Know Your Fucking History: Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth

You’d have to be a Dummy McDunceFace to not already know that Christopher Columbus wasn’t all he’s cracked up to be. No, he didn’t “discover” America. He didn’t even technically land on the mainland, only getting as close as the Bahamas. The first known European to reach American soil was Norse Badass Leif Ericson, some four hundred years prior. Besides, the term “discovered” is pretty problematic, given that there were already, you know, people there. Columbus also wasn’t the cutthroat Native American murderer that he’s sometimes alternatively made out to be. Columbus died many years before a smallpox pandemic wiped out most of the native Taino people of Hispaniola. Yes, contact with Europeans can categorically be blamed for the introduction of the disease against which natives had no natural defenses. But Columbus himself didn’t breathe smallpox germs into the mouths of unsuspecting Taino peoples while they slept, or wipe his smallpoxy snot off his nose and wipe it across a passing native’s face, then jog away yelling “HaHA! You just got POXED!” and then giggle. Point is, a lot of myths surround Columbus.

The point of Columbus’s four voyages to the New World was simply to prove that Asia was a lot closer than people in Europe thought it was (false), and that the lucrative spice trade in the East Indies was easily reachable by sailing thataway, rather than thisaway where there were dangerous things like Ottomans and Persians. Previous expeditions from Europe to obtain spices ended in entire fleets sinking to the bottom of the Mediterranean, bogged down with thousands of footstools and rugs and long-haired cats. It wasn’t pretty. The point most definitely was not, as is the topic of this installment of Know Your Fucking History, to prove that Earth is not flat.

You could have walked into the seediest, smelliest, foulest pub in the smallest backwards European Hamlet, find the drunkest, dirtiest, stupidest, most illiterate mud slinger in the joint, then ask him if you could have a word with his family dog. That dog would have been well aware that the earth isn’t flat, and would probably look at you funny for even asking. The Greeks figured that shit out in the 6th century BC. The myth that even educated people in the Middle Ages believed the earth to be flat dates to the 17th century as part of a Protestant campaign against Catholic teaching, but really flourished around the 19th century at the height of the evolution debate. Champions on science’s side of the conflict thesis pinned the flat earth theory on medieval pre-modern civilization to drive home the point that anti-Evolution religious doctrine has clearly been wrong before. Although to be fair, Columbus actually thought the earth was sort of pear shaped, and thought he’d made it real close to Japan when in fact he’d only gotten as far as the Canary Islands, so he wasn’t really winning any Bright Thinker awards. I imagine his first landing went something like this:

Columbus: *yawn* *stretch* Aaaaah, beautiful Asia!
Columbus sees a native
Columbus: Konichiwa, Asian person! Please bring me some sushi if you don’t mind, for our journey was long, many good sailors died because we haven’t yet figured out that whole vitamin C scurvy thing, and I’m famished! Domo arigato!
Native: Uh…huh?
Columbus: Very good! Most excellent! This is most definitely the place I intended to be and not thousands of miles off as many of my fellow navigators tried to tell me before I left!

I remember reading a book about Columbus when I was a kid, and it told a nice narrative about how lil’ Christopher, as a young pip sitting on a dock one day, was watching ships depart from the shore. He noticed that the ships didn’t just get smaller and smaller and disappear, they eventually began to dip and lower until only the sails remained, and those too plunged below the horizon. It was in that moment that Cee Cee, as his mother probably affectionately called him, became the first human EVER ON THE PLANET to realize that the earth was round, and he set out to prove his hypothesis twenty-odd years later.

A lovely story, although completely false. In truth, Columbus took his cockamamey plans first to King John II of Portugal. He in turn presented the plans to a panel of experts, all of whom rejected it on the grounds of “it’s fucking batshit insane” because they thought his estimated travel distance of 2,400 miles to the East Indies was far too low. Undeterred, Columbus hit up Genoa and Venice, both of whom reacted in kind, and sent his brother Bartholomew to try to convince Henry VII of England to sponsor the expedition. Henry called Columbus the Lesser a “Ninnynoggined Fizzybottom,” and sent him on his way.* His last stop was Spain, where he had an audience with King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella. They too replied that Columbus had severely underestimated the length of his trip, but in a very “Eh, what the fuck” move, decided to sponsor him anyway. Turns out everybody else was right (Columbus: “Egg on my face!”) but he went back three other times to keep founding colonies for Spain. The voyages aren’t without significance; they mark the beginning of European exploration and colonization of the Americas, even though Columbus insisted to his dying day that every island they hit was part of the Asian continent.

Columbus: super bad at geography and trigonometry. Yes. But neither he, nor anybody else really, needed to prove Earth wasn’t flat. Because only Ninnynoggined Fizzybottoms believed that.

-Katie Sisneros

 

 

*Probably.

 

Previously in the Know Your Fucking History series:

The Forbidden Fruit