Who was Christopher Columbus?

Ed sits down with writer Tony Horwitz, author of A Voyage Long and Strange (2008), to discuss his search for the “real” Christopher Columbus. Read more here.

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ED: But before we consider Columbus’s legacy, we thought we should spend a few minutes considering what the man himself actually did. To do that, I sat down with Tony Horwitz. A few years ago, he dug into the story of Columbus’s voyages for a book he was writing. And he found that a lot of the things we think we know about Columbus just aren’t true.

Like the one for example, about how everybody else in 1492 thought the world was flat? Well actually, the idea that the Earth was round had been taken seriously since Aristotle. For centuries.

TONY HORWITZ: Columbus’s great vision was not that the world was round, but that it was small.


TONY HORWITZ: Columbus, drawing largely on scriptural sources in various mystical texts, felt that it was a matter of weeks to sail from Spain to the Indies, as it was known then. He was really looking for China and Japan and the riches of Asia. And that was a smaller distance than it actually is. It’s about 12,000 miles.

ED: Wow.

TONY HORWITZ: And he thought it was only a few thousand. So really, he succeeded because he was so desperately wrong.

ED: Wow, that’s fascinating. So Columbus’s great contribution, ironically, does not grow out of being an early Enlightenment thinker, but rather of being a one of a kind mystical thinker.

TONY HORWITZ: Yeah. To me, Columbus really represents more the end of medieval thinking, rather than an early Enlightenment figure.

He was also at the right place at the right moment and found a willing ear in Queen Isabella in particular, who was very pious. Part of what he promised was that the riches he discovered would be used to fund a crusade really, to reclaim Jerusalem for Christians. So I think he appealed to her partly on religious grounds.

ED: Tony, can you recreate for us what that moment of first contact with the native peoples looked like?

TONY HORWITZ: Columbus’s first landfall in the Americas is at the eastern edge of the Bahamas. It’s a peaceful encounter. He talks about the beauty of the landscape. He describes the people, who he finds very attractive and needless to say, have a lot of strange customs, one of which is smoking this leaf that they call tobacco.

There’s also a wonderful moment when he’s fed a strange creature. It was probably an iguana. And in this journal– I am not making this up– he writes, “tastes like chicken.”


TONY HORWITZ: I have to believe that’s the earliest such reference to that. One really disturbing note is he almost instantly writes of how these people are so childlike and willing that they could easily be turned into servants of the crown. By which he really means slaves.

He’s searching for gold and spice, and the islanders say something, which he clearly doesn’t understand, that suggests to him that just over the horizon he will find what he’s looking for. They were probably trying to get rid of him. And he sails off quite quickly to Cuba. And really, everywhere he lands, this somewhat comic scene repeats itself, where Columbus communicates what they’re after and islanders say, not here, but if you keep sailing, you’ll find it at the next place.

ED: So that sounds like a glorious, if unfulfilled voyage. He goes back home and he’s welcomed with celebration, I’m assuming. And then what happens?

TONY HORWITZ: Columbus returns to Spain with parrots and jewelry and other interesting items from his voyage, including about 10 natives, and is commissioned to embark on a second voyage with an enormous fleet and 1,200 men. And he tours much of the rest of the Caribbean and gradually becomes something of a failure.

He was, by all accounts, a great mariner and navigator. But he was hopeless on land and very poor as an administrator. So when his initial discoveries lead to the creation of a settlement, his fortunes really begin to go downhill. He sails off whenever there’s troubled to find other places, leaving incompetents in command– often family members.

And after his third voyage to America, he’s actually arrested and brought back to Spain in chains on charges of mismanagement and incompetence and brutality. And though he’s freed after six weeks, he really is a disgraced or distrusted man within Spain. And he has one more voyage, which is even more disastrous, and ends his days as really a very sad, broken figure.

ED: Well, I don’t want to hear that!


ED: That’s not American! I mean, it’s a Horatio Alger in reverse, right?


ED: That he starts out successful, but then he can’t actually deliver on it. And this was widely recognized at the time? I mean, was he famous and then forgotten?

TONY HORWITZ: He is certainly famous in his day. Some of his letters and reports of his voyages get around Europe very quickly.

But one of the great ironies of Columbus’s story is that while he makes all these great discoveries, he doesn’t understand himself what he’s done. He continues to believe, apparently to his dying day, that he had reached Asia. And others were a little more clear-eyed and began to see that what he and his men were describing was not Asia. It really was a new world.

And as a result, it was others who began to build on those discoveries and even take credit for them. So that he became more and more lost really, in his own mind.

At one point, he even decides that the world isn’t round. He thinks he’s sailing uphill, and that the world is actually shaped more like a pear with a nipple where he thinks the Garden of Eden lies. So he really loses his way, and in some ways, seems to lose his mind in the course of these four voyages.

ED: Tony Horwitz is the author of A Voyage Long and Strange, among many other books. We have posted a link to an excerpt from that book at backstoryradio.org.

BRIAN: It’s time for a quick break. When we get back, the man who made Columbus into an all-American hero.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.