The Columbian blunder

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The Americans celebrate Columbus Day on the second Monday of every October, not every Oct 12th as it should be…but well, it was around Oct 12th, that he landed in San Salvador, thinking he was close to Japan…I was mulling over all this and my mind kept straying - I kept hearing AR Rahman singing ‘Columbus Columbus’ (song from the Tamil movie Jeans).. wondering why he was singing about Columbus.

Columbus (1451-1506) the great Spanish seafarer-Looking back, he sure was an interesting guy. Well, he was actually born in Genoa Italy, but spent quite a while in Portugal (wife was Portuguese) and it was only after the Portuguese refused to fund his voyages that he relocated to Spain at age 34. Seven years later in 1492 - he reached Cuba.

I have been to Genoa, a couple of times – a coastal port city, with many narrow winding roads where Columbus toiled many a year back, it was here that my friend KP ate an Octupus delicacy served at the fine seafood restaurant and pronounced it a good rival to our Desi Hawaii Chappal in texture & taste!! It was also here that our Italian friend Bisordi introduced us to his Maseratti car and the art of Italian driving of 0-90mph in seconds, gas pedal fully down, then off and braking at cross roads, squealing off again to 90, people & other vehicles around scattering away terrified – Well, if not anything else, that drive sure was nerve racking, and remains a great memory.

Look at Europe in the 15th century. The Renaissance periods - Ottoman Turks take Constantinople and end Byzantine civilization. Losing colonies, hence markets, in the eastern Mediterranean was a major calamity to a seafaring nation like Genoa. The Spanish crusades begin. The determined policies of the two monarchs Ferdinand & Isabella freed Spain of Moorish domination and helped build their country into a stronghold of Christianity. During the time the Moors took over Italy the lucrative eastward trade routes to the Orient were difficult with the Moors in control of the key cities and ports. So a westward route was to be charted and Columbus who got interested in oceanic sailing thanks to his Portuguese wife & father in law (who had sailed with Henry) volunteered. This article does not really detail his voyages or his discovery of the Americas, but dwells on how & why Columbus blundered, considering that his main aim was to find a trade route to India. But he blundered, and how!!

Columbus started sailing at the age of 14 after learning map making, & reading at Portugal & Greece. He sailed south to Africa and north up to Iceland. In 1481 he put together a plan to sail westwards to India and presented the plan to the leaders of England, Portugal France and Spain. Most thought it ridiculous. The Portuguese sailor Bartholomew Diaz had already found a possible route via the southerly tip of Africa to the Arabian seas. The only person who eventually believed in this was Queen Isabella of Spain, but she took seven years and the fight with the Moors for her to accept & fund it. Some say Ferdinand wanted to get rid of Columbus by sending him off on his impossible quest, into the high seas…

The first thing you must realize is that Columbus was not formally educated. The second being the fact that his knowledge of Geography was based on his voyages and the writings of Ptolemy, Aristotle & so on, but later it was from the books at Prince Henry’s observatory in Portugal and those of his father in law. So Columbus decided that he should experiment with the knowledge that the world was round (or as he concluded later, pear shaped) and he went on to chart a course through the underside of the earth to Malabar - the ‘place of spices’.

Columbus based his plan & distance estimates on Toscanelli’s calculations that the East coast of Asia was only 2,500 miles off the Canary Islands, thus discounting the entire Pacific Ocean!! Simply put, the Greeks had determined that the Spherical earth has 360 degrees. Eratosthenes had determined that each degree was 60 nautical miles (the actual measurement today is 60 nautical miles or 110KM) at the equator whereas the more popular Ptolemy had determined a figure of 50 miles. Well Columbus (It appears he wanted to show it as short as possible to get approval – of course) used the figure of 45 nautical miles (his calculation purportedly used Italian miles as against nautical miles – but I don’t think he was that stupid, he just fudged his calculations) his calculation thus reducing the actual distance by a fourth!! Using maps and the calculations of Toscanelli, he believed he could reach China after no more than a 4000 mile voyage. If Columbus had known (he probably knew all along) that the distance to the East coast of Asia was 12,000 miles, he may never have started off or even received a final sailing approval.

The learned men in Spain however were against all this ‘bunkum’ stating that the other side of the earth had no humans and that Adam himself never went in those directions!! Some reasoned that if Columbus went that way, he would slip down the slope and would never be able to CLIMB back over the curve!! Also others had calculated based on earlier Roman studies (rightly so) that the distance was too great and that water cannot be carried for the ships crew for that many miles! Columbus was a tough fighter – He apparently asked the learned men to stand an egg on its end, which they could not. He simply cracked one end & stood it up saying that everything looks impossible till you find a solution. The master salesman won.

1492- Ferdinand and Isabella annex Granada, Queen Isabella decided to support Columbus (She did not sell her jewels as rumored, but got a couple of rich Jews to finance the trip). The agreement was that at the end of the voyages, Columbus would be made Viceroy & that he would get 10% of the spoils (revenues).Columbus even carried a letter of introduction from Isabella addressed to Emperor Khan of India (Presumably Sikandar Shah the Lodhi King).

They set sail on Aug 3rd 1492 armed with only a mariner's compass and dividers, a quadrant and lead line, an ampolleta or half-hour glass, a ruler, and charts, all put, for the navigation. It is amazing that Columbus did all his navigation by the dead reckoning method (using a compass and simple distance measurements) and not the Celestial navigation method (which uses sextants to line up stars & determine your location). Actually he had tried to work out some charts using Celestial objects, but his quadrant appeared defective and did not provide good results. He finally used the prevalent & successful Mediterranean methods and later studies proved that his heading was 99.7% correct.

Spending awhile at the Canary Islands, they waited for the sailing winds before continuing on. After 35 days sailing, the three puny ships landed at a place he called Guanahani - today’s San Salvador or Watling island (Can you believe this - Nobody is still sure where exactly he landed, San Salvador or other islands around - it continues to be much argued amongst nine candidates). The first sighting of land was actually made in the wee hours of the morning by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana (Juan Rodriguez Bermejo), but Columbus reported it (stating he had seen it the night before) and later collected the award from the Queen (did you know that Triana was so upset that he renounced Christianity, went to Morocco and became a Moslem!!). And thus it turned out that we now celebrate Columbus day and not Bermejo/Triana day!!

Columbus then sailed on to Cuba and thought he landed in Japan, but seeing no gold or rich cities, he turned back and landed in Haiti (Hispanola). When Columbus discovered Cuba; he was convinced that he had found Marco Polo's Cinpangu (Japan). The "admiral", however, was puzzled that there were no silk clad sages, or palaces tiled with gold to be seen anywhere. Accordingly, he decided to dispatch an embassy into the interior of the island, where he believed the cities were located. The mission into the island's interior proved disappointing to Columbus, for the group found nothing resembling an imperial city, spices or gold.
Columbus wrote to Lord Sanchez- Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Saviour (San Salvador). In 1493, Columbus wrote a brief report concerning his discoveries of "Islands of India beyond the Ganges." If you can read Latin, check this out.
Admiral Colon - Columbus, who never abandoned the belief that he had reached Asia, thought that these islands were off the eastern coast of Asia, not far from the Japan or China’s Zaiton as described by Marco Polo. That was his historical blunder. As we know now, Columbus’s own journals were destroyed and the first of the records indicate that Columbus, probably aware of the actual fact, always concealed the distances traveled from his sailors. Columbus fortunately found there at least enough gold to take back and to save him from ridicule on his return to Spain. The gold, parrots, and human captives Columbus displayed for his sovereigns at Barcelona convinced all of the need for a rapid second voyage. He also took back about 300 slaves for auction, but not the pepper that Queen Isabella desired.

Columbus led three more expeditions to the Caribbean. But his own administrative failings and misdirected religious zeal brought much despair and political obscurity during his final years. Did you know that Columbus a deeply religious person, bordering on fanatic hoped to gain gold & money so as to lead a new crusade?

It was during the fourth voyage that they were once stranded at Jamaica without food and Columbus used his knowledge of predicting a total lunar eclipse to scare the locals into believing that he could convince gods to turn off the moon!! Thus they were saved from starvation & death.

He died in 1506, without even a house of his own, in a Spanish Inn; and as he desired, he was buried in his chains. His remains were then moved to Santo Domnigo, later to Havana and back to Spain. As you can see, he traveled far, across the seas, even after his death!!

Columbus after all was an admiral, captaining a ‘ship of fools’ as Sebastian Brant wrote. According to Brant, a wise man should remain at home & not seek the elusive El Dorado!!


What greatly enhanced Columbus’ success as a sailor? Columbus suffered from arthritis, gout & Opthalmia. He was astute at “reading” the smell of the air, the color of the sky, the condition of the seas, the pressure he felt in his joints, floating debris, and other natural phenomena. He even predicted hurricanes accurately.

Columbus did have a feeling that he was not near Asia only when the mouth of the Orinoco River (Venezuela) was sighted, calling it the Dragons mouth, but then he thought he had found the source of all great rivers: the Garden of Eden – the most Easterly point.

While it is said that Columbus reached San Salvador on Oct 12th, it appears that the date by today’s calendar would actually be Oct 20th or 21st.

Columbus thought he was in the East Indies which today is actually the West Indies. He even wrote - 'On all these days I have been in India it has rained more or less’.

Guanahani was probably Waitling Island to start with. San Salvador was originally the name given to another Island known as Cat Island during the 17th & 18th centuries. However after the discovery that Guanahani was probably Waitling Island, the name San Salvador was transferred to Waitling Island.

The victor - The race for the sea route to India was finally won by the Portugese, a slap in the face to the Spaniards when Vasco De Gama returned from Malabar in 1499 with gold & spices.