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The Buried Mirror’

In response to:

¡Adiós Columbus! from the January 28, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Kenneth Maxwell, who is rightly irritated by the persistence of myths in historical work—citing that old but enduring story about Prince Henry’s navigational school—unfortunately contributes himself to keeping alive a historical fable that I thought I had disposed of.

I refer to the idea that Columbus spent his life with the “misapprehension” that the lands he discovered were part of Asia and never realized that he had found a new world. Maxwell seems not to realize how mistaken this is, and quotes approvingly a remark of Garry Wills, similarly mistaken.

I have examined this issue in some detail in the quarterly of the Society for the History of Discoveries, Terrae Incognitae (Vol. 21, 1989) and of course in my book that Maxwell refers to, The Conquest of Paradise. I am convinced, on the basis of Columbus’s own words, that, though he may have begun with the idea that the islands he found were on the outskirts of Asia, and hence “the Indies,” by the time of the Fourth Voyage he was clear that he found an “otro mundo” and that it lay between Europe and Asia.

To cite just a portion of the evidence. On the Third Voyage, in 1498, on the coast of what is now Venezuela, he wrote, “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown”—straightforward enough, and obviously not referring to Asia. In his summary letter of that voyage he assured Ferdinand and Isabel that they indeed now possessed vast new lands never before known, in fact “an other world here.” Some three years later, in a book he compiled known as the Libro de las profecias, he actually used the term “Indias Occidentales”—West Indies, different from the East Indies da Gama had discovered—adding that they “were unknown to all the world” until he found them.

Finally, when all of this was confirmed on his Fourth Voyage along the South American coast, Columbus wrote to the sovereigns that this coast he had discovered was some 200 miles away from rich lands lying on the other side of some mountains, and those rich lands were at the edge of a sea, from which “it is a journey of ten days to the Ganges River.” In other words, his new continent had seas on either side, thirty days from Europe on the east, ten days from India on the west, and therefore lay between the two continents.

The conclusion, I would think, is unmistakable. Maxwell does not do history a service to perpetuate this particular myth about Columbus, even as he dispels the other about Henry.

Kirkpatrick Sale
New York City

Kenneth Maxwell replies:

Columbus may indeed have doubted that he was off the coast of Asia by the time of his fourth voyage; it would be surprising if he did not in the face of the accumulating evidence against him. But as Sale shows in his book, Columbus ended up thinking he was closer to Paradise than the Ganges, which I thought was the point made by the book’s title, The Conquest of Paradise. The problem with a source like the Book of Prophecies, which Sale himself calls “bizarre” (p. 188), is that like the Book of Revelation it can be used to prove (or disprove) anything. The fact that Columbus’s misnomer stuck is surely beyond question, or that his objective was to reach Asia, even at the end. I take Peggy Liss’s point about the Fuentes television series. Yet, I still think the whole enterprise would have been better with more of her and less of him.

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