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.