The idea of a glorious earthly paradise far from the known world had existed in the European imagination long before 1492. That idea of a distant paradise on earth shaped the way Europeans came to think of America after Columbus and his successors reported their discoveries. For example, the following mythic lands may have served as inspirations for the alluring idea of America as a place of joy, ease, riches, and regeneration: a. the Garden of the Hesperides of Greek myth
b. the Elysian Fields described by the poet Homer
c. the Islands of the Blessed, described by Hesiod, Horace, and Pindar d. Atlantis, described by Plato in the Timaeus and the Critias e. the Garden of Eden
f. the Fortunate Isles, described in the Voyage of St. Brendan (ninth century) g. the enchanted gardens of Renaissance literature
Columbus’s discovery of America has been described as “perhaps the most important event recorded in secular history.” On the other hand, it has been pointed out that had Columbus not discovered America, it would soon have been discovered by some other explorer. Edmundo O’Gorman, in The Invention of America (1961), asserted that America was not discovered but was invented by Europeans in the 16th and following centuries. The contrary idea of America as a place of degenerated plants, animals, and humans was also held by Europeans long before it was set forth by the French naturalist Buffon (1707–1788) in the early volumes of his Natural History (1749–1804). Thomas Jefferson made effective reply in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), but remnants of the idea continued to persist in the European popular mind. Modern readers are often surprised to learn of Columbus’s never-ending insistence, even in the face of contrary evidence, that he had reached the coast of Asia, not a new continent. That mistaken certainty was in large part caused by his faith in faulty calculations showing the earth’s circumference to be about 18,000 rather than 25,000 miles. The ancient geographer Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with nearly perfect accuracy in the third century BCE. But Columbus, as did the best navigators of his time, relied on charts based on measurements made by the second-century-CE astronomer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus). The calculation of the earth’s circumference presented in Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography (published, in Latin, in 1409) was off by more than 25 percent. Had the calculation been accurate, Columbus would have been correct in assuming that after sailing west for 33 days, he had indeed reached the Orient. Columbus’s writing style is spare and unornamented. In contrast, the letters (the first published in 1504) of Amerigo Vespucci, reporting his voyages to the New World from 1497 to 1504 (he claimed four,historians credit him with two), were filled with vivid and titillating details describing the new land and its inhabitants. As a result, Vespucci’s reports received greater attention throughout Europe than the reports (as distinct from the discovery itself) of Columbus. Because of Vespucci’s renown and because of his real accomplishments, the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller, in making his influential map of the new continent (1507), applied the name “America” to South America. Eventually, through popular usage, “America” came to be used for the North America as well. Vespucci’s voyage of 1501–1502 (under the flag of Portugal) along the coast of South America was the first extended exploration of the coast of the New World and the first to show clearly that the new lands were not a part of Asia but a new continent. That discovery is said by Vespucci’s partisans to justify naming the new continent America. Nevertheless, Vespucci has been vilified as a braggart and a windbag. Doubt has been cast on his accomplishments, although in recent decades they have in part been verified and shown to be substantial.
Columbus’s first letter was printed and published in...
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