Wednesday, March 12, 2008

18. Columbus

There are at least two popular misconceptions about Columbus. One is that he discovered America; the other that everyone but him thought the world was flat. Most well-known facts are wrong, and so are these.
In these days before mass education, his sailors might indeed have been worried about falling off the edge of the world, but even in those days a few moments of thought would show how unlikely that was.
In the first place, if it was possible to do so, then the whole rim of the earth would be a massive waterfall, necessitating a collossal plumbing system to constantly put all the water back - one which, in doing so either did not harm the numerous fish, whales etc that inevitably fell over as well, or else carefully screened them out and provided safe passage back to the oceans by some other means - perhaps some sort of cable-car system.
Such an infrastructure would surely require a great deal of work and maintenance to keep it running, so any sailors afraid of falling off must surely in due course have had their fears offset by the employment prospects. (It might also have occured to them that souls in hell are recruited for this work - indeed this would validate the general consensus among religions that far more people go there than to heaven, even if none of them can agree on who it is that goes - but on the other hand souls in hell are disembodied and therefore presumably better suited to administrative tasks than manual labour.)
At any rate, Columbus did not subscribe to this view, and nor did the educated classes, who had access to the surviving works of clever Greeks such as Democratus, who demonstrated through experiment that the earth was not only more or less spherical but about 8000 miles in diameter.
Columbus begged to differ, and managed to persuade the queen of Spain that China was in fact within sailing distance to the west - though of course it may be that she just didn't like him and was quite happy to send him off the edge of the world and prepared to take a chance that he wouldn't reappear via the plumbing system.