North American Exploration - Vol. 1

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview
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3 / The Columbian Voyages


Christopher Columbus made four round-trip crossings of the Atlantic Ocean between the years 1492 and 1504 and discovered in the process the Bahama Islands, the Greater Antilles, most of the Lesser Antilles, Trinidad, South America, and the Caribbean coast of Central America from Honduras to Panama. In spite of these remarkable landfalls, he never reached his destination, Asia, and was totally unaware that he had failed to cross the "Ocean Sea," which supposedly spanned the distance between Europe and Marco Polo's Cathay. Columbus never sailed the Ocean Sea because it did not exist. Yet this single geographical concept--one ocean, one landmass--probably ranks as the most important physical difference between the view of the world then and the view of the world now. The fact that the fifteenth-century notion of a common sea washing the shores of western Europe and eastern Asia lay only in the minds of the believers was (and is) irrelevant. Belief in the Ocean Sea provided sufficient validation. Its existence had been confirmed by every test known to philosophy, science, and religion.

Even though the world ocean was universally accepted in the fifteenth century, there was still doubt and debate concerning the relationship of the earth's land and water distribution. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages the belief commonly held was that the sea surrounded the world island (Afro-Eurasia), an idea that had its roots in Babylonian geography and represented an evolution of the early Greek concept of a land-girdling ocean-river. By the end of the fifteenth century there had been a reversal of informed opinion regarding the earth's land and water relationship: the land was now perceived as encompassing the Ocean Sea. Both concepts, however, relegated the larger percentage of surface area to land, and in the fifteenth century the centuries-old belief that the land-to-water ratio was six or seven to one still held sway.

Coupled with the erroneous supposition that the earth was mostly land was another misfounded belief, one that underestimated the planet's cir


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