Magazine article Insight on the News

Columbus Didn't Really Get the Shaft

Magazine article Insight on the News

Columbus Didn't Really Get the Shaft

Article excerpt

Columbus is commonly thought to have been ill-rewarded. Here he discovered the New World and has named after him only a university in New York, a river, a South American country, 20-odd cities in the United States, a broadcasting network and a movie studio.

Another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, called by Ralph Waldo Emerson that "thief," got the big one. Two whole continents bear his name. Generations of schoolteachers have smoldered at this injustice and a cinematographic pageant, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, directed by Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise), now joins in the smoldering.

How could this nefarious injustice have come about? A first and, during the key period, insurmountable obstacle to the recognition of Columbus as discoverer of the New World was in fact Columbus himself.

After four voyages across the "Western Ocean," Columbus angrily asserted that he'd been to Asia and visited China, Japan and "the Indies" - places whose separate identities he wasn't quite clear on.

Columbus went to his grave crabbed, cranky, bitter, denying that he'd discovered anything new out there in the Western Ocean and maintaining to the end that he'd been to China. In the new Ridley Scott movie (with Gerard Depardieu as Columbus and Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabella) Columbus prates about the "New World," but these words never crossed the real Columbus's lips.

The explorer once sent into central Cuba a special envoy to present his credentials to the grand khan of Cathay. He didn't find him, but Columbus remained convinced that the magnificent capital of the grand khan was around there somewhere.

Columbus brought back to the Spanish court parrots, various "Asian" plants, including rhubarb, and some real, live, Chinese-looking people (Indians) to prove he'd been to Asia. He was a complete obsessive on the subject and, actually, owes his fame to coming up lucky after one of the biggest mistakes in geographic history.

Your average person probably still thinks that before Columbus people thought the world was flat. But by Columbus's time the entire educated class knew the Earth was round and the only question was how big it was.

Columbus swore to Ferdinand and Isabella that, setting sail from Spain, he'd reach Japan after 2,400 miles. The actual distance, which would have required his crossing the Pacific, is more than 10,000 miles. …

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