonstrated that the earth’s southern hemisphere was a shade fatter than its northern hemisphere.

Wrong reasons, great voyages. Wrong reasons, right conclusions.

Christopher Columbus’s great achievements had more to do with iron perseverance and a beckoning imagination than with getting everything right.

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