Thursday, November 04, 2010

Notes on Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

There is the the opinion that the explorer Christopher Columbus was an amazingly far-sighted genius who saw that the world was round when everyone else thought it was flat and convinced people to fund his effort to reach India / China by sailing west and that no on had thought of that before.

Of course virtually everything in the above paragraph is myth. It was for example received educated opinion in Europe in Columbus’ time and had been so since the Greeks that the Earth was round.1 That particular myth I may look at at another time. Here I will look at the myth of Christopher Columbus as lone genius.

Supposedly the received view is that Columbus was a lone genius who had an idea that no-one had before. The idea being that one could reach Asia by sailing west. This is false as the following quotes from Admiral of the Ocean Sea, by Samuel Eliot Morison indicate.

Morison was to put it mildly a hero worshipper of Columbus, as indicated by his grossly apologetic way of dealing with the way Columbus dealt with native Americans, so his comments are of interest. For Example Morison says:

Why not try sailing west, to Japan, China and India?

What would prevent it? No flat-earth theory certainly; for of all the vulgar errors connected with Columbus, the most persistent and the most absurd is that he had to convince people "the world was round." Every educated man in his day believed the world to be a sphere, every European university so taught geography, and seamen, though they might doubt the practical possibility of sailing "down under" or holding on when you got there, knew perfectly well from seeing ships "hull down" and raising mountains as they approached, that the surface of the globe was curved. Aristotle was reported to have written that you could cross the ocean from the Spains to the Indes paucis diebus, in comparatively few days; and Strabo, the Greek geographer who died about a.d. 25, hinted that it had actually been tried. "Those who have returned from an attempt to circumnavigate the earth do not say that they have been prevented from continuing their voyage by any opposing continent for the sea remained perfectly open, but through want of resolution and the scarcity of provision.”2
Whilst no valid ground exists to question the traditional concept that Columbus's purpose was to reach Asia by sailing west, there is plenty of room for argument as to where he got the idea, and when.

Certainly the theory was not original with him. We have already seen what Aristotle was reputed to have said, and what Strabo did say, about the possibility of sailing west to the Orient. Since there was no doubt of the world being a sphere, almost everyone admitted that Columbus's theory was valid;...3
Interestingly enough this Columbus worshipper said in his The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, Samuel Eliot Morison, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971, the following concerning L'Anse Aux Meadows, (this is c. 11 years after the discovery):

Finally in 1960, a Norwegian archaeologist named Helge Ingstad located a spot in northern Newfoundland, L'Anse aux Meadows, which he thought might be "it". Years of summertime diggings by competent archaelogists have (it seems to me beyond a reasonable doubt) proved this place to have indeed been Vinland, where Leif Ericsson spent one winter, and where members of his family founded a short-lived colony. So, now that the location of Vinland has been solved, we may proceed with the story told in the sagas.4

Nope; Columbus did not see things no-one else did and this as long been known and acknowledged.

Just where did Christopher Columbus thought he was heading for? Some have asserted he knew that he was going to America. This seems to be rather unlikely given what the man wrote himself.

The following are quotes from the following The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus.5 Which consists of translations of Columbus' logs letters and contemporary or near contemporary histories of his voyages.

From the log-book of Christopher Columbus' first voyage. I note that Bartolome De la Casas,6 preserves Columbus' log in the form of a digest with extensive direct quotes, unfortunately the original is now lost. From the preamble:

...your Highnesses decided to send me, Christopher Columbus, to see those parts of India and the princes and peoples of those lands and consider the best means of their conversion.7

Wednesday, 3 October

,...his {Columbus} purpose being to journey to the indies. He says that he would be foolish to delay.8

Saturday, 6 October

That night Martin Alonso said that it would be well to sail south-west by west, and the Admiral thought that he had the island of Cipangu {Japan} in mind, and saw that if they missed it they would not so easily come to the mainland and that the best thing would be to go there first and to the islands afterwards.9

Saturday, 13 October

But in order not to waste time I wish to go and see if I can strike the island of Chipangu.{Japan again slightly different spelling}10

Wednesday, 17 October

It has rained practically every day since I have been in those Indies.11

Sunday, 21 October

After this i shall set out for another island which, according to the indications given me by the Indians whom I have aboard, must be Chipangu.{Japan}12.

In passing I shall see the others that lie between and according to whether I find a quanity of gold or spices I shall decide what to do next. But I am determined to go to the city of Quinsay {in China}, to deliver your Highnesses' letters to the Grand Khan and request his answer which I shall bring back.13

Tuesday, 23 October

I should like to depart today for the island of Colba {Cuba}, which I believe according to the indications of its size and riches given us by these people must be Chipangu.{Japan}14

Wednesday, 24 October

...for if I am to believe the indications of all those Indians and those I have on board - I do not know their language - this is the island of Chipangu {Japan} of which marvelous tales are told, and which in the globes that I have seen and on the painted map of the world appears to lie in this region.15

Sunday, 28 October

The Admiral understood that the Gran Khan's {Title of the ruler of China} ships come there and that they are large and that the mainland is ten days' journey away.16
The next material is from a letter of Columbus describing his first voyage and written on his return trip.

When I reached Cuba, I followed its north coast westwards, and found it so extensive that I thought this must be the mainland, the province of Cathay.{China}17

In this island of Hispaniola I have taken possession of a large town which is most conveniently situated for the goldfields and for communications with the mainland both here, and there in the territory of the Grand Khan, with which there will be very profitable trade.18
The next material is from a letter of Columbus describing his fourth voyage (1502-1504).

They say that Ciguare is surrounded by water, and that ten days' journey away is the river Ganges. These lands seem to lie in the same relation to Veragua as Tortosa to Fuentarabia or Pisa to Venice.19

I arrived on 13 May at the province of Mago, which borders on Cathay {China}, and from there set out to Hispaniola.20

It is said that inland in the country lying towards Cathay {China} they have gold-embroidered materials.21
The above make it quite clear where Columbus thought he was going. It is also clear that he still thought he was near Cathay (China) during his last voyage. Which is a little strange given that by this time some Europeans were talking about the Americas as not being Asia but a “New World”.

1. For more about this myth see Myth of the Flat Earth, Wikipedia Here.

2. Morison, Samuel Eliot, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1942, vol. 1, p. 45. Here are two fuller translations of the passage that Morison quotes part of:

8. Perception and experience alike inform us, that the earth we inhabit is an island: since wherever men have approached the termination of the land, the sea, which we designate ocean, has been met with: and reason assures us of the similarity of those places which our senses have not been permitted to survey. For in the east the land occupied by the Indians, and in the west by the Iberians and Maurusians, is wholly encompassed [by water], and so is the greater part on the south and north. And as to what remains as yet unexplored by us, because navigators, sailing from opposite points, have not hitherto fallen in with each other, it is not much, as any one may see who will compare the distances between those places with which we are already acquainted. Nor is it likely that the Atlantic Ocean is divided into two seas by narrow isthmuses so placed as to prevent circumnavigation: how much more probable that it is confluent and uninterrupted! Those who have returned from an attempt to circumnavigate the earth, do not say they have been prevented from continuing their voyage by any opposing continent, for the sea remained perfectly open, but through want of resolution, and the scarcity of provision.(Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, Book 1, Ch. 1, s. 8)

From Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, v. 1, The Macmillan Co., New York, 1903. Copy available from the Internet Archive Here.

8 We may learn both from the evidence of our senses and from experience that the inhabited world is an island; for wherever it has been possible for man to reach the limits of the earth, sea has been found, and this sea we call "Oceanus." And wherever we have not been able to learn by the evidence of our sense, there reason points the way. For example, as to the eastern (Indian) side of the inhabited earth, and the western (Iberian and Maurusian) side, one may sail wholly around them and continue the voyage for a considerable distance along the northern and southern regions; and as for the rest of the distance around the inhabited earth which has not been visited by us up to the present time (because of the fact that the navigators who sailed in opposite directions towards each other never met), it is not of very great extent, if we reckon from the parallel distances that have been traversed by us. It is unlikely that the Atlantic Ocean is divided into two seas, thus being separated by isthmuses so narrow and that prevent the circumnavigation; it is more likely that it is one confluent and continuous sea. For those who undertook circumnavigation, and turned back without having achieved their purpose, say that the they were made to turn back, not because of any continent that stood in their way and hindered their further advance, inasmuch as the sea still continued open as before, but because of their destitution and loneliness. (Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, Book 1, Ch.
1, s. 8)

From Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, available from LacusCurtius Here.

3. IBID, p. 78.

4. Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971, p. 38.

5. Columbus, Christopher, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Edited by J. M. Cohen, Penguin Books, London,1969.

6. Bartolome De la Casas, who became known as defender of the Indians, and is almost the perfect choice for becoming the patron Saint of human rights was a 15th-16th century monk who is also invaluable for editing and preserving many documents related to the European discovery of the Americas. Columbus; log of his first voyage being the most important.

7. Columbus, p. 37.

8. IBID, p. 49.

9. IBID, p. 50.

10. IBID, p. 57.

11. IBID, p. 67.

12. IBID, p. 71.

13. IBID, p. 71-72.

14. IBID, p. p. 72.

15. IBID, p. 73.

16. IBID, p. 76.

17. IBID, p. 115.

18. IBID, p. 120.

19. IBID, p. 288.

20. IBID, p. 294.

21. IBID, p. 298.

Pierre Cloutier

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