Columbus the Clown

For millennia, people thought that the Earth was flat, like a coin. That if you sailed too far to the east or west, you would simply fall off the side of the earth, into the void. Into this age of ignorance strode Christopher Columbus, boldly proclaiming his visionary insight of a spherical earth. One where if you sailed west from Europe long enough, you would eventually reach Asia. His critics decried these predictions as the ravings of a madman, and told him that he would fall off the (flat) face of the earth, and plunge into nothingness. But he didn’t let the naysayers stop him, and in the face of all opposition, sailed off into his expedition. And that is how America was discovered.

Or at least that’s how the popular narrative around Christopher Columbus goes. There’s only one problem. It’s all a steaming pile of horseshit.

Let’s ignore the fact that America was first discovered by early Humans from Asia, tens of thousands of years ago, when they crossed the Bering Straits and settled the entire continent. Let’s ignore the fact that the vikings had in fact discovered and settled portions of America, one thousand years ago, far before Columbus. Let’s instead examine the myth of the Flat Earth itself.

People have in fact known for millennia that the Earth was spherical. This was deduced from something as simple as watching ships sail off into the distance. In fact, not only did people know that the Earth was spherical, they even had remarkably accurate estimates for how big it was. Philosophers from millennia past in Greece and India had calculated the circumference of the Earth, to within a 1% margin of error. Which is precisely why no one attempted to sail Westward from Europe to India. Those in the know were smart enough to figure out that the distances involved were far beyond the capabilities of ships in those times.

Columbus on the other hand, thought differently. Disregarding the opinion of experts, he figured that the Earth’s circumference was only 15,000 miles, and that the Canary Islands were only 2,300 miles away from Japan. Here’s the punchline: his estimates were a joke. The mainstream consensus turned out to be remarkably accurate, and his was off by an order of magnitude. If his plan to sail west from Europe to Asia had actually played itself out in any realistic manner, he would have died on his expedition, in the middle of the ocean, wondering why he had yet to reach his destination.

Thankfully for Columbus, his expedition didn’t actually play itself out in any way he had expected. There turned out to be an entirely unanticipated continent in the middle of his journey. A continent so unanticipated that when Columbus reached it, he thought that he had actually reached the (East) Indies in Asia. Hence why the native people of the Americas found themselves named “Indians”, despite being tens of thousands of miles away from India, a place they never even knew about.

And yet, there are some who would defend Columbus, despite his incredible track record of idiocy. “He had the courage to follow his dreams and risk his life, and thanks to that, changed the way people looked at the world.” But such arguments are completely missing the point. Celebrating Columbus is celebrating a man who disregarded the (correct) warnings of people far more knowledgeable than himself, risked his life and that of numerous others on an idiotic and false premise, and managed to survive and achieve world renown only through monumental luck. Celebrating Columbus is like celebrating lottery winners. Yes, they had unbelievable amounts of bravery, showed great courage, refused to back down in the face of overwhelming odds, and eventually did very well for themselves. But ultimately, they were also clowns.

About OutlookZen

Ex-Journalist & Columnist. Loves exploring the world.
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2 Responses to Columbus the Clown

  1. Brian Bien says:

    I look forward to reading your posts! In hindsight, the elementary school admiration I was taught to have for Columbus sounds misplaced; this resembles the problem of moral luck. The lottery analogy is apt.

  2. Tim Ruzzo says:

    I have been thinking about this issue all weekend. Why do we still celebrate a holiday for Columbus despite the fact that he wasn’t the first European to reach America? Better yet, why in the world do we continue teaching this fairy tale to our children?

    As always, I enjoyed reading your post.

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