26 November 2007

Footnote to Columbus and the Flat Earth


For an example of the portrayal of Columbus in textbooks a century ago, I look to D.H. Montgomery, The Leading Facts of American History (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1899).

Some excerpts:

1. Birth of Columbus; Ideas about the Earth; the "Sea of Darkness."--Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America, was born in Genoa, Italy, about the year 1436.
At that time the earth was generally supposed to be flat, to be much smaller than it actually is, and to be habitable on its upper side alone. (1)

4. What Land Columbus wished to reach; Marco Polo's Travels; First Motive of Columbus.

This book [Travels of Marco Polo] made a deep impression on the mind of Columbus, and later he constructed a map of the world, based in large measure on the geographical discoveries made by Polo. He burned with a desire to visit those marvellous Eastern lands, with which all intercourse, except that of commerce, had long practically ceased. His purpose, as he himself repeatedly tells us, was, first of all, that of a missionary, --he hoped to convert the Khan and his people to Christianity. If they rejected the religion he offered them, then, according to the ideas of the time, any Christian king might seize their possessions, and make slaves of them.
Such was one great object with Columbus in going to the Indies, as all Eastern Asia was then called. Throughout his career he never lost sight of this purpose. In fact, he came at length to believe that the Most High had specially chosen him as his instrument to carry the light of faith into the kingdoms of Oriental paganism. That motive, whether wise or not, inspired the great Genoese navigator with a certain enthusiasm and dignity of character which mark his course throughout. His life was not always blameless,-he shared many of the errors of his time,--but it was always noble. (4-6)

7. Plan of Columbus for reaching the Indies by sailing West.--But Columbus thought that he could improve on the king of Portugal's project. He felt certain that there was a shorter and better way of reaching the Indies than the track Diaz had marked out. The plan of the Genoese sailor was as daring as it was original. Instead of sailing east, or south and east, he proposed to sail directly west. He had, as he believed, three good and solid reasons for such an undertaking: First, in common with the best geographers of his day, Columbus was convinced that the earth was not flat, as most men supposed, but a globe. Secondly, he supposed this globe to be much smaller than it is, and the greater part to be land instead of water. Thirdly, as he knew nothing, and surmised nothing of the existence of the continent of America or of the Pacific Ocean, he imagined that the coast of Asia or the Indies was directly opposite Spain and the western coast of Europe. (8-9)

8. Columbus seeks and obtains the Assistance of Spain.--

At last Columbus, now fast sinking into poverty, received permission from the Spanish rulers to lay his plans before a committee or council. That body listened to his arguments with impatient incredulity. To them such a voyage "appeared as extravagant as it would at the present day to launch a balloon into space in quest of some distant star."
The council ridiculed the idea that the earth is round like a ball. If so, said they, then the rain and snow must fall upward on the other side,--the side opposite where we stand,--and men there must walk with their heads downward: that would be inconvenient, nay more, it would be impossible. Finally, they objected that in case the earth could be proved to be a globe, that very fact would render such a voyage as Columbus proposed a failure. For how, they asked of him, could your ships come back when they had advanced so far west as to begin to descend the curve of the earth? Could they turn about and sail up hill to Spain again? No answer that Columbus could make seemed satisfactory to the council. After much deliberation and vexatious delays they made their report to Ferdinand and Isabella, joint sovereigns of Spain. The report stated that the scheme was "vain and impracticable, and rested on grounds too weak to merit the support of the government." (10)


Immediately evident from these excerpts:
1. The religious and "patriotic" perspective of Schweikart of Allen is evident. In particular, it should be clear that Montgomery's emphasis on character, and his presumption that moral character is yoked to Christianity bears a strong resemblance to the views of Schweikart and Allen.
2. The myth of Columbus and the Flat Earth is promoted not by a liberal seeking to cast ridicule on religion, but quite the opposite. The claims to the contrary by the likes of Rob and Cyndy Shearer requires more evidence than they offer.

They suggest:

How all these misconceptions came to be repeated in numerous social studies texts is instructive. The idea of bigoted, superstitious, Bible-thumping churchmen opposed to Columbus is just too attractive to the modern mind. It's so much fun to picture Columbus as the young rebel, defying convention, defying the church, defying the unscientific primitive accounts of the Bible. It's all so convenient that it "simply must be true."
Homeschool World

I certainly see no evidence in Montgomery that he is attracted by an
"idea of bigoted, superstitious, Bible-thumping churchmen opposed to Columbus" for any purpose other than to stress the heroic character of the admiral of the ocean sea.

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