Whenever I teach the early part of American history, I ask my students: how many of you were taught in school that no one would support Columbus because people thought the world was flat, and that he would sail off the edge? Fortunately, less and less students raise their hand each semester, but this misunderstanding remains central to how some Americans remember Columbus. The truth, however, is that it was well known that the world was round. It was Columbus’ calculations, not his decision to sail west to reach Asia, that scared people off.
Sailing west was in and of itself a great idea; it would completely bypass the Portuguese choke hold on trade with Asia. The problem? What Columbus proposed wasn’t possible. In believing that the globe was much smaller than it actually was, Columbus grossly underestimated how far he would have to travel west to reach Asia. Experts at the time rightly understood that no ships existed that could store enough supplies to survive such a long trip across the open sea. In fact, Columbus was literally thousands and thousands of miles off in his calculations. If not for the existence of North and South America, he would have died at sea.
So, if Columbus was wrong, and experts in every European court (including Spain’s) knew he was wrong … why did Spain eventually agree to sponsor his journey? Well, to answer that question, we need to go back a bit and talk about something called the Reconquista, or Reconquest.
The Iberian Peninsula was a patchwork of small Christian and Muslim kingdoms in the early eighth century. Starting around 718 AD, Christian rulers in the region began a long, messy, and often halting “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula— slowly swallowing up Muslim kingdoms, while also coming into conflict with their Christian rivals. The Kingdom of Portugal completed the Reconquista within its borders by the end of the thirteenth century. In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, uniting the two other largest Christian kingdoms in the area and setting the stage for the eventual emergence of Spain. In 1492, they captured the Muslim kingdom of Grenada, completing the Reconquista in Spanish lands.
That year 1492 probably sounds familiar. If you learned the same little rhyme I did when I was in school, then you know that 1492 was the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” While the Spanish Reconquista would have many important consequences for the subsequent history of North and South American (some of which we will examine in later entries), it made 1492 a particularly fortuitous year for Columbus to seek sponsorship from the Spanish crown.
Though they initially rejected his proposal, Ferdinand and Isabella eventually agreed to sponsor Columbus’ speculative westward journey. Having solidified their hold on the peninsula, Ferdinand and Isabella now looked for ways to quickly expand their national wealth, power, and prestige. Columbus represented a low risk/high reward scenario. If he was wrong, the Catholic monarchs were out three ships and less than a hundred men. If Columbus was right, though, then Spain would have a faster and easier route to the riches of Asian trade.
Although by all accounts an excellent sailor and navigator, Columbus could not make Asia magically move closer to Europe. As supplies dwindled and still no land was in sight, Columbus faced the real possibility of a mutiny. Luckily for him (and unluckily for the inhabitants), Columbus’ tiny fleet finally sighted land in what is now the Caribbean Sea. Columbus’ expedition would survive, then, and in the process inaugurate a series of events that would forever change the history of the world. Columbus would take four voyages to the New World total. Over time, he proved himself to be a cruel, tyrannical, and ineffective governor of both natives and Spaniards in the Western hemisphere. He died in disgrace, stripped of most of his titles and power.
His reputation enjoyed rehabilitation over the course of the nineteenth century in the United States, as various Americans popularized him as the “discoverer” the New World—and, indirectly, of the United States. Following the Revolution, Americans were eager to dissociate themselves from early English explorations of what is now the United States and tie themselves to a different founding explorer. In fact, the first recorded precursor to Columbus Day was in New York in 1792.
Many towns in the US (including the capital) bear Columbus’ name—as do towns and even countries in other parts of the Western Hemisphere (The United States is not the only country in the Americas where his legacy is celebrated in public memory). And of course many places in the US still observe Columbus Day, established as a federal holiday in 1937--though some places have begun to celebrate “Indigenous People’s Day,” instead. Before Uncle Sam, the most popular representation of the United States was as a woman named “Columbia.” She was traditionally dressed in ancient Greco-Roman clothing, which speaks to another important reason for the Columbus rehabilitation project: Columbus provided a link to the “Old World” that allowed Americans to think of themselves as the next chapter in the history of “the West”—direct heirs to the heritage of Greek and Roman civilizations.
Having patiently read through this entry, some of you might have been thinking for a while, “Um, excuse me, but Columbus wasn’t the first European to land in the New World! The Vikings were!” That’s definitely true. There is even some circumstantial evidence that Africans or Asians may have reached North and South America before Columbus. So, why didn’t we discuss any of this?
It’s pretty simple, really: the voyages of the Vikings are interesting, but not particularly important to the history of North America. They didn’t leave permanent settlements, and the knowledge of their journeys was lost to mainland Europe. This is why it takes a while for Europeans to figure out they’ve found continents previously unknown to them—indeed, Columbus probably died refusing to believe he hadn’t reached some part of Asia. In other words, no one remembered Viking voyages to distant western lands, then put two and two together. The explorations of the Vikings were rediscovered after the fact.
So, while Columbus was not the first, he was certainly the most important. His voyages established permanent contact between the New and Old Worlds. And his voyages inaugurated an exchange of foods and livestock, diseases, technologies, ideas, and populations that would drastically change life on both sides of the Atlantic forever. We’ll look at some of those changes over the course of the next few entries.