Columbus Knew He Wasn’t Going to Asia

I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. I’ll tell the story as I believe it happened. After that, you be the judge.

Long ago, in the ancient port city of Genoa, was born a boy. They called him Cristoffa. His father, Domenego Corombo, was one of those men who seem born with their eyes wide open at the beauty of the world and are thereby rendered incapable of settling down in any one spot. Apprenticed as a weaver at age 11, like his father and grandfather, Domenego ran away from home and instead immersed himself in the wild atmosphere of Genoa. It was easy to get lost in Genoa, during those times. It wasn’t just a city; it was the capital of a maritime empire, with colonies stretching from modern Turkey to modern Morocco. Fleets of trading ships from every corner of the world docked in the port daily. Soldiers, sailors, navigators and prostitutes speaking every known language crowded its inns and markets. Domenego learned to navigate this strange world, working variously as a cheese maker, tavern keeper and trader of wool and wine. But most of all, he was a storyteller, one who could capture audiences for hours with his tales of faraway lands which he would one day visit.

He never did visit those lands, for his stories caught the ear of a young woman: Susanna de Fontanarossa, daughter of an old and wealthy family who owned land both on the nearby island of Corsica and in the environs of Genoa. Thinking this was his chance to make his fortune, Domenego wooed the young woman and convinced her to marry him. The dowry was good. But they soon learned that they were mismatched in every way. Susanna was a stern and demanding woman who expected piety and hard work from a husband. Domenego’s wandering spirit chafed under the new expectations of marriage and soon, of children and a household. Into this home was born Cristoffa, their first child, in 1451.

Domenego, whose dreams of adventure had been thwarted by fate, decided — like many fathers — to live vicariously through his progeny. To a sea captain uncle he apprenticed Cristoffa, at only 10 years old, and the boy began to sail the ancient Mediterranean Sea. From the stories told in the taverns by his father and others, Cristoffa had already learned to love the sea. Now, he learned to fear it — and respect it. He was a studious child, having been schooled by his stern mother in everything from Catholicism to table manners. He wanted to know everything. His questions peppered the navigators and officers of the ship from morning to night, on everything from the significance of different types of sea-birds to the circumference of the earth. When his questions became too advanced for the men he traveled with, he turned to books.

It was in those books that Cristoffa Corombo became Christopher Columbus. Their pages opened up a world far beyond the Mediterranean: the travels of Marco Polo to China and India, the records of Portuguese traders down the west coast of Africa, the perilous voyages of Islamic traders in discovering and conquering the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa. His dreams of discovery and wealth began to grow. Then, in 1476, he embarked on a voyage which would eventually lead him to the discovery of the “New World.”

He was only 25 years old that year. Eager for adventure and desperate to smell the oceans which stretched beyond the Mediterranean, he enlisted as an officer in a Genoese convoy bound for England. They docked in Bristol, where Columbus rented a small room in an inn, sharing it with a Genoese shipmate who could speak passable English. One night, a young Irishman appeared in the pub and began regaling the travelers with tales of a land far to the west, across the Atlantic Ocean, which had been visited by Irish seafarers. Columbus’ shipmate rendered the stories into Latin as best he could; it was enough to pique the young man’s curiosity. When the party finally broke up and the Irishman headed for bed, Columbus pulled him aside and, through the interpreter, asked if he could hear more.

The three men spent several days on the docks and in the taverns of Bristol, discussing the possibilities. Was it Asia, asked Columbus? The Irishman, who was known in later Spanish records as Guillermo Herries, thought not. What proof was there? Only legends, answered Herries — ‘The Voyage of Saint Brendan’, ‘The Voyage of Mael Duin’, others, from hundreds of years prior. But did Herries believe them? Yes — and not only that, but he had been trying to convince Irish sailors and merchants to attempt the voyage for years.

Columbus was enthralled. When Herries had to return to his native Galway, Columbus recruited his English-speaking shipmate and several others to accompany him, ostensibly for trading purposes but really to pursue the idea of a transatlantic voyage further. In Ireland, Herries and Columbus found further indicators that their hopes were not ill-founded: Viking legends of Leif Ericsson, human-made artifacts of strange origin washed up on the western shores over the centuries, stories of south-easterly and north-westerly winds across the Atlantic followed by sailors many generations prior. One thing they did not find, however: willing men and ships. The island’s weak English overlords were too busy fighting native Gaelic kings to bother funding expeditions of discovery; the Gaelic kings had even less time for such frivolities.

Disappointed, Columbus returned south, leaving Herries in Ireland for the time being. But the voyage across the Atlantic still occupied his mind. He joined his brother Bartolomeo in a shipping company based in Madeira, off the coast of Portugal, where he married the daughter of the governor and had his first child. He traded down the coast of West Africa. Most of all, he read — voraciously. Books on navigation, on the circumference of the earth, on the travels of Europeans to Asia, on legends of voyages across the Atlantic, on Biblical prophecies of discovery and apocalypse. He learned both Portuguese and Spanish (Castilian) to expand his available material. And slowly, in correspondence with Herries, he developed a plan.

The fundamental idea was simple: based on legends and their own calculations, they estimated that land across the Atlantic would lie about 4,000–5,000 kilometers away from Europe. In his reading, Columbus had run across hundreds of varied estimates of the size of Earth, of the Eurasian landmass, and of the distance from China to Japan. What if they just took the minimal estimates for each and fabricated a distance of 4,000–5,000 to Asia?

Once the plot was hatched, Columbus had no trouble coming up with the right numbers. Using flawed estimates from Toscanelli, he inflated the distance from Spain to China by almost 50% and placed Japan hundreds of miles east of where it actually is. He also added an eastern ring of islands to Japan based on completely unsubstantiated rumors, shortening the distance even further. And his coup de grâce? He used the (shockingly accurate) estimates of Arabian astronomer al-Farghani that 1 degree of latitude = 56 2/3 Arabian miles, but deviously substituted Roman miles for Arabian, reducing the whole size of the earth by roughly a quarter. And voilà — 4,400 kilometers from the Canary Islands off of Africa to the (non-existent) eastern isles of Japan. About 50 days journey, perfectly manageable for a small ship.

It was absurd. Columbus knew it. Twice he went to the Portuguese king. Twice he was rejected, with court astronomers and navigators seeing right through the fabricated distances. Then, in 1486, he turned to the Spanish court, which was flush with the impending expulsion of the Islamic “Moorish” Empire after more than seven centuries of conflict. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella initially jumped at the possibility of a new route to the spice trade in Asia, which would immediately vault the new Kingdom of Spain into the first ranks of European powers. As in Portugal, however, court astronomers and navigators were quick to spot the mathematical inconsistencies and encouraged the Spanish monarchs to pass on Columbus’ wild venture.

For six years the monarchs hemmed and hawed. But in 1492, with the Moors finally driven back across the Strait of Gibraltar, King Ferdinand convinced his wife and their courtiers that Columbus’ mad plan was worth at least a small gamble. They gave him two speedy caravels and a sturdy cargo ship and sent him on his way. It should surprise no one that Guillermo Herries was on board.

The rest, as they say, is history. The ships made landfall in the Bahamas after 5 weeks of sailing, long past the point when they would have had sufficient supplies to return, so strong was Columbus’ faith in land to the west. He then presided over a colonial administration which quickly became cruel and rapacious toward the native populations of “Indians” — history is still sorting out his role in the oppression, but he certainly did little to stop it. He claimed all his life that he had reached Asia, but of course, he had to, or the Spanish crown never would have kept funding his voyages. Finally, he died in relative poverty despite the enormous wealth flowing into Spanish coffers. Perhaps all the lies caught up with him in the end.

Far-fetched, you say? Let me remind you: Columbus had either been at sea or been sitting in an office planning sea voyages from the age of 10 until he embarked on his famous first voyage at 41. He had read widely about navigation, Asia, the Atlantic Ocean, wind patterns, and potential new lands to the west. While he is not believed to have received a formal education, and he certainly proved a poor administrator of the new colonies, he was a voracious reader and possessed a keen mind. Could such a man have possibly swapped Roman miles for Arabic miles and then persisted in such a blatant error when the courts of both Portugal and Spain pointed it out to him? It is the latter possibility, indeed, that seems the most far-fetched. No, it is easier to imagine that Columbus lied to the whole world in order to reach the prize which he and the Irishman Guillermo Herries had so long coveted: a New World. It is only a shame that he had not the strength to build it better than the Old.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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