The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Lost at Sea


Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo.

The classic tale American schoolchildren learn about Christopher Columbus goes something like this: Columbus, a revolutionary thinker, realized that the earth was round. And if the earth was round, as he proposed, he could reach Asia by sailing either east or west. Having convinced the skeptical Spanish, he set off, overcoming the doubts of his nearly mutinous crew when they set foot on the island now know as Hispaniola. Sure, he didn’t make it to India like he’d hoped, thanks to the landmass we now call North and South America. But his theory of finding the east by sailing west was still brilliant, clever, and technically right!

Too bad that doesn’t really describe Columbus’s actual thinking, says Tony Horwitz, author of A Voyage Long and Strange.

First of all, he wasn’t revolutionary for his beliefs about the Earth’s shape. By 1492, the idea that it was round instead of flat had been taken seriously for centuries. Spain’s Queen Isabella, a well-educated woman in a sophisticated royal court, would certainly not been surprised by the idea.

Columbus bidding farewell to Queen Isabella of Spain - a lady who believed the earth was round. Credit: Library of Congress.

Columbus bidding farewell to Queen Isabella of Spain – a lady who believed the earth was round. Credit: Library of Congress.

But Columbus did have another idea that set him apart from his contemporaries. Says Horwitz:

“Columbus’ great vision was not that the world was round, but that it was small.”

He drew on scripture and mystical texts to conclude that the distance to the Indies (what we’d today call East Asia) was just a few thousand miles, or a couple weeks’ voyage from Italy. The real distance? 12,000 miles. Ironically, Columbus’ great feat of navigation doesn’t grow out of being an early Enlightenment thinker, but rather of being  a kind of late medieval mystical thinker.

When Columbus lands in the Bahamas, after a voyage much longer than the one he’d expected, he makes contact with the natives and observes some of their customs, experiences he writes of in his journal. He watches them smoke a leaf they call “tobacco” and even eats some of their food, a strange animal that was probably an iguana. Columbus’ verdict? Tastes like chicken.

Of course, Columbus and his men did not reciprocate the kindness of the people they encountered. Here’s Tony Horwitz:

“He almost instantly writes of how these people are so childlike and willing that they could easily be turned into servants of the crown. By which he really means slaves.”

He returns to Spain with parrots, jewels, and other such valuable souvenirs. The Spanish monarchs are so pleased that they grant Columbus a commission for another voyage, and then another, and another. Says Horowitz:

“He’s searching for gold and spice, and the islanders say something, which he clearly doesn’t understand, that suggests to him that just over the horizon he will find what he’s looking for. They were probably trying to get rid of him. And he sails off quite quickly to Cuba. And really, everywhere he lands, this somewhat comic scene repeats itself, where Columbus communicates what they’re after and islanders say, not here, but if you keep sailing, you’ll find it at the next place.”

Martellus 1489 World Map

A 1489 world map by Martellus, showing what many in Columbus’ time would have believed the world to look like

None of these voyages win him the glory of the first. He explores most of the rest of the Bahamas without a hitch, but when he’s put in charge of a settlement in this New World, his administrative skills prove to be far inferior to his navigating. He and his men inflicted terrible cruelty on the native people, and inadvertently killed many more by bringing European diseases. He sails away whenever the colony faces trouble, leaving incompetents in charge. His third voyage ends with Columbus being arrested and brought back to Spain in chains, charged with mismanagement, brutality, and incompetence. He’s freed after six weeks, but his reputation doesn’t recover. Columbus, previously a well-respected man, is now disgraced and distrusted, a failure in the eyes of Spanish society.

In many ways, Columbus’ story reads like a Horatio Alger novel in reverse, beginning with fame and glory and ending with brokenness and defeat. Even at the end of his life, Columbus never realizes what he’s accomplished, and till his death believes that he had reached Asia. Columbus’ thinking grows more and more mystical as his fortunes decline. Horwitz details the last stages of Columbus’ confusion:

“At one point, he even decides that the world isn’t round. He thinks he’s sailing uphill, and that the world is actually shaped more like a pear with a nipple where he thinks the Garden of Eden lies. So he really loses his way, and in some ways, seems to lose his mind in the course of these four voyages.”

Listen to the segment this post was based on, or to our entire episode on Columbus’ legacy.

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