Columbus’s World-changing Encounter Was an Accidental Discovery

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

On the morning of October 12, 1492, it seemed that all the dreams of Christopher Columbus had come true. After all, he had been sailing for weeks on his quest to reach Asia. When one of his ships spotted the dim outlines of land, Columbus called a halt to the sailing to wait until dawn to see what lay ahead. When there was enough light to make a durable contact, Columbus couldn’t have been more disappointed. Why?

Picture showing a model of a ship.
When Columbus first landed in Americas in 1492, he was convinced that he had arrived in Asia. (Image: Theera Disayarat/Shutterstock)

First Encounter with the American World

Columbus’s wait for the night to get over was difficult and when dawn arrived, that proved to be the first contact with the American world, but that’s not what Columbus had thought would happen. Columbus was convinced that he had arrived in Asia, off the coast of Japan, or China. Columbus’s venture was founded on a series of misunderstandings. Because some discoveries are made while searching for something else!

Painting showing Columbus and his associates off the coast of Americas in 1492.
At the dawn of October 12, 1492, Columbus set his foot on the American land, but was sure of the fact that he was in Asia, somewhere in Japan or China. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Columbus initiated an event, called the most important historical turning point of modern times. The beginning of the binding together of the globe, not just politically and culturally, but also environmentally, in ways that were deeply productive, shattering, and destructive at the same time. It was a discovery for Columbus, but not for the people of the Americas, who knew where they were. Historians often called that by the neutral term, ‘encounter’, a world-changing one.        

Learn more about Christopher Columbus’s search for Asia.

Revealing the Truth

But what was going on in the minds of Columbus and his contemporaries at this world-a historical moment, or what the cosmology or mental map, of the European explorers, merchants, and scholars was at that time? The very first thing was to refute the later myth that was spread by the American writer Washington Irving that claimed that the knighted contemporaries thought that the world was flat, and only the brave and visionary Columbus revealed that the world was round.

No educated European thought that the world was flat at the time. Washington Irving and others propagated the story for building up a heroic image, a rendering of Columbus as a hero, and as a rebel that would establish him as a man of science, modern, and always struggling against what Irving and others condemned as the religious orthodoxies of the Catholic Church. In the process of building up that image, those partisans of Columbus severely distorted both Columbus and his contemporaries.

Greek Philosopher Eratosthenes

Ancient authorities of the great classical Greek philosophers had understood the world as a sphere. The Greek philosopher Eratosthenes, in the 2nd century B.C., not only understood that the world was round but went on to construct an ingenious experiment that involved measuring the Sun’s rays, yielding a reliable estimate of the true circumference of the world. The man often considered the father of geography, Ptolemy, in 2nd century Egypt, also used the spherical model and sought to find ways of representing the Earth’s curvature on maps.

Mappa Mundi

The understanding of the world as a sphere had endured. Among their badges of office, medieval kings and queens were shown holding a scepter and an orb, around the representation of world rule. Another key representation of the medieval worldview was a particular chart or a map.

Picture of a 17th century world map
Maps, known as Mappa Mundi, meant the ‘maps of the world which were not accurate but represented the outlines of geography scientifically. (Image: Joao Virissimo/Shutterstock)

Those maps were called Mappa Mundi, or ‘maps of the world,’ of which more than 600 survived. They offered a view on the psychology of the worldview of contemporaries. Those were not accurate, scientifically determined outlines of geography that were rendered in map form, but rather renderings of the world in spiritual terms, drawing on information from ancient authorities, especially holy scripture.

Learn more about how America’s founders established a model of a republic.

T-O Maps

Maps took the form that cartographers called T-O maps, because their appearance was just like the letter O with a capital T inside, dividing the world into three sections. Of those directions, east was seen as most important and placed at the top. That made the reading of those older maps a little bit confusing to modern eyes. What this meant was that above the top of the letter T was Asia, with Europe below to the left, and Africa below to the right.        

In those maps, the spiritual center of the Christian faith was Jerusalem. The Garden of Eden, lying to the east, surmounted the map as a whole. Once those features were put in, more were added as well, from the news of travelers, tradition, or even imagination.

Prester John

A strong rumor persisted for centuries that, either in Asia or Africa, lived a mysterious Christian king, Prester John. Prester in this case meant ‘priest.’ Priest John aided embattled Christendom in his standoff with Islam. In the cosmology of medieval Europe, that world, from its central location, was surrounded by the universe, made up of seven spheres of the outer heavens in which celestial bodies moved was the origin of a phrase that is still used, about being so happy that one is ‘in seventh heaven’. That meant being in the highest transports of delight in the most perfect outer spheres of creation. If that was Columbus’s mindset, worldview, and expectations, how did they lead to a voyage that encountered the Americas?

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Knowing Columbus

Columbus lived from 1451 to 1506, an Italian, born in Genoa, a seafaring republic of northern Italy. From youth, Columbus gained considerable experience in travel, worked as a sailor on voyages to Africa, England, and Iceland. He didn’t make it in some of those voyages; at one point he was on a ship that sank off of Portugal, which was attacked by the French. But he survived to land in Portugal, and that tiny kingdom of Portugal was the center of expansive voyaging. The Portuguese had begun their own tremendous explorations of sailing down the coast of western Africa, probing southwards, to find access to the spice trade. The aim of the Portuguese was to find a way to the East for its riches and spices.

Learn more about Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to Asia.

Columbus’ Sailing Project

Columbus set about educating himself, in order to become part of that venture. He did not have formal schooling, so he focused his own individual energies on gathering all the information he could about a great project, that differed from the one that Portuguese was imagining at the time. His project was to sail in the opposite direction, westwards, to reach Asia, to encounter and meet its alluring treasures, the riches of Japan, China, and India. The stories of Marco Polo were Columbus’s constant companion, along with other compendia about travels to inspire him in his mission.

Common Questions about Christopher Columbus

Q: What did Columbus discover?

Christopher Columbus, who had a dream to discover Asia, made several unsuccessful voyages. Finally, on October 12, 1492, after weeks of sailing across the Atlantic, Columbus had discovered the land of Americas instead.

Q: When was Christopher Columbus born exactly?

Columbus was born in 1451, in Genoa, a seafaring republic of northern Italy. From youth, Columbus gained considerable experience in travel, worked as a sailor on voyages to Africa, England, and Iceland.

Q: Who was Prester John of the Indies?

Prester John was a mysterious Christian king, who lived either in Asia or Africa. Priest John aided embattled Christendom in his standoff with Islam.

Q: What is a Prester?

Prester John was a Christian king, who lived either in Asia or Africa. Prester in this case meant ‘priest.’

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