Thursday, January 6, 2011

Columbus was Stupid

As a child I was subjected to a fair amount of myth building concerning the person of Christopher Columbus.

By myth building, I mean the practice of taking an actual historical figure and changing the actual facts of their life to fit the impact they had on the world. This was standard practice and even considered a sociologically good thing prior to the twentieth century and lead to axioms such as "the winners write history", which was, at the time, absolutely true.

In the twentieth century though, historians changed the paradigm they worked under and decided it was far batter to tell people the truth of what happened and let the reader make their own conclusions. Thus, the deconstructive school of history was born.

It would take another hundred years for the bulk of historians to get on board with the new program, so students like me, in the 1970's, were still subject to the occasional remnant of myth building.

Since you too were probably told some of these things about Christopher Columbus, I thought it might be interesting to point out some of the errors in the story.

Most people in Columbus' time believed the world was round. This business of a flat earth came about because of the way map-makers converted the three-dimensional data of the real earth into the two-dimensional data presented on a map (which was actually flat). There were even maps at the time that showed quite clearly one could sail west from Europe and reach Asia in the east.

The question was not whether the world was flat, but how big it was, and in this Columbus got it quite wrong. Most people accepted the estimate of Eratosthenes from the second century. They got it right. Using the Pythagorean theorem Eratosthenes calculated the earth's circumference with remarkable accuracy.

With this correct measurement, nobody sailed west to reach the east because they envisioned a vast empty sea between the two. Indeed, had Columbus not bumped into North America, his men would have starved to death long before they reached the half-way point to China.

Columbus believed in a much smaller Earth, where the Atlantic ocean was some one-fifth of its actual size, and it was this idea he sold Queen Isabella on. Much is made about Isabella selling some of her jewels to pay for the expedition, but at that time it wasn't that unusual. One of the reasons royals accumulated so much jewelery was to use it as a portable source of money.

Columbus wasn't a particularly good sailor or navigator and nearly killed himself and his crew on a number of occasions before finding land in the west. He was such a bad navigator, he never even knew the land he finally saw wasn't China.

Columbus was prone to coming up with ridiculously exaggerated wild theories like the one about the earth being a fraction of its real size. Two of them would dominate the exploration of the new world for the next hundred and fifty years.

Talking to the locals, Columbus convinced himself two things existed in this new world. The first was a city made of gold. This hope for discovering "El Dorado" dominated the Spanish claim to the new world for many years to come. Even more fantastic than the City of Gold, Columbus believed he was close to discovering the Garden of Eden. Much of the early exploration of Florida was devoted to finding the Garden of Eden and its corresponding "Fountain of Youth". Needless to say, neither of these things were ever discovered in the New World.

Knowing the real history of Columbus, it's pretty hard to paint him as a great man. At best, he was something of a chronic looser who literally stumbled across something remarkable, even though he was wrong at every turn.

This sort of thing happens every so often. To me, that's actually more interesting than the idea that only great men can make great discoveries. One day, I hope we'll start teaching children the true story of Columbus in schools.

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