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Scholars Run Columbus Myths Aground

October 12, 1987|CHARLES DOWNEY

The 500th celebration of Christopher Columbus' 1492 journey to the New World is five years away, but as Americans mark Columbus Day, 1987, scholars are again digging into the story of the explorer with as much zeal as he expended in getting here.

For instance, scientists are searching for the site of the first voyage's camp and for the explorer's grave. Meanwhile, historians are discovering that much of what is commonly known about Columbus is actually myth.

Among the more popular untruths about Columbus handed down through the years:

--The explorer had to fight the notion that the world was flat and his ships would sail off the edge.

--The names of his ships were the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

--He discovered a new continent.

--He died a penniless man.

--He was the first European to reach the New World.

--Spain's Queen Isabella hocked her jewels to finance the journey.

Says William Fowler, professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston: "Had Columbus known the actual distance to China, he probably would have never set sail. The explorer made his calculations about the size of the Earth from Greek data and was off by about 60%. He thought he was sailing about 3,000 miles directly to China when the actual distance to that country was closer to 10,000 miles."

The small ships of the 15th Century simply could not carry provisions for a journey that long.

The native peoples of the Americas became known as "Indians" because 15th Century Europeans referred to China and India as "The Indies."

The flat Earth theory held sway among common folk during the Dark Ages and was still popular among peasants in the 15th Century, but all educated Europeans knew the Earth was round.

"Before 1492, virtually all lettered men and certainly all European navigators knew the Earth was round," says Gerald Weissmann, M.D., author of "They All Laughed at Columbus."

Adds Fowler: "Anyone claiming that a ship would sail off the end of the world in 1492 would have been laughed out of court."

The stories about sea monsters weren't as terrifying as they seem--at least not to the sailors of the day. Sailors described to chart makers the whales, which then were depicted as sea monsters on the edges of some maps. Rich imaginations took over when others looked at the maps.

Columbus proposed to sail west across the "Western Ocean," as the Atlantic was then known, to reach the Orient. But the explorer didn't know the Western Hemisphere was between Spain and Asia. Thus, when he landed in the islands we now know as the West Indies, Columbus thought he had reached the outer islands of Asia. When he made land in the Americas, Columbus sent out emissaries to search for the Great Khan of China. The explorer went to his grave convinced he had discovered a short sea route to Asia. He persisted in his beliefs because he found gold among the natives and heard rumors of great empires farther inland. In reality, those empires were the Inca in Peru and the Aztec in Mexico.

Preceded by Vikings, Irish

Columbus was hardly the first European to reach the New World. The Vikings in the 11th Century and the Irish in the 6th Century sailed to the North American continent. Thor Heyerdahl, a more modern explorer and author of "Kon-Tiki," is leading a three-year research project which he says will prove that Columbus knew about the Viking journeys and settlements in Greenland during the 11th Century.

"Historians have a map drawn by Portuguese sailors before the time of Columbus showing the coastline of Brazil," says Archibald Lewis, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Lewis says Columbus himself had been on expeditions to Iceland, Greenland and to what is now the Hudson Bay. So people of the 15th Century already knew there were northern and southern land masses to the west of Europe.

Twenty-five years after the death of Columbus, in 1521, Magellan circumnavigated the globe and proved that Columbus had been bumping into a new continent, not the outer islands of China.

"One of the most popular myths about Columbus was there was only one voyage," says Weissmann. "Actually, Columbus organized and led four expeditions to the New World."

Marooned for a Year

After the first voyage, Columbus was hailed as a hero. So for the second voyage, all the great adventurers of the day signed on. On the third voyage, Columbus' entire flotilla was shipwrecked and marooned for a year on Jamaica. Columbus was ill and old beyond his years during the fourth and final journey.

The funds for Columbus' first voyage came from the wealthy Spanish treasury. There was no need for Spain's Isabella to hock her royal jewelry. The explorer first solicited the kings of Portugal, France and England, but they would not hear of financing a voyage to China.

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