Columbus – Discover 6 Things You Thought You Knew but Are Totally Wrong

Excerpt from my most recent book, John McCormick.

Columbus didn’t know where he was going when he set out; he didn’t know where he was when he arrived, and when he got back to Spain he didn’t know where he had been.

This book is about many misconceptions and outright false beliefs you were taught. For example, attend College, Pro, or just the $100k con which many students are beginning to believe?

But, while schools mostly fail to teach useful information and many people think they need no further or ongoing education, ignorance can only get you so far in life. On average individuals will have 5 unrelated jobs in a lifetime and the more you know (that is, the more you know which is actually true!) the better jobs you will get.

My book covers topics such as:

Is outer space really cold and is there gravity in outer space?

Just what did Columbus discover or prove, etc. Chapter 1?

Who invented the radio (hint, it was NOT an Italian)?

What was the real thanksgiving like? And much more.

Just to annoy Italian Americans ahead of October – not really, I have nice things to say about Columbus, but because we learn so many false things about his voyage, I will start with his historic voyage. One very basic thing, Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria are not boat names from the late 1400s.

Chapter 1 Columbus

Ask anyone from 4th grade through their 80s and half or more will tell you Columbus discovered the New World. (Remember. ” ..sailed the ocean blue in 14 hundred 92?”)

They may go on to tell you he proved the world wasn’t flat, he discovered the new world — or at least landed on it, and that his ships were named the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

statue of columbus. Image by Andrew from Pixabay
Statue of Columbus. Image by Andrew from Pixabay

They would only be wrong about each and every one of those supposed “facts” that everyone knows.

Not their fault of course; that was what they were taught in school out of badly written, often barely researched books, and taught by teachers who never thought beyond what they had been told when they were in school. (Teachers have a tough job, you couldn’t PAY ME to do it below University level, but with staff shortages many are teaching subjects they didn’t really study in college.)

If schools fail to teach graduates anything useful it isn’t their fault. If people want their kids to get a good education they need to demand more and even pay more, although many countries do far better with less than we now spend.

This book is also not about taking anything away from the Italian navigator who couldn’t get any support from any Italian city or sponsor; Columbus worked very hard to get together an expedition with three ships, a convict or press-gang crew (nearly all British boats mostly had crews who didn’t want to be there and his probably were the same), and cajole and force them to sail into the unknown. (I say unknown but a lot was actually known, such as the size of the planet.)

Columbus deserves respect for his hard work encouraging Europeans to explore the Western Hemisphere – although the native Americans I know have a different take on that.

Today we recognize you can’t “discover” land already occupied by millions of people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years but, not being European, they didn’t count until these somewhat more enlightened days.

It is, unfortunately, true that Columbus didn’t know where he was going when he set out; he didn’t know where he was when he arrived (remember he named the people living there “Indians” because he thought he had arrived in India), and when he got back to Spain he didn’t know where he had been.

Columbus portrait. Public Domain photo.
Painting of Columbus. Public Domain photo.

The real story behind the voyage was that it was made because Europe didn’t have refrigeration and hadn’t yet organized well enough to fill ice houses with ice brought from the North Winters.

Because there was no way to keep expensive meat cold it tended to spoil but because it was so expensive, people, even kings and queens, had to eat smelly meat and it was much easier to stomach if the food was heavily spiced.

But, spices were incredibly expensive. For many centuries the price of black pepper was approximately equal ounce for ounce to the price of gold. They didn’t cost much at the source but transportation costs were enormous.

Many spices came from China and India so what Columbus sold to the Spanish court was the promise that he could sail to the east coast of Asia not by sailing around the south of Africa, a long and dangerous voyage, but instead, take a shortcut across the Atlantic.

Not only was Columbus, not a flat earther, but an inventory of his possessions on his death included the fact that he owned a copy of Ptolemy’s book Geography written by that scientist, astronomer (also possibly an astrologer but probably not), and mathematician about 1,100 years before Columbus’s time. The book demonstrated that the world was a sphere and even made pretty good calculations as to its size.

Technical Note for the inevitable nitpickers: The Earth is actually an oblate spheroid or a sphere that bulges at the middle due to the force generated by the planet’s rotation which is about 1,000 mph on the surface at the equator. However, the deviation from a true sphere is only slight when compared to the total size. Measured from pole to pole the planet is 24,860 miles and around the equator 24,901 miles – this varies but is about 40 miles, a long distance on foot but hardly noticeable if you are orbiting at 4.75 miles per second on the SSI.)

Unfortunately, Columbus’ knowledge of geography was not fully equal to that of the ancient Greeks and I like to think that the reason he was unable to find any backing in Italy was that they were educated enough to realize what he intended to prove was the earth was only half as big as the Greeks had proven it was more than 2,400 years ago and 1,400 years before Columbus. When he got back to Europe he thought he had done so. Neither Queen Isabella, Columbus, nor the captains of any of the ships (little more than large boats – these were less than 70 feet long), really thought they could sail off the edge of the flat planet.

For one thing, no flat earther could explain why all the water didn’t fall off the edge millions of years ago (gigantic ice wall – indeed) or even the 6,000 or so years 1800s biblical scholars ascribed to earth’s age (encouraged in part by scientists ignorant of nuclear power who couldn’t understand how the sun could keep burning so long).

In fact, no one who claims the earth is flat has ever explained why, although the earth is not always in the same position during an eclipse, the shadow of the earth on the moon during an eclipse is always round. They don’t have a good explanation as to why other extraplanetary bodies always look round. (Sadly there are still actual flat earthers around today – what a shocking indictment of the state of U.S. education.)

But Columbus’ entire idea was ridiculous to begin with. I’ll make it simple, it is 6,700 miles from California to China (Pacific Ocean), 3,000 miles from New Jersey to California, and another 3,000 miles from Portugal to NJ (Atlantic Ocean). Total sailing distance from Portugal to Japan, IF North and South America weren’t, to put it bluntly, in the way, would be about 12,000 miles yet when Columbus sailed only 3,000 miles he thought he was in India.

He led a total of 4 trips to North America and on the last one he convinced himself that Cuba was actually Japan.

map showing japan and china
Map showing Japan and China.

Navigation was a bit rough and ready in those days but they did have logs (a taffrail log is a simple “modern” device that uses a calibrated spinner trailed behind a boat and records distance moved in the water). At the worst Columbus’s ships would have had real logs; that is, someone would drop a log in the ocean at the bow and time how long it took to get to the stern, then pull it up on an attached rope and do it again all day and, sometimes all night long because it was information needed for navigation.

Since there were totally unmapped ocean currents the distance traveled from Europe wasn’t exact, but those sailors could tell the difference between 3,000 miles and 12,000 miles so they knew they hadn’t reached China. If nothing else they knew their boats probably couldn’t speed up from the usual 4 knots (nautical miles per hour – about 4.6 MPH to nearly 14 mph.) Divide the 12,000 miles by the length of the voyage which was only about a month (35 days more or less) and you see the boats had to travel an average of 343 miles each day if they had actually reached China but only 86 miles/day or 3.6 knots which is a far more reasonable voyage for the 1400’s.

map world old. Image by scartmyart from Pixabay
Old map of the world. Image by scartmyart from Pixabay

While it is theoretically possible for today’s 80 ft sailboat to travel 14 mph, the average boat in 1500 only went 4-5 mph. (Too technical? What do I know? I used to live on a large sailboat and raced others.)

By the way, the traditional names of his ships were at best nicknames. Those aren’t traditional ship names, certainly not for navy ships in the late 1400’s. Nina was probably christened Santa Clara. The Santa Maria was at the time likely named La Gallega, or The Galician. The Pinta? Search me! Search Google! I couldn’t find it. Let me know if you have any idea what the third boat was named.

Technically he didn’t sail from Spain to North America, due to known wind patterns he planned his travel to start from The Canary Islands, which it did, having sat there for a month after leaving the Iberian Peninsula.

OH Yes, turns out Queen Isabella really didn’t have to pawn her jewelry to outfit Columbus’ voyage. There have always been conspiracy theories but while they led to burning women (witches) in the middle ages, today they convince people that lawyers in Congress know more about scientists than, to put it bluntly, actual scientists.

END Chapter I Columbus “Things you thought you knew or were taught but are wrong. vol. 1″

John A. McCormick, available on Amazon.

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