None Of Columbus’s Critics Thought The Earth Was Flat

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, November 6, 2013
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“I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone.” —Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard the Christopher Columbus’s ideas of sailing west to get east were rejected time after time, all because the monarchs of the day thought he would simply sail off the edge of the horizon. But actually, it’s thoroughly documented that everyone was well aware the world was round. That “Flat Earth” myth is an invention added to Columbus’s story 400 years later, when Washington Irving decided to write a work of historical fiction based on his life and travels.

The Whole Bushel

It’s well documented that we’ve known the world is round since the days of the mathematical geniuses of ancient Greece. People like Pythagoras, Euclid, and Aristotle all wrote works indicating that clearly, the Earth was round. In fact, Pythagoras’s work Geography was still quite in fashion in Columbus’s day, and no one thought the parts of the map marked “Here Be Dragons” meant it was the end of the world. The ancient Greeks weren’t alone in their calculations either, and there were countless works published before and during the 14th and 15th centuries supporting the knowledge.

So why do we still poke fun at those crazy, uneducated monarchs that refused to fund Columbus’s journey to find a shorter trade route?

Because of Washington Irving.

The Sleepy Hollow author also penned a book called the The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This 1828 work was clearly fiction, but it presented the idea that the uber-religious monarchs of the day were so far removed from scientific knowledge that they feared the Earth was flat and that Columbus would simply sail off. The more worldly, secular Columbus was obviously in the right, making the work a direct jab at the Church. Add to that Irving’s love of creating fiction that reads like historical fact (and a boost in popularity from a handful of Charles Darwin’s followers that wanted to show what silly, uneducated people their religious opponents were) and you’ll see why the myth spread like wildfire.

The setting of Columbus’s inquiries helped to make the theory seem even more plausible. Columbus was traveling Europe asking for funding in the middle of the Inquisition. A dark time in the Catholic Church’s history, it could almost seem plausible that the same people who would go to such lengths to cement their control over the beliefs of a population would cling to outmoded ideas and turn their backs on scientific theory.

Then why was Columbus rejected so many times when they knew the plan was possible?

Because the royal courts had plenty of their own problems. Exploration seemed far from being the most important priority with the widespread war, disease, and famine that they were facing right at home.

Portugal rejected him largely because King John II—on advice from other, more experienced explorers—thought the idea was simply going to fail. And in all fairness, Columbus was incredibly wrong. His estimates of the journey’s distance was off by about 25 percent.

And Spain had even more problems. Plagues were wiping out huge percentages of their population, while the Inquisitors were doing their best to kill, convert, or banish even more. With hundreds of thousands of people dying or being forced out of the country, the Spanish crown already had their hands full. Fortunately, they also thought they needed to keep up with the Joneses; in this case, the Joneses were the Portuguese. They finally agreed to finance Columbus in an attempt to one-up their Portuguese neighbors, proving that the need to do just one better than the guy down the street definitely isn’t a modern invention—even if the Flat Earth Myth is.

Show Me The Proof

Washington Post: Busting a myth about Columbus and a flat Earth
Myth of the Flat Earth

  • inconspicuous detective

    you guys at knowledge nuts are hitting us with these factlets, but many of them are being released a while before you get to them. in essence, by the time it’s published the article is old news. for those who will say “it’s not known to everyone” or “then don’t read it”, i’m only saying this because it happens on occasion. it’s not the norm. i think that sometimes facts that are well known already are pulled in and it’s not new. i would like there to be more emphasis on things we didn’t know already as opposed to things like this article.

    • Samuel Levi Silva

      You try too hard on your comments..

      • inconspicuous detective

        how was this “trying too hard”?

        • Samuel Levi Silva

          And there you go again.

    • mo

      Its because the common knowledge stuff still can create hits and visits for the website at this early stage.

  • Arjan Hut

    The myth is more fun than the truth. Imagine the fear of falling off the world. Imagine dragons. Imagine uber-religious monarchs far removed from scientific knowledge. Imagine popcorn.

  • Andyman7714

    Wait a minute…back up there…you mean the world isn’t flat?

    • WhiteExodus

      Dude the world is flat, just like the flat map on my desk.

    • dsfsffssfdfdssfd

      No, it is metaphysical, it has no shape.

    • Nomsheep

      The world is balanced on top of a turtle.

  • Hadeskabir

    I’m Portuguese and we learn this in school. The Portuguese had sailed threw out the world and discovered new lands and civilizations, on their way to India they went by the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, so far as anyone had ever went. Because they went so far and found no land and the Ocean seem to never end, they thought that sailing west was a suicide mission because there was no land to be seen. And indeed it was at that time. That was why King João II rejected funding Columbus.

  • Ben Maarof

    I have been to the edge of the world . The locals calls the place “Portland”