The illustration of the world according to Columbus

When Christopher Columbus set sail across the Atlantic in 1492, his understanding of the world was significantly different from our current geographical knowledge.

To fully appreciate how Columbus viewed the world, WHE delves into the historical, geographical, and cultural contexts of the 15th century.

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Historical Context

The late 15th century was a period marked by burgeoning exploration spurred by the Renaissance, a cultural rebirth that rekindled interest in classical knowledge and pushed the boundaries of the known world.

Europe was largely familiar with the landmasses of Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia, primarily through the writings of ancient scholars like Ptolemy and the travels of Marco Polo.

Columbus, born in Genoa, Italy, around 1451, was deeply influenced by these sources and the prevailing geographical theories of his time.

Columbus’ voyages, under the banner of discovering a new route to Asia, inadvertently opened up the Americas to European exploration and eventual colonization, reshaping the course of global history. Image: Portrait of Christopher Columbus.

Geographical Understanding

Columbus’s geographical conception was primarily derived from two main sources: the works of Ptolemy and the travels of Marco Polo. Ptolemy, an ancient Greek geographer, had posited that the world consisted of three major continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia—surrounded by a vast ocean.

Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels to the court of Kublai Khan in China introduced the European imagination to the riches of the East, further fueling the desire for direct trade routes.

Columbus mistakenly believed that the Earth’s circumference was much smaller than it actually is. Influenced by readings and possibly misinterpretations of various scholarly works, he thought that by sailing west from Europe, he could quickly reach the eastern shores of Asia, known then as the Indies. This underestimation made the idea of a westward voyage to Asia seem not only feasible but highly appealing.

Cultural Influences

The drive for new routes to Asia was heavily influenced by the desire for goods such as spices, silks, and other luxuries, which were highly coveted in Europe but expensive and difficult to obtain overland through the traditional Silk Road. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 had disrupted these routes, making direct maritime routes even more attractive.

Moreover, the Reconquista, the centuries-long effort to expel Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, concluded in 1492. This victory, combined with the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, created a newly unified nation eager to compete with Portugal, which was then successfully navigating around Africa.

READ MORE: What Happened to the Muslim Majority of Portugal and Spain?

Columbus’s Proposal and Voyage

Columbus proposed to reach Asia by sailing westward, a radical idea given the dominant eastward routes taken by Portuguese explorers around Africa. His proposal was initially met with skepticism and rejection by Portuguese King John II and various Spanish scholars because of his miscalculated distance to Asia.

However, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory from the Reconquista and motivated by the prospect of entering the lucrative spice trade, eventually agreed to sponsor Columbus’s voyage. In August 1492, Columbus set sail with three ships: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María.

Christopher Columbus’ understanding was constrained by the limitations of the geographical knowledge of his time and his interpretation (or misinterpretation) of it.

The Voyage and the “New World”

Columbus’s fleet first landed in the Bahamas, which he mistook for islands off the coast of Japan. He then explored parts of Cuba and Hispaniola, persistently believing them to be parts of the Asian continent. Columbus’s interactions with the indigenous peoples further solidified his belief that he had reached the outskirts of Asia. He described the people he encountered using terms that reflected his expectations of finding the Asians described in Marco Polo’s accounts.

Despite bringing back exotic goods and tales of new lands, Columbus’s claim that he had reached Asia was met with skepticism, particularly from other navigators and scholars familiar with Marco Polo’s descriptions of the far more sophisticated civilizations of East Asia.

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Legacy and Misconceptions

Columbus made a total of four voyages to the Americas, still under the belief that he had found a new route to Asia. It wasn’t until after his death that the full realization of his discovery was recognized—that he had not reached Asia, but instead a completely “New World,” which would later be named America after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci who recognized that these lands were not part of Asia.

In essence, the world according to Columbus was a mixture of classical knowledge, medieval beliefs, and Renaissance enthusiasm for exploration. Sculpture depicting young Columbus by Italian artist Giulio Monteverde.

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