10 October 2016

Why Columbus sailed SOUTH to the Americas

He sailed WEST, you say. Well... yes, but not exactly.

His goal (and his achievement) was to sail west and SOUTH. This is all explained in The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies, by Nicolas Wey Gomez (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Mass, 2008). [the page notations below are from this book]

Had Columbus actually sailed west, he would first have reached the Azores, and then a continuation on the same latitude would have brought him ashore near my cousin's home in New Jersey!

Instead, he headed southwest to the Canaries. Why the Canary Islands? They were Spain’s westernmost (and also southernmost) territory in the Atlantic and a suitable location for repairs and restocking. He then navigated west and southwest, “always following the sun, though slightly to the left.” On succeeding voyages his path followed “ever-steeper routes to the south." For the second voyage, he steered “far more to the left than on the first voyage.” And on his third voyage, “he pursued a journey toward the southern region, seeking the equatorial line.”(4)

After leaving the Canaries, Columbus reprimanded his pilots for allowing the ships to drift to the north. Carried by prevailing currents and winds “the sailors steered badly, declining toward the west by northwest and even toward the northwest; for which reason the Admiral scolded them many a time.”(396) He tried to travel directly west from the Canaries, and began veering south "the minute he felt reasonably confident that he was about to strike land."

The primary reason Columbus favored a southern route was that he believed precious resources were more likely to be found in hot regions. In his writings: “gold is generated in sterile lands and wherever the sun is strong.”(40)

He shared the belief held by Ptolemy and other geographers that places with equal latitude shared attributes.(49) Spices, medicines, and jewels were most often associated with the tropics. His proposal before departing was: “that by way of the West, toward the south, he would discover great lands, islands, and terra firma, the happiest of all, the richest in gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones and infinite peoples; and that in that direction he expected to reach land belonging to India…”(141)

It was also known that Cathay (China) had a temperate climate like Europe (per reports of Marco Polo and others) at that it was “in the line [latitude] of Spain.” India (and the islands of "the Indies") were known to be tropical.(46)

One can also note the advice given to Columbus that “all good things come from very hot regions whose inhabitants are black or dark brown...”(185)

All well-educated people of the time knew that the earth was spherical; this had been common knowledge since the time of Archimedes (250 BCE), or perhaps before that by anyone who had seen the shadow of the earth cross the moon during an eclipse. Columbus' sailors did not fear the edge of the earth; what they did fear was shallows, which they considered to be more likely in tropical waters where the heat evaporated the water.

Before he sailed to the Americas, Columbus had travelled to Ireland, where he had seen aboriginal people who had been discovered drifting on logs in the ocean – we know now that they were probably Inuit, but because of their facial physiognomy they were thought to be from Cathay (China).(355)

So sailing west to China was not an illogical plan. Where Columbus differed from others was that he thought it was also practical. Everyone else thought it was impossibly distant. In fact, Columbus grossly underestimated the distance west to China/India, and it was that false confidence of its proximity that led him to venture out and to believe that he had found the Indies when he reached the Caribbean.

I've added the "recommended books" tag to this post, although it certainly is not a book for everyone. At 600+ pages and with copious notes, it is a scholarly work, obviously the product of decades of work by this author. It also has excellent reproductions of early pre-Columbian maps.

(map credit here)

(originally posted March 2009; reposted for Columbus Day 2016)


  1. Inuits in *Ireland*? Those logs must have carried them a long way.

  2. Yes, it was Ireland, not Iceland. I've already returned the book, so I can't check now, but as best I remember, he saw the "aboriginals" in Ireland (perhaps they were being used as a sideshow or kept by a rich family), but where at sea they had been picked up was not specified. I would guess in the Greenland/Iceland region.

    1. From what I understand Columbus DID sail to Iceland early in his sailing career with the Portuguese - which would certainly have taken him close to Ireland. Going from either Portugal or Spain, it's hard to NOT go by way of Ireland to get to Iceland.

  3. Unless my memory serves me wrong in this, I believe that an inuit paddled his kayak into a bay in Scotland back in the 1800's, or even more recently. Which, if correct could mean that the inuits in question could have sailed to Ireland under their own power.

  4. Columbus must be one of the most over-rated 'discoverers'. What an idiot. He sailed out to find the eastern passage to the East, found the Virgin Islands, and promptly returned claiming he found India, and ends up getting credit for discovering America, even though he did not set foot on American soil until 1502!

    1. Be careful, Jasper, that people don't refer to you in such opprobrious terms. The big point is that before Columbus, nobody from the west of the Eurasian landmass had consciously set out to reach the other end of it by sailing west. Even if Columbus' calculations were grossly erroneous, he was setting out with an extremely ambitious purpose in mind, unlike say the Vikings, who learned of America by accident (the first Viking to see the America coast, Bjarni Herjulfsson, was blown there by storms while on his way to Greenland), and did little to follow up on their discoveries. Columbus, by contrast, represented the Renaissance spirit of deliberately trying to expand the frontiers of knowledge, which was in large part responsible for the rise of the West relative to the other great world civilizations (Islam, India, and the Far East) after the year 1500. Prior to the 1500s the big four civilizations had all been more or less on par in terms of technological knowledge and cultural vitality. So, the bottom line is don't sneer at Columbus' achievement.

  5. It sounds like he was influenced by the much older alchemical belief that the Sun emits a type of radiation that gradually ennobles elements. Iron would become copper, copper would become silver, and silver would become gold.

    1. In the south is where he would believe all the gold is because that is where the sun shines [Reference]*

      * From Iberia to Diaspora: Studies in Sephardic History and Culture

  6. Where's La Salle on this map?

    Those of you up north may know of him, but you might know about his last mission, to map the Gulf Coast and find the mouth of the Mississippi from the sea. Lost some of his ships and mistook Matagorda Bay for the Mississippi. Ran aground with his last ship, built a fort, and claimed Texas for France, making the French flag the second of six flags to fly over Texas.

    La Salle rallied his men once to find the Mississippi over land, but soon turned back. He made a second attempt the next year and most historians believe his band mutinied somewhere near Navasota, Texas. La Salle was killed and most records were lost at this time. Some argue that La Salle made it across the San Jacinto river and was killed a little east of Huntsville.

    There's no way La Salle could have made it to the Mississippi. Anyone who knows the geography of SE Texas and Louisiana knows this is some of the roughest terrain in the US. Dense forests and lots of swamps. Everything is either made of wood, has stickers, or is poisonous. Snakes everywhere, including the rattlesnake with the worst venom. Gators too, and they were drifting into Karankawa territory, and those people threw dead fish in the water to attract sharks so they could kill them with spears. It is believed that the already weakened mutineers were had some bad interactions with the Karankawa and met their end. I bet the gators got a couple first.

  7. He wasn't just trying to miss the Sargasso sea?

    1. Or most likely , the Ottoman Caliphate . They would have stolen everything and used his head for a fleshlight .

    2. Shame on the man who drew that map, doing it on a Mercator map. Earth = sphere; Mercator = flat. The spherical Google Earth heading from Palos to the Canaries is about 223° - almost due southwest.

      The Canaries were part of Spain. Sailing to them would be essentially like being within Spain and well within the known world.

      THE part that Columbus undertook was not THAT part, but the leg from the Canaries (lat 28°N)to his landing near Cuba (lat 23°N). A great circle arc route between the two has heading of about 278° - but they didn't sail great circle routes then. Although that Mercator map shows his route swinging a bit to the north, more carefully Columbus would have sailed a bit SW until he reached a given latitude as shown by his sextant. What latitude? 23°N would be a good guess. He could have sailed SW until reaching that and only have had to travel about 350 miles to get to that point. Then he could have sailed due west along that latitude.

      Whether he sailed off at 278° bearing or jogged down a tiny bit more to 23°N latitude and then followed that west, it all was close enough to a 270° bearing that there is nothing silly at all about the phrase "Columbus sailed west". It IS in fact, what he did.

      This guy actually measures ships courses on a Mercator map????? NO freaking WAY. Mercator didn't draw his first until 1569, 77 years after Columbus' first voyage. But since the 1300s the Portuguese had been sailing with portolan charts (google it and look at some images). Columbus worked in the Portuguese sailing fraternity for his whole career until his voyages to America, which the Portuguese would not fund; thus he went to the Spanish crown and barely managed to get funding there, also. Had the Portuguese crown been more adventurous, latin America would all be speaking Portuguese now.

      But since there were no portolans for the wider Atlantic yet, Columbus would have used a portolan chart to get him to his "over the edge" leg - when he left the known and entered the unknown ocean.

      The map at http://ogimages.bl.uk/images/001/001ADD000015714U00008000[SVC2].jpg shows a rhumb line going all but directly from Palos to the Canaries. All of this would be familiar territory at sea. Past the Canaries the rhumb line continues, and would have provided him with a solid start to the "edge of the ocean". The proof that this is all known territory is the RED port names to the south on the portolan, which were harbors for quick refuge from weather. More indications that from the known world Columbus sailed west. PERIOD.

      Not only does it make sense that he would use THIS rhumb line, but it explains why he sailed out of Palos rather than Cadiz, the more further south harbor on the same Gulf of Cadiz. The prevailing wind currents were essentially in that direction, too, so that part is a no brainer.

      So, WHY did he pick the point he did to make his westward turn? About halfway to Cape Verde the weak SSW Canary Current (<25 cm/sec) becomes the stronger North Equatorial Current (25-40 cm/sec), which heads WEST, with a smaller part hugging the African coast. Columbus was almost certainly LOOKING for this current (and very likely already knew it existed, since the general ocean region was common for he and his previously collaborative Portuguese pilots). All Collumbus had to do was floow the rhumb line out of Palos, and then past the Canaries, grab the N Equatorial current when he assessed that the strong west-bound current favored his aims.

      Stan, the next time you see someone talking about ship's courses and pulls out a Mercator map, ignore him.

    3. Thank you for that detailed comment, Steve, but I guess I need to clarify that the map I used to illustrate the post was NOT taken from the book (the source appears to have undergone linkrot over the past seven years), and any ridiculousness of the map's projection should not per se reflect on the quality of the book itself.

    4. But... isn't the Mercator Projection's strongest feature that it preserves latitude and longitude lines. Wasn't this the reason it was the gold standard in nautical navigation for centuries? It distorts the shape and area of everything to preserve those nice straight lat/long lines.

      Certainly Columbus wouldn't have had access to a Mercator map. But it isn't unreasonable to attempt to reconstruct his path and project that onto a Mercator projection using a little undergraduate level math.

      Indeed if you get out your nice spherical globe you will see that starting from Palos which is about the same latitude as modern Norfolk, VA you must travel quite a bit south to reach Hispaniola.

      We also know from his logs that columbus used dead reckoning techniques to cross the Atlantic and didn't really even get any good measurements of his latitude let alone his longitude (which was still a completely an open question at the time).

  8. It seems also possible that he was attempting to exploit the emerging awareness of oceanic currents, that equatorial currents moved westwards and polar currents eastwards in a large "gyre". IIRC it was Portuguese explorers of the time who "discovered" Brazil after heading *west* at the equator in order to eventually head back east to reach the southern tip of Africa (and the Indian Ocean).

  9. Hi,
    bit of info here re the aboriginals in Ireland;
    with that description I could also believe the Gulf Stream carrying people caught in a tidal wave to the Irish coast.

    I doubt enough was known about global air-currents to avoid the doldrums, although they might have known about wind movements around high and low pressures.

    ta for the recommended read.
    cheers another phil


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