Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mistaking Cuba For Japan

Continuing along with my reading of Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus:

Columbus was not looking for India as most people think. He was looking for Japan and China.

The essence of Columbus' view of the world. "Cippangu" is Japan.
That map represents what Columbus derived from the stories of Marco Polo and others. The errors in distances came from two primary sources.
  • Columbus used too small a value for the number of miles in a degree of longitude, making his version of the globe too small.
  • Marco Polo overestimated the size of Asia, the Sea of Japan and Japan itself, effectively merging the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Note that the map above is more pessimistic than the one Columbus used. His distances were shorter because of the smaller value he had for the number of miles per longitudinal degree.

What's interesting is that Columbus reached the Caribbean near enough to where he thought Japan lay to reinforce his incorrect notions of geography.

Cuba and Haiti could easily have been mistaken for Japan at first.
It's worth remembering that everything Columbus saw was from the deck of a small ship. His horizon was on the order of 10 miles. A sailor of that time could miss something as large as China or Japan by 30 miles, a tiny distance in a vast ocean, and never even know it. Columbus was well aware of this and it gave him hope that Japan and China lay just out of sight even as he came up empty on one island after another.

More later. I've got some Linux to play with now, so I've run out of time here.


Ilíon said...

"Columbus was not looking for India as most people think. He was looking for Japan and China."

At the time, Europeans thought of the world as having "three parts":
1) Asia
2) Africa
3) Europe
And they represented the world as a circle bisected, with one half-circle further bisected. The full half-circle represented Asia, the one quarter-circle represented Africa and the other one quarter-circle represented Europe.

The lines that divided the circle represented the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile River, and the Black Sea.

Now, here's the point -- everything to the east of the Nile was referred to as "the Indies" (that is, "the Indias"). Thus, it wouldn't have mattered where Columbus had made landfall: to the European mindset of the time, it was "India".

And thus, even today, we refer to the Caribbean islands as the "west Indies".

K T Cat said...

Wow! I didn't know that about the Indies. Thanks for the comment!

Ilíon said...

If I recall correctly, I learned that from this book: The Fourth Part of the World

When you see old paintings or carvings of monarchs, going back to the Roman emperors, holding a (bisected) globe, they are symbolically proclaiming world-dominion.