Columbus Did Not Discover America


First, I would like to thank SALAM CANBRUCE SINGH who wrote: “Dear Sir, Thanks for writing such wonderful articles about Manipur and its people. I have been trying to understand the origin of the Meitei. While doing so I came across your website with an article by Gita Sapam which was enlightening. From your articles I am getting a lot of opportunity to learn many new things about Manipur. Thanks for making it public.”

I write not only of Manipur but about a variety of subjects. They are aimed at the younger generations with whom I want to share my knowledge. I take pains to describe words and phrases for them. For example: in this article, I explain the meaning of the Spanish word “Trinidad”, which knowledgeable adults might construe as displaying a patronising attitude or a waste of space. This is not my intention. They will know all about my articles anyway.

The bronze and gold autumn leaves were falling in London when I went to see the Grand Canyons in Arizona, in their gorgeous colours. There was a broad rusty zigzag belt spreading halfway up the San Francisco Peaks as if a blazing fire was everywhere.

The enchanting sight made me think of Christopher Columbus who was thrilled to bits when he first sighted the most enchanting island.

Columbus did not discover America. He got confused and died confused thinking that he found a new rout to India after discovering an island by fluke, in what is now known as the West Indies.

Christopher Columbus, an Italian was born in Genoa in 1451. He knew the world was round. He got the money from the king and Queen of Spain for the expedition.

Columbus was not looking for America. He was looking for a shorter route to the Far East (East Indies) for silk and spices. He set sail from Palos, Spain with three ships in 1492.  He believed that by sailing west, instead of the current route east, he would reach the Far East sooner.

Columbus landed on a small Island in what is now known as the Bahamas near Barbados – a group of islands southeast of Florida (America) on October 12 1492. He named it San Salvador (Holy Saviour) in honour of Christ. He thought he had landed on the Spice Islands near India and called the islands “Indios” (Spanish for India).

Columbus’ mistaken ‘India’ was stuck for centuries. When the first white men arrived in America from the “Old world” (Europe) in the 16th century they encountered highly ‘sun-tanned’ natives. They called them “Red Indians” because they wore red war paint when they went out.

Columbus made four voyages in 1492-1504. He reached South America in 1498 and Central America in the fourth voyage. On July 31 1498 he discovered an island, which he called Trinidad (Spanish for Trinity – God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost).

About the time of Columbus’ discovery of Trinidad – part of groups of islands, which the British, during their occupation, called the British West Indies, there were 10-30 million native people living in America ie the present day Mexico, United States and Canada for tens of thousands of years during the Ice Age.

Columbus died in 1506 still believing that he had found a new route to India. Columbus is remembered by a very tall monument in Barcelona, nearly as tall as the Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in London.  Barcelona is where Columbus reported to Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand and of Castile (Spain), after his famous trip to the New World.

After Columbus landed in the Bahamas, unknown to Columbus another Italian was correctly planning to sail to where Columbus just has been. He suspected that there was land to be discovered. He was Amerigo Vespucci.

America or ‘land of Amerigo’ was named after Amerigo Vespucci who was born in Florence in Italy in 1454. He was very rich. He owned a business in Seville, Spain, furnishing supplies for ships and preparing them for mercantile expeditions.

Seventeen years after Columbus’ first voyage, Vespucci accompanied an expedition consisting of four ships. Amerigo was cleverer than Columbus. That’s how America was named after him.

Amerigo educated himself as a young man and collected books and maps, and studied them intensely. He began working for local bankers and was sent to Spain in 1492 (the year Columbus sailed), to look after his employers’ business interests.

While in Spain he taught himself navigation. When Columbus returned from his first voyage to the New World (North & South America to the Europeans) he helped Columbus get ships

ready for his second and third voyages to the New World. He was also learning from Columbus.

He went on his first expedition as a very skilled navigator in 1499. The expedition easily reached the mouth of the Amazon River and explored the coast of South America. He was able to calculate how far west he had travelled by observing the conjunction of Mars and Moon

Amerigo sailed again from Lisbon, this time under the Portuguese flag in 1501. It took only 64 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean because of favourable wind. His ships followed the South American coast within 400 miles of the southern tip –Tierra del Fuego.

Amerigo was a very keen observer. He studied and kept a travelogue. He described the culture of the indigenous people, their diet, religion, sexual, marriage and child birth practices.

On return, he wrote two letters to a friend in Europe describing his travels and claiming that he was the first to find the New World. These letters were very popular and published in many languages all over Europe. He was becoming quite famous.

Proud Amerigo announced: “I was more skilful than all the shipmates of the whole world”. He was named Pilot Major of Spain in 1508. In 1512 he made his third and the last voyage to the New World before he died of Malaria in 1512 at the age of 58.

After his exploration in 1501-1502, he was one of the first few explorers to come up with the idea that the places he visited were not part of Asia (as Columbus thought). It was a “New World”.

In Europe, a German clergyman and scholar Martin Wald Seemuller was working on a contemporary map, based on Greek Ptolemy’s geography. He had read of Vespucci’s travels and knew that the New World was indeed two continents.

H e wanted to honour Vespucci’s discovery. So he printed a wood block map called “Carta Mariana” (Spanish for Chart of Navy.) with the name America spread across the southern continent of the New World. He sold a thousand copies of the map across Europe.

In 1507, a pamphlet was published called “The Four Voyages of Amerigo”. In it the author suggested that the new land that Amerigo discovered be named America in his honour.

Geradus Mercator’s world map of 1538 was the first to include North America and South America. Thus the continents named for an Italian navigator would for ever live as Americas.

After his explorations Amerigo returned to Seville in Spain and became its Master Navigator. He stayed in his job until he died.  

Here, I would like to digress a bit for those who have not been to Seville. It is a beautiful city in South Spain. It has regular bull fights. It became famous after the Hollywood film, The Loves of Carman. I watched it in Imphal. It’s now a classic. 

It is based on the true story of Carmen de Triana – a Romani gypsy girl from Triana, who used to work in a cigarette factory in Seville in the early 19th century.  Any tourist to Seville will be shown this huge old cigarette factory where Carmen worked.

The Technicolor film starred Rita Hayworth as Carmen – a seductive and beautiful woman, and Glenn Ford as the doomed lover Don José.

Rita Haworth (real name: Margarita Carmen) the most glamorous Hollywood screen idol of the 1940s, married Prince Ali Khan (Aga Khan III) in 1948 and divorced in 1953. She was the top pin-up girl of the GIs during WWII. She died with Alzheimer’s disease that started in her 40s. She was cared for by her daughter Yasmin Khan until she died at the age of 68.

“Aga Khan” is the title of the spiritual head (Imam) of a small sect of Muslims known as Ismaelis or Khojas. Originally from Persia, there are 20 million of them, mostly in Mumbai and Karachi. Their mosque is called Jammat Khana.

When I was in college in Bombay in 1952, my best friend was Mohamed Patel. He was a Gujarati Khoja.Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Father of Pakistan) was also a Gujarati Khoja – lived at ‘Jinnah House’ in the Malabar Hill.

These Muslims are very liberal as the followers of Sufis or Pirs – evangelist preachers of Islam, such as Khwaja Nizam Uddin, whose Dargah (burial place) is in Delhi. Both Muslims and Hindus go to pray at his Dargah. These Sufis tried to bridge the gap between Islam and Hindu Bhakti movements.

Young men and women drink alcohol if they like, which is taboo for Muslims. Not that all Muslims do not drink. Urdu poets drink a lot. That gives them inspiration.

All the Mughal emperors drank a lot of wine except Jahangir who smoked a lot of opium in Kashmir, often relaxing in the black marble pavilion in the Shalimar (Sanskrit= abode of love) Gardens.

Bombay film Hindi/Urdu songs such as “zahid (Arabic- pious), sharab peene de masjid main baithkar, ya woh jaga batade jahan par khuda na ho… In English: (oh) pious, let me drink wine sitting comfortably in the mosque or, tell me a place where there is no God (Mirza Ghalib), tells that drinking alcohol is anti-Islam.

Columbus was actually preceded by a Norse expedition led by Leif Ericson, but his voyages led to European expeditions and colonisation of America. So Columbus was depicted as the discoverer of America.

Image Credit: pixabay.com
Website: drimsingh.com

Dr IM Singh

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