Columbus’s Flat Earth

On April 15, 1493, Christopher Columbus first met with Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Portugal. This meeting was the basis for Columbus’s historic and greatly fictionalized journey to India. One of the greatest misconceptions is that Columbus was disproving the idea that the Earth was flat by trying to sail the around the world to India. However, this is simply not true. In honor of Columbus’s first step towards setting sail, today we will look at the myth of the flat earth. It is often said that those who were opposed to Columbus’s trip thought that the earth was flat. But that is not the case. From ancient times, sailors were well aware that the earth was round. Scientists had even attempted to estimate the size of the earth before Columbus. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, proposed in his writings that the earth was round, because of the spherical shadow cast on the moon during an eclipse. Other ancient philosophers came to the same conclusion, because some stars visible in Egypt were not visible farther north. Not only did they believe that the earth was round, but ancient scientists were able to estimate the size of the earth. The results are surprisingly accurate. Furthermore, the idea of sailing west to reach India was not a new idea for Columbus either. This idea can be traced all the way to the early Romans. Since Columbus owned a copy of an ancient Greek book that outlined the reasons why the earth must be round, he did not believe that the earth was flat. So did anyone ever believe that the earth was flat? Actually, yes. During the Middle Ages in Europe, many people began to believe the rumors that the earth was actually flat. Due the the preservation of Greek writings by the Muslims, the theory that the earth is round was not lost to society. After the Middle Ages, Europeans began to read these texts again and to reestablish the idea among the educated. By the time Columbus decided to sail to India, the shape of the earth was no longer an issue of interest to the educated. Now the question was how large the earth was. And that brings us to the real question Columbus was facing. How large was the ocean between Europe and India. This was a question that had not been answered up to that point. If no educated person believed that the earth was flat, where did this misconception originate. It all started with Washington Irving’s famous book “The History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.” Although he enjoyed free access to almost all of the records about Columbus, there were still missing pieces. Where there were missing pieces, Irving embellished the story. As the great story-teller he was, he skillfully wove fact and fiction together into one seamless narrative. While he wrote a compelling story, he also created some of the myths that are now commonly believed and even taught about Christopher Columbus.



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