Miseducation: Finding the Middle Ground with Columbus

The Erdapfel (1492) and Martin Behaim

The Erdapfel (1492), the oldest surviving globe, painted with its creator, Martin Behaim

‘Miseducation’ is a series intended to correct falsities that are often mistaken for common knowledge. Tips provided are discouraged from being raised to maliciously correct teachers. Furthermore, OPT does not condone acts of know-it-allism.

Christopher Columbus’s legacy is fraught with controversy. By modern standards, his deeds would be considered less than reputable. More than that, controversy stems from numerous inaccuracies about his voyages, such as coming in second to the Americas to Leif Ericson and never having landed in the U.S. but the Caribbean islands. Christopher Columbus remains a history lesson despite his faults, but he may make a better lesson because of his faults.

One pillar of the Columbus mythology is his crusade against the commonplace belief of a flat Earth. Fabricated accounts describe the voyager as perpetually persuading potential financiers of Earth’s sphericality. While an alternate route to India was a tough sell, it had nothing to do with a mistaken perception of the globe. By medieval times, Earth’s three-dimensional nature was generally accepted as fact among the European intellectual elite, as well as eventual investors King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

This misconception about medieval thinking is known among historians as the Flat Error. Indeed, the concept of the flat Earth was done away with long before Columbus set sail. As early as ancient Greece, scholars have made themselves aware of the orbicular form of our planet. Aristotle’s cognizance, however, has been compromised through years of sloppy historians crediting Columbus with heralding in the round Earth era.

This misconception of Columbus having an uphill battle against ignorance is a warped recounting of a different uphill battle, almost in defense of ignorance. While many agreed one could conceivably sail westward to India, discerning investors correctly deemed it further than the explorer anticipated. The Spanish crown only agreed to finance half the voyage on a last-minute whim against the advice of learned counsel. In the absence of the Americas, making a straight shot from Europe to Asia as Columbus envisioned, the distance would have exhausted the supplies of his ships. Since it saved the crew from certain doom, the area was then declared the land of opportunity.

Columbus was undoubtedly wrong in a few ways, and his legacy is poorly cited. With all the facts in place, it might seem like there’s nothing to learn from Columbus besides luckily stumbling upon an opportunity. Nevertheless, his saga has thematic undertones about goals, in that you sometimes find what you were searching for isn’t what you expected – but that can still mean success. Even with obstacles, such as the Atlantic Ocean or being misinformed, accomplishment can only be the result of pursuit and effort. But unless you want to depend on luck, you should learn as much as you can before embarking on a goal.

The Myth of the Flat Earth – Jeffrey Burton Russell – American Scientific Affiliation

The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus – Irving Washington (1828)

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