Modern-day United States of America was first found and inhabited by humans around 14,000 BC. The very first 'Americans' arrived by foot, crossing into Alaska from north-eastern Siberia via a land bridge that was at the time accessible due to a lower sea level. By 11,000 BC humans had reached and settled the farthest southern extents of the continental United States, and 1,000 years later inhabited the southernmost point of South America. The land bridge was entirely covered by the sea around 9,000 BC, leaving no physical, and thus no cultural or historical connection between the humans in the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
Modern-day relief map of Siberia & Alaska at the Bering Strait, now covered by water
Some 10,000 years later, an Icelandic merchant explained that his ship was blown off course on its way to Greenland, and that he had sighted land to the west; what would have been modern-day Canada. The Norse explorer who heeded the merchant’s account, Leif Erikson, set out to retrace the route. When he and his crew of 35 did so successfully in c.1000 AD, they became the first documented Europeans to make landfall in continental North America, though there are accounts of several Icelandic merchants having inadvertently landed there by shipwreck not long before Erikson’s expedition. Vikings continued to sail west to this land for at least the next decade, but never created a long term settlement. When Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 for the Spanish crown, he was unaware of the landmass on which the Vikings had already set foot.
A Westward Route
Toscanelli & Columbus
Christopher Columbus (15th-century Genovese: Cristoffa Corombo), born in the Republic of Genoa 420 years before the unification of Italy as a country, was for years eager to find financial support for a voyage to the Indies - as the lands of south and east Asia, including India, were then known to Europe. Trade routes to the Indies were of extreme importance to the Europeans, as the Indies were rich with items highly valued to them, such as silk and spices.
This transcontinental trade can be traced back to 130 BC, when trade routes expanded from the previously limited Persian Royal Road, which spanned from north-eastern Persia (in modern-day Iran) to the Meditterranean Sea via modern-day Turkey. The catalyst for this expansion was the Han [Dynasty] of China’s desire to acquire larger and faster horses from the west, in efforts to equip cavalry to fight off attacks from their nomadic neighbors, the Xiongnu, as well as the Huns. The success in acquiring horses spurred Han Emperor Wu to consider what else might be gained through continuous contact with the west, thus beginning trade along routes that became known in Europe as the Silk Road. When, in 1453 - after centuries of successful trade - the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, the routes of the Silk Road became increasingly dangerous to travel, and in many areas completely closed off by the Ottoman Empire. European and southeast Asian navigators began attempts to find accessible sea routes to continue trade, at a time when Columbus was an infant.
The first proposition for a westward route across the "Ocean Sea" (the Atlantic) of the period came in 1470 from Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, an astronomer from Florence. He suggested to King Alfonso V of Portugal that this would be a quicker trade route than the most common one being sought at that time, around the southern tip of Africa. The king rejected this suggestion, but 4 years later Toscanelli’s map with his idea of an Atlantic route was viewed by Columbus.
Columbus became enthralled with Toscanelli's idea, and through the 1480s worked on proposals to achieve it. When instead the southeastern route was opened for possible voyages in 1488 after the Portuguese reached the southernmost point of Africa, Toscanelli’s idea and Columbus’ proposals hit a ‘roadblock.’ That was, until Columbus found a party as staunchly in desire as he of the wealth to be gained from a faster route.
A Westward Route
Toscanelli & Columbus
Miscalculations & Confidence
King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille had unified their territories through marriage when Ferdinand succeeded his father as King in 1479. Under one crown, they had united vast swaths of the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain, Portugal, small parts of southwestern France, Gibraltar and Andorra). After several time and resource consuming military campaigns throughout remaining parts of the peninsula, namely the Granada War, the crown was ready and raring to set up new trade routes.
Columbus had spent the latter part of the 1480s proposing his westward sea route to monarchs and leaders throughout Europe. The Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Spanish crown (initially), King Henry VII of England, King Dom João II of Portugal, and King Charles VIII of France all rejected Columbus on the grounds that his calculations were inaccurate.
A myth, popularized by American short-story writer Washington Irving hundreds of years after Columbus’ lifetime, went that Columbus found it difficult to procure support because his contemporaries believed the earth to be flat, thus he would fall off its edge; it was he who had proved the Earth round. On the contrary, an overwhelming majority of western nobles and scholars had understood the earth to be spherical since the time of Ancient Greece, when Pythagoras introduced the theory (~500 BC), Plato concurred and more widely circulated it (~400 BC), and finally Aristotle presented it on geometric grounds and physical evidence (~350 BC). Columbus was rejected, rather, because of two major geographical miscalculations.
Columbus believed the Earth to have a circumference of about 18,000 miles at the equator. Around seventeen hundred years earlier, Erathosthenes of Greece used mathematics and observations in astronomy to determine the Earth’s circumference, with remarkable accuracy, to be 24,663 miles, with a margin of error of -2.4% to +0.8% based on the unit of measure used, stade. We now know the Earth’s real circumference to be 24,901 miles, a far cry from Columbus’ measurement. Erathosthenes’ circumference had been circulated for centuries, with Columbus himself having studied vigorously a work that included it - Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum, an encyclopedic collection of Eurasian knowledge compiled by Enea Silvio Piccolomini of Siena, published in Venice in 1477. Columbus’ copy, which contains the detailed annotations that he made in preparation for his voyages, still exists today in Sevilla, Spain.
Additionally, Columbus believed the Eurasia landmass to cover a greater longitudinal span than most scholars of his day, and a far greater range than it spans in actuality. He may have used the 225 degree estimation of Marinus of Tyre, while the 180 degree estimation of Ptolemy was that most widely accepted at the time. This compares to its real span of 130 degrees.
The map Columbus followed,
with Japan as close as Mexico.
Actual Americas shown in light blue
These two miscalculations, with a smaller Earth but larger Eurasian landmass, left Columbus with a belief that the sea in between was markedly smaller than it was understood to be. At that time, no ship in the world could have come close to traversing the actual 10,600 nautical miles from Spain’s Canary Islands to Japan (or Cipangu as it was known in southern Europe), but Columbus believed he could achieve his mistaken 2,400 nautical miles calculation.
After having already once declined Columbus in 1487, the Spanish crown of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I changed course in January of 1492. Fresh from a decade’s long war to conquer Granada - which ended promptly on January 2nd, 1492 - and with a strong desire to prevent the Portuguese from monopolizing trade with the Indies following the success of their southeastern sea route around Africa, the king and queen were keen on taking chances.
Despite being firmly advised that Columbus’ plan was unfeasible, they were willing to take the risk. At worst, they would stand to lose 2 ships (the 3rd being chartered by Columbus) and a finite amount of money, along with a crew that they would not be entirely concerned about replacing. At best, they could begin trading again with the Indies, now along their own faster route, gaining undefinable amounts of wealth.
Had Columbus’ proposition gone the way he had intended it - had he not happened upon land in between that he was unaware of - the Spanish crown’s bet and his plan would have seen his Spanish captains, the mostly Spanish crew of 87 men, and himself perish at sea.
note: continuing sections soon to be added
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Columbus, Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus. Translated by Robert H. Fuson, Ashford, 1987.
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Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper Perennial, 2015.
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