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.

  • 'Christopher Columbus' Wasn't Actually His Name
    Photo: Sebastiano del Piombo / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    'Christopher Columbus' Wasn't Actually His Name

    The famed explorer was born Cristoforo Colombo - or Cristóbal Colón, if you speak Spanish. "Christopher Columbus" is the Anglicized version of his name, but he likely wouldn't have answered to that. Among other unknowns about Colón/Columbus's life is what he looked like - as no portrait of him was painted during his lifetime.
  • He Wasn't Spanish - Though He Sailed for Spain
    Photo: Giorgio Sommer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Wasn't Spanish - Though He Sailed for Spain

    Columbus sailed under the Crown of Spain, but definitely wasn't Spanish by birth. Little is known of his early life, but it's generally agreed upon that he was born in Genoa, at the time an independent city-state and satellite of Spain. He would be considered Italian today.
  • Few People Still Believed The World Was Flat

    Writers like Washington Irving have implanted in the popular consciousness that Columbus set out to prove Catholic teaching wrong about the Earth being flat. But it was already widely believed that the Earth was round. As early as the sixth century BCE, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras used mathematics to surmise the world was round, and later, Aristotle proved it with astronomical observations, while Eratosthenes used geometry to estimate its circumference. By 1492 most educated people knew the planet was not a flat disc.

  • Columbus Was Not Searching For The New World
    Photo: Twice25 & Rinina25 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Columbus Was Not Searching For The New World

    While Columbus found the unexplored land that came to be known as "the New World," it wasn't what he was looking for. He was seeking a quicker passage to Asia that wouldn't involve crossing the Silk Road, which had been sealed off due to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire. The aims of his voyage were exploiting the gold and spices believed to be found in abundance in the Orient - and to grab some for himself.
  • He Never Would Have Reached Asia
    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.
  • His Motives Were Not Altruistic
    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.