5 Mistakes Columbus Made in the New World

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While federal workers get to enjoy a day off each year for Columbus Day, most Americans treat the holiday with total indifference. In 1937, the United States made Columbus Day a federal holiday, commemorating his arrival in the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. Public sentiment is not so kind to Columbus today. Critics note Columbus didn’t actually “discover” a land where Native Americans had lived for thousands of years, and they contend his arrival in the New World touched off hundreds of years of colonialism and genocide toward indigenous people in the New World. That debate aside, it’s somewhat strange we commemorate the journey of a man who erred in so many ways. Even Columbus’s supporters would agree that the famous explorer suffered through a calamity of miscalculations, misconceptions and errors in his adventures in the New World, and his greatest discovery not only came about by accident, but he never realized what he had discovered. Here are five of Columbus’s biggest follies.


5. When Columbus Arrived in the New World, He Thought He’d Reached Asia

Columbus thought he'd reached Asia when he landed in the present-day Bahamas.

Columbus lands in the New World, 1893 painting.

This is the most famous of Christopher Columbus’s misconceptions, but perfectly understandable given his faulty knowledge of geography. At the time Columbus sailed, most Europeans imagined the world as one giant landmass, comprised of Europe, Africa and Asia, floating in a vast ocean. With no knowledge of North or South America (soon to be known as the New World), people assumed that Asia could be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic. Columbus mistakenly believed the two continents were separated by less than 3,000 miles. Most scholars of the era thought the distance to be far greater; in fact, it’s more than 11,000 miles as the crow flies, further than that if you sail around the tip of South America. This is why, after sailing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, and landing in what is today the Bahamas, Columbus declared that he had reached “the Indies,” the term in that era for the region of Asia east of the Indus River.


4. Columbus Kept Thinking He’d Found Japan

A replica of the Santa Maria, 1998; Ben Salter

A replica of the Santa Maria, 1998; Ben Salter

At the time of Columbus’s journey, most Europeans’ knowledge of Japan came from the travels a couple of hundred years earlier of Marco Polo, who described a land he called “Cipango,” full of massive golden palaces and other riches. As Columbus sailed around Cuba, he became convinced the island was this magical land of riches, despite the fact that all he and his men encountered were indigenous peoples living a primitive lifestyle. No golden palaces, no riches. So Columbus then theorized he’d missed the island of Cipango and somehow landed on the Asian mainland. He and his men kept sailing, and landed on the present-day island of Hispaniola (in what we today call Haiti). When he heard natives speak of gold deposits in an area they called Cibao, Columbus again became convinced he’d found the mythical Cipango.

Misfortune struck about three weeks after that landing, on Christmas Day, when an inexperienced young sailor left at the helm of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, let it shipwreck on the island (Columbus and other more experienced mariners were sleeping off a night of Christmas celebration). Columbus used wood from the ship to build a settlement, left a few dozen men behind with instructions to find Cipango’s gold, and set sail for Spain. Columbus returned to the island a year later, expecting that his men would have found a fortune in gold and riches. Instead, he found the settlement in ruins, and his men dead, killed by the natives. So Columbus continued sailing around the island of Hispaniola, landing in the present-day Dominican Republic, which he became convinced must be very near … yes, the fabled gold of Cipango/Japan.


3. Columbus Failed in His Bid to Spread Christianity

Columbus failed in his bid to spread Christianity to the New World.

Columbus portrait, done years after his death.

While Columbus’s first voyage centered on finding a new trade route to Asia, the mission for his second of four voyages had a totally different focus. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were interested in finding the riches of Cipango, true, but they also were intent on spreading the Christian faith to natives in the New World. The 1,200 men who traveled with Columbus on his second voyage were to establish missions to reach the natives. Instead, Columbus’s second voyage began with brutal treatment of the Hispaniola natives, and saw Columbus send more than 500 men and women from the island to Europe as slaves. This totally disregarded Catholic rules that forbade the enslavement of Christians. Columbus’s solution? He refused to baptize the natives.


2. Columbus Botched His Duties As Administrator

Columbus failed so badly as an administrator of Hispaniola that he was arrested and returned to Spain.

Columbus pleads his case before the queen.

Columbus’s discoveries in the New World earned him great fame in Europe, and the King and Queen of Spain appointed him as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies. Columbus was an explorer, not an administrator, and his reign turned into a disaster. He reportedly ordered brutal treatment of the natives, ordering his men to cut off the hands of Indians who did not bring tributes of gold or other goods. He enslaved other Indians. He left incompetent men, including his brothers, in charge of settlements. His men went on expeditions, assaulting and killing natives. Some settlers Columbus brought to the New World, growing skeptical of his claims of gold and other riches, mutinied; one group stole three ships and sailed back to Spain. When a Spanish official arrived on Hispaniola in 1500 and discovered native corpses hanging from trees, he arrested Columbus; the famed explorer returned to Europe in chains to face charges. Columbus spent six weeks in prison before pleading his case to the queen, who backed his version of events and restored his wealth, but not the governorship.


1. Columbus Insisted Until His Death He Had Reached Asia

Columbus went to his deathbed thinking he'd reached Asia.

The death of Columbus, 1893 lithograph.

Some scholars immediately expressed skepticism that Columbus had reached Asia, and in the years after his first voyage, evidence grew that he had discovered an entirely new continent. There is some disagreement among historians on this, but it’s generally accepted that Columbus went to his grave (he died in 1506) still insisting that he had reached Asia. It’s one of history’s greatest ironies that a man who set off to reach one land became celebrated for landing somewhere else far, far away. Imagine if Lewis and Clark had stopped at Great Salt Lake in Utah, declared they’d reached the Pacific, and turned around. Would their journey still be celebrated?

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.