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Columbus and the Flat Earth...

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #21, 1998.

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Rob and Cyndy Shearer


"Columbus believed that the world was round. Everyone else thought that it was flat. In 1492, Columbus finally overcame the objections of the bigoted church leaders of Spain, who believed the world was flat because the Bible said it was. Columbus got the backing of Queen Isabella on the sly, behind King Ferdinand's back. Perhaps there was some romantic infatuation or dalliance. In any event, Queen Isabella pawned her jewels to raise the funds for Columbus' three ships and off he went. His epic voyage of discovery was one of the crucial steps in mankind's throwing off the superstitions of the dark ages."

his is not a quote from any actual textbook, but it is a composite of some of the worst howlers we've seen over the last twenty years. Every nuance of the above account can be found in some textbook or other.

The problem with this account is that almost none of it is true! In 1492, every educated man knew that the world was round. So did every ocean-going sailor. The "bigoted church leaders of Spain" did not oppose Columbus. Columbus had in fact been housed, supported, advised, and greatly aided by Spanish monks who encouraged him to present his proposal to the King and Queen. A Dominican priest, later Archbishop of Seville was one of his greatest supporters at the court. There was a University Commission which concluded that plans for his voyage were impractical. But the Commission agreed with Columbus that the world was round and gave no indication that they believed the Bible taught that the world was flat. And finally, Queen Isabella did not pawn her jewels to finance the voyage. The Spanish crown was quite well off, having just completed the conquest of the last major city held by the Arabs in Spain - Granada. It was a conquest that enriched the crown quite handsomely.

Rounding Off

How all these misconceptions came to be repeated in numerous social studies texts is instructive. The idea of bigoted, superstitious, Bible-thumping churchmen opposed to Columbus is just too attractive to the modern mind. It's so much fun to picture Columbus as the young rebel, defying convention, defying the church, defying the unscientific primitive accounts of the Bible. It's all so convenient that it "simply must be true."

Let's start with the theoretical idea that the world is round. Columbus was not the first to conceive it. Among the ancient Greeks, Aristotle, Strabo, Eratosthenes, and Ptolemy all wrote that the earth was round. Ptolemy's work on geography had been the standard text at European universities since its rediscovery early in the 1400's. Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth about 250 b.c. (within 10 percent of the actual value) and his works were widely known in Europe. There is a recent, wonderful children's book entitled The Librarian Who Measured the Earth which recounts how Eratosthenes did his measurements and calculations.

Columbus was familiar with the Greek geographers. His own personal copies of their writings, complete with marginal notes, have been minutely examined by his biographers. But beyond the ancient Greeks, there are a multitude of practical everyday experiences that confirm that the earth is round. All sailors know that as you watch a ship sailing away from you, it goes "hull down" first and then the mast and the sails finally disappear. You can see why this is so if you get down, eye-level, with a basketball or large globe and move a small toy boat away from you. The circular, spherical shape of both the sun and the moon are also strong indicators that the earth (whether you believe it to be the center of the universe or not - a great scientific controversy of Columbus' day) is also round.

The reason no one had "discovered" America before Columbus in 1492 is not because they believed the earth was flat, but because first, they lacked the ability to navigate out of the sight of land and second, they believed the distance across the ocean to the west to China and Japan was far too great to be traversed by the sailing vessels of the day.

A Long Way Off

Columbus' "great enterprise" rested on his superior abilities as a "blue-water" sailor and navigator (and recent developments in the production of accurate star charts and time-keeping devices). But most importantly, Columbus based his "great enterprise" on his stubborn conviction that all the prior estimates of the distance across the western ocean to China & Japan were wrong. Columbus accepted the most exaggerated estimates of Marco Polo and other travelers as to the distance overland from Europe to the coast of China and then from China to the islands of Japan. And he believed that the Greeks and most other navigators of his day had overestimated the size of the earth by 25 percent. Putting these two things together, he calculated that the distance from Spain the islands of Japan, off the coast of China (which he knew as Cipangu from the writings of Marco Polo) was about 2,400 miles. It is actually over 10,000 miles.

Those who opposed Columbus were actually right. Had America not been in the way - if it had been open ocean all the way from Spain to the coast of China - the men on his three ships would have died of starvation long before they reached their destination. A voyage of 2,400 miles, with favorable winds, might take 30-60 days. Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492, and sighted land on October 12. At that pace, covering the entire distance to Japan would have taken over eight months! This was far beyond the capacity of Columbus' ships. Columbus was wrong in his estimates of the distance to Japan. The "New World" saved Columbus from the consequences of his error. Had the islands of the Bahamas, and the North American continent not been in the path of his fleet, he and his men would have perished from lack of food and water long before they reached Asia . . . and no one in Spain (or elsewhere in the world) would have ever heard of them again.

But what of the churchmen who knew the earth was flat because the Bible said so and who threatened Columbus with charges of heresy for saying otherwise? It's all a fabrication from the pen of a great American writer. The man who gave us "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Washington Irving, also wrote a biography of Columbus, presented as fact, entitled The Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published around 1820. Irving took a fictitious account of a University Council hearing, published in 1614, elaborated on it, and then let his imagination go. The resulting chapter pits the rebel Columbus against the flat-earth churchmen. As much as we all love to see professors and other experts being out-argued by a simple man with common sense, the scene Irving describes never happened. And Irving himself later admitted that he had made the whole thing up - the better to sell books.

Columbus' proposal for a sailing expedition was referred to a commission headed by Queen Isabella's confessor (Father Talavera, later Archbishop of Granada). After hearing Columbus' arguments and additional testimony by other learned geographers, navigators, and sailors in 1486, they issued a written report in 1490 (government commissions always take too long to report on anything). They concluded that Columbus' proposed voyage was impractical. The commission did not accept Columbus' calculations of the distances involved; they favored the more conservative, larger estimates of the Greeks. They concluded that the proposed distance across the western ocean was at least four times as great as Columbus had estimated, and that there were no assurances that favorable winds could be found all the way across. The amount of food, and especially water for such a long journey, could not be practically carried in the ships of the day.

The astonishing fact is that the commission was right and Columbus was wrong. Belief in a flat earth was not at issue. The accuracy of the Bible was not at issue. The issue was the width of the western ocean. Matters of geography and navigation were underestimated by Columbus and more accurately assessed by the commission. The small fact of the existence of two undiscovered continents is all that saved Columbus and prevented the commission from being able to say, "We told you so!"

All of this (and much more) is accurately recounted in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of Columbus by Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, published in 1942. The Last Crusader: The Untold Story of Christopher Columbus by George Grant (Crossway Books, 1992) gives a particularly good account of Columbus' Christian faith and the important role it played in sustaining him throughout his life.

Rob & Cyndy Shearer are the proud parents of nine children. They have been homeschooling for twelve years now (since 1985). Rob has undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and philosophy and Cyndy has undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature and creative writing. They have designed and taught courses in English composition, literature, drama, history, and philosophy in public and private schools, at the elementary, high school, and college level. They are the authors and publishers of a series of award-winning study guides and biographies on the history of Israel, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and Reformation. In 1989 Rob and Cyndy founded Greenleaf Press to provide quality history books for children. They are frequent speakers at homeschool conferences and curriculum fairs.


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