• Weird History

Christopher Columbus Facts They Don't Teach in School

Columbus Day has become an occasion not just to celebrate the first steps toward founding America, but a time to re-examine what we know about the famed explorer. The accomplishments of Christopher Columbus are myriad and well-known, but much of his life's story, as well as his subsequent voyages to the Americas, is lost in mythos and misconception.

While he did in fact "sail the ocean blue" in 1492, the biography of Christopher Columbus is filled with obscure facts and historical oddities that never make it into any school nursery rhyme - or even into many textbooks. Many people still believe that Columbus set out from Spain to prove the Earth was round - but we know he didn't. We also believe he made peaceful contact with the natives of what he thought was India - but he didn't, and he actually believed he'd reached the mythical land of Japan.

Could he have even made it there? What about his other trips to the New World? Or his revisionist reputation for brutality and cruel treatment of the natives? Here are some facts about Columbus that, despite decades of re-examination, most people don't know.
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  • Photo: Andries van Eertvelt / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Never Would Have Reached Asia

    Columbus estimated that the distance from the Canary Islands, where his voyage began, to Japan (known then as "Cipangu"), which he was attempting to reach, was about 3,700 kilometers. This was a vast underestimate, as the distance is actually about 12,000 kilometers. Columbus's small fleet could never have carried enough provisions to last such a voyage, nor would these ships have survived the harsh conditions of the Pacific.
  • Photo: Daniel Nicholas Chodowiecki / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    His Motives Were Not Altruistic

    His first proposal to sail to the Orient, submitted to King John II of Portugal, involved him walking away with quite a bounty. He requested to be given the title "Great Admiral of the Ocean," to be appointed governor of any and all lands he discovered, and be given one-tenth of all revenue from those lands - which would have involved a huge amount of gold. Portugal rejected this proposal, and several others, before Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to fund Columbus. But even they rejected him at first, thinking his plan unfeasible.
  • Photo: H. E. Marshall / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Columbus Almost Certainly Wasn't The First European To Find The New World

    Historians generally believe that the Norse Viking Leif Eriksson landed in present-day Newfoundland around 1000 CE, 500 years before Columbus set sail. It's also been hypothesized, though not proven, that Celtic explorers crossed the Atlantic before Eriksson.

  • Photo: John Vanderlyn / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Nobody Knows Exactly Where Columbus Landed

    Columbus was looking for Japan, but what he found was the modern-day Bahamas. After leaving the Canary Islands on September 6, strong winds pushed his three-ship fleet westward until they sighted land on October 12. Columbus called this island "San Salvador" - and believed he'd found Asia. The exact location of where he first set foot is still unknown, though it's been narrowed down to three possible islands.