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)