Did Columbus Reach the Americas Because of a Divine Calling?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

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

For years, Christopher Columbus had been looking for support to launch his voyage to discover Asia. And, it was more than an itch to discover new land. What were the thoughts that instigated a sense of divine calling for him?

Picture showing a compass, ship and a rope with burning candle
Though struggling and looking for support to fund his voyage dream, Columbus could not help but think that he had a calling to change situations geopolitically. (Image: n_defender/Shutterstock)

Sense of Divine Calling

Columbus was fired by a religious self-understanding he developed in the process of his mission, a sense of having a divine calling. He felt that he would be a bearer of Christianity to other lands. After the reverses of the failed Crusades, Columbus felt a calling to turn the tables geopolitically, find new riches and convert populations in other lands which would allow the Christians to regain Jerusalem which had been lost.

Fateful Venture

The last element that enabled Columbus to envision his venture was, a fateful and decisive geographical mistake. Many contemporaries argued that in theory, it was possible to reach Asia across the Atlantic Ocean, but the vast distances of that empty sea were so great that such a voyage would be impractical, or impossible. The result was that they envisioned a vast empty space between Europe and Asia across the Atlantic, far too great for a human voyager. Though the Scandinavian Vikings had earlier reached the northern part of North America, their voyages had been almost entirely forgotten.

Learn more about Christopher Columbus’s search for Asia.

Logics by Leaps and Bounds

Columbus, disagreed as he calculated that the distance between Europe and Asia across the Atlantic was actually much shorter. He did this calculation of his by a series of optimistic and hopeful leaps and bounds of logic, as well as using any citation he could from ancient geographic writers. He picked those facts that agreed with his theory and worked them into his sense of mission. All of those elements gave Columbus the inner conviction that he needed to be a salesman for this journey to the ‘Indies’, to East Asia, by sailing west.

Support for Columbus’s Plan

From 1484, Columbus tried to convince someone to be his patron. Among them were the monarchs of Portugal, Spain, France, and England, but was rebuffed, in spite of some initial interest. Columbus’s soon started the agitation campaign for a patron, but the Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias had arrived with the exciting news that he had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, showing a clear eastward path to India. This news made the whole project that Columbus was suggesting less urgent. Except that the Portuguese discovery did something to stir the rival impulses of Spain, thinking that it might be worthwhile to find out whether Columbus’s plan was practical, and emboldened them to risk the resources that were necessary to find that alternate route.

Funding the Plan

After eight years of pleading, Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to fund Columbus and his project was launched. As Columbus sailed from Spain, a crusading spirit was raging in that kingdom.

A painting shows Christopher Columbus being received by Queen Isabella in Spain
It took Columbus eight long years to convince Isabella, the queen of Spain, to fund his expedition. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

With the fall of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, Grenada, in early 1492, which brought the completion of the Reconquista, the re-conquest of Spanish lands from Muslim rule. The ‘most Catholic Monarchs’, of Aragon and Castile; Ferdinand and Isabella, celebrated. On the day Columbus sailed, the monarchs expelled the Jews of Spain as a non-Christian religious minority.

Learn more about what drives any explorer to take a risk and venture into the unknown?

Setting the Sails

At the age of 41, Columbus set the sail with three ships from Spain on August 3, 1492. His fleet was tiny, three small ships, nothing like the great treasure fleets of Zheng He some 50 years earlier. The voyage was an uncertain one as the winds driving the crew westwards were so brisk and energetic that the crew feared that they would be driven out into the vast open space of the Atlantic, and never able to reach home again.

Columbus was actually driven to deception by keeping two different ship’s logs. He did this in order to calm his crew by underestimating in the official log, the actual distance they had traveled. After 33 days of tense sailing, the ships, on October 12, sighted land.     

Misconception of Findings

Columbus was convinced that he had finally reached Asia. Even though Columbus had landed in an island of the Bahamas, and afterward visited Cuba, and what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic, he remained sure that he had found his goal of reaching Asia. Surveying the plant life of those islands, he concluded that those were Asian plants and spices. Even though the Arabic-speaking interpreter that Columbus had brought along could not communicate with the local people they encountered, Columbus, in spite of the evidence, called them Indians, denizens of India, a name which has stuck to the present day.

Learn more about the complexities of Christopher Columbus.

Announcing the Success

After three months, the expedition headed home, and Columbus wrote a letter to his royal patrons announcing his success, promising many more successes soon. The letter, once public, became an early bestseller and was printed with its announcement of a new path to the Indies.

Over the next twelve years, Columbus made three more trips across the Atlantic, always convinced that he was in Asia, even when on his fourth voyage he landed on the mainland of the continent, in what is today Honduras. Columbus died in 1506 in Spain, sure that he had fulfilled his dream to the very last.      

The Truth about the True Find

It took a long for the contemporaries to realize and figure out what it really was that Columbus had found. That is the reason that those continents are not called Northern and Southern Columbia now, but the Americas. That name came from the sailor Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was Italian, born in Florence. He made several trips across the Atlantic about a decade after Columbus. Like his precursor, Vespucci was concerned with the key question-access to Asia. Vespucci died in 1512, and America bearing his name, not just one, but two continents. Though the naming of the Americas was not his own doing.

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

Mundus Novus

Picture of Da Vinci Globe with Mundus Novus written on it.
Amerigo Vespucci’ letters were fabricated by an unknown person and the new text was printed in 1502 entitled, Mundus Novus. (Image: Davidguam/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The naming of the Americas was an accident, showing the growing authority of print. On Vespucci’s return to Europe, he wrote some letters to friends about his travels and what he’d seen.

Then, someone used the text from those letters to fabricate a new document, a sensational account of what Vespucci had found. That text was entitled Mundus Novus, the ‘New World’, which appeared in print around 1502. The title itself conveyed that the continent across the Atlantic was not Asia, but a previously unknown landmass.

Naming of America

A German geographer, trained at the University of Freiburg in the Black Forest in Germany, a geographer by the name of Martin Waldseemüller, was impressed by his reading of this new geographic account. Waldseemüller and his colleagues in a small printing establishment in northeastern France incorporated the insights that had been written about in that text and used them to create a new map of the world as it was then known. Waldseemüller in that new map named the new lands after the Latinized name of Vespucci, his first name, Amerigo, ‘Americus’, but rendered them in a feminized form, as America.

Common Questions about Columbus

Q: How did Columbus get funding for his expedition?

From 1484, Columbus repeatedly tried to convince someone to be his patron. Among them were the monarchs of Portugal, Spain, France, and England, but in all cases was rebuffed, in spite of some initial interest. After eight years of pleading, Columbus finally got funding from Queen Isabella of Spain and his project was launched.

Q: How many trips did Columbus make to the New World?

After his first trip in 1492 from Spain, Columbus made three more trips across the Atlantic, over the next twelve years, always convinced that he was in Asia, even when on his fourth voyage he landed on the mainland of the continent, in what is today Honduras.

Q: What does Mundus Novus mean?

The naming of the Americas was an accident, showing the growing authority of print. When Italian navigator, Vespucci’ returned to Europe, he wrote some letters to friends about his travels. But someone used the text from those letters to fabricate a new document, a sensational account of what Vespucci had found. The text was entitled Mundus Novus, which means the ‘New World,’ and appeared in print around 1502.

Q: Is America named after Amerigo Vespucci?

America is named after an Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci. He made several trips across the Atlantic about a decade after Columbus. Like his precursor, Vespucci was concerned with the key question-access to Asia. Vespucci died in 1512, and America bore his name, not just one, but on two continents.

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