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West European Studies: Columbus’ Journey Essay


The period from the beginning of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century was marked as the Age of Discovery. During this period many Europeans, especially the Portuguese and the Spanish conducted a series of oceanic explorations in search of new trade routes, lands, and goods.

Though these voyages ended up with the discoveries of several realms unknown to the European community, they also opened a new book of knowledge. Thus, these expeditions laid the foundation for a global system of trade solely to benefit the Europeans, inviting confrontations between Europeans and non-European peoples later on (Arnold 2002, 3-4).

An account of Columbus’ voyage

Though Columbus was successful in establishing a western route to the East through the Atlantic, he intended to sail south to reach the tropical region of legendary India. This transatlantic adventure was not confined to a rendezvous between the East and the West; rather it was something between the South and North. Columbus sailed south to reach the Indies culminating it into a process of European expansion which is well known as the Age of Explorations (Gomez 2008, xiii).

The voyage of Columbus answered certain contemporary consumptions relating to the concepts connected with latitude and nature of places. Columbus held the view that there was a distinction between lands and places as one would go from the higher latitudes to lower latitudes of the globe.

This geographical distinction paved a way to make him believe that the places he came across would be wealthier and that the people could be kept under their colonial rule either as subjects or as slaves. It was his firm belief that he would discover habitable lands in the Atlantic, irrespective whether it was Asia or not (Gomez 2008, xiv).

The theories leading to Columbus’s voyage

Columbus propounded that water was concentric to the earth. He argued that Africa, Asia, and Europe were evolved about the imperfections in the earth’s sphere creating a sort of geographical equilibrium and that this assumption applied to other parts of the globe too. The severe heat and cold of the arctic and equatorial zones have impacted upon the land mass forcing them to be pushed to extreme North and the South.

This phenomenon brought in an impression that the inhabitable world was extended to South and North beyond the East and the West. Columbus argued that the terra-aqueous globe, on the other hand, would be more fertile and hospitable than what people believed so far.

He thought that India and Ethiopia were exotic and Mediterranean Europe was a vast inhabited world extending from the South toward tropical regions. It was his strong conviction that sub-Saharan Africa and the basin of the Indian Ocean were fabulous treasures of natural resources and human habitation. This is why Columbus thought of sailing by West towards South to reach the lands he was told to be the parts of Asia, especially that of India (Gomez 2008, xiv-xvi).

As per Peter Martyr’s written account, Columbus had done his first three voyages by following the steeper routes to the South. Initially, he started westward from the Canary Islands marking the Sun as the guiding source, but all the while sailing towards the left. During the

second voyage he sought a route more and more left than the first one, whereas, on the third, he stuck to the equatorial line and journeyed willingly to the South (Gomez 2008, p.1).

The account of Columbus’s discovery and colonization of the Indies was effectively delivered by his contemporary and crew named Bartolome de las Casas. According to him the expedition of Columbus revealed the confrontation between the scientific and technical awareness and interpretation of geographical literature along with the new knowledge acquired during the entire journeys.

The theological and philosophical assessments of Columbus about the old and new geological theories were known to the world from the works of Las Casas (Gomez 2008, p.xiv).

On the first voyage, he steered to south across the Atlantic and reached Guanahani. He renamed the island as San Salvador, presently known as Watling Islands. He mistook this land mass as India, following the footsteps of Marco Polo, to whom India was an unending stretch of land originated around the Indian Ocean.

To Marco Polo, India had a broader realm extending beyond the Bay of Bengal to include Indochina, Malaysia, the South China Sea, and Indonesia. Columbus had assumed that San Salvador was in the middle of the vast Indian archipelago Marco Polo had described as the land beyond the province of Mangi (Gomez 2008, 14).

Columbus was keen to impress upon the royal patrons that he had not journeyed beyond the Canarian latitudes, and in order to establish his claim, he convinced them that the Indians he had met bore the same skin color like that of the people of Canaries. Columbus had mistaken that the island of San Salvador was in the same line of Canarian islands of El Hierro, above the 26th parallel. But now it is known that San Salvador is situated at a latitude of 24º N and El

Hierro at 27º 44’ N. It is evident from this fact that Columbus had misrepresented the details because he wanted to suppress the real knowledge that he had intentionally deviated slightly to the South across Atlantic. He also knew that the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola were not south of the Canaries much against what his contemporaries presumed.

These deliberations must be viewed in the context that the material data available at that time did prove that Columbus had no expertise to determine the latitudes across the ocean precisely. Thus he had overestimated about 4º of the latitude of the islands he found on Oct 12, 1492 (Gomez 2008, 15).

The southward course of voyage led Columbus to explore Cuba and Hispaniola being present in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He journeyed to San Salvador, and from there he reached the Bahamian Long Island crossing Tropic of Cancer. He steered further sticking to the south way up to Bay of Samana which was at a latitude of 19º N. This deviation proved that during his very first voyage he had deviated about 17 degrees from the Atlantic Port of Palos de Moguer (Gomez 2008, 16).

Columbus had wrongly identified that Cuba, while sailing through, like Marco Polo’s Indian island of Cipango (Japan), the present mainland of Mangi known to be the province of South China. With this, he had almost reached the Indian port city of Zaiton (Gomez 2008, 17).

A clear picture of the expeditions of Columbus was derived out of the writings of the three scholars, namely, Bartolomé de las Casa, Albertus Magnus, and Pierre d’Ailly. Las Casa joined the crew of Columbus during his third expeditions in the year 1492.

In later years, he came into prominence as a humanitarian who stood for the cause of Amerindians. Most of the details of Columbus’s travel were revealed to the World through his interpretation, views and transliteration and his deciphering Columbus’s travel logs. It was he, who prepared the copy of the diary of Columbus (Kevin 2009).

Albertus Magnus was well known for the study of nature and the celestial influence on the habitations on the earth. He reintroduced the philosophies of Aristotle into the Christian faith. Columbus was inspired by his works on nature while carrying out his expeditions (Kevin 2009).

Pierre d’Ailly was a French scholar who lived during the 14th century. The philosophical and scholarly visions of Pierre d’Ailly had worked upon the intellect of Columbus in undertaking his prestigious voyages. (Kevin 2009)

Columbus had collected almost all the factual resources like ‘Relation’ of Marco Polo, ‘Imago Mundi’ of Cardinal d’Ailly, the ‘Historia Rerum’ of Pope Pius II, Geography of Ptolemy in order to develop the foundation of his Project (Byne 2004). From these documents, Columbus came to know about the concept of Place propounded by Aristotle that the place was meant to be the inner limit of one’s surroundings that marked the beginning of the outside world.

From the literature of Albertus Magnus, Columbus imbibed the idea that there existed a fixed body outside the mobile body and that the first mobile body was in its place as it was around its original place. This physical place really constituted the immobile body at its center (Pierre 1985).

During the course of his first expedition, Columbus had understood that he had come in touch with the tropical region. His southward voyages to the Caribbean basin during the period from 1493 to 1504 had been very successful. This was evident from the fact that on his return to Europe after his first voyage itself Fernando and Isabel persuaded Pope Alexander VI to issue

papal bulls granting Castile the exclusive rights of access to the newly found lands by demarcating 100 leagues west of Portuguese Azores and Cape Verde Islands allotting half of the Atlantic to Portuguese, and the remaining half to Castile. This line of demarcation tentatively led to the Treaty of Tordesillas in the year 1494 (Gomez 2008, 18).

When this bull was issued, America discovered by Columbus was considered as Indies and not as a continent. The Portuguese who reached India by way of Cape of Good Hope were at that time threatening to take possession of the Atlantic much against the Spanish claims.

The papal bull was issued by Alexander VI in these circumstances as a tool to reconcile the rivalries. By this bull, the Spanish sovereigns held all the lands they discovered or those would be discovered in the future in the western ocean, with full jurisdiction and privileges (Lynn 2002).

The papal bull was a blow to John II of Portugal. He was forced to abandon his longing to find out the sea route to India. So, he who had a mighty reserve of navy approached Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. They could not deny his request and be afraid of John’s mighty navy agreed to enter a treaty forthwith. Thus in 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed. This treaty resulted in moving the previous line of demarcation to the meridian 370 leagues west of the Azores and gave Portugal command and access to the Brazilian region (John 1992).

It is not yet known why Columbus had put his discoveries of lands directly across the Canaries. It was doubtful whether it could be attributed to the cartographic imprecision or his political leniency. However, his official stance had its effect on the earlier cartography on the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

According to the world map drawn by Columbus and his cartographer Juan de la Cosa, Cuba and Hispaniola were in the north of Tropic of Cancer and up to the latitude of the Strait of Gibraltar. But the modern Cartography includes the above regions inside the tropics (Gomez 2008, 19).

It is apt to note here that Columbus, in spite of all his or his patrons’ claims that the journeys were initiated to find a viable sea route to India, had been serving as a missionary to spread his Christian faith throughout his expeditions. The Catalan astronomer and mapmaker named Jaume Ferrer de Blanes had written, on August 1495, a letter to Columbus which vouched for his intention.

Jaume wrote: “I am sure I am not mistaken when I say that the position you hold, Sir, confers on you the character of God’s apostle and ambassador, ordered by His divine will make you know His holy name in place truly unknown” (Joan and Jon, n.d.)

Columbus had conducted each voyage with the pre-discovery argument, though it was ambiguous, that the Ocean was very narrow between the westernmost and easternmost regions of the inhabited New World. To emphasize his claim he had resorted to scientific and technical knowledge. But while doing so, he had arrived at an underestimation of the exact measurement of the equatorial circumference of the globe, thereby overestimating or over measuring of the horizontal length of the known inhabited world (Gomez 2008, 1).

The navigational abilities of Columbus relied upon the nature and strength of his fleet, the drawing up of the actual sea route and the pragmatic perception or vision on the lands he might encounter during his voyage to the south by ‘the way of the southwest’. To understand the historical circumstances of the navigational attempts of Columbus, much attention has to be given to his accounts or travel logs (Voyage to Paradise, n.d).

During the first voyage, he sailed to the south by the southwest from the Atlantic coast of Spain and reached the Canary Islands beyond Saharan Africa’s coastlines. He and his crew anchored there only to collect water and other resources. But he noticed that the islands were situated at a lower altitude, resulting in warmer latitude than Europe.

The local conditions had saved the Isles from excessive heat than the nearby African mainland. And following the footsteps of Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator, who discovered the fertile lands beyond the desert into the Torrid Zone, the southernmost island of El Hierro on the Canarian archipelago acted as the reference point to Columbus to continue his voyage to South through the Bahamas to the Caribbean basins (Gomez 2008, 14).

The antithetical view of Aristotle’s natural philosophy proved wrong in the case of Columbus in achieving his goals. Aristotle’s theory was that there did exist an uninhabitable torrid zone, in the area between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. According to him and his followers, this area was unfit for human habitation, and neither water nor pastures can be found there due to the extreme climatic conditions that harm the survival of human life.

Travels through this region by Columbus undoubtedly testified that there existed no Torrid Zones. Therefore, he rejected the theories relating to the size of the earth and the nature of the continents (Craig 2006, p-1).

The project of Columbus was manipulated between the two explanations as to how earth and water came together in the middle of the cosmos, and as to how life had come into existence in the region of the four elements in the cosmos. Reviewing his project, the royal council appointed for this purpose had argued that the sphere of water was eccentric about the sphere of earth, contributing it to the effect that the continental mass was an island unrepeatable and surrounded by the watery globe.

Columbus countered this argument by establishing that water was concentric when related to earth and that the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe were nothing but imperfections in the sphere of earth. Moreover, this phenomenon of geometrical and physical occurrence could happen anywhere on the globe, which meant the possibility of the existence of habitation beyond the geographically land mass conceived so far (Gomez 2008, xv).

Columbus argued further that the inhabited earth not only extended farther east and west but also to the North and South. He adhered to the theory of five zones which assumed that the earthly sphere was split into regions of specific climates viz., the two frigid Polar Regions, the extreme Torrid Zone around the equator, and two comfortable temperate zones situated between them. These zones determined all human actions and the ethnic behaviors of the people.

It was held that only moderate climate could support human habitation. That was why the inhabited world lay in the temperate zone. Therefore, Africa and India in the Torrid Zone were conceived as hot, barren, and uninhabitable parts of the world (Neil 2009).

Columbus had drafted his voyage schedule according to the contemporary assumptions regarding the relationship between the latitudes and nature of places. It was believed that the nature of a place is the foundation for understanding and explaining the structure and behavior of all creatures available in the machine of cosmos. It seems that Columbus had adhered to these assumptions of the nature of people and the land in his expeditions and applied the same in the establishment of colonies.

While doing so, he had manipulated the geographical fundamentals of ancient and medieval authors for his benefit. This deliberation on the part of Columbus had created an impression that Columbus had felt no compulsion to abandon the geopolitical model conceived by the scholars. In his pursuit of colonization, he had also contradicted his findings that habitation would flourish in the lower latitudes and the nonexistence of Torrid Zones (Gomez 2008, xiii).

Columbus sailed south as a part of his intellectual and material approach to establish that sub-Saharan Africa and the extended basin of Indian Ocean were large land masses that were sublime and alive with human habitation and rich in resources. These land masses were conceived as parts of India during his period (Gomez 2008, p.xvi).

The second voyage took Columbus to Dominica. From there he steered his vessel toward the northwest and then to the southern coast of Puerto Rico. He continued his exploration further to eastern Cuba, which he thought to be the eastern end of continental Asia, and he went south to land in Jamaica. His exploration of southwest coastlines of Cuba forced him to make his crew admit that Cuba was not at all an island.

It can be assumed that if he had continued his expedition towards South he would have reached Spain by way of the East touching Ganges of India, then the Arabic Gulf. The third voyage took him along the southwest line until he found the North Star at five degrees.

And caught in doldrums he did not pursue further to the South toward the equator but resorted to the 5th parallel to go by the north by northwest anticipating an encounter with the man-eating Caribes in the Lesser Antilles. Instead, he reached the island of Trinidad (Gomez 2008, p.28).

Columbus continued his voyage from Trinidad and reached Gulf of Paria and there from he went to Hispaniola via Venezuelan coastline. Seeing the freshwater flow from the Orinoco

River, he declared that he had found the ‘infinite land that is to the south’. And within no time he sent message to Queen Isabel that he had carried out and fulfilled his mission ‘to the new heaven and earth that had been hidden so far’ (Gomez 2008, p.291).

Even after launching his fourth voyage through the Atlantic Ocean to southeastern Cuba, he was not successful or rather not inclined in finding out a sea route to India. So he moved towards the southwest to reach Ciamba of Indochina. From here he journeyed through the coastline of Central America, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama to reach the western tip of Colombia’s Gulf of Uraba (Gomez 2008, p.33).

During Columbus’s times, the concept of place was something cosmological that denoted a tradition encountering the views of the Europeans and the natives of the Americas. On the basis of the structure and functioning of the cosmos, the place was considered to be connected to cosmic law.

The elements and compounds were manifested in geocentric cosmos in relation to their attributes. Heavenly bodies were God’s agents meant for origination and destruction of all physical forms irrespective of humans, plants, or minerals. Therefore, the place was the key to understand the celestial causes that perform on the bodies and was the means to conceive their behaviors (Gomez 2008, p.48).

Marco Polo’s India was considered as a maritime land at that time. It was highlighted with water routes and coastal regions. Columbus too accounted for India as a maritime zone. That was why he chose the lower latitudes of the Canaries which would have taken him across the Atlantic above the 27th parallel to reach the parts of India.

To Columbus, India was much different from Cathay, the geopolitical center of the Mongol Empire as mentioned by Marco Polo. The places viz., the island of Cipango, Zaiton and Quinsay were believed to be at lower latitudes than Cathay, and Columbus was familiar to these Indian names as a matter of reference to India (Gomez 2008).

Columbus relied upon Behaim’s 1492 globe in planning his expeditions. He learned to read this globe horizontally as it provided clues to find out the longitudinal distance between the eastern and the western ends. However, his venture on the sea was more or less based on the verticality of Behaim’s globe in understanding the orientation and goals he intended.

Behaim’s globe projected the distinction between Cathay and tropical Indies. It featured the cartographic works of Ptolemy and Marco Polo, and the pseudo-cordiform world map of Henricus Martellus which was drafted in the event of Bartholomeu’s rounding the Cape of Good Hope in the year 1489 (Gomez 2008).

Wey Gómez comments in the first chapter of his book, about the ancient and medieval cosmological traditions. This he conceives by examining central figures that influenced Columbus. Among those Albertus Magnus (1200–1280) and Pierre d’Ailly (1350–1420) stand prominent. According to Gómez, the European cosmological view of tripartite geography of nations by which the cultural traits of people go in proportion with their distance from Torrid Zone contributed in Columbus an interpretation of Aristotle’s vision on the influence of a place.

The idea propounded was that the people of the south were wiser than those of the north. But Columbus manipulated this concept to his advantage in order to establish a political formula for his colonization program. For example, Columbus described the Tainos he met in Salvador as intelligent, but he attributed the character of Caribes to them (Neil 2009).

The colonization of America by Spain after the exploration of the land by Columbus led to many controversies. John Mair, who was a member of the College de Montaigu in Paris argued that the native Indians could be considered only as a special race created by God to be enslaved by the Christian Europeans. His view was that the people of the explored lands of the New World should live like animals, as barbarians and slaves were one and the same (David 1992).

However, Bartolomé de las Casa was unable to tolerate the torture done to the Indians by the Spaniards and stood for their cause. He started confronting the authorities against the ill-treatment of the natives. He became their champion and his book ‘Apologética Historia de las Indias’ urged for equality of all.

He stated that the Indians met all the requirements laid down by Aristotle for civilized human life and that there should be equality of all races which was the means of harmony of mankind. He warned that the injustices of Spanish colonial rule would bring in the wrath of God against Spain. He insisted that the Indians were liable to be punished or enslaved only if they were proved to be barbarians in the strict and proper sense specified by Aristotle (Commentary on the Reading, n.d.).

The situation became explosive in America and the arguments led to a dispute at Burgos in Spain. The Indian problems were subjected to debates and thereupon two Spanish treaties and one code were drawn up for the treatment of Indians by Spaniards. One of these treaties formulated by the friar Matías de Paz related to the Rule of the Kings of Spain over the Indians.

The rule upheld that the American Indians were not slaves in the Aristotelian concept and that the laws of the Indies were meant for good intentions of the Spanish monarchs towards the well being of the Indians. The Laws of Burgos of 1512 devised regulations on Indian labor prohibiting forceful Christianization. It enforced the supply of food and shelter to the Indians and stipulated that none should use whip against them or call an Indian, a dog (Lewis 1959).


The study of the expeditions of Columbus by Wey Gómez is based on a logical fundamentality backed by technical and philosophical theories prevalent during the 15th and 16th century colonization period. To this purpose, the author has put up several arguments with a critical eye on the geographical and cosmological influence on Columbus while he was in the process of executing his enterprises.

It is evident from the convictions and his travel southward by the way of the west that the intention of Columbus in undertaking the expedition was discreet and that he never wanted or meant to reach Asia. If he had such intention to reach the real India he would not have turned back from sailing further south. This was because he already knew that if he dared to sail further he would have definitely reached the fertile terrain at lower latitude.

It seemed that Columbus was afraid to meet the Mongol Emperor due to his mighty army, and his preconception that though there was habitation in the lower latitudes of South; he was gripped with the fear that there would be some sort of Caribes in the coastline of India. His sole intention was not to go to Asia or India but to reach the Indies on the western coastline.

He really wanted only to reach any of the unknown lands in the better prospect of colonization of the inhabited islands wherefrom he could amass the treasures unlimited, and that it never struck his mind to reach a known land like India, where colonization would be impractical because of the civilization that existed in India as reported by Marco Polo.

The arguments before the Court of Isabel and Ferdinand seeking admission and finance for his expeditions, and the demand he put forward as a reward to his expedition such as the grant of full admiralty over his discoverable lands with a fifty percent cut of the booty, etc. support the above conclusion.

Reference List

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Crow, John.A. 1992. The epic of Latin America, 4th edition. P-67. University of California Press. . Web.

David, Arnold. 2002. The Age of Discovery 1400-1600. Lancaster Pamphlets. Routledge, New York. P.3-4

Duhem, Pierre.1985. Medieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void, and the Plurality of Worlds. Theory of Place before 1277. University of Chicago Press, London, p-152. ISBN 0226 16923-5

Hanke, Lewis. 1959. Aristotle and the American Indians: A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World. Henry Regenery Company, Chicago.

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Martin, Craig. 2006. Abstract. Experience of the New World and Aristotelian Revisions of Earth’s climates during renaissance. History of Meteorology (3) P.1. Oakland University, Michigan.

Safier, Neil. 2009. South by Southwest, Book Review, American Scientist. Web.

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UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004, University of California Press. Web.

Waterman, Lynn. 2002. The Discovery of the Mainland by the Cabots as described by Columbus himself. The Bull of Pope Alexanded VI: Partitioning America 1493. Web.

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