The Truth About Columbus and the Round Earth


In 1492, Columbus
sailed the ocean blue… with a whole lot of maps and information about the very round
Earth. Contrary to popular belief, not only did Columbus
realize the world was round, so did his contemporaries. In fact, it was so well accepted that daring
seafarers had been exploring the Atlantic for hundreds of years before Columbus’ time. Without a doubt, men of the early Renaissance
knew the world was round, and that the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were in no danger
of sailing over the edge. The ancients were well aware the world was
a sphere. Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) is generally
credited with having first suggested a round Earth. Aristotle (4th century B.C.) agreed and supported
the theory with observations such as that the southern constellations rise higher in
the sky when a person travels south. He also noted that during a lunar eclipse,
the Earth’s shadow is round. Eratosthenes (3rd century B.C., head librarian
at the Library of Alexandria) built on their ideas and calculated the circumference of
the Earth with remarkable accuracy at about 252,000 stadia. Depending on which stadion measurement he
was using, his figure was either just 1% too small or 16% too large; many scholars think
it likely that he was using the Egyptian stadion (157.5 m), being in Egypt at the time, which
would make his estimate about 1% to small… remarkable. Later, the Roman Ptolemy added to the collected
wisdom. He observed that as a man approached a far
off mountain, it appeared to grow out of the ground – a clear indication of a curved
surface. He later devised the forerunner of modern-day
longitude and latitude, including measuring what we now call latitude from the equator. In Christian medieval Europe, Bede (7th century
C.E.), a scholar and a Catholic monk, produced an influential treatise that included a discussion
of the spherical nature of the world. This work, The Reckoning of Time, was copied
and distributed to clerics across the Carolingian empire. Later, in the 1300s, Dante Alighieri’s Divine
Comedy also describes the Earth as a sphere. The Catholics weren’t the only religious
sect that thought the world was round. The Islamic world is known to have consistently
maintained the scientific knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, preserving the works of
Aristotle and Ptolemy, among others. They were well aware the Earth was round,
having calculated with relatively good precision its circumference in the early 9th century. As historian Jeffrey Burton Russell stated, With extraordinary few exceptions, no educated
person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed
that the Earth was flat. The debate since then among the educated,
both religious and secular, was not whether the Earth was approximately a sphere, but
exactly what the size of the Earth was. The idea of sailing west to reach India also
has its origins in antiquity, with the first known person to mention the notion being the
Roman writer Strabo in the 1st century BC, who stated: If of the more recent measurements of the
Earth, the one which makes the Earth smallest in circumference be introduced–I mean that
of Posidonius who estimates its circumference at about 180,000 stadia, then. . . if you sail from the west in a straight
course, you will reach India within 70,000 stadia. “ Beyond the educated, even the most empty headed
sailor knew the Earth was round simply by the fact that ships and the like disappeared
over the horizon with the bottom first and then the mast the last to be sighted. A similar effect is observed when spotting
land from a ship. Again, what was the real mystery at this time
was the actual circumference of the Earth. Most- correctly -thought Eratosthenes’ estimate
was probably reasonably accurate, meaning that if one did not encounter a well stocked
land mass in between Spain and Asian to resupply, Columbus’ expedition would end in failure
with the crew dying of thirst or starvation. In fact, this would have happened if not for
Columbus encountering the Caribbean islands around where he expected to encounter his
destination. Columbus, of course, felt that the Earth was
much smaller than Eratosthenes’ estimate, so the journey was doable at Columbus’ estimation
of only about 3100 miles (5000 km) to Japan, rather than the true 12,400 miles (20,000
km) it is. Queen Isabella eventually sided with Columbus
and agreed to finance the expedition, despite the objections of scholars who were consulted
over the plan. As to how the myth that people during Medieval
times thought the Earth was flat came about, this is up for debate. The idea seems to have first popped up in
the 17th century and appears to have been, at least in part, put forth by secular scientists
railing against the ignorance and misguided notions of religious groups (specifically
Catholics), who they claimed in Medieval times believed the world was flat- ironically, despite
the lack of much evidence supporting that claim, and the numerous documented instances
of religious scholars from that era stating the Earth is round. The myth gained significant traction in the
19th century with various works, such as Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of
Science with Theology. The “Columbus / Flat Earth Myth” itself
was widely popularized in Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,
which was in numerous places largely fiction, though presented as fact and a scholarly work. In his account, Irving claimed that it was
Columbus’ voyage that proved to the world that the Earth was round, going so far as
to explicitly state that one of the objections to Columbus’ voyage was that a round Earth
wasn’t scriptural, so the voyage was doomed to fail when Columbus encountered the edge
of the world. In fact, there is no first hand record of
any such objection to Columbus’ expedition, with the primary documented objections having
to do with the length of the journey. Irving’s fanciful tale is simply in line
with the “Warfare of Science with Theology” viewpoint, which at least in terms of the
“flat Earth vs. spherical Earth” issue, historically wasn’t ever a sticking point
as has been so often claimed from the 17th century on (though around the 1920s, most
scholars stopped believing this myth). One of the only significant Christian works
that seems to put forth the notion of a flat Earth was written by an Egyptian Monk in the
6th century AD, Christian Topography. On the whole, though, evidence seems to indicate
this work wasn’t very influential, as you might expect given that most educated Christians
were well aware of the mountain of evidence that the world was a sphere. That being said, Christian Topography was
often cited as support for the notion that Christians thought the world was flat until
recently, with those authors casually ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Another common myth surrounding Columbus’
voyage was that he was the first to discover the “New World”. In fact, there is no question that North America
was visited by Northern Europeans in the 10th or 11th centuries. Specifically, Norse settlements, one of which
has since been excavated, were established in continental North America in the 10th century. The settlements were a failure in part, it
appears, due to problems with the Native Americans, who the Norse called Skrælings. However, according to recent scholarship,
the Norsemen continued to meet and trade with indigenous Americans, at least sporadically,
even after the failure of the two colonies they setup. Not the dull oafs of legend and Capital One
commercials, the Vikings apparently made a map of their North American conquests. The Vineland map is believed by some to have
been made circa 1440, and demonstrates that at least some Europeans were aware of the
existence of continental North America, well before Columbus set sail. Today, there is also increasing evidence,
and speculation, that the Americas were visited by Muslim and Chinese explorers long before
the “Age of Discovery” in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Although still somewhat up for debate, there
is evidence that a Muslim sailor, Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad, traversed the Atlantic
and landed in the New World in 889 C.E. In 956, famed Islamic historian, Abul Hasan
Ali Ibn Al Masudi, created a map from his research of this journey that depicts an unknown
landmass where America is located. Other voyages to the New World chronicled
in Muslim histories includes that of Ibn Farrukh, who seems to have visited islands far to the
west of the Canaries in 999 C.E. Proponents of the Muslim exploration theory
repeatedly turn to an intriguing map drawn in the early 16th century by the famous cartographer,
Piri Reis. Reportedly copying from ancient documents
found in a Turkish library, it is widely accepted that Reis created the map in 1513. Even though this is after Columbus “discovered”
the New World, the Piri Reis map depicts the accurate placement of islands and landmasses
far before they were visited and mapped by Europeans. In fact, it shows the Andes Mountain range,
which was not “discovered” by Pizarro until 1527.

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