Hitherto Unknown: The Discovery of October 12, 1492

The United States of Columbia has an odd ring to it.  Does it not?  It just doesn’t seem to fit.  Oh, how close America probably was to being called Columbia!  Had it not been for a German mapmaker named Martin Waldesmueller who scribed in the name America on his map of the new world in honor of the man who first called this land a “new world, hitherto unknown”, this continent could have been called Columbia.  Instead, Waldesmueller chose to honor the man who recognized this land as a completely new world.  That man was Amerigo Vespucci.


For centuries, Christopher Columbus was hailed as a hero and much was named in his honor, including the District of Columbia.  Then history, as it often does, took another look and saw him as a villain.  The truth lies somewhere in between.


Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who in the end sailed for Spain.  Columbus, Columbo in Italian or Colón in Spanish, secured funding from Queen Isabella of Spain and set sail for the East Indies on August 3, 1492.  His three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, first stopped at the Canary Islands just off the Coast of Africa to restock and make repairs.  They left port on September 6, 1492 to cross the great unknown to what they believed would be East Asia.


In 1828, Washington Irving published a biography of Columbus.  He proclaimed that many Europeans of the time still believed the earth was flat due to their Catholic faith.  In fact, most educated people of 1542 Europe understood that the earth was in truth a sphere.  That idea was known widely as early as the 4th century BC and perhaps even earlier.  Ancient astronomers in Egypt and Mesopotamia left behind clues that suggest they understood the earth to be round.  Interestingly enough, even the Biblical Old Testament portrays the earth as being as a circle(Isaiah 40), or a ball and hanging upon nothing.(Job 26:7)  While none of the examples guarantee that most humans knew for a fact the world was spherical, it does lend solid evidence that ancient man was not blind the fact that the earth was not as it appeared to the naked eye.  Modern scholars believe the notion that the population of 1542 was convinced the earth was flat stemmed from none other than Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, which was false.


Columbus was one of those educated mariners that relied upon the stars and the sun to guide his while on the water.  To use these astronomical tools one would have to have the knowledge of a spherical planet earth.


Global trade was already a fact of life by 1542.  It had been a fact of life for some time.  European traders would swap for items from Asia along what was called the Silk Road.  It was an amazing system of routes that allowed the people of Europe, Africa, Eurasia, and Asia to exchange items over long distances, sometimes overland, other times via the Indian Ocean.  For many decades the route was kept safe while under the control of the Mongol Empire.  However, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the land route became extremely dangerous for Europeans.  The sea route through the Indian Ocean was always a problem due to pirates.


The idea was simple.  Since the earth was a sphere and traders were in danger while traveling east over Eurasia, traders could instead sail ships westward across the Ocean Sea(Atlantic Ocean) and arrive safely and cheaply in Asia.  The route would hence be safer and more cost effective.


After leaving the Canary Islands on September 6, 1492, Columbus and his crew headed west across pure blue water.  The trip was the 1492 equivalent of us going to the moon.


Columbus made calculations regarding the journey.  He had a time and place in which he believe he would find land.  He believed he knew the exact diameter of the earth and therefore could figure out just where Eastern Asia would be in terms of distance.  Amazingly, land was sighted in almost the right location according to his calculations.


At 2 a.m. on the morning of October 12, 1492 Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Pinta yelled out that he had spotted land.  “Tierra!  Tierra!”  With the blast of a cannon, Columbus was alerted.  He would later claim that he spotted land hours earlier, a notion that is highly questionably and probably completely unprovable.


They landed later that day on what they called San Salvador, in the modern day Bahamas.  The natives of the land called it Guanahani.  They were peaceful to the explorers, but had scars from battles with other nearby native groups.  Columbus would go on to explore the northeastern coast of Cuba and found a settlement of 39 men called La Navidad in present day Haiti.


He traveled back to Spain and took somewhere between 10-25 natives with him. Only seven or eight survived the voyage back to Seville.


Columbus himself went on to make two more trips to what he believed to be East Asia.  By 1500, the 48 year old Columbus was arrested for accused crimes he was to have committed as Governor of the Indies.  On October 1, 1500, just days short of the eighth anniversary of his discovery Columbus was shipped back to Spain as a criminal.  He wrote this letter to a friend in the Spanish Royal Court:


“It is now seventeen years since I came to serve these princes with the Enterprise of the Indies. They made me pass eight of them in discussion, and at the end rejected it as a thing of jest. Nevertheless I persisted therein… Over there I have placed under their sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe, and more than 1,700 islands… In seven years I, by the divine will, made that conquest. At a time when I was entitled to expect rewards and retirement, I was incontinently arrested and sent home loaded with chains… The accusation was brought out of malice on the basis of charges made by civilians who had revolted and wished to take possession on the land…. I beg your graces, with the zeal of faithful Christians in whom their Highnesses have confidence, to read all my papers, and to consider how I, who came from so far to serve these princes… now at the end of my days have been despoiled of my honor and my property without cause, wherein is neither justice nor mercy.”


According to some unconfirmed reports Columbus was accused in his trial of using what witnesses called barbaric acts of torture to govern his lands.


He spent six weeks in prison.  King Ferdinand finally ordered his release and allowed him to make a fourth voyage to the Indies.  It would be his last and this time he would go only as Columbus, not as the Governor.


After returning to Spain he never again travelled back to the lands he stubbled upon.  On May 20, 1506 at only 54 years old, Christopher Columbus died of a heart attack believing whole heartily that he had successfully made the western voyage across the sea to Asia.


He was first interred at Valladolid, Spain and then at the monastery of La Cartuja in Seville by the word of his son Diego.  In 1542 his remains were moved to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.  When France took over the entire island of Hispaniola in 1795, he was once again transferred.  This time he was moved to Havana, Cuba.  When Cuba gained it’s independent after the Spanish-American War in 1898, his remains were shipped back to the Cathedral of Seville.  In 1877 a lead box with the inscription “Don Christopher Columbus” was discovered with bone fragments and a bullet in Santo Domingo.  A DNA test was conducted in June 2003 to determine if the remains in Seville were in fact Columbus.  The test showed that the remains in the Cathedral in Seville were without a doubt the great explorer.  The leaders in Santo Domingo will not allow exhumation on the remains there, so to date we don’t know who they are truly from.


We do know that his life was extraordinary to say the least.  He changed the world in the blink of an eye, yet he refused to believe the way in which he changed it.


Day after day men and women commute to our nations Capitol of Washington, D.C.  Most of them are completely unaware that in fact the D.C. stands for District of Columbia. So in the end Columbus did not have the entire new world named after him.  However he did have what has come to be the most powerful nation in the world’s capital named after him.


Top Photo: Cover of Fossil HD October 12, 2011

2nd Photo: Martin Waldesmueller’s 1507 map of the World

3rd Photo: The Tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Spain.(By Miguel Angel)


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