Alison's Writing Portfolio · On History · On Places & Travel

The Delusions of Christopher Columbus – Perceptive Travel

As part of an ongoing project revolving around the spice trade, I’ve become a little obsessed with Christopher Columbus. Perhaps this is latent guilt from singing about his heroics in elementary school.  More to follow, but here’s a piece on Perceptive Travel called Finders, Seekers:

Every school child knows that Columbus “discovered the New World in 1492”, and that it was an accident since he was really trying to find an eastward sea route to the spice-laden Indies. When he set off on his first voyage in 1492, he brought along an Asian interpreter, because he thought he was going to first make landfall in an island chain called Cipango off of the mainland of Cathay—that is to say, he was aiming for Japan, off of China. He estimated that the distance from the Canary Island to Cipango was just 2,400 nautical miles.

We also know that he was convinced he’d succeeded, which is why we have all these misnomers in our lexicon, like “Indians” for America’s native population, and “pepper” for capsicum.

In many ways, it’s easy to understand why Columbus thought the way he did: after all, no one he knew or had ever heard of had been to the places he dropped anchor. And it also makes sense that in order to effectively sell his royal patrons on his trip, he had to be more than persuaded himself by the idea that the Atlantic Ocean was much narrower than was popularly supposed, and also that Asia was of such a north-south length that any decent mariner traveling West from Europe could not help but bump right into it.

But what is less well known, and also harder to understand, is how long he clung to his belief that he’d found Asia for his entire life, in spite of very strong evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, his strong belief that he’d reached Asia— which I think we can now safely call a delusion— stopped him from actually finding a sea route to Asia.

We all believe our own bullshit to a certain extent, but there’s no historical indication that Columbus lost faith in this belief even as things quickly went hinky… [Read more]

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