In Ridley Scott’s film ‘Columbus 1492’ we are shown Columbus watching a ship disappear over the horizon and speculating that the world might be round.
Before Columbus, apparently, most people thought the world was flat.
Obviously this isn’t true.
If it was, why would anyone finance an expedition for him to sail off the edge of the world?
No, people had known for centuries that the world was round.
But that was about all they did know, everything else was guesswork.
In those days, the sole reason for exploration was trade and profit.
And the most profitable place to trade was the far East, for spices and silks.
So, the overland Spice Route, via Constantinople, had been the traditional route.
But Constantinople had fallen to the Muslims in 1453.
So an alternative had to be found.
Portugal was the most powerful country in the world, and they began to explore sea routes to the far East.
In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed the length of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope.
Meanwhile, King Ferdinand of Aragon had recently married Queen Isabella of Castile.
They unified their two countries and created Spain.
They were interested in finding a better sea route than the Portuguese.
That’s how Columbus persuaded them to sail west – to cross the Atlantic to reach the far east.
They thought there was nothing in the way but ocean.
They gave their approval for a simple reason, Columbus got his sums wrong.
Of course, he didn’t know America was in the way, no one did.
But more than that, Columbus thought the world was smaller than it was.
According to Columbus, the circumference of the world was 25,000 nautical miles, instead of the 40,000 it actually is.
He didn’t know about America, so he didn’t know about the Pacific Ocean.
So Columbus calculated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan as 2,000 nautical miles, instead of the 10,000 it actually is.
It’s five times further away than he allowed for.
If he’d tried to sail the actual distance without landfall, his entire crew would have died from thirst and starvation before he was half way.
So Columbus’s ignorance saved him.
But the ignorance didn’t end there.
Because Columbus never landed in America he never knew the mainland was there.
In 1492 he landed in a group of islands, in what today is called the West Indies.
They’re called the West Indies because that’s where Columbus thought he’d reached the far East.
In 1494, to settle disputes between the two superpowers, the Pope drew a North-South line 270 leagues west of Cap Verde.
He gave all land west of that to Spain, and all land east of that to Portugal.
Six years later, Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil, which no one knew about.
The Pope’s line actually cut South America in half, which is why today Brazil speaks Portuguese, and everyone else speaks Spanish.
Several years after Columbus, in 1502, Amerigo Vespucci landed on the mainland.
He discovered the continent itself, which is why it’s named America and not Columbia.
Columbus died believing he had discovered a new route to India and China.
He never knew he had discovered nearly a third of the world’s land mass.
And that is the power, and the value, of ignorance: to come at things out of a question, not an answer.